By Arushi Chhibber
In his book Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World, Anthony Sattin takes us through an odyssey of the unsung, focusing on the wanderers, the nomads. Often considered as outliers, people who do not belong, nomads elicit sympathy. Sattin turns this perception around when he lyrically writes about those on the move, pointing out how these communities have been responsible for several of humanity’s achievements.
“Change is needed. We need to tread with a lighter footprint, and those of us who live in cities need to find a better way of relating to the world beyond the city limits. But before we can understand who we are and what we might become, we need to know who we have been,” Sattin writes.
The story begins with Sattin’s days with the Bakhtiari tribe in the Zagros Mountains of Iran. Anthony Sattin talks about the concept of highway history, the westernised history, which chooses to favour the people who built and left records whereas nomads are portrayed as barbaric and their significance is often ignored.
In the conquest of finding out who we are, Sattin draws on the recent discovery of the Gobekli Tepe, the oldest manmade structure, that has revolutionised the way nomads’ contribution is perceived and discusses the nomadic gene present in more than 300 million of us.
The writer explores the conflict between the tiller and the herdsmen, a tale as old as time. The similarities between the story of Abel and Cain, Gilgamesh and Enkidu and later Achilles and Agamemnon further prove the influence of nomads throughout history. The invention of the chariot and the domestication of horses can all be credited to the tribes that roamed the Eurasian steppe.
As Emmanuel Kant had said, “Geography lies at the basis of history”, Sattin evinces this idea as he takes the readers on a journey across Eurasia with the Scythians, Xiongnu, and Huns, exploring their role in the formation of the Silk Route. He explores the civilisations of Mesopotamia, Indus, Egypt, Persia, China, Greece and Rome and focuses on the various trade and cultural relations between the settled and the wanderers.
The author refers to Ibn Khaldun’s writings that present the role of nomads in forming civilisations and becoming great emperors. He examines the clan of Cyrus, the Abbasids and draws special attention to the nomad empire of the Mongols for their openness in terms of religion, culture and economy, which inspired Europeans to broaden their horizons, to look east towards India and across the Atlantic.
The book then goes on to Francis Bacon’s belief in ‘dominion over nature’, Benajmin Franklin’s confusion with society and artificial wants and the genocide of the native Americans and Aborigines with the idea of manifest destiny. Sattin touches upon the works of Henry David Thoreau and Jean Jacques Rousseau, which provide a slight contrast to the situation.
Towards the end, Sattin deliberates on the implications of industrialisation and urbanisation with humans trapped in cities and consumerism, longing for nature and freedom. Maybe longing to become nomads.
This book is a roller-coaster, citing changes in the world order, changing empires, and a circle of prosperity and ruin that mirrors our turbulent future. Sattin uses imagery throughout the book, coaxing readers to keep turning the pages to discover yet another fascinating, unfamiliar instance of history.
Arushi Chhibber is a freelancer
NOMADS: THE WANDERERS WHO SHAPED OUR WORLD
Pp 368, Rs 799