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Volume 48, Number 1January/February 1997

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Between Empires

Written by Ergun Çağatay

Today we know them as the nations of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, but on January 6, 1839, the Central Asian territories south and east of the Aral Sea were still the autonomous Khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand. They were probably unshaken by the announcement in the Gazette de France that day that Louis Daguerre and his partner Nicéphore Niepce had invented a dazzling new technique called photography.

Some 40 years later, however, the new technology—by then in wide use in Europe, the United States and the Middle East—also found a use in those Central Asian territories. As part of its inexorable 19th-century expansion, Russia took control of the city of Bukhara in 1868, of Khiva in 1873 and Kokand in 1876, motivated in part by the need to forestall British hegemony over the area. That achieved, however, Russia showed no desire to change the lives of its colonial subjects—but it did record them photographically.

The photo exhibition "Between Empires: Turks of Central Asia 1850-1925" and the additional photographs in the accompanying book, called Once Upon a Time in Central Asia, provide an unusual opportunity to return to the time and place when Britain began to lose the "Great Game," and resigned the rule of Central Asia to Czarist Russia. The photographs come from the Russian Imperial Collection, archeological archives, military archives and private collections assembled either out of personal interest or for commercial purposes. My role was to locate the archives and collect the photographs as part of an extensive project to document the past and present of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia.

French photographers Paul Nadar and M. Hordet were among the few foreigners to undertake the long, arduous and dangerous journey to Central Asia in the last century. But photographers from outside Russia could not compete with their Russian colleagues, who enjoyed considerable freedom of movement in Czarist Russia's vast new backyard. Inevitably, the Russian photographic archives of Central Asia are the richest we have, and they contain treasures of ethnographic notes and other explanatory details that I have not yet been able to collect. Many of the photographs in both book and exhibition are thus labeled only with the barest captions, but even so will provide a rich mine of material for historians and ethnographers, as well as specialists in such fields as architectural history and textile studies.

Most of the photographs are printed from glass negatives originally developed in water, a technique developed by Scott Archer in 1851. The rest, which were made by the next generation of Russian photographers, were also taken on glass negatives, but the method used silver bromide in liquefied gelatin to create a light-sensitive emulsion, a process developed by the English physicist Richard Leach Maddox.

Of the three khanates' capital cities, Khiva survives today as a center of the Uzbek cotton industry. Because the city surrendered to Russian forces, most of its old architecture remains intact, and is now preserved in a historic district. Of Kokand's glorious past nothing now remains. In the years immediately before and after the Soviet Revolution, all of the city's surviving buildings were burned or demolished. Bukhara, which was an important center of trade on the Silk Roads (See Aramco World, July/August 1988) and one of the oldest cities of Central Asia, is still an important trading and manufacturing center. Of the nearly 250 madrasas (theological schools) that once adorned it, only the Miri Arab Madrasa and one or two others have survived.

On the other hand, buildings do not make a city, or a people. The faces of the individuals in these photographs from more than a century ago are identical to those whom I photographed myself in my Central Asian travels of the past five years. That fact implies that even conquest and colonization may be only an incident in the sweep of a people's history, and may, as a benefit unintended by the colonizing power, provide a means of recording and preserving parts of that history for future generations.

The exhibition "Between Empires: Turks of Central Asia 1850-1925" will be at the Texas Memorial Museum on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin from February 16 through March 29.Once Upon a Time in Central Asia, by Ergun Çağatay, (Tetragon, Istanbul, 1996, ISBN 975-94789-0-0) will be available in limited quantities at the exhibition.

This article appeared on pages 40-43 of the January/February 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1997 images.