Episode 18: The Anarchy of History

Sharaf ad-Din Ali Yazdi was the Persian biographer of Timur, the great conqueror of Central Asia and first emperor of the Timurid Dynasty. Yazdi’s work, known as the Zafarnama (meaning “Book of Victories) , was completed in 1425. In death, Timur, here depicted as the commanding figure planning military campaigns, became the template for royal legitimacy in the dynasties that followed, including the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires. Our guest this week, Dr. Ali Anooshahr of UC Davis, has written a book on the subject – Turkestan and the Rise of Eurasian Empires: A Study of Politics and Invented Traditions – that explores how sovereign rulers throughout Central Asia commissioned historical genealogies, the intent of which was to show their common lineage with the fancied “Turco-Mongol” tradition of Timur. We are reminded of the length to which political power will go to protect its imagined sovereign prerogatives.


Sovereignty makes its own claims, enforces its own reality, and as we learn in this week’s episode, writes its own history. Our special guest, Professor Ali Anooshahr of UC Davis joins us to discuss his research on the history claims made by the great sovereign empires of Eurasia. He explains how Persian, Indian, and Turkish chroniclers invented genealogies for the ruling dynasties they served, to cloak them in the mythic glory of an invented Turco-Mongol past, and thereby provide them with suitable claims of legitimate authority. To avoid being trapped by such invented claims, Dr. Anooshahr suggests we must think broadly about the past, beyond the bordered histories of states and their sovereign claims, to gain valuable insights and perspective, especially on the more local subjects we study.  Josh and Chris consider how such perspective benefits our understanding of the history outside our windows, as it unfolds in real time. Taken from this week’s headlines, we ask how the passing of Civil Rights warrior John Lewis offers perspective on the claims of sovereignty, the most racist of which he fearlessly confronted. John Lewis’s story of confrontation and civil disobedience reminds us of what Michel Foucault termed the “mechanisms of security” that sovereign states impose on those who protest oppressive laws, whether the steel helmeted police and high pressure firehoses of Lewis’s day, or the current arsenal of military shock weapons seen in Federal deployment of stormtroopers this week in Portland, Oregon. To keep a clear focus on the telling of these stories, the saucy boys argue we must ditch the shibboleth of ‘objectivity’ and exchange the narrative of history-as-sovereignty for an anarchy of history that serves no master.

Dr. Ali Anooshahr

If you would like to hear Episode 18 The Anarchy of History, click on the link below:


Sources Referenced and Other Items of Interest

Ali Anooshahr, Turkestan and the Rise of Eurasian Empires: A Study of Politics and Invented Traditions (2018).


“The present constantly changes, and because of that, the past constantly changes. We need to rethink the past based on where we are now.”

Ali Anooshahr

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