Review of: Tim & Tigon, by Tim Cope

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About five years ago, I read what I still consider to be the finest travel and adventure book I have ever come across, On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads, by Tim Cope, a remarkable tale of an intrepid young Australian who in 2004 set out on a three-year mostly solo trek on horseback across the Eurasian steppe from Mongolia to Hungary—some 10,000 kilometers (about 6,200 miles)—roughly retracing routes followed by Genghis Khan and his steppe warriors. An extraordinary individual, Cope refused to carry a firearm, despite warnings against potential predators of the animal or human kind to menace an untested foreigner alone on the vast and often perilous steppe corridor, instead relying on his instincts, personality, and determination to succeed, regardless of the odds. Oh, and those odds seem further stacked against him because despite his outsize ambition, he is quite an inexperienced horseman—in fact his only previous attempt on horseback as a child left him with a broken arm! Nevertheless, his only companions for the bulk of the journey ahead would be three horses—and a dog named Tigon foisted upon him against his will that would become his best friend.

My 2016 review of On the Trail of Genghis Khan—which Cope featured on his website for a time—sparked an email correspondence between us, and shortly after publication he sent me an inscribed copy of his latest work, Tim & Tigon, stamped with Tigon’s footprints. I’m always a little nervous in these circumstances: what if the new book falls short? As it turned out, such concerns were misplaced; I enjoyed it so much I bought another copy to give as a gift!

In Kazakhstan, early in his journey, a herder named Aset connived to shift custody of a scrawny six-month-old puppy to Cope, insisting it would serve both as badly needed company during long periods of isolation as well as an ally to warn against wolves. The dog, a short-haired breed of hound known as a tazi, was named Tigon, which translates into something like “fast wind.” Tim was less than receptive, but Aset was persuasive: “In our country dogs choose their owners. Tigon is yours.” [p89] That initial grudging acceptance was to develop into a critical bond that was strengthened again and again during the many challenges that lay ahead. In fact, Tim’s connection with Tigon came to represent the author’s single most significant relationship in the course of this epic trek. Hence the title of this book.

Tim & Tigon defies simple categorization. On one level, it is a compact re-telling of On the Trail of Genghis Khan, but it’s not simply an abridged version of the earlier book. Styled as a Young Adult (YA) work, it has appeal to a much broader audience. And while it might be tempting to brand it as some kind of heartwarming boy and his dog tale, it is marked by a much greater complexity. Finally, as with the first book, it is bound to frustrate any librarian looking to shelve it properly: Is it memoir? Is it travel? Is it adventure? Is it survival? Is it a book about animals? It turns out to be about all of these and more.

As the title suggests, the emphasis this time finds focus upon the unique connection that develops between a once reluctant Tim and the dog that becomes nothing less than his full partner in the struggle to survive over thousands of miles of terrain marked by an often-hostile environment that frequently saw extreme temperatures of heat and cold, conditions both difficult and dangerous, as well as numerous obstacles.   But despite the top billing neither Tim nor Tigon are the main characters here. Instead, as the narrative comes to reveal again and again, the true stars of this magnificent odyssey are the land and its peoples, a sometimes-forbidding landscape that hosts remarkably resilient, enterprising, and surprisingly optimistic folks—clans, families and individuals that are ever undaunted by highly challenging lifeways that have their roots in centuries-old customs.

Stalin effectively strangled their traditional nomadic ways in the former Soviet Union by enforcing borders that were unknown to their ancestors, but he never crushed their collective spirit. And long after the U.S.S.R went out of business, these nomads still thrive, their orbits perhaps more circumscribed, their horses and camels supplemented—if not supplanted—by jeeps and motorbikes. They still make their homes in portable tents known as yurts, although these days many sport TV sets served by satellite and powered by generators. The overwhelming majority welcome the author into their humble camps, often with unexpected enthusiasm and outsize hospitality, generously offering him food and shelter and tending to his animals, even as many are themselves scraping by in conditions that can best be described as hardscrabble. The shared empathy between Cope and his hosts is marvelously palpable throughout the narrative, and it is this authenticity that distinguishes his work. It is clear that Tim is a great listener, and despite how alien he must have appeared upon arrival in these remote camps, he quickly establishes rapport with men, women, children, clan elders—the old and the young—and remarkably repeats this feat in Mongolia, in Kazakhstan, in Russia, and beyond. This turns out to be his finest achievement: his talents with a pen are evident, to be sure, but the story he relates would hardly be as impressive if not for that element.

