‘Asians’ and the 2020 U.S. Census

Census technicians clean and maintain key-punches used to produce punch cards for tabulation, 1950 Photo Credit: U.S. Census Bureau, Public Information Office (PIO)

Census technicians clean and maintain key-punches used to produce punch cards for tabulation, 1950
Photo Credit: U.S. Census Bureau, Public Information Office (PIO)

The next U.S. Census will be conducted in 2020, and those who reside in the United States would be asked to define their ethnic and racial identities. Recently, I have been asked by the  U.S. Census Bureau (CB) to review its current proposal for the ‘Asian’ classification in the Census.

The 2020 census has been attracting much attention of late (examples can be found here, here, and here), particularly from two constituencies – Latinos and Arabs – whose representatives (or rather, active representatives of some of them) demand different sets of categorizations for their respective groups. The Asian categorization is yet to invoke similar emotional responses (and it’s doubtful that it will).

Census outcomes are important as they may shape the distribution of resources, population estimates, data about racial discrimination and bias, as well as individual, group and national perceptions about the Untied States. Always a tricky business, a census proves particularly challenging to devise when it comes to classification, identification, and what may amount to a somewhat artificial, potentially forced demarcation of boundaries (ethnic, racial, national, etc.) among individuals and groups. Those interested in Central Asian history are familiar with the momentous 1897 Russian census and the reorientation or disappearance of distinct groups (Sarts, Tajiks, etc.) in the region as a result. Of course, many other examples abound. Among the numerous scholarly treatments of the idea and implementation of the census, I recommend especially Bernard Cohn’s essay on the census in South Asia in his book An Anthropologist among the Historians and other Essays.

distribution-of-u-s-population-by-raceethnicity-2010-and-2050-disparitiesThe 2020 census proposal is still being revised, studied and reviewed, so hopefully the following notes are a description of the process as it stands now and not its final version. It is also important to remember that what guides the Census Bureau in its decisions are, first and foremost, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) 1997 race and ethnic standards. In addition, the CB analysts also take under consideration the United Nations’ and the U.S. State Department’s classification of nations and regions of the world, as well as CIA’s World Factbook ethnic data (and these agencies and organization do not always agree with each other). To their credit, CB analysts also seek advice from scholars, experts, community leaders, etc.

As the proposal stands now:

  • All Central Asian peoples (incl. Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Turkmens, and Tajiks) are classified as ‘White';
  • Tibetans and Uyghurs will have separate codes for tabulation, but will be classified as sub-categories of ‘Chinese’, not as separate entities;
  • at the same time, Uyghurs are also classified (racially) as ‘White’;
  • Uyghurs are also not classified with other Central Asian peoples;
  • neither are Afghans, who are also classified as ‘White’;
  • other, more minor issues.

As I wrote to the CB, the main challenges to this system of classification, as I perceive them, are:

  1. The Question of “Origins”. At the moment, the Census identifies ‘Asians’ as people who have “origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian Subcontinent…” [OMB, 1997 Race and Ethnic Standards]. However, because of substantial population movements (voluntary and/or coerced) throughout history, demographic fluctuations (mixed ancestry, for example), and difficulty to assess a starting point – what does the OMB count as the starting point of said “original peoples”? 10,000 years ago? 2,000? 500? – it is sometimes impossible to establish with certainty the origins of many of these peoples.
  • Example: ‘Turks’, as far as we can tell, originated in north-east Asia (in areas associated with present-day Mongolia), yet no one seems to suggest that Turkey’s residents should be classified as Asians in the Census (and see also 2).
  1. Citizenship = Ethnicity. The tendency in the Census has been to equate official state boundaries and citizenship as they are exhibited at present (after all, such boundaries can change rapidly following conflicts, treaties, etc.) with ethnic and national identities. This may be misleading or simply erroneous, and may conflict with people’s own notion of their identity.
  • Example: Uyghurs and Tibetans are considered in the Census proposal as sub-categories of Chinese. In reality, many – if not most – Uyghurs and Tibetans would probably espouse a self-identification that is fundamentally different from Chinese (ethnically / linguistically / culturally). Chinese authorities have been attempting, for over a decade now, and for their own political reasons, to redefine their usage of minzu (the term used for China’s 55 ‘nationalities’, in addition to the prevailing Han). Accordingly, some claim, China’s official usage of the term gradually has been distanced from its denotation of ‘nationalities’ and steered toward a more simple meaning of ‘ethnic minorities’ or simply, ‘minorities.’ I recommend that Chinese domestic political agendas should not affect U.S. policy regarding its own Census. Incidentally, Uyghurs and Tibetans are the only minzu recognized in the Census (Han, by the way, is not recognized separately).
  • A somewhat different example: Would you consider ‘Palestinian’ to be a sub-category of Israeli or a separate category or both? One imagines that the response to the former may not be enthusiastic on the Palestinian side.
  1. The Conundrum of what is “White”? or, the growing meaninglessness of the category ‘White.’ The OMB guidelines suggest that “White” applies to any person who has “origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa” [see also item no. 1 above regarding the question of “origins”]. At the moment, all Central Asian peoples (Afghans, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Uyghurs, etc.) are classified as ‘White’ even if none of these peoples (as groups) fit the official OMB guidelines. To be sure, historically, “Middle Eastern” peoples had contributed to the creation and continuous re-shaping of many of the aforementioned peoples, but not to the point of considering them as “Middle Eastern” (and therefore, paradoxically perhaps, as ‘White’). As the classification stands now, none of the Central Asian peoples should be defined as ‘White’ unless they themselves decided, for whatever reason, that such a definition characterizes them best.
  1. Group and Individual Self-identification. Naturally, this is a complex issue. How does one recognize group self-identification and how does one resolve the tension between group self-identification and individual self-identification? For example, the Hui (so called “Chinese Muslims”, numbering, according to some estimates, over ten million people, and constituting one of the minzu) seem to belong, generally speaking, with the Han majority in most respects, and may or may not be considered a separate ‘ethnic’ group or a nationality. I tend to view them more in the sense of a community, similar (to an extent) with much of India’s very large Muslim minority. It thus stands to reason that neither group – Hui or India’s Muslims in general – would be included in the Census as a category or sub-category (and they are not included, at the moment).
  2. Over-Simplification and Generalization.  One realizes that such a census classification may be a necessary evil, but ultimately individuals should have the prerogative to express their self-identification and not resort to prescribed classifications.

In light of the above, and in addition to it, and following the guidelines that I received, I also recommended that:

  1. ‘Tibetan’ should be classified as a separate category, and not as a sub-category of Chinese.
  2. ‘Uyghur’ should be classified as a separate category, and not as a sub-category of Chinese.
  3. ‘Uyghur’ should not be classified as ‘White’, but rather as Asian, and also under the Regional heading of Central Asian.
  4. Central Asian peoples (Afghans, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, etc.) should not be classified as ‘White’ but as ‘Asian.’
  5. ‘Afghan’ should be grouped together with ‘Central Asian’ peoples in the regional      grouping.

Finally, I should add that, (1.) in the Census every individual would be able to mark whatever category (or categories) of identity that s/he wishes to mark; (2.) certain guidelines compel the CB to list only ethnic groups that had “a minimum of 1,000 or more people reporting that term in the 2010 Census.” This is, of course, quite problematic, because such a requirement does not take into account many criteria (availability of certain terms, knowledge that certain terms can or cannot be used, group awareness, political developments, immigration, etc.).


