Historians of Central Asia usually view 19th-century Khorezm as a somewhat exceptional polity. While Bukhara continued to attract scholars from far afield, and many in the Deccan, Western China, Siberia, and the Middle Volga regarded “Bukhara the Noble” as one of the epicenters of Persian high culture, Khiva in the meanwhile took a different path, premised on the literary pre-eminence of Chaghatay, an eastern Turkic language with a far less prestigious pedigree than Persian. The rise of the Qunghrat dynasty can be seen to be closely associated with a cultural project which over the course of a century produced many original historical works in Chaghatay together with more than 300 translations from Arabic and Persian. But Chaghatay was not just the language of court culture in Khiva. By the 1850s all Khorezm wrote in Chaghatay, which by then fully replaced Persian as the language of law, bureaucracy, and epistolography.
There is something ‘paradoxical’ in this picture, claim Vasilii Barthold and Yuri Bregel: on the one hand we learn that the cataclysms of the 18th century left Khorezm bereft of written traces and deprived of its own history; on the other, we encounter in the 19th century a completely different cultural landscape, one in which Chaghatay literature shines in all its majesty. It is my contention that this oddity is only apparent, and that if we look closer at the region this puzzle resolves itself. The heuristic move I have in mind requires that we stop assuming that the Chaghatay literature produced during the regency of the Qunghrats was a self-contained courtly phenomenon, i.e., some kind of an elitist literary enterprise detached from the cultural landscape surrounding Khiva. I instead want to suggest that, if one connects the texts which we find in the Khivan royal library to other writing practices attested in Khorezm and beyond, one begins to discern a broader and indeed deeper cultural shift in which the Qunghrats liaised in fact with the many small sites of power that developed in Khorezm after the fall of the earlier Arabshahid dynasty and throughout the 18th century, and connected to the disparate, often contradictory realities of the region.
This lecture sets out to historicise what I term the ‘vernacularization of Khorezm’, which is to say that process of cultural realignment which took place from the 18th to the early 20th century as a result both of bottom-up societal change and of top-down cultural policies sponsored by the Qunghrat Uzbek tribal dynasty.