“The Age of Wonder”: thus the prominent literary biographer Richard Holmes terms the remarkable period of scientific experiment and maritime exploration which lasted from the late eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth. This was the Romantic Age of science and discovery, of curiosity and playfulness, which, it is often related, subsequently gave way to a heavier, more ponderous age of conquest and mastery in the name of nation and empire. As we shall see, however, the Age of Imperialism did not universally entail an end to wonder.
In 1861 Isabella (Ella) Robertson Christie was born in Millbank in Cockpen, into a family of Scottish industrialists and landowners. Her parents had travelled widely in their youth, and the young Ella seems to have inherited their passion, even as a child travelling to places such as Spain and Egypt. Following her parents’ death, she extended her travels further afield to Kashmir and Tibet, Malaya and Borneo. As one of her biographers put it, “[h]er adventures saw her camping in the snow at Chorbat Pass, […] and trekking by foot for in the Deco Mountains.” Among this litany of adventures was a journey she made in 1910-12 to what at the time was Russian Central Asia. The region in question was not readily accessible, especially for subjects of the British king. Nor did it have quite the romantic appeal of some of her other travel destinations. In Russian Central Asia there was no-one as famous and mysterious as the Dalai Lama of Tibet, whom she had met in the course of her earlier travels, and nor did a visit to the Khivan Khan’s Nurrulaboy Palace, say, offer the aesthetic raptures of beholding the Imperial Palace in Agra. Yet like in the case of preceding Romantic generation it was “the lure of those magic names, renowned in history as well as in the pages of classic tales and poetic fiction for chivalry and romance” that led Ella Christie to these little-known realms. Upon completing her journey across Central Asia, this “first English woman traveling to Khiva” penned a travelogue titled Through Khiva to Golden Samarkand, full of vivid descriptions and surprising encounters with figures whom we might otherwise not associate with an upper-class lady from Scotland.
C’est comme Paradis
Ella’s journey into Russian Central Asia began in the same way as many other people’s such journeys: a boat took her from Baku to the port of Krasnovodsk, on the eastern Caspian littoral. Thence she continued by the Transcaspian Railroad to Merv and on to Chardzhou (today Türkmenabat), a city on the left side of the Amu-Darya River. It was there on the bank of the “ancient Oxus” that Ella decided not to proceed along the conventional route towards the fabulous and sought-for Samarkand and Bukhara, but rather to deviate westward to the gloomy and little-known Khanate of Khiva, which as she put it was “a blank space on the map”. At the time Khiva was an Islamic principality which following conquest by the Russians in 1873 existed as an autonomous entity - albeit severely truncated in size from its former dimensions - under khanal authority. From Chardzhou to Khiva there were two ways of getting to Khiva. One was make the 450-journey across the sands on camelback; the other, mildly easier, option was to travel upriver by boat.
Easier than travelling on camelback, yes: but travelling upriver by boat was nevertheless far from comfortable. The paddle streamer, crammed with shapeless bundles of huddled-up “natives”, made heavy going against the downriver stream, and from time to time the boat was assailed by sandstorms, which rendered visibility non-existent and deposited suffocating clouds of sand. Ella does note, however, that there were compensations to this discomfort: there were occasional picturesque views to be enjoyed along the riverbanks, and stimulating conversation to be had with some of her fellow-passengers. One of these individuals was somebody whom she identified as a General and “the new commandant of the district of Khiva, going to Fort Petro-Aleksandrovsk”. Only in a later chapter of the book do we learn this officer’s name – Lychoshin, which is evidently a reference to Nil Sergeevich Lykoshin, a Russian colonial officer and an author of several scholarly works on the history of the region. Indeed, as we learn from the colonial records, in the early spring of 1912 Lykoshin was promoted to the office of the Head of Amu-Darya Department. He headed to the new station - Petro-Aleksandrovsk (nowadays To’rtko’l in Karakalpakstan), a fort town on the left bank of Amu Darya that was designed for the purposes of “constantly monitor and maintain up-to-date knowledge of everything taking place in Khiva”. By a curious quirk of fate Ella found herself sailing on the same paddle-stream as Lykoshin. It is perhaps unsurprising that Lykoshin, who was renowned as a polymath with insightful expertise on the region, and “spoke little French,” transpired to be of Ella’s most gentle companions over the six-day journey.
