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By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia by Barry W. Cunliffe

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Edited by Keith Currie, Sunday, 23 May 2021, 19:33

This is a remarkable book. In its ambition, its scope and its production values Barry Cunliffe’s study is extremely impressive.

Some years ago I very much enjoyed reading his ‘Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek’ which now reads as a minor foothill to the mountain range of this volume. Make no mistake, despite its chronological range of over 10,000 years, this is no light skim through the centuries. It is a detailed, highly readable account of the geography, archaeology and history of Eurasia from China in the East to the fringes of Europe in the west.

Not the least of the pleasures of this book are the many maps, all in full colour, all with their orientation putting the ‘European peninsula’ at an unusual angle for the Eurocentric reader. This alone creates a sense of perspective which provokes thought. These maps wonderfully trace movements and settlements of peoples, topographical aspects, the rise and fall of political empires, the spread of plague and disease, beautifully capturing the inter-connectedness of Asia with Europe – Eurasia.

There is much to learn here and a marvellous amount of scholarship on display, but the book is straight-forward to read and always tells a fascinating story. For me the most interesting parts were those dealing with classical to medieval times, but I enjoyed all parts, including the prehistoric. East-west movements and less commonly, west-east movements of people and peoples are explained through the geography of the continents. Thus historical events which loom large in European history, such as the crusades, can be seen for what they were – a side-show, even if they had a lasting effect for future generations.

The book contains a wide choice of gorgeous illustrations and photographs, more to be expected in a coffee-table book than a scholarly volume. These pictures enhance the text wonderfully. It is really evocative to look upon a series of photographs of Palmyra, read about the city’s importance to east-west communication and trade and think about what has happened there in the past few months of 2015. One wonders too about the current state of other sites such as the Greco-Macedonian foundation of Ai Khanum in Afghanistan.

Cunliffe’s book shows the cross fertilisation of ideas, discoveries and knowledge over the centuries, the mixing of race, religion and culture, the importance of understanding this, and how all these could have positive effects in the future. I looked for and found a reference to Menander (not Meander, p.256!), the Greco-Macedonian king of Bactria, a man of European descent who embraced Buddhism, in a land which is now almost wholly Muslim.

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