Author Interview: The Rise and Fall of Khoqand, 1709-1876: Central Asia in the Global Age, by Scott Levi, Ohio State University

Building upon their Author-Critic Forum at the recent annual CESS meetings in Pittsburgh 2018, author and historian Scott Levi (Ohio State University) reflects on questions posed by colleague James Pickett (University of Pittsburgh) about his latest book, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2017 as part of the Central Eurasia in Context series.

  • What research not about Central Asia inspired you in this project?

The inspiration for this project stems from a relatively simple observation that I made almost twenty years ago, while I was wrapping up work on my first book on the Indian merchant communities that operated in early modern Central Asia. At that time, I found evidence of widespread Indian activities in the region, but no evidence to suggest that Indian merchants were active in the Ferghana Valley during seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. I only realized that, however, when I looked into the Russian colonial records found that, in the late nineteenth century, Indians were as ubiquitous in the Ferghana Valley as they were everywhere else in the region. Considering the historical importance of the Ferghana Valley, this led me to ask: What changed in the interim? Specifically, it drew me to the Khanate of Khoqand as a source for change and dynamism.

Of course, all societies exhibit dynamism in their own ways and history itself is often defined as the study of change over time. But historical studies of early modern Central Asia up to the 1990s had tended to emphasize isolation over dynamism, and the only change over time that scholarship seemed to recognize was a long, protracted economic decline that was believed to have stemmed from the presumed collapse of the so-called “Silk Road” trade during the period of European ascendancy in the Indian Ocean. Considering this problem more broadly, I was aware of scholarly trends in both Mughal and Ottoman history that aimed to complicate and then move beyond simplistic notions of decline. I looked to that literature for inspiration.

The Ark (fortress and residence) of Khudayar Khan (Photo credit Scott Levi).

In Mughal history, already during the late 1980s, C.A. Bayly, Muzaffar Alam, André Wink and a number of other scholars began to direct attention away from the imperial center in favor of the provincial regions that constituted the Mughal Empire and that would later give rise to the Mughal successor states. In place of an empire in decline, these researchers found a vibrant commercial economy fueling an array of social changes that the Mughal imperial system was ill-prepared to manage. A similar trend was meanwhile playing out in Ottoman history. As Jane Hathaway, Douglas Howard, Donald Quataert, Ariel Salzmann, Linda Darling, and others in that field began to challenge longstanding notions of Ottoman decline, they enhanced our understanding of the Ottoman imperial system and also drew a clearer distinction between two notions that are too often conflated: decline and decentralization. While political crises at the Ottoman center caused hardship for some, they created new opportunities for others, especially those in the provinces.

Returning attention to Central Asia, during the 1990s, a number of scholars had begun to produce work that chipped away at the notion of regional isolation and civilizational decline. I discussed that literature in an article that I published in 1999, and I saw my Indian Diaspora book (2002) as contributing to that trend. Collectively, this body of scholarship challenges the notion that early modern Central Asians were somehow isolated from the outside world and it casts doubt on the deeply entrenched notion of Central Asian decline.

None of that changes the fact that, during the first half of the eighteenth century, the Bukharan Khanate fell into a severe crisis from which it would not recover. But, taking a lesson from Mughal and Ottoman historiography, I found that scholars had taken the evidence from the Bukharan crisis and then misapplied it to the entire region, often extending it beyond the first half of the eighteenth century to the full early modern era. I find this troublesome.

The royal cemetery, Dakhm-i Shahan, for the khans of Khoqand and their families (photo credit Scott Levi).

This is part of what led me to write a history of the Khanate of Khoqand. Because Khoqand emerged during the early eighteenth century – the very period of the Bukharan crisis and collapse – writing its history is in some ways a study in contrast. The Bukharan crisis lasted for decades and many suffered, especially those who were most dependent upon the state. But, to use your own words, James, other groups found “opportunity in upheaval.”

  • Which books were most influential? Which books published since you sent off your final edits do you wish had been written in time for you to dialogue with them?

I began my early spadework on this project already in 2002 and I benefitted greatly from the work that came out since that time. The most important and influential works were those that Timur Beisembiev produced, including especially his amazingly detailed Annotated Indices to the Kokand Chronicles (2008) and his 1263-page Kokandskaiia istoriografia (2009). I deeply value my email conversations with Timur Kasymovich and I remain grateful to him for his guidance on a number of thorny issues in Khoqand’s historiography. His death on December 30, 2016 represents a terrible loss for the field.

I also found special value in a number of studies external to Central Asian history. From the middle of the eighteenth century, the westward flow of Qing silver was immensely important to Khoqand, and these relations had implications that extended far beyond just the state’s commercial economy. Emanating from the field of Qing history, I was deeply influenced by the discussions advanced in the works of Jim Millward (1998 and 2007), Laura Newby (2005), Peter Perdue (2005), and Kwangmin Kim (2016). Turning to the north, Alexander Morrison generously gave me access to late drafts of several chapters from his forthcoming book on the Russian conquest of Central Asia, and so I was able to dialogue with him. My book is much stronger for it.

Military assembly in the courtyard of the Ark of Khudayar Khan, circa 1865-1872.  The photo is from the Turkestanskii Al’bom, held by the Library of Congress.

At the same time, there are a number of books that I would have loved to have had a chance to engage more directly. One of these is Ian Campbell’s Knowledge and the Ends of Empire: Kazakh Intermediaries and Russian Rule on the Steppe, 1731–1917 (Cornell UP, 2017). I was not able to delve as deeply as I would have liked into the nature of Khoqand’s relations with the Kazakhs during the first half of the nineteenth century, and Ian’s work would have improved my own work in this area.

