Review of the 8th Annual Doctoral Research Workshop on Central Asia

On 25 January 2020, convened by Dr Harun Yilmaz and Dr Gai Jorayev and organised by Dr Gül Berna Özcan, Dr Katherine Hughes, Dr Gulzat Botoeva and Rosa Vercoe we experienced a day of fascinating talks presented by an international and multitalented group of doctoral researchers.

The day began at the Greco-Bactrian (3rd century BCE) temple at Takt-i Sangin (Tajikistan) with its dedication to the Oxus/Amu Darya river by Maria Francesca Melloni of University Ca’ Foscari. Examples of multicultural elements evident in architecture, objects, coins, linguistics at the site mark the start of a day of continuous expansion, trade, nation building and ideological pluralism.

This was followed closely on by Merlijn Veltman presenting his MA research (University of Utrecht) on mediated identity with funerary evidence from Xiongnu tombs at Noin Ula. His thesis that the ‘Noin Ula burials were not necessarily built to show “elite prestige” but are rather evidence of mediated identity; communal renegotiation of identity; integration of global elements within local traditions’ had everyone talking about post-processual approaches. These burials show an intentional combination of local and imported materials including imported dyes used to colour local camel hair and copies of Chinese style chariots. Veltman made a connection between the uses of these objects and modern digital media in terms of the ways people negotiate and mediate their identities.

The morning was rounded out by Stefan Härtel (Freie Universität Berlin) on the imperial strategy of the Kushan (1st – 3rd centuries). His background in Iranian Studies and expertise in Bactrian inscriptions brought an especially interesting look at a well-known empire through the texts (largely on coins and inscriptions) which travelled the length and breadth of the region. Whether the spread of these inscriptions and use of Bactrian as an official language of empire-building constitute a strategy and enforce an imperial code was discussed. One of the more interesting examples given for state lineage came from the name of Nukunzuk, an official who served three kings of the Kushan and held progressively impressive positions. The rise of Buddhism in the region lead to the supposition that the Kushan took advantage of the influx of monks (and accompanying merchants) who constructed networks of monasteries (which also acted as caravanserai) and moved ideas and material goods benefitting the empire without their having to financially support the institutions.

Session remarks asked whether the strategy was successful which lead to a more general debate among participants on what constitutes an empire in the first place given the current trend of referring to various types of polities as empires (the Kiev Empire was offered as an example). While no conclusions were reached it was suggested that infrastructure and unifying law were perhaps too strict in their use as definitions of empire; also the fact that Kanishka called himself ‘king of kings’ is not enough. While the Kushans had a ‘desire’ to have a unifying language and style they ran out of steam. This prompted participants to suggest they should be called a proto-empire despite having inscriptions (as described above) indicating clear lineage. Multi-layered power relations was brought up as more nuanced way of discussing empire.

Further comments related to post-processual approaches and the need for new scientific analysis of artefacts as well as the necessity of publishing excavation reports on smaller sites from the 1980s and 90s which could shed light on all these topics.

Following some already much needed sustenance, the afternoon session began with Nátalie Gottvaldová (Masaryk University) on the role of the tribal leader and religion in the Rouran Khaganate (4th – 6th centuries). Here, the varied roles of the leader (military, relations with surrounding groups, intermediary) were discussed in creating identities with family/blood ties being the most foundational followed by that of belonging to the tribe (unity and pure relationships) under a leader who provides certainty and protection. The ‘magical abilities’ of the Saka ruler who acted as intermediary between the tribes and Tengri (Eurasian sky-god) was given as evidence of the central role this person played in every aspect of tribal life.

