Exploring the Turkic world, part one

The Turkic world has held an interest for me during the past few years.

My exposure to it has been mainly that of books and movies, with a smattering of music thrown in. There has been a spate of books covering the Turkic peoples through the lens of travel writing, history and politics. Spanning western China to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia (e.g. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan) to Turkey, the Turkic cultures cover a vast patchwork of tribes, ethnicities and countries, all having the Turkic family of languages in common.

The Lost Heart of Asia
Colin Thubron’s The Lost Heart of Asia served as an introduction of sorts. Written and published in the mid-1990s (not too long after the break-up of the Soviet Union), it traced the author’s journey through the Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. I read this book more than a year ago, and although I remember almost none of the details, it served as a good travelogue introduction to – at that time – the newly independent ex-Soviet republics Central Asia.

Thubron recorded his observations of the transition these countries were making, some of which were painful enough to make their citizens look back to Soviet times with wistful longing. At the same time, others look forward to the future. He also explores the status and tensions of the descendants of minorities such as Germans and Koreans, whose forefathers were largely forcibly re-settled in Central Asia by Stalin prior to the Second World War.

Tom Bissell, who wrote Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, was a former US Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan-turned-“adventure journalist”. This book came out of Bissell’s initial purpose for re-visiting Uzbekistan in early 2001 – writing an investigative piece about the inland Aral Sea (spread over northwestern Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan). In the end, the gradually-disappearing (literally and figuratively) Aral Sea merely provided a backdrop to his jaunts through the greater part of Uzbekistan, mostly in the company of his somewhat-Americanised native guide Rustam.

Chasing The Sea

Emphasising that his book is “a personal, idiosyncratic account of a place and and a people and the problems and conflicts they share”, Bissell writes trenchantly about the Uzbekistan he sees and experiences, giving readers the feeling that he really knows more than he gives himself credit for. His travel accounts are interspersed with his past history in that place, and sections giving the historical contexts of the cities and regions he visits (starring such luminaries as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan). He covers the background of simmering environmental disaster and the horrific human cost of problems of the shrinking Aral Sea (which is largely unknown outside of that particular region of Uzbekistan).

He also takes time out to castigate fellow American and (neo)conservative writer Robert D. Kaplan, whose published work on Uzbekistan in The Ends of the Earth: A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy leaves much to be desired, and Bissell’s criticism is sharply loaded, e.g.,

…once he is away from his books he begins to grease his analytical wheels with the highly anecdotal. This is accompanied by an almost perverse freedom to pinion entire cultures based upon how his morning has gone.

Bissell calls Kaplan’s “most onerous failing” to be his willingness to forgive and makes excuses for the dictatorship of Uzbekistan’s ruler Islam Karimov. Then he goes on to add,

Actually, his most onerous failing might be titling one chapter “Clean Toilets and the Legacy of Empires.” Dirty loos are a Kaplan bete noire, which makes one fundamentally question his supposed willingness to get down and dirty in the developing world. Passage after passage on toilets. These not only fill the mind with unwelcome images of Robert D. Kaplan taking a dump, they make one wonder if the title of his book should have been It Smelled: A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy.

(I’ve also criticised and ranted about Kaplan’s views and writing in this post on my other blog some time ago.)

En-route between cities, Bissell also writes,

This was a hard place. Uzbekistan was no green Persia with its history of scholarly warrior-kings, nor some Mediterranean paradise where the roses of Hellenism bloomed. This was desert followed by desert, alongside desert surrounded by desert.

The book is chock-full of interesting observations, experiences, relevant researched information and commentary on Uzbekistan now and during Soviet times.

At the risk of sounding clichéd, his writing is nevertheless poignant, sympathetic to his subject, highly readable, has unique perspecives, and at times humorous and reflects heartbreaking moments.
Sons of the ConquerorsA more recent book is Hugh Pope’s Sons of the Conquerors: the Rise of the Turkic World.

“The first question I should ask is, is there a Turkic world? We invented it fifteen years ago, when I had no idea that it existed. Even when preparing this book, it took me about two weeks working with a cartographer in Wales to find the right framework for what should and should not be in the Turkic world.” (excerpt from an interview with the author here.)

Read a good critical review here.


Moving on to Turkey, prominent Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature, for his novel Snow. In an interview, Pamuk said of his novel, “This may be the first political novel ever written where there’s almost no propaganda in it…I’m not saying, look, here are bad guys, here are good guys. I’m not taking sides. In fact, it’s more a crying out for happiness: Life is short, enjoy it, take your girl and run away.”
(Orhan Pamuk sees the world, from boston.com)

His latest book is Istanbul: Memories and the City.