Boris Godunov, the “Tatar” Czar (part I)

Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov

In 1602, Ūrāz Muḥammad Khan, a descendant of Chinggis Khan and ruler of the Khanate of Qasimov (near the city of Ryazan in present-day Russia), dedicated an unusual manuscript to Czar Boris Godunov in Moscow: the manuscript was a Turkic translation from the Persian of parts of the famed Compendium of Chronicles (Jāmi‘ al-tawārīkh) authored by Rashīd al-Dīn for the Mongol rulers of Iran roughly three centuries earlier. The Compendium – and its new Turkic translation – included the most thorough treatise to date on the origins of the Turks and the Mongols (and Tatars), as well as other peoples.

More or less at the same time, a genealogy prepared by monks at Ipatiev Monastery (Ипатьевский монастырь), approximately 450 km (280 miles) to the north of Qasimov, claimed that Boris was a descendant of a 14th-century Mongol/Tatar prince, who had migrated to the area from the Golden Horde, converted to Orthodox Christianity, and became the monastery’s benevolent patron.

To the best of my knowledge, the connection between the two events (the Turkic translation and Godunov’s suggested Tatar roots) has not been explored in scholarship. Were Godunov’s alleged Tatar origins the reason for the production of the new Turkic translation? Was Rashid al-Din’s text chosen because of its mythologization of Turkic and Mongol history, perhaps aimed as a platform of shared identity between the Chinggisid rulers of Qasimov and the Czar of Russia during very troubled times?

Boris Godunov, the “wretched Tatar”

Boris Godunov reigned as czar from 1598 to 1605 during a period known in Russian history as the Time of Troubles (Сму́тное вре́мя), a time of natural disasters (famines, plagues), political and social upheavals, invasions by Poles and Lithuanians, and rebellions at home. Godunov, who had been accused of various wrongdoings during (and after) his lifetime – such as the murder of Ivan IV’s son and proposed heir, Dmitry, and usurping the throne – was suspected also of his origins.

Boris Godunov, the film (1986). Dir. Sergei Bondarchuk. (Pushkin is bottom center)

Boris Godunov, the film (1986). Dir. Sergei Bondarchuk. (Pushkin, who did not appear in the film, is featured at center bottom)

Intriguingly, however, it seems that for modern audiences the person most responsible for perpetuating Godunov’s alleged inauspicious family history was none other than Alexander Pushkin. In Pushkin’s drama, Boris Godunov, authored in 1825 and dedicated to the celebrated Russian historian Nicolay Karamzin (1766-1826), we find the following reference to Boris by Vasily Shuiskiy, a prominent boyar (one of the highest ranking members of Russian aristocracy) who would later become Czar Vasily IV (r. 1606-10):

Вчерашний раб, татарин, зять Малюты,
Зять палача и сам в душе палач,
Возьмет венец и бармы Мономаха…

Just yesterday a slave and a wretched Tatar,
Malyuta’s son-in-law, that bloody butcher,
And he himself a butcher in his soul.
He’ll grasp the crown and cape of Monomakh…

So translates James Falen in his Boris Godunov and other dramatic works. One can compare Falen’s translation with many others: Alfred Hayes’ old work (1918); a much more recent translation by Alec Vagapov; or Anthony Wood’s translation in The uncensored Boris Godunov. The English translations of this passage are more or less the same, differing in their interpretation of the word палач (butcher, executioner, hangman, etc.), whose origins may have been Turkic (adding, perhaps, another layer of Turkicness to our story).

Pushkin has been considered one of the most historically-minded Russian writers. He not only dedicated Boris Godunov to Nikolay Karamzin, but based much of his historical knowledge of the period on Karamzin’s extensive work. Pushkin also consulted contemporaneous sources, such as the French mercenary Jacques Mergeret’s Estat de l’empire de Rvssie, et grande dvche de Moscovie, written in 1607 and published in Paris in 1669 (although, having read through Mergeret’s account I found no mention of Godunov in a Tatar context). In addition, Pushkin may have relied on his own family’s papers, preserved at Mikhailovskoe Estate (in the Pskov region),where Pushkin had lived in exile between 1824-26. Although the story of Pushkin’s great-grandfather, the African-slave-turned-Russian-general Abram Gannibal has attracted much attention, it was through his mother’s side that the family played an active role during the Time of Troubles. I don’t know what information may have been found in these family papers. Whatever his sources may have been, Pushkin’s ‘Boris the wretched Tatar’ story became an acceptable version of history. So much so, that in his 1982 biography of Godunov, one of the first issues that historian Ruslan Skrynnikov addresses (and hastens to dismiss) is Pushkin’s drama.

Other than Pushkin’s treatment, Tatar etymology has been claimed as the basis for the family name of both the Godunovs (Годуновы) and the Saburovs (Сабуровы). But perhaps the most persistent of tales was the Ipatev monks’ genealogy that traced the origins of both families to a 14th-century Mongol prince. (Interestingly, it seems that the families’ own stories of their lineages claim the monks’ genealogy as proof of their origins.)

The Kostroma Genealogy

“В лето 6838 приеде из Орды к великому князю Ивану Даниловичу князь именем Чет, а во крещении имя ему Захарий.”

Thus begins the genealogy. Russians were using the Byzantine calendar until the year 1700 and since that calendar assumes that the world was created in 5509 B.C., the year 6838 corresponds to 1329/1330 C.E. In that year, a Prince named Chet (Чет) came from the Horde to the Grand Duke Ivan Danilovich [Kalitá]. He then was christened by the name of Zakariah. The genealogy continues to detail the prince’s settling down, the beginning of his patronage of the monastery and its lands, and the basic story of his descendants, down to Boris Godunov.

Ipatev monastery on the bank of the Kostroma River

Ipatev Monastery on the bank of the Kostroma River

Histories of Ipatev Monastery have been around for centuries. I consulted the most recent version in Rogov and Utkin’s Ипатьевский монастырь. Исторический очерк (2003), which seems to rely also on many of the older texts. It is important to note that the monastery’s genealogy has been labeled ahistorical and has been rejected by the scholars who have been aware of its existence. I would add, however, that most scholars who claim to discard the genealogy have not examined it. They rely exclusively on Stepan Borisovich Veselovskii’s refutation of the lineage in his important work on Russian boyars and land tenure Исследования по истории класса служилых землевладельцев (the book was published in 1969, 17 years after the author’s death, not an uncommon event in the Soviet world). Veselovskii demonstrated, among other things, that the chronology offered in the genealogy is wide of the mark and renders the entire story suspect.

Here I should point out that the veracity or falsity of Godunov’s Tatar origins is not what I am after. There is good reason to assume that the genealogy was indeed fabricated, but then we have to ask ourselves – and no one seems to be doing so – what purpose did such a fabrication serve and why was the genealogy produced in this manner and not differently? At the same time, however, there is good reason to theorize that confusion and speculations about Godunov’s origins flourished during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. After all, the Time of Troubles lent itself to intense circulation of rumors and conspiracy theories, particularly regarding the identity of leaders and prominent persons, as shown, for example, by Kirill Chistov, one of Russia’s foremost folklorists, in his work on popular socio-utopian legends (Русские народные социально-утопические легенды XVII-XIX вв., Moscow, 1967). (By the way, the 1986 film Boris Godunov captures this atmosphere of distrust, suspicion, and incessant rumors quite nicely.)

