History Books

The best books on Central Asia’s Golden Age

recommended by S. Frederick Starr

The Genius of their Age: Ibn Sina, Biruni, and the Lost Enlightenment by S. Frederick Starr

The Genius of their Age: Ibn Sina, Biruni, and the Lost Enlightenment
by S. Frederick Starr


Central Asia's history is rarely a focus for students in the West, but its flourishing cities and great thinkers once made it one of the world's most dynamic and important regions. Frederick Starr, a leading expert on Central Asia and author of a number of books about it, talks us through the highlights of an area that was so much more than just a stopping place on the ancient Silk Roads.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

The Genius of their Age: Ibn Sina, Biruni, and the Lost Enlightenment by S. Frederick Starr

The Genius of their Age: Ibn Sina, Biruni, and the Lost Enlightenment
by S. Frederick Starr

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Fred, you’ve chosen ‘Central Asia’s Golden Age’ as your topic. Amongst the general public I’m not sure that many people know about it or perhaps some of us didn’t even know that Central Asia had a golden age. I wondered, first of all, whether you could introduce people to what it was and what was so exciting about it?

Both terms need explanation. Central Asia, is it really central? Well, look at the map, and you’ll see it is indeed central. It’s not just the five former Soviet states, which are now sovereign, independent countries, but also Afghanistan, which for 3,000 years has been considered part of the same cultural zone and is so viewed today. It is central because you have China to the east, India to the southeast, Iran to the southwest, and Russia to the north. Then there’s Europe, off to the west. The famous Silk Roads crisscrossed it in every which direction. So that is Central Asia, which is truly central, a reality  that’s crucial to our whole discussion.

Now, a ‘golden age’? Indeed—but maybe I’ve understated this. Maybe it should be one of its golden ages. I’ve focused on the period from about 700 to 1300 or 1400, when that region produced extraordinary thinkers, poets, singers, you name it, and breakthroughs in science, medicine and philosophy. But it turns out there were earlier golden ages too, and they have yet to be adequately covered.

Out of those extraordinary thinkers, you chose Ibn Sina and Biruni to focus on in your dual biography. Are they prime examples of the kind of thinkers who were coming out of the region at the time?

I’m grateful to Oxford University Press for the title, The Genius of Their Age, which a wonderful editor there, Timothy Bent, proposed. These two really were the geniuses of their age. It turns out that they were born in just about the same year (though there’s been some debate over that) and were thus contemporaries. They knew each other and were fierce rivals. They were rude and insulting to each other and held grudges for years.

On a deeper and more philosophical level, they also viewed the world very differently. Ibn Sina, whom we know by his Latin name, Avicenna, was deeply respected and even revered by St Thomas Aquinas.  For Ibn Sina to accept something as true it had to conform to the rules of logic and syllogism, which brings us back to the writings of Aristotle—this he saw as the only reliable way to establish the validity of any statement.

Biruni, by contrast, said, ‘If you want to get at the truth, use mathematics. Whatever I can prove mathematically is real, is true.’ That was his position.

These are not easily reconciled viewpoints, even though, let it be said, Ibn Sina knew mathematics and, similarly, Biruni understood metaphysics and philosophy. But they approached reality from radically different perspectives.  Even though they marched along the same road, often taking up the same topics, everything each of them did stands in sharp contrast to what the other was doing.

I had no appreciation that they were both born in what is today Uzbekistan.

Yes, Ibn Sina was from Bukhara, the capital of the Samanid Empire, which even today remains a city of grand monuments. The city Biruni was born in, Kath, was on the river Oxys—now called the Amu Darya—just before it poured into the Aral Sea, from which one could then reach the Caspian. This region, called Khwarazm, is scarcely in our consciousness today, but it was once a rich and flourishing area at the center of the great trade routes connecting Europe, China, the Middle East and India.

During their upbringing, both of our geniuses benefited from wealth at a time and in places where wealth implied a commitment to learning in all its dimensions.

