John Man - Atlas of the Year 1000

When I received this book, I figured it may be another one of those mediocre products trying to capitalize on the Y2K hype. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the contents for the most part. The concept is rather unique even for its simplicity. Atlas of the Year 1000 merely takes a peek at what was happening in all populated regions of the world a thousand years ago.

Before discussing some of the highlights I will initially turn to the problems. The first is not really the fault of the author. The American portion (as well as that for some areas in latter parts of the book) in the first fourth of the book isn't nearly as interesting as the rest of the geographical areas due in large part to the lack of written records. The next two blemishes may be blamed on the publisher I suppose. In an otherwise beautifully packaged work, there are some typos. This wouldn't be so troublesome if one wasn't a whooper. Page 43 ends mid-sentence and doesn't continue onto the next page which begins with a brand new region! Finally, the text and countless color pictures are crammed into less than 150 pages. Much value would have been added had the book been expanded to over 200 pages by increasing the font size by at least 15% and some of the pictures by a factor of 3 to 4. Some of the most wondrous photos and scenes are reduced to the size of a postage stamp.

Those criticisms aside, history buffs, travelers, and those with a general interest in exploration will find much to appreciate in Atlas of the Year 1000. Some of the "stories" and histories that I was only vaguely familiar with previously were riveting. Certainly they can be found elsewhere in more detail and depth, but having them all here in a world tour format provides a nice contrast for a snapshot view of the world at a particular date. The differences in civilizations and cultural influences were striking a thousand years ago. That's not to say that they have completely disappeared today, but the diversity has certainly diminished. From Erik the Red to al-Hakim, interesting characters were not hard to come by in 1000. On al-Hakim he writes

He could punish a man by cutting off his hands, then load him with gold... Once, out walking with his entourage, he seized a butcher's axe and felled a courtier with one blow, then ignored the bloody corpse and walked on unconcerned, with his entourage following in stricken silence. (p. 74)
How did reasonable people deal with such lunacy? The famous physicist Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham "feigned madness in order to avoid al-Hakim's own madness, recovering his wits on al-Hakim's death."

If you are planning to travel and have an interest in historical sites (if you don't have such an interest this book may provide the spark for such) an appendix is included. The title for it is "A Millennial Gazetteer: A selection of sites that recall a century: 950-1050." Included are numerous existing places, buildings, statues, etc. that will transport you, the tourist, (or at least your mind) back to a time probably better observed from a distance than lived in (likely as a slave, peasant, surf, parasitic disease ridden victim, or other similarly distressing existence).

The final place covered is Easter Island. If the story of people finding places like Easter Island and New Zealand over a thousand years ago isn't remarkable enough, the subsequent history will be sure to amaze. Hopefully it isn't a foreshadowing of the history of our future Earth as a whole. What was originally a forested island became a land of desolation in less than 500 years thanks to an ever increasing population and a penchant for belief in superstition.

"But without knowing it, the Easter Islanders had made for themselves a social vortex from which there was no escape. A high population put pressure on the land and intensified forest destruction. The coming crisis provoked by the competition for resources might with different leadership have inspired new thinking... Instead, the society turned in upon itself, developing a mania for statues and platforms... People took to living in caves, reed huts and stone shelters. Soil erosion increased, crops declined. Chickens became treasures, guarded in dry-stone safes as solid as little Fort Knoxes. There was no spare labour now for making statues. Flaked obsidian spearheads suddenly appear in the archaeological record. Clan attacked clan, toppled their enemies' statues, and ripped up ahus [statue platforms] to fortify their outposts. Easter Islanders forgot their own past... one of the most ingenious, complex and sophisticated of Pacific societies was reduced to barbarism, surrounded by memorials to former grandeur--the end result of a test-tube experiment with population growth, misdirected effort and finite resources."
from the publisher:
This dazzling book takes us on a voyage of discovery around the world at the turn of the last millennium, when for the first time the world was in essence a unity. Islam bridged Eurasia, western Europe, and North Africa. Vikings, with links to Scandinavia and Russia, had just arrived in North America. These and other peoples reached out to create links and put isolated cultures unwittingly in touch. John Man vividly captures these epochal events, and depicts the colorful peoples that defined the world's mix of stability and change, of isolation and contact. In an immensely learned portrayal, he traces enduring cultural strands that became part of the world as we know it today.

In text, maps, and pictures, most in color, and drawing on the expertise of two dozen consultants, John Man has created a concise compendium of all the major cultures of the lost millennial world of 1000. In some cultures--Europe, Islam, China, and Japan--written records contain a vast range of materials, often revealing sharply focused details of life and personality. Here lie startling contrasts with today's world, and even foreshadowing of the future that are equally astonishing in their familiarity. For nonliterate cultures--in the United States, Southeast Asia, Polynesia, Africa--this book draws on a wealth of archeological research, some of it made available to nonspecialists for the first time.

John Man, formerly the European editor for Time-Life Books, is a historian and travel writer. He is the author of Gobi: Tracking the Desert and The Traveler's Atlas : A Global Guide to the Places You Must See in a Lifetime. He also writes for television and radio.