Is it implausible to imagine that among the multitude of gossip, speculation and hearsay, the idea that Czar Boris actually had Tatar blood running through his veins made its way to Qasimov? Could such an idea have inspired the production of a translation of a manuscript that would be dedicated to the czar, that would celebrate the distinctiveness and distinguished origins of Chinggisids and Tatars? After all, the first six folios of the translation not only exalt “Boris Fyodorovich” but even address him as the great “White Khan.”

In the second part of the post, I intend to introduce the Turkic texts, the mid-19th-century Berezin edition in Kazan, and the Paris manuscript that neither Berezin nor most other scholars who are familiar with the story knew about.

Khuda Bakhsh Library – Part II

[This post is a follow-up to my earlier Visit to Khuda Bakhsh. It focuses on some of the challenges in manuscript identification]

Most of the particulars concerning the Tarikh-e khandan-e timuriyah (more generally known as the Timur-nama) may be found in the official application to include the manuscript in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. The application – or, more precisely, Nomination Ref. no. 2010-62 – was submitted to UNESCO, jointly, by the Khuda Bakhsh Library and the Ministry of Culture of the Government of India and was approved in 2011.

Besides listing technical details, such as the manuscript’s number of folios (338), number of illustrations (133), folio size (15¾” x 10½”), script (Nasta’liq), etc., the nominators also venture to speculate about the somewhat nebulous origins and objectives of this understudied tome. They suggest that the manuscript was a collective work that involved a large cohort of court historians and painters. Shah Jahan’s inscription (that I had shown in the earlier post), official seals of other Mughal dignitaries, and the signature of Mr. Francis Gladwin all attest to the manuscript’s authenticity. Gladwin, by the way, was a British official, orientalist, translator and compiler of a Persian-Hindustani-English dictionary, who seems to have spent the years 1802-09 in Patna, first as Collector of Customs and then as Commissary Resident. His signature appears on other Persian manuscripts in the Library’s holdings, although I’m not sure if Gladwin was one of the previous owners of some of the books, whether he signed as a reader or as a customs official (the least likely prospect). Back in the early years of the nineteenth century, the manuscripts were still the private collection of Mohammad Bakhsh, father of the Library’s founder, Khuda Bakhsh. The Library was opened to the public only in 1891.

Despite the Timur-nama’s exquisite and complex production and the copious resources that went into its creation, several uncertainties linger: the manuscript is unique (no other copies were made that could shed light on its missing parts), its author remains anonymous, and its purpose remains unknown, as there are no explanations or dedications or clear indications of patronage (even if we assume that Akbar’s atelier was the production venue). The absence of an Introduction and a Conclusion – should we presume that they even existed? – only serves to augment the mystery.

The nominators believe that the text was written “primarily to provide basic reference-material to Abul Fazl [namely, Emperor Akbar’s minister, biographer and confidant] who was then compiling the official history of Akbar’s reign – the Akbar Namah, which includes a history of Akbar’s ancestors.” I have doubts about this assessment: first, much of the text is based on Yazdi’s Zafar-nama and Babur’s Babur-nama, two books that Abu’l-Fazl already had at his disposal. Secondly, and more importantly, why would one need such an elaborate artistic production – over 130 highly crafted paintings by the finest artists in the realm – merely to make available a reference tool for a court biographer for the purpose of composing a different work altogether? Was this “Timur-nama” supposed to be an independent work or part of a much larger endeavor? It is difficult to answer without more time spent with this and other Mughal texts.

Timur-nama or Chingiz-nama?

Another interesting – and problematic – suggestion made by the nominators concerns the potential identification of the “Timur-nama” with another text that had been commissioned by Akbar, known by the generic title Chingiz-nama, namely, a history of Chinggis Khan.

The nominators put forward the following hypothesis: “Abul Fazl, Akbar’s official biographer, has listed the nine most important illustrated Persian manuscripts commissioned by Akbar in his account of the Emperor’s life and rule… Eight of these manuscripts, mentioned by Abul Fazl, have been identified. But the ninth, the Chingiz Namah is still unknown. Some scholars suggest that this Timurid history, Tarikh-e Khandan-e Timuriyah could be the Chingiz Namah or the ninth, as yet unidentified, manuscript in Abul Fazl’s list of important manuscripts commissioned by Akbar.”

As most specialists know, Akbar had commissioned more than nine illustrated manuscripts. I suppose that by “the nine most important” manuscripts, the nominators refer to the following passage in Abu’l-Fazl’s discussion of the arts of writing and painting (see his Ain-i akbari, section 34; I added in brackets a short description of the different titles):

        “Persian books… were ornamented with pictures, and a very large number of paintings was thus collected. The Story of Hamzah [the fantastic adventures of the Prophet’s uncle] was represented in twelve volumes… The Chingiznamah, the Zafarnamah [Yazdi’s Book of Victory of Timur], this book [namely, the Ain-i akbari], the Razmnamah [the “Book of War,” an abridged Persian translation of the Mahabharata], the Ramayan [Persian translation of the Ramayana], the Nal Daman [Faizi’s (Abu’l-Fazl’s brother) poems modeled after the Sanskrit poem Nala and Damayanti], Kalilah Damna [famed animal fables], the Ayar Danish [more fables in the manner of advice literature] &c., were all illustrated.”

Thus reads the English translation of the first volume of Ain-i akbari, completed in Calcutta in 1868 by Henry Blochmann. The son of a printer from Dresden, Henry (actually, Heinrich Ferdinand) Blochmann had studied Persian in Leipzig, then moved to London, enlisted in the British army and was sent to India. Upon his release from the service he decided to stay on, worked for a while as interpreter for P&O (the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company),  and continued his studies, this time gaining an M.A. in Hebrew at the newly founded University of Calcutta. He also served as philological secretary for the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Blochmann eventually became a teacher and later the principal of the Mohammedan College of Calcutta, otherwise known as Calcutta Madrasah – an institution of higher education for Muslims founded by Warren Hastings in 1781 (we will revisit this institution below). Blochmann’s translation, not the original Persian, has been serving as the basis for much of the work of many historians and art historians of the “Great Mughals.” In this case, the translation and the Persian text edition of Ain-i akbari – also prepared by Blochmann – are pretty much the same (cf., p. 108 of the translation with p. 118 of the text edition).

Based on this passage in the Ain-i akbari, could it be that “our” manuscript is, indeed, the purportedly elusive Chingiz-nama? Almost a century ago, Abdul Muqtadir, the first cataloger of the manuscript, raised this hypothesis in the Catalogue of the Arabic and Persian manuscripts in the Oriental Public Library at Bankipore, vol. VII, 1921 (for our purpose here, Bankipore is considered as synonymous with Patna).

Curzon Reading Room Patna

The cataloging of the Library’s vast collection began when the renowned orientalist Edward Denison Ross had visited the place in 1901 together with Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, and the latter decided to support the cataloging endeavors. Curzon’s patronage is acknowledged to this very day, as is evidenced in the Reading Room (est. 1905) named after him, which faces the main library building.

Having trained two young Muslim scholars – Maulavi Abdul Muqtadir (the Persian language expert) and Maulavi Kamaluddin Ahmad (the Arabic language expert) – in the preparation of a catalogue raisonneé (published 1905) of the Islamic manuscripts in the Calcutta Madrasah (whose principal in those years was Ross himself, following in Blochmann’s footsteps), Ross then returned to Bankipore with his new protégés. The result of their work was the first large catalog of Arabic and Persian manuscripts ever published in India. The catalog was truly groundbreaking for its time, and the catalogers, who had very little reference work to consult, were bound to also make a few miscalculations in their identifications and evaluations, including, alas, confusing the Timur-nama with the Chingiz-nama.

