“Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River” by Alice Albinia


This first book by a young author made me feel thoroughly ashamed of my ignorance of history. A splendid piece of meticulous research, it ought to be read by every Indian and Pakistani, not to mentions Afghans, Tibetans, and others. The author traces the path and history of the mighty Indus River in an altogether novel narrative, and portrays the lives and aspirations of the peoples who inhabited the lands surrounding it. The book is at once a delightful travelogue, and a superb historical narrative spanning thousands of years. It is serious, yet entertaining, cerebral but not incomprehensible.

Consider these snippets of information:

  1. Islam had a complex relationship with slavery. As in the Bible, slaves were an important part of the Quran’s social system. Mohammed himself sold the Jewish women of Medina into slavery – and the Quran, which has a rule for everything, scripted a strict code regarding their treatment. Slaves were not objects but human beings and they were to be considered a part of the family.
  2. The 10th century Baghdad Caliph had 7000 black eunuchs (and 4000 white ones).
  3. As Islam’s reach into Africa deepened, and the number of black slaves being exported to Arabia increased, so did Arab racism about Africans. Some historians trace this to the revolt by black slaves working in the mines and plantations of Mesopotamia in 883CE.
  4. Arabs imported/exported 2 million sub-Saharan slaves between 900 and 1100.
  5. When the first Muslim-Arab army arrived on the shores of Sind in 711CE, it arrived with plenty of African slaves.
  6. In 1240 Razia Sultan was deposed for having an affair with her Abyssinian (Ethiopian) slave minister Jamaluddin Yaqut, though Razia herself belonged to the ‘Slave Dynasty’ which was of Turkish origin.

All this has to do with slavery but that’s not what the book is about. There’s lots of information about many things, people and events. There are profound sentiments and an overall sense of pathos. The unstated is as powerful as the stated. Babur hunted rhinoceros in the jungles of northern Punjab. (Now the region has no more rhinos.) Ashoka’s edict at Kandahar was scripted in Aramaic and Greek. The land where the Golden Temple of Amritsar stands was donated by Emperor Akbar to the fourth Sikh Guru. (This is fiercely contested.)

Overall Assessment: If you have any intellectual pretensions, do read the book. If you have an interest in history, sociology and the environment, it’s a must-read. Flippant readers, keep away – this book is not for you!

Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River
Author: Alice Albinia
Publisher: John Murray (An Hatchette UK Company)
Date of Publication: 2008

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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