April 2006

Elizabeth Kiem


A Trifecta of Eastern Conquest

When the Mongol emperor Tamerlane conquered Baghdad in 1401 he commanded that each of his soldiers bring back two heads from the populace and stack them in a pyramid. At the end of the day there were 120 such towers circling the city, each of them swarming with vultures. The Tigris ran red and every house was in ashes.

That’s some shock and awe.

Alexander the Great was in Babylon at the height of his way-B.C. grandeur. He was gentle with the population, unusually so, and so they prostrated themselves at his feet and feted him with their famous whores for a month.

That’s a mission accomplished.

The two great warriors hit Mesopotamia eighteen hundred years apart, but both are equally ancient history to us today. To read of the breadth of their conquests, the savagery of their vengeance and the opulence of their occupations is to realize just how amateurish was our grim little 20th century (not to mention the lackluster first decade of the modern millennium) when it comes to Greatness with a capital G.

Indeed, looked at next to the annals of the ancients, the era of post-industrial progress is a study in shrinkage. Our cities may be sprawling but our borders are puny. A world in which huge plums called Tartary, Anatolia and the Celestial Empire beckoned plunderers has been carved into a thousand dinky nation-states measuring wealth in percentages, not elephants.

We have very large guns, to be sure, but the size of our threats, constricted with sanctions and protocols, are laughable when heard next to the ultimatums of the “Scourge of God,” Tamerlane, who wrote the Khans of Hindustan that if they set any value upon their lives, property and reputation, they will pay me yearly tribute, and if not, they shall hear of my arrival with my powerful armies. Farewell.

Our tolerance for violence too, has been reduced radically, so that the slaughter of a thousand now brings shouts of ethnic cleansing. Next to the unabashed geopolitics that gave rise to the Hellenic and Temurid eras, today’s border disputes, lamentations of genocide, and deliberative diplomacy are so much naval-gazing.

Two new releases from Da Capo press go along way toward reminding us how bloody world dominion can be. Envy of the Gods (paperback, December 2005) by John Prevas, is the story of Alexander the Great’s self-destructive campaign through Central Asia. Justin Marozzi’s Tamerlane (hardback, February 2006) picks up in the Dark Ages to recount a similar path of piteous human defilement and urban destruction.

Tamerlane is the better book. A synthesis of modern biographies by Harold Lamb, Edward Gibbon and Bernard Lewis and the chronicles of Tamerlane’s own contemporaries, it succeeds in recreating an ancient world of bloodthirsty vengeance and unrivalled opulence. Marozzi is intent upon putting the clichés of barbarism in the context of a uniquely cultured leader. Without stinting on the gory details of conquest, he is equally faithful to Tamerlane’s strategic gifts (he was a grand chess-master) and devotion to architecture, poetry, and religious scholarship.

In Envy of the Gods, Prevas tells the fascinating story of an unparalleled warrior who squanders his gifts in drink and debauchery. As it turns out, Alexander’s last seven years were not so much Great as Gangbusters. It was in Persia that the Macedonian made friends with women, wine and a decidedly heathen lifestyle. His megalomania was not popular among the troops, nor was his newfound despotism much fun for the conquered. After passing through with civility the first time, Alexander returned to Babylon like a fiend. Pillaging, sacking and raping became all the Greek rage in Mesopotamia -- and Alexander may have actually drunk himself to death.

This is the kind of juicy stuff that puts Abu Ghraib to shame. Prevas, however is a bit prim with it, deferring to the contradictory sources with an equity that saps the story and turns the pages into longwinded notecards. He drops bombs like Alexander acting as stud to an Amazon Queen without elucidation and extinguishes all the fun from the sordid death scene by noting that it may have, after all been West Nile and not alcohol poisoning that did in the world conqueror.

To put the prospects of Eurasian conquest in modern context, look no further than Unknown Sands by John Kropf. Here is a book that wears the well-meaning but naïf goals of American influence in Asia on its unassuming sleeve.

Kropf opens his account of two years as a G-man in Turkmenistan with a “this is a fine howdy-do” and closes it with a “what a long strange trip its been.” In between he recounts plenty of adventures -- none of them bloody, rapacious or even particularly historic (USAID would surely disagree -- Kropf represented the agency during several months of relief transports through Turkmenistan to Afghanistan after 9/11. If they have my head for poo-pooing his efforts we can call it vengeance, okay?)

In a perfectly turned phrase Kropf looks around at his strange surroundings and pronounces it the poor man’s Raj. This then, is the best the 21st century superpower can muster towards the land dotted with Tamerlane’s azure domes and the ruins of a trail of Asian Alexandria’s. The Macedonian made it his highway of hubris, the Mongol -- a pilgrimage of destruction; in the eyes of Beltway Bob, Central Asia was  “truly a lifetime experience, like a two-year Outward Bound course.”

Oh how the mighty have… gotten passports.