History Scholarship Roundup: March 2013

Not a bad couple of months for new publications on Eurasian history.

Whither the History of Afghanistan?: IJMES recently published a series of “state of the field”-style thought pieces about the history of Afghanistan based on conference proceedings (vol. 45, 2013: pp. 127-128).  Nile Green’s introductory article poses the fundamental question: “Do we need an autonomous field of Afghan history… or do both the transnational nature of the subject matter and the changing concerns of historical studies suggest that Afghan history would better develop within a broader regional framework?”  Christine Noelle-Karimi answers his question with an emphatic “no,” arguing that for much of its history the region “… is best understood in the context of the ‘Indo-Persian’ or ‘Persophone’ realm.”  This observation is equally true, it would seem, of those Central Asian territories north of the Amu Darya, though in practice even the post-Soviet ‘Stans are less academically homeless than Afghanistan.

Robert McChesney and James Caron both make a case for getting away from “Kabul-centric” history, calling for greater attention to the provinces – particularly the non-Pashtun ones.  If you want to read more conceptual ruminations from one of the most esteemed scholars in Afghan history, you might also check out McChesney’s book review (“Recent Work on the History of Afghanistan,” Journal of Persianate Studies 5, no. 1 (2012): 58–91), in which he covers five different monographs on Afghan history (including Thomas Barfield’s recent synthetic history).  More importantly, though, McChesney takes advantage of the review format to offer big-picture thoughts on the field as a whole.  While he is positive toward many of the books under review (particularly Barthold and May Schinasi’s French-language history of Kabul), he faults many of them for lack of attention to indigenous sources, noting pointedly that while a history of France lacking reference to contemporary French sources is unthinkable, such treatment is routine in the field of Afghan history.

The IJMES roundtable is a must-read, though it tends to over-intellectualize the underdeveloped nature of Afghan history, emphasizing historiographical factors over practical ones.  Little mention is made of archival access; security issues are such that many scholars are unwilling to spend much time in the Afghan archives, and even if archival access were less of a problem, cataloging and organizational issues pose another crippling hurdle.  Robert Nichols emphasizes increased access to Afghan materials via the Afghanistan digital library initiative (directed by McChesney), as well as materials available in foreign archives, but – salubrious as those developments are – without the opportunity for deep archival study Afghanistan will never enjoy the sort of efflorescence that Russian and Soviet history continues to enjoy since 1991.  Indeed, this problem is not unique to Afghanistan;  studies of many countries in post-Soviet Central Asia have dried up along with the archival access.  Speaking of which, this article about Victoria Clement being granted rare access (in fact she is the “second non-Turkmen ever” to enjoy such distinction, according to the article) to the Turkmen archives is worth a gander, though I am not holding my breath waiting for a boom in archivally-based Turkmenistan studies.

Moving north…  A variety of notable monographs culminating from years of research in Persian- and Turkic-language sources were released in the past year or so.  In 2011 Ron Sela’s book about eighteenth-century legendary portrayals of Timur saw print.  In addition to the bulk of the book focusing on the subject matter suggested by the title, pay attention as well to the tangentially related thought-piece in chapter 6: “Central Asia in Turmoil, 1700-1750,” which throws down the “decline theory” gauntlet, arguing forcefully that the eighteenth century in particular was characterized by “corrosion in the authority of the state and the collapse of the central government; the unremitting wars; the confusion, uncertainty, and conflict over the identity of succeeding rulers; the economic crisis; and so forth” (p. 135). (This particular historiographical debate will be all too familiar for students of Ottoman and Mughal studies, where for quite some time scholars have been challenging the notion that military defeats in the face of European expansion was necessarily a result of the economic, cultural, and moral deterioration of the Islamic gunpowder empires).

Thomas Welsford’s Four Types of Loyalty in Early Modern Central Asia focuses on Tuqay-Timurid (sometimes also referred to as the Janids or Astrakhanids) dynasty in the early seventeenth century, an exceedingly under-studied period in Central Asian history.  At the risk of spoiling the surprise, the four categories of loyalty analyzed by Welsford are: charismatic, clientalist, inertial, and communal.  (It may be difficult to get your hands on for a few more months, given that it is published by the checkbook-straining Brill, and is so new that it hasn’t quite made it into some academic libraries – though large chunks of it can be read on Google Books.)  For a primer on the Tuqay-Timurids, see the classic McChesney, Waqf in Central Asia; although the title may sound more specialized than dynastic history, the dearth of secondary material about the Tuqay-Timurids at that time forced McChesney to work out the khanate’s history more or less from scratch.

Finally, Allen Frank just released a book (re: Brill – ditto) about Islamic connections between Bukhara and the Volga-Urals region of Russia based primarily on Turkic sources found in Kazan.  In the centuries before the rise of reformist Islam (“jadidism”), Bukhara enjoyed an allure in Russia’s Islamic communities that at times even overshadowed that of Mecca, but in less than a century Bukhara became associated in the minds of reformists with fanaticism, conservatism, and useless educational norms.  Frank’s monograph is a welcome addition to a burgeoning literature on Islam in the Volga-Urals region, which seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance with new scholarship from Mustapha Tuna, Michael Kemper, and Alfrid Bustanov.

In terms of articles, two entries on topics almost entirely lacking research attention come to mind: Devin DeWeese’s historiographic source review about medicine in early modern Central Asia and Hidayat ur Rahman’s article about the mountainous princely states of Chitral and Yasin.  Neither piece purports to offer much in the way of thematic argumentation – so mileage for non-specialists may vary – serving instead as initial steps into potential broader inquiries.  Nevertheless, interesting nuggets are nestled in both.  For instance, DeWeese tells us that the health ramifications of masturbation was a hot-button issue in nineteenth-century Bukhara (who knew!), and Rahman shows  connections between a province that is now in Pakistan and Badakhshan, both in terms of rhetoric (legendary descent from the Macedonians: how’s that for Bactriana?) and Sufi networks.  More importantly for the history of medicine in Central Asia (a subfield that does not yet exist, aside from a few scattered specimens such as Jeff Sahadeo’s work on a Tashkent cholera outbreak [“Epidemic and Empire,” Slavic Review 64, no. 1 (2005): 117–139]), DeWeese exposes a gaping hole in the literature whereby scholars either focus on “great” medieval scholars like Ibn Sina or on the development of “modern” medicine (typifying a binary that DeWeese challenges), altogether ignoring a Central Asian tradition continuously evolving from the early modern period well into Soviet times.

Russianists might take note of Alberto Masoero’s “Territorial Colonization in Late Imperial Russia” (Kritika 14, no. 1 (2013): 59–91, which is an intellectual history tracing changing connotations of the idea of colonialism in public opinion and the minds of the Russian elite.  Interestingly, imperial suspicions of the idea of colonialism emerged not from ethical considerations, but from fear of the possibility that a semi-autonomous unit within the empire might develop independently from the center.  (Why that danger never materialized in the Russian case – despite thousands of miles separating the provinces from the center over long periods of time – is an interesting question in and of itself.)  This article pairs well with a more practically-minded (if somewhat dated) article about the Russian empire by Frederick Starr (“The Tsarist Government: The Imperial Dimension,” in Soviet Nationality Policies and Practices, ed. Jeremy R. Azrael, [New York: Praeger Publishers, 1978]: 3-38), which considers how the Russian Empire managed regional institutional differences in government.

These roundups are in no way intended to be an exhaustive survey, but rather a subjective snapshot of what has recently passed through my metaphorical inbox. Please feel free to expand on the roundup either in the comment section below or by offering suggestions for the next edition by emailing TheCESSBlogEditor@gmail.com.