Central Asia's Golden Age, in Starr's telling, lasted roughly from 700 to 1150CE. He argues that the region possessed particularities that should be more recognized.
This was not just where merchants traveling between China met traders from more western empires in Persia and even the Mediterranean basin. It is important to Starr to emphasize that the cities of Central Asia possessed their own cultures, religiously and intellectually diverse, within which the rulers of cities often felt an obligation to fund original thinkers -- polymaths who explored mathematics, astronomy, calendars and engineering principles, not to mention writing poetry. These men (Starr notes they are all men though women were sometimes prominent merchants) also rigorously translated whatever books came their way into regional languages. It is through their translations of Hellenic Greek texts that the writings of Aristotle and Plato were preserved until they were passed back to Europe.
Into this land of city-states came Arab warriors whose zeal for conquest arose from the new revelation of Islam.
To outsiders, one of the paradoxes of Islamic intellectual history is that this region of "intellectual effervescence" was also where a rigidity of mind originated that eventually shut down imaginative exploration of the Quran and the Haddiths (stories of the Prophet first collected here). Starr traces this to backlash against Caliph Mamun's "rationalist inquisition" (831-848) which elevated science and reason over belief and spiritual experience. Mamun imprisoned those who would not go along. Two centuries later, the influential Islamic intellectual Abu Ḥamid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazali inveighed against speculative thinking and
Though this can seem a terrible disaster for human flourishing, I really appreciated that Starr repeatedly reminds us that such a conclusion may be more an artifact of our own place and time than a realistic description of Central Asian history. After all, when these battles were playing out, Europe was a backwater. Central Asian civilization thrived for over 400 years. Will the civilization we take for granted last so long? It is symptomatic of our own low ceilings if we neglect to ask.