When Tim’s amazing journey across the steppe ended in Hungary in 2007, joy mingled with a certain melancholy at the realization that he would have to leave Tigon behind when he returned home. But the obstacles of a an out-of-reach price tag and a mandatory quarantine were eventually overcome, and a little more than a year later, Tigon joined Tim in Australia. Tigon went on to sire many puppies and lived to a ripe old age before, tragically, the dog that once braved perils large and small on the harsh landscapes of the Eurasian steppe fell before the wheels of a speeding car on the Australian macadam. Tim was devastated by his loss, so this book is also, of course, a tribute to Tigon. My signed copy is inscribed with the Kazakh saying that served as a kind of ongoing guidepost to their trek together: “Trust in fate … but always tie up the camel.” That made me smile, but that smile was tinged with sadness as I gazed upon Tigon’s footprint stamped just below it. Tigon is gone, but he left an indelible mark not only on Tim, who perhaps still grieves for him, but also upon every reader, young and old, who is touched by his story.

[I reviewed Tim Cope’s earlier book here: Review of: On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads, by Tim Cope]

 

 

 

Review of: The Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas De Waal

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Some would argue that the precise moment that marked the beginning of the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union was February 20, 1988, when the regional soviet governing the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast—an autonomous region of mostly ethnic Armenians within the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan—voted to redraw the maps and attach Nagorno-Karabakh to the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Thus began a long, bloody, and yet unresolved conflict in the Caucasus that has ravaged once proud cities and claimed many thousands of lives of combatants and civilians alike.  The U.S.S.R. went out of business on December 25, 1991, about midway through what has been dubbed the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, which ended on May 12, 1994, an Armenian victory that established de facto—if internationally unrecognized—independence for the Republic of Artsakh (also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic), but left much unsettled. Smoldering grievances that remained would come to spark future hostilities.

That day came last fall, when the long uneasy stalemate ended suddenly with an Azerbaijani offensive in the short-lived 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War that had ruinous consequences for the Armenian side. Few Americans have ever heard of Nagorno-Karabakh, but I was far better informed because when the war broke out I happened to be reading The Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas De Waal, a well-written, insightful, and—as it turns out—powerfully relevant book that in its careful analysis of this particular region raises troubling questions about human behavior in similar socio-political environments elsewhere.

What is the Caucasus? A region best described as a corridor between the Black Sea on one side and the Caspian Sea on the other, with boundaries at the south on Turkey and Iran, and at the north by Russia and the Greater Caucasus mountain range that has long been seen as the natural border between Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Above those mountains in southern Russia is what is commonly referred to as the North Caucasus, which includes Dagestan and Chechnya. Beneath them lies Transcaucasia, comprised of the three tiny nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, whose modern history began with the collapse of the Soviet Union and are the focus of De Waal’s fascinating study. The history of the Caucasus is the story of peoples dominated by the great powers beyond their borders, and despite independence this remains true to this day: Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 to support separatist enclaves in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in the first European war of the twenty-first century; Turkey provided military support to Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War.

At this point, some readers of this review will pause, intimidated by exotic place names in an unfamiliar geography. Fortunately, De Waal makes that part easy with a series of outstanding maps that puts the past and the present into appropriate context. At the same time, the author eases our journey through an often-uncertain terrain by applying a talented pen to a dense, but highly readable narrative that assumes no prior knowledge of the Caucasus. At first glance, this work has the look and feel of a textbook of sorts, but because De Waal has such a fine-tuned sense of the lands and the peoples he chronicles, there are times when the reader feels as if a skilled travel writer was escorting them through history and then delivering them to the brink of tomorrow. Throughout, breakout boxes lend a captivating sense of intimacy to places and events that after all host human beings who like their counterparts in other troubled regions live, laugh, and sometimes tragically perish because of their proximity to armed conflict that typically has little to do with them personally.

De Waal proves himself a strong researcher, as well as an excellent observer highly gifted with an analytical acumen that not only carefully scrutinizes the complexity of a region bordered by potentially menacing great powers, and pregnant with territorial disputes, historic enmities, and religious division, but identifies the tolerance and common ground in shared cultures enjoyed by its ordinary inhabitants if left to their own devices. More than once, the author bemoans the division driven by elites on all sides of competing causes that have swept up the common folk who have lived peacefully side-by-side for generations, igniting passions that led to brutality and even massacre. This is a tragic tale we have seen replayed elsewhere, with escalation to genocide among former neighbors in what was once Yugoslavia, for instance, and also in Rwanda. For all the bloodletting, it has not risen to that level in the Caucasus, but unfortunately spots like Nagorno-Karabakh have all the ingredients for some future catastrophe if wiser heads do not prevail.

I picked up this book quite randomly last summer en route from a Vermont Airbnb in my first visit to a brick-and-mortar bookstore since the start of the pandemic. A rare positive from quarantine has been a good deal of time to read and reflect. I am grateful that The Caucasus: An Introduction was in the fat stack of books that I consumed in that period. Place names and details are certain to fade, but I will long remember the greater themes De Waal explored here. If you are curious about the world, I would definitely recommend this book to you.

[Note: Thomas de Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.]

