History is a funny thing. For starters, the word has many different connotations in English. It might be events and situations in the past. Or it could be the study of those happenings (but not the study of the study, that’s historiography). And, of course, it has colloquial uses too: “We’ve got history” speaks to a messy, complicated, often dramatic relationship between two or more people. Even when taken to be the second meaning listed above, “history” has a chequered track record of acceptance, spurned by some feminist scholars as being loaded with patriarchal values. It isn’t uncommon to see or hear the word herstory as a feminist counterpoint to a discipline that is often focused on the exploits of white, straight, upper-class males in Europe and the settler colonies.
There’s another coloration linked to the second understanding of history, one that is less controversial, but no less pervasive or insidious. This tint is the written, cited nature of history. It is a belief that core historical praxis relies on the use and production of written records, filled with citations and allusions to other sources and interpretations. Compare, for example, how oral history and folk history are contrasted with the broader history, without the modifier written placed in the same position of emphasis as oral or folk. To be certain, many communities – in fact, most communities – have long traditions of oral and folk histories. These are much older, and sometimes more prized, than written histories. The latter grouping is often presented as immutable, unbiased, and fact-based, despite our intrinsic knowledge that they are, in fact, no less prone to alteration, bias or fabrication than their oral or folk cousins. Nonetheless, within the hallowed walls of academia and the hushed halls of temporal and sacred power, it is the written version of history that holds sway, disadvantaging or discriminating against those communities that have largely produced only the unwritten or uncited versions. The record of modern colonialism is chock-a-block with examples in which such discrepancies have resulted in monumental landgrabs (see Aileen Moreton-Robinson on how this played out with the Yorta Yorta; Ethelia Ruiz Medrano on land and history in Indigenous Mexico; and here for contemporary discussion on the concept of aboriginal title).
My role as a Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections at the British Library, however, has helped me discover at least one state where this isn’t always the case. In over three years of handling newly purchased materials from Central Asia, I’ve noticed an interesting, and exceptionally localized, historiographical trend coming out of Kyrgyzstan. Every year, I have bought monographs of historical narratives that fall under the genre heading of sanzhyra (Санжыра in Kyrgyz; there is no corresponding page in English). Some items are also occasionally produced under the heading of bayan (баян in Kyrgyz). Other works contain neither the word sanzhyra nor bayan, but clearly follow the model of the genre, weaving the poetic, mythic, and factual together to create accounts of the memorable and the mundane. The word sanzhyra itself comes from the Arabic shajarah, or “tree”, which sometimes referred to historical works about lineage-based groups. Compare, for example, the undated work known as the Shajarat al-atrāk, also known as the Tavārikh-i salāṭīn-i turk, a Persian-language history of the Chinggisid dynasties.
The Kyrgyz version is an ancient form of historiographic practice, one that began first as an oral poetic tradition. It can incorporate mythic or epic content, as well as factual and document-based narratives relating to the history of a family, a tribe or the residents of an entire region. Most importantly, the published versions are rarely based on the model of a citation-filled text, indicating that collaboration and acceptance by the broader grouping are more important than scholastic authority. Despite the fact that the works look and are structured very similarly to contemporary academic texts, they do not meet the usual format of either historiographical or folkloric studies; at least not the way that we would be used to in publications coming from Europe, the Americas, or even neighbouring Kazakhstan.
Family histories and genealogies are common around the world – the Kyrgyz, or even the Turkic peoples, are not alone in their creation of these works. Neither is it extraordinary that such items are based on undocumented, or loosely documented (in the sense of “based on physical documentation”) sources of knowledge. What is unique about the Kyrgyz case is the sheer volume of materials that are produced in this genre, and the manner in which they appear to keep pace with production of European-style historical studies. Some of these books are self-published, listing only their printers (if that) in the bibliographic data provided just after the cover page. Others, however, are handled by the larger publishing houses, including Uluu toolor and Turar. For the foreign buyer, at least, it is far easier to purchase a sanzhyra-type history of any of the regions of contemporary Kyrgyzstan than it is to get various works devoted to an “objective”, Western-style analysis of the chronological development of the country’s far-flung administrative districts.
The really interesting part, however, is what happens between the covers. Histories that are not chronicles are generally organized according to some sort of narrative (not just European ones; check out Elizabeth Hill Boone’s Stories in Red and Black for an account of histories in pre- and post-invasion Indigenous societies from central Mexico). A guiding line is established, and a general understanding of cause and effect is imposed, to varying degrees, in order to tell a story. With the sanzhyra and the works modeled on it, a narrative is established through the family line, similar to a dynastic history, with action revolving around the different members of the grouping, or of a collection of groupings from a given region. Sanzhyralar though aren’t strictly dynastic, largely for lack of an actual dynasty. While epic and poetic components of the sanzhyra tend to focus only on those individuals who accomplished noteworthy or memorable feats, contemporary accounts of a family or region concentrate on ordinary people living ordinary lives. Women and men, remarkable for the contributions that they make to the community and the family, are featured in these histories, lined up alongside their heroic and valiant ancestors memorialized in poem and prose.
Here, then, is the marriage of political or dynastic history with social and economic history. Great attention is paid to those who have performed some service to the nation and/or the community: decorated soldiers, politicians, academics, authors. Alongside them, we soon come to learn about elders, workers, teachers, artists, musicians, and other members of the community who have had some impact on those around them. They find themselves in the numerous genealogical trees and tables that fill these volumes, and in the snapshots, in black or white or in colour, that accompany biographical sketches. The text usually includes images of men and women in official uniform, at graduation ceremonies, or at state or religious functions. It also has photographs of babies and children, family gatherings, vacations and social functions, few of which (if any) would be likely to appear in a civic history of Atlanta, Friedrichshafen, or Cumbria. And yet these are not presented as photo albums or frivolous souvenirs for a small group of friends; they are formatted, edited and marketed much the same as any academic history offered by a university or research institute.
The sanzhyra as a source and a genre largely appears to have escaped the attention of Anglophone scholars working on Central Asian historiography and literature. Svetlana Jacquesson has touched upon the relationship between them and the new boon in genetics as history in Kyrgyzstan (see “New History” as a Translocal Field). Otherwise, a few scholars (Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev and Paolo Sartori in particular) have made use of them in their writing on the history and historiography of social institutions in Central Asia. This begs the question of how much of an overlap there is between the sanzhyra and European concepts of history. Biography, while understood as historical, is seen as a distinct and very separate category from the historical narrative in European tradition; a barrier reinforced by the need for perceived objectivity in the writing of history. What role, then, can a text imbued with subjective experience and personal memory play in the creation of a broadly-accepted record of a community or society’s past? Postmodernism made this struggle a central one in many societies around the world from the 80s onward; a debate that has become even fiercer in the age of alternative facts and fake news. In Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, the personal has pride of place in some understandings of what was, and that doesn’t appear to be something with which the institutions of the state and the academy have a problem. Perhaps it’s worthwhile to ask why this is, and how they manage to integrate traditional epistemologies with those imported or imposed by the European academy.
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