Time and again historians of Asia and the Middle East in particular have suggested that it makes no sense to think of places in isolation. Within this trend, a number of scholars have shed light on economic realignments that allowed for the creation of new trade connections between Iran, Central, and South Asia at times where European penetration into India established new sea trade routes. Others have illuminated how the circulation of scholars between these three macro-regions put in place an imagined landscaped of Islamic knowledge. Following their approaches, other studies now emphasize how in the modern period ‘the Central Eurasian steppes remained a zone of contacts, encounters, and exchanges across ecological and cultural boundaries’. But one wonders whether this interpretative disposition is more suggestive than conclusive, and if it potentially poses more problems than what it claims to solve. It is one thing to take stock of the background noise of trade in staples and diplomatic encounters, it is an entirely different thing to overlook that the 19th century marked an age of boundaries, which created a new mindset about space. While prior to the establishment of political borders local power players were less preoccupied with the notion of limit than with the idea of domain, it is during the age of Western imperialism that people started to face difficulties while crossing borders. Borders were not only imagined lines to be drawn on a map, but were part and parcel of a bureaucratized machinery of power that overhauled previously existing patterns of mobility and affected the ways in which people perceived themselves in the world. This panel will bring into conversation three different lines of inquiry that hinge on Khurasan and the establishment of a political border between Iran and the Russian Empire. Christine Nölle-Karimi will explore the ways in which Qajar envoys and officials portrayed the lands and people north and east of Astarabad and Mashhad. Ulfat Abdurasulov will show how the “Turkmen south” fit within the forms of governance adopted by the Khanate of Khiva and represented a region external to the Khivan royal domains. Paolo Sartori will reflect on aspects of remoteness in the social history of Khorezm after the establishment of the Transcapian railway and the bureaucratization of mobility.
The assumption is commonly made that the adoption of new transport infrastructure after the invention of steam boats and railways, together with the introduction of new means of communication like the telegraph and print ushered the Muslim world into an age of globalization. In the 19th century, for example, it became simpler than it had ever been before for Muslim pilgrims to reach the Hijaz from the Russian Empire, China, and South Asia. A new web of travel infrastructures allowed also intellectuals to become exposed to cultural practices beyond the usual routes of knowledge. The spread of print technologies across Asia accelerated and multiplied cultural encounters across regions and was conducive to manifestations of purposive modernization that we observe happening almost at the same time in different parts of the Muslim world, which prior to the 19th century were not directly connected. One is reminded of the modernist trends that are visible between Xinjang and the Ottoman Empire. While this interpretive approach confers texture upon mobility and knowledge in the globalized age and allows capturing the enduring consequences of technological revolutions in the Muslim world, it equally overshadows another dimension of the age of steam and print, which is nonetheless significant to understand socio-cultural changes in the 19th century: remoteness and marginalization. In this paper I want to show that the creation of the Transcaspian railroad was part of a broader project to establish a Russo-Iranian boundary and detach Khorezm from its previous regional ties to and across Khurasan. By focusing in on the aspects of bureaucratization and fiscal practices that made increasingly difficult for Khorezmians to exploit their links with Iran, I want to argue that the establishment of the Transcapian railroad was not only a vector of commercial exchanges and cultural encounters, but also what we may term a “border infrastructure” that led to the creation of a new perception of political space. By carrying people and goods between Krasnovodsk and Tashkent across the Amu-Darya, the new railroad severed a connection between local polities, marked the limits of Russian Central Asia, and isolated Khorezm from the surrounding regions.