 

 

 

Review of: A History of Crete, by Chris Moorey

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Myth has it that before he became king of Athens, Theseus went to Crete and slew the Minotaur, a creature half-man and half-bull that roamed the labyrinth in Knossos. According to Homer’s Iliad, Idomeneus, King of Crete, was one of the top-ranked generals of the Greek alliance in the Trojan War.  But long before the legends and the literature, Crete hosted Europe’s most advanced early Bronze Age civilization—dubbed the Minoan—which was then overrun and absorbed by the Mycenean Greeks that are later said to have made war at Troy. Minoan Civilization flourished circa 3000 BCE-1450 BCE, when the Myceneans moved in. What remains of the Minoans are magnificent ruins of palace complexes, brilliantly rendered frescoes depicting dolphins, bull-leaping lads, and bare-breasted maidens, and a still yet undeciphered script known as Linear A. The deepest roots of Western Civilization run to the ancient Hellenes, so much so that some historians proclaim the Greeks the grandfathers of the modern West. If that is true, then the Minoans of Crete were the grandfathers of the Greeks.

Unfortunately, if you want to learn more about the Minoans, do not turn to A History of Crete, by former educator Chris Moorey, an ambitious if too often dull work that affords this landmark civilization a mere 22 pages. Of course, the author has every right to emphasize what he deems most relevant, but the reader also has a right to feel misled—especially as the jacket cover sports a bull-leaping scene from a Minoan fresco! And it isn’t only the Minoans that are bypassed; Moorey’s treatment of Crete’s glorious ancient past is at best superficial. After a promising start that touches on recent discoveries of Paleolithic hand-axes, he fast-forwards at a dizzying rate: Minoan Civilization ends on page 39; more than a thousand years of Greek dominance concludes on page 66, and Roman rule is over by page 84. Thus begins the long saga of Crete as a relative backwater, under the sway of distant colonial masters.

I am not certain what the author’s strategy was, but it appears that his goal was to divide Crete’s long history into equal segments, an awkward tactic akin to a biographer of Lincoln lending equal time to his rail-splitting and his presidency. At any rate, much of the story is simply not all that interesting the way Moorey tells it.  In fact, too much of it reads like an expanded Wikipedia entry, while sub-headings too frequently serve as unwelcome interrupts to a narrative that generally tends to be stilted and colorless. The result is a chronological report of facts about people and events, conspicuously absent the analysis and interpretation critical to a historical treatment.  Moreover, the author’s voice lacks enthusiasm and remains maddeningly neutral, whether the topic is tax collection or captive rebels impaled on hooks. As the chronicle plods across the many centuries, there is also a lack of connective tissue, so the reader never really gets a sense of what distinguishes the people of Crete from people anywhere else. What are their salient characteristics? What is the cultural glue that bonds them together? We never really find out.

To be fair, there is a lot of information here. And Moorey is not a bad writer, just an uninspired one. Could this be because the book is directed at a scholarly rather than a popular audience, and academic writing by its nature can often be stultifying? That’s one possibility.  But is it even a scholarly work? The endnotes are slim, and few point to primary sources.

A History of Crete is a broad survey that may serve as a useful reference for those seeking a concise study of the island’s past, but it seems like an opportunity missed.  In the final paragraph, the author concludes: “In spite of all difficulties, it is likely the spirt of Crete will survive.” What is this spirit of Crete he speaks of? Whatever it may be, the reader must look elsewhere to find out.

Review of: The Steppe and the Sea: Pearls in the Mongol Empire, by Thomas T. Allsen

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In the aftermath of a clash in Turkistan in 1221, a woman held captive by Mongol soldiers admitted she had swallowed her pearls to safeguard them. She was immediately executed and eviscerated. When pearls were indeed recovered, Genghis Khan “ordered that they open the bellies of the slain” on the battlefield to look for more. [p23] Such was the consequence of pearls for the Mongol Empire.

As this review goes to press (5-12-21), the value of a single Bitcoin is about $56,000 U.S. dollars—dwarfing the price for an ounce of gold at a mere $1830—an astonishing number for a popular cybercurrency that few even accept for payment. Those ridiculing the rise of Bitcoin dismiss it as imaginary currency. But aren’t all currencies imaginary? The paper a dollar is printed on certainly is not worth much, but it can be exchanged for a buck because that United States government says so, subject to inflation of course. All else rises and falls on a market that declares a value, which varies from day-to-day. Then why, you might ask, in the rational world of the twenty-first century, are functionally worthless shiny objects like gold and diamonds (for non-industrial applications) worth anything at all? It’s a good question, but hardly a new one—long before the days of Jericho and Troy people have attached value to the pretty but otherwise useless. Circa 4200 BCE, spondylus shells were money of a sort in both Old Europe and the faraway Andes. Remarkably, cowries once served as the chief economic mechanism in the African slave trade; for centuries human beings were bought and sold as chattel in exchange for shells that once housed sea snails!

