Samarkand and Scholarship (October 2021)

As you’ll recall, I’m a sucker for a good renaissance, and so when Mr Grant casually dropped a fleeting reference to the Timurid version into his Year 12 assembly last week I felt I had to follow it up. The Timurids were a central Asian Turco-Mongol empire founded by a warlord called Timur, or Tamerlane. The renaissance was a flowering of artistic and intellectual endeavour sparked at least partly by the Timurid approach to conquest whereby on taking an enemy city they would save the skilled artisans from the resulting slaughter and send them to their capital Samarkand. This means that Samarkand became a centre of education and artistry. Its very name conjurs images of exotic civilisation. It was rebuilt with beautiful monuments, mausoleums, schools and universities. It saw the invention of Tamerlane chess – which is a wonderful variant with additional pieces such as giraffes and elephants; it has promotion to the rank of king and an irregular board that is 10x11 but has two extra squares sticking out on the side. It also saw the work of Jamshid al-Kashi who was a mathematician who discovered the cosine rule (which is, I’m told, known in France as the theorème d’al Kashi – I’ve not confirmed this, though). He also found a formula for cos3x in terms of cosx and invented a numerical method for solving equations that he used to approximate sin1o to a spectacular degree of accuracy.

Samarkand is a location that fascinates me – you might know that I’m amusing myself by conducting a virtual cycle tour: I set off on my static bike from London in May 2020 and have cycled the distance to virtual Paris, on to Geneva, through the Alps to Vienna, down the Danube to the Black Sea, across the Caucasus to Baku and then for the last few months have been cycling through the virtual deserts of Turkmenistan. I reached Merv at the weekend and am now well and truly on the Silk Road – an ancient trade route that passes on through Bokhara, Samarkand and Tashkent as it heads into China. Samarkand itself is one of the oldest cities of central asia, built on the Zeravshan river (which used to be a tributary of the Amu Darya river but now evaporates in the desert. The Amu Darya itself flows into the Aral Sea, which is also evaporating into the desert because the water of the Amu Darya is siphoned off for cotton cultivation in one of the most terrible manmade ecological disasters of the 20th century.)

And here my knowledge peters out, rather like the Zaravshan River – I’m not a scholar of central Asian history or geography (although I am reading a wonderful book called The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan as well as picking up morsels as I virtually cycle past these wonderful places that are completely alien to me). Inspired by Mr Grant, I have learned a little – I’ve added to my hinterland of scholarship, made the list of things I know something about a little more extensive. It is, therefore, unfair to say I’m no scholar in this area – scholarship is not an end goal, it’s a quest to acquire knowledge that is ever more extensive, and I’m on that quest. It’s a virtual cycle through the universe always wanting to learn more, to explore further – it’s the journey that matters, not the hope of putting your feet up in Tashkent.

Scholarship is also being like Jamshid Al-Kashi – it’s a quest to be ever more exact. Just as he sought out the value of sin 1o to a previously unimagined precision, and worked on a value of pi that was accurate to within a hair’s breadth over the size of the largest dome in Samarkand, scholars delight in the detail. Sometimes this is simply for the joy of it as with the train game I play with some of my friends (the rules are that you take the time of your train, turn it into a year using the 24 hour clock and then try to name as many things as possible that happened in that year – it’s surprisingly hard, even in periods that I claim to know fairly well), but sometimes it’s more serious than that – domes will fall down if you get their measurements wrong – Pythagoras’ theorem doesn’t hold if you forget the detail that it has to be a right angled triangle (the correction for non-right angled triangles is, of course the theorème d’Al Kashi).

Scholarship is thinking critically – it’s reading that the French name cosine rule after a Timurid mathematician and wondering if that’s really true – and checking (I’m hoping that one of you with experience of French mathematics will be able to let me know on the way out). It’s looking at a plan to turn a patch of central Asian desert into a cotton plantation and wondering what the environmental impact will be and whether there are any less water-hungry crops that could be grown instead. Critical thinking is hard – it’s something we demand of you and yet I think it’s something that’s really difficult to do well without a framework of knowledge that you are sure about: when someone gives you a new fact and you try to build it into your scholarly architecture you know to challenge the bits that don’t fit, but if you’re building from scratch (or if your knowledge doesn’t fit together into an architecture) then you can’t do it as well. Another benefit of extensive and exact knowledge of course.

And scholars are scrupulous – they admit their limits – they put their hands up and say that they’ve not been to Central Asia, that their reading on this topic is not extensive, that their value of pi is correct to 16 decimal places, but they’re not sure about the 17th. Scholars invite critical thought – they’re excited by someone who challenges their thinking, they enjoy the opportunity to thrash out an idea. They are, in a phrase I saw on Twitter last week, scouts, not soldiers – they are looking for greater knowledge and understanding, to extend their map, rather than trying to defend a strongpoint, protect what they’ve already got. Scholarship is knowledge that is extensive and exact, thinking that is scrupulous and critical and I invite you all onto the never-ending virtual journey of scholarship – it’s a great ride.

I encourage you all to greater scholarship – I rejoice in our oasis of Steel House where we have gathered the greatest artisans and thinkers of our age to inspire and provoke each other – and I invite you to ask me how my explorations of the silk road (by bike and book) are going. Steel House is our Samarkand and Tothill St the Zeravshan river. Let us return there to grow more extensive and exact, more scrupulous and more critical. Thank you.