Of no less interest were two German-speaking fellow-passengers who were members of the Mennonite colony located near Khiva. Although the Mennonites were known for their infamous reluctance to communicate with the outsiders, one of them, Otto Toens, appeared to be very keen to engage in dialogue with Ella – not least owing to her proficiency in German - and to answer her questions, providing detailed outlines on the history of the Mennonite community of Khiva. Herr Toens went so far as to invite Ella once in Khiva to pay a visit to the locality of Ak-Masjid, where the colony’s members resided.
On board the paddle-steamer also was a Persian man, who later in Urgench would introduce Ella to the tiny Bahai community; by fortunate happenstance, her visit would coincide with the celebration of the birthday of Adul Bahai (1844-1921), a spiritual leader of the Baha’i faith. It is perhaps to this set of circumstances that we would have at our disposal the rear account of the Bahai community in this far-flung remote region.
After six days’ travel, the boat arrived at the landing stage on the right bank of the Amu Darya, in the vicinity of Petro-Aleksandrovsk. At some point Ella found herself staring at the gloomy landscape around and at the fellow passengers from among “the natives”, who were swarming out with their bundles to caiouque and sailing off “into the sunset not unlike some Viking ship of old”. “C’est comme Paradis,”- remarked General Lykoshin, almost casually, yet with a discernible shade of irony. This flat, heat-baked landscape was clearly as far-removed as one can imagine from a conventional image of paradise …
The First Englishwoman to go to Khiva
The next morning it transpired that not in Khiva was gloom and doom. Before going ashore, the stream’s captain took a photograph of Ella, so as to preserve the memory of this “first Englishwoman to go to Khiva”. Disembarkation was then followed by a lengthy journey by caiouque, first across the Amu Darya and then on along its ditches and canals, which eventually leaded to the city of Urgench (Novi Urgench in Ella’s account). The largest city of the khanate and its main commercial hub, the city embraced numerous commercial enterprises owned by both Russian and local entrepreneurs. The description of the city is all here. It is in that city that Ella got a chance to meet a certain Matvafo Bakkalov (Buchaloff in her spelling), a karavanbashi, or, as he himself put it a Minister of the Trade and Finance of the Khanate. The largest-scale entrepreneur of the Khanate at the time, Bakkalov was Asfandiyar Khan’s most trusted confidant in the Russian metropolitan centers. Ella may perhaps not have been aware about such details, but she evidently had a rather enjoyable meeting with this powerful courtier.
Due in no small part to Bakkalov’s assistance, the authorities soon provided Ella with an arba, or carriage, so as to facilitate her further travel to Khiva. Even as somebody who has studied the history of the Khanate of Khiva for some years, prior to reading this account I never actually paused to reflect about what travelling by arba at this time would have actually entailed. Mounting a carriage with 5- or 6-foot-high wheels would have been quite a challenge to a European voyager: and one can barely imagine what the journey along poorly-maintained roads would have actually felt like.
Questions of sexual propriety presented themselves also when Ella arrived in Khiva. This time, however, it was the Khivan courtiers who were unsure how to proceed. According to conventional practice, a foreign visitor was supposed to be lodged at one of the distinct premises of the Khan’s Nurullaboy Palace, but given Ella’s status as a solo female traveler keeping her in the palace was “not quite comme il faut” from the Khivan Khan’s perspective.
Eventually it was decided to lodge the newcomer at the house of a certain Kornilov, a Russian former colonel, who after retirement from the military based himself at the court of the Khivan Khan, serving there in the capacities of a translator and an adviser on Russian politics. Ella – or Ella Ivanovna (which is to say Ella, son of John), which is how she came to be called by the Kornilovs and other Russians in Khiva – found Mr Kornilov and his wife to be pleasant hosts, and a friendship developed. She became particularly close to Madame Kornilova, with whom Ella remained in touch by means of correspondence long after end of the journey.
