Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane
By S. Frederick Starr
Published in June 2015
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
Lost Enlightenment is the single best history book that I’ve read in 2020.
It was the perfect conclusion for all three major topics that I studied this year: the Islamic Golden Age, the crusades, and the Mongol empire.
Lost Enlightenment tells the story of how extremely technologically advanced societies existed in Central Asia from the conquests of Alexander the Great (312 BC) until the reign of Tamerlane (1405 AD).
The Central Asian region of Transoxiana has been conquered by many empires: Persia, Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire, China, Kushan Indians, Muslims, and many more. Despite these conquests, Central Asian culture became known for its ability to produce many prominent intellectuals.
The intellectual ascent of Transoxiana was most prominent from the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate (approx 800 AD) until the Seljuk Conquest (1080 AD). This roughly 300 year long period sees a golden age of Islamic thought, science, and philosophy.
Muslim Transoxianian thinkers dominated the Islamic golden age. Avicenna (or Ibn Sina) who lived from 980 AD until 1037 AD was a staunch Aristotelian and is likely the most famous.
However, the thinker who fascinated me the most was al-Biruni. Biruni was an early proponent of natural selection, anticipating Darwin by 800 years. He also was a great historian. He would eventually move to India, where he would write about the ways Hindu religion compared and contrasted to Islam. His hobbies included geology, astronomy, physics, optics, and math.
Eventually, the Islamic golden age came to an end. First, Turkish regimes came to power and promoted extreme forms of Islam that stiffled out any free speech. Then, the Mongol conquests physically destroyed most major cities. Finally, tyrants like Tamerlane committed acts of genocide that would snuff out what little room for free thought was left.
This is the best book that I have read about the Islamic Golden age. I recommend it to everyone, regardless of their historical interests. A fascinating, albeit somewhat lengthy, book that should be considered a key part of anyone’s historical education.
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