Tengrism has historically been the predominant religion among the peoples of Central Asia. Tengrism combines animism with shamanism and the cult of ancestors, and it worships Tengri, a supreme power which is associated with the sky. Tengri is the force which determines everything from the weather to the fate of individuals and nations. Tengri, say Tengrists, is the unknowable One who knows everything and who judges people’s actions as good or bad and rewards them accordingly.

Tengrists believe in spirits too. There are spirits of trees, mountains, planets and ancestors, and they are either evil, benevolent, or of mixed temperament. Chosen mediums can contact the spirits and convince them to intercede on behalf of human beings or to reveal the future to us. Some shamans have powers that resemble those of spirits, like the power of prophecy or the ability to cast spells. Genghis Khan was a Tengrist, and so were all Mongol rulers until the early fourteenth-century when some of them converted to Islam. To this day it is common for Mongols to refer to their country as Munkh khukh tengri, the land of the “eternal blue sky.” This is not a weather report as much as a hope concerning divine protection.

There has been a revival of Tengrism in Central Asia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Or rather, some academics and politicians have sought to promote Tengrism as an indigenous alternative to foreign religions such as Christianity and Islam. Neo-Tengrists are particularly active in Kyrgyzstan where a scientific center for Tengrist studies has been set up in the capital Bishkek. Observers argue that 60 percent of the rural population follow Tengrist traditions.

In 2011 a proponent of Tengrism, Kubanychbek Tezekbaev, was put on trial in Kyrgyzstan for inciting religious and ethnic hatred because of statements he made in an interview describing Muslim mullahs as ”former alcoholics and murderers.” Tezekbaev is an outspoken critic of what he sees as the growing influence of fundamentalist Islam in his country, especially among young people, calling it a danger to the nation’s future. Tezekbaev has spoken out against the use of Islamic head scarfs among women and urged young men not to grow long beards. He calls himself a half-Muslim. “I don’t fully follow Islam, I just partially follow some Muslim rituals. I am a pure Kyrgyz.”

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Lev Nikolayevich Gumilev, 1912-1992, was a Soviet historian, anthropologist and translator, and the son of two celebrated Russian poets, Nikolay Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova. His father was shot when Lev was only 7 years old and he spent most of his youth in Soviet labor camps. His mother wrote paeans to Stalin to save her life but she never managed to help her son. After Stalin’s death, Gumilev began working at the Hermitage Museum in Moscow where he became interested in the history of the Khazars and other people of the Central Asian steppes. Gumilev was a neo-Eurasianist and he regarded Russian identity as closer to the identity of the peoples of Central Asia than to Europeans.

The Eurasianist movement originally arose among the Russian diaspora in Western Europe in the 1920s. Although the Eurasianists were staunchly anti-Communist, they defended the October Revolution of 1917 as a way to protect Russia against European capitalism and its materialistic values. Yet when their main organization in 1929 turned out to be sponsored by the Soviet regime, the Eurasianists lost credibility. In today’s Russia, Eurasianist arguments are used to defend the notion of a “Greater Russia,” a Russia which is based on Central Asian rather than European values, and which once again incorporates Central Asian states within its territory. A “Eurasian Economic Community” was established in October 2000, with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as members. Some observers in the West regard this community as a way of recreating a Soviet-style empire or perhaps a twenty-first-century version of the Golden Horde.

Gumilev’s most notorious argument was that the Mongol invasion never happened. Rather, he said, the small Russian principalities concluded a defensive alliance with the Mongols in order to repel the European forces which had attacked them from the west. [Read more:The Mongol invasion of Europe”] Gumilev supported the nationalist movements of Tatars, Kazakhs, and other Turkic peoples, as well as of Mongolia, but his ideas were rejected by the Soviet authorities and he, much as his parents, was unable to publish anything he wrote. This changed when the Soviet Union was disintegrating in the 1980s and Gumilev came to be widely read by nationalists in both Russia and in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. A monument was erected in Gumilev’s honor in Kazan, Tatarstan, in 2005; he was featured on stamps in Kazakhstan in 2012, and the main university in Astana, the Kazakh capital, is named after him.

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The Byzantine Empire, 330-1453 CE, was originally the eastern part of the Roman Empire, where emperor Constantine established a capital, Constantinople, in 330 CE. When Rome was overrun and sacked by various wandering tribes, the empire survived in the east. The Byzantine Empire was to last for another thousand years and it comprised at the height of its power all lands around the eastern Mediterranean, including North Africa and Egypt. The Byzantines spoke Greek, they were Christian and they spread their language and their religion to all parts of their empire. An educated person in Egypt or Syria prior to the eighth century was likely to have been Christian and Greek speaking.

