(Re)Collecting the Heritage of the Silk Road: Tajikistan’s pre-Russian Past in Documents (EAP910)

Aims and objectives

This project aims to collect and preserve some of Tajikistan’s rich written heritage from the 18th and 19th centuries. It proposes the collection and digitisation of manuscripts currently held in private hands in northern Tajik villages. Once collected, these manuscripts will be preserved and properly stored in the archive of the National Foundation “Great Silk Road – Road to Consolidation.” The manuscripts will be digitised and made freely available online. Currently understudied and increasingly damaged by time and wear, the manuscripts collected in this project will finally be made available to academics and Tajik citizens alike.

The manuscripts and other materials this project aims to collect and preserve are vitally important for the scholarship of pre-Russian Tajikistan and Central Asia. While recent decades have seen a growth in the number of document-based histories of the 18th and 19th centuries in the region, the period remains poorly studied and often glossed over in the broader historiography. This is partially due to the lack of reliable source material: documents from the late pre-Russian period in the region are difficult to find and access, are unavailable in any digital format, and in general have proven a weak point in the scholarship. This project would hope to provide a documentary base for new scholarship into the pre-Russian history of Tajikistan through the preservation and digitisation of unique and otherwise inaccessible materials that shine light on the social, cultural, and economic life of the region.

Since the early 20th century little effort has been made to collect or preserve documentation in Tajikistan relating to the pre-Russian period of the 19th or earlier centuries. During the Soviet period documents relating to this period, given their frequent religious nature, were considered suspect or representative of “undesirable” class elements, and the State Archives in the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic were occupied only with the preservation of materials related to the Soviet state and its institutions. While this trend was initially reversed after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, recent years have witnessed a return in Tajik government policy towards scepticism towards religion, leading many to worry once again about storing or sharing manuscripts of pre-Soviet and religious content. As a result, the materials relating to Tajikistan’s heritage as part of the Great Silk Road – its role in the pre-Imperial trade routes that linked much of Central Asia to both itself and the surrounding regions – have often gone unnoticed and been forgotten. Materials lie untouched and unnoticed in trunks and other hiding places, and their ink and paper degrade with the years. Without proper collation, preservation, and digitisation, within the next generation or two these materials are likