24th Meeting Jerusalem, 1981

Volume 16 Number 3 November 1982
Studies in the History and Culture of Central Eurasia
Edited by Marcel Erdal


This issue of Asian and African Studies unites most of the papers presented at the 24th meeting of the Permanent International Altaistic Conference (PIAC) and includes additional articles on topics related to the ones discussed there. The meeting was held in Jerusalem on 16-21 August 1981, with Yuri Bregel as president, and under the auspices of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace. The editor would like to thank the Institute for the organizational help which it extended to Professor Bregel before and during the meeting, for the editorial help in preparing this volume for press, and for the material help which covered the greater part of its cost. In this last matter a substantial contribution was made by the Faculty of Humanities of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Thanks are due also to the editors of Asian and African Studies for having welcomed us to its pages.

It may be in order to introduce the PIAC briefly; clarifying the three adjectives contained in its name can adequately serve this purpose. The ‘Conference’ is clearly ‘Permanent’: It convenes every year and celebrated its silver jubilee under the presidency of Gunnar Jarring in 1982. The ‘International’ nature of the ‘Conference’ is also beyond doubt: Participants have come from 28 countries, and it has convened in 15 of them. The PIAC’s atmosphere has always been characterized by healthy contempt for any political division of our world; admittedly, it is interested in the background rather than being caught up in current affairs. Only the paper by Rimsky-Korsakoff Dyer concerns the present; the rest deal with the past. That the past can also inspire deeply engagé comments is amply evinced by Professor Matuz in his paper on Ottoman feudalism.

Having attended six PIAC meetings, the editor can testify to an additional characteristic which does not (yet) appear in the title: organizers and participants alike show a unique talent for creating a congenial atmosphere.  To use the words of Denis Sinor, Secretary-General since 1960,[1]

Deliberate efforts have been made to channel the PIAC away from the ‘great-congress syndrome,’ and to maintain it on the level of symposia where, in a relatively small circle of experts, problems of communal interest, both scientific and organizational, can be discussed.

‘Altaistic,’ which may be unfamiliar to some readers, is derived from the Altai mountains in the Asiatic part of the Soviet Union, supposed to have been the original homeland of the nations speaking Altaic languages. What the Altaic languages are and the exact relationship between them has been the subject of some controversy, but the Turkic, Mongolian, and Tunguz language families (the latter including, e.g., Manchu) are undisputed members of this set. Speakers of these languages have been living in territories of present-day Mongolia, China, and the Soviet Union; they have been present for some time in what is now Afghanistan, Persia, Turkey, the Balkans,[2] and on the fringes of adjacent countries — what Sinor has called Central Eurasia.[3] The economic influence of the Altaic element all the way into Poland is shown in Tryjarski‘s paper. The Turks are the Central Eurasian nation receiving most attention in this volume.

The Altaic peoples may have dealt out blows to and in return succumbed to cultural influences from everybody surrounding them, but they also left their imprint on all these societies, often well-nigh transforming them. On the other hand, they have taken part in all the surrounding cultures; their cultural outlook is still largely connected with other, culturally dominant, nations. Consequently, the PIAC is not only international and inter-block, but also inter-cultural in its preoccupations; meetings unite students of China, Islamologists, scholars interested in Southern Russia or Siberia, and so forth. The contribution of Matuz is wholly within the Islamic domain; that of Veit within the Buddhist; and Tryjarski’s within the Christian. However, Islam dominates the volume. Altaists need to have a working knowledge of quite a number of languages; not unfittingly, the secretary-general’s paper is about ‘Interpreters.’ The PIAC unites specialists from most of the humanities and social sciences. Work read at the meeting but not submitted for publication here includes two linguistic papers (by Carlson and Dolgopolsky, respectively) and a paper by Professor Piatigorski on The Structure and Essential Procedures of Classical Siberian Shamanism, as well as B. Brown’s study on Uzbekistan’s Council for Raising the Living Standards of the Population; G. Stary on Die mandschurischen Ausdrücke im Ch’ien-lung-Reichsatlas, and I. de Rachewiltz on The Use of Qan and Qa‘an among the Mongols in the Twelfth to Fourteenth Centuries.[4] Among the scholars represented in this volume, the historians dominate, but philology is nevertheless well represented.

The geographical and cultural concept of Central Eurasia is conveniently defined in negative terms: it refers to what is left of Eurasia when the ‘great civilizations’ — the Far Eastern, the South Asian, the Near Eastern and the European — are subtracted. The fact is that, while sedentary life appears to be a prerequisite for the emergence of so-called high civilizations, from prehistory all the way to quite recent times Central Eurasia was the domain of semi-nomadism and population movements, which often spilled over to the surrounding regions.[5] Population groups setting out from this central region were responsible for the downfall of both the Western and the Eastern Roman Empires; they were instrumental in Russian expansion, and helped the Arabs against Byzantium and in subjugating Persia; most of the foreign dynasties that ruled over China were of Altaic stock, as were the rulers who governed India until the advent of the British.

Whether it was the Turks before the gates of Vienna or Chinggis Khan’s hordes scorching everything on their way, the Altaic peoples engendered in everyone’s mind the image of The Barbarians par excellence. I hold this widespread attitude, which has been passed on even to the universities of our day, responsible for the neglect of the area in all domains of academic activity despite its historical importance. While Sinology, Indology, Egyptology, Arabistics, etc., are well-established and well-furnished disciplines, the hub of the Orient has not been getting the attention it deserves. The Ancients explained ‘those barbarians’ away as ‘the scourge of God’; we, however, need to understand the long-term patterns of their behavior in ecological perspective. The latter has to do with, among other things, the harsh climate of the area. Natural disasters like drought, heavy snow, or livestock epidemics would devastate the herds of the nomads, which, in good times, had led to a fast growth of population. The mobile masses would find armed conflict, for which they were well prepared through their outdoor life, the only alternative to starvation. The contents of Dr. Saray‘s short paper can serve as a paradigm for such a conflict relationship.

Living conditions in the Dasht-i Kipchak or the Ordos steppes probably had similar social results. Nomadism and the network of joint military ventures which the Altaic tribes undertook kept them in contact. Whether it was the same nations under different names which were involved, or distinct nations who adopted the same names, there was a social and cultural unity under the constant political and military flux. These circumstances explain the mutualities which, retained in recent centuries, have turned out to be a weakness.

The papers of Bregel and Veit[6] contain extensive translations from original as yet unpublished texts, specimens of native historiography, one written in the late eighteenth, the other in the early nineteenth century. The two sources differ widely in scope and selection of facts; however, they complement each other in helping us to understand the psychological status of sovereignty in Central Asia. Its legitimacy was based on genealogical connections, however far fetched; but the charisma of tribal aristocracy, acquired mainly through bravery in military exploits, was equally important. These papers show how the nomadic political ideal lived on long after it became an anchronism. The chronicles are critically handled in these papers as historical sources on the one hand, and as evidence for an image and for image-building on the other. Veit‘s hero adheres to the behavior demanded by his genealogical status when this is no longer justified by reality and is in fact harmful to him. The Qongrat and Timurid historians embellish the genealogical connection of their masters with the Chingizids by inventing legends and stories of valiance about their ancestors. The two papers depict opposite situations in that Danjila lacks all power whereas the Qongrats are concerned with justifying the power that they have; the papers are complementary, however, in revealing the same aspect of Altaic political mentality. Veit’s material belongs to the East Asiatic sphere, Bregel‘s to western Asia: Only in a framework such as this could they be juxtaposed. The editor hopes that this volume will help to bring such matters into focus. Beside exploring facts of population, productive capacity, and food supply, scholars of Central Eurasia cannot afford to neglect patterns of conventional, i.e., traditional thought. The actions both of the rulers and of the tribal chiefs counterpoised against them often make sense only in terms of such patterns.

Marcel Erdal

[1] In addition to this task and to numerous other functions, he is also editor of the Journal of Asian History. No doubt the success of the PIAC throughout the years is very much to his credit.

[2]  A Turkic tribe was ruling Bulgaria already in the tenth century.

[3] In early times much of this area was the roaming ground of Iranians, like the Saka or Scythian tribes. These are still largely shrouded in the veils of prehistory, and are outside the scope of the PIAC.

[4] The main points of the last paper appear in the commentary to the author’s translation of the ‘Secret History of the Mongols,’ Papers on Far Eastern History 26 (1982):77-78.

[5] Interestingly, the papers of Dr. Yaroshevski and Mrs. Dyer both deal with non-Altaic groups which, for very different reasons, moved into the area. In a much earlier age, a whole nation which did that were the Tokharians. These exceptions only confirm the rule, however.

[6] The editing of these papers included a change from British English to American English spelling, as that is the practice of this journal.