07 March 2018
One of the most momentous historical events in Crimean Tatar history was when the Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Djemilev addressed his people in the Crimean Tatar language at the opening of the first Crimean Tatar Mejlis (Parliament) in 1991 after his return to Crimea. Although giving a speech in one’s mother tongue might be considered as the most natural thing, in this case it proves the significance of preserving that mother tongue despite the Soviet Union’s efforts to destroy the Crimean Tatar language. In 2009 Crimean Tatar was categorised as ‘severely endangered’ in the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger.
The early history of the Crimean Tatars and the development of their language is naturally complex. The Mongols called themselves ‘Tatars’ and it was only after the death of Chingiz Khan that they were called ‘Mongols’. Crimean Tatars are the descendants of Kipchak Turks who took a big part of the Mongol army, under the command of Batu Khan, grandson of Chingiz, to the doorstep of Europe. This western division of the Mongol Empire is called the Golden Horde; the Crimean Tatars belonging to this division settled in the Crimean Peninsula in the 12th century and consequently the Crimean Khanate was founded.
Crimean Tatar is linguistically a part of the Kipchak branch of the Turkic family. Edward Lazzerini points out that “a semi-nomadic eastern Kipchak people who settled eventually in the north-east of the peninsula, the Nogays enriched Tatar vocabulary with respect to natural objects, the concerns of daily life and certain forms of economic activity.” He adds that these elements “were of limited though significant influence, affecting the lexicon primarily and providing the literary language with an unusual array of synonyms”. As the Crimean Tatars are followers of Islam, Arabic and Persian served to broaden the Crimean Tatar language.
In the 19th century, Ismail Bey Gaspirali/Ismail Gasprinski realised the need for reform in education for the Turco-Muslim peoples of tsarist Russia, recognising the resolution of the language question as the first condition. Gaspirali wanted to create a pure Turkic lexicon of Crimean Tatar and simplify its syntax. Following these changes, he tried to modify the Arabic script by including vowel symbols and eliminating redundant letters as well as introducing punctuation. In 1883 Gaspirali, whose dream was “unity in thought, unity in language, unity in action”, founded the newspaper Tercuman/Perevodchik, which lasted until 1918. The language Gaspirali used in Tercuman was simplified in form that it would be understood by Turkic readers not only in Crimea but in Ottoman lands, Central Asia, and the Volga regions. Gaspirali was interested in one simple common literary language that would bring all the Turkic people in Russia together.
After October Revolution in 1917, Crimean Tatar’s fate followed that of other minority languages in the USSR.
Above: Cover of Bekir Choban-Zade, Qırım Tatar ilmi sarfı (Simferopol, 1925), a grammar of the Crimean Tatar language in Perso-Arabic script: 14499.s.84. Below: Cover of the journal İleri: Ayda bir kere çıqar siyasi, ictima'i, 'ilmi ve edebi jurnaldır (Simferopol, 1926-[1927?]. 14499.tt26
The new language policy of the Soviet Union replaced the Arabic script with a 31-letter Latin alphabet in 1929, only be replaced by Cyrillic as it was for all other nations in 1938.The changes of script have meant that not only the Crimean Tatars but the Central Asians and other nations lost the whole of their pre-revolutionary written culture as well as the first hand sources regarding the formative first decades of Soviet rule.
The Crimean Tatar people were deported on the orders of Stalin on 18 May 1944 to Central Asia, the Urals and Siberia where they were forced to live in ‘special settlements’ for more than a decade, stripped of all the rights they had enjoyed as Soviet citizens – including that of calling themselves Crimean Tatars. Schooling for the Crimean Tatars was either in Russian, or in the national language of the region where they had been settled. The national literature was destroyed and the Crimean Tatar language reduced to a pre-literate state. Esher Shemizade, Crimean Tatar poet, rightfully voiced what all the Crimean Tatars were feeling “a nation can exist only under the condition that it has its own literary language.”
With the lift of the ban by the Soviet Authorities, the Crimean Tatars managed to publish their first newspaper Lenin Bayragi (‘The Banner of Lenin’) in Uzbekistan in 1957. It appeared three times a week, with an initial circulation of 23,000. It used to be four pages and only the last page gave a glimpse of the language, the meaning of words and explanations for preserving the Crimean Tatar language and teaching it to the younger generation. This newspaper was published until 1990, when the Crimean Tatars started to return home. At this time its title was changed to Yani Bunya (‘New World’) and publication moved to Simferopol in Crimea.