An important reason for the longevity of the Byzantine empire was its aggressive use of diplomacy. They set up a “Bureau of Barbarians” which gathered intelligence on the empire’s rivals and prepared diplomats for their missions abroad. The diplomats negotiated treaties and formed alliances with other rulers, but they also used diplomacy as a way to make friends of the enemies of their enemies. Lavish gifts were bestowed on the neighbors of a state which threatened to attack in order to convince them to join the Byzantine alliance. Foreign governments were often undermined by various underhanded tactics. In Constantinople there was a whole stable of exiled royalty who the Byzantines were ready to reinstall on their thrones if an occasion presented itself.

Constantinople was thoroughly sacked by the participants in the Fourth Crusade in 1204, an event which left bitter resentment and strong anti-Catholic feelings among Orthodox Christians. In the thirteenth-century, the Turks began expanding into the Anatolian peninsula, and eventually the vast Byzantine empire came to comprise little but the capital and the surrounding countryside. Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 and the large cathedral, Hagia Sophia — the largest in Christendom — was converted into a mosque. The fall of Constantinople is still remembered as a great disaster by the Greeks while Turks celebrate it as ordained by Allah and foretold by the prophet Muhammad.

“Byzantine” is an English adjective which means “devious” and “scheming” but also “intricate” and “involved.” Learning about the diplomatic practices of the empire, it is easy to understand why. But then again, their diplomacy served the Byzantines well.

External links:

History of Philosophy, “Purple Prose: Byzantine Political Philosophy”

In Our Time, “Byzantium”

Ibn Rushd, also known as “Averroes,” was a scholar and a philosopher born in Córdoba in al-Andalus in 1126 CE. He is famous for his detailed commentaries on Aristotle, whose work he strongly defended against those who regarded Aristotle as an infidel. Ibn Rushd, that is, defended reason against revelation. Or rather, he regarded revelation, as presented in the Quran, as knowledge suitable above all for the illiterate masses. Ordinary people are literal-minded and they need miracles in order to believe. Miracles do indeed happen, he argued, but they must always correspond to the laws which govern the universe. If not, the universe will become arbitrary and unintelligible.

The works of Ibn Rushd came to have a far-reaching influence on intellectual developments in Europe, in particular on Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, the Church Father whose Summa theologica laid the foundations for all theological debates in the Middle Ages, asked himself the very same questions as Ibn Rushd. He too wanted to know how to reconcile reason with revelation. Aquinas too was a great fan of Aristotole, and although he disagreed with many of Ibn Rushd’s specific arguments, his general conclusions were basically the same. Aquinas always referred to Ibn Rushd with the greatest respect, calling him “the Commentator,” much as he called Aristotle “the Philosopher.”

The seminal contribution which Ibn Rushd made to the intellectual development of Europe had no counterpart in the Muslim world itself. Here Ibn Rushd left no school and no disciples, and his works were barely read. It was instead only at the end of the nineteenth-century that he was rediscovered. The immediate reason was a book by the French Orientalist Ernest Renan, Averroës et l’Averroïsme, 1852, in which Renan made a strong case for Ibn Rushd’s importance. Translating Renan’s book into Arabic, Muslim intellectuals discovered exactly what they had been looking for – a Arab who had made a seminal contribution not only to Arabic civilization but to the civilization of the world. To some contemporary Muslim intellectuals,  the work of Ibn Rushd has become a symbol of a rationalistic intellectual tradition, in tune with modern society, liberalism and a scientific outlook on life.

External links:

In Our Time, “Muslims Spain”

Charles Burnett, “Ibn Rushd”

In Our Time, “Averroes”

History of Philosophy, “Back to basics: Averroes on reason and religion”

Abu I-Hasan, 789-857 CE, nicknamed “Ziryab” from the Arabic for “black bird,” was a musician, singer, composer, poet and teacher, who lived and worked in Baghdad, in Northern Africa, and during some thirty years also in Al-Andalus in Spain. More than anything he was a master of the oud, the Arabic lute, to which he added a fifth pair of strings and began playing with a pick rather than with the fingers. Many good musicians assembled at the court in Córdoba, but Ziryab was the best of them all. He established a school where the Arabic style of music was taught for successive generations, creating a tradition which was to have a profound influence on all subsequent Spanish music, not least on the flamenco.

