Last Lament of a Fallen Dynasty: Bukhara, Shahrisabz, and a Curious Nineteenth-Century Persian Document by James Pickett, University of Pittsburgh

Here’s a puzzle:

In Kunduz (now northern Afghanistan) the Friday sermon was read in the name of the ruling dynasty of Bukhara rather than the local Qataghan dynasts, at least during the 1850s. The Friday sermon (khuṭba) has been an Islamic symbol of sovereignty for over a thousand years. However, Bukharan troops had never set foot in Kunduz, nor had they extracted resources from that territory (at least during the reign of the Manghits, 1747-1920).

Meanwhile, in the same broad timeframe, the Qataghan rulers of Kunduz had conquered and vassalized the Yarid dynasty of mountainous Badakhshan, the ruler of which went by the lofty title “Padishah” (emperor).

By transitive property, would that make the Padishah of Badakhsan a Bukharan subject in the 1850s? And what sorts of distinctions between political symbolism, informal influence, and administrative coercion are occluded by thinking in terms of “state borders”? If we needed to represent such distinctions by shading in a map, which color would the mountains now split between Tajikistan and Afghanistan be colored?

Map designed by author, based on Yuri Bregel’s An Historical Atlas of Central Asia (2003)

Or consider another conundrum:

In the sixteenth century, Yemeni highlanders fought the mighty Ottoman Empire to a standstill. The Ottoman sultan struck a deal with the unruly potential subjects: mint coins and read the Friday sermon (khuṭba) in the name of the Ottoman sultan, and Yemen would be more or less left alone (for the time being). In other words, symbolically, Yemen was now part of the Ottoman realm, but without having to hand over any material resources.

Poland got the opposite deal: after a costly defeat in 1672, the Polish king agreed to pay yearly tribute to the Ottoman Empire. But, of course, there was no khuṭba in Poland, and he remained king in the north.

How do we judge where the Ottoman Empire began and end? Would you rather pay taxes, or bend the knee?

The latter example comes from Dariusz Kołodziejczyk’s superb essay, “What Is Inside and What Is Outside? Tributary States in Ottoman Politics” (2013), which is well worth a read.

At one point Kołodziejczyk quips: “one gets the impression that the Ottomans were true postmodernists, as they were unable to answer the simple question whether the Crimean khan was a sovereign ruler or not.” Of course, that question is not at all simple, which is entirely Kołodziejczyk’s point.

It is also the point of my recent article, “Written into Submission: Reassessing Sovereignty through a Forgotten Eurasian Dynasty,” which was just published with The American Historical Review as part of a forum on “Vernacular Ways of Knowing” (June 2018). The “forgotten dynasty” in question was the city-state of Shahrisabz (in modern day Uzbekistan). Certainly, as the birthplace of Timur / Tamerlane, the city itself will be familiar itself to most Central Asianists.

Timur’s Aq-Saray palace (source: Wikimedia commons)

What is perhaps less familiar is the fact that its rulers defied their arch nemeses in Bukhara for over a century, only to be decisively subdued by Russian forces in 1870. Why is it, then, that textbooks generally characterize Shahrisabz as a “province” of Bukhara, even if an unruly one? Just like Poland vis-à-vis the Ottoman Empire, or Badakhsan vis-à-vis Kunduz (vis-à-vis Bukhara), this question is not nearly as straightforward as it seems.

I won’t recapitulate my full argument here, allowing the article to speak for itself (with the broad strokes summarized in the abstract). But suffice it to say this puzzle serves as an entry point for thinking about source use – how we know what we think we know – as well as a way of interrogating the concept of sovereignty itself during the pre-colonial period.

The aforementioned article is based on a wide variety of primary sources unavailable in published form, and certainly never translated. One of the most exciting of them is what I think of as the “smoking gun” piece of evidence for the article’s broader argument: a Persian-language petition sent in secret by Shahrisabz residents to the Russian Empire, complaining about Bukhara’s infringement on the city-state’s sovereignty – along with other outrages. Parts of the petition are summarized and contextualized between pages 842 and 843 of the article, but the raw content of the document is fascinating in its own right.

With that in mind, I am going to take advantage of this venue to provide some “enhanced content”: a full (albeit rough) translation of Shahrisabz’s final gambit to escape Bukhara’s clutches, and reestablish some approximation of its former sovereign status.