Recent acquisitions: Bi-lingual (Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian) anthologies of Crimean Tatar poetry and prose: Molytva lastivok: antolohia krymsʹkotatarsʹkoï prozy XIV-XX st. (Kyïv, 2005-2006) ZF.9.a.6651 and Kuneshten bir parcha = Okrushyna sontsia (Kyiv, 2003). YF.2006.a.11779
The Crimean Tatars regard their native language as a treasure worth preserving for its own sake. The poet Remzi Burnish captured this essence in his poem ‘Ana tilim’ (‘My Mother Tongue’):
Each nation has its own tongue
in which lovers confide,
To it, that tongue is sweeter than honey,
It will never be forgotten.
My nation is kinsmen, too.
Has its own tongue that sings,
Amid a thousand and one stars
This tongue, in my cradle,
Raised me with its lullaby,
It pulled forward from my youth
Holding me by the hand…
(translated by Edward Allworth with S Ahmet Kirimca)
Melek Maksudoglu, independent researcher
Gulʹnara Bekirova, Piv stolittia oporu: krymsʹki tatary vid vyhnannia do povernennia (1941-1991 roky): narys politychnoï istoriï (Half century of resistance: Crimean Tatars from deportation to return (1941-1991)) (Kyïv, 2017). YF.2017.a.20021
Brian Glyn Williams, The Crimean Tatars: from Soviet genocide to Putin’s conquest (London, 2015). YC.2017.a.6553
V.E.Vozgrin, Istoriia krymskikh tatar. Ocherki etnicheskoi istorii korennogo naroda Kryma v chetyrekh tomakh. (Simferopol', 2014). YF.2015.a.3442
Mehmet Maksudoglu, Kırım Türkleri (Istanbul, 2009)
E Allworth (ed), The Tatars of Crimea: return to the homeland: studies and documents (Durham N.C., 1998) 98/11840
Edward Lazzerini, ‘Crimean Tatar: the Fate of a Severed Tongue’ in: Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Soviet National Languages: their past, present and future, edited by Isabelle T. Kreindler. Contributions to the Sociology of Language; 40 (Berlin, 1985) X.0900/323(40) pp. 109-124
M. Ülküsal, ‘Colonialism and the Soviet Russia’ Emel İki Aylık Kültür Dergisi (EMEL JOURNAL) issue 2, Cilt 1, 1961 14498.c.20
R. H. Hanoglu “Kırım Edebiyatı” Emel Iki Aylık Kültür Dergisi (EMEL JOURNAL) issue 13, Istanbul, 1962 14498.c.20
Şevki Bektorë , Tatarça sarf, nahiv: Tatar oku işleri, ilmi heyeti tarafɪndan tasdik boldu (Sevastopol, 1923). ITA.1986.a.1063
16 February 2018
We’ve all heard of dead languages: the Latins, Ottomans, Manchus and Arawaks that dot the pages of historical texts. These are languages that have ceased to be spoken, whether as first languages or taught ones, by anything more than a handful of scholars. Some dialect groupings disappear altogether for reasons of politics (consider Ottoman and Manchu); social change (Gaulish and Messina Greek); or simple brutality and terror (Arawak and Beothuk). For many others, their “death” is merely a fudge: Latin developed into Italian, French, Spanish and other Romance languages by the same process that brought us contemporary English from Old English, although the latter grouping was never considered to have died. But what of languages that have disappeared through bureaucratic measures? The Sart language might be considered one such example.
Sart is, or was, a Turkic language spoken by the Sart people of Central Asia. Although ethnic identity in pre-Soviet Central Asia is an exceptionally thorny issue, consensus seems to be that the Sarts were a sedentarized Turkophone population in various urban centres throughout the region. They were assumed to be Iranic by descent, but a quick look at two works in the British Library’s collections confirm that their speech, as recorded by Russian officials and travellers at the end of the 19th century, was very much Turkic. This was a basis for their distinction from the neighbouring Tajik peoples of the Pamir range, a community with whom 19th and early 20th century ethnographers assumed they shared a common ancestry, as Maria Subtelny explores in ‘Symbiosis of Turk and Tajik’.
