- L’invention de l’Asie centrale. Histoire du concept de la Tartarie à l’Eurasie by Svetlana Gorshenina
“Central Asia,” as anyone who has had the task of introducing a monograph, an article, or an undergraduate lecture on this region will know, defies easy geographical or cultural specification. How we delimit the region in spatial terms; what or whom we include or exclude; the very names that we use to denote particular ethnic groups, countries, subnational territories, and the region itself – all these can easily become political questions as much as scholarly ones. A delineation that is sound according to one particular historical, cultural, linguistic, or geopolitical logic risks being contested as imprecise, arbitrary, or Euro- (or Turko-, or Russo-) centric when a different basis for carving up geographical and intellectual space is invoked. In Xinjiang, for instance, the term favored by Uighur activists as an anticolonial response to Chinese expansionism to designate the country’s West (“East Turkestan”) is often decried in Chinese academia as itself a colonial imposition of Russian origin! And even when scholars share a language [End Page 574] of communication, questions of orthographic convention, editorial policy, and political sensitivity can often be in tension: a vowel shift (from Kyrgyzstan to Kirgizstan, for instance) can elicit heated dispute over “right naming” in different institutional contexts. Students of Central Asia have every reason to feel confused both by the terminological variety they encounter and by the shifting historical fortunes of particular topo- and ethnonyms.
In this context, Svetlana Gorshenina’s erudite, meticulously researched and lavishly illustrated monograph, L’Invention de l’Asie centrale: Histoire du concept de la Tartarie à l’Eurasie, is a uniquely important contribution. This is an encyclopedic work in every sense: totaling more than 700 pages, charting a vast range of sources in multiple languages, and chronicling terminological change from the sixth century BC to the present, the text will no doubt become the go-to reference work for understanding the sources and political lives of multiple geographical referents relating to this region, including “Tartary,” “Turkestan,” “Transoxiana,” and “Eurasia” as well as the overlapping threesome of Central, Inner, and Middle Asia. The current volume is the second in a trilogy of monographs developed from Gorshenina’s 2007 doctoral dissertation (a three-volume, 750-page work that is expansive even by the standards of the French academy). The first volume in that trilogy, published in 2012, provided a forensic treatment of the national-territorial delimitation of 1924–36 and its legacies in Central Asia. The final volume, currently in preparation with Claude Rapin, will explore the cartographic representation of Central Asia, a theme that is also touched on in the current, second volume.
L’Invention de l’Asie centrale is divided into an Introduction and fifteen broadly chronological chapters grouped into five sections. The introduction sets the scene for the chronological account that follows, showing how the territory that we would today designate broadly as Central Asia served in the ancient world as a locus for projections of cultural difference only loosely mapped onto territory – a place of presumed climatic extremes inhabited by mythic beasts and barbarian peoples. The chapter considers how such representations fed into the depictions of the Arabo-Persian world of the eighth to fifteenth centuries, and how the emergence of new technologies of mapping and geometry facilitated new Islamocentric cartographies of difference.
The first section, which follows this insight into ancient cosmography, provides a historical tour de force, taking us from the mappamundi tradition of medieval Europe [End Page 575] (Chapter 1) in which Central Asia (or “Tartary”) emerges as a place of simultaneous horror and fascination, to the cartographic experiments of Mercator (1541), which for the first time included toponyms from Marco Polo’s voyages (Chapter 3). This is a story of the shifting possibilities of representation occasioned by new voyages and new techniques of representation, and the shifting fate (and geographical mutability) of “Tartary” as a locus of difference. Gorshenina also explores...