I’ve been reading The Lost Heart of Asia, by the British travel writer (and novelist) Colin Thubron (HarperPerennial, 1994). He describes a circuit of the former Soviet Central Asian republics – the ‘Stans, minus Afghanistan – just six months after the collapse of Soviet rule.
The Uzbekistan portion seems especially poignant, considering what that country has since turned into: a dictatorship more brutal and possibly even more corrupt than it had been when the Russians called the shots. Uzbekistan now also hosts a garrison of the American empire, a major anchor for a string of bases and “forward command posts” strung throughout the region. Under the just-announced restructuring of American forces abroad, Central Asia is slated to become even more central to U.S. global hegemony. One can’t help but feel grim fascination at this complete repositioning of what had been, only a few years before, a region on the geographical periphery of Western interests.
Thubron’s “Lost Heart of Asia” has indeed been rediscovered, albeit in a manner far different from the expectations of its inhabitants when he interviewed them in 1992. The most common dream then, he found, was for a pan-Turkic empire with its capital in Burkhara or Samarkand. Pan-Islam seemed a remote and distasteful possibility, even to Muslims. Some yearned for the return of Soviet stability; others with longer memories hearkened back to the benign neglect under the czars, before forced collectivization and Stalin’s purges turned everything upside down. Environmental catastrophes present and imminent contributed to a general sense of “lostness” and malaise.
This is a part of the world where world-conquerors have come and gone with depressing regularity. Samarkand, the capital of Uzbekistan, was once the center of a vast empire founded by Tamerlane the Great. As Thubron points out, its very name has evoked the quintessence of the exotic in the Western European imagination for several hundred years. Samarkand was “the fantasy of Goethe and Handel, Marlowe and Keats, yet its reality was out of reach.” For Thubron, its ruins even now seem inaccessible, “as if a whole secret city had died within the modern one.”
The 20th-century philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari derived their crucial concept of a war machine in part from Central Asian historical models. Through war machines, the self-organizing and emergent powers in non-organic matter can be concentrated and turned upon the centralized hierarchies of states and empires; the latter attempt in turn to capture and transform war machines into armies. Tamerlane, as a Mongol and a Muslim, built an enduring war machine similar to what the Spanish conquistadors later employed against the Aztec and Inca empires: one part military, one part universalizing religion. Six centuries later, the landscape still bears witness to the monstrous imposition of his rule. Thubron writes,
I went out into the ruins of Bibi Khanum, feeling an obscure self-reproach. Even in desolation the mosque seemed to tower out of an era more fortunate than my own (but this was an illusion). Tamerlane had built it as the greatest temple in Islam. Thousands of captured artisans from Persia, Iraq and Azerbaijan had labored to carve its marble floors, glaze its acres of tiles, erect its monster towers and the four hundred cupolas bubbling over its galleries. The emperor flailed its building forward. He considered too small the gateway completed in his absence, pulled it down wholesale, hanged its architects and began again. But the mountainous vaults and minarets which he envisioned crushed the foundations, and the walls started to fracture almost before completion. People began to be afraid to pray there. It towered above me in megalomaniac reverie, raining the sky with blistered arches and severed domes. Cracks pitched and zigzagged down the walls. Tiles flaked off like skin. The gateway loomed so high that the spring of its vanished arch began eighty feet above me, and completed itself phantasmally in empty air. Gaping breaches had split the prayer-hall top to bottom, and the squinches were shedding whole bricks.
Everything – the thunderous minarets, the thirty-foot doors, the outsize ablutions basin – shrunk the visitor to a Lilliputian intruder, and peopled the mosque with giants. In the court’s centre a megalithic lectern of grey Mongollian marble had once cradled a gargantuan Koran, but its indestructibility, and perhaps its isolation from the mosque’s wrecked heart, had touched it with pagan mana now, and it had become the haunt of barren women, who crouched beneath it as a charm for fertility.
As I sat nearby, three young worldlings, urban and confident in high heels, went giggling and nudging towards it. Their shrieks rang in the ruins. Then, separately, they dropped on all fours and crawled in and out between the lectern’s nine marble legs. At first they ridiculed one another at this place where fun and superstition merged. But once unseen by their companions, creeping through the marble labyrinth, an unease descended. Covertly they touched their palms to the stone. One of them kissed it. Then they emerged, straightening their stockings, and tripped away.
Perhaps this is the best that we can wish for: that the imperial state will be crushed under the weight of its own, vast machinery. Eight centuries from now, will the ruins of oil refineries be converted to some more benign use?
See also In the twilight of empire (August 18). I cribbed the stuff on D&G’s war machine from Deleuze and Geophilosophy: A Guide and Glossary, by Mark Bonta and John Protevi (Edinburgh University Press, 2004), which you should all immediately go buy. For more on the book, see Forest time, forest space (May 25).