Asian and African studies blog

21 June 2021

Black Sea Noir: Who was Ian MacPherson and Why Was He in Crimea?

Off-white paper with black faded typed text in Latin script, with a drawing of concentric circle in the centre and Hebrew script copied by hand in black ink in the rings of the circles
The final page of Ian MacPherson's report from his travels to Crimea, including a copy of a Hebrew-script inscription and the legend to his map of Kezlev. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927. Or 17013 f 39)
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With summer having arrived for those of us in the northern hemisphere, it’s time to find a quiet green space and relax in the pleasant weather for a few hours – preferably with a good mystery. While I can’t offer you something along the lines of Zühal Kuyaş, Pınar Kür, Osman Aysu, Ümit Kıvanç, or even the pastiche but playful crime stories of Peyami Safa, I do have a bit of a conundrum that might help while away a humid hour or two. My Noir tale comes from deep inside one of the Library’s safe cupboards. Late in 2019, I found a stack of handwritten and typed notes from a man named Ian MacPherson (Or 17013). Some of the jottings related to library collections in Crimea; others were maps of Kezlev (Yevpatoria in Ukrainian and Russian) with the sites of interest marked; some had rubbings and sketches of inscriptions and “tamghalar” (tamgalar); and a final piece provided a translation of a report to the Crimean Academy of Sciences. But who was Ian MacPherson, and what was he doing in Crimea for four weeks during the summer of 1927?

A hand drawn map ink and pencil of a square in Kezlev with various buildings numbered and Arabic, Latin and Cyrillic script text hand written on it, as well as typewritten Latin-script text in the top left corner
A hand-drawn map of Qanglıq or Kaklyk Square (now Metalistiv Square), showing the bazar and Tatarok Street (today Tatar'ska Street), along with numbered buildings corresponding to those included in the legend provided by MacPherson. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927, Or 17013 f 39)
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To answer the first question, I don’t really know. That is, I don’t have precise details on his dates of birth and death, or about his education and profession. But from the notes that he left, we can gather a few details. Let’s do our best Saga Norén and go through some of them. Given that these seemingly bureaucratic notes were found in a safe cupboard at the British Library, I’m willing to guess that Mr. MacPherson was employed by the British Museum (the Library’s predecessor institution) to acquire materials from the Soviet Union, the former Ottoman Empire, or both. While it’s true that these notes could have been deposited by a third party at any point between 1927 and 2019, this situation seems unlikely. The fact that they speak of libraries of interest; archaeological and historical conferences attended; and meetings with various local scholars and officials all point to the BM as being Ian’s most likely place of employment. Indeed, wherever he worked, it was certainly a “museum” (f 38) that contained a library. In a note from 8 November 1927, MacPherson remarks that he will check the lists of English-language materials at the Yevpatoria Library with those held at “our library” in London. MacPherson also states (f 38) that “were any collaborator of the British Museum” to pursue in-depth research in Kezlev in the coming years, they would be able to count on his assistance as a fixer and a translator. Perhaps, then, he was a former employee of the Museum, now freelancer (of a sort) eager to use his connections to finance his continued travels.

A foolscap page of Latin-script text typed on a typewriter with some words and phrases either crossed out in pen or cancelled with typed x'sA foolscap page of Latin-script text typed on a typewriter with some words and phrases either crossed out in pen or cancelled with typed x's
The first two pages of Ian MacPherson's report on his trip to Crimea, including descriptions of the Peninsula, Kezlev, the people he met, and some of the institutions in the region. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927, Or 17013 ff 35-36)
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It’s the varied and wide-ranging interests encapsulated in Ian’s activities that point most firmly to him working in a position touching upon history, archaeology, anthropology, museology, and archival research. This might seem like a broad swathe of the social sciences and humanities, impossible to contain within anything other than personal interests. But the mix is not far from what Curators at the Library are asked to touch upon even today. MacPherson gathered information on historic and contemporary communities as well as those conducting research on them. His notes provide us with detailed descriptions of the ethnic and religious communities present in northern Crimea in the 1920s (Muslim Tatars, Greek Catholic and Russian Orthodox Slavs, Qaraim, Turkic-speaking Jews or Krymchaks, Ashkenazi Jews, Armenians). These missives are clearly enmeshed within imperialist understandings of racial anthropology. Nonetheless, they collate valuable information about Crimean society before the devastating changes brought about by the purges of the 1930s; Nazi occupation; and wholesale deportation and ethnic cleansing during the Soviet reoccupation.

