On Monday I gave a talk for the RGS based on my recent book Travellers in the Great Steppe. It went very well and over 130 people logged on to listen. If you were not able to make it you can now listen in your own time by clicking on this link. The talk was subtitled ‘Nomads and their Textiles’ and contained a lot of material not directly covered in the book.
In Kazakhtan, Kokpar – known elsewhere in Central Asia as buzkashi (Afghanistan), kok boru (Uzbekistan) or ulak tyrtysh (Kyrgyzstan) – is a sport involving dozens of riders in what looks to outsiders like a brawl over a goat carcass. The winning side is the one that delivers the carcass (or head) into a specified pit the most times. Other than that there are few rules. The film below shows also that there is no specified limit to how far riders will travel in order to defeat their adversaries. I once saw a match in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, where the riders disappeared over the horizon, not to return for around 40 minutes. Enjoy!
This coming week I will be making two presentations, based on my two recent books.
On Monday at 1430 GMT I will be speaking at a Royal Geographical Society event in their ‘Be Inspired’ series, entitled Travellers in the Great Steppe: Nomads and their Textiles. In this talk I will be explaining how my abiding interest in nomadic textiles from Central Asia was the inspiration for researching and writing my book on Travellers. Using some wonderful slides, I will be talking about how many of the early travellers left us with detailed descriptions of textiles they saw as they crossed the steppes. Some, like Henry Lansdell and Henri Moser, brought back with them wonderful embroideries that are now in museum collections across the world. You can find further details of the talk here.
The second event, which takes place on Wednesday at 1500GMT is a talk for the Oxus Society about Chokan Valikhanov, based on my new edition of his writings in English (see below). As the blurb for the event says, “Nick Fielding’s new edited collection of the writings of Chokan Valikhanov brings the brilliance and insights of this young Kazakh intellectual to an English-speaking audience for the first time in more than 150 years. No-one knew the steppes like Valikhanov and his dangerous journeys into Chinese Turkestan have since become legendary. A staunch defender of his people and friend of Dostoyevsky, Potanin and Semenov-Tianshansky, his writings are as fresh today as they were when first written. If you want to attend the talk, further details can be found here. I hope you can join me!
Ever wondered how cold it can get on the Central Asian steppe? This film gives you an idea:
The book launch for my new book, Selected Writings of Chokan Valikhanov: Pioneering Ethnographer and Historian of the Great Steppe, held virtually at the Royal Geographical Society, was a great success, with around 80 attending via Zoom and well over 500 on other media. Thank you to all of you. The book, published by Cambridge University Press, can be downloaded by clicking on this link.
My new book, The Selected Works of Chokan Valihanov, will be launched at the Royal Geographical Society in London on 15th December at 11.00. The event will be online only and will include short speeches and a slide show on the life of this remarkable man. If you would like to attend, please follow this link.
For some time I have been interested in the remarkable travels of Dr Henry Lansdell, a Victorian-era priest who travelled for thousands of miles throughout Siberia and Central Asia in the late nineteenth century. Travelling alone, he made a pledge to visit every hospital and prison in these regions and to leave religious tracts behind him, usually in the local language. Lansdell wrote three double-volume books on his travels which to this day remain some of the best of their kind, stuffed full of interesting details and photogravure illustrations based on the many photographs he took along the way.
I have already written a substantial article for Asian Textiles (subscription required) about Lansdell and the many wonderful objects he brought back from his travels and donated to various museums across the country. I will no doubt write more about him in the future. But for now I want to solve one mystery: where are the many hundreds of photographs that Lansdell took during his journeys? Although technology at the time (1880s) did not allow them to be reproduced directly, his photos were used in his books through the medium of photogravure ie engraving the details of the photo onto a copper sheet which was then used for printing.