You’ve obviously devoted your working life to this region. Do you find that people are pretty badly informed about it, that it’s not a part of many history curricula?

Yes and no. The general public remains quite ignorant of the cultural and intellectual riches of this region. Many of the most enlightening books are written by and for specialized scholars. But the growth of Western investment in Central Asia has brought many lively Americans and Europeans to Central Asia and many of them return with their curiosity aroused.

Also, I would note that the growth of tourism is contributing to this awakening. People who travel in the region come back with curiosity and open minds. Through travel and reading, a new generation is coming to appreciate how Central Asia has an identity that partakes of East and West but is startingly distinct in its own right.

True, traders crisscrossed the region and linked it with Europe, the Middle East, India, and China. Beginning several millennia ago, such interaction gave rise to tremendous intellectual energy. Through this process, Central Asia became an incubator of everything from manufacturing, trade and banking to ideas.

So in places you would never expect to find them—after travel over backroads and through desert-like areas and up into the mountains—one comes across astonishing ancient remains.  At scores of remote, forgotten, but once thriving ancient towns archaeologists have discovered products from India, China, the Middle East and Europe. This is absolutely typical. This both reflects the region’s centrality and explains how it became so fertile a ground for new ideas and bold new concepts in many fields.

Today, all six of the countries we’re talking about—Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—are trying to reclaim this heritage, and I say hats off to them for doing so.

Let’s turn to the books you’ve recommended. Your first choice is a book produced by UNESCO, the History of Civilizations of Central Asia, a set of six volumes put together by a “distinguished international team of specialists.” Tell me about the book and why it’s a good one if you’re trying to understand this area and its golden age.

It’s a wonderful source and hats off to UNESCO for compiling and issuing this treasure 20 years ago. The editors pulled together the world’s best scholars and focused their attention on major topics in the history, science, and culture of Central Asia, and then compressed it all into these six volumes. So if you’re past the initial acquaintance with the region and want to move beyond travel guides, then it’s worth your splurging a little and buying this UNESCO series. It is as good a single source as exists in any language.

And it has a lot of illustrations, presumably.

It does, but it’s a serious book. These are take-no-hostage scholars who wrote it and from many countries, including the Russians, who did a lot of excellent research on Central Asia half a century ago. This occurred because in Stalin’s time scholars studying what was considered a rather exotic topic—many of them Jewish—could do so without interference from Communist bureaucrats. Such scholars are well represented in the UNESCO volumes. It is a wonderful collection.

Can you give me an example of the sort of thing there might be an essay on in the book?

To take just one example, if we think of Central Asia at all it is usually in connection with trade. But as the UNESCO collection proves, there was also manufacturing. The Chinese discovered how to weave silk but the Central Asians noticed, ‘We, too, have mulberry trees, and silkworms thrive here! We, too, can produce silk, and undercut the Chinese producers.’ As a result, it was Central Asians who produced most of the silk found in Europe.

The UNESCO books also speak about the region’s many technological innovations. We all know about Damascus steel being used for swords and knives. Well, the process for refining iron into the hardest possible steel was developed not in Syria but in Central Asia, probably in Afghanistan, and spread from there to the Middle East and beyond. Though it was initially a Central Asian discovery, the technology spread, with the result that the resulting swords and blades were sold mainly in Damascus…hence the misleading name.

These are the kind of insights that add richness and depth to the region and which are described in detail in the wonderful UNESCO volumes.

You’re reminding me of a book I read called Apples are from Kazakhstan.

Exactly! There you are. They do indeed come from Kazakhstan. As do tulips. They’re from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—the mountain areas. If you go up in the mountains in Kyrgyzstan, you can still see the original tulips as they were before the Dutch refined them into such beauties as they are today. Similarly, the Kazakhs lovingly protect the types of ancient apple that first appeared on their territory.

I thought tulips were from Turkey!

Yes, but where did the Turks get them?

