Rating: 4 out of 5.

Warning: this post may contain spoilers for Emperor Babur’s Memoirs, as translated into English by Annette Susannah Beveridge

Well, I did it again1. When I consulted my reading list to pick a new book to read after finishing Meditations With Cows, instead of picking a new or well-known or at least commonly approachable book2 that people actually would search for3 and by extension perhaps find my site4, I picked another ancient text5 that only a few people have heard of and fewer decide to read. Let it never be said that I am a slave to the search engine algorithms6. That being said, it does continue my tour of historic pieces of world literature (we recently reviewed The Bhagavad Gita, and The Story of Burnt Njal, checking off (roughly) India and Iceland, plus the Middle East7 with the Babur-Nama), and I have legitimately been interested in reading this for awhile, it being one of the few historical autobiographies from that region of the world. In truth, doing a sort of world-tour of ancient literature is proving a very fascinating exercise, and one that I would wholly recommend (as long as you have some patience8).

The Babur-Nama is part memoir and part diary9 of Babur, who came from the region modernly known as the Middle East around the year 1500 CE10. It chronicles much of his life, and as such is a fascinating insight into the mindset of a ruler of that time and region11, as well as the peoples and cultures that populate the pages. If you have some knowledge of the modern Middle East, this text will give you a lot of insight into how some of those situations came to be, and from whom the modern peoples are descended from and what those ancestors were like. Some knowledge of the modern Middle East will also help you keep track of and contextualize the place names, many of which have lasted into the present in some form or another.

Although geographically much of the story’s action centers around Kabul, the focus is mostly on Hindustan (which is a region that seems to compose most of the northwestern parts of modern Pakistan and India). Five times Babur made expeditions into Hindustan before finally conquering it12. He also has to take and retake Kabul several times, takes and loses Samarkand on various occasions, fights repeatedly over modern Kandahar province, defends a region called Farghana13, and wages various campaigns with and against a multitude of Afghan tribes. Yet for all that fighting, some of it detailed quite thoroughly (like in The Story of Burnt Njal, there are some very oddly minute moments, like once when someone’s index finger is smote off), what keeps this book interesting (and it really was interesting, at least to me) is just how unique and different14 the view that is presented is from most anything with which I was previously familiar. I hate to call it world-building, or compare it to invented cultures in alternative world fantasy, because that seems rather derogatory towards these real-life cultures, but truly this real-world tale felt at times far more unique and alien than a science fiction novel with a non-human viewpoint, and in the most fascinating ways (it also had far, far less pronounceable names).

It is a masterclass in immersive15 “world-building,” because to Babur there was nothing alien or out of the ordinary about chopping someone to pieces16 if they did something wrong, mustering an army to go conquer some new lands, having multiple wives, or being completely assured of your divine right to suzerainty, and so he simply reports these things as matter-of-factually as he reports when he happens to “eat a confection17.” Actually, he probably makes a bigger deal about deciding to eat a confection than he does about deciding to chop off someone’s head. I think this is what really makes it so fascinating. Since part of it is written as a memoir (this part can be quite slow at times, but is still interesting), and part as a diary, we sometimes get detailed, day-by-day insight into Babur’s thoughts and actions as he goes about his daily life. Like anyone today who keeps a diary, some days are shorter than others – there is one entry on which he simply says he dismounted in such and such a place and “had a violent discharge18.” Before you judge a man for what he wrote five hundred years ago, think how you may be judged five hundred years from now for what you posted on social media19. The internet is forever…

For as fascinating as I did find it, it was not an easy piece to read. First of all, it has a lot of footnotes20. Almost three thousand of them, in fact. Some of the footnotes were referencing other notes, or the appendices (of which there are also many21), or completely different books. Some of the footnotes were in different languages, with no English translation. Even some of the footnotes had footnotes. I found that I was spending so much time flipping back and forth that I wasn’t gleaning anything from the text – my progress got much smoother and more engaging when I started reading blocks of twenty footnotes at a time22, switching back to the text until I’d read through those twenty footnotes, and then reading the next twenty footnotes, going back to the text, and so on. However, I would not recommend skipping the footnotes, as a fair number of them offer useful information23 or insights into the context of the diary, or the choices of the translator. By the way, as usual, my standard translation disclaimer applies here: I did no special research into what translations of the Babur-Nama are best, but I did learn a great deal about the translation process and the differences that can arise between translations from…the footnotes24. There is in fact more supplemental material than there is actual text, by a ratio of almost 2:1.

The second challenge to reading this book is how disjointed it can be, because there is often little context for a modern reader25. Plus, there are apparently large gaps where text has been lost, destroyed, or was never written (Babur apparently died before he could finish the memoir, and did not always keep his diary26). Had the translator not provided bridges for these gaps, explaining what historians think may have been happening during those times and helping set up the next batch of translated text, I would have become completely lost. As it was, it could still be jarring, because in some cases historians simply don’t know what Babur was doing for extended periods of time.

