Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

At the Hinge of the Nomadic and Sedentary Worlds: A Multi-disciplinary approach

Episode 1: The Golden Horde in a Global Perspective: Imperial Strategies. This project intends to challenge the conventional way of considering the nomadic state organizations and the role of Nomads in world history.

2014  -   2016
Asian Modernities and Traditions Grant
Global Interaction (LGI seed funding) Grant
The European University at St Petersburg (sponsor TAIF)

European University at St Petersburg

Oxford University

Within the overarching project “At the hinge of the nomadic and sedentary worlds: a multi-disciplinary approach”, which intends to challenge the conventional way of considering nomadic state organizations, three workshops will be organized. The first will take place in Leiden on the 7 th and 8 th May 2015. It is dedicated to the Golden Horde, a major successor state of the Mongol Empire, stretched on territories that straddled Eastern Europe, Southern Russia and Central Asia between the thirteenth and the sixteenth century. Theoretical issues about nomadism, empire and Islam, recent archaeological results, as well as the modern perception of the Tatar imperial legacy shall be the major research tracks of the workshop. As a result of this joint initiative of the LIAS, the Leiden Institute for History and the European University at St Petersburg, researchers in archeology, history and numismatics will convene to debate and exchange. We expect the highest benefit from the combination of historical views and archaeological results based on the excavations of various sites of Russia and Kazakhstan. This will be the opportunity for Russian scholars to show new material to their colleagues in Leiden (including Islamic manuscripts). Two other workshops shall be organized in 2016 (in St Petersburg and Oxford).

Description of the programme

Early modern empires are conventionally defined as coercive structures where the commitment of citizenship and the free adherence to the state project played a very limited role. The citizenship-modernity scheme cherished by those who believe that Europe was the first laboratory of modernity or even further that modernity was a European phenomenon is a long-lived cliché. This misconception grows even stronger when it concerns nomadic statehood, supposedly backward especially when you consider the ways used to submit sedentary populations. In this pattern the steppes empires were merely “a mechanism for collecting tribute” shaped by the constant struggle between predatory nomads and submissive sedentary producers. The blame against their allegedly regressive tax system is widespread in the academic literature: such state formations would be based upon a constraining wealth acquisition system contrary to modern societies built on contractual exchanges between the ruler and the elites.

In this project we intend to challenge the conventional way of considering the nomadic state organizations. Recent researches about empires have shaken the common view of the “predatory nomads” [1]. They show that the opposition between nomadic rulers and sedentary populations was not so clear-cut and that the traditional antagonism between the conquered inhabitants and the exploiting military elite has to be challenged. The social integration of the sedentary populations in a nomadic context was deeper than we used to think and their interaction with their rulers exceeded the frame of the central administration where conquerors and conquered, warriors and civilians, nomadic and sedentary office holders collaborated. In many cases, the sedentary elites were the active supporters of the nomadic rulers. They agreed on being part of a larger political structure beyond the pressure of its coercive potential because they shared common interests.

Among the pre-modern empires, the Golden Horde can be taken as a case in point. In the thirteenth century, the Mongols created a vast transcontinental empire. It emerged from the unification of the Mongol and Turkic nomadic populations through the leadership of Chinggis-khan. The “yeke monggol ulus” lasted as a unified structure until the 1260s. The westernmost part of the empire was then under the domination of the Jöchids, members of a dynasty that goes back to the eldest son of Chinggis-khan: Jöchi (d.1227). At its height, the ulus of Jöchi, known later as the Golden Horde, was stretching from the Aral Sea to the Black Sea and from the Ural River to the Danube River. It covered great parts of modern Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tatarstan, Russia and Ukraine.

This project aims at examining the imperial structures of the Golden Horde. We intend to show through concrete examples that statecraft and centralized administration were not exclusively produced within sedentary cultures. Under the Jöchid dynasty many regions and populations were unified for the first time. The nomadic khans were able to rule an empire for three hundred years over territories which had never experienced such a politico-economical development in the past. The legacy of the Golden Horde in Russia and Central Asia was very deep in terms of legal practices, religion and culture. Still in the nineteenth century, while the main Jöchid lands were part of the Russian empire, people would keep in their family archives documents issued under the khans for legal reason – often as proof of property – or in connection with their Islamic beliefs. [2]


[1]D. Ostrowski, Muscovy and the Mongols: cross-cultural influences on the steppe frontier, 1304-1589, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) ; N. Di Cosmo, "State Formation and Periodization in Inner Asian History", in: Journal of World History 10 (1999), 1-40., V. Trepavlov, The Formation and early history of the Manghït Yurt (Bloomington: papers on Inner Asia no 35, Bloomington Indiana, 2001); M.Elliott, "Whose Empire Shall It Be? Manchu Figurations of Historical Process in the Early Seventeenth Century." In Lynn Struve, ed., Time and Temporality in the Ming-Qing Transition (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 30–72; P. Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); D.Kołodziejczyk, The Crimean Khanate and Poland-Lithuania: International Diplomacy on the European Periphery (15th-18th Century), a Study of Peace Treaties Followed by Annotated Documents (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2011).

[2]I.A. Mustakimov, “Eshche raz o kazanskom iarlyke khana Sakhib-Gireia,” in: Srednevekovye tiurko-tatarskie gosudarstva, vypusk 5. Voprosy istochnikovedeniia i istoriografiia istorii srednevekovykh tiurko-tatarskikh gosudarstv (Kazan’, 2013), 31-47; A. Bustanov, “The Sacred Texts of Siberian Khwaja Families. The Descendants of Sayyid Ata,” in: Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 2 (2011), 70-99.

Connection with other research

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