Tournament of Shadows

The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia


By Karl E. Meyer

By Shareen Blair Brysac

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From the romantic conflicts of the Victorian Great Game to the war-torn history of the region in recent decades, Tournament of Shadows traces the struggle for control of Central Asia and Tibet from the 1830s to the present. The original Great Game, the clandestine struggle between Russia and Britain for mastery of Central Asia, has long been regarded as one of the greatest geopolitical conflicts in history. Many believed that control of the vast Eurasian heartland was the key to world dominion. The original Great Game ended with the Russian Revolution, but the geopolitical struggles in Central Asia continue to the present day. In this updated edition, the authors reflect on Central Asia’s history since the end of the Russo-Afghan war, and particularly in the wake of 9/11.


ASIA Endpapers


The Great Game and the Race
for Empire in Central Asia


To Margaret and Fred Blair and to all the Meyers, past, present and future.

present and future.


ASIA Endpapers





TIBET-CHINA 1903–1950





THERE ARE NINE-AND-SIXTY WAYS OF CONSTRUCTING TRIBAL LAYS, instructs the poet, and every one is right.We have applied the same agnostic principle to the insoluble matter of spelling proper and place names. At sacrifice of consistency, we have adopted the most familiar and accessible usages, save in quotations, where the author’s text is respected.Thus it is Bokhara, not Bocara, Boghar or Bukhara, and we refer to Genghis Khan, not to the scholarly Chingiz, the widely used Jenghiz, or Voltaire’s Gengis or Gibbon’s Zingis, not to mention a dozen other variants. Romanizing Chinese has been especially troublesome. Pinyin is the system officially approved by the People’s Republic of China, and most of us realize that Peking is now Beijing. But how many of us recognize that Chiang Kaishek, as he is rendered in the old Wade-Giles method, has become Jiang Jieshi? So we have mostly stuck to Wade-Giles in the pre-1950 period (Ch’ing Dynasty and not Qing), while preserving Chiang in his longfamiliar form throughout. Place names change for political reasons, too. The careful reader will notice that Chinese Turkestan becomes Sinkiang Province (or Xinjiang in the pinyin system); the sharp-eyed will also note that the endpaper overview of Asia uses current Chinese spellings (Xining, not Sining), and pinpoints elusive ancient sites (Khara Khoto).

Wherever possible we turn to Henry Yule’s indispensable Hobson Jobson, as an authoritative glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases. For a non-British view of things past, we have relied on Parshotam Mehra’s A Dictionary of Indian History, 1707–1947, as well as a large and growing body of Indian and Pakistani scholarship.

Our goal has been to describe familiar events in a fresh way, drawing on recent scholarship and newly opened archives, and to throw a sharp beam on neglected or unknown figures and incidents. Our approach is broadly chronological and thematic, which necessarily requires repetition of information in earlier chapters, in the belief that readers may skip around, or ahead.Thus the ox-bows in our narrative are not the result of carelessness or amnesia, but are intentional.

At every point we have benefited from the help of librarians and archivists in four capitals and at a dozen universities. Scholars, journalists, soldiers, and survivors of every nationality have given generously of their time; their names are listed in the Acknowledgments. We have tried, within the text, to identify sources of important quoted matter, with fuller references in the chapter-by-chapter bibliography, annotated candidly, the better to encourage every reader to excavate further in this rich seam of pertinent history.

Two matters resisted ready resolution, the first atelevision sets or automobiles, the current dollar equivalent is a matter of spirited conjecture. An additional problem regards the use in Russia of the Julian or oldstyle calendar before l918.This has been especially puzzling when drawing on Russian sources for the years 1860–1900, when the Julian dates were twelve days behind the Gregorian calendar in use in Europe, and the years 1900–1918, when they were thirteen days behind. It is not always possible to determine which calendar an author is using, or whether the dates have been corrected, so some inconsistencies are unavoidable.


