After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000

Sanjay Subrahmanyam writes:

There is every reason to applaud Darwin’s ambition in this new book, which begins in the early 15th century and then moves, in nine chronologically organised chapters, through five and a half centuries of world history. The breadth of vision is already on display in an opening chapter entitled ‘Orientations’, which begins with the celebrated meeting between Amir Timur and Ibn Khaldun at the walls of Damascus in 1401, although the great Central Asian conqueror is given relatively short shrift as a ‘transitional figure in Eurasian history’. Instead, Darwin points us in the direction of the great interpretative debates of the 19th and 20th centuries regarding the long sweep of history, from Marx and Weber to the more obscure Halford Mackinder and J.C. van Leur, to more culturally oriented recent readings such as those of Edward Said. In a few pages, he efficiently summarises the large and complex debate on the idea of modernity, rejecting the forceful advice of the Africanist Frederick Cooper by concluding that ‘it is too useful an idea to be thrown away,’ but adding that ‘it may be wise to accept it as a fuzzy abstraction.’ Using the idea of ‘three great civilisational zones’ – China, Islamdom and Europe – as his starting point, he sketches a broad comparative framework, drawing on the classic work of Mark Elvin from the early 1970s, among other texts.

(LRB 12 February 2009)

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