The genesis of the book An Illustrated History of Kazakhstan: Asia’s Heartland in Context was an exhibition titled “Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan”, organized by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University in 2012. The exhibition was a great success, receiving critical acclaim from scholars, and Odyssey’s publisher Magnus Bartlett, who was interested in the event, bought a copy of the beautiful accompanying publication –Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan–that was available after the exhibition.
Even though that publication provided solid academic research for the ancient Iron Age history of Kazakhstan (when the Scythian and Saka tribes came to prominence), what was strikingly apparent to him was the fact that there was no comprehensive English language chronicle of Kazakhstan covering all its human history right up to the present day, especially one in accessible terms rather than through academic channels. Thus, a book project was initiated to try and create a single publication covering Kazakhstan’s history across the ages. Having previously worked on a number of publications about the region, including a cultural and historical guidebook to Kazakhstan, I was asked to be managing editor and main author of the book.
The primary aim was to produce an informative but entertaining book that was easily accessible and appealing to a mainstream audience. However, a balance needed to be struck between readability and academic credibility. I therefore prepared a plan for a book structure that included essays by renowned palaeontologists, archaeologists, historians of the ancient and medieval world, experts on more recent historic events, as well as authorities on modern politics and economics. Each chapter would contain an expert essay (edited and reworked where necessary) on that particular historical period, along with my own linking text to include any uncovered but relevant or important information, and to help the book’s narrative to “flow”through progressive eras.
Images and maps were, of course, of great importance, and a great deal of time and effort went into sourcing the best possible material from museums and organisations across the world. Pictures were sourced from Russia, China, Turkey, France, the UK and USA –and, of course, from many Kazakhstan-based institutions. Augmented by a broad variety of imagery and attractive maps, the “story”of Kazakhstan’s rich past –ranging from pre-human times right through to the modern day –could at last be told in a way that would capture the imagination of the general reader.
What became apparent fairly quickly were the many significant roles Central Asia has played in human history, from its position as a fulcrum for early human migration throughout Eurasia to its importance as both a centre of Bronze Age metallurgy and a crucible for the Iron Age nomadic warrior societies of the steppe regions that would change the world order. The book also provided an opportunity to dispel a few myths and put right some common but erroneous preconceptions about the territory of Kazakhstan.
For example, for many years the classical Silk Road of antiquity was considered to pass in the main through lands to the south of the Kazakh homeland. Certainly everyone knew that the Silk Road comprised a multitude of trade routes, some of which passed north of the Tien Shan, but little attention was given by international archaeologists or historians to this region or the lands farther north. However, in recent decades much excavation has been carried out in the Tien Shan’s northern foothills, along the ancient courses of the Syr Darya river and elsewhere, and it can now be conclusively shown that the southern cities of Kazakhstan’s territory were vital links along the trade routes between East and West, many of them –Taraz, Ispidzhab, Sauran and Otrar, etc. –large and wealthy urban centres that could rival contemporary cities to the south such as Samarkand or Bukhara.
In fact, far from being a region devoid of settled civilisation and populated only by wild, roaming nomads, our understanding of early nomadic history now shows that the nomads operated under a highly developed sociopolitical system and had a symbiotic relationship with the sedentary urban societies that was highly beneficial to both. We now also know that many nomadic groups did actually farm land, where the soil was conducive to agriculture.
Another interesting element to emerge as the book came together was the way modern Kazakhstan is echoing its past. President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s much-praised “multi-vector”approach to foreign policy has a precedent that reaches back to the 18th century and the rule of Ablai Khan. This renowned leader of the Kazakh people deftly balanced relations with China and Russia in a political juggling act designed to keep control of the steppes for the Kazakhs –and more than two centuries later the president of a nascent Republic of Kazakhstan employed similar diplomacy on many fronts whilst building its solid and lasting economic and political foundations.
A “Modern Silk Road”, too, is now becoming a reality, as Kazakhstan makes use of its position between East and West to establish itself as a centre of international cross-continental commerce, building railway lines and roads linking Europe and the Far East. For me, these links to the past formed a satisfying “closing of the circle”within the framework of the book, but I also believe that a nation that understands its own history and draws strength from its roots, is better positioned to meet its potential in the future.
The author is a writer and managing editor of An Illustrated History of Kazakhstan: Asia’s Heartland in Context.