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24.04.06 Zoolshoev, Ancient and Early Medieval Kingdoms of the Pamir Region of Central Asia

24.04.06 Zoolshoev, Ancient and Early Medieval Kingdoms of the Pamir Region of Central Asia

The book under review is the first ever monograph in English dedicated to the history of Shughnān, a region in Central Asia located in the western expanses of the Pamir Mountains that is divided today between the countries of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The study of this region for much of the twentieth century was the almost exclusive preserve of Russian and Soviet scholarship, and even today, Anglophone scholarship on the region remains confined to a small handful of specialist treatments. While Shughnān has often been disregarded on account of its remoteness and mountainous terrain, Zoolshoev makes a compelling case for revisiting the region’s significance as a regional political actor and trade conduit.

As its title indicates, the book is concerned with the history of Shughnān from its earliest history down to the tenth century CE, with particular attention given to the period from the seventh to the ninth century CE. The book consists of an introduction, two parts (which are further divided into subheadings rather than chapters), an appendix, bibliography, and index. In the introduction (1-23), the author provides an overview of previous scholarship and major historical sources on the subject, along with a historical-geographical survey of the region (much of which is repeated with further details in part one).

Part 1 of the book (25-88) offers a broad historical survey of the Shughnān region, starting from the earliest evidence of human settlement in the region in the Upper Paleolithic Era down to the tenth century CE. The discussion here, at least for the earlier periods, consists mostly of a summary of previous archeological research in the region. The earliest known appearance of the term Shughnān is found in the account of the Chinese Buddhist traveler Xuanzang from 629, which has been examined at some length in previous scholarship. However, one of the original contributions of Zoolshoev’s discussion here is his introduction of verses from the eleventh-century Shāh-nāma of Firdawsī, which may reflect an earlier attestation of the term (52-53, with further discussion in the appendix, 128-130). The verses in question show the rulers of Shughnān serving as clients of the Hephtalites in their failed mid-sixth-century campaign against the combined forces of the Sassanians and the Western Turks. While it is possible that Firdawsī’s usage here is anachronistic, the fact that he is known to have relied upon non-extant late Sassanian chronicles for his work may allow us now to backdate the earliest known appearance of this toponym. However, the author likely overstretches the evidence in claiming that the term Shiknī as it appears in the Shāh-nāma refers to a “distinct ethnic group” (36, 53); in fact, the context suggests that the term is employed here as merely a territorial designation (i.e., someone from Shughnān), rather than reference to an ethnic category.

Zoolshoev’s survey of the ancient history of Shughnān is necessarily succinct, given the extreme scarcity of references to the region in the available sources. A major turning point in this regard comes with the mid-eighth-century expansion of the Tang dynasty into Central Asia in the course of their campaigns against the Western Turks. These developments brought Shughnān within the purview of the Chinese sources, thus offering us a fuller (albeit still very limited) window into internal developments in the region in comparison with earlier or later periods. Part 1 concludes with a very brief review of the information found on Shughnān in the early Islamic sources, followed by an attempted reconstruction of some of the names of the rulers of Shughnān as presented in the Chinese sources.

The second and more substantial part of the book (89-127) is dedicated to an effort to identify what the author refers to the “lost capital” of Shughnān, based on a passage from the tenth-century chronicle of the Tang dynasty, the Táng Shū. The brief passage in question refers to a locale by the name of Kǔhán, which formerly served as the seat of the ruler of Shughnān. The passage further relates that, at a later time, the population of Shughnān was divided among five mountainous valleys, each with its own chief. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to exploring a wide range of hypotheses and candidates for identifying the location of Kǔhán, including sites from as far afield as the Ferghana Valley and the Tarim Basin, as well as a variety of locales within present-day Shughnān. In doing so, the author reveals an impressive knowledge of the historical geography of the Pamirs and surrounding regions. However, the discussion is significantly hampered by a lack of attention to the problems in the original text.

The author does not provide his own translation or direct analysis of the original Chinese text; instead, he compares three translations of the passage into Russian, French and German (by Nikolay Bichurin, Edouard Chavannes, and Joseph Marquart, respectively), each of which is provided in the original and in English translation (90). The author then immediately proceeds to the discussion of identifying the location of Kǔhán, without offering further comment on the passage or the text itself. Thus, the entire discussion takes place one step removed from the original source. Given the significance of this passage for the author’s work, it would seem that a more thorough analysis and commentary of the text is warranted here.

While I am unqualified to evaluate the original Chinese text myself, it is nonetheless plainly evident from the differences in the three translations that there are significant ambiguities in the original, none of which the author addresses. In particular, there appears to be a disagreement among the translators as to exactly who lived in this town and what happened to them: Bichurin’s Russian translation relates that Kǔhán was the seat of the ruler, and that it was the ruler himself who subsequently shifted his residence among a series of other mountainous locales. By contrast, Chavannes’s French translation, in a parenthetical insertion, suggests that it was “les habitants” that were subsequently dispersed among remote mountain valleys. Finally, Marquart’s German translation takes an altogether different approach to the passage, suggesting that what occurred was not so much a shift of the capital’s location or of any of its inhabitants, but rather a process of political decentralization and devolution of power to local chieftains. The distinctions between these translations indicates that the subject of the first two sentences of the passage is either missing or ambiguous in the original Chinese passage.