At the time of the Catalog’s preparation, V. C. Scott O’Connor, a prolific author and war correspondent who had begun his career as Finance Advisor for Railways in the Government of India, was visiting the Library. Having spent “two happy winters” in Patna, O’Connor published a book about the Khuda Bakhsh library, entitled An Eastern Library (Glasgow, 1920), that includes a quaint description of the Library and some of its holdings; a delightful discussion of the Timur-nama (pp. 11-18), and even two short handlists of the Library’s possessions, prepared by Abdul Muqtadir (Persian) and Abdul Hamid (Arabic).


Regarding the Timur-nama, O’Connor relates that, “Khan Sahib Abdul Muqtadir would identify [the Timur-nama] with the Chingiz Namah, mentioned by Abul Fazl as one of the nine principal manuscripts illuminated for the Emperor Akbar.”  Unfortunately, Abdul Muqtadir got it wrong.

[On the right: a portrait of Mohammad Khuda Bakhsh as it appears in O’Connor's An Eastern Library.]

Although one sometimes finds tales and histories of Chinggis Khan and Timur stacked together or interlocked (such is the case with several Tatar publications), it seems odd that Akbar would be responsible for a similar conflation. All the more so, since the Tarikh-e khandan-e timuriyah carries no information whatsoever about Chinggis Khan, something that Yuri Bregel had noticed several decades ago. We read in Persidskaia literatura (Bregel’s Russian translation and significant expansion of Charles Storey’s Persian Literature: a Bio-Bibliographical Survey) about the general traits of the “magnificent and beautifully illustrated manuscript… probably the only instance of an unknown author writing about Timur and his successors up to the time of Akbar.” Bregel then turns to cite Abdul Muqtadir’s catalog identification and notes: “this assumption would be easier to accept had the work actually included stories about Chinggis Khan.” [Bregel, vol. II, 841].

What is this supposedly “mysterious” Chingiz-nama? It seems that the Chingiz-nama was an illustrated copy of the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din’s early 14th-century Jami al-tawarikh (“Compendium of Chronicles”) that had been commissioned by Akbar in the late sixteenth century. The manuscript, or what’s left of it – many paintings attributed to this volume are now scattered in museums, galleries, private collections and auction houses all over the world – is in Iran, housed in the Gulistan Library in Tehran.

I may revisit the Chingiz-nama manuscript at a later date. For now, let me suffice with the following observations: Most scholars that refer to the “Chingiz-nama” in their publications, sometimes quite enthusiastically, never really saw it and this may be one of the reasons for considerable contradictory information that one encounters in books and articles on related aspects of Mughal history, art and culture. As it happens, scholars either give no reference at all to support their assertions on the manuscript, or they cite a 1963 Czech publication, authored by J. Marek and H. Knizkova, and published also in German (Tschingis-Chan und sein Reich), French (L’Empire de Gengis-Khan dans la miniature mongole), and English (The Jenghiz Khan Miniatures from the Court of Akbar the Great) translations. This short book – approximately 30 pages of text and 34 color plates of miniature paintings (or details thereof), photographed by W. Forman – includes very little information about the manuscript itself. A brief description, written by Knizkova (pp. 29-30), refers to the work as the Kitab-i Changeznama, property of the Imperial Library in Tehran, rarely seen outside Iran (the manuscript was apparently exhibited in Leningrad in 1935 at the Third Congress of Iranian Painting and Archeology). According to Knizkova, Kitab-i Changeznama” was completed in May, 1596. It has 304 folios and 98 full-page miniatures.

The authors were interested primarily in the impressive miniature paintings of this Chingiz-nama and not in the text. Accordingly, there are no references to the text itself and so one cannot know much about the circumstances of its creation (who ordered it, why, when, what original manuscript served as the model, etc.). Yuri Bregel refers to this manuscript in Persidskaia literatura (vol. I, 309), but he bases all information on the German version of Marek and Knizkova’s publication (although he is careful to add the word ‘apparently’). Similarly, Shiraiwa Kazuhiko, in his otherwise extremely valuable “Rashid al-Din’s Compendium of Chronicles: a bibliography of extant manuscripts” (Tokyo, 2000; in Japanese) that is, unfortunately, almost unknown to Western scholars, repeats Marek and Knizkova’s information, relying on the French version of the Czech publication. 

Based on the number of pages from this manuscript that have been sold or displayed all over the world, I would not be surprised to learn that the Tehran manuscript now has far fewer folios and paintings than it did in the early 1960s. A comparison with other similar texts (for instance, the Rashid al-Din manuscripts in the Reza Library in Rampur) may yield a better understanding of the “Chingiz-nama” story.

Revisiting the Origin Myths of the Turks

Beida posterAt a recent lecture hosted by the Centre for Research on Ancient Chinese History at Peking University (aka Beida, one of the leading research universities in China), I revisited the old scholarly claim that the pre-Islamic Turkic past had been erased by the new Muslim rulers. Before a rather large and engaged audience, I explored this argument in the framework of the historical development of Turkic identity in Central Asia.

The early expansion of Muslim polities into Central Asia incurred also substantial migrations, both voluntary and coerced, of Turks into the region. Turkic slave-soldiers were incorporated into the Muslim armies and some rose to positions of prominence and even to dynastic rule already in the tenth century CE. The assimilation of Turks into Islam often included a conversion to the new religion and a formulation of new answers to old questions, such as “who are we and where did we come from?” As one might expect, Arab and Iranian Muslims, already in the eighth century, introduced the Turks to Islamic cosmogony. Ideas of ancient Turkic descent from – or at least continued existence by – a she-wolf, à la Romulus and Remus (among others), or of ancient men springing from a tree or a mound of earth, did not square well with the basic Muslim tenets of the creation and the survival of mankind. (Devin DeWeese discusses, in a different context, some of these myths in his Islamization and Native Religion in the Golden Horde.)

Therefore, consistent with Near Eastern monotheistic traditions in which all humans originated, after the Flood, from Noah and his three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the Turks, being human (well, at least most of them; reading the early Muslim geographers one encounters all sorts of ambiguous designations), had to fit into that tradition. Almost every Muslim account of the Turks began with the story of Noah (Nuh) and his son Japheth (Yafith), the Turks’ progenitor. Although written by non-Turkic Muslims, the Turks hung on to the new stories of their origins and their pre-Islamic history was forgotten. Once they came to power, the newly converted based – perhaps paradoxically – much of the rewriting of their own past on contemporary, seemingly hostile Iranian models. At the same time, however, Turks may have inspired a change in perception regarding Yafith’s reputation and status; they added a new dimension to the story in the figure of a “native” hero-progenitor (Afrasiyab), and they emphasized a divine, Allah-ordained mandate that legitimized their existence and their actions.

Yafith and the Turks

The story that one finds in the Muslim sources early on endured through the centuries. Here’s a typical version from the middle of the seventeenth century, authored in Turkic by  Abu’l-Ghazi, Khan of Khiva (and abbreviated by me):

Nuh became a prophet at the age of 250. For the next 700 years he tried to summon the people to Islam with very limited success (only 80 converted). After the Flood, he sent Ham to Hindustan, Sam to Iran (iranzamin) and Yafith to the North (qutb-i shimal). Yafith settled between the Yayiq and the Itil rivers (the Ural and the Volga) where he would live for the next 250 years. He had eight sons. The eldest, named Turk, who became known as Yafith Oghlani (lit., “Yafith’s son”), migrated to the area of Issyk Kul and became the first tent-maker. His eldest son, Tutuk, reigned after him. He was a good ruler, and was the contemporary of Kayumars, the first king of Iran (‘ajam). [Tutuk's descendants ruled the land, as Muslims, until we come to the story of the division of the realm between two of Yafith’s later descendants, Tatar and Moghul, but this is a topic for another discussion.]

