Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney

The terrible beauty of long views

In the days when I got to read a lot of reference books as work, I developed handy tests for things like Eurocentricity that we wanted to make sure we avoided in books we were buying for the club because hey! Eurocentricity and sexism and racism not only wrong, but bad manners and bad business, right? Or that was what I always argued with my clients when they said I was being a bit PC and they usually listened because I can be quite persuasive.

And my test for Eurocentricity was that I had people I looked for, and if they were not there, this was kind of a clue.

If it was a general historical reference book, I went early in the alphabet and looked for Babur and Baibars, two figures of real importance about whom we most of us failed to learn in school. Which is all the more reason to make sure that they are where you need to look them up.

Babur is the easy one - he was a Central Asian princeling who rose to power in Samarkand and lost it all before he was fifteen and after a few years of guerilla fighting and desperate adventures had a better idea. He was related to Genghis and to Tamburlaine and conquering things was sort of the family business and so he and his men rode down into Afghanistan and recruited troops and then they invaded India.

Babur was, in fact, the first Mogul Emperor and the empire he created lasted until it came up against the British. His family commissioned the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort and briefly ruled by utilizing a sort of Sufi syncretism before drifting into intolerance and trying to create an exclusively Islamic state under Aurengzebe - but he was seven generations or so later than Babur and at once the man who took the empire to its height and weakened it irrevocably.

Babur wrote his autobiography, which is a good read if you can tolerate the ' they got in my way and so I smote them mightily' sort of chronicle.

Baibars was a soldier who got to be ruler of Egypt and who swept away the last vestiges of the Crusaders from Palestine. He also fought one of the most important battles of all time - Ain Shalut, the Bitter Springs. It is a battle which affected all subsequent history because it proved that it was possible to beat the Mongols and because he drove them out of the Levant - after they had sacked Baghdad and Damascus and killed the Assassins by besieging their stronghold Alamut.

Baibars was not a nice man and was a bigot and a brute - but he saved Western Civ for us all. After all, the only reason that, about the same time, the Mongols failed to take Europe was that, at a point when they had swallowed Hungary and Russia, the Great Khan died back in Karakorum and they all went home to fight a succession war. Europe was a backwater and so they never got round to it again - but the Islamic world was the prize and they lost it. To Baibars.

Who gets left out of reference books.

The more depressed I get about the war, the more I find myself taking long views, because they are the only thing that makes it tolerable...

That and a sense that this is a tragic universe in which every purpose is defeated sooner or later.
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