Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Nomads, then and now

Today's New York Times has a piece by Ilan Greenberg (accessible without registration via the IHT) on how the ancient social order of nomadic societies in central Asia weighs upon their present political realities:
Scientists are discovering that nomadic cultures are flexible, switching between transient and more sedentary ways of life, and assimilating and inventing new ideas and technologies. Nomads created durable political cultures that still influence the way those countries interact with outsiders or negotiate internal power struggles.
While reading this, I was reminded of Mark Whittow's observations about the Eurasian steppe peoples in his 1996 book, The Making of Byzantium. While noting that "the potential of steppe nomad states was enormous," Whittow writes that social underpinnings based on small tribes and familial connections didn't do much for the stability of those states:
The closer to its roots a nomadic society was, the more likely it was to be politically unstable. A major setback or crisis and the nomad empire could dissolve into its fragmentary, stateless past. If the states of the settled world could surmount the initial crisis of a nomad attack, their institutions were much more likely to endure in the long term. On the other hand, if a nomad state developed away from this structure, and became closer in form to a sedentary state, it might well become more stable but only at the price of losing the characteristics that made it militarily formidable in the first place.
I think it's reasonable to say that many parts of central Asia have had their share of "major setbacks" and "crises" over the last few decades, with fragmentation and statelessness the result in, say, Afghanistan. I leave it to others to speculate on whether the "flexibility" described by Greenberg is better at creating "durable political cultures" than the more permanent-sounding transformation described by Whittow. Greenburg's article implies that it may not be possible for a nomadic culture to fully transform into what we think of as a "state":
Countries like Iraq and Afghanistan may take on the trappings of modern, Western nation-states, with parliaments, justice departments and other governmental agencies, researchers say. But politics are still driven by the customs and institutions of nomadism, in which political disputes were settled at the level of family, clan and tribe.
Aha! So that's why Pope Leo simply asked Attila to go away. He knew nation-building would have been a tall order.

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