Turkish GrooveAnother thing to look out for is World music label Putumayo’s compilation of Turkish music, Turkish Groove. It is described as “An excellent compilation of contemporary Turkish pop, this album shows off the fusion of old and new that typifies Turkey itself, as well as its music scene. Much of the fare here is simple catchy pop, but with elements of more classical forms and influences from around both Europe and Central Asia.” (from Barnes and Noble.com)

Related links:
Turkic peoples (Wikipedia)
Turkic languages (Wikipedia)
US Peace Corps (Wikipedia)
Sons of the Conquerors site
Putumayo music site


6 thoughts on “Exploring the Turkic world, part one

  1. Venera says:

    hi Roderick! thanx4interesting info about books on CA! u should come and explore central asia yrself and write yr story of the turkic world. it wasnt invented by H.Pope 15 years ago. the term was used at least 100 years ago by kazakh historian and linguist Chokan Valikhanov and the turkic world existed as a powerful state in the 9-10th century spanning from the Black Sea to Mongolia. Kyrgyz nomadic warriors were rulers of this state and as they spread and settled in the areas they conquered, the turkic speaking world expanded. the beginnings of the turkic world are described in the kyrgyz epic story of Manas (which is internationally recognised as bigger than Homer’s Odissey and Illiad taken together). so come to kyrgyzstan and meet descendants of the great warrior Manas.

    Venera from Kyrgyzstan

  2. rodsjournal says:

    Hi Venera!

    Thanks for the interesting additional background information on the Turkic world. I’m sure there’s a lot more to explore, especially for a non-Turkic person like me.

    I think what Hugh Pope was referring to, in that interview, was the use of the term “Turkic” to describe the peoples living in the current political realities of distinct, separate nation-states, as well as specific communities elsewhere. That was what he probably meant when he said “we [the West] invented it” a decade and a half or so ago. This corresponded to the break-up of the Soviet Union, when these (artificially constructed) ex-Soviet republics became independent, and some in the West (and probably elsewhere) realised they were largely “Turkic”. That was Pope’s frame of reference, I reckon.

    I know a bit about the legendary Manas too. I first came across it, believe or not, in a science fiction novel written by a Westerner who used to live in Kazakhstan. I might include something of that in part 2 of this post series.

  3. Venera says:

    hi Roderick! thanx for clarification! i’m impressed u know about Manas! look forward to part 2 of your turkic explorations!
    🙂 Venera

  4. seabelly says:

    belly time

  5. heliconia says:

    Turks are interesting,great conquerer, awesome civilization esp the architecture… for such a small country, their ethnics spread as far as China?! Wd love to ask Dr Spencer Wells about this..talking about genetics and such..
    Well, I am a Malay from Malaysia….in history books, they wrote…. Malays are related..to the Mongolians. Anything got to do with Genghis Khan? Phew!

  6. rodsjournal says:


    I won’t exactly say that Turkey is a small country, as you seemed to imply; but that it’s merely the most well-known Turkic-speaking one. Turkish is one of the many dialects/variations of the Turkic language family.

    The Turks of Turkey came from somewhere else originally, and according to many reliable sources, they mixed with other ethnic groups (such as the Anatolian Greeks) to give rise to the Turkish nation.

    This “somewhere else” was the steppes of Siberia and the surrounding regions, and the Turkic peoples had successive waves of migration westwards from Siberia and the Russian Far East.

    Turkey is only the most famous country named after the Turkic peoples – the lesser known one is Turkmenistan. But otherwise, there are Turkic-speaking peoples all across Central Asia, parts of China, Russia and eastern Europe, and of course in Turkey.

    Erm, I can’t comment on how related Malays are to Mongolians – I’ve no experience or knowledge in that field. But from what I know, many of the Southeast Asian and even Pacific peoples originated from the East Asian landmass a long, long time ago (this happened way before Genghis Khan started his quest for world-conquering).

    But there were also divergences at various points. That’s why Malays are more directly related to Filipinos than to Chinese, and Chinese are more related to Tibetans in terms of their language than to Mongolians. Not to mention some people in India and Pakistan who may have southeastern European blood – courtesy of Alexander the Great’s Greek and Macedonian
    troops from about 2,300 years ago 😉

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