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The History and Culture of Iran and Central Asia

Tor, Deborah & Minoru Inaba (eds.). 2022. The history and culture of Iran and Central Asia: From the pre-Islamic to the Islamic period. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press.

This volume examines the major cultural, religious, political, and urban changes that took place in the Iranian world of Inner and Central Asia in the transition from the pre-Islamic to the Islamic periods.

One of the major civilizations of the first millennium was that of the Iranian linguistic and cultural world, which stretched from today’s Iraq to what is now the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China. No other region of the world underwent such radical transformation, which fundamentally altered the course of world history, as this area did during the centuries of transition from the pre-Islamic to the Islamic period. This transformation included the religious victory of Islam over Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, and the other religions of the area; the military and political wresting of Inner Asia from the Chinese to the Islamic sphere of primary cultural influence; and the shifting of Central Asia from a culturally and demographically Iranian civilization to a Turkic one. This book contains essays by many of the preeminent scholars working in the fields of archeology, history, linguistics, and literature of both the pre-Islamic and the Islamic-era Iranian world, shedding light on some of the most significant aspects of the major changes that this important portion of the Asian continent underwent during this tumultuous era in its history. This collection of cutting-edge research will be read by scholars of Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Iranian, and Islamic studies and archaeology.

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Ethnic Groups along the Silk Road

Reckel, Johannes & Merle Schatz (eds.). 2021. Ancient texts and languages of ethnic groups along the Silk Road. Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen.

Note: This volume is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License and can be downloaded here.

Central Asia has been dominated by Mongolian and Turkic speaking nations for the past 1300 years. Uyghurs and Uzbeks were the most important traders on the Central Asian Silk Roads. Earlier Sogdians and Tokharians and other ethnic groups speaking Indo-Germanic (Indo-Iranian) languages were active on these ancient trade routes. In the 18th and 19th century a Tungus language, Manchu, became important for Sinkiang, Mongolia and the whole of China. Expansion policy of different realms, comprehensive commercial activities and the spread of religious ideas facilitated the exchange of (cultural) knowledge along the Silk Road. Texts and scripts tell us not only about the different groups that were in contact, but also reflect details of diplomatic, religious, and economic ambitions and the languages that were used for these different forms of communication. Several examples of contact induced language change or specific linguistic influence as a result of contacts along the Silk Road invite us to understand more about the frequency, intensity and intention of contacts that took place in very different regions connected by the Silk Road.

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The Church of the East

Lieu, Samuel & Glen Thompson (eds.). 2020. The Church of the East in Central Asia and China (China and the Mediterranean World 1). Turnhout: Brepols.

Note by BiblioIranica: This is the first volume in the new series China and the Mediterranean World with S. N.C. Lieu and G. Mikkelsen as the general editors.

A collection of papers on the history of Christianity along the Silk Road and in pre-modern China, pushing back the frontier of knowledge in a fast developing new area of research.
The diffusion of Christianity along the Silk Road from Iraq and Iran to China in the premodern era has attracted scholarly attention in the West since the discovery of the famous Xian (Nestorian) Monument c. 1623. This initial discovery was dismissed as a Jesuit forgery by Voltaire, Edward Gibbon and many other scholars of the Enlightenment. However, its authenticity has been more than vindicated by the discovery of genuine (Nestorian / Jingjiao) Christian texts in Chinese from Dunhuang and in Syriac, Sogdian and Old Turkish from Turfan (Bulayq) at the beginning of the last century. Besides confirming the existence of a Tang era Chinese Christian church (Jingjiao), additional archaeological and literary evidence has accumulated of a Christian presence in China during the later Song and Yuan periods (Yelikewenjiao). These churches were the subject of a conference of international specialists in Hong Kong in 2015. The current volume of eleven articles has grown out of the papers presented there.

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The Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek World

Mairs, Rachel (ed.). 2021. The Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek world. London & New York: Routledge.

This volume provides a thorough conspectus of the field of Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek studies, mixing theoretical and historical surveys with critical and thought-provoking case studies in archaeology, history, literature and art.

The chapters from this international group of experts showcase innovative methodologies, such as archaeological GIS, as well as providing accessible explanations of specialist techniques such as die studies of coins, and important theoretical perspectives, including postcolonial approaches to the Greeks in India. Chapters cover the region’s archaeology, written and numismatic sources, and a history of scholarship of the subject, as well as culture, identity and interactions with neighbouring empires, including India and China.

The Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek World is the go-to reference work on the field, and fulfils a serious need for an accessible, but also thorough and critically-informed, volume on the Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms. It provides an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the Hellenistic East.

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The World of the Oxus Civilization

Lyonnet, Bertille & Nadezhda A Dubova (eds.). 2021. The World of the Oxus Civilization. London & New York: Routledge.

This collection of essays presents a synthesis of current research on the Oxus Civilization, which rose and developed at the turn of the 3rd to 2nd millennia BC in Central Asia.

First discovered in the 1970s, the Oxus Civilization, or the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), has engendered many different interpretations, which are explored in this volume by an international group of archaeologists and researchers. Contributors cover all aspects of this fascinating Bronze Age culture: architecture; material culture; grave goods; religion; migrations; and trade and interactions with neighboring civilizations, from Mesopotamia to the Indus, and the Gulf to the northern steppes. Chapters also examine the Oxus Civilization’s roots in previous local cultures, explore its environmental and chronological context, or the possibly coveted metal sources, and look into the reasons for its decline.