Portraits of Sayid Azimbaev (above) and Palvan Tapylbaev (below), two Sarts whose lives and genealogies are studied in N.P. Ostroumov’s 19th-century ethnographic work on Sart communities, Sarty: etnograficheskie materialy (Tashkent, 1896) RB.23.b.6250.
The first of the two works in question is a phrasebook entitled Frazy na sartovskom” iazykie (‘Phrases in the Sart Language’), authored by Z. A. Aleksieev in 1884 and published in Tashkent. It was intended to be of “useful benefit for landlords and landladies, buyers and farmers, and [with] a good chrestomathy for Russians learning literacy in Sart and for Sarts beginning to read in Russian.” This was only 19 years after the city of Tashkent had fallen into Russian hands, and five years before the arrival of the Trans-Caspian Railway. It is a good indication of the pressure Russian officials felt to cement their interests among the mercantile classes of a sensitive part of the Empire abutting British interests in the Sub-Continent.
Although the work was advertised as being a learning resource for Sarts, it was clearly aimed at Russians: it is organized into three columns, with a Sart phrase on the far right; its Russian translation on the far left of the page; and a Cyrillic transliteration of the Sart in the middle. No Arabic transliteration of the Russian exists.
The table of contents shows just how heavily it was geared towards functional interactions: while there is no section on small talk, there are stock phrases about buying birds or carpets; teacher-student interaction; farming; and the repair of telegraphic lines.
It is difficult to compare Sart to contemporary Turkic languages from the region. These reflect heavy state intervention on the part of the Soviet authorities and bear the scars of often traumatic social disruption, such as the collectivization and sedentarization campaigns of the 1930s. Nonetheless, what we can say about it is that it resembles considerably contemporary Uzbek, as well as certain features of Kazakh and Kyrgyz, all of which are spoken today in the regions where the Sarts lived.
Cover of V.P. Nalivkin, Russko-Sartovskii i Sartovsko-Russkii Slovar’ (Kazan, 1884) 12975.l.21.
The second work is a dictionary and short grammar of the language compiled by Vladimir Nalivkin. Published in 1884 as well, this time in Kazan’, it focuses on the dialect of the Namanganskii Uezd, in contemporary eastern Uzbekistan. Russko-Sartovskii i Sartovsko-Russkii Slovar’ is not, unfortunately, as telling of the social relations between Russians and Sarts as is Frazy, but it does reveal many important features of the language. Much of the vocabulary is not far from that of the Turkic languages of today’s Central Asia, although there are some remarkable departures, including in the names of months. The grammar is far from systematic, and provides only a sketch of the most important morphological structures of the language. Nevertheless, it is easy to see that Sart behaved very much like other Karluk Turkic languages; it would not have been hard for anyone versed in Chagatai or even contemporary Uyghur or Uzbek to pick up.
Sketch of Sart grammar, from Russko-Sartovskii i Sartovsko-Russkii Slovar’
As an important vehicle of commercial communication, it would be easy to assume that Sart would function as a crucial tool in extending Moscow’s authority over Central Asia in the 20th century. Such was not the case. In the 1920s and 30s, the Soviet government sent out teams of ethnographers and anthropologists in order to determine the region’s ethno-linguistic make-up; a key step towards the division of the territory into national republics. As Francine Hirsh has explored in Empire of Nations, this was a fraught process, occasionally led by political fiat rather than evidence. Throughout it, the Sarts fared badly. It was assumed that, in the march towards Socialism, they would be absorbed into the Uzbek nation. As a result, their language was not provided official recognition, and their culture ignored in favour of a Socialist Uzbek one. Sarts disappeared from the 1926 census and official discourse. The Sart language, along with dozens of other dialects that were no longer deemed to be expedient in the march towards Communism, was expunged from the historical record. These two items in the British Library’s collections, however, remain as testimonies to the vibrancy and importance of the language in the pre-Soviet period, and the people who spoke it.
Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
Sergeĭ Abashin, Natsionalizmy v Sredneĭ Azii: v poiskakh identichnosti (St Petersburg, 2007) YF.2009.a.901
Maria Subtelny, ‘The Symbiosis of Turk and Tajik’, in Central Asia in historical perspective, edited by Beatrice F. Manz (Boulder, 1994) ORW.1996.a.1330
Frances Hirsch, Empire of nations: ethnographic knowledge & the making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca, N.Y., 2005) YC.2005.a.7999
Polveka v Turkestane : V.P. Nalivkin biografiia, dokumenty, trudy = Half a century in Turkestan : Vladimir Petrovich Nalivkin : biography, documents and works, Redaktory-sostaviteli: S.N. Abashin [and five others] (Moscow, 2015) YF.2017.a.4115
05 June 2017
The concept of a unified national language is very much a product of the modern era. Since antiquity, commentators, authors, scribes and others have complained about the quality of language use in literary and scholastic circles and everyday life. Such gripes motivated the creation of highly curated liturgical and sacred languages, such as Classical Arabic or Sanskrit. Nevertheless, the creation of a norm against which transgressions could be measured, and its adoption as a tool of the state – as opposed to a religious institution – are novelties of the last few centuries. Profane language tinkering was undertaken with vigour across much of Europe in the 19th century, from French to Hungarian and Greek. It was not until the 20th century that the trend took minority European languages and non-European idioms by storm. Among the Turkic peoples of the Russian Empire, it was the advent of Soviet hegemony that turned language reform from a topic of discussion among intellectuals into stark reality.
The Language Issue, as it is often known, was a subject of frequent conversation among Turkic intelligentsia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jadidists and Qadimists – so called because of their adherence to new or old methods of education – fought over the means and content of education, including language. It was during the first few years of Soviet power, however, that such actors were enlisted to help delineate linguistic boundaries and compile “scientific” knowledge about speech communities across the Union.
Bekir Çobanzade, for example, wrote a grammar of the Kumyk language. Xalid Sǝid Xocayev’s Comparative Conjugations of the Ottoman-Uzbek-Kazakh Languages (pictured above) is another case in point . These fed into the broader process of understanding and standardizing linguistic structures, which culminated at the 1926 All-Union Turcological Congress. The collection of articles prepared for the Congress, the Bulletin for which is held by the British Library, show the degree to which language issues and linguistic reform dominated the proceedings.
Portraits of Lenin (above) and Stalin (below) from İleri (Simferopol, 1926-[1927?]) 14499.tt.26
Along with linguistic reform came change in orthography and writing systems. A quick glance through Turkic-language publications from the first half of the 1920s shows that experimentation with different means of Perso-Arabic spelling was common. Crimean Tatar publications such as İleri and Yeşil Ada demonstrate just how much writers dabbled in such matters. Despite discussing the standardization of such experiments at length, delegates at the 1926 Baku All-Union Turcological Congress eventually settled on whole-sale Latinization as the most efficient alternative. Thus, the ‘Uniform Alphabet’ was born. This particular Latin-based writing system aimed to give all languages within a particular language family the same grapheme for the same sound. It was based, in part, on earlier Tatar efforts at Latinization known as Yañalif, although it did also incorporated important innovations from other languages. Unlike European alphabets, where the English sound sh as is ship could be written sch (German), ch (French), sci (Italian), sz (Polish) or just plain s (Hungarian), all Soviet Turkic languages would now use ş.
The Soviet authories used readers such as Jeni Turmuş and Jaş Kyc, both from Uzbekistan, to promote aggressively the new alphabet. These formed part of mass education movements aimed at eradicating illiteracy as well as pre-Revolutionary epistemologies.
Page from Jaş Kyc (Samarqand,1929). ITA.1986.a.1112
Even those members of the new élite who had actively opposed Bolshevik advances, such as Akhmet Baitursynov, joined the effort. Baitursynov’s 1927 publication Alip-Ba (Zhanga Kural) sought to teach students the new Latin orthography. It followed upon his efforts to compile a grammar of Kazakh, entitled Til Qural, in 1925. Together, they provided a complete corpus of texts for the fixing and propagation of Soviet Kazakhstan’s new national language.
Cover of Til-qural by Akhmed Baitursynov (Qyzylorda, 1925). ITA.1986..a.1104
Cover of Alip-Ba (Zhanga Kural) by Akhmet Baitursynov (Qyzylordam 1927) ITA.1986.a.1138
Orthographic standardization was informed by both a desire to simplify literacy and printing, and the Marxian belief that as humanity marched towards Socialism, languages and national cultures would merge into one. This humanity-wide kulturbund, united in its pursuit of socio-economic well-being, would no longer be divided by the bourgeoisie’s artificial distinctions of nationality, race or language. The Soviet authorities’ wish to help this process along among the Turkic languages is very much evident in an article entitled ‘Turkmen edebi dilining esaası yaghdayları’ (pictured below) from Tyrkmen Medenijeti . K. Bööriyif wrote the piece in 1930, which leads us to believe that it was, at least partially, influenced by the dominant ideology of Stalinism. In it, the author argues for the creation of a standard Turkmen language through the selection of “ideal” linguistic elements from various vernaculars. This is language management at the extreme, precluding the sort of linguistic unification that comes from literary production and socio-political changes, as occurred in Italy and Spain. Such a suggestion only adds to the overwhelming evidence the state’s push to imbue all aspects of Soviet life with Stalinist elements.