1812           Napoleon invades Russia

1812           Moorcroft and Hearsey explore western Tibet

1819           Ranjit Singh conquers Kashmir, ending Afghan rule

1819–25    Moorcroft and Trebeck travel to Central Asia

1830           Royal Geographical Society founded

1836           Lord Auckland becomes Governor-General of British India

1837           Burnes’s mission to Kabul

1837           Persia besieges Herat

1837           Queen Victoria ascends throne

1839           Death of Ranjit Singh

1839–42    First Afghan War

1842           Emir of Bokhara imprisons Stoddart and Conolly

1845           Imperial Russian Geographical Society founded

1854–56    Russia loses the Crimean War

1857–58    Indian Mutiny/Sepoy Revolt

1865           Russia takes Tashkent

1865–85   Tibet surveyed by the Indian Pundits

1868           Bokhara becomes Russian protectorate

1870–73   Przhevalsky’s first expedition

1873           Russia captures Khiva, reported by MacGahan

1876           Lord Lytton named Viceroy

1876           MacGahan describes “Bulgarian Horrors”

1876–78    Przhevalsky’s second expedition

1877           Victoria proclaimed Empress at Delhi Durbar

1877–78    Russo-Turkish War; siege of Plevna mars Russian victory

1878           Congress of Berlin trims Russian gains

l878           Theosophists Mme. Blavatsky and Col. Olcott arrive in India

1878–81    Second Afghan War

1879           Russia annexes Khokand

1879–80    Przhevalsky’s third expedition turned back by the Tibetans

1880           Gladstone, campaigning against imperial wars, defeats Disraeli

1880          Trans-Caspian Railroad begun

1881           Russians capture Geok-Tepe

1883–85    Przhevalsky’s fourth expedition

1885           Gladstone’s Liberals at brink of war with Russia over Pandjeh

1887           Duleep Singh seeks Russian support for Sikh revolt

1888           Rockhill explores eastern Tibet

1895           Hedin crosses the Taklamakan Desert

1894           Nicholas II becomes Tsar

1894–95    China humbled in Sino-Japanese war

1895           Settlement of Russo-Afghan frontier

1896           Hedin enters Tibet but is turned back

1898           Curzon appointed Viceroy

1898–1902  Dorzhiev’s missions to St. Petersburg

1899           Kozlov’s first expedition to Mongolia and Tibet

1900–01      Stein’s first expedition to Chinese Turkestan

1900           U.S. proclaims Open Door policy

1900           Boxer Rebellion shakes China

1904           Younghusband enters Lhasa

1904           Thirteenth Dalai Lama flees to Mongolia

1904           Mackinder lecture to RGS on the “Geographical Pivot of History”

1905           Curzon resigns Viceroyalty, Minto succeeds

1905           Defeat in Russo-Japanese War triggers revolt and reforms within Russia

1905          Liberals (and Morley) take office in Britain

1905           Kozlov meets the Dalai Lama in Urga

1906–08    Hedin enters western Tibet via Kashmir

1906–09    Stein on second expedition acquires Dunhuang manuscripts

1907           Anglo-Russian Convention seeks to neutralize Afghanistan and Tibet, trisects Persia into zones of influence

1910           Chinese occupy Lhasa; Dalai Lama flees to India

1911–12    Manchu (Qing) Dynasty falls; Chinese Republic proclaimed; civil war breaks out

1912           Dalai Lama returns to Lhasa and asserts Tibetan independence (1913)

1913–16    Stein explores northern Silk Road

1914           Simla Conference fails to win Chinese agreement on Tibetan borders and status

1914–18    World War I

1915          Gandhi arrives in India

1917           Bolsheviks seize power in Petrograd

1919           Third Anglo-Afghan War sees bombing of Kabul

1920           Bell’s mission to Lhasa; wins backing for reforms

1923           Panchen Lama flees Tibet and begins exile

1923           McGovern, in disguise, is first American to reach Lhasa

1924           Bailey’s mission to Lhasa; British-backed reformers deposed

1925           Roosevelts and Cutting explore Tibetan borderlands

1925–28   Roerich Central Asian expedition

1927           Chiang Kai-shek moves Chinese government to Nanking

1927–33    Hedin leads Sino-Swedish Expedition in Central Asia

1930           India’s Congress Party begins civil disobedience campaign

1930–31    Stein’s fourth and failed (Harvard) expedition

1931–32    First Dolan-Schäfer expedition to eastern Tibet

1931          Japan occupies Manchuria

1932           Franklin Roosevelt elected President

1933           Death of Thirteenth Dalai Lama

1934–35    Roerich leads U.S. Department of Agriculture expedition into Asia

1934–35    Dolan and Schäfer return to eastern Tibet

1935           Cutting is first American invited to Lhasa

1935           Fourteenth Dalai Lama born in Amdo

1937          Ninth Panchen Lama dies at Jyekundo

1937           Japan invades China

1938–39    Schäfer leads SS expedition to Lhasa

1939–45    World War II

1940           Burma road closed

1942–43    Tolstoy-Dolan OSS mission to Lhasa

1943           Harrer and Aufschnaiter enter Tibet

1947           India and Pakistan attain independence

1949           Communists take power in mainland China

1950           People’s Liberation Army invades Tibet

1956          CIA helps Tibetan rebels

1959           Dalai Lama escapes to India

1967           Red Guards destroy Tibetan monasteries and sacred sites during Cultural Revolution

1979           Soviet forces invade Afghanistan

1979           Islamic Revolution in Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini

1985           Mikhail Gorbachev becomes Soviet leader

1989           Soviet forces complete withdrawal from Afghanistan


The Great Game, Redux

When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before. —Rudyard Kipling, Kim (1901)

