This is an absolutely marvelous book – five-stars without any hesitation – and maybe even six… (my usual grade-inflation fully in play here, I guess… ;-)). In other words, I loved it…!
In reading Robert Kaplan’s wonderful Monsoon last month, I came to realize that there was one *really* giant hole in my understanding of world history – that while I knew something about the Mediterranean and Asia…, and now, about the Indian Ocean littoral -- the land bridge between was a veritable blank. And yet, until the opening up of the littoral trade routes in the 16th cen, it was precisely this overland route that linked Europe to the broader world. In other worlds, what I didn’t understand (even remotely) was the Mughal Empire.
The Mughals were descended from the Mongol-Turks – Bambur and his sons were, in fact, direct descendants of Ghengis Kahn and Tamerlaine. That sat astride the caravan routes from China through the Uzbek Samarkand and into Europe – and brought India into the early modern world, blending Islam and Hindu into a brilliant original synthesis that – until it fell apart under the austere Cromwellian, Aurangzeb… which is what laid the groundwork for the partition of the Subcontinent in the 1940’s (anacoluthon intended…)
This book presents a history of the Mughals – both a narrative history of the Emperors, their personalities and grand vicissitudes, and also a quite detailed cultural history of this most brilliant of dynasties. The personalities revealed are as great as any known from Rome or from the 19th century – Babur, Akbar, Jahangir…, Shah Jahan… even the doomed and severe Aurangzeb… what a cast of characters…! and Gascoigne draws their portraits with sympathy, insight, brilliance, and pathos.
Gascoigne is not an academic historian – and writes with energy and imagination – and I dare say that this is one of those books where the amateur comes off better than the professional. Indeed, this book will not only interest history buffs, but arts buffs – it’s well illustrated (in large format), and Gascoigne has some wonderful pages on Mughal art and architecture – but even more, anyone interested in the pathos of the human drama – as the destiny of these several Mughals presents a story of sad grandeur that Gascoigne knows how to milk.
I think the reason so little is known about the Mughals is that they were an inland empire – and of course it is also because Europe essentially did an end run around them to open up Asia. But as Kaplan shows, if the 21st century is going to reopen, once again, the Indian littoral – and have any hopes of moving, as Kaplan believes is possible, towards the development of a modern, enlightened, cosmopolitan, non-Arabic ISLAMIC Indian littoral, then the Mughals offer one of the most remarkable and models for them to follow. And even if it fails, the Mughals will still be the backstory of this important region of the future, even as the fairs and towns of medieval Europe (to summon the memory of Pirenne or Fernand Braudel) were the backstories for the great ages of the West (1500-2000).. now approaching, alas, their end…