Thinking Along the Pathways or How to Write Khorezm into Modernity

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.

Paolo Sartori
Austrian Academy of Sciences