Dr Anahita Arian (Cambridge/ONGC) | Encounters in the Persianate World: The Safavid Diplomatic Envoy to Siam

TOSCCA/ONGC Seminar series on the History and Culture of Central Asia and the Caucasus

Tuesdays, weeks 2-8, 5pm in Lecture Room 6, New College.

Tuesday 30th April

Dr Anahita Arian (Cambridge/ONGC)

Encounters in the Persianate World: The Safavid Diplomatic Envoy to Siam In 1685 a diplomatic envoy of the Safavid Empire (Iran) embarked upon a journey across the Indian Ocean to Siam (Thailand). A relic of this journey is the travel or diplomatic account the Safīna-i Sulaimānī – the Ship of Sulaimān – written by the scribe of the Persian envoy Muhammad Rabī‘ at the end of the seventeenth century. In this talk Dr Arian explores the Safavid envoy’s politics of knowledge formation about the encounter with the Siamese and discusses the envoy’s knowledge production about the Siamese sovereign, court and kingdom, society, culture and religion, and how this was governed by the Safavid political order.
Tuesday 7th May

Dr Aydogdy Gurbanov (Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography at the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan/ONGC)

Dehistan (South-West Turkmenistan) in the first half of the 1st Millennium CE

The territory of south-western Turkmenistan (Balkan welayat, or province, of Turkmenistan) encompassed a cultural and occasional administrative entity known in the historical periods as Vehrkana (Hyrcania in the Greco-Roman West). The Gorgan plain constituted its southern part, and the plain of Misrian, or Dehistan, its northern. In Parthian times, the Arsacids did not fully control Hyrcania, which was, in addition, seriously threatened by nomadic populations. These nomads proved to be so serious a menace that the Parthians were forced to split Hyrcania in two parts: Gorgan remained attached to the Arsacid Empire, while Dehistan was isolated. This situation probably continued into the Sasanian period as well. Several Sasanian rulers made use of the Gorgan plain as a staging post for launching military expeditions against the Chionites, Hephthalites and Kidarites. They also constructed walls there to protect their northeastern domains from these nomads. During this time, sites appeared in the north-west of Dehistan and were mostly established along irrigation canals. In most cases there were heavily fortified fortresses and farms with an obvious military aspect.

Tuesday 14th May

Dr Selbi Durdiyeva (Philipps University, Marburg/ONGC)

Hauntology, Inheritance, and Women’s Writing: Entangled Pasts in Turkmen Family Archives

Women’s emancipation discourse was instrumentalised by the Soviet regime, particularly for agitation of the so-called ‘Red East.’ This paper draws on these narratives from the position of how they were perceived and remembered by women after the fall of the USSR. The paper links what Sabrin Hasbun (2022) calls a mixture of ‘performative and embodied knowledge, memoir, fiction, and historical investigation,’ of sources that are ‘endangered,’ belonging to the genre of ‘life writing,’ or auto-biography studies. I apply a micro-narrative approach and engage with under-represented ephemeral sources of women’s writing as found and preserved in family archives in Turkmenistan that reflect on the Soviet inheritance and memory. These sources demonstrate an attempt of ‘talking back’ to macro-narratives and resisting through writing and recollecting those experiences in the domain of the private, weaving family memory with political events, leaving a complex picture of entangled pasts.

Tuesday 21st May Dr Thomas Welsford (All Souls)

An Armenian Liberal in Revolutionary Samarkand

In 1917, as Armenian socialists and Dashnaks in Samarkand joined other political activists in celebrating the collapse of tsarist authority, the political commentator A.H. Muradian struck a discordant note, observing that this revolutionary dawn posed a direct threat to the long-term welfare of an Armenian community that had been living and flourishing in Central Asia for the last 35 years. Not for the first time in his career, Muradian’s dissident opinion was vindicated by subsequent events. In this paper I draw upon Russian-language archival documents and Armenian-language newspaper reports to trace the course of Muradian’s career from nationalist agitator to liberal sceptic, and consider how attention to this little-known figure usefully complicates conventional narratives about the Armenians in Central Asia, and more generally about the nature of Russia’s multi-ethnic empire.

