What was the most intriguing empire?
In a volume with 7 excellent studies from 7 authors about 7 extraordinary empires it is difficult to answer the question adequately– each empire in its own right is intriguing – each had an amazing trajectory across the face of Asia or parts of it. Each was unique with styles of governance and cultures very much their own. Above all each was innovative and creative, each adding to the sum of human knowledge and its store of what was beautiful or remarkable. What is intriguing is how such achievements were transmuted out of the violence and chaos that characterised the beginnings of these empires.
Which image struck you the most in the book?
There are so many extraordinary images it is impossible to select only one. As one looks through the book images merge into spectacular assertions of diverse creative experience. There is for instance the individual and cumulative impact of great Muslim buildings: here mosques, tombs and palaces from Turkey, Iran and India fuse into an overall impression of intricate splendour and singular aesthetic expression. Then there are the extraordinary massive Buddhist structures of the Khmer empire, and the delicate restraints of Ming art. The extended sweep of the Mongol steppes makes as striking an image as do the Japanese prints of western-apparelled warriors caught at their most intense.
What is the most underrated or overlooked empire?
For a long time Khmer sites were overlooked given that their monumental structures were embedded in a spreading jungle controlled in the recent past by the Pol Pot regime. But a sense of their grandeur remained: Angkor seems always to have had surrounding it a mystique all its own. In some ways however the most overlooked of the empires has been the Mongol whose reputation has long been only for their ferocious and lightening quick military conquests. That Mongols ruled most of Asia and a significant portion of Europe is part of their achievement but so too are the arts they and their successors nurtured.
How long did the book take to complete?
Work on the book started in 2007 when I began discussing the concept with Terka Acton at Thames and Hudson. Most of this was done through emails – lots of them. I then approached specialists in specific empires to persuade them to draw their detailed research together into interpretive overviews of the empires they had studied. What makes their chapters special is the enthusiasm and freshness of their approach, and their mastery of detail. Collectively the book breaks new ground in its wide-ranging sweep, in how it provides a perspective into some of the world’s greatest empires – and in doing so illuminates empires unfamiliar to most of us.
What is next for you?
My next project leads me away from the macro view of Asian empires to take an intensive look at some of its fascinating detail. I will be tracing the life story of the late Raj Mata (Queen Mother) of Kutch in western India. In doing so I will be drawing on many sessions with her in India over the years as she told me her stories of her life as the young bride of the Crown Prince and of her later experiences in a changed world after Indian Independence. It too is a fascinating story.
NEW AND TERRIFIC TITLES FROM BRAUN PUBLISHING