Language reform and management are tools utilized by a wide swathe of governments, not just totalitarian ones. What is unique about the Soviet experience, and the Soviet Turkic experiment in particular, is how all aspects of language came under scrutiny. The brief period of forced convergence in the 1920s and early 1930s came to an abrupt end around the time of the Great Purge, when Stalin employed terrible violence to cleanse the state and the country of perceived ideological enemies. Latin gave way to unique Cyrillic alphabets for each language at this point, and the creation of new linguistic standards lost steam. Today, the peoples of the Turkic republics of Central Asia, the Caucasus and Siberia live with the consequences of this turbulent period, while some – including the Uzbeks, Turkmen and most recently the Kazakhs – have sought to determine what would have happened, had the changes of the late 1930s never been enforced.
Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
Kazakhstan sets out plan for alphabet swap,” Deutsche Welle, Berlin: 12 April 2017. http://www.dw.com/en/kazakhstan-spells-out-plans-for-alphabet-swap/a-38407769
‘Nursultan Nazarbaev. Bolashaqqa baghdar: rukhani zhangghyru’ Egemen Qazaqstan, Almaty: 12 April 2017. https://egemen.kz/article/nursultan-nazarbaev-bolashaqqa-baghdar-rukhani-zhanhghyru
The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website.
21 December 2016
Long before the Soviets began their process of korenizatsiia, Imperial Russia boasted a small but prominent cadre of indigenous non-Russian academics. Among those from the 19th century is Aleksandr Kasimovich Kazem-Bek, a colourful mid-century scholar of Turkic and Persian. Kazem-Bek was born Muhammad Ali Kazem-Bek in 1802 in Rasht, Iran, the son of a prominent Shi’ite scholar and daughter of the local governor. At the age of 9, his family moved from Rasht to his father’s native Derbent in contemporary Dagestan. It was here that he met Scottish Presbyterian missionaries, and eventually decided to convert to Christianity.
Portrait of Kazem-Bek from Mirza Kazem-Bek by A. Rzaev (Baku, 1965). X.809/1671
Kazem-Bek’s conversion caused concern among Muslims and Russian Christians alike. The local authorities were worried that he would act as a bridgehead for British influence among the local populations, and he was exiled to Astrakhan. Although punitive, the move allowed him to begin his career in service of the Russian Imperial government as a translator from Persian and Azeri into Russian. It was first step that led to posts in both Kazan – the seat of one of the country’s largest Oriental Studies departments – and St. Petersburg, the Imperial capital. His immersion in both the Islamic and Christian faiths (notwithstanding his occasional polemics against Islam) and his mastery of Russian, Turkish, Tatar, Arabic and Farsi allowed him to act as a conduit of knowledge from the newly conquered regions on the southern fringe of the Empire to the Imperial centres of military, political and economic power.
Among the earliest of his works was an autobiographical account of his conversion from Islam to Christianity entitled A Brief Memoir of the Life and Conversion of Mahomed Ali Bey, a Learned Persian of Derbent (Philadelphia, 1827; 864.g.43; title-page above). This essay was more than simply an ego project: it marked the first of a number of endeavours over the next thirty years to explain and scrutinize the faith of Russia’s new Muslim populations for the benefit of Russian-speaking readers. From 1844, for example, we have his translation of the Kitab mukhtaṣar al-wiḳāyā fī masā’il al-hidāyā (‘The Book of the Collection of Consciousness in the Questions of Gifts’), a 12th century tract dedicated to the examination of the Shar’ia, or Islamic law. There is even a work in the Library’s collection from as late as 1859 entitled Miftāḥ kunūz al-Ḳur’ān (‘Key to the Treasures of the Qur’an’) (St. Petersburg, 1859; 14514.d.13), demonstrating that inter-religious comparison ran like a thread through Kazem-Bek’s oeuvre.
