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Twilight of the Persianate: The Vernacularization of Central Asia (18th - early 20th Centuries)

  • Paolo Sartori
Thursday 12 April 2018
Followed by drinks at Hortus Grand Cafe. All welcome!
Matthias de Vrieshof
Matthias de Vrieshof 4
2311 BZ Leiden

This lecture sets out to historicise what I term the ‘vernacularization of Khorezm’, which is to say that process of cultural realignment which took place from the 18th to the early 20th century as a result both of bottom-up societal change and of top-down cultural policies sponsored by the Qunghrat Uzbek tribal dynasty.

Historians of Central Asia usually view 19th-century Khorezm as a somewhat exceptional polity. While Bukhara continued to attract scholars from far afield, and many in the Deccan, Western China, Siberia, and the Middle Volga regarded “Bukhara the Noble” as one of the epicenters of Persianate high culture, Khiva in the meanwhile took a different path, premised on the literary pre-eminence of Chaghatay, an eastern Turkic language with a far less prestigious pedigree than Persian. The rise of the Qunghrat dynasty can be seen to be closely associated with a cultural project which over the course of a century produced many original historical works in Chaghatay together with more than 300 translations from Arabic and Persian. But Chaghatay was not just the language of court culture in Khiva. By the 1850s all Khorezm wrote in Chaghatay, which by then fully replaced Persian as the language of law, bureaucracy, and epistolography.

There is something ‘paradoxical’ in this picture, claim Vasilii Barthold and Yuri Bregel: on the one hand we learn that the cataclysms of the 18th century left Khorezm bereft of written traces and deprived of its own history; on the other, we encounter in the 19th century a completely different cultural landscape, one in which Chaghatay literature shines in all its majesty. It is my contention that this oddity is only apparent, and that if we look closer at the region this puzzle resolves itself. The heuristic move I have in mind requires that we stop assuming that the Chaghatay literature produced during the regency of the Qunghrats was a self-contained courtly phenomenon, i.e., some kind of an elitist literary enterprise detached from the cultural landscape surrounding Khiva. I instead want to suggest that, if one connects the texts which we find in the Khivan royal library to other writing practices attested in Khorezm and beyond, one begins to discern a broader and indeed deeper cultural shift in which the Qunghrats liaised in fact with the many small sites of power that developed in Khorezm after the fall of the earlier Arabshahid dynasty and throughout the 18th century, and connected to the disparate, often contradictory realities of the region.

This talk brings into conversation a number of different historiographies: it engages the literature on the Persianate sphere and cosmopolitanism; it addresses the reformulation of pre-modern Central Asia identities and, more specifically, the emergence of Uzbek-ness prior to the making of Uzbekistan; and, finally, it reflects upon articulations of Islamic sovereignty and discussions about the nature of the state in the Uzbek khanates.

Paolo Sartori

Paolo Sartori is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Iranian Studies of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna. He holds a M.A. in Oriental Studies (‘Ca’ Foscari’ University of Venice) and a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies (‘la Sapienza’ University of Rome). A recipient of numerous grants and awards, Dr Sartori was Volkswagen-Stiftung Fellow at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg from 2007 to 2011. In 2013 he was awarded the START prize by the Austrian Science Fund for his six-year research project “Seeing Like an Archive: Documents and Forms of Governance in Islamic Central Asia (18th-19th Centuries). He currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient.

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