Keeping track of all of the names and places and relationships27 and cultural norms and historical contexts could also get confusing at times, but I read The Wheel of Time, which has over two thousand named characters, so I think I was well-prepared to handle that part. Aside from insight into history and culture, this also gave insight into the Muslim religion and its various denominations28, which to me has always seemed the most distinct of the Abrahamic faiths. Particularly notable are the ways in which Babur’s faith influences his interactions with those not of the same faith, and the varying degrees and ways in which people who do share the faith follow its precepts and Laws29.

I took awhile to get through this book30, which is okay because I’m still well ahead in my book reviews31, but I genuinely am glad that I took the time to read it, because I really do think I learned a great deal and gained many new insights from making my way through it. So yes, while this is a difficult read, I do recommend that you consider reading the Babur-Nama soon32.

[1] This is a sample of a footnote. You will find them throughout this post, just like the nearly three thousand of them that populate the pages of the Babur Nama

[2] Like, for instance, Rhythm of War, although I suppose there’s an argument to be made that a 1400 page epic fantasy that is the fourth book in a series is not entirely “approachable”

[3] By search, I here refer to the ability of people in the early 21st century to input text into a tool called a search engine and be then provided with results

[4] IGCPublishing.com

[5] Whether the Babur Nama counts as ancient could also be a matter of debate, since it’s only about five hundred years old

[6] This is, of course, a literary device to express a tendency to make choices based on what will be most likely to boost a site’s ranking in the mysterious search engine results (see [3])

[7] I say the Middle East, but a significant amount of the book also takes place in India

[8] Like the patience to read nearly three thousand footnotes

[9] The earliest parts are what Babur completed as an intentional memoir before he died, while the parts describing the rest of his life are diary entries that it is supposed he intended to eventually convert into memoir form. The diary entries are actually much more interesting and less ponderous than the memoir portions

[10] The book gives dates in AD, which have in turn been translated from a system called AH, in which Babur originally wrote

[11] For instance, the idea, very foreign to a modern American audience, that some people are born with the right to rule, and others are not

[12] Well, sort of. He hadn’t entirely brought it under control by the time he died, and his son apparently lost it, and so it had to be retaken later on by Emperor Akbar (no relation to the Admiral), who also has a memoir. I’m not sure I’ll bother to read that one, too

[13] It is worth noting that all of the spellings I’ve included here are approximate, because I don’t know how to include the variety of accent and modifying marks that the text itself uses through my site editor

[14] Phrases like “for the sake of this five-days fleeting world,” and references to the “seven climes” are fantastic examples

[15] By this I mean the idea of not intentionally explaining the “alien” components of a world to the reader, but rather simply using the terms and ideas as if they were normal and letting the reader pick up on them by context

[16] Or flayed alive, or any number of other lovely punishments. It was not what you might call a rigorous criminal justice system. They also had a tendency to have approximately zero respect for the concept of private property

[17] Granted, there is some basis to suggest that these confections were laden with opium

[18] That’s an actual diary entry in the book

[19] Posting every single day about what you had for dinner for all the world to see is probably even more egotistical than writing in your diary that you ate a confection. Just saying

[20] Kind of like this post

[21] A through V, I believe

[22] Sometimes more, depending on how densely packed they were

[23] Unlike this one

[24] Are you enjoying all of these footnotes yet?

[25] You know, I wonder about using the term “modern.” If this is the modern age, when will we know we are in the age that comes next, and what will it be? It’s like the question of what comes after the “Common Era.” The Uncommon Era?

[26] Still, he kept it much more consistently than the handful of times that I’ve tried to start a diary, which has typically lasted for now more than four days

[27] In the memoir portions, Babur subjects his readers to extensive (and very judgmental) biographies of almost everyone who is ever mentioned. With how similar all of the names are, this can be very intimidating, but I found that, like in most books, if you just read along and remember the names that are repeated often you’ll be able to follow the action well enough

[28] This book comes significantly after the major splits in the Islamic faith occurred, so does not go into those origins, but it does provide some insight into how those groups interacted, and continue to interact to this day – a grasp of these denomination differences is a key component of understanding the peoples, cultures, and situation of the modern Middle East

[29] For instance, it is against the Law to imbibe intoxicating beverages. Babur follows this law until he’s almost thirty, then spends a decade going to wine parties and getting drunk seemingly every day (he mentions it often in his diary, alongside eating possibly opium-laden confections), and then has this big moment where he renounces alcohol and orders all of his wine glasses destroyed and the pieces given away

[30] About two and a half weeks

[31] I’m writing this one in early March, despite that it won’t be posted until May

[32] Well, that’s the last of the footnotes, and the end of the post. You may just find it confusing or annoying now, but once you have experienced the footnote extravaganza that is the Babur Nama, I think you will understand why including all of these footnotes in the review is amusing

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