The World of the Oxus Civilization offers a broad and fascinating examination of this society, and provides an invaluable updated resource for anyone working on the culture, history, and archaeology of this region and on the multiple interactions at work at that time in the ancient Near East.

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Artifact, Text, Context

Tang, Li & Dietmar W. Winkler (eds.). 2020. Artifact, text, context: Studies on Syriac Christianity in China and Central Asia (orientalia – patristica – oecumenica 17). LIT Verlag.

This volume is a collection of papers highlighting recent researches on Syriac Christianity in China and Central Asia. The topics range from artifacts to texts and their historical contexts, covering the period from the 7th to the 18th century. As the studies on Syriac Christianity in China and Central advance, focus has shifted from a general historical survey and textual translation to a more micro and meticulous study of specific concepts and terms and particular names of persons and places.

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Articles

Religious Imagery in pre-Islamic Iran and Central Asia

Shenkar, Michael. 2019. Religious imagery and image-making in pre-Islamic Iran and Central Asia. In Christiane Gruber (ed.), The image debate: Figural representation in Islam and across the world. London: Gingko.

The Image Debate: Figural Representation in Islam and Across the World is a collection of thirteen essays which examine the controversy surrounding the use of images in Islamic and other religious cultures and seek to redress some of the misunderstandings that have arisen. Written by leading academics from the United States, Australia, Turkey, Israel and the United Kingdom, the book opens with an introduction by the editor Christiane Gruber, who sets the subject in context with a detailed examination of the debates over idols and the production of figural images in Islamic traditions. Twelve further articles are divided into three sections: the first deals with pre-modern Islamic practices and anxieties with image-making; the second addresses similar issues in Judaism, in Christianity during the Byzantine period, in pre-Islamic Iran and Central Asia, and in Hindu and Buddhist contexts in South Asia; and the third brings the reader back to Islamic lands with five articles examining traditions of figural representation in the modern and contemporary periods.

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Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin before Nationalism

Kia, Mana. Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin before Nationalism. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2020.

For centuries, Persian was the language of power and learning across Central, South, and West Asia, and Persians received a particular basic education through which they understood and engaged with the world. Not everyone who lived in the land of Iran was Persian, and Persians lived in many other lands as well. Thus to be Persian was to be embedded in a set of connections with people we today consider members of different groups. Persianate selfhood encompassed a broader range of possibilities than contemporary nationalist claims to place and origin allow. We cannot grasp these older connections without historicizing our conceptions of difference and affiliation.

Mana Kia sketches the contours of a larger Persianate world, historicizing place, origin, and selfhood through its tradition of proper form: adab. In this shared culture, proximities and similarities constituted a logic that distinguished between people while simultaneously accommodating plurality. Adab was the basis of cohesion for self and community over the turbulent eighteenth century, as populations dispersed and centers of power shifted, disrupting the circulations that linked Persianate regions. Challenging the bases of protonationalist community, Persianate Selves seeks to make sense of an earlier transregional Persianate culture outside the anachronistic shadow of nationalisms.

About the author

Mana Kia is Associate Professor of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University.

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Lives of Sogdians in Medieval China

Huber, Moritz. 2020. Lives of Sogdians in medieval China (Asiatische Forschungen 160). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

Sogdians, a group of Central Asians based between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, played a significant historical role at the crossroads of the Silk Roads. Travelling the world as caravan leaders, organised in trading networks, they were found from Byzantium to the Chinese heartland. The Sogdian language was a candidate for the lingua franca of the Silk Roads for some hundred years and Sogdians acted as polyglot mediators at courts and prominent translators of Buddhist texts. In the Chinese capitals, fire temples were erected for their use and the exotic products they imported were cherished by the people and the court.
This socio-historical study by Moritz Huber provides a translation of the transmitted Chinese records on Sogdians in Sogdiana and China and combines them with archaeological evidence to present a differentiated picture of their presence in China from the 3rd to 10th century CE. Besides the transcription and translation of all epitaphs of Sogdians from an archaeological context, used to tell their interconnected biographies, as well as a detailed discussion of their political organisation in China under the sabao 薩保/薩寶, this publication further includes a case-study of the Shi 史 families in Guyuan 固原, Ningxia 寧夏 Province.

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Central Asian Textile Images

Gasparini, Mariachiara. 2019. Transcending patterns: Silk road cultural and artistic interactions through Central Asian textile images (Perspectives on the Global Past). Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

In Transcending Patterns: Silk Road Cultural and Artistic Interactions through Central Asian Textiles, Mariachiara Gasparini investigates the origin and effects of a textile-mediated visual culture that developed at the heart of the Silk Road between the seventh and fourteenth centuries. Through the analysis of the Turfan Textile Collection in the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin and more than a thousand textiles held in collections worldwide, Gasparini discloses and reconstructs the rich cultural entanglements along the Silk Road, between the coming of Islam and the rise of the Mongol Empire, from the Tarim to Mediterranean Basin. Exploring in detail the iconographic transfer between different agents and different media from Central Asian caves to South Italian churches, the author depicts and describes the movement and exchange of portable objects such as sculpture, wall painting, and silk fragments across the Asian continent and across the ages.

Mariachiara Garsparini received a PhD in transcultural studies and global art history from Heidelberg University, Germany. Her research focuses on Central Asian material culture, wall painting, artist’s praxis, and Sino-Iranian and Turko-Mongol interactions. She has conducted extensive fieldwork in Asia. Since 2015 she has been teaching Asian art in the San Francisco Bay Area.