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Central Asian peoples and the great land empires of Eurasia

A new seminar series will look "in" to Central Asia to consider the circulation of peoples, religions, languages, texts and textual traditions that connected peoples across the Eurasian land mass.

The national — and, often nationalist — lens typical of empire historiography obscures the great porosity and cultural synthesis characteristic of these empires — perhaps their most defining feature.

International Institute, September 17, 2013 — The histories of the great land empires that have successively bordered and/or ruled Central Asia (e.g., Qajar, Safavid, Mongol, Mughal, Ottoman, Russian, Qing) are typically written from an instrinsic point of view. And although their Central Asian roots are acknowledged, the meaning of those roots are rarely explored.

An upcoming seminar series hosted by the International Institute, “Eurasian Empires & Central Asian Peoples: The Backlands in World History” seeks to redress the balance.

The seminars, explains UCLA historian Nile Green, will consciously step away from the idea of Central Asia as the centrifugal force that gave rise to great land empires at its margins. Instead, they will look “in” to Central Asia to consider the circulation of peoples, religions, languages, texts and textual traditions that connected peoples across the Eurasian land mass.

“These are very real and tangible cultural products,” remarks Green, “that connected different peoples in different regions at particular times and places, and then stopped connecting them.” Co-organized by Green, director of the Asia Institute’s Program on Central Asia, and fellow UCLA historian Gabriel Piterberg, director of Center for Near Eastern Studies, the series will run throughout the 2013–14 academic year.

UCLA historians Nile Green and Gabriel Piterberg. (Photo: UCLA/Peggy McInerny.)

One reason for the series, says Green, is to create a shared space for faculty experts on different regions (e.g., Middle East, Russia, China, India) to jointly consider the Central Asian elements of the empires that they study. The national — and, often nationalist — lens typical of empire historiography, explains Piterberg, obscures the great porosity and cultural synthesis characteristic of these empires — perhaps their most defining feature.

Piterberg, an expert in Ottoman history, notes that the Ottoman expression for the harem of the imperial palace — Harem-i Has — was precisely such a synthesis. Both harem (from haram, or forbidden) and has (private) are Arabic, but they are connected by a Persian grammatical structure called the ezāfe (the “i”, which denotes the genitive).

“There’s not a word of Turkish there,” says Piterberg. “What makes it Ottoman is the synthesis: the synthesis of two Arabic words connected by a Persian structure. And that was used for one of the most hallowed institutions of the empire.”

In fact, he adds, “The ezāfe was central to Ottoman Turkish. It was impossible for the Ottomans to read, to understand or in their times, to speak Ottoman Turkish without it.” Moreover, the elite in the Ottoman Empire all read Persian, a facility considered the sine que non of an educated person. Conceding an Ottoman bias, Piterberg points to Persian as the lingua franca that connected peoples throughout Eurasia.

Green concurs, noting that Persian was spoken from Istanbul, or the Balkans, all the way to the Beijing. “In China under the Mongols,” he says, “Persian was one of the official languages used at court and people were trained in Persian. So you have a Sino-Persian history as well as Ottoman-Persian and Indo-Persian (Mughal) histories.”

Yet it is not simply the commonality of Persian, but the overlay of multiple languages in these empires that calls for nuanced historical research. This challenge is another major reason behind the “Eurasian Empires & Central Asian Peoples” series. Only concrete textual analysis can identify the specific Central Asian connections of these empires, and this analysis requires expertise in several languages.

The documents of the Ottoman, Mughal and Qing empires were not written solely in the language of the imperial center or the educated elite, points out Green, but also in vernacular languages long established in Central Asia, such as the Turkic-based Chagatai in India or Manchu in China.

“Without the vernacular, you are missing whole layers and social worlds of interactions,” remarks Green. Whereas the “new Qing imperial studies” school of historians insists on studying the Manchu as well as Mandarin texts of the Qing dynasty, he notes that historians of India have yet to significantly focus on the Chagatai documents of the Mughal period in India, even though the Persian documents of that period have begun to be studied.

Piterberg cites the recent work of historian Ali Anooshahr (UCLA Ph.D. 2005) of UC Davis, who will speak at the series on November 6th, as an example of the multilingual textual analysis required in the region. Anooshahr’s book, “The Ghazi Sultans and the Frontiers of Islam,” shows that the Baburnama (the memoirs of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire), was influenced by a very similar text by an Ottoman sultan written almost a century earlier. Piterberg points out that the latter work was written in Ottoman Turkish and the Baburnama, in Chagatai, so clearly someone at the Mughal court was aware of the text.

“This kind of analysis,” says Piterberg, “will create a new paradigm.” The attendant loosening of national and regional boundaries will contribute to a new view of Central Asian peoples and the empires that they inhabited and interacted with. Notes Piterberg, “the Safavids are understood nowadays as Persians, but they were a Turkic-Mongol group — they were not Persian speakers.”

Similarly, notes Green, historians are beginning to recognize the “Turkishness” of the Ottomans, the Qajars and the Mongols/Mughals. Yet, as Piterberg clarifies, this idea of Turkishness is not identity in the national sense. Rather, it is a larger cultural identification and set of practices found in many places and times throughout Eurasia.

“Only after we consider the relations that the empires on different sides of Central Asia had with this region — typically seen as peripheral to all of them — can we begin to reframe our conventional narratives of historical changes since 1500,” comments fellow UCLA historian R. Bin Wong. Director of the Asia Institute, Wong will participate in the opening lecture of the series.

“Some of the places and problems we have difficulty understanding today can be better evaluated when we begin to recognize the cultural, economic, political and social links among Central Asian peoples and the empires they sometimes created, with which they also competed and with which they were almost always connected,” continues Wong. “This series deliberately moves beyond our pre-occupations with historical developments centered in West European and North American histories that spill out into other world regions.

“Such understandings have left us unable to formulate more comprehensive global histories and therefore a better understanding of the contemporary world,” he concludes. Join all three men and their colleague UCLA historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam as they begin to do just that at the series’ inaugural forum on October 15th.

Nile Green is a professor of Islamic and South Asian history at UCLA and the director of the Asia Institute’s Program on Central Asia. His recent publications include “Sufism: A Global History” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) and “Making Space: Sufis and Settlers in Early Modern India” (Oxford, 2012). A new edited volume, “Writing Travel in Central Asian History,” will be published later this year by Indiana University. Green is presently working on a new manuscript, “Terrains of Exchange: Muslim Encounters from India and Iran to America and Japan” (forthcoming 2014).

Gabriel Piterberg is a professor of Ottoman history at UCLA and director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies. His recent publications include the co-edited volume, with Teofilo Ruiz and Geoffrey Symcox, “Braudel Revisited: The Mediterranean World, 1600–1800” (University of Toronto, 2010) and “The Returns of Zionism” (Verso, 2008). He is currently working on a manuscript that places Israeli literature in the context of settler colonialism, as well as a co-authored volume with Lorenzo Veracini, “The World Turns Inside Out in the Age of Settler Revolution.

Posted September 16 and updated October 16, 2013.