Ella Christie, identified on the title page of her books as a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, traveled in Central Asia in 1910-11. The most attractive aspect of her book, for me, were her notes on daily life, such as a rather gruesome description of an outdoor barber extracting a long parasitic worm from a patient’s leg. Christie identifies the parasite as “guinea worm” or “filaria” (p. 128). Other sources corroborate her account of this reportedly common affliction, as well as the treatment.
Christie’s visit to present-day Istaravshan, formerly Uro Teppa (Christie calls it “Ura Tiubbe” and comments on the wild variations in spelling) caught my attention because of my translation work on the memoirs of Tajik folklorist Rajab Amonov (see that review here: ). We had the opportunity to spend two nights there in 2010, but I have run across few accounts from 19th-century travelers to that city. Christie describes the town’s situation on a mountain slope, the ruins of the fort, and the winding streets of the bazaars. I was intrigued by her report of encountering an “agent” for Singer sewing machines in this rather off-the-beaten-path location (pp. 197-199).
A valuable companion to Olufsen’s personal works is the two-volume Exploring Central Asia, by Esther Fihl (University of Washington, 2010). Partially a commentary on Olufsen’s travels, the work is largely a photographic tour of the museum artifacts Olufsen brought back to Denmark (see Olaf Olufsen Part I for more about the mission). A text box on page 140 (Vol. 1) contains an interesting account from his previously unpublished writings of how he acquired artifacts from the bazaar in Bukhara with the help of one of the emir’s men.
Exploring Central Asia contains numerous vibrant color photos of household items, clothes, shoes, ornaments, jewelry, accessories, tools, and so forth, from various regions. The captions for many of these include excerpts from Olufsen’s writings, both published and unpublished, describing their use or manner of acquisition. Fihl reports that Olufsen was instructed not to return with worn or cast off items ( p. 138). Accordingly, many of the artifacts are gorgeously decorated and in excellent condition, especially considering they are more than one hundred years old (of course, they have spent their entire lives in a museum). Thus, they may not be representative of articles of everyday use, but they at least give one an idea of some of the handicrafts in circulation at the time. Continue reading
The title page of Ole Olufsen’s book identifies him as Professor and Secretary to the Royal Danish Geographical Society. He commanded Danish expeditions to Central Asia in 1896-97 and 1898-99. His personal account of these travels, The Emir of Bokhara and His Country, is one of the more readable and detailed volumes of its kind that I have perused. (See previous posts on 19th- and early 20th-century Central Asia travelogues.)
While exhibiting the Eurocentric biases exhibited by virtually all Western travelers of his time (OK–let’s be honest–we’re all a bit biased, even in these enlightened times!), Olufsen displays extensive knowledge of the area and gives evidence of having read all the relevant literature available in his day, dating back to ancient times. He possesses an impressive command of the topography and appears to have traversed much of it, though I’m not able to weigh in on his geographical accuracy. The edition of The Emir of Bokhara that I perused (William Heinemann, 1911) claimed to include a map, but I never located one (see part II of this post for more on that). Continue reading
As a woman traveling in Central Asia in the late 19th century, Meakim was able to access the world of women, which was largely inaccessible to the predominantly male travelers of the time.
Of course, the biases of her times are evident, i.e. in her extended discussion and generalizations regarding the beauty or lack thereof possessed by Central Asian women. Meakim’s book is not, nor is it intended to be, an authoritative or comprehensive description of Central Asia, but it does represent sights and ideas that a European traveler would have encountered in the region and thus serves a purpose for those interested in the area. Continue reading
Susan Meller’s books on Central Asian textiles are a rare find. Even if I weren’t researching a novel set in early twentieth-century Central Asia, the wealth of brilliant photos alone would be captivating. Since I am, Meller’s coffee-table sized books provide a treasure trove of information not just on textiles but dress, trade, agriculture, ethnic groups, and the impact of Russian colonization and the Soviet Union on all of these. Continue reading
The Registan mosque in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
I’m excited to be able to offer a class on Central Asia at the University of Oregon from August 19 through September 6 (2-3:50 p.m., M-F). Yes, it’s short and intense, but those who enroll can anticipate stimulating daily discussions about an eventful period in history and the literature it produced.
In the last half of the 19th century, the Great Game contest for Central Asia was drawing to a close with Russia’s conquest of the present-day “-stans.” A new era was commencing for this region of ancient cultures and empires. Voices, both Russian and Central Asian, were calling for educational, social and religious reform. Continue reading
I usually am not fond of travel writing, but I found Christopher Kremmer’s work more interesting than some others of that genre that I have encountered. Kremmer’s wry wit accounts for at least part of the entertainment value of The Carpet Wars, even eliciting a few chuckles, a somewhat rare occurrence. (Don’t analyze that last statement–it isn’t meant to indicate anything except my appreciation of Kremmer’s humor.) For example, Kremmer (who does not otherwise give any indication of being particularly religious) relates an incident in which he became exceedingly frustrated with an Afghan taxi driver:
My hand was lifting, drawn up by the power of a psychotic urge to batter him, when suddenly a loud voice rent the sky above the stranded car:
‘Leave him to me!’ cried the voice of the Almighty. ‘For he is a driver and they are a stiff-necked people.’
So I heeded the word of the Lord and let him be (346). Continue reading
Monica Whitlock’s Land Beyond the River is an informative journalistic description of the social and political developments in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan during the 20th century. We borrowed the book from the library but decided it would be worth owning because of its accounts of events difficult to find detailed in one place elsewhere, such as unrest and revolution in Bukhara in the second decade of the 20th century, the Tajik civil war and its resolution in the 1990s, and ongoing displacement of Tajiks due to war, forced migration, and other hardships. Continue reading
We frequently regret that the number of books in the world exceeds the time available for reading them. Even the count of volumes in English that we want to read is formidable, though significantly less. And, unlikely as it might seem considering their relative sparsity, we probably won’t even get around to reading all the good books in English on Central Asia. We recently discovered the four books below, each of which was, interestingly though perhaps irrelevantly, originally penned in a different language. Even though, for various reasons, we probably won’t read them anytime soon, we thought they might likewise have escaped the attention of others who share our interest in Central Asia and could profit from them. Continue reading
It could be said that prior to Sadriddin Aini (1878-1954), the history of Tajik literature and the rich history of Persian literature, encompassing famous poets such as Firdawsi, Rumi, and Omar Khayyam, were one and the same. Mutually intelligible regional dialects of Persian existed alongside various minority languages throughout much of present-day Tajikistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and parts of Uzbekistan. But dramatic developments were about to give birth to a distinctive modern Tajik literature, of which Aini, a Tajik from a village in present-day Uzbekistan, is considered the father (Perry and Lehr 3). Continue reading