Studying the Mores of the Land. Steppe and Sown, Material Culture and the Pioneering Practice of Heritage Preservation in Soviet Bukhara

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk

Description of Activity

A few years ago, the Silk Road concept was rejuvenated by the Central Asian states, Kazakhstan in particular, and Belarus when they formulated plans for a regional economic partnership with Russia, which led to the foundation of the Eurasian Economic Union. These countries possess three precious things: space, geographical proximity to economic centres – Europe, China and the Arabian Gulf – and vast energy and natural resources that their neighbour markets – Europe to the west and China to the east – are keen to share.
Underpinning their moves towards Eurasian integration is the concept of ‘Eurasianism’, a school of thought arguing that Russia is uniquely qualified to bridge the gap between Asia and Europe, Orient and Occident. The evidence it used to build a case for the geographical unity of Russia-Eurasia drew on research into ecological zones grouped into four geographical categories: tundra, forest, steppe and dessert.
Today, the discussion of Eurasian integration provides us with the chance to revisit the concepts of Eurasianism and, along with it, two aspects that have not yet received the attention they deserve:
a) the impact of geographical dimensions on artisan production and material culture;
b) the embedding of the Europe-Russia-Asia juxtaposition in a wider ideological calculation, including Abrahamic religion.
These two aspects are the topic of my proposed paper.
I will shed light on one offshoot of Eurasianism: the contribution of Russian Orientalist scholars to studying the dichotomy between steppe and sown. Their reports appear as systematic works that relied on long-term academic research into the “mores of the land” [нравы земли]. This is a key term in Russian ethnographic enquiry, which reflects an approach to studying the cultural and behavioural habits, normally pertaining not just to a region but also to a particular era, i.e. heterogeneous fields of research to cross both the humanities and social sciences.
Drawing upon reports of enquiries carried out in Bukhara between 1948 and 1966, I will scrutinize what ethnographers reveal about this former oasis city. Although surrounded for a long time by the geographical barriers of the steppe, the physical obstructions were far more permeable than the rhetoric suggests and the line between steppe and sown became increasingly blurred.
Bukhara is located on the ancient Silk Road, and situated in the irrigated area between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers formerly know as Transoxania corresponding roughly to modern-day Uzbekistan. Through various waves of migration, Bukhara neighbourhoods emerged as heterotopic sites, where interaction took place between nomads and settlers, Jewish and Muslim communities, and between the agents of a European centre and an Asiatic periphery.
I will discuss some of these demographic changes in the light of Soviet ethnographic reporting, and describe their impact on Bukhara’s urban neighbourhood principles, with their artisanship and material culture. While flagging the Soviet-guided enquiry into the oriental city, I will shed light on the pioneering technique of on-site preservation, which involved curating a complex heritage, conditioned by the diversity of Bukhara’s populace and the city’s geopolitical situation through time.
Period28 Sept 201729 Sept 2017
Event titleThe Rise and Fall. Environmental Factors in the Socio-Cultural Changes of the Ancient Silk Road Area : Past Global Changes in the Silk Road Area
Event typeConference
LocationKiel, GermanyShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational