In his books and on foot, Morris Rossabi explores areas where “there are hardly any Western tourists,” where “there is a very strong attachment to clan and tribe,” and where the Silk Roads have become the hotly contested routes to oil and gas.
The scholar who ventures to Asia’s innermost outposts wrote the definitive book on the first person known to have traveled from China to Europe, Rabban Sauma, in Voyager from Xanadu (1992). Several of his acclaimed books showed the errors of Western thought about China and Mongolia. His research on Central and Inner Asia established the groundwork for academic study of these bypassed regions. Muslims, Mongols, and Manchus, Qing and Ming, commissars and emerging capitalists—all are illuminated by this historian and linguist.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Rossabi came to the United States as a boy and by age 18 was already in graduate school. He has taught at QC since 1986, and delights in his “really excellent” students. In forums from the national media to teacher workshops, he advocates for public education about Asia.
This spring, when he was part of QC’s delegation to China to set up exchange agreements for students, Rossabi donned a shockingly vivid cap and gown to be awarded an honorary degree from the National University of Mongolia. “Our conception of Mongols is associated with Genghis Khan, with savagery and brutality,” he notes, but “they also brought the world together—Marco Polo came to China during the Mongol era.”
On sabbatical for the 2009–10 academic year, Rossabi will go to Osaka, Japan, to organize an exhibit on Central Asian objects, then on to China to research its large Muslim population. “One place I’d really like to visit is Iran, particularly Tabriz, the Mongol capital in the 13th-14th centuries,” he sighs, realizing that some places quite likely will remain off-limits during his lifetime.
Book he recommends for understanding the East: The Orientalist by Tom Reiss.
Composers who move him: Mozart and J.S. Bach; he’s paid homage to them in Salzburg and Leipzig
Surprising fact: He was ranked among the top five Ping-Pong players under age 19 in New York. “When I go to China, they don’t think Westerners are able to play it,” he laughs, “so playing opens up a lot of doors.”