Kitab mukhtaṣar al-wiḳāyā fī masā’il al-hidāyā (Kazan, 1844; 306.41.B.7). An introduction to the work including autobiographical details by the editor, Aleksandr Kazem-Bek, with grammatical corrections to the Arabic, possibly in Kazem-Bek’s own hand.
The scholar’s two most passionate interests, however, were history and language. In many ways, Kazem-Bek’s writings adumbrated the shift in emphasis from religious community to ethno-linguistic belonging that would grow apace following the 1905 Revolution in Russia. This is exemplified by his insistence on studying the vernacular cultures of Russia’s Turkic subjects. The earliest of his historical works held at the Library is the Asseb" o-sseĭiar" / Sem' planet" soderzhashchii istoriiu Krymskikh" khanov" (‘The Seven Planets Comprising the History of the Crimean Khans’)
Title-page of Asseb" o-sseĭiar"(Kazan, 1832) 14456.h.21
This is followed by an English version of his Derbend-Nâmeh, or The History of Derbent. His choice of topic is an indication that, despite his conversion and exile from Azerbaijan, Kazem-Bek never forgot his childhood home or the territory of his ancestors. Finally, among the later works produced on the history of the region, we hold his Bab" i babidy: religiozno-politicheskiia smuty v" Persīi v" 1844-1852 godakh" (‘Babas and the Babids: Politico-Religious Turmoil in Persia’ 1844-1852) (St.Petersburg, 1865; 4504.f.30). Even as a professor and an eminent scholar, Kazem-Bek did not tire of analyzing the social environment of the Caspian region.
Derbend-Nâmeh, or The History of Derbent (St. Petersburg, 1851) 14456.h.14. Title-page (above) and signed; inscription by Kazem-Bek (below)
Within the realm of language and linguistics, among his most passionate topics was the typology of Turkic languages and cultures. The Library holds both the original 1846 Russian version (12906.c.34) and the 1848 German translation (T.6887) of his primary work of historical linguistics, Obshchaia grammatika Turetsko-Tatarskago iazyka (‘General Grammar of the Turco-Tatar Language’). Whatever the value of Kazem-Bek’s theoretical approaches to the study of language, his interest in the languages and dialects of the Eurasian steppe – particularly Kazan Tatar and Uighur – helped focus contemporary minds on the distinctive characteristics of the various Turkic idioms. This too translated into socio-political action, especially cultural and social reform. Indeed, Kazem-Bek is known to have been in contact with another Azeri linguistic reformer, Fathali Akhundzade, about issues of modernization and popular education.
Aleksandr Kazem-Bek was no stranger to controversy, and it is indeed partly thanks to this controversy that his memory has lived on through the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. The works of his housed at the British Library and other institutions, however, demonstrate that he was a formidable part of 19th century Turkic intellectual history, and an important builder of the foundation of Russian Oriental Studies.
Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
06 April 2016
Having spent years in Constantinople, learning over 20 Turkic dialects and studying the Quran and Muslim customs, Ármin Vámbéry was well respected in the Ottoman Empire. Aged 31, this entirely self-made Hungarian orientalist undertook a perilous journey incognito into the very midst of Central Asia, where few Westerners had set foot since the 1600s. His main purpose was to establish the origin and connections of the Hungarian language. Vámbéry thought it a good idea to assume a false identity, convinced that as a European he would not be able to move around freely and explore the region’s languages.
Armin Vambery in dervish dress in the 1860s (CC-PD, from Wikimedia Commons)
Setting off from Tehran in late March 1863 Vámbéry, or rather ‘dervish Reshid’, joined a group of pilgrims returning from Mecca. He told them he had long dreamed of a pilgrimage to the sacred places of Islam in Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, and hiked with them for six months, making heartfelt friendships in the process.
Map of the travels of Ármin Vámbéry in Central Asia (Image by Lepeltier.ludovic. CC-BY-SA, from Wikimedia Commons)
When no camel, donkey or cart was at his disposal, he made use of his own two feet, though lame in one leg from infantile paralysis. As poor pilgrims his party were offered provisions in most places en route and also received alms, which helped pay for their transport or frequent and often arbitrary customs duties.
