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The legendary biographies of Tamerlane: Islam and heroic apocrypha in central Asia.

The Legendary Biographies of Tamerlane: Islam and Heroic Apocrypha in Central Asia. By RON SELA. Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization. New York: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2011. Pp. xvii + 164. $85.

The purpose of this concise volume by Ron Seta is to introduce to scholarly and lay audiences a large set of unknown or disregarded manuscripts of legendary biographies of the Transoxanian warlord Timur (d. 1405), composed in Persian prose and produced in Central Asia beginning in the eighteenth century. Sela based this monograph on nine unpublished manuscripts, which form a representative sample of a larger body of work. All the biographies share certain characteristics: they are long, sometimes reaching 1,000 pages (500 folios); their authors and copyists are unknown; and they do not seem to have been produced for wealthy patrons. Although some Turkic versions also exist. Sela did not use them for this study. Because the legendary biographies originated when and where they did--within Central Asia starting in the early eighteenth century--Sela is able to disprove the scholarly claim that Timur's legacy vanished from the region within a century of his death, surviving only in Mughal India, Safavid Iran, and the Ottoman empire until reappearing in Central Asia in the early twentieth century as a result of Soviet interest.

Sela describes the legendary biographies as heroic apocrypha--heroic, meaning their protagonist. Timiir, is a heroic figure: and apocrypha, meaning their material is largely legendary and imaginary, even though some of it draws explicitly from the canon composed by Timurid court historians and their successors. Sela hypothesizes that we might also view these works as Central Asian popular histories, given the authors' departures from the official record. But thus far modern historians have largely ignored the legendary biographies because of their "folkloric and fantastic" elements. Similarly, literature scholars, unable to classify the biographies neatly as epics, oral history, or poetry, despite elements of each within the texts, have labeled the biographies unsophisticated and unworthy of attention.

So, if historians disregard them and literature scholars sneer at them, why should we pay attention to them? Sela's answer hinges on the crucial detail that these works appear to have been wildly popular. As evidence he points to the dozens of manuscripts created from the early eighteenth century down to the twentieth, many of which were copied and recopied throughout this period. Nor has their appeal flagged: one major new edition of a legendary biography was produced in the 1990s with an initial print run of 200,000, and other editions are in the works. As further evidence Sela highlights the modern Uzbek fascination with Timur's history and legacy, which has made him into a national hero of Uzbekistan in recent decades (the above-mentioned 200,000-copy edition was published in Tashkent). Scholarly disregard of these manuscripts, therefore, is wildly at odds with popular interest and should be rethought in light of their potential to tell us something new about the periods in which they were produced and about the reasons for their tremendous appeal to such wide audiences.

The body of the monograph under review consists of six chapters. In the first, "The Origins and Usages of Timu's Heroic Apocrypha," Sela summarizes the biographies' introductory materials, proposes some conclusions that may be drawn from them, and provides other useful information about this body of work. The biographies all begin with a fairly standard prologue, in which Sela reads a statement about the duality of authority shared between prophets and caliphs on the one hand, and kings and sultans on the other. Apparently most works also mention Timar's genealogy, but only briefly: Sela notes that genealogy seemed far less interesting to the authors than it did to Timur himself, or has since then to modern scholars of the warlord. The biographies' front matter also includes a summary of Timar's life, but largely as it related to Central Asia, not to his better-known conquests in Iran. The authors also typically present a short history of Central Asia down to their own time. After outlining the introductory material. Sela considers the body of work itself. First he elaborates on the relationship between the Timurid historical canon and the legendary biographies: the latter refer explicitly to the canon, often by listing well-known Timurid authors or by borrowing chapter headings from some famous work or another, but nevertheless thereafter wander far from the canon into realms of fantastical or legendary material. Then Sela traces the outlines of two possible cycles of manuscript production. one relating to the last Janid ruler in Bukhara (Abul-Fayz Khan, r. 1711-56), and the other to a Manghit ruler of the same city (Shah Murad, r. 1785-1800). Next he describes the manuscripts themselves and their locations, and summarizes scholarly treatment (or neglect) of these works since their discovery in the late nineteenth century. He ends by musing on the biographies' popularity, the possibility that they were performed in public settings, and their genre, which most resembles Sirat Baybars, a well-known Arabic-language legendary biography of al-Zahir Baybars (r. 1260-76), who ruled Mamluk Egypt and Syria.

In chapters two to five Sela translates portions of the texts themselves. These chapters are entitled "Timur's Birth and Childhood"; "Youth"; "Inauguration and Kingship"; and "Premonitions," but are only representative selections; Sela does not translate an entire biography, presumably because of the very great length. Each "selections" chapter follows the same format. Sela first provides a brief summary of the material (one to two paragraphs), then follows it with a translation, which forms the bulk of the chapter, giving the reader an excellent feel for these works. Sela concludes each chapter with commentary. Footnotes are extensive but discreet, and allow readers to interact directly with the text.