Recently I have found out that Lansdell often gave magic lantern slideshows and talks in England during the times between his extensive travels. I have even found some of his slides, such as those below. But I have yet to find a full set of his slides – or, indeed any of the original glass plate negatives that surely must still exist somewhere. Here are some examples of his work:
I have now found more than 40 of Lansdell’s slides, as used during his magic lantern shows. But just to give you an idea of what is still out there, here is as example of one of the photogravure’s from his book Russian Central Asia, a portrait of the Emir of Bokhara, Muzaffar al-Din bin Nasr-Allah (who was Emir from 1860-86):
The Emir clearly took a shine to Lansdell and presented him with some amazing armour and robes of honour, some of which are now in the British Museum and the Beany Museum in Canterbury, Kent. This, as far as I know, is the only known portrait of Muzafferadin bin Nasr-Allah. But where is the original photograph? An online search revealed one image only, which is clearly the original Lansdell photograph:
From the facial expression and the clothing it is clearly the same image as the photogravure. I found this image on a Dutch website interested in the trim on the coat the Emir is wearing. Exactly the same image can be found on a few other sites. In all cases, the photo is the same low-res image as seen above. So it was mostly certainly copied from Lansdell’s original photo. Can anyone help me find it? And the many other remarkable photos taken by Lansdell, who was one of the first photographers to take pictures in Central Asia. As with this particular picture, some are undoubtedly of historical signficance. I will keep you up-to-date with my search for this image and the remaining lost photographs of Henry Lansdell. And just to finish, here is one of him wearing a suit of armour given to him by the Emir:
What a guy!
This year has been a busy one for me. On 15 December the launch will take place of my new book. Selected Works of Chokan Valikhanov, Pioneering Ethnographer and Historian of the Great Steppe will be published in a joint venture between the Kazakh Embassy and Cambridge University Press. The launch, which will be a Zoom event, will be hosted by the Royal Geographical Society. More details to follow.
English readers may not be very familiar with Chokan Valikhanov who died in 1865 aged just 29. He was one of the first Kazakhs to be educated through the Russian system. He entered the Siberian Cadet Corps at Omsk in 1847 and on graduating was taken on to the staff of the Governor of Western Siberia. Soon he was taking part in expeditions into the steppes, often travelling undercover in places that were off-limits to Russians or outsiders. Prior to the translation of the 20 essays in this volume, only three of his essays had previously been translated into English.
For this volume I worked with Dr Ziyabek Kabuldinov, director of the Chokan Valikhanov Institute of History and Ethnology in Almaty, who convened a group of his senior staff to select the essays from Valikhanov’s five-volume collected works. The essays were then translated into English by leading translator Dr Arch Tait, before I edited them and prepared them for publication. Their publication is a major event for Central Asian scholarship and should allow the work of this hugely talented pioneer to reach a much wider audience. Valikhanov wrote with great authority and power on the history of the Kazakh hordes, their myths and legends, the politics of the steppes, as well as recording in diary form his various remarkable journeys. I will provide more details of the book’s contents closer to publication day.
Steve Brown’s very funny Brighton show ‘Slightly famous in Kazakhstan‘, which he performed a couple of weeks ago at the Black Dove pub, can now be viewed here.
I am delighted to announce that Steve Brown, a great, great, great grandson of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, is presenting a humourous show at the Brighton Fringe Festival based on his discovery of his family roots. He will be presenting Slightly Famous in Kazakhstan at the Black Dove pub – COVID permitting – on Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th October at 4pm.
As Steve points out, the Atkinsons are almost forgotten in their English homeland, but in Kazakhstan it is a different story. There they are regarded as national heroes, the earliest Europeans to spend time in the region and to write extensively about it and – in Thomas’ case – to paint it.
Having visited the remote places in which his ancestors stayed – and had a child – in the late 1840s, Steve came to realise the awe which the Atkinson name generates in Kazakhstan today, and which, as the flyer for his show says, resulted in he and his family members being “feted on Kazakh TV, rubbing shoulders with various ambassadors, politicians and oligarchs and also learning a little about the seductive nature of fame”, as well as the scandal which led his ancestors to be airbrushed from the history books. Steve will also explain why he thinks Lucy Atkinson should be a feminist icon for our troubled times. So get out there and buy a ticket while you can…