IT IS AN AGREEABLE PRIVILEGE TO INTRODUCE THIS NEW EDITION OF Tournament, with remaining typos fixed and with the reading list updated. The occasion is also, in a modest way, instructive.When our book initially appeared in 1999, its themes and locations seemed peripheral to American life, so much so that commiserating friends worried that too few would trouble to read about Afghanistan or Central Asia, or about mad emirs and forgotten spies. That concern evaporated after the trauma of 9/11 and its sequel, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Nowadays the entire geography of Afghanistan and Pakistan is the stuff of headlines. Osama Bin Laden has been reputedly hiding in the tribal areas of the North-West Frontier, eluding U.S. Special Forces while Pakistan implausibly claims its military intelligence agency is doing all it can to track him down. Nobody literate in this history can be dumb with surprise that along that frontier dissimulation is an art form. Indeed, long ago the British encountered the secretive Muslim extremists in India, as we are reminded by Charles Allen, author of Plain Tales of the Raj, whose great-grandfather was standing beside the only British Viceroy to be assassinated. In 1871, the popular and outgoing Lord Mayo was visiting the Andaman Islands when he was fatally stabbed by an alleged Wahhabi assassin of Pathan (or Pushtun) origins.

Contrary to common impression,Wahhabism, a fundamentalist creed originating in Saudi Arabia, acquired deep roots in British India in the early nineteenth century. In 1825, Islamic militants, inspired by pilgrims who returned from Arabia as Wahhabis, rose up in a jihad against “accursed Nazarenes and mischievous polytheists.” The Raj’s forces drove them northwards to the Vale of Peshawar near the Khyber Pass, where they settled in what the British called “the Fanatic Camp.” Their descendants, known as Deoband, have multiplied, and their seminaries have flourished. A fundamentalist party now governs the frontier province, and Pakistan’s military ruler, himself twice the target of assassins, acknowledges that Osama is a national hero. These are difficult truths for Americans to grasp, much less live with, and we hope that this book will shed some light on the fierce contentiousness of the tribal peoples inhabiting the Hindu Kush.

Indeed, viewed more widely, the present disorders in Islamic Asia and the Middle East on all sides follow the pattern of the earlier Great Game.The stakes are bigger, the script is writ larger, but the plot is familiar. For rival big powers, one expansionist step seems ineluctably to lead to the next.Thus the British initially feared that a Russian advance through Central Asia would challenge their rule in India (see below, passim). Then, in 1875, in a political coup to protect Britain’s route to India, Prime Minister Disraeli snapped up the insolvent Egyptian khedive’s shares in the Suez Canal Company, making the British equal partners with the French. Disraeli’s coup was assailed by his Liberal opponent, William Ewart Gladstone, who warned that Britain’s first move into Egypt, whether by purchase or larceny, “will be the almost certain egg of a North African empire that will grow and grow until another Victoria and another Albert, titles of the lake-sources of the White Nile, come within our borders, and till we finally join hands across the equator with Natal and Cape-Town, to say nothing of Transvaal and the Orange River in the south, or of Abyssinia or Zanzibar.”

Which is almost exactly what transpired. Within a few decades, the Union Jack was flying over every name on Gladstone’s roster, Abyssinia excepted.This expansion grew by a quantum leap in 1882 when, to protect the Suez Canal and European bondholders, the British intervened in Egypt to crush a nationalist army revolt, the Prime Minister ironically being Gladstone. So began a “temporary” British occupation that persisted until 1956 as place by place in the Islamic East and Africa became a fresh locus for British strategic anxiety.

In this new introduction we have both broadened our horizon and turned our telescope around to examine the present through the prism of the classic Great Game.The moral is that (as the Psalmist cautioned) little is ever new under the imperial sun.The bard of empire, Rudyard Kipling, offers a basic text.

*    *    *

Were he alive today, Kipling would probably shrug.The least politically correct yet the most quotable of major poets was also among the more prophetic. He would not be surprised by superpower America’s foreign frustrations. In the noontime of Pax Britannica, he foresaw (and wrote) that the mightiest of empires could crumble in a lifetime; that expansionary prowess rested on the will and muscle of ordinary people; and that the contest for mastery was a tournament without end.Thus on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, when her realm was the largest known to history comprising a fourth of the world’s population and its habitable real estate, when hosannas of self-congratulation resounded through the British Isles, Kipling did not join in. On July 17, 1897, in a poem titled “Recessional” published in The Times (the journalistic high church of Empire), he looked beyond the day’s boasts to warn of things to come:


On Sale
Mar 17, 2009
Page Count
704 pages
Basic Books

Karl E. Meyer

About the Author

Karl E. Meyer, a Princeton PhD, served on the New York Times editorial board, and previously was a foreign correspondent and editorial writer on the Washington Post. He is author of a dozen books including Dust of Empire, and is emeritus editor of the World Policy Journal.

Shareen Blair Brysac was a prize-winning documentary producer for CBS News and is author of Resisting Hitler: Mildred Fish Harnack and the Red Orchestra. Together they wrote Tournament of Shadows and Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East. The couple live in New York City and Weston, Connecticut.

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