Another theme that I worked to develop throughout this book is the importance that environment and water played in the rise of Khoqand. Control over water and the expansion of irrigation agriculture was immensely important to Khoqand’s ability to negotiate conflicts, attract and settle migrant populations, and develop a more prosperous agricultural economy. It’s also what attracted to the valley those Indian merchants that I had worked on earlier. The book explains how, as the state grew in magnitude and power, the ecology of the Ferghana Valley gradually transformed from a peripheral wilderness into a much more densely populated agricultural zone.

From the turn of the nineteenth century, Khoqand’s growing resources were used to develop a powerful and technologically current military that fueled territorial expansion southward into the Pamirs and northward into the steppe. I was grateful to be able to build off of Mike Thurmon’s unpublished work on water management in the Ferghana Valley during the nineteenth century. But I would have loved to have been able to work with the more recent work found in Nick Breyfogle’s edited volume, Eurasian Environments: Nature and Ecology in Imperial Russian and Soviet History (Pittsburgh UP, 2018), as well as Maya Peterson’s Pipe Dreams: Water and Empire in Central Asia’s Aral Sea Basin (Cambridge UP, forthcoming).

  • What are some of the big questions in the history of Khoqand that remain unanswered, and that (importantly) you believe are answerable?

This is a great question, thanks. While diving into the project I quickly realized that writing a history of a state is a monstrous undertaking and, if I tried to do too much, I’d end up doing nothing very well. So I set my sights on a few key themes to highlight as I traced the history of Khoqand from its early origins in 1709 to its ultimate demise in 1876. Moving beyond notions of stagnation and regional isolation, I really wanted to draw attention to the ways that larger globalizing processes shaped the rise, efflorescence and fall of Khoqand. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Khoqand grew by a factor of thirty to cover roughly 250,000 square miles – an area roughly equal to the size of France. This is what led me to settle on a “connected histories” methodology that enabled me to direct attention to relations with the Qing as they developed from the middle of the eighteenth century, and relations with Russia as they grew in magnitude over the nineteenth century.

Map of Khoqandi Expansion through 1842 (taken from The Rise and Fall of Khoqand, p. 134)

At the same time, there are a number of questions that I was not able to explore to the extent that I would have liked, and that present potentially exciting avenues for further research. One example that I already mentioned is the nature of Khoqand’s conquest of Kazakh territories and its official presence in the steppe. The official Khoqand chronicles provide only a glimpse into the mechanics of this momentous achievement, and a heavily biased one at that. A researcher prepared to work in both Khoqandi and Kazakh sources (and perhaps Russian and Qing sources as well) could open new avenues of inquiry that would provide valuable insights into the complicated political dynamics among the Kazakhs in the decades leading up to Russian colonial expansion into the region.

The field of women’s history provides another opportunity. The Khoqand chronicles have little to say about women, but I was able to locate a small number of instances where elite women were recognized for having played exceptionally important roles in Khoqandi state and society. I found those instances fascinating and I would love to see an enterprising researcher exploit a wide body of literature – moving beyond just that produced by the elite – to explore this subject further and deepen our understanding of Khoqandi society beyond the rulers, Sufis, merchants, and soldiers who customarily draw the historians’ attention. Nurten Kilic-Schubel has a chapter in her co-edited festschrift for Isenbike Togan, Horizons of the World, that could be an excellent point of departure.

Another important subject that remains to be explored is the diplomatic relationships among the ruling elite in Khoqand, Bukhara, and Khiva, as well as a number of effectively independent city-states such as Shahrisabz. Khoqand and Bukhara were bitter rivals at times, but not always, and a careful study of the diplomatic correspondence of the time could tell us much about the political culture of Central Asia as it developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Such a project could help answer important questions pertaining to persistent rivalries, efforts to draw support and legitimacy from foreign powers, and also efforts to share information and work together to advance common goals.

  • What historical personage from your book would you most like to sit down and have coffee with, and why?

This is a really interesting question and it’s one that I’ve actually spent some time thinking about. Given a choice, I suspect most readers would choose to hang out with ‘Umar Khan (r. 1811–22), who governed Khoqand during its brief cultural efflorescence. I imagine it would be quite a treat to sit in his garden in Khoqand, sip sherbet (or wine), and listen to him recite his own poetry. But I’d actually be more interested to meet a couple of other individuals. My first choice would be Shah Rukh Biy, the progenitor of the ruling dynasty of Khoqand. Virtually all of the Khoqand chronicles begin with a discussion of his rise to power. But Shah Rukh died in 1722, a full century before the first of the chronicles was written. I would love to know more about his life and experiences, his motivations, and his perspective on Central Asian statecraft and society at the turn of the eighteenth century.

The Author at the Ark of Khudayar Khan (photo credit Scott Levi).

Another very interesting person to meet would be ‘Umar Khan’s older brother ‘Alim Khan, who died in 1811 in a coup that his brother orchestrated. The sources suggest he was a difficult person to be around, but he would be a fascinating person to meet. He launched a number of brutal efforts to centralize his control over the state, and he also annexed Tashkent and began to expand Khoqandi territory into the steppe. I would love to learn more about his ambitions in courting a commercial relationship with Russia, his plans vis-à-vis Bukhara, and his vision in revolutionizing Khoqand’s military by incorporating Tajik Ghalcha troops and training them in the use of gunpowder weaponry.

Thanks again for asking these questions, James. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss my work with you again, and in such detail.

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