The first references to flamenco can be found only in the latter part of the eighteenth-century and then it was associated with the Romani people. Yet it is obvious that the flamenco is a product of the uniquely Andalusian miscegenation of cultures. Flamenco does indeed sound Romani but at the same time also Arabic, Jewish and Spanish. According to one theory, the word “flamenco” itself comes from the Arabic fellah mengu, meaning “expelled peasant.” The fellah mengu were Arabs who remained in Spain after the fall of Granada in 1492 and some of them joined Romani communities in order to avoid persecution. The Arabs and the Roma must have played guitar together and danced.

As for Ziryab, he was also ninth century Córdoba‘s leading authority on questions of food and fashion. He was said to have changed his clothes according to the weather and the season, and he had the idea of wearing different dress for mornings, afternoons and evenings. He invented a new type of deodorant, a toothpaste, and promoted the idea of taking daily baths. He also made it fashionable for men to shave their beards. In addition, Ziryab popularized the concept of three-course meals, consisting of soup, main course and dessert, and he was the person who introduced the asparagus into Europe. If a society’s level of civilization can be determined by its standard of hygiene, Ziryab had a profoundly civilizing impact on southern Spain.

External links:

In Our Time, “Muslim Spain”

Mosheh ben Maimon was a scholar, judge and medical doctor, born into an influential Jewish family in Córdoba in 1135. He is known as “Musa Ibn Maymun” in Arabic and as “Moses Maimonides” in Latin. Ben Maimon was trained both in the Jewish and the Arabic intellectual traditions and he wrote in Judeo-Arabic, a classical form of Arabic which used the Hebrew script. Ben Maimon is most famous as the author of the fourteen volume Mishneh Torah, a sprawling collection containing all the laws and regulations that govern Jewish life. The Mishneh Torah is widely read and commented on to this day.

In 1148, when the Almohad rulers of al-Andalus imposed their harsh reforms on their subjects, Christians and Jews were required to either convert or be killed. Ben Maimon and his family escaped to Egypt which at the time was run by the Fatimid caliphs, a far more tolerant regime. In Cairo he established himself as an interpreter of the Torah and as a teacher in the Jewish community. This is also when he wrote his most famous philosophical work, Guide for the Perplexed.

We are very knowledgeable about Ben Maimon’s life thanks to the Cairo Geniza, a collection of up to 300,000 fragments of manuscripts discovered in the synagogue in Cairo. Since Jews were afraid to throw away any piece of paper which may have the name of God written on it, they ended up with a very large collection of scraps of papers of various kinds. The texts were preserved to this day in the Geniza and this includes Ben Maimon’s personal notes and correspondence.

Ben Maimon is buried in Tiberias, in what today is Israel. On his death, the story goes, he wanted to be buried in the land of his forefathers. Yet Ben Maimon would no doubt have objected to being made into an Israeli citizen after his death. More than anyone else Ben Maimon symbolized the very tight connection that has existed between the Muslim and the Jewish heritage. Meanwhile the Jewish community in Cairo which as recently as in the 1920s comprised some 80,000 people has dwindled to fewer than 200 today. There is a tradition among them that Ben Maimon’s body never was transferred to Tiberias and that he still is buried in Cairo.

External links:

In Our Time, “Maimonides”

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, “Sarah Stroumsa on Maimonides”

15 Minute History, “The Fatimids”

Zoroastrianism, just as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, is a monotheistic religion. Zoroastrians call their deity Ahura Mazda, translated as “enlightened wisdom.” Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, who founded the faith, was born northeast of the Caspian Sea most probably some time 1,200 BCE. After the fourth-century CE, Zoroastrianism was the official and publicly supported religion of the Sasanian empire, located in today’s Iran.

Zoroaster was the author of the Yazna, a book of hymns and incantations. The religion taught in the Yazna makes a sharp distinction between good and evil. The task of the faithful is to learn to distinguish the two and to choose the good. Like other monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism grapples with the question of how the belief in one god can be combined with the existence of evil in the world. The Zoroastrian answer is that good and evil are choices which confront human beings, not entities that compete for power. Questions of correct conduct are consequently a crucial part of the faith. Zoroastrian rituals rely heavily on fire which is regarded as a holy force. Fire temples, attended by priests, were constructed and officially sponsored throughout the Sasanian empire.

Zoroastrianism had a powerful influence on the other monotheistic religions of the Middle East. Many of its themes – questions of the afterlife and the end of the world, issues of judgment and salvation – feature prominently in Judaism, Christianity and Islam too. These religions too have the same obsession with questions of good conduct. Moreover, Zoroastrianism was the first religion which regarded people as equals before god, and gave every believer the opportunity to attain salvation.