Okay, let’s go on to the next book. This is The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, who is a professor of global history here in Oxford. You already mentioned the book, but do you want to say more about why it’s a good one for somebody who wants to learn more about Central Asia and its history?

Peter Frankopan is an omnivore. He’s seemingly interested in everything from Ireland to the East Indies and indulged his curiosity in this excellent volume. His goal was to shake up Western readers and get them to appreciate the many cultural centers along the way, with Central Asia figuring prominently in his account of the many culturally fertile lands along the route. He is a first-class writer.

Frankopan did much to broaden our perspective on the Middle East, the Balkans, as well as Central Asia. Could he have gone deeper into the Central Asian story? Of course. There is no way that a single book—let alone a very readable book, which Peter Frankopan’s definitely is—could cover all of the Eurasian landmass in equal detail.  For example, I wish that he had paid more attention to India and its complexities.  Why? Because one of the greatest intellectual challenges before the world right now is to come to grips with the emerging India and its astonishingly rich past, its heritage. But The Silk Roads is a wonderful place to start, for it opens one’s eyes, if they’re not already open.

The subtitle says it’s ‘a new history of the world.’ Is that because he’s centering it on Central Asia, rather than Europe?

He’s centering it on the entire landmass and its intense interaction over the millennia. We tend to break things down into little units and to break them down into yet smaller political and cultural entities.  We undervalue the interaction among these cultural centers, and that is precisely what Frankopan focuses on with great success.

I saw that there’s also a graphic edition of the book for younger readers. 

Yes. Peter Frankopan is a very clever man. I respect him highly.

Let’s turn to your next book. It’s quite a bit older—first published in 1939 and translated from French. This is René Grousset’s Empires of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. Why did you choose this one?

There is a fundamental, historical analytic issue between the two great types of civilization that existed on this vast landmass. When people write about Central Asia, they tend to fall into one camp or the other.

On the one hand, there are the urban people. My book, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age, focuses on the cities because that is where the intellectual culture that is my subject was born and sustained—by these complex and wealthy rich trading centers, which used their wealth to become important centers of intellectual and artistic achievement as well.

On the other hand, there are the nomads and their vast and ill-defined empires of the steppes. This book I’m recommending, Empires of the Steppes, is a classic treatment of the nomads. There are a lot of other, more recent works, but this is a classic study, and it has the virtue of being very readable as well. The original French edition is elegantly written, but the English translation is similarly lively and attractive. Grousset gives us a vivid sense of the vast territories that were conquered and briefly held by these numerous if elusive nomadic peoples. Needless to say, the Mongols, who conquered just about everything from China to Poland and Hungary, top the list. But as Grousset shows us, they weren’t the only ones.

It is important to understand that these two forces, the urban and the nomadic, were constantly interacting with each other. In Lost Enlightenment I argued that they were mutually dependent. The nomadic peoples of the steppes raised horses and sold them in the cities. They also made saddles and did metal work—both forms of manufacturing—which they sold in the urban markets. Without the urban markets, there wouldn’t have been nomads.

On the other hand, without the nomads, there wouldn’t have been urban markets. The great urban centers of Central Asia—Bukhara, Samarkand, Khwarazm, the great city of Merv in what is now Turkmenistan and Balkh in Afghanistan (known as ‘the mother of cities’) were the power centers. But to trade, they all had to be able to send caravans securely through the barren countryside. Who helped with that? The nomads. The deals struck between the nomadic and the urban people made the trade possible. In short, the nomads played the role of insurers for the urban elite.

So the more recent view of these two great cultural phenomena is to appreciate their interdependence, and to acknowledge the intimate ties linking the two totally different civilizational types.

And other than the Mongols, who were the notable nomad groups?

There were so many! The Scythians are the best known because of the gorgeous goldwork that they did. There were many others that emerged from China. Some of them settled down early. The first Turkic group to settle down did so in in what is now in Xinjiang and ruled by China. The Karakhanids, as they are known, made the transition from nomadism and were the first urbanized Turkic peoples. They ended up taking over much of Central Asia for a while, and immediately absorbed the culture of the cities. It’s an absolutely fascinating and endlessly rich story.