Tuesday 28th May

Dr Stefan Williamson Fa (ONGC)

Connections and Dis/continuities in Contemporary Aşıq Practice in Georgia

The singer-poet tradition of aşık/aşıq/ashugh bards spans a wide geography transcending the borders of modern nation states. Historically, these singer-poets filled the role of both entertainers and bearers of news travelling far and wide, often performing for different audiences in multiple languages. Even in recent history, during the period of hard state borders between Turkey, the Soviet Union, and Iran, the sounds of these bards traversed frontiers on radio waves and cassette tapes. This paper focuses on the current status of Azerbaijani-language aşıq practice in the Republic of Georgia. Azerbaijani-speakers make up the largest ethnic minority community in Georgia. Living mostly in the capital city of Tbilisi and the province of Kvemo-Kartli, also known as Borçalı, Azerbaijanis in Georgia have struggled in the period following independence from the Soviet Union, being caught between changing borders. Despite the lack of state support for minority languages and cultural heritage in the country, poetry and aşıq art continue to thrive in the community and are often highlighted as a source of cultural pride and marker of identity. Through an exploration of resilience and adaptation, this paper seeks to deepen our understanding of the enduring significance of these singer-poets within Georgia and transnationally.

Tuesday 4th June (Please note this talk will be held Online – details to be circulated closer to the time)

Dr Vali Kaleji (University of Tehran/ONGC)

Iran’s Relations with the Republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia in the First Period of Independence (1917-1921)

Following the collapse of the tsarist Russian Empire and the communist revolution in October 1917, the Caucasus region was in the turmoil due to its aspiration to independence. Powerful feelings of nationalism and religion pushed the Caucasian nations towards independence, the first result of which was the formation of the “Seim” in February 23, 1918 and also “Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic” (TDFR) in April 22, 1918 that included most of the territory of the present-day Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as parts of Russia and Turkey. Although it was a short-lived state in the Caucasus and according to internal disputes and the effective role of the Ottoman Empire, the Transcaucasian Seim announced its self–dissolution on May 26, 1918. With the collapse of the TDFR, three independent republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia were formed in the Caucasus, which is considered a “turning point” in the history of political and social developments in this region. On the other hand, following Constitutional Revolution in 1905, the in the last years of Qajar dynasty, Iran was faced with political instability specially by successive collapse of governments and internal rebellions such as the Jangal (Jungle) Movement, in Gilan. In these circumstances, the Young Turk Revolution in the Ottoman Empire in 1908, the weakening and fall of the Tsarist Russian Empire, the formation of the Soviet Union in 1917, and the formation of the three independent republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia in the Caucasus, had important consequences on Iran’s politics and foreign relations. Although with the annexation of these republics by the USSR in 1920 and 1921, Iran’s foreign policy passed through this chaotic and difficult stage, however, after 100 years, the shadow of some issues such as Nagorno-Karabakh, Zangezur Nakhchivan, Pan-Turkism and Pan-Azerism in the Caucasus continues to affect Iran’s foreign policy towards the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia. In fact, although the period of independence of the Caucasian republics from 1917 to 1921 was very short, it had a very deep impact on the political and social life of the Caucasian nations as well as Iranian foreign policy toward the region.

Tuesday 11th June (Please note this talk will take place in Lecture Room 4 at New College)

Dr Matthias Battis (ONGC)

Stalinabad 1930: Aleksandr Semenov and the convergence of scholarship and politics at the Tajik language congress

Alphabets are at once highly technical and deeply symbolic cultural artefacts. As such, they have attracted the attention of both linguists and political revolutionaries, who have looked to their reform as an opportunity for cultural and political change. Latinisation in early Soviet Central Asia is a case in point and the subject of this chapter. Hailed as “a great revolution in the East” by Lenin, it was part of wider language reform that transformed Central Asian languages and writing systems, including Persian, which became known as Tajik in the process. It saw scholarly knowledge and political power converge to make the case for the Latin alphabet and against the Perso-Arabic one. In parallel to developments in republican Turkey, linguists and political actors joined forces to associate the Perso-Arabic alphabet with backwardness, Islam and the old order, on the one hand, and the Latin script with progress, science and the nation, on the other. Unlike the Turkish experience, however, Latinisation in Soviet Central Asia was complicated by how it was negotiated within the Soviet national republican context, in particular against the backdrop of a nascent Tajik emancipatory nationalism that was resentful and suspicious of the real and imagined Turkist tendencies inherent in the Latinisation project. Aleksandr Semenov played a crucial, albeit somewhat reluctant, role in articulating a scientifically underpinned Tajik nationalist position in this negotiation. And he did so, both in competition and collaboration with Central Asian politicians, writers and linguists, such as Narzullo Bektosh or Abdurauf Fitrat.