Translation of a petition from the people of Shahrisabz to the Russian Empire, date unknown (likely the mid-1870s, translation by author):

To the General Governor and Governor Golovachev [i.e. Nikolai Nikitich], Majestic and Dignified, Refuge of Mercy and Executor of the Domain (mamlakat) of Turkestan:

We write in the hope that our petition of servitude will be accepted. We, a group of servants and sufis (khwāja-gān) and all of the people of Shahrisabz, had petitioned you [Russians] at the time when General Abramov conquered the city of Shahrisabz. You gave Shahrisabz to the Amir of Bukhara, while knowing full well the enmity the Amir of Bukhara held for us, [a hatred] that is known to everyone, and that he [the Amir] was slaughtering us (halāk mē-kunad). We then implored you to appoint a governor from amongst yourselves [i.e. a Russian governor] so that we might live in the dominion (dawlat) of the White Emperor (aq-pādishāh).

General Abramov had said that the Amir of Bukhara would neither forcibly relocate us nor kill us nor or oppress us in any fashion, and that we should rest easy, and assured us he would specify [these conditions] to the Amir and write a letter to that effect. We were all very much reassured, and he [indeed] gave us just such a letter.

Snapshot of petition from Shahrisabz (photo by author)

After General Abramov left, the Amir came from Bukhara [to Shahrisabz], and read the letter written by Abramov when we proffered it to him. Upon reading the letter, the Amir’s wrath immediately increased several fold, [and] he forcibly resettled a number of [Keneges] soldiers, farmers, and religious scholars in Bukhara. Moreover, he put Muhammad Yusuf Mirakhur and Shahim-quli Eshik-aghasi to death in Bukhara, and imprisoned twenty-two other noblemen in the Zindan. Several others he exiled to Charjuy, selling their property and pocketing the proceeds.

As for those people who remained behind in Shahrisabz, the oppression and cruelty is as follows. Our ancient rulers (ḥākimān) had taken one-tenth of the harvest in agricultural tax (dah-i yak-i kharāj) from dry (lālmī) farms one-fourth from irrigated lands. Nowadays, [by contrast], a person [Bukharan official] from a position of perfect enmity takes one-fifth from dry lands and one-third from irrigated ones. Moreover, landowners (amlāk-dār), clerks (mīrzā), and other collectors (dārūgha) come up with a pretext to take additional taxes (kharāj) from what remains, leaving us with [only] around half of the harvest. And from the irrigated land, they take an additional tax (ṭanābāna), even from people who have already paid. From the tobacco farmers they take one third of the crop in kharāj tax even beyond the ṭanāb tax.

They also extort the merchants. We have two bazaar days per week in Shahrisabz, and two bazaars per week in Kitab [Shahrisabz’s sister city]. [These Bukharan officials] take one tanga [a Central Asian coin] from every single bazaar merchant, calling it an ‘amīnāna‘. We have never before been subjected to such a tax.

Moreover, men weak in religion (bē-diyānat) have been appointed to the positions of judge (qāżī) and public morality enforcer (raʾīs [synonymous Central Asia with muḥtasib by the nineteenth century]), who charge young children a fee (yak tanga) for attending primary school (maktab).

And they commit many other similar injustices. For instance, aside from the regional governor’s officials, two thousand infantry remain [in Shahrisabz], who appropriate melons, fruits, and alfalfa [i.e. animal fodder] without paying any money. If anyone demands payment, [the soldiers] pummel them with blows and invective.

Twice every year the Bukharan Amir comes to Shahrisabz in person. People out of touch with local circumstances had supposed that this was for the purpose of receiving petitions from the people and gauging the realm’s general state of affairs. That is not so, however. The Amir actually [visits Shahrisabz] in order to abduct the wives and daughters of [Shahrisabz] residents, and he commits adultery (zinā) with them as soon he returns to gets back to his house in Bukhara. Every evening he selects a few of the women, and after having his way with them he casts them out. Among these abducted women are the daughters of many esteemed Shahrisabzis: the daughter of Hajji Mufti, the daughter of Mulla Abd al-Qayyum, the daughter of Nur-bay, the daughter of Abd al-Rashid-bay, and the daughter of Yar-bay. The Amir kept all of these women for several days and nights before returning them to their fathers.  And there are many other outrages analogous to this one.

After reading our petition, we hope that you will now understand the plight of our people and the scale of injustice. In the time of the dominion of the White Padishah [i.e. the Russian Tsar] the entire territory ought to be tranquil, yet us wretches are subjected to tyranny upon tyranny. We have no justice. The water of our tears has purified us such that you might accept or prayers and somehow save us from the grasp of this oppressor (ẓālim). And of course we wrote this petition [in the first place] in the hopes that you will save us from the grip of this malefactor (bē-dādgar).

Let it be known that this dominion (mamlakat) of Shahrisabz from the beginning to the end had no attachment (taʿalluq) to the Amir of Bukhara, as you already know. We hope that your highness is aware that we are even now subjects of the Amir – a status we reject.