Irina Shingiray (University of Oxford) brought our attention to the little-known, even in Islamic history sources, Islamization of the Khazar Empire of the Caspian Steppe during the 9th to 11th centuries. This research stems from the marginalisation of nomadic Islam in favour of more urban focused study of Islam and its expansion and the assumption that nomads were only superficial converts which denies the ‘pluralism of Islam’. Quotes from 10th century traveller Ibn Fadlan who travelled to the area of Bulgar and wrote that he heard locals saying ‘there is no god but God’ while in crisis they can be heard praying to Tengri (as published in Lunde & Stone, 2012: 12).  The systems of meeting and exchange inherent in nomadic communities mean that multiple lines of thought and practice could coexist. Shingiray’s archaeological evidence from 10th century burials testify to a plurality and transition in belief structures manifest in burial practices in the region which serve to demystify earlier stereotypes. While still understudied, these burials show that the treatment of the body (shrouding), placement in the grave (separated from the earth surrounding it), and orientation (towards Khibla) suggest a concept of the materiality of the body even after death. These may indicate a conception of the resurrection and may correlate with a reduction in grave goods.

Not wanting to leave this discussion but forced to by time on Saturday and word count today, we move to Michal Schwarz’s (Masaryk University) presentation on the legacy of worship of the thousand-faced Maitreya in the medieval period continuing to today.

This session concluded with a fascinating explanation by Ahmet Hojam (J.W. Goethe University) of the Qianlong era (r. 1735-1796) mosque and accompanying stele erected after a Uyghur defeat in 1759 resulting in the forced relocation to Beijing and subsequent establishment of a community of several hundred individuals, descendants of whom live in the city today. Erected in 1763 the stele remained as a written reminder of defeat until 1958 when it disappeared, only to reappear in 1983. Hojam’s linguistic analysis of the quadrilingual inscription (Turkic, Mongolian, Manchu, Chinese) shows how the use of different terms in different languages imbues the stele with significantly different meanings to each group. Ultimately, the stele (and others throughout the Chinese sphere of influence) serves to reinforce the superiority and establish legitimacy of the emperor over different peoples by equating him to the divine. The Turkic inscription imitates an expression from the Qur’an thereby conflating Qianlong with Allah while the Chinese version is based on classical Chinese literature.

The final session of the day followed this past-into-present discussion by expanding on the politicisation of heritage in the modern era. Led by Anton Ikhsanov (Higher School of Economics) whose study of Alexander Samoilovich, a Soviet era philologist who conducted research in Turkmenistan highlights the concept of truth in knowledge production. Ego-documents reveal gradual shifts in his opinion about the ‘Orient’ as a result of years of qualitative data gathering and research. Concluding with ‘Knowledge production is not a linear process, but a result of multidimensional dialogue’ sparked questions in the room as to Samoilovich’s opinion on modernisation efforts made in these regions.

Jan Tomek (University of Oxford) brought the discussion directly into our lives with his examination of the role of national historical narratives in contemporary Central Asia – Iran relations. Outlining the links between historiography and foreign policy with historical narratives being one of the key nation building elements. Examples from Khorasan/Transoxiana (as the ‘homeland’ of New Persia) where ‘territorially-based national historiography’ is in play with ‘any past ethnic group, historical figure or dynasty based on the modern territory of Uzbekistan gets interpreted as an integral part of Uzbekistan nation building narrative’.

The day finished with Sofya du Boulay (Oxford Brookes University) on regime foundational myths in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. ‘Official political discourses and state historiography structure arguments about the ways in which historical development evolve and contain assumptions regarding deficiencies of the past and provide some general guidance about what needs to be done to reach a more desirable state of affairs in the future.’ Kazakhstan, in particular, has seen the history curriculum include a revival of Alash Orda, previously viewed as ‘enemies of the Kazakh working class’ (1933, published in Amanzholova, 1994), now viewed as representing the ‘liberation of the Kazakh people’ (Turlyul, 2011).

On that note the conference broke out and went to dinner where the intense discussion continued until we were treated to a wonderful performance on the saz (bağlama) by Dr Çağrı Haksoz who had us either dancing or weeping. A truly inspiring day of dialogue and exchange. Looking forward to next year!! Be sure to click on the links above and check out the bios and publications of the speakers for more detailed information on the important research being conducted in a wide ranging geographic region. Sincere gratitude to the organisers who put together such an amazing event!!

– Kim TE WINKLE and Federica CILIO

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