Book Review: the Empire of the Steppes

The Empire of the Steppes: a History of Central Asia by Rene Grousset. Published in 1970 by Rutgers

I picked this book up two years ago because I had a vague interest in the steppes and Central Asia and I’m really glad I did. While it is an old book, originally published in 1939, it is surprisingly sympathetic to the various tribes and races discussed. There are some glaring word choices that reveal its age (like using orientalist unironically), but it didn’t impact the overall reading experience. It is an in depth and compelling overview of the steppes from early human history to the 18th century. The first two chapters of the book are hard to get through, especially for someone like me who didn’t know anything about the region before reading the book. I’d actually recommend skipping the first two chapters and start with Genghis Khan as that is when Groussett’s writing shines the brightest.

This book is considered to be a must read for anyone who is interested in Central Asia and I think that’s true for two reasons. One, it provides a great foundation for understanding Genghis Khan’s and Tamerlane’s empires. Two, it seems to be the origin of many stereotypes and misconceptions about the region, especially in its relationship to the West.

I like to read older books, because I like to see how the narrative of a region, a person, or a historical event has evolved. This book was very insightful, because a lot of modern narratives surrounding Central Asia, seem to have either originated with this book or became popular with this book.

There are three narratives that comes up often in this book which seem quaint:

  • There was a battle between the Christian West and the Islamic East and the ‘good’ Mongols were those who either tolerated Christianity or were outright hostile to Islam
  • Tribes can be understood through generic traits and they were uncivilized and barbaric and only became civilized through interactions with sedentary tribes
  • Genghis Khan won because there is something inherently warriorlike about his tribes, not because of a utilization of technology or tactics

That being said, it is clear that Rene respects Genghis Khan and those chapters are the most exhilarating and interesting. It does a great job painting the extend of Genghis’ domain and the unstable nature of the region. I didn’t realize how many civilizations Genghis Khan’s forces either interacted with or conquered. It was also a fascinating look at Persian, Russian, Turkic, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern kingdoms and the development of those regions-regions that are never discussed in American history classes.

I also enjoyed the time Rene spent on discussing Batu and Subutai. I was vaguely aware of these two warriors because of Phob’s gorgeous look on Deviantart. I’d recommend checking them out. Rene provides a surprisingly insightful look at Batu’s achievements and his place within Genghis Khan’s kingdom. Again, I didn’t realize that Batu lead the Mongol invasion of Eastern Europe, getting all the way to Hungary nor did I realize how integral he was to deciding who would succeed Genghis after he died.

Rene is just as detailed when describing Tamerlane’s conquest, but it is obvious that he is not as impressed with Tamerlane as he was with Genghis Khan. I was also disappointed with how he handled Attila. Attila got a few pages and that was it.

Overall, this was an interesting book to read as long as one kept in mind the quaint theories that drive the core of the book.

Pros: It provides an in depth and fairly complimentary look at Genghis Khan’s and Tamerlane’s empires. The best part of the book are the chapters dealing with Genghis Khan’s conquests. I found it insightful and it gave me a great understanding of how the region has been shaped by nomadic tribes. In America, I don’t think we understand nomadic lifestyles nor did we give them enough credit in shaping world history. This book gave me the overview of life on the steppe that I was lacking.

Cons: It is an old book and so some of the word choices are quaint and the major theories that the book rests on are incorrect or stereotypical. Additionally, the first two chapters of the books are dense, a lot of it has proven incorrect, and hard to get through. I would recommend skipping to the chapters that discuss Genghis Khan as that is the heart of the book.

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