Next up you’ve chosen what I think is a guidebook to Afghanistan, is that right?

Yes. You might be surprised that I am recommending a tourist guidebook, but this is something quite exceptional. How many guidebooks have 780 pages? I don’t know any of the three authors—Bijan Omrani, Matthew Leeming and Elizabeth Chatwin—but their book, Afghanistan: A Companion and Guide is an absolutely stunning piece of work.

I don’t know how the work was apportioned among them, but these are very intelligent authors. They are also good writers. They have a wonderful combination of respect and appreciation for achievement—whether it’s the written word, or a work of art, or architecture—and the very specific geographical context in which it all takes place. That tactile quality is what I’ve tried to achieve in my book Lost Enlightenment and in my new book on Ibn Sina and Biruni. This guide reminds us their subjects were real people living in real places that you can visit today. We wouldn’t think of Shakespeare without contextualizing him. He arose from a very specific environment and culture, a knowledge of which enables people everywhere to understand his world more deeply.

The wonderful thing about this book, Afghanistan: A Companion and Guide, is that it is so good on the context. Of course, a lot has been destroyed since the book was published. A lot is being destroyed even as we sit here today. But the places are still there and they endlessly reward study. Whatever the problems today, Afghanistan is not a neighbor of Central Asia but one of its central components. This volume is a most useful guide to its former riches.

Give me some of the highlights of the history of Afghanistan, for those of us who do only associate it with the more recent history. What interests you specifically?

It’s absolutely bewildering to know where to begin. Who would think that some of the greatest Buddhist remains are to be found along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan and across Afghanistan, all the way up into Central Asia? We forget that this was a Buddhist culture for many years.

Or imagine this: a place called Ay Khanum, which is on the border with Tajikistan, up in the far north along the Amu Darya (Oxys) River. It’s a Greek city with a Greek temple, because it was built and occupied by Greeks. It has been destroyed by the Taliban, but thank God, the French did a wonderful job excavating there. Wedged in among stones in a wall, they found a document which was a fragment of classic Greek philosophy. This, on the border of Afghanistan! We forget that there was a whole section of Greek civilization which, after Alexander the Great’s return from the East, was stranded in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Non-Greek peoples also adopted Greek letters and issued coins in Greek.

So these are two totally unexpected phenomena in Afghanistan.

Then there are great cities. The mother of them all—a place that should have a huge fence built around it to protect it because it’s being destroyed by treasure hunters with bulldozers—is Balkh, which is in the Uzbek-speaking part of Afghanistan. For thousands of years, Balkh was one of the great cities of the world. Today, it’s gone. There is an enormous site and some of the ancient walls are still preserved, but by and large, there is nothing there. It’s a barren waste—yet to be explored. Balkh has never had the archaeological attention that it deserves. It was one of the great centers of world culture.

To illustrate Balkh’s importance, let me give you an example. We speak of the monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam. The first example of monotheistic faiths was Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster himself was almost certainly from Balkh. And here it is, visitable today in Afghanistan. The local chamber of commerce will drive you out there from Mazar-i-Sharif, the nearest city, and show you what little there is to be seen. This is one of the most noteworthy historic sites, not just of Central Asia but of the world.

That’s amazing. Excuse my ignorance, but I was just reading a biography of Gulbadan, one of the Mughal princesses. She was born in Kabul. Did the Mughal Empire originate in Afghanistan as well?

Babur, who founded the Mughal dynasty,  was from what is now Uzbekistan. He first tried to reclaim his family’s fame and fortune within the territory of what is now Uzbekistan and failed. He then shifted his attention across the river to Afghanistan and set up shop in Kabul. His gardens are there, nicely restored, and can still be visited today.