Vámbéry must have endured extreme tension whenever an encounter with new people was looming. In low moments he feared that even the sufferings inflicted by the hostile desert were preferable to the dangers that humans might pose. Stories of foreigners being imprisoned, tortured or executed were common, and Vámbéry was so convinced of this danger that he kept strychnine pills sewn into his modest attire.
Whenever anyone accused him of not being who he claimed, which happened with alarming regularity, our adventurer somehow wriggled out of the situation. Despite his best efforts to alter his European appearance, many picked up on some unexplained peculiarity about his person and he was time and again suspected of being a secret envoy for the Sultan, or worse, a spy (or a European). Every town had its informant, so he had to appear before many a local ruler and answer challenging queries into his being a genuine hadji. The breadth of his knowledge saved him and occasionally he even turned these difficult conversations to his advantage, returning with useful gifts.
‘I swear you are an Englishman!’ In: Ármin Vámbéry, Közép-ázsiai utazás… (Pest, 1865). 10077.e.24. and available online.
In Bukhara’s bazaar, Vámbéry noticed some goods labelled with the names of Manchester and Birmingham, which gave him a warm feeling, as if meeting a compatriot in such a distant land, but he was afraid that showing his delight might give him away. At the book market he spotted precious manuscripts that could have filled major gaps in oriental studies in the West. Sadly he could not buy more than a small handful of them, partly for lack of finance, but also because he feared a display of enthusiasm for secular knowledge would place him under more suspicion.
In Samarkand some friendly locals offered to accompany him all the way back to Mecca, where he said he was returning. It ‘would have been slightly awkward for all parties if we then ended up on the shores of the Thames instead of the Kaaba’. Therefore, for his return journey via Afghanistan, he attached himself to several successive caravans where he enjoyed less attention. Once back in Persia he could finally bid farewell to his dervish disguise.
Exactly a year after his expedition had begun, Vámbéry left Tehran again, this time for Europe. He took with him a ‘Tatar’ mullah called Iskhak, originally from Khiva. Iskhak was the only person to whom Vámbéry had revealed his true identity, although not until safely back in Tehran. The two had grown so close while travelling together that Iskhak decided to start a new life in the Hungarian capital instead of going on to Mecca. He learnt the language and worked at the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Mihály Kovács. Portrait of Ármin Vámbéry. 1861 (CC-PD, from Wikimedia Commons)
Vámbéry may not have discovered the exact origin of the Hungarian language, but he brought back a wealth of new information about the places he visited, which he first published in English as part of his Travels in Central Asia. The book, along with the fascinating and by all accounts highly entertaining lectures he gave around Britain earned him much academic acclaim and fame, and the doors of élite society were suddenly thrown open to him. He also became a professor and an honorary member of the Academy in Budapest despite never having a university degree.
Two extracts from an report about one of Vámbéry’s lectures, The Leeds Mercury, 19 March 1866, p. 3 (from the British Newspaper Archive)
In fact he gained such trust in Britain that he was later employed by the Foreign Office as a secret agent in the Near East. Undoubtedly, this was in no small part thanks to his (mostly) skilful impersonations, enhanced by outstanding linguistic ability and charismatic demeanour.
Ildi Wollner, Curator, East-Central European Collections
References / Further reading:
Ármin Vámbéry, Travels in Central Asia, being the account of a journey from Teheran across the Turkoman Desert on the Eastern shore of the Caspian to Khiva, Bokhara, and Samarcand, performed in the year 1863. (London, 1864.) 2354.d.1.
Hungarian edition: Közép-ázsiai utazás, melyet a Magyar Tudományos Akademia megbizásából 1863-ban Teheránból a Turkman sivatagon át a Kaspi tenger keleti partján Khivába, Bokharába és Szamarkandba tett / és leirt Vámbéry Ármin, a Magyar Tud. Akadémia tagja. (Pest, 1865). 10077.e.24.
French translation: Voyages d'un Faux Derviche dans l'Asie Centrale de Téhéran à Khiva. (Paris, 1867). 10057.aa.22. and 12206.k.20.(2.)
Ármin Vámbéry, Sketches of Central Asia: additional chapters on my travels, adventures, and on the ethnology of Central Asia. (London, 1868). 2354.e.15. and B.18.d.5
German translation: Skizzen aus Mittelasien. Ergänzungen zu meiner Reise in Mittelasien .... (Leipzig, 1868). 10057.ee.18. and available online
Russian translation: Очерки Средней Азіи… (Moscow, 1868) 1609/5266. and available online