A headshot of a balding man with no hat in black and white above a typed caption in Arabic scriptA reproduction of a black and white photograph of a group of 18 people including 2 women and 16 men, of whom 7 are seated in a front row, 9 are standing behind them, and a further two are standing behind that row, all of them in various forms of business or casual attire, with a bolded title in Arabic script above the photo and an Arabic-script caption below it
A portrait of the Crimean Tatar historian Osman Aqçoqraqlı (left) and a group photo of the participants at a 1926 Archaeological Conference in Kerch, Crimea, including Aqçoqraqlı seated on the far right. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, "Kerç'de Arxeoloği Konferensiası", İleri, 6-7 (November 1926), pp. 44, 46) (
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MacPherson’s papers also record meetings with numerous scholars. These include Soviet scientists from outside the region (among whom was an unnamed Jewish doctor from Minsk unsuccessfully researching blood types among Qaraim communities); Boris Saadevich Elyashevich, Curator of the Qaraim National Library; Polina J. Chepurina, the Head of the Yevpatoria Museum; Professor Filonenko, a Ukrainian member of the Turko-Tatar Faculty at Simferopol’ University; an unnamed Armenian priest; and the well-known Crimean Tatar historian Osman Aqçoqraqlı. Ian was clearly seeking the latest information from these individuals on the expansion and development of the social sciences and humanities in the region; a veritable hotbed of scholarly activities in the 1920s. He attended the Second Pan-Union Archaeological Conference in Aqyar (Sevastopol’) on 11-12 September 1927, and made extensive notes on the activities of the Qaraim National Library and the Yevpatoria Museum, documenting the work done to catalogue and study the holdings within new Soviet structures.

A foolscap page of Latin-script text typed on a typewriter with some words and phrases either crossed out in pen or cancelled with typed x's and Arabic and Samaritan script texts also added in by handA foolscap page of Latin-script text typed on a typewriter with some words and phrases either crossed out in pen or cancelled with typed x's
MacPherson's report on the Yevpatoria Museum and their holdings of items relating to the history of Crimea. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927, Or 17013 ff 37-38)
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The lists and descriptions that MacPherson compiled are also invaluable for the information that they provide about Crimean culture and history. Among them, we have an overview of some of the treasures of the Qaraim National Library as compiled by Mikhail Nikolaevich Sokolov (f 36; originally a report for the Academy of Sciences in 1926). The gradual shift in ownership and control over cultural heritage is also documented, as MacPherson’s notes include a “List of property in the town of Eupatoria to become municipal property” (f 40), clearly sketching out the Soviet state’s desire to take ownership and assert control over the cultural heritage of the region’s various communities. And, most notably, the sheets are filled with sketches; short descriptions; rubbing and transcriptions of inscriptions; floor plans; and maps of important places and buildings found throughout this segment of the Crimean Peninsula. MacPherson was evidently very keen to bring back information about the Hebrew- and Arabic-script manifestations of faith and power in Kezlev and other towns. Given the shaky nature of much of the Arabic script used to copy down Crimean Tatar and Arabic inscriptions, it seems as though Ian himself engaged in this endeavour. He was likely helped considerably by local scholars, as the Crimean Tatar phrases are in an orthography characteristic of the 1910s and 20s, rather than Classical Ottoman.

Pencil rubbing of a three pronged figure with a pointed head alongside an ink sketch of a bird upon which the item might have been basedPencil rubbing of a three pronged figure showing only the outline of the prongs with a blank interior below a rubbing of the outline of a bar
Two examples of tamgalar taken from MacPherson's rubbings of the symbols from mosques and graveyards in Kezlev. On the left, an example that Aqçoqraqlı identified with Qaraqurt and that MacPherson labelled as "Ceni Mille", and on the right, one that he linked to Kezlev. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927, Or 17013 ff 11,19)
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A separate look should be devoted to the rubbings and sketches of tamgalar found throughout the sheets. These are stamps or seals that were employed by various communities – often Turkic or Mongolic speakers – across Eurasia. The expanse over which they are found is a tribute to their incorporation into nomadic cultures. They encoded many pieces of information, including family ties; socio-economic structures and relationships; and power dynamics. To this day, the Tarak tamga continues to be used as a national symbol of the Crimean Tatars. MacPherson wasn’t always accurate in his identification of these stamps, and some of what has been labeled “tamga” in the notes is clearly not related to this part of nomadic Eurasian heritage. Nonetheless, it’s clear that this aspect of Crimea’s semiotic culture fascinated our traveler, and that it was a big motivating factor in his further research into Crimean history.