Then, after a while, Babur set his eyes on India. Thus, the Mughal Empire came from Central Asia. And if you look at Mughal architecture, including its best-known works like the Taj Mahal, they all have a strong central Asian cast. The interaction was intimate. Most of the local saints and gurus who are recognized and worshipped across Pakistan and western India come from Central Asia. So you could say that Central Asian civilization extends across Pakistan and deep into India.

Let’s turn to your third recommended book. This is about Ibn Sina (aka Avicenna) and it’s by Lenn Goodman. You’ve mentioned Ibn Sina a bit already, but maybe you’d better introduce him.

Ibn Sina, or Avicenna, is remembered today in two totally different contexts. First, he’s known as the man who, 1000 years ago, wrote a six-volume book on medicine. In modern editions it fills six fat volumes.  This became the standard medical textbook from Spain to deep into India. Everyone used Ibn Sina/Avicenna: he was Mister Medicine.

Now, in some respects he was startlingly modern, and other respects he was not. But his goal was to be comprehensive and to set it out the way it was. He wasn’t a research scientist. He said, ‘This is what we know.’ And that very sense of authority is what gave his Canon—he was the first to use the term in this sense—such authority. Over 700 years, up to the 17th century, every medical school in Europe used Ibn Sina. So that’s one Ibn Sina.

The other Ibn Sina is the philosopher, the metaphysician, the master of logic, the direct heir of Aristotle who even saw himself, towards the end of his life, as, perhaps, the new Aristotle. His philosophical and metaphysical writings are very, very difficult to come to grips with, but it’s extremely important to do so. They are important for the world of Islam, of Judaism, of Christianity and the world of thought in general. Ibn Sina was one of the world’s great thinkers.

I mention Lenn Goodman’s fine book—one of several, by the way, that have been written recently—as an absolutely authoritative and accessible guide to Ibn Sina/Avicenna’s thought.  Do not expect to find here a volume to peruse over a drink on your terrace, for it is not easy going. Hats off to Lenn Goodman for bringing clarity to it all. But if you are patient and read through this fine volume, you will gain a basic understanding of why this is one of the great figures of world thought.

Does the book cover both aspects of Ibn Sina?

No, not the medicine. This is one of the reasons I wrote The Genius of Their Age—which is a dual biography of Ibn Sina and Biruni. I’d been reading Plutarch, who paired Roman and Greek thinkers and compared them. I was inspired by Plutarch, and justified my comparative biographies of Ibn Sina and Biruni because the two knew each other, were contemporaries, and came from the same world in many respects.

There are very few efforts to combine the medical side and the philosophical, metaphysical side of Ibn Sina/Avicenna. And, least of all, do we find the person. Who was this astonishing man? He ended his life, not happily, in Iran, where he suffered a painful death and is buried there. In 1950, the Iranians opened his tomb and took photographs of his skull, front and side. These were published, and a clever scholar in Wales reconstructed what Ibn Sina must have looked like. As people had said, he was a very handsome man. He was sociable and good at politics—he served in several top leadership posts.

What a contrast to Biruni, his contemporary and rival! Biruni did spend a few years in a civil service job as a vizier or foreign minister. But the country where he was born and served as vizier was destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni, whose specialty was pillaging and rape. Mahmud of Ghazni took Biruni captive for his collection of geniuses at his court in Ghazni in Afghanistan. Mahmud of Ghazni’s great aspiration was to capture both Ibn Sina and Biruni to his court as adornments. He succeeded with Biruni, who did most of his work in Afghanistan at Ghazni. And he almost succeeded with Ibn Sina, but in the end failed.

In your book, you talk about Biruni’s mathematics and science—but you also highlight his description of India.

Biruni’s India is a remarkable book. It was discovered and translated from medieval Arabic, first into German and then into English, by the same person, a German scholar—Eduard Sachau. Not only did he edit it, but he made two different translations of it!