Our sincere entreaty is that you appoint over us a governor of virtue (ṣalāh), whether he be Russian or Muslim. Considering ourselves to be subjects of the White Padishah, you would be entitled to take all manner of taxes from us (kharāj ū ṭanāb ū zakāt) for your treasury, and benefit from our prayers. We will be so happy and content if you free us from the tyrant.

And if you do not heed our supplication, we wish to petition the White Padishah directly about the evils and extortions being perpetrated.

For fear of the Amir, we are unable to affix a seal to this petition. Instead, we have written it in secret, [but] have written our names [on the back].

Fare thee well (salāmat bāshīd), and may the White Padishah’s wife and children also be well.


You may be wondering: what was so much more dangerous about a seal than a signature? The seal carried immense importance as a marker of credibility; the Shahrisabzis may have wanted to preserve some “plausible deniability” if the document ever found its way into Bukharan hands (as it indeed must have, since the document is now housed in the Bukharan Qushbegi collection in the State Archive of Uzbekistan). Or, the letter writers may have been reluctant to seek out the authorized seal of a Bukharan official.

Dear readers may be also thinking to themselves: “What a bunch of sellouts! Why on earth would the Shahrisabzis want to trade Bukharan rule for Russian colonial domination?”

It is important to bear in mind that at the time of the writing of this petition Bukhara itself was a protectorate of the Russian Empire (not legally, but for most intents and purposes, following a series of treaties after the emirate’s defeat in 1868). Moreover, the Russian presence in Bukhara was vanishingly slight at the time when this letter was likely written, particularly at the official level. (A significant Russian political presence in Bukhara did not appear until the late 1880s, though the merchant community had deeper roots.)

In all likelihood, the Shahrisabzis were not really envisioning direct rule along the lines of Russian Turkestan. Rather, they were drawing on over a century’s worth of experience negotiating their sovereignty with more powerful neighbors: Russian vassal was still closer to the status they had enjoyed before (even if something of a demotion) than Bukharan province.

Unfortunately for the Shahrisabzis, not only was regaining some semblance of autonomy no longer an option in the new colonial system, partisan sources ensured that the city-state’s former sovereign status is scarcely remembered at all. The above petition stands as one of the very few direct testaments to the bygone dispensation examined in “Written into Submission,” and helps us to understand logics of state authority quite different from those more familiar to us today.

Further reading:

The best succinct account of the three most powerful Central Asian polities in the nineteenth century is: Yuri Bregel, “The New Uzbek States: Bukhara, Khiva and Khoqand c. 1750-1886,” in The Cambridge History of Inner Asia: The Chinggisid Age, ed. Nicola Di Cosmo, Allen J Frank, and P. Golden (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 392–410. Seymour Becker’s classic work Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia (Harvard University Press: 1968) provides a narrative account of the protectorate era.

The map shown here is adapted by the author based on Yuri Bregel’s (2003) An Historical Atlas of Central Asia.  Handbook of Oriental Studies. Section 8 Uralic & Central Asian Studies, Volume: 9, Brill.

In relation to section of the letter complaining about taxes, chapter 3 of Paolo Sartori’s Visions of Justice (2016), available in its entirety online, has the most up-to-date discussion. Beatrice Penati has also written extensively on the economic history of Central Asia under Russian rule.

Works mentioned in the post:

Kołodziejczyk, Dariusz. “What Is Inside and What Is Outside? Tributary States in Ottoman Politics.” In The European Tributary States of the Ottoman Empire in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, edited by Gábor Kármán and Lovro Kuncevic. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Pickett, James. “Written into Submission: Reassessing Sovereignty through a Forgotten Eurasian Dynasty.” The American Historical Review 123, no. 3 (June 2018).

Townsend, Camilla. “Introduction: Breaking the Law of the Preservation of Energy of Historians.” The American Historical Review 123, no. 3 (June 1, 2018): 779–88.

Linguistic note and acknowledgement:

I am grateful to Nasriddin Mirzaev, a scholar at International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan, for clarification on a few of the trickier parts of the document. Unusual constructions in some sections provide evidence that its author was writing in Persian, but thinking in Uzbek.

For instance, the sentence I translated as, “And of course we wrote this petition in the hopes that you will save us from the grip of this tyrant” corresponds to the following Persian/ Tajik: Wa albatta az dast-i ēn bē-dādgar khāliṣ mē-kunēd gufta umīd karda ʿarż kardīm. The gufta in that sentence is a calque of the Uzbek deb, which is literally the participle “saying,” but is used in a manner analogous to “that.” These kinds of constructions are common in spoken Central Asian Persian / Tajik, but rare in textual sources. (I have written elsewhere about the definitional pitfalls inherent in cleanly differentiating between “Tajik” and “Persian,” as well as their relationship with Turkic languages such as Uzbek in Central Asia.)


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