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Review:Yuri Bregel, An Historical Atlas of Central Asia


Nick Megoran
2004-07-15 18:38:01 阅读
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Leiden: Brill, 2003

 

Yuri Bregel, An Historical Atlas of Central Asia

Leiden: Brill, 2003.

xi + 110 pp., preface, 49 maps,

bibliographical notes, index. ISBN 9004123210, 134 / $181.

 

Reviewed by: Nick Megoran, Research Fellow, Department of Geography,

Cambridge University, Cambridge,

UK, nwm20 cam.ac.uk

 

 

The division of the world into regions is a matter of custom, but in order to become imprinted on popular geographical imaginations, regions must be identifiable in the abstraction of cartographic representation. Central Asia has not consistently been considered as a single region. In mang historical atlases, Central Asia is, literally, at the margin of maps focused on Russia, China, Europe, South Asia, or the Middle East, or is portrayed as an ephemeral space over which trade, migrations and invasions pass between genuinely important places.

It is this gap that Bregel seeks to fill in publishing his Historical Atlas of Central Asia. The atlascore concern is the portrayal of the historical political geography of Central Asia the territory and ethnicity of nomadic and sedentary polities and their boundaries, along with significant military campaigns and battles.

The atlas consists of 49 maps on high-quality, large format color plates. “Central Asia” is defined as that area from the Caspian Sea in the west to Lake Lop-Nor in the east, and from the Hindu-Kush mountains in the south to the limits of the Steppe Belt in the north. The majority of the maps are projected onto this same template. The first map having set the scene with a useful depiction of the physical geography, the remaining maps illustrate the unfolding political history from the time of Alexander to the present day, with approximately one quarter of the maps covering the last two centuries. There are also maps showing archaeological sites, Islamic monuments, and city plans. Most maps have up to one page of corresponding explanatory text, providing a narrative of the period and flagging significant areas of scholarly disagreement.

The use of a consistent template allows the reader to turn the atlas on its side and, concentrating on one area, to flip across the centuries and see under whose rule it came. Taken with the text, this book gives both an admirably concise overview of Central Asian history and a good impression of the complexity and fluidity of political control. This is aided by the beautiful presentation throughout. Each map is well referenced, and the addition of a comprehensive index makes it an extremely useful reference source. Bregel both achieves and surpasses his stated aim.

In his landmark study of the genre, Black argues convincingly that historical atlases do more than present objective, historical facts: they are subjective visions of history, revealing what historians consider important to include or omit (Black 1997). In the light of this work, four comments can be made on Bregels atlas.

Firstly, an explicit goal of this book is to construct a specific vision of what “Central Asia” is, historically and geographically. The region is not seen as marginal to European or other Asian empires and interests, but as an entity in its own right: the setting of maps in a double-bounded frame further serves to emphasize this. Recentering this history is vital to the processes of scholarly and political decolonization, but the reader is left wondering how Central Asia was located in wider continental and global developments; the use of larger-scale inset maps would have been of assistance here. The atlas impinges upon debates about both naming and delimiting the legitimate area of study, and may prove controversial to those who prefer to conceive of a wider geographical field such as “Central Eurasia”, “Inner Asia”, or “Central Asia and the Caucasus”.

Secondly, the relevance of the traditional agenda of historical atlases clearly demarcated territorial control is questionable for Central Asian pre-colonial history. Indeed, as Bregels text would suggest, the personal authority of the ruler or the ability to enforce tributary payment may be more useful indicators of power. Standard maps depicting bounded territorial units differentiated in bold colors, suggesting universal and stable control over all the territory, can therefore be misleading. Bregel wrestles with these questions, laboring to resist the Eurocentric temptation to over-emphasize powerful states at the expense of the complex and varied political nature of Central Asian history, for example, by using dotted lines to depict frontiers and by eschewing the use of shading until the late nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the atlas leaves many unanswered questions about the imposition of modern cartographic notions of power and spatiality on historical Central Asian conceptions of space.

Thirdly, the choice of topics in the atlas reveals little sensitivity to what Black (Chapter 9) identified as the post-1945 “New Agenda” of historical atlases, that of balancing the depiction of political geographic history with cultural, social and other histories. While a handful of maps present overviews of archaeological sites, tribal distributions, trade routes and town plans, the logic of the atlas remains overwhelmingly politicalgeographic, narrating the history of Central Asia as the territorial struggles of powerful males and their armies. This is a missed opportunity. The growing literature on Central Asia surely provides ample material to map alternative histories, including womens incorporation into the Soviet state, cotton and agricultural production, wealth and poverty, literacy, and environmental change.

Finally, Bregel concludes with a map of Central Asia in the year 2000, highlighting the five former Soviet states with bold colors and firmly drawn boundaries the only map in the collection that employs this dramatic cartographic technique. This implies that the dynamism of tribal and regional identities and of complicated competing rivalries within polities has finally been overcome in independence, and that boundaries between nations can at last be drawn unambiguously and unproblematically. This is far from the case, and it is a pity that Bregel belatedly draws on this paradigm when so many other examples of mapping contemporary political complexity and dynamism in other parts of the world are available.

These concerns should not detract from Bregels achievement. The Atlas is an elegantly crafted work that breaks new ground in the study of the historical political geography of Central Asia. It is to be recommended to the general reader and the specialist alike.

 

References

Black, Jeremy

1997 Maps and History: Constructing Images ofthe Past. New Haven: Yale University Press.

 

编辑:景骞


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