In commemoration of Annemarie von Gabain (1901-1993)

In commemoration of Annemarie von Gabain (1901-1993)

by Peter Zieme

(63rd Annual Meeting of the PIAC Ulaanbaatar, 2021)

Dear colleagues!

It is a great pleasure to say a few words at the opening of this year’s PIAC conference which takes place under unusual circumstances. First of all, I’d like to express my sincere thanks to Barbara Kellner-Heinkele and to Mr. Bold who is the president of this PIAC in Ulaanbaatar for their great engagement to organise the meeting in this way. By bringing together scholars from around the world who will give us an insight into their research on many different topics from the Altaic world the programme promises a great success. The PIAC is a rare occasion that scholars of many fields of Altaic studies gather to discuss ongoing problems and upcoming themes in an atmosphere of respect and mutual understanding.

The PIAC has a long history as you all know. The first meeting was held in Germany in 1958 after a small group of scholars who took part in the International Congress of Orientalists in Munich in 1957 had the idea for founding a floor for Altaic Studies. Most of those scholars are no longer with us, but their works and their writings are on our desk or in the internet always available for consulting the fruits of former research.

One of these pioneer scholars was Annemarie von Gabain who was born on 4 July, 1901. Recently, we remembered her 120th birthday. As the daughter of Arthur von Gabain, an infantry general, Annemarie von Gabain after her early years in Brandenburg moved to Berlin in 1920 to enter the Technische Hochschule in Berlin-Charlottenburg for mathematics. But after an encounter with an image of a Chinese Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy, in Finland, she was so moved that she wanted to learn more about Chinese culture. Thus, in 1923 she changed to the Faculty of Philosophy to study Sinology. After her doctorate she began to work at the Prussian Academy of Berlin. Under the guidance of Willi Bang who founded the Turcological school in Berlin she started her research on Old Uyghur fragments of the Turfan Collection. In 1902, under the direction of Albert Grünwedel, the Museum of Ethnology launched expeditions to what was then East Turkistan, now the province of Xinjiang in northwest China. They returned to Berlin with an impressive wealth of art items, objects of daily life and, above all, text fragments in more than 20 different scripts and languages dating from around 300 to 1400 AD. These sensational finds that even the German emperor did not miss and, after his visit, prompted him to pay a large amount of money for new expeditions. Favoured by the dry climate in the oasis regions protruding from the Taklamakan Desert in the heart of Asia remains of the ancient cultures from the city states from Kashgahr to Dunhuang have survived. They bear witness to agriculture and trade, painting and sculpture, literatures and religions. Believers of the Church of the East, from Mesopotamia or Manichaeism, a world religion founded by Mani in the 3rd century, found refuge in many places where communities were able to survive. But after all the spreading Buddhism became predominant until Islam entered the Tarim basin between the 11th to the 14th centuries.

A. v. Gabain joined the editing work on the Old Turkic texts begun by Friedrich Wilhelm Karl Müller and Albert von Le Coq and continued it with her studies and editions. By writing a first grammar of Old Turkic she received the degree of a full professor (Habilitation) in 1940. In her scholarship, she had wide-ranging interests and became an extraordinary personality. Wholeheartedly she supported young students and elderly colleagues when and wherever she could. She made contact with scholars of the East, organised study trips to St. Petersburg and Uzbekistan what was not easy in Soviet times.

Did she make history? Yes, she became a highly respected specialist and gained fame, especially for her profound answers to questions of ancient Turkic monuments, living Turkic languages and works of art. In addition, her research extended from the languages and cultures on the Silk Road to detailed questions of ethnography, for example of the Kazakhs. The Uzbeks had also always captivated her, ever since she wrote an Özbek grammar.

But she also wrote history in the literal sense, especially about the period of the early Uyghurs before the foundation of the Türk Nomadic Empires. One of her books has the title “The life in the Kingdom of the Uyghurs” which also included the latest period when Uyghurs became integral members of Chinggis Khan’s Empire.

In her scholarly work, on one side, she always was eager to peel out the uniqueness of the ancient Uyghur cultural legacy, and on another, to find the Uyghurness of paintings, sculptures and other things of the surviving material culture.

The modern Uyghurs gave her a glowing reception when she first visited the ancient cultural sites of Xinjiang in northwest China in 1982, and many of them still remember this event. With her research on modern Uyghur literature she had also bridged the gap between history and the present.

Colleagues from Japan to America, from Turkey to Sweden, from Japan to the United States who knew the queen of Turcology personally, all have special memories on their encounters with her.

During her lifetime she often participated in PIAC meetings because she always was interested in many directions beyond her core field. Although the research interests and directions may change, I am sure that she would take part in the work of this year’s meeting with great enthusiasm.