Border Stories: Connectivity and Remoteness Across Khurasan (19th – early 20th Century)

Time and again historians of Asia and the Middle East in particular have suggested that it makes no sense to think of places in isolation. Within this trend, a number of scholars have shed light on economic realignments that allowed for the creation of new trade connections between Iran, Central, and South Asia at times where European penetration into India established new sea trade routes. Others have illuminated how the circulation of scholars between these three macro-regions put in place an imagined landscaped of Islamic knowledge. Following their approaches, other studies now emphasize how in the modern period ‘the Central Eurasian steppes remained a zone of contacts, encounters, and exchanges across ecological and cultural boundaries’. But one wonders whether this interpretative disposition is more suggestive than conclusive, and if it potentially poses more problems than what it claims to solve. It is one thing to take stock of the background noise of trade in staples and diplomatic encounters, it is an entirely different thing to overlook that the 19th century marked an age of boundaries, which created a new mindset about space. While prior to the establishment of political borders local power players were less preoccupied with the notion of limit than with the idea of domain, it is during the age of Western imperialism that people started to face difficulties while crossing borders. Borders were not only imagined lines to be drawn on a map, but were part and parcel of a bureaucratized machinery of power that overhauled previously existing patterns of mobility and affected the ways in which people perceived themselves in the world. This panel will bring into conversation three different lines of inquiry that hinge on Khurasan and the establishment of a political border between Iran and the Russian Empire. Christine Nölle-Karimi will explore the ways in which Qajar envoys and officials portrayed the lands and people north and east of Astarabad and Mashhad. Ulfat Abdurasulov will show how the “Turkmen south” fit within the forms of governance adopted by the Khanate of Khiva and represented a region external to the Khivan royal domains. Paolo Sartori will reflect on aspects of remoteness in the social history of Khorezm after the establishment of the Transcapian railway and the bureaucratization of mobility.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Paolo Sartori
Austrian Academy of Sciences


Bert Fragner
Austrian Academy of Sciences


Room 30
Thu, 2016-08-04 10:30 - 12:00


by Paolo Sartori / Austrian Academy of Sciences

The assumption is commonly made that the adoption of new transport infrastructure after the invention of steam boats and railways, together with the introduction of new means of communication like the telegraph and print ushered the Muslim world into an age of globalization. In the 19th century, for example, it became simpler than it had ever been before for Muslim pilgrims to reach the Hijaz from the Russian Empire, China, and South Asia. A new web of travel infrastructures allowed also intellectuals to become exposed to cultural practices beyond the usual routes of knowledge. The spread of print technologies across Asia accelerated and multiplied cultural encounters across regions and was conducive to manifestations of purposive modernization that we observe happening almost at the same time in different parts of the Muslim world, which prior to the 19th century were not directly connected. One is reminded of the modernist trends that are visible between Xinjang and the Ottoman Empire. While this interpretive approach confers texture upon mobility and knowledge in the globalized age and allows capturing the enduring consequences of technological revolutions in the Muslim world, it equally overshadows another dimension of the age of steam and print, which is nonetheless significant to understand socio-cultural changes in the 19th century: remoteness and marginalization. In this paper I want to show that the creation of the Transcaspian railroad was part of a broader project to establish a Russo-Iranian boundary and detach Khorezm from its previous regional ties to and across Khurasan. By focusing in on the aspects of bureaucratization and fiscal practices that made increasingly difficult for Khorezmians to exploit their links with Iran, I want to argue that the establishment of the Transcapian railroad was not only a vector of commercial exchanges and cultural encounters, but also what we may term a “border infrastructure” that led to the creation of a new perception of political space. By carrying people and goods between Krasnovodsk and Tashkent across the Amu-Darya, the new railroad severed a connection between local polities, marked the limits of Russian Central Asia, and isolated Khorezm from the surrounding regions.

by Christine Noelle-Karimi / Austrian Academy of Sciences

It is a known fact that Persian accounts of travels within Iran and to the neighboring Muslim countries were solicited by the Qajar court: they served to shape and enhance official concepts of history and topography. Yet, opinions regarding the function of nineteenth-century travelogues within imperial agendas differ considerably. Was their production driven by ideas of inclusion and reclamation or were they meant to project and cement boundaries? Little attention has hitherto been paid to the analysis of authorial strategies and the context of literary production. This paper explores the ways in which Qajar envoys, military officers and officials portrayed the lands and people north and east of Astarabad and Mashhad. Based on a reading of Muhammad ‘Alī Khan Ghafur’s Ruznama-i safar-i Khvarazm (1840s), Riza Quli Khan Hidayat’s Sifaratnama-i Khvarazm (after 1857), Isma’il Mir Panja’s Ruznama-i mamduha-ye Khvarazm va Khivaq (1862) and Arfa’ al-Daula’s Khatirat (1936/37), I will attempt to identify the authors’ discursive strategies. The texts at hand offer parallel formulations of the Iranian space. The projection of an expansive “Ur”-terrain coincides with the reinvention of Iran as a modern, narrowly bounded entity. These two levels of argumentation will be analyzed within the framework of three thematic clusters. First, observations on geography in general and the terrain in particular highlight strategic considerations on the relationship between the Qajar domain and its eastern neighbors. Of special interest is the use of geographical terminology, with its connotations of inclusion and exclusion. Secondly, encounters and exchanges with the Turkmens and local elites bring regional relationships into focus and thus document the problem of Iranian statehood, its self-definition and the political claims arising therefrom. The third field concerns the uses of the past: References to historical precedents casting Iran as a timeless and stable entity provide a conceptual framework for Qajar activities in the region and offer an effective counter-narrative to the remoteness and forlornness the travelers experience on their missions.

by Ulfatbek Abdurasulov / Austrian Academy of Sciences

This paper is about Khivan relationships with Iranian Khorasan and Tekke Turkmens. A severe political crisis took place in the mid-19th century Khiva khanate, one of the most prominent and dynamic political players in Central Asia. Such crisis lasted far too long, at least a decade, and resulted in a landmark change in the political landscape and the regional power configurations, which reinforced the ambitions of Qajar Iran over Khorezm. The military campaign that the Qungrat ruler of Khiva, Muhammad Amin Khan (1845-1855) in March 1855 to Khurasan against the Turkmens-Tekke can be considered as a conventional starting point of this crisis. The success of such a military operation was of particular importance for the Qungrat dynasty to ensure the stability of the southern fringes of its domains. However, on the eve of a decisive battle in Khurasan a group of Turkmen Yomuts, who so far had provided for the backbone of the Qungrat army, made a deal with the enemy, which led to the death of Muhammad Amin Khan and plunged Khiva into a severe political crisis. This course of action mirrors the internal contradictions existing in Khorezmian society, which often forced various social and political groups to shift alliances. By offering a contrapuntal reading of material from archives in Tashkent, Khiva, and St. Petersburg, I set out to review the motivations, strategies, and the choices of a number of political and social groups that participated in the political crisis in Khiva between the years 1854 - 1865. I thus hope to be able to show that, rather than a monolithic state formation, it would be more useful to think of rule in the Khanate of Khiva as a ‘process’. By building on the work of Sanjay Subrahmanyam and Farhat Hasan, I shall argue that the state should be best viewed as a mesh of administrative practices, which were informed by notions of loyalty, alliances, and compromises. The reiteration of the ‘core – periphery’ paradigm would necessarily seat uncomfortably in my reading of the events. Equally, I want to suggest that the Qungrats regarded Khorasan less as a border of sorts, than an outer region from which they could extract resources.