The point is that even the most frivolous item can be deemed of great worth if enough agree that it is valuable. With that in mind, it is hardly shocking to learn that pearls were treasured above all else by the Mongols during their heady days of empire. It may nevertheless seem surprising that this phenomenon would be worthy of a book-length treatment, but acclaimed educator, author and historian Thomas T. Allsen makes a convincing case that it does in his final book prior to his passing in 2019, The Steppe and the Sea: Pearls in the Mongol Empire, which will likely remain the definitive work on this subject for some time to come.

The oversize footprint of the Mongols and their significance to global human history has been vast if too often underemphasized, a casualty of the Eurocentric focus on so-called “Western Civilization.” Originally nomads that roamed the steppe, by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the transcontinental Mongol Empire formed the largest contiguous land empire in history, stretching from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan, encompassing parts or all of China, Southeast Asia, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian subcontinent. Ruthlessly effective warriors, numerous kingdoms tumbled before the fierce onslaughts that marked their famously brutal trails of conquest. Less well-known, as Allsen reveals, was their devotion to plunder, conducted with both a ferocious appetite and perhaps the greatest degree of organization ever seen in the sacking of cities. No spoils were prized more than pearls, acquired from looted state treasuries as well as individuals such as that random unfortunate who was sliced open at Genghis Khan’s command. Pearls were more than simply booty; the Mongols were obsessed with them.

This is a story that turns out to be as fascinating as it is unexpected. The author’s approach is highly original, cogently marrying economics to political culture and state-building without losing sight of his central theme. In a well-written if decidedly academic narrative, Allsen focuses on the Mongol passion for pearls as symbols of wealth and status to explore a variety of related topics. One of the most entertaining examines the Yuan court, where pearls were the central element for wardrobe and fashion, and rank rigidly determined if and how these could be displayed. At the very top tier, naturally, was the emperor and his several wives, who were spectacularly identifiable in their extravagant ornamentation. The emperor’s consorts wore earrings of “matched tear-shaped pearls” said to be the size of hazelnuts, or alternately, pendant earrings with as many as sixty-five matched pearls attached to each pendant! More flamboyant was their elaborate headgear, notably the tall, unwieldy boot-shaped headdress called a boghta that was decorated with plumes and gems and—of course—many more pearls! [p52-53]

Beyond the spotlight on court life, the author widens his lens to explore broader arenas. The Mongols may have been the most fanatical about acquiring pearls, but they certainly were not the first to value them, nor the last; pearls remain among the “shiny objects” with no real function beyond adornment that command high prices to this day. Allsen provides a highly engaging short course for the reader as to where pearls come from and why the calcium carbonate that forms a gemstone in one oyster is—based upon shape, size, luster, and color—prized more than another. This is especially important because of the very paradox the book’s title underscores: it is remarkable that products from the sea became the most prized possession for a people of the steppe! There is also a compelling discussion of the transition from conquering nomad warrior to settled overlord that offers a studied debate on whether the “self-indulgent” habit of coveting consumer goods such as “fine textiles, precious metals, and gems, especially pearls” was the result of being corrupted by the sedentary “civilized” they subjected, or if such cravings were born in a more distant past. [p61]

While I enjoyed The Steppe and the Sea, especially the first half, which concludes with the disintegration of the Mongol Empire, this book is not for everyone. Academic writing imposes a certain stylistic rigidity that suits the scholarly audience it is intended for, but that tends to create barriers for the general reader. In this case accessibility is further diminished by Allsen’s translation of Mongolian proper names into ones likely unfamiliar to those outside of his field: Genghis Khan is accurately rendered as Chinggis Qan, and Kubalai Khan as Qubilai Qan, but this causes confusion that might have been mitigated by a parenthetical reference to the more common name. And the second part of the book, “Comparisons and Influence,” which looks beyond the Mongol realm, is slow going. It seemed like a better tactic might have been to incorporate much of it into the previous narrative, strengthening connections and contrasts while improving readability. On the plus side, sound historical maps are included that proved a critical reference throughout the read.

The Mongol Empire is ancient history, but these days a wild pearl of high quality could still be worth as much as $100,000, although most range in price from $300 to $1500. It seems like civilization is still pretty immature when it comes to shiny objects. On the other hand, this morning, an ounce of palladium—a precious metal valued for its use in catalytic converters and multi-layer ceramic capacitors rather than jewelry—was priced at almost $3000, some 62% more than an ounce of gold! So maybe there is hope for us, after all. I wish Dr. Allsen was still alive so I could reach out via email and find out his thoughts on the subject. Since that is impossible, I can only urge you to read his final book and consider how little human appetites have changed throughout the ages.

PODCAST Review of A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age, by Daniel Schönpflug

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Review of A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age,  by Daniel Schönpflug 

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