Afghan irregulars, participants in the nineteenth century's Great Game, a struggle for control of central Asia that still affects modern-day Tibet.
Afghan irregulars, participants in the nineteenth century’s Great Game, a struggle for control of central Asia that still affects modern-day Tibet.

Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and Race for Empire in Central Asia
Karl E. Meyer & Shareen Blair Brysac
Counterpoint, 1999
646 pp., $35 (cloth)

The Tournament of Shadows was the Russian name for the contest the British called the Great Game: the clandestine struggle among colonial empires for control of the central Asian heartland. It was played on a field that stretched from the Indian Himalayas to the trackless wastes of the Takla Makhan Desert and from the marches of Tibet to the shores of the Caspian Sea. Commencing in the early nineteenth century, its effects are still apparent today, in war-torn Afghanistan, in the newly independent Muslim states of central Asia, and in Chinese-occupied Tibet.

What is remembered as a romantic duel among larger-than-life frontiers-men was essentially a battle among rival imperialists, engaged in an often cynical struggle for power over central Asia. Yet the players acknowledged each other’s right to imperial expansion, and they shared a sense of adventure and of being pan of a Christian “civilizing mission.” They were mostly frontier officers, whose bold actions could bring vast swaths of Asia under their nation’s flag (and win fame and glory for themselves). Men of action, they were the very opposite of the gray-suited bureaucrats who ruled, then and now, in the capitals of empire. Much of their continuing appeal surely lies in that contrast.

Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac are not the first to have chronicled this colorful saga or to have described the exploits of its heroes. But their account is surely the most readable, and they have succeeded admirably in their aim of producing a work that will inform and entertain the general reader while bringing new sources and insights to the specialist.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.