The author does not address the differences between these translations or their relevance for the subsequent review of candidates for the location of Kǔhán. The range of sites proposed by the author range from remote mountain fortresses to major cities in neighboring lowland regions, and the choice of interpretation undoubtedly has some relevance for deciding between these options. A ruler’s residence may not necessarily correspond to a major settlement, and rulers may elect to shift their base of operations for any number of reasons; however, if the text is to be interpreted as referring to a broader population dispersal, then this would suggest that the location is to be identified with a larger settlement, perhaps one that had experienced some manner of a disaster or misfortune to have prompted such an exodus. At times, the author appears to endorse one or the other translation choices when it supports the argument in favor of a particular site; for example, in making a case for the Alay Valley as the site of Kǔhán (92-93), the author points to some local legends preserved in oral traditions in the Pamirs alluding to a past migration from Alay, which would be in line with Chavannes’s rendering of the passage. Other proposed sites, however, correspond to small mountain strongholds that could not have supported a population of more than a few dozen people, and would thus seem to implicitly endorse the interpretation found in Bichurin’s translation.

Only a handful of the proposals offered by Zoolshoev are supported by any linguistic evidence or other evident criteria that could connect it with the Kǔhán cited in the text (among the more promising of these is the city of Qunduz in present-day northeastern Afghanistan, which was formerly known as Kuhan-dazh and may have served as the erstwhile capital of the Hephtalites). Otherwise, the criteria for inclusion within the list of proposed sites appears to include essentially any significant settlement or structure within the vicinity of Shughnān. This survey is undoubtedly useful in its own right, as it provides the sort of sweeping overview of the historical geography of the region that is presently not found elsewhere. However, it does not necessarily bring us any closer to identifying the location of Kǔhán.

In keeping with the conservative approach taken throughout the book, while Zoolshoev advances many of his own suggestions regarding potential sites, he does not present any decisive conclusions or arguments in favor of one site over others, arguing instead for the need for further research, particularly in the realm of archeology. Given the great uncertainty over the characteristics of the locale, Zoolshoev is undoubtedly wise to avoid any definitive pronouncements on the matter. Yet this raises the question of whether or how any of the proposed sites could ever be conclusively proven to correspond with the Kǔhán of the text. Absent the unlikely discovery of linguistic evidence that allows us to associate a particular site with Kǔhán, it is unfortunately more likely than not that the identification of this locale will remain an unsolved puzzle.

The author’s discussion throughout the book displays a recurring pattern: introduce a topic or question, outline the available evidence and scholarly discussions regarding the issue, and conclude with a call for further research. As such, the book consists largely of summaries of existing research and debates, with very few firm conclusions offered by the author on any of the topics considered in it. Many of the topics considered by Zoolshoev in this book, particularly those relating to the use of Chinese sources for the history of the medieval Pamirs, have not been the focus of any significant scholarship since the first half of the twentieth century, and the author is to be commended for bringing renewed attention to the many unanswered questions that remain in the study of this period. At times, however, the author misses an opportunity to introduce more recent scholarship where it does exist; for example, in his discussion of the Hephtalites, Zoolshoev relies in large measure on a 1959 article by Kazuo Enoki arguing for an Iranian origin for this group (upon which the author subsequently builds his suggestion of a Hephtalite contribution to the ethnic formation of Shughnān). However, while groundbreaking for its time, Enoki’s findings on this matter have now been superseded by more recent research supporting an Altaic origin for the Hephtalites, none of which is referenced in the text. [1]

There are some occasional errors and inconsistencies in the systems of transliteration utilized in the book. While the author claims to have utilized the Library of Congress romanization system for all Cyrillic scripts (xiii), in fact it appears that a different system entirely is used for Cyrillic-script Tajiki. At least, however, this system appears to be used consistently throughout, as is the LoC system for Russian. The same cannot be said for Arabic-script terms, for which the author claims to utilize the “standard academic transliteration system” (xiii). It is not at all clear which system is meant by this, and usage in the book suggests a somewhat haphazard application of several different systems (I am unqualified to comment on the author’s application of the Pinyin system for Chinese). There are also some eccentricities in the presentation of the bibliography; for example, the name of the early-twentieth-century Shughnī scholar Sayyid Ḥaydar Shāh ibn Mubārak Shāh has been abbreviated and inexplicably Russified in the bibliography as H. Muborakshozodaev. While specialists will not be misled by any of these issues, it is possible that they may create some confusion for non-specialists seeking to track down the original sources.

In fairness, it should be noted that these inconsistencies occur only on account of the author’s ambitious and laudable effort to synthesize materials from a wide range of different languages, including oral materials from languages (such as Shughni) for which no standard transcription system exists. As such, Zoolshoev’s work offers a substantial contribution to the study of early medieval Central Asia. While the book leaves many unanswered questions on the table regarding the history of Shughnān, it will undoubtedly serve as the definitive reference point for any further research on these issues.



1. Étienne de la Vaissière, “Is There a ‘Nationality of the Hephtalites’?,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 17 (2003): 119-132; Khodadad Rezakhani, ReOrienting the Sasanians: East Iran in Late Antiquity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 134-137.