In this rich and sweeping history, S. Frederick Starr tells the fascinating but largely unknown story of Central Asia's medieval enlightenment through the eventful lives and astonishing accomplishments of its greatest minds - remarkable figures who built a bridge to the modern world. Because nearly all of these figures wrote in Arabic, they were long assumed to have been Arabs. In fact, they were from Central Asia - drawn from the Persianate and Turkic peoples of a region that today extends from Kazakhstan southward through Afghanistan, and from the easternmost province of Iran through Xinjiang, China.
Lost Enlightenment recounts how, between the years 800 and 1200, Central Asia led the world in trade and economic development, the size and sophistication of its cities, the refinement of its arts, and, above all, in the advancement of knowledge in many fields. Central Asians achieved signal breakthroughs in astronomy, mathematics, geology, medicine, chemistry, music, social science, philosophy, and theology, among other subjects. They gave algebra its name, calculated the earth's diameter with unprecedented precision, wrote the books that later defined European medicine, and penned some of the world's greatest poetry.
One scholar, working in Afghanistan, even predicted the existence of North and South America - five centuries before Columbus. Rarely in history has a more impressive group of polymaths appeared at one place and time. No wonder that their writings influenced European culture from the time of St. Thomas Aquinas down to the scientific revolution, and had a similarly deep impact in India and much of Asia.
Lost Enlightenment chronicles this forgotten age of achievement, seeks to explain its rise, and explores the competing theories about the cause of its eventual demise. Informed by the latest scholarship yet presented in a lively and accessible style, this is a book that will surprise general listeners and specialists alike.
©2013 Princeton University Press (P)2013 Audible, Inc.
I've listened to it more than once and will be listening again.
The rich, personal and true to the moment exchanges between the people who created history. It's possible to have a dialog with a book and this is one of the best examples I've ever read on how someone can have as a mentor someone hundreds of years in the past.
The most gut wrenching moment for me was the author's candid, frank and short explanation of why this period produced no women who were great lights. This came early in the book and in it explained how so much learning never passed out of the courts and to the common people.
I hope to find more of the source material and read it, then return and read this book again.
One of the great ironies in intellectual history is that the knowledge of ancient Greece was largely lost to Europe in the early Middle Ages, but was saved in the Islamic world and then reintroduced to Europe through Moslem Spain. This book gives great insight into the middle leg of that story in a thorough and accessible manner. Starr sets out to explain the rise of the Central Asian Enlightenment, describe all its glories, and then explain its decline.
Central Asia, in the centuries both before and during its Enlightenment, was at the crossroads of vast commercial activities. These included the famous Silk Road to China, as well as routes to India, the Middle East and Europe. Starr focuses on how Central Asia was able to use the interactions and wealth brought by such trade to create an intellectual class. This class was both familiar and comfortable with different cultures and languages and was also used to serving as middlemen between different peoples and cultures. Those intellectuals took the ancient knowledge, sifted it through the other influences of the region, integrated it with knowledge from India and China and made substantial contributions of their own.
The book contrasts the acme of the Central Asian Enlightenment with the comparative backwardness of Europe at the time and then further contrasts the opposite trajectories in intellectual history each area subsequently followed.
Starr argues that religious dogmatism and conflict were prime causes of the decline in the Central Asian Enlightenment. While outside the scope of this book, Starr’s other comparisons of Central Asia and Europe lead to the fascinating question of why European intellectuals were able to escape the intellectual conformity imposed, frequently quite violently, by the Roman Catholic Church, which was even more organized and bureaucratic than Islam, while those in Central Asia could not do so.
"Fascinating, surprising and beautifully written"
As a fan of popular history it's always a treat to discover a time and place that have been previously under-reported. A massively influential culture of scientific, philosophical, literary, theological and architectural inquiry springs up from the 8th Century to around the fall of Constantinople in a part of the world that is now largely a lawless backwater - Afghanistan and Kazakhstan. The ideas and techniques they create have a significant impact on the development of world culture, for instance, Al-Khwarizmi's maths is so sophisticated that we still garble his name when we use an "algorithm". There's so much fascinating detail to pack in that this could have become dry or overwhelming but Starr holds our interest throughout by focusing on both the incredibly interesting characters and the astonishingly advanced work they did. It's also very well narrated. A real treat.
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