Se la's final chapter is a historical and historiographical analysis of the context in which these legendary biographies were first produced, that is, eighteenth-century Central Asia. This is his most ambitious chapter, but also the most problematic. The range of themes Sela covers is tremendous, and the chapter is at times uneven. Among his topics are the world-wide silver crisis and its relationship to Central Asia; fragmentation within the Uzbek state; the weakness of trade in Central Asia; the arrival of Islamic reformists; and the influence of Russian colonists on historical debate. But all of these topics are subservient to Sela's main goal, which is to evaluate the scholarly position that Central Asia suffered a tremendous crisis during the first part of the eighteenth century followed by an improvement in conditions in the later part of the century. He points out that this paradigm remained uncontested among Western scholars for many years, and was similarly accepted, albeit with some debate, by Soviet academics. More recently and more surprisingly, some Europeans and Americans have posited that there was no Central Asian decline in that century at all, but Sela dismisses this as the product of an overzealous embrace of Edward Said's work on orientalism, not an argument supported by proper scholarly rigor. In fact, of the already very few scholars who write on eighteenth-century Central Asia, even fewer have availed themselves of actual historical sources from that period. Sela names four such sources (none among the biographies he studies) with which he confirms the existence of crisis, and demonstrates how to ground research in true scholarship, not empty and politically suspect theorizing. Nevertheless, he is still forced to declare that we do not yet know enough about what happened, although he concludes that the legendary biographies of Timar will illuminate this crisis and therefore must be set against it. This is a considerable part of their importance.

The greatest strength of this monograph is the clear and accessible way it shows readers the fascinating material contained in the legendary biographies. Sela succeeds admirably at his goal of introducing these works to scholars and lay persons alike. Even a casual reader can easily understand the biographies' topics, style, and narrative flow because of Sela's straightforward and readable translations. Sela has therefore provided an important service to historians of Central Asia in particular, historians of the Islamic world in general, and literature specialists. Furthermore, in his analysis Sela does a nice job of pointing to the interesting connections these texts suggest, which range from the ideological significance of the Ark of the Covenant, to the importance of Chinggisid genealogy among rulers, to eschatology and apocalypticism in Islamic literature. Sela thus provides scholars with useful signposts for potentially fascinating further investigation.

Unfortunately the book is not without flaws. Despite Sela's desire to make these works accessible, at times he forgets the vast ignorance most people have of Central Asia and therefore fails to outline the basics. Thus it would have been profitable to include a straightforward description of Timar's actual life and career, if only to have something against which to compare the legendary stories. Similarly, although Sela states repeatedly that eighteenth-century Central Asia is poorly known even among scholars, he nowhere provides a simple, linear chronology mentioning the most important names, dates, events, and dynasties. In addition, although Sela highlights many important topics, at times he does so too briefly. This reviewer wished that Sela had elaborated on certain aspects of his analysis, among them the theme of the duality of authority as shared between kings such as Timik and religious men, whether prophets or caliphs, to which Sela refers in several places but does not sufficiently develop. Another is the growing role of Sufi shaykhs as kingmakers, which topic Sela presents as a series of shapshots of Sufi influence rather than a comprehensive discussion. On a more technical level, Sela promises to discuss the audiences for the legendary biographies, but in the end merely explains that they were large and probably popular, which is not enough. On the anonymous authors he only says that they employed elements of oral presentation and produced works that appealed to both elite and popular audiences: here, too, more would have been welcome. A final uneven area is the apparatus. Sela's unobtrusive footnotes in the translated sections allow readers unrestricted interaction with the text while keeping useful explanations close at hand, but a similar technique is less successful in the analytical sections. Thus when beginning his discussion of Central Asia in turmoil, for example, Sela lays out his intentions and the challenges he faces in a footnote, not in the text itself (p. 118 n. 4). Elsewhere Sela's clarification of technical terms is uneven--for example, he translates dadkh'ah (an official who received petitions at the khan's court, p. 79 n. 13), but not mingbashi or tumanbashi (p. 80).

Despite these drawbacks Sela's book Is a clear contribution to scholarship. He brings a relatively unknown body of fascinating material to our attention, and provides extensive translations of parts of this material, which give us an excellent view of what exists, helping us determine how to move forward. His work suggests new approaches to the history of a neglected period. Finally, the monograph gives us compelling evidence for the existence of a Timurmania in Central Asia, long before we knew one existed, which continues to this day with fascinating ramifications. In all these ways Sela's work is a service to the scholarly community.

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Author:Broadbridge, Anne
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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