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  • L’invention de l’Asie centrale. Histoire du concept de la Tartarie à l’Eurasie [Rayon historire de la librarie DROZ] by Svetlana Gorshenina
  • Anna MATOCHKINA (bio)
Svetlana Gorshenina, L’invention de l’Asie centrale. Histoire du concept de la Tartarie à l’Eurasie [Rayon historire de la librarie DROZ] (Geneva: DROZ, 2014). 704pp. ISBN: 978-2-600-01788-6.

The Invention of Central Asia: The History of the Concept of Tartary in Eurasia continues the line of inquiry started by Svetlana Gorshenina in her doctoral thesis “From Tartary to Central Asia: The Heart of the Continent in the History of Ideas, Between Cartography and Geopolitics,” and continued in a study of the history of Turkestan from 1860 to 1936 Central Asia: The Invention of Borders and the Russo-Soviet Heritage.1 The new book by Gorshenina is an attempt to reconstruct a genealogy of a modern and purely analytical concept of Central Asia, which gained prominence in academic and then political discourse only in the nineteenth century (P. 21). This complex task required the author to turn to history, geography, and cartography in order to identify the spatial formations (both natural and political) that eventually gave shape to the notion of Central Asia, as well as the terms used throughout time to denote these formations.

According to Gorshenina, one category of the regional spatial nomenclature had been inherited from antiquity (e.g., Aria, Bactriana, Sogdiana, Serika) or mythology (referring to the space inhabited by the people of Gog and Magog, or the Turan−Iran opposition). Others referred to linguistic groups of the population (Asia Turkic, Iranian, or Mongolian) and “tribal” (ethnic) territories (Scythia, Tartaria, and Turkestan). Later on, religious and cultural unity acquired a spatial dimension (e.g., the worlds of Muslims, Buddhists, Turks, Iranians, etc.), followed recently by economic notions (the Transcaspian region). Throughout the centuries, the lands of what we call Central Asia today have been conceptualized in geographical (Mawarannahr, Transoxiana, and Zhetysu) or metageographical terms (Middle Asia, Central Asia, Inner Asia, and Highland Asia). Finally, the space was delineated by political and administrative units (Bukhara, Afghan/Russian/Chinese Turkestan, Turkestan General-Governorship, Samarkand region, Uigur autonomous region or Hinjan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan). [End Page 580]

Reconstructing the social construction of space, Gorshenina coordinates several levels of discourse: scientific vocabulary, philosophical views, geopolitical programs of political or military expansion, imperialist practices of European nations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and public misperceptions formed by the conventions of the time and “national traditions” (P. 33). The scope of the research design predetermined the vast variety of primary sources employed in the study: academic and general interest publications, maps, and documents in several languages from state and private archives in France, Italy, Uzbekistan, and Russia. The clearly structured book is illustrated with excellent cartographic material, which greatly helps readers to follow the author’s argument.

The book opens with a survey of the first drawings of the lands of would-be “Central Asia” in the times of the Achaemenid dynasty and Greco-Roman authors, including ancient historians and geographers such as Hecataeus of Miletus, Herodotus, Eratosthenes, Ptolemy, and Ephorus. Of no less importance are the views of Arab and Persian geographers, as they greatly widened the knowledge of the region. On the mental map of Islam, the world is divided into dar al-Islam (the area of Islam) and dar al-Kufr (the area of faithlessness), so the spatial identification of a region starts from ascribing it to one of these categories. Under the Samanid dynasty, which recognized the authority of the Abbasid Caliphate and kept Turkic nomads in check, parts of modern-day Central Asia definitely belonged to the dar al-Islam of the Arab-Muslim world. (Regardless of their religious affiliation, the world of Turkic nomads was perceived as a kingdom of the unfaithful.) The epoch of the Sasanian dynasty was the time of the economic, scientific, and cultural revival, evidence of which can be found in the description of East Iranian regions by Arab writers. Their works used the geographic concept of Mawarannahr – “what (is) beyond the river,” which means the territories on the right bank of the Amu Darya River...


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pp. 580-585
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