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Re-Centring Central Asia

Frantz Grenet
p. 9
Cet article est une traduction de :
Recentrer l’Asie centrale

Notes de la rédaction

Excerpts from the Inaugural Lecture 7 November 2013
Source: La lettre, no. 38, June 2014

Texte intégral

The “golden peaches” of Samarkand in the days of Sogdian trade

1As a cultural area Central Asia was recognized at a late stage, since its emergence as a geographical reality was very slow.

2The term Central Asia was coined in around 1825, simultaneously in Russia and in France, by the diplomat Georges de Meyendorff and by Julius Klaproth, respectively. It soon gained currency, along with its variant Middle Asia, sometimes preferred in Russia. Reading this nineteenth-century geographic literature, it soon becomes apparent that behind rationalizations about climates and so-called natural borders lay a deep misunderstanding between the European perception and the Russian one. From the European point of view, Central Asia was defined as that which was neither Russia, nor China, nor Persia, nor what was then becoming British India: it was a sort of in-between destined to receive buffer States, the only one ultimately being Afghanistan.

3By contrast, from the Russian perspective it had been seen since Peter the Great as a contiguous space, the natural continuation of the Russian-Siberian steppe, which the empire of the tsars had set out to control, then annex, and finally colonize. In its various manifestations, this project was fuelled by strategic necessities, a sense of cultural superiority or a great ideological design, or even the dream, in Pan-Slavic circles, of reconquering the cradle of the Aryan people. The recognized fact that this space did not have limits which could be proven scientifically, conveniently supported several Russian and then Soviet attempts to violate it, be it in Chinese Turkestan on several occasions, in Iranian Khorasan during the last war, or in Afghanistan more recently. My predecessor, Louis Hambis, who worked extensively on Siberia and Mongolia, gave it a very broad meaning. In my teaching, I personally intend to refocus Central Asia within the narrower limits on which archaeologists have agreed for several decades. These encompass the five former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan, along with Afghanistan and, additionally, an interest in the autonomous Chinese region of Xinjiang, especially during the periods when it shared strong cultural affinities with the countries to the West of the Pamir. I will nevertheless remain open to studying Iran, particularly Sassanian Iran, which was a powerful neighbour, at times a partial conqueror, and a reference in certain domains. I will also not systematically observe the cut-off point between Pre-Islamic and classical Islam.

4It is worth considering first how this space was defined in the West before the invention of the term Central Asia, which occurred somewhat by default. What it came to replace on our maps is actually the notion of Tartary, or Great Tartary. This terminological past has had its role to play in the way these people have been perceived in the long term. Tartary was the land of the Tartars, whom Saint Louis said had left Tartarus and should be sent back. In view of many other historical events, the most recent one being 11 September 2001, one might be tempted to think that the people of Central Asia are somewhat like Léo Ferré’s anarchists: they are noticed only when they are feared.

5The archaeology of Central Asia is very young in comparison with that of other regions. Aside from the great explorations of Chinese Turkestan which, except for Mark Aurel Stein’s work, were mostly collections carried out without excavation methods worthy of the name, it mainly dates back to two schools that formed in the pre-war years and which met only during the 1980s. These schools, which have now to a large extent merged in the field, are the French school of Afghan archaeology, and the Soviet school of the Central Asian republics.

6One of the purposes of my seminar will be to contribute to what I will call a documentary watch. In Central Asia, probably more so than in many other geographical areas, it is important to know how to accept and deal with the unexpected. If I consider my scientific production over the last fifteen years, at the very least a quarter of my articles were not planned at all. Who could have foreseen, even just a few months earlier, the reopening of Afghanistan to archaeological research in 2002, after being closed for twenty years? Of course, as some fields open, others are at risk of closing without any further notice. But historical interactions between all the countries of Central Asia as well as the necessary methodological to and fro between the field, texts and images offer many fall-back and reorientation possibilities. All researchers working on the area have at some point in their career experienced these constraints, which can ultimately prove more stimulating than settling down too comfortably.

• A video of the Lecture can be found at, on the professor’s page.

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Référence électronique

Frantz Grenet, « Re-Centring Central Asia », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 9 | 2015, mis en ligne le 25 septembre 2015, consulté le 12 décembre 2017. URL :

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Frantz Grenet

History and Cultures of Pre-Islamic Central Asia

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