Hugh Thomson

The wonder of the wandering life

Nomads have had a bad press in history, but it’s the settled life that has enslaved us to long hours and monotony, says Anthony Sattin

The wonder of the wandering life
A Bedouin nomad in the Wadi Rum, Jordan. Credit: Alamy
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Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World

Anthony Sattin

John Murray, pp. 368, £25

Anthony Sattin begins with a quotation from Bruce Chatwin, who famously tried all his life to produce a book about nomads but never quite succeeded (the nearest he got was Songlines). Hoping to persuade Tom Maschler at Cape of the virtues of the project, Chatwin described nomads as ‘a subject that appeals to irrational instincts’ – perhaps not the best way to sell something to publishers, who tend to pride themselves on their rational ones. But Chatwin’s thesis – that we were all originally nomads and need to recover some of that instinct – is now triumphantly brought to its conclusion in Sattin’s fascinating journey through 12,000 years, from the nomadic ways of prehistoric man to the Bedouin and Maasai of today.

Who self-identifies as a nomad? Michael Palin has a charming story about being in a remote part of the Sahara when some Tuareg ride up on camels. Their leader hands him a business card saying Abdullah Ibrahim (or whatever), ‘Nomad’.

This is a recovered history, of those who have, by definition, been too itinerant to leave any account of themselves behind. History has mainly been written by monks, academics and those who had a desk and access to a library. Not surprisingly, they have favoured their own institutions of settled civilisation and portrayed nomads like the Huns and Mongols as barbarians who did nothing but bring occasional chaos. As a result, the story of nomads has been as elusive as the almond tree blossom that blows across the Berber mountains in spring. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze observed that ‘nomads have no history; they only have a geography’.

This book is an attempt to retrieve their considerable contribution to our past and, sometimes, present, even though their numbers are much reduced (the author describes his recent travels with pastoralists in Iran). It does not claim to be comprehensive, and is all the better for it; instead, Sattin weaves a deft path through only those elements that interest him.

He has written extensively about Egypt – A Winter on the Nile, about Florence Nightingale travelling on the same boat as Gustave Flaubert, being a highlight – so it is natural that he should cast his eye on what happened there. With a nice revisionist twist, he retells the story of the arrival of the nomadic Hyksos who broke up the kingdom c. 1600 BC and caused huge disruption. This is usually portrayed as a disaster – the Egyptian chroniclers certainly saw it that way – but Sattin suggests it might have been a creative stimulus. The stability of the previous millennium since the building of the pyramids had brought ‘complacency, conservatism and cultural exclusion’. The redoubtable Queen Hatshepsut was able to rebuild from ground zero after the Hyksos’ departure; and meanwhile they had introduced their unwilling hosts to the chariot and the composite bow, both of which enabled imperial expansion later.

They also seem to have been tolerant of religious practices and let the Egyptians continue with their own, just as the equally nomadic Persians did with their tribute nations. Nomads travel light with their religion, and are often happy to pick and mix from those they come across. ‘Bring your own beliefs,’ as they now say on pilgrimage routes. Sattin has a well-judged aside about how the worship of Seth, the god of wanderers and wasteland, understandably soared in Egypt while the Hyksos were ruling.

It’s perhaps pushing it to suggest there’s nothing like being invaded to revive a country (try telling that to the Anglo-Saxons when the Vikings came, or those related to the skulls piled high by Tamburlaine outside Damascus and Baghdad), but it does bear out Sattin’s thesis that nomads often get the short end of the stick. No one previously has ever had a good word to say for the Hyksos; indeed you could be forgiven for never having heard of them.

Much of this story is naturally centred on the most striking corridor for nomads – the steppes that extend from Hungary to China across 6,000 miles of grassland, just made for riding. Saddle up on the Hungarian plain as the first meadow saffron arrives, and you could be in Mongolia by summer. When the Roman and Han empires were priding themselves on their extent, a far greater and less chronicled empire of nomads stretched between them.

Sattin joins recent books such as Sapiens in floating the idea that the worst thing humanity ever did was to stop hunter gathering (when we were ‘the first affluent society’, according to some anthropologists), and settle down, which only gained us long hours and a monotonous routine of agricultural labour, equivalent to white-collar work today. We could still be spending time in a hammock, or roving the grasslands on our horses looking for a mammoth or bison burger.

The dominant narrative is that of the conflict played out so many times in history between Cain and Abel, the settled farmer and the wandering shepherd: the Native Americans roaming the plains and those who want to contain them in reservations. In a milder way that was also the case in Britain. A friend had a notice from the 19th century outside her Derbyshire house proclaiming ‘no vagabonds can loiter here’. Our more recent treatment of travellers has been shameful – not just bollards on the Ridgeway and old traditional stopping points but a deeply ingrained bureaucratic resistance to the idea that people should be able to live on the move.

Sattin triumphantly tells the story of another way of living – of how, and particularly where, the ‘other’ branch of humankind has chosen to go since the days when we all hunted as ‘a single pack in the generous gardens of the deep past’. This is a book that does not labour in the fields but gallops full stretch towards the horizon. Bruce Chatwin would have loved it.