Leaving aside the business of so many Muslims in existence centuries or even millennia before the Prophet Muhammad (there is ample commentary about this issue in the Muslim traditions), let us concentrate on Yafith’s representation. Yafith seems to have been a bit of a problematic figure for early Muslim commentators. First, like his brothers, he is not mentioned in the Qur’an by name, and therefore may have been also somewhat of an outsider. Secondly, Nuh’s two other sons, Sam and Ham, already became the progenitors of other peoples (Sam of the Arabs, more generally of the Semites, and of the Persians; and Ham – rowdy and disobedient also in the Muslim tradition – was punished to be the father of the “blacks”). Already in the eighth century, Ibn al-Muqaffa‘, an Iranian convert to Islam who became one of the originators of Arabic literary prose, mentioned Yafith as the ancestor of the Turks, but also of Gog and Magog (Yajuj wa-Majuj), the semi-monstrous beings who would destroy the earth come Judgment Day. Ibn al-Muqaffa’s take on Yafith became the standard story for most Muslim historians and geographers writing in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries. Take for example, al-Tabari (d. 923), probably the most renowned among contemporaneous Muslim historians and commentators on the Qur’an, who indicated that, “Yafith begat the Turks, Slavs, Gog and Magog, in none of whom there is good.”

Thus far, the erasure of older stories and the emerging negative perceptions of Turks among their neighbors seem evident. But Yafith’s reputation began to change, perhaps because of the Turks’ stronger position in the world of Islam in later centuries. More and more peoples were added to the list of his progeny and he was receiving kinder treatment, not only in the official commentaries and histories, but also in the emerging genre of the Qisas al-anbiya’ (Stories of the Prophets). We read in al-Kisa’i, compiler of many of the stories and legends about the prophets, probably around the twelfth century, that when Nuh had cursed Ham to be the father of all the “black slaves,” he also said that Sam would be the forefather of prophets and Yafith – the forefather of kings and heroes. [This neat “division of labor” for descendants of famed men repeats itself also in other circumstances in Central Asian history. For instance, in a prophetic dream reported in Timurid Persian historiography, Chinggis Khan's descendants were destined to possess the throne (takht-i khani) and Timur’s descendants - to hold the reigns of the military and administration (shamshir va hukmrani).]

So much has Yafith’s position changed over the centuries, that in the late fifteenth century, Mir Ali Shir Nava’i, statesman, author, poet, and celebrated architect of Turkic literary language, stated about Yafith, in Turkic: “Historians all agree that he wore the crown of prophethood and was therefore superior to his brothers.” For Nava’i and many of his fellow Central Asian Turks, Yafith was a prophet, just like his father, and was superior to his brothers (who were not). By the way, the aforementioned Abu’l-Ghazi Khan was more careful. He stated that, “some say Yafith was a prophet and some say he wasn’t.”

Afrasiyab and the Turks

The rise to power of Turkic dynasties – the Ghaznavids, Saljuqs, and Qarakhanids, for example – also brought about new literary endeavors (although, perhaps not as many as one might expect).

The Kutadgu Bilig, “the oldest monument of Turkic Islamic literature,” by Yusuf Khass Hajib, a native of Balasaghun, was completed in the city of Kashghar ca. 1069 CE and was dedicated to its Qarakhanid patron, Tavghach Bughra Khan. In this didactic work, a long poem in the genre of advice literature, the Turks were celebrated as descendants of Yafith, but also of the great Turkic prince, Tonga Alp Er, “whom the Iranians call Afrasiyab, the same who had seized and pillaged their realm.”

Both the Qarakhanids and the Saljuqs claimed descent from Afrasiyab, as Bartol’d, Togan, Frye and other scholars had observed long ago. This evocation of Afrasiyab was interpreted by some (C. E. Bosworth, for instance) as a political ploy by the new dynasties meant to secure the loyalty of their Turkic tribal men (i.e., the military). While other ruling houses in the Arab-Persian sphere sought to establish an association with the Caliphs by attaching themselves to Arab aristocracy, to the Prophet or to his companions, the Turks – ostensibly unburdened by loyalty to Arabs or Persians – needed to cultivate the support of their own constituencies. Sustaining a lineage to a great “national” hero, so the argument goes, could do the trick. Such reasoning points to a conscious, premeditated decision on the part of the Turkic rulers. One is tempted to visualize a gathering of notable Turks in some gilded tent on the shores of Issyk Kul – or in the halls of a captured Baghdad palace, in the Saljuq case – where names of (supposedly) ancient heroes were drawn and conjured up and Afrasiyab’s emerged triumphant…  

Even if we accept this or a much less dramatic scenario, why choose that particular character? Granted, Afrasiyab was a well-known figure in pre-Islamic Iranian traditions, but the historic Afrasiyab (presuming there was one) was, in fact, at least partially, if not wholly, Iranian. He was a descendant of Tur son of Faridun, the mythical Iranian warrior, physician, and vanquisher of dragons. Furthermore, Afrasiyab mairya (“the deceitful”), who had lived in a cavernous iron citadel, was acting as agent of the evil Ahriman and, using his ability to withhold rain, often spread misery and desolation. In some sources he is described as a demon. He treacherously assassinated Siyavush; he had failed in his efforts to secure Iranian “glory,” and he was eventually killed, in revenge, by Kay Khusraw. Was this the great champion that so appealed to the Turks? Why not pick someone else, an undefeated conqueror perhaps, one who would succumb only to old age, as later generations opted for a Chinggis Khan or a Timur?

It seems that the Turks knew only parts of Afrasiyab’s old history. Different versions of his tale may have developed independently, but most of the Turkic reworking of the story relied on reinterpretations rendered by numerous Muslim (non-Turkic) authors, such as al-Tabari, al-Mas’udi, al-Tha’alibi, al-Biruni and others. In these new accounts, Afrasiyab was usually displayed as a great leader and as the consummate champion, celebrated as the illustrious representative of the Turks and symbol of the deep divide between Iran and Turan. More than any other source, Fedowsi’s portrayal of Afrasiyab in his Shah-nama (Book of Kings), completed roughly in the same era (ca. 1010 CE), brought back the now-Turkic Afrasiyab to Turkic attention. I say ‘brought back,’ because it seems that Ferdowsi’s version was also nurtured by diverse oral traditions that may or may not have been Turkic. The Shah-nama must have been accessible to Yusuf of Balasaghun (since he emulates Ferdowsi’s style and meter), as may have been other sources.

Claiming Afrasiyab as the Turks’ progenitor continued later also in Jamal Qarshi’s account. Jamal Qarshi was the nickname of Abu’l-Fadl Jamal al-Din Muhammad (b. 1230/1), a scholar and official in East Turkestan in the 13th century. His work, written in Arabic, featured the first full narrative about the conversion to Islam of the Qarakhanid ruler Satuq Bughra Khan, probably in the middle of the 10th century, and relied on the now lost  Tarikh-i Kashghar.