A yellowed page with lithographed reproduction of a sketch featuring stone monuments each bearing a different tamga symbol on them, entirely in black and white, above and below typed Arabic-script text
An artist's rendition of tamgalar found across Crimea on various stone monuments, illustrating the typical settings in which such evidence of the Peninsula's Turkic heritage can be found. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, Qırım'da Tatar Tamğaları : Baku'da toplanmakta olan Türkiyat Kurultayı Münasabetile (Bağçesaray : Kırım Tatar Huner ve Sanayı Nefiye Texnikumesi Matbaası, 1926), p. 11). (11499.p.11)
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Another piece of the puzzle fell into place last autumn. A chunk of the mystery surrounding Ian MacPherson and his trip to Crimea had already become much less murky thanks to his detailed notes. But MacPherson’s relationship with the people mentioned in them continued to be unclear, not least because there were no indications of how he was received by those individuals mentioned in his missives. As luck would have it, though, I was able to find another clue while on one of my many exploratory trips to the Library’s basements. There, I stumbled upon a monograph without a record in our electronic catalog, Qırım'da Tatar Tamgaları (قریم'دا تاتار تامغالاری) (14499.p.11). This volume, authored by the very same Osman Aqçoqraqlı MacPherson met in 1927, is a beautifully illustrated and very detailed study of tamgalar. It documents an important stage in the development of the social sciences in Crimea, with a particular emphasis on the contributions of Indigenous scholars. Moreover, it provides us with clear indications of the spread of particular early Soviet opinions and ideas following the Bolshevik takeover.

Yellowed page with printed text in Arabic script showing a ruled table that includes the Syllabic system employed for Indigenous languages in Canada against their pronunciation in Arabic scriptYellowed page with printed text in Arabic script showing a ruled table that includes the Hangul system employed for Korean alongside the letters' pronunciation in Arabic script
Schemes showing the Hangul system (left) and the Syllabics system (right) and alleging similarities or direct lineages with the tamgalar employed by both Mongolic and Turkic peoples across Eurasia. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, Qırım'da Tatar Tamğaları : Baku'da toplanmakta olan Türkiyat Kurultayı Münasabetile (Bağçesaray : Kırım Tatar Huner ve Sanayı Nefiye Texnikumesi Matbaası, 1926), pp. 20-21). (11499.p.11)
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Although the majority of Aqçoqraqlı’s text is focused on the various tamgalar, their meanings, and their historical connections, the end of the work introduces a new, and highly dubious, deviation. In a twist that makes express use of Nikolai Marr’s theories regarding a “Japhetic” group of languages, he implies parallels between Mongolic tamgalar and early Hangul, the alphabet used for Korean, if not a clear line of inspiration (p. 20). Similarly, he draws readers’ attention to the similarities between the tamgalar and the syllabic system applied to various Indigenous languages spoken in Canada (p. 21). Whatever similarities exist, these are purely coincidental, as neither the Nêhiyaw history of the system nor that of European settlers speaks to any Turkic or Mongolic influence in the appearance of the writing system. The same logic is applied to the Phoenician, Himyarite and Ge’ez alphabets and syllabaries (p. 22). Such cross-cultural, and often ahistorical, approaches to historical linguistics were a hallmark of both Marr’s worldview and that of many Turkic nationalists, particularly those participating in the construction of the Turkish History Thesis in the 1930s. Their appearance in a Soviet work prior to the Stalinist crackdown makes this an especially valuable work from a historiographical perspective.

