Universiteit Leiden

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Turkic Identities in Pre-modern Central Asia

  • Ron Sela
Monday 22 May 2017
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden
16th century translation into
Chaghatay of Rashid al-Din

Turkic identities signified compelling and powerful symbols, relationships and loci of association in Central Asia. They embodied – whether by clear and confident assertions or by subtle implications – political constructs; “ethnic” designations, as well as religious distinctiveness, and sometimes served as testimonies to a preferred (nomad or sedentary) way of life.

Turkic-speaking peoples in Central Asia – particularly in the region’s urban centers – defined themselves in multiple ways: by establishing boundaries (clear at times, ambiguous on occasion) in relation to Iranian peoples or Mongol prestige groups; by supporting particular Islamic and Sufi delineations; by constructing lineages and by celebrating myths of origin. They adopted and developed modes of history-writing; they produced and refined historiography and literature in Turkic (Chaghatay); they instigated or co-opted customs and rituals, and they created unique narratives. These boundaries of self-characterization, whether premeditated or not, also built on centuries of being defined by others. 

The abundance of scholarship about Turks in the region has tended to concentrate on the question of their origins and the geopolitical distribution of their sub-groups; about the relations of Turks with Tajiks, or about ethno-genesis and the formation of Turkic nationalities in the modern era. However, the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries have been, for the most part, left outside of scholarly inquiry. In this talk, I offer ways of filling this substantial gap.

Ron Sela

Ron Sela is Associate Professor of Central Asian History in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University – Bloomington where he also serves as Director of the Islamic Studies Program. He taught previously at the University of Michigan, spent a year as a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Asian & African Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and in 2012 he was a Member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Professor Sela has published on the history and historiography of Central Asia, particularly in the post-Mongol era from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. More broadly, he studies cultural and political self-representation in Muslim literary traditions and the boundaries that defined different groups and peoples that emerge in the literary traditions in Central Asia (and, to a lesser extent, in South Asia and the Middle East). In his publications, he explores rhetorical strategies, rituals and customs, labels, genealogies, myths of origin, sources of inspiration and cultural and political symbols and their relationships with authority and power. He examines representations and perceptions of shared histories exhibited in court ceremonies, in symbolic objects of power, in popular literature and in more official depictions of traumatic “national” events.

In his historiographical publications, Sela examines both the tension between official and unofficial sources inside Central Asia, and the fascinating relationships between internal and external sources. Whether these are gaps or contradictions in representation, or direct and indirect influences from outsiders on insiders (and vice versa), Sela has been interested in revealing the sources for particular stories, the transformation of these stories over time, and the way such transformations served, and continue to serve today, different constituencies.

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