#194: FLIPPING THE MAP. The historian Peter Frankopan has written about seeing as a child the famous medieval Mappa Mundi at Hereford Cathedral, where, among other such valuable locations as the tribal lands of the Blenmyes and the Sciapods and the supposed site of Eden, he found Jerusalem at the dead center of the map and that east was topmost. A very deft and similar feat is pulled off by S. Frederick Starr in his book Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane (Princeton, 2013), about an area and period of accomplishments, experiment, investigation, study and thought really very like the European Enlightenment, and still very much ignored in most of our palaces of education. Our intellectual vision, Starr points out, tends to start from Europe and grow smaller and more vague as it looks east, with Central Asia at the far end of the telescope and barely visible. (Quiz: name the seven contiguous countries in Central Asia whose names end in “-stan.” Extra point if you can place the countries in clockwise order, with twelve o’clock as point north. Go.) One of the forms of strangeness we encounter in Starr’s book argues our current distance from our own Enlightenment, when the polymath was the ideal; these Central Asian figures, far from being simply poets or politicians, were working out at the edges of knowledge of medicine, astronomy, geography, philosophy, political thought, mathematics—it was assumed to know one was to know all, and was a time when the notion of knowing everything there was to be known, not just of a subject but everything of everything, was not seen as ludicrous or impossible. These are figures whose works are often still to be reckoned with, and as the mode of history moves from studying static national entities and defined eras to looking at the modes of the dissemination of knowledge and its relative frameworks, Starr’s characterization of his subject is ingenious and helpful: he is looking at, not a crossroads of civilizations, but a crossroads civilization itself. Given the fluid nature of the subject and its distance in time, Starr is blessedly little given to dogma: read his summing up on the subject of what caused “that great period of intense cerebration, that age of inquiry and innovation” to wane and halt. At the point where many historians begin to resemble someone trying to overstuff a suitcase and force it shut, Starr instead ponders the larger question: does it require an explanation? Maybe it just ran down, the way we each do in the end.
This is heady stuff, and because we have so little familiar framework to pin the subject to, Lost Englightenment is not a quick or a light read; even the multisyllabic names often made me take pause. I could have used more maps. But these are quibblings at a feast. Here are the stars in the sky, the unanswered mysteries of our bodies and spirits, the maze of governing, the question of dogma versus thought, faith versus reason, and, finally, a rafter of humans who tried to puzzle these subjects all out. With Central Asia in its disarray today, and what can seem like the flickering of reason closer to home, their efforts may hardly look strange at all.
The Hereford map can be seen online at www.themappamundi.co.uk.