Biruni went to India because although he hated astrology, he was named astrologer to Mahmud of Ghazni. He was in Mahmoud’s entourage, traipsing around India, and then made some trips on his own. His boss was marching hundreds of thousands of Indian slaves back to Afghanistan, but Biruni had a different approach. He was asking, ‘How is it that Indian science and mathematics are so sophisticated? Where did this great effervescence come from?’ We speak of Arabic numerals, but they came from India. How did they come up with these number systems? Why was their astronomy so sophisticated? Biruni learned Sanskrit well enough to translate books from it. He made contact with Indian intellectuals, especially in the area of Lahore, which is now in Pakistan.

His book is a work of genius. He laid out a way of proceeding for intellectual history, for cultural history, for anthropology, for sociology. And the great question that he focused on was, ‘To what extent was Indian religion responsible for, or retarding the development of, astronomy, mathematics and science?’ That was the great question he addressed, and he did it with an open mind that is so impressive, even today. He was one of the great pioneers of social science.

Was it through him that the Indian numbers became Arabic numerals?

I mentioned at the beginning that Biruni was from Khwarezm in what is now Uzbekistan. One of his predecessors in Khwarazm, who lived a couple of centuries before him, began the campaign for Indian numbers. His name was Al-Khwarizmi—i.e., “from Khwarazm.” Biruni pushed that campaign to success.

I wrote about Al-Khwarazmi in Lost Enlightenment. He is of interest to us today for two reasons. First, he created the modern field of algebra. It had been pioneered by the ancient Greeks, but Al-Khwarazmi took it further. When he presented algebra as a field, he did it with words, not numbers and formulae. He got his reader to think through what the actual operation you’re trying to perform is. Only then come the numbers. Today that’s considered a new and very fashionable approach to the teaching of algebra, which is just beginning to catch on again—after 1000 years.

The other thing that Al-Khwarizmi did was give his name to algorithms. Algorithm is a distortion of Al-Khwarazmi’s name. He was accepted in Europe as a genius of mathematics and therefore, the way to begin an irrefutable argument was to say, ‘Al-Khwarazmi said’ or ‘Dixit Al-Khwarazmi.’ From that phrase, we got the modern term algorithm, which is all over our world today. He lived a millennium ago!

Having written about both of them in The Genius of Their Age, do you have a favorite between Ibn Sina and Biruni?

They’re both extraordinarily interesting and dramatically different. On the one hand, Biruni is ultra-modern in that he presented all his thoughts as a work in progress. He said, ‘If you want to carry this further, here’s what you have to do.’ He was one of the first modern scientists. There’s also the significance of his work. He measured the diameter of the Earth more accurately than anyone else down to the sixteenth century. Using home-made equipment he also hypothesized the existence of North and South America as inhabited continents.  That is a big deal! So, I respect and admire Biruni.

On the other hand, if someone said, ‘You have a choice of going out tonight with Ibn Sina or Biruni, which would you take?’ I’d go with Ibn Sina. He was a very public figure, very visible and communicative. He sustained personal fights and vendettas against many competitors. We have some hints about his private life—and we probably don’t want to know a lot more, for he was a bon vivant. He was surrounded by a bevy of students with whom he partied late into the night.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

March 24, 2024

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S. Frederick Starr

S. Frederick Starr

S. Frederick Starr is Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council. Beginning his career in archaeology in Turkey, he went on to serve as founding chairman of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at The Wilson Center, vice-president of Tulane University, and president of Oberlin College and the Aspen Institute. His two dozen books and hundreds of other writings focus on the interaction of culture and politics and cover architecture, diplomacy, history, political science, and music.

S. Frederick Starr

S. Frederick Starr

S. Frederick Starr is Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council. Beginning his career in archaeology in Turkey, he went on to serve as founding chairman of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at The Wilson Center, vice-president of Tulane University, and president of Oberlin College and the Aspen Institute. His two dozen books and hundreds of other writings focus on the interaction of culture and politics and cover architecture, diplomacy, history, political science, and music.