Printed cover page featuring printed Arabic calligraphy with small tamga symbols among the calligraphy and a handwritten inscription in Arabic script in blue-black ink at the top right of the page
The title page of Aqçoqraqlı's work on tamgalar, including a dedication of the work to the British Museum dated 24 July 1926. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, Qırım'da Tatar Tamğaları : Baku'da toplanmakta olan Türkiyat Kurultayı Münasabetile (Bağçesaray : Kırım Tatar Hüner ve Sanayı Nefiye Texnikumesi Matbaası, 1926)). (11499.p.11)
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But this isn’t quite what we’re interested in investigating, is it? Back to the matter at hand, and MacPherson’s connections to Aqçoqraqlı. On the title page of the book, we find a dedication written in a tight rık’a hand with black ink, probably using a fountain pen. It reads: “Londra’da Britanya Müzehanesine takdim olunur. Müellif: Osman Aqçoqraqlı. 24 İyul 1926” (“Presented to the British Museum in London. Author: Osman Aqçoqraqlı. 24 July 1926”). From the accession stamp at the back of the book, we can see that it was formally entered into the Library’s collections on 9 October 1926. This is hardly a smoking gun when it comes to MacPherson’s employment, or the nature of his relationship to Osman Aqçoqraqlı – not least since it predates MacPherson’s visit by a year. But it does demonstrate that the latter individual was clearly in communication with the Museum and that the Museum itself had a pre-existing relationship with the Peninsula’s scholarly community. This is something, I have learned, that is often imperative in ensuring smooth business trips. Indeed, in his own report, MacPherson notes that he has “extended some help to him [Aqçoqraqlı] in regard to European sources of information” on tamgalar. Was this the catalyst for his trip? MacPherson mentions in the notes that he was planning on returning to Crimea in 1928 to undertake more detailed research; perhaps this was part of a longer friendship arc ultimately interrupted by Stalinist repressions.

Yellowed page with calligraphic Arabic-script title at top above sketched portrait of Joseph Stalin, from the next up, featuring a half-profile of the left side of his face, entirely in black and whiteA group portrait photograph in black and white showing a line of men seated outside of a building in front of a line of four standing men, some of which are wearing hats, under a bolded title and above a caption, all of which are in Arabic script
The cover of İleri magazine, featuring a sketched portrait of Joseph Stalin (left) and a portrait of archaeologists working in Crimea (right) in 1925-26, including Aqçoqraqlı, standing second from the right. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, "Kerç'de Arxeoloği Konferensiası", İleri, 6-7 (November 1926), cover and p. 45) (
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Many good examples of the Noir genre include murders, injustice and a crushingly ruthless system that outdoes those who participate in it. While we don’t know what happened to MacPherson (he might have been shot by a cold-blooded gangster while on his walking tour to Kerch), his was likely not the story that ended in despair. Rather, it is Crimean Tatar scholars who give this particular story its dark edge. With the triumph of Joseph Stalin in the struggle for the leadership of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union, a pall descended on many academic and minority communities across the USSR. The 1930s were a period of gradual but devastating repression of dissent and creativity. Many Turkic intellectuals and national leaders from the 1910s and 20s were targeted for purges. Osman Aqçoqraqlı was no exception, and in 1938 he was arrested and executed for his alleged nationalist transgressions. It was, in predictably Noir fashion, the system which had allowed him to pursue his research and to connect with like-minded scholars from abroad that would eventually cause his demise.

A pencil sketch and rubbing of Arabic script and numbers along with a shield-like shape on white paper, accompanied by handwritten text in Latin and Cyrillic scripts in black ink
A rubbing and sketch of a date marker for 1180 AH (1766-67 CE) identified with the Khan Cami, also known as the Cuma Cami, designed by the famed Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in 1552-64 CE. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927. Or 17013 f 9)
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In 1942, Crimea was invaded by Nazi forces. After the Soviet reoccupation, the accusation of collaboration levelled by Stalin against the entire Crimean Tatar nation resulted in their mass deportation to Uzbekistan and other destinations in 1944. Communities were shattered and tens of thousands died. It was only in 1989 that survivors and their descendants were able to return home en masse. Or 17013 is thus more than just the notes of a privileged, if not entitled, British business traveller interested in the region’s cultural and architectural heritage. They are evidence of a buoyant time of exploration, discovery, and self-expression among the peoples of Crimea; an ethos that would ultimately be betrayed and erased from official memory during the Great Purge and Deportation. The mystery of who Ian MacPherson was pales in comparison to the enormity of the Crimean Tatars’ displacement and dispossession; a trauma re-enacted in 2014 with the Russian annexation of the Peninsula.

Hopefully, making use of the dogged persistence of a Raymond Chandler anti-hero to uncover the finer points of a 95-year-old business trip has helped you while away a humid afternoon. With a little luck, it can also help us to reconstruct suppressed histories, and aid in the pursuit of long overdue restorative justice for repressed persons and peoples.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
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