Although the conversion took several centuries to accomplish, some 95 percent of Zoroastrians eventually switched to Islam. There are still Zoroastrians today, but not many. In Iran an official census has counted less than 30,000. There are more of them in India, but even here there are no more than perhaps 70,000. Yet the Persian new year, Nouruz, which was central to the Zoroastrian faith, is still the most important holiday in Iran. On occasions when the mandatory fasting required during Ramadan has come into conflict with the 18 days of festive celebrations required by Nouruz, the Zoroastrian tradition has prevailed.

External links:

In Our Time, “Zoroastrianism”


In the beginning of 1637 a madness seems to have overcome the Dutch. Everyone was buying tulips and the prices of bulbs were skyrocketing. Everyone was keeping their eyes on the tulip market, and most everyday conversations contained references to the current prices for various strains, hybrids and colors. For a while one single tulip bulb was selling for more than ten times the annual income of an ordinary laborer. In the rising market extraordinary wealth could be accumulated in a matter of days. Soon what was bought and sold was not only tulips, but the right to buy or sell tulips at a certain price at a future date. The Netherlands was seized by “tulipmania.”

Today we may associate tulips with Holland, but originally the flower grew wild in Anatolia, in today’s Turkey. In 1554 the first tulip bulbs were sent from the Ottoman Empire to Vienna and from here the flower soon spread to Germany and the United Dutch Republic. The first experiments with tulip plantations took place in Leiden in 1593 and it turned out that the flower survived well in the harsher climate of northern Europe. Soon tulips became a status symbol of members of the commercial middle-classes. The flower was not only beautiful and unusual, but, given the Ottoman connection, it was also exotic. When commercial cultivators entered the market, prices began the rise. This was where the speculation in the tulip market began.

The “Tulip Period” is the name commonly given to the short era, 1718 to 1730 CE, when the Ottoman Empire began orienting itself towards Europe. It was a time of commercial and industrial expansion and when the first printing presses were established in Istanbul. In the Ottoman empire too there was a tulip craze. In Ottoman court society, it was suddenly very fashionable to grow the flower, to display it in one’s home and to wear it on one’s body. The tulip became a common motif in architecture and fabrics. In the Ottoman empire too prices of bulbs rose quickly and fortunes were made and lost. This was the first commercialized fad to sweep over the caliphate and the beginnings of modern consumer culture.

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All coffee comes originally from Ethiopia where the coffee tree grows wild. By the fourteenth-century CE, the tree was cultivated by the Arabs and exported to the Arab world from the port-city of Mocha in today’s Yemen. But it was once the Ottomans occupied the Arabian peninsula in the first part of the sixteenth-century that the habit of coffee drinking really took off. The first coffee-shop opened in Istanbul in 1554, and before long sipping coffee, eating cakes and socializing became a fashionable past-time. From the Ottoman empire the coffee-drinking habit was exported to Europe, together with the word itself.  “Coffee” comes from the Turkish kahve, and ultimately from the Arabic qahwa. The first coffeehouses opened in Venice in 1645, in England in 1650 and in France in 1672.

Vienna, Austria, has its own and quite distinct café tradition. The Viennese drink their coffee with hot foamed milk and, just as in Turkey, it is served with a glass of cold water. The first coffeehouse in Vienna was opened by a man called Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, a Polish officer in the Habsburg army that had helped liberate the city from the Ottoman siege of 1683. Since Kulczycki had spent two years as a Turkish prisoner of war, he was well acquainted with the habit of coffee drinking and was quick to spot a business opportunity. Every year, coffeehouses in Vienna used to put portraits of Kulczycki in their windows in recognition of his achievement.

There is a legend that the croissant – the flaky, crescent-shaped, pastry that French people in particular like to eat for breakfast – first was invented during the siege of Vienna. According to one account, the Ottomans were trying to tunnel into the city at night, but a group of bakers who were up early preparing their goods for the coming day, heard them and sounded the alarm. The croissant, invoking the crescent-shape so popular in Muslim countries, was invented as a way to celebrate the victory. Unfortunately, however, this story cannot be true. Baked goods in a crescent-shape – known as kipferl in German – were popular in Austria already in the thirteenth-century.

External links:

15 Minute History, “Who are the Turks?”

History of Philosophy, “Turkish delights: Philosophy in the Ottoman Era”