Soon, Ella was invited to the home of Sayyid Islam Khoja, a chief dignitary, or vazir-i akbar, at the Khivan court. She describes his home as “a palace” furnished in the European fashion. While describing the palace’s premises, she particularly noted the presence of a grand piano, which she observed “no one could play” and “was merely there as an ornament”. Curiously enough, that the same piano provoked similar sentiments and attention from the General Lykoshin, who would visit Islam Khodja’s place a few weeks later. Clearly, for the European observer the presence of a grand piano in Khiva seemed to have been something distinctly surprising, not unlike the Russian idiomatic expression royal v kustakh (lit: piano in the bushes) implies.
Ella’s description of Sayyid Islam Khoja, like a similar description given by Mr Kornilov, presents him as “a most enlightened man”, and “the only native with whom [one] could have intelligent dealings”. Her account thereby differs in tone from what we find in many colonial officers’ accounts – including by the afore-mentioned Lykoshin – which instead present a cruder picture of the Khivan minister, as someone obsessed with ambition and a lust for power.
It perhaps also worth saying that at the time of Ella’s visit, the Khivan court had been shaken by the conspiracies of the court fractions, where Sayid Islam Khodja was destined to play a notable but rather tragic role. The tensions would reach their peak a few months later with Sayid Islam Khodja’s brutal assassination. Ella, at the time back at her house in Scotland, would learn about the incident from the letter sent by her dear friend Natalie An, which was the name she gave Madame Kornilova.
Ella Ivanovna Christie
One cannot help but notice how seemingly effortlessly Ella was able to entice people’s benevolence and earn their trust. The same was also true of how she got in touch with the members of the local Mennonite colony. About three decades earlier the Mennonites had been granted the right to reside in the vicinity of Khiva in the locality of Ak-Masjid. They were able to prosper there, making a good living as expert carpenters. Ella’s account provides an interesting insight into the life of the colony, and as such it is one of only a few detailed descriptions surviving from that time. During Ella’s visit were about 140 families, who, as we may learn from the colonial accounts, went to great lengths to obtain a teacher for their school. Unsatisfied with the quality of the candidates sent from Russia, they were ready to invite someone as far as from Germany. Somewhat to her surprise Ella, upon her brief visit to the colony, was promptly offered the post of teacher in the Mennonite settlement, and organist at the Mennonite church, for the rest of her life.
Unlike many other narratives produced by travelers to Khiva, Ella’s account strikes the reader with her deep familiarity with the region’s historical context. She seems to have been able to navigate easily through episodes in Khiva’s murky past, including the khans’ initial diplomatic encounters with Pre-Petrine Russia, Bekovich-Cherkassky’s ill-fated expedition of 1717, Florio Benevini’s pacifying mission, or General Perovsky’s punitive endeavor, not to mention the details of the more recent past, suchlike the Russian takeover in 1873.
Sensing displacement and exile
After a week spent in Khiva, crossing Amu Darya eastward, again by means of caiouque, Ella arrived at Petro-Aleksandrovsk. This fort town was highly remote, located as it was 390 and 450 km away respectively from the larger settlements of Charjui and Kazalinsk, and struck the view as being “lost in the sand of time”. But the town had a substantial Russian stationed there, plus numerous colonial officials and civil servants: as a distinctly “European” settlement, Petro-Aleksandrovsk was perhaps a welcome change after the austerities of life “backward”, “traditional” Khiva. Nevertheless, within a few days spent in the town Ella found herself succumbing to a sense of loss and displacement. It was the very European-ness of the place that she found confusing: having spent time in British India, she was disheartened to find the Russian troops engaged in none of the pastimes – polo, big-game shooting, tennis – that made life in the subcontinent so pleasurable for the British traveler: in Petro-Aleksandrovsk, she tartly observed, “wherever one went, there was nothing but drinking and gambling”.
After spending a few rather gloomy days in Petro-Aleksandrovsk, Ella was able to get herself onboard a boat heading to Chardzhou. The return voyage seems to have been distinctly less pleasant than the way out – for one thing, there were only second-class places available – but did such difficulties discourage our doughty traveler? Evidently not: Samarkand and Bukhara, Tashkent and Andijan still beckoned, offering the prospect of countless further adventures …