QarshiIn a chapter entitled “Mention of the famous among the Turkic Khaqans in Mawarannahr and its environs during the Islamic period,”  Jamal Qarshi detailed the genealogy of Satuq Bughra Khan, shown here to the right, going back to Afrasiyab (the first name that I circled in red) and down to Yafith son of Nuh (the third encircled name). But in this account, Afrasiyab was more than just a link connecting the Turks to the Islamic model of decent from Yafith b. Nuh. He was also of the lineage of the aforementioned Tur son of Faridun (or Afridun, the second red-encircled name). In both pre-Islamic and Islamic sources, Faridun is said to have divided his realm among his three sons, giving Rum to Salm, Turkestan to Tur, and Iran and India to Iraj. Since Turkestan had been identified with the Turks and was Tur’s possession, it seemed only natural to depict Afrasiyab as heir to that territory. When one recalls that Yafith and his sons were also beneficiaries of that part of the world, we have here a double inheritance, if you will. Interestingly, Turk son of Yafith is not mentioned.

Equally famous – in this context – was Mahmud al-Kashghari’s Diwan lughat al-turk (Compendium of Turkic Dialects) (1072-1077 CE). Kashghari was writing in Baghdad, in Arabic, for an Arab-Muslim audience. His was a Turkic language guide for Arab administrators working to expand the boundaries of the caliphate. Kashghari reverted to the idea of the Turks’ origins from Yafith. He wrote, “The Turks are, in origin, twenty tribes. They all trace back to Turk, son of Yafith, son of Nuh, God’s blessings be upon them… Each tribe has branches whose number only God knows.” But, the origins of the term ‘Turk’ were also divine. “I state,” wrote Kashghari, “that at-Turk is the name given by God,” and he proceeded to quote the following hadith attributed to the Prophet: “God, exalted and mighty, says, ‘I have a host whom I have called at-Turk and whom I have set in the East; when I am wroth over any people I will make them sovereign above them.’”In this account, the Turks had a very specific role to play in the divine plan. Much like, in later centuries, the Mongols were considered by some Muslim authors to be the instrument (or scourge) of God, the Turks in al-Kashghari’s Diwan were God’s “own army” whose conquest and rule indicated God’s disappointment in and anger toward the Arabs. The new Turkic political dominance was therefore also an act of fate.

In Memoriam: Moshe Gammer (1950-2013)


Moshe Gammer, historian of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, passed away on Tuesday, April 16, 2013 and was buried earlier today at the Segula Cemetery in Petach Tikva, Israel. He is survived by his wife, Ruth Frankl-Gammer, senior Middle Eastern Studies librarian at Tel Aviv University, and their daughter Billie.

Born in the USSR on September 24, 1950, Moshe immigrated to Israel in 1960. He studied for his B.A. and M.A. at Tel Aviv University. His B.A. thesis (1975), supervised by Dr. Baruch Gurevich and entitled “Shamil in Soviet Historiography,” engaged a subject that Moshe would revisit in depth during his Ph.D. studies, from 1983 to 1989, at the London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London). Indeed, his Doctoral Dissertation on “Shamil and the Muslim Resistance to the Russian Conquest of the North-Eastern Caucasus,” supervised by Prof. Elie Kedourie, was later reworked and published in a monumental volume.

Although a specialist on the Caucasus, Moshe’s publications addressed numerous thematic issues from a comparative perspective, including ethno-nationalism, communal identity, Sufism, colonialism, written and oral cultures, and many more. The conferences that he had organized covered Islam in Central Asia, culture in Daghestan, the history of Bukharan Jews, history-writing in post-Soviet Russia, and many others. Reviews of his research typically included laudatory praise: “admirable,” “pioneering and ground breaking”, “a tour de force,” “exceptionally well-researched,” “intelligent and balanced,” and “magisterial” were some of the most commonly repeated commendations.

Professor Ehud Toledano wrote kind words in Moshe’s memory, first on behalf of MEISAI (The Middle East and Islamic Studies Association of Israel) in a message that circulated on Israeli listservs in Hebrew, and later also on H-Turk. I quote here portions of Toledano’s communication:

* * *

Professor Gammer was a scholar of a rare kind, almost extinct in modern-day academia. His research interests were very broad, including – as he himself defined them on his Department webpage – “history of the Caucasian, Central Asia and the Islamic world in general, the modern Middle East, historiography and the relation between history and politics, Russia and the Islamic world, France and the Middle East.” With English, Russian, French, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew, Moshe widely read primary sources of various types, but would also distribute to a list of colleagues information about forums, conferences, journal and book CFPs, and the latest theoretical developments in several social science fields.

That said, his main contribution was no doubt to the history of Central Asia and the Caucasus during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, he was a traditionalist, a true student of the late LSE Professor Elie Kedourie, under whose supervision he wrote his dissertation about Shamil’s revolt. Among his many articles and books, he would probably like us to mention two:

Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan & The Lone Wolf and the Bear. Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule.

Professor Gammer was a devoted and caring advisor to a number of talented graduate students, past and present. His international reputation as a leading expert on Central Asian and Caucasian history drew young, talented persons from Turkey and former Soviet Union countries, as well as from Israel, who came to study with him. Particularly towards them, he was always generous with his time and immense knowledge. Colleagues from across the globe doing history, literature, and culture of the Caucasus would attend the conferences he periodically organized, and their research was published in the proceedings that he carefully edited thereafter.

Moshe was a modest, shy, almost self-effacing scholar and gentleman, who never sought for himself campus jobs or honors. He will be sorely missed.

[Ehud R. Toledano, University Chair for Ottoman & Turkish Studies]

* * *

On a more personal note, I first met Moshe some twenty years ago, when I took his course on Islamic Central Asia at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Middle Eastern and African History. It was a formative experience for me that clearly influenced the trajectory of my career. I still have all my course notes and I sometimes glance at them to see what was imparted to me as an undergraduate student. [Among other materials, and with a rather depleted university library, we read from cover to cover (well, the few of us who had bothered) René Grousset’s The Empire of the Steppes, a book that no one, I think, would even dream of assigning today. I loved it, of course.]

When it was time for me to consider graduate school and studying Central Asian history was becoming more and more appealing, Moshe was one of two people (the other being the late Nehemia Levtzion) who had directed me to Indiana to study with Yuri Bregel, “the real master,” in Moshe’s words.

We kept in touch over the years, discussing the present and future of Central Asian studies in Israel, and most recently collaborated at an international workshop on ‘Central Asia in the World of Islam’ that convened at Tel Aviv University in late May, 2011. A message from him, sent to some of his colleagues in November (2012), informed us of his illness, but also of his slow but forthcoming recovery. I was therefore so shaken to receive an email yesterday from Ruthy, his wife, sent from Moshe’s computer, informing me of his passing.

Moshe was a caring person, a true scholar, a teacher and a colleague. He will be deeply missed.

“Muslim Games”

In a recent submission for a volume-in-the-making on travel literature in Central Asia, I discuss diplomatic mission reports of seventeenth-century envoys from the Russian Empire to the region. Although many aspects of the missions (goals, representation, negotiation tactics)  remained more-or-less the same throughout the century, there were some differences that gradually came to depend more on the personalities and training of particular envoys and less on their precise mandate. In the 1620s, the hotheaded and somewhat clumsy Ivan Khokhlov was stingy with details about his embassy, at least when not describing his own violent clashes with the locals. Nevertheless, his stiff testimony does include several precious moments, such as his (unintentionally comical) confession to his Moscow interrogator about the circumstances that led to him losing all his notes as well as the tsar’s instructions. Unlike Ivan, the later ambassadors of the 1660s and 70s, like the Pazukhin brothers, were more discerning and more generous. At least, they seem to have developed a greater sense of autonomy to describe what they had observed, even if still operating within the strict limitations of their assignment.

