Last time, we found ourselves in the Japan of about 1000AD. This time we are going somewhere far more mysterious; to a dynasty that was old by 500AD and ancient by the time it collapsed, one of the longest-lasting dynasties in the history of the world; one I bet most of you have never heard of. This is the Korea of the Silla Dynasty.
Silla first rose to prominence as one of three kingdoms in ancient Korea. The others were Koguryŏ and Paekche. There is much that could be said about these as well; they existed side-by-side with Silla for a long time and they each had separate, fascinating societies. The reason we are focussing on Silla is that this was the kingdom that eventually succeeded in unifying Korea for the first time in history: it waited for Tang Dynasty China to conquer Koguryŏ and Paekche, then threw the Chinese out and ruled supreme. By the time it collapsed in 935AD after decades of internal strife and turmoil, it had lasted for nearly a thousand years.
Your grade determined everything about how you lived, from what vehicle you could own to how much decoration you could have on your tableware.
Imagine a scene from the year 1000 AD. What comes to mind? Heavily bearded warriors in roughly woven cloaks, charging about hitting each other with swords and battleaxes? Draughty halls with a hole in the roof to let the smoke out, spears leaning against the wall and dogs fighting over the bones on the floor?
Allow me to interrupt you at this point. Let’s take a journey around the world, and touchdown in a place that could not be more different. This is the Japan of the Heian period, a time and place containing a culture completely unique not only compared to the Europe of the time, but to the Japan of either before or since.
What things would you describe as typically Japanese? I bet I can get a lot of them: Kabuki theatre, samisen music, Ukiyo-e prints, geisha, the Bushido (or way of the samurai), tatami mats, communal bathing, sashimi and soy sauce. You would be right; yet absolutely none of these things would be familiar to someone from the Heian period, and they would be as mystified by them as your average Saxon warrior. The Heian period, which lasted roughly from 790-1150 AD, was different.
This time we are going to start with a challenge: think of Tibet. Done that? Good. Now stop thinking about China. I bet that was more difficult. Even though Tibet has only been part of China for sixty years, the invasion and domination by the People’s Republic still dominates discussion about this ancient and fascinating country.
At this point, you are no doubt expecting me to take you into the history of Tibet. I am, in a way. We are actually going to look at an ancient kingdom which had been an independent country with its own language and religion for hundreds of years, which was absorbed into Tibet centuries ago. This kingdom was called Zhangzhung, and its origins are lost. No one knows how long ago it was founded, or who founded it, and it is only in the last 20 years that archaeologists have started to wonder and investigate. It is not even certain when it was conquered by Central Tibet, but one thing is certain: the high Tibetan plateau where the kingdom flourished is now bare, barren and inhabited only by nomads.
“The civilisation that once dominated the area has vanished.”
Everyone knows the Taj Mahal. A beautiful white marble building, encrusted with semi-precious stones in complex patterns, rising from a large garden of sunken flowerbeds, terraces, clear pools and fountains. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal…. so far, so obvious. But what we are interested in this time is not the Mughal dynasty that ruled India for centuries, but the central Asian empire from which they drew their language, religion and way of life, and for which they always yearned as their ancestral homeland. A land of poetry, painting, archery and horsemanship. A land of silken tents in gardens filled with fruit trees and exotic birds. At the centre of this land is the ancient capital of Samarkand.
This is the empire created by Timur the Great. You may have heard of him as Tamerlane, or you may not have heard of him at all. But he is to be thought of in the same way as Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan: he created for himself a vast empire and devoted his life to campaign and conquest. Samarkand, which is nowadays in Uzbekistan, may have been his capital city, but his empire stretched far beyond modern Uzbekistan. At its height, Timur’s empire included Southeastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and parts of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. Over his lifetime, from 1336-1405, he is estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of 17,000,000 people – 5% of the world’s population.
This time we are going to look at an empire that ruled most of South-East Asia for over 600 years, and became one of the most sophisticated societies of the world at the time. The buildings it left behind are among the most famous and instantly recognisable in the entire world – after all, who isn’t familiar with the great temple complex of Angkor Wat? This is only one of the extraordinary relics of the Khmer Empire.