A case in point is Boris Pazukhin’s captivating account of his meetings with the long-reigning khan of Bukhara, ‘Abd al-Aziz (r. 1645-81), where descriptions of banquets and audiences are carefully revealed. At the same time, many details that one might expect or hope to find in such narratives are simply not there.

At one of the official dinners, held in early February (1671) inside the khan’s palace and attended by many dignitaries from various cities in the khanate – Boris & company were the only foreigners present – the participants were treated to a large feast as well as some entertainment. With two-hundred guards standing at the ready, the khan – his sword, bow and shield beside him – was presiding over the gathering. Old khojas were sitting nearby with books that had been brought from the mosques and they were discussing and explaining legal matters to anyone who cared to listen.

Pazukhin gamesDuring the banquet, nine entertainers were playing “Muslim games” and were singing from a book. Then, an  animal was brought in, a black-boned horn towering above its lip, and Boris was asked if they had such a creature in Russia (if they did, Boris had never seen one).

The following dinner took place about six weeks later, on March 11th. Presumably the weather was warmer since the gathering was now held in a big garden near the Qaraköl gates in the south-western corner of the city walls (the city walls had been built by ‘Abdallah Khan less than a century earlier).

Pazukhin games 2On this occasion, ‘Abd al-Aziz Khan ordered to have different animals paraded before the guests, including a lion, elephants, deer, talking birds, and many more. Then, additional entertaining “Muslim games” were played.

[Text photos: Russkaia istoricheskaia biblioteka 15, St. Petersburg, 1894]

What constituted “Muslim games” (busurmanskie igrie, or igrie busurmanskaya)? Unfortunately (for us), Boris Pazukhin’s interrogators don’t give it a second thought. Perhaps more details about that part of the banquet seemed too mundane. After all, kingly receptions often included entertainment, and the Russians were already familiar with Mongol, Turkic, and Tatar customs of formal hospitality.

Busurman, or basurman is derived from Muslim, and its definition in various Russian dictionaries reads as Muslim; Saracen; infidel; stranger/foreigner, etc. It seems to have been in frequent usage. In English translations of the term, however, one usually finds ‘infidel’ as the preferred rendering. Accordingly, we read how Yermak, the Cossack ataman, defeated the “infidels” in Siberia around 1580 (this, in Minorsky and Wileman’s translation of Yermak’s Campaign in Siberia and also noted by Valerie Ann Kivelson in her Cartographies of Tsardom, p. 233-34, note 5).

Another example is Mikhail Lermontov’s poem (1837), usually abridged as “The Song of the Merchant Kalashnikov,” where the protagonist, Kalashnikov, calls Kiribeevich the oprichnik (agent of the secret police established by Ivan IV) “busurmanskii syn,” translated by Vladimir Golstein as “son of an infidel” (see Golstein’s Lermontov’s Narratives of Heroism, p. 96). The poem takes place in the era of Ivan IV (aka the Terrible), that is, about a decade prior to the aforementioned Yermak’s operations in Siberia, and so both English translations noted here conform to a plausible sixteenth-century interpretation of the term: Kiribeevich was not identified as a Muslim, and Yermak’s opponents may not have been perceived as Muslims by the advancing Cossacks.

As far as Pazukhin’s report is concerned, I tend to prefer to translate busurmanskie as ‘Muslim’. Bukhara had long been recognized, also in Russia, as an Islamic political, cultural and educational stronghold and the Pazukhins were performing in a clearly Muslim setting. Islam was also at the core of the envoys’ diplomatic negotiations. When the Russian ambassadors appealed to the khan on religious grounds to release the Russian captives in the khanate of Bukhara (I paraphrase here: ‘our brethren are all observant Christians; since you, khan, are a pious man, you know what it means to them’), the khan countered (I paraphrase again): “they all embraced Islam years ago – playing the religious card is not going to work for you here.” It seems reasonable to translate busurmanskie igrie as Muslim games. Of course, the question that lingers is what were they playing?

Games had a noticeable presence in the Muslim world. (I am not going to dwell here on the whole issue of game classification and what constitutes a “game”. There’s a huge body of literature on the subject.)  The broad range of games in the Muslim world – anything from cards, dice and board games to pigeon racing, hoop jumping and riddles (chistan) – catered to all purposes, ages and seasons. (A very informative article on the history of games in Persianate societies can be found in the Encyclopedia Iranica.)

Societies that valued equestrian traditions often considered fine horsemanship, polo, arrow shooting from the back of a horse, and so forth, as accepted forms of formal entertainment. Wrestling was widespread, too.

Yet, one assumes that if wrestling or shooting had been part of the entertainment in ‘Abd al-Aziz Khan’s court, Boris Pazukhin would have no problem referring to them as such. Given their descriptions (or lack thereof) in the text, even if it seems reasonable to suppose otherwise, we have no reason to assume that the Muslim games played during the first banquet – indoors, and in a more confined space – were any different from the Muslim games played during the second banquet, outdoors, in a large garden. The precise nature of the games remains a mystery.

On Central Asia’s “Decline”

The question of Central Asia’s “decline” has been surfacing time and again of late. Here’s a brief overview of the issue:

Russian and Soviet academics estimated that Central Asia entered into a period of political, economic and cultural decline following the collapse of its momentous imperial structures (e.g., the Mongols and the Timurids), the ascent of Europe and of neighboring polities in East, West, South and Inner Asia, and the commercial shift from land-based to maritime trade routes. Central Asia’s crisis reached its peak during the first half of the 18th century, while the second half of that century witnessed the beginning stages of the region’s recovery. However, only with the Russian conquest in the following century were the Central Asians “set free” from the shackles of their medieval age and were finally ready to begin to embrace modernity. (Official historical periodization in Central Asia still posits that the region’s Middle Ages lasted well into the 19th century.)

This portrayal of the region’s history – with some disagreement over the nature of and motives for Tsarist Russia’s conquest of Central Asia and, during Soviet times, also regarding the emergence of “Capitalism” in the region – has been the standard account in Soviet and Western scholarship. Recently, a call to do away with the ‘decline paradigm’ has been emanating from Western academic circles. Yet, in their quest to rescue Central Asia from a dire reputation, the new scholars seem to have forgotten to consult the primary sources from the period.

 * * *

In a recent lecture at the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies in Calcutta, I had the opportunity to cover this topic again and also benefit from the participants’ remarks. Of course, I wrote at some length on the issue in the final chapter of The Legendary Biographies of Tamerlane. There, my argument regarding the ‘decline’ is three-fold: Much like others did before me, I  contend that that the first half of the 18th century was indeed the culmination of a crisis in the region; unlike my predecessors, I submit that the crisis cannot be assessed solely by relying on economic figures – even if the economic data clearly point to a crisis – but rather should be examined, as much as the evidence allows, also in accordance with political, cultural, and social criteria; and lastly, I present unstudied (perhaps, unlooked-for) records to demonstrate the historical developments in Central Asia of the period, evidence that consists of diverse sources and that not only validates the crisis thesis but also points to some of the ways that locals dealt with their predicament.

Several colleagues have communicated to me that the arguments and the sources that I introduce and analyze in the book should probably put the question of Central Asia’s crisis to rest. Such comments echo Allen Frank’s remarks in his new Bukhara and the Muslims of Russia (Brill, 2012, p. 3): “Ron Sela, in describing the social and political contexts in which the apocryphal Timur-nama genre was composed, effectively defends the ‘decline paradigm’ that was articulated by Russian orientalists such as V. V. Bartol’d and others at the beginning of the 20th century. He emphasizes that the era of Ashtarkhanid rule, particularly the first half of the 18th century, was a period of profound political, military, social, and economic crisis for Bukhara and he convincingly dismisses much recent scholarship that would depict the Ashtarkhanid era economically, politically, and culturally vibrant.”

On the other hand, in a recent publication entitled “Early Modern Central Asia in World History” (History Compass 10/11, 2012, 866-878) my friend Scott Levi writes once more against the crisis thesis and those who identify it as such (including 19th-century orientalists and yours truly). Or does he?

“World History” is fundamentally comparative. The responsible practitioner is faced with the challenge of either being sufficiently erudite in the history of two or more regions of the world and being able to compare them based on the evidence in the primary sources, or of being sufficiently well-versed in scholarship to identify with certainty the critical research that seriously engages the primary sources. I confess that my experience – as a reader – with World History publications that concern Central Asia has not been very positive. Partly this also has to do with the reading audience of the genre, who often (not always, of course) seem to appreciate – and expect – reading about a past painted in broad strokes, permeated with frequent gusts of a theoretical wind, a past that is “dynamic” and preferably also conveyed in very familiar terms. Such expectations may render the historian’s craft easier vis-à-vis his/her audience, but perhaps also more compromising than s/he would like to be. (The first signs of this dilemma may be evident already in the article’s title, where Early Modern – a clear Western periodization category with distinct characteristics that, alas, do not apply for Central Asia – is used without quotation marks. This continues throughout the article.)

Bearing this mind, let us prod further at Scott’s article. (He and I have been going at it on this issue for a while, so in a way, this is business as usual.) After presenting the issue, Scott begins by undermining the credibility of the Russian orientalists, specifically the great Bartol’d, who, although “brilliant and prolific,” was seeking, like other scholars of that period “to determine cultural hierarchies.” Are we to understand that the crisis that the orientalists described was simply their way of asserting their superiority? Scott’s answer to this question is cautious yet aims to plant the seeds of doubt in his readers’ minds. He writes (p. 868): “The fact that Bartold embraced a positivist ideology and adhered to a social science theory bound to a nineteenth-century imperial context does not necessarily mean that his conclusions are entirely incorrect.” Not a ringing endorsement of old Bartol’d’s work, is it? Scott even adds that, “it is reasonable to suggest that his arguments warrant further investigation.”

The article’s purpose is not to reward us with any “further investigation.” For now, we should suffice with several general hypotheses (not supported by any data, unfortunately) that continue the task of sowing skepticism regarding said ‘decline.’ For example:

“political fragmentation does not necessarily indicate a society in decline” (p. 870); “the relationship between overland and maritime trade in the early modern era was significantly more complex than the decline paradigm would have one believe” (870); or, my favorite: “the very question of whether or not early modern Central Asia was ‘in decline’ is misguided.” (873)

Scott’s next step is to summarize what other scholars have written about crises elsewhere, in this case, in the Ottoman Empire (this is, after all, a “World History” publication). Virtually no evidence – with one exception – is brought forth that deals with Central Asia. That one exception is Scott’s emphasis, detailed in his The Indian Diaspora in Central Asia and Its Trade (Brill, 2002), on the Indian merchant community that was active in Central Asia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But that argument is largely irrelevant to our case because the Russian-Indian trade was the first and foremost reason for the Indian merchants’ presence in Central Asia at the time, and that trade declined drastically in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Toward the end of the article (p. 873), Scott arrives at my book. He graciously informs his readers that, “Sela’s volume makes a number of important contributions to our understanding of early modern Central Asia” (I hope he means “early modern” here), but then reverts to his general assumptions. In an endnote (p. 877, n. 43), Scott casts doubt on my sources by suggesting that I rely too heavily on Abd al-Karim Kashmiri’s travel account and that Kashmiri’s “objectivity” and “usefulness” should be questioned. To this, I counter (as I already did in my book) that Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam already established Kashmiri’s trustworthiness in their work on Indo-Persian travels in the age of discoveries (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Secondly, Kashmiri is not “my” only witness: I rely on testimonies by at least five other visitors to the region in the first half of the 18th century (including Hindustanis, Russians, and British), as well as 3 or 4 dynastic histories, hagiographies, numismatic evidence, etc. etc., not to mention the main group of sources in my work – an entire corpus of contemporaneous Central Asian popular literature.

To wrap up, I quote a part of Scott’s concluding words (p. 873): “To be clear, the objective here is not to argue that Central Asians did not suffer hardship and crisis in this period. Rather, it is to transcend the rigid notion of a society in ‘decline’ by improving our understanding of the ways that Central Asian society was transformed in difficult times.” So, it appears that ‘hardship,’ ‘crisis,’ and ‘difficult times’ did prevail in the region in the period under discussion. But let us breathe a collective sigh of relief, at least there was no ‘decline.’

A visit to Khuda Bakhsh

I’m back from nearly a month in India. It was a strenuous journey, but satisfying both
professionally and personally. I managed to consult rare manuscripts in several
archives, give lectures and meet with faculty and graduate students. Most of my time was spent in the eastern and north-eastern parts of the country, in Bengal, Orissa and Bihar (here are wall paintings for Hindu pilgrims near Kalighat, Calcutta. photo credit: R.S.).


In Patna, I worked at the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Library, one of India’s most important repositories of Arabic and Persian manuscripts. At the invitation of the Library’s kind and able director, Dr. Imtiaz Ahmad, I also delivered the Annual Lecture, named after Khan Bahadur Khuda Bakhsh, where I discussed at some length one of the most exciting manuscripts that I chanced to explore (more on this anon). The lecture was very well attended and was covered by the local media. An article about it was published in the Times of India the following day.


Sitting, from left to right: Dr. Imtiaz Ahmad, Library Director, noted historian Professor Surendra Gopal, yours truly (photo credit: Aftab Alam Siddiqui for View Patna).

The manuscript in question is a history of Timur and his descendants, titled the Tarikh-e khandan-e timuriyah and also known by its generic title Timur-nama. It is a unique 16th-century Persian manuscript that also includes over 130(!) exquisite miniature paintings. Remarkably, although it’s officially a Manuscript Treasure of India and inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, no one has done any real work on it previously. It seems that the manuscript was written during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, most likely in the late 1570s.

IMG_0167An inscription in Shah Jahan’s name (and corroborated with his official seal) on the opening page – shown here to the left – clearly states that the manuscript is a history of Timur’s descendants, down to the twenty-second year of reign of Arsh Ashyani (“he who dwells by the throne of God” – one of Akbar’s epithets bestowed on him after his death), and written during Shah Baba’s life (Shah Baba being another of Akbar’s sobriquets).

The manuscript poses many challenges: its author remains anonymous, no clear patronage is indicated (other than the inscription), no copies of this work are in existence, and the whole scheme of the work is rather unusual. By this I mean that we have no Introduction or Conclusion to the text, and most of it seems to be borrowed from official Timurid chronicles such as Yazdi’s Zafar-nama. Furthermore, there are over 50 artists represented in the different paintings which may allude to the manuscript’s original purpose. In a later post I will offer some preliminary thoughts, but for now I offer a sample photo of the painting that opens the work: Timur as a child playing with his friends and pretending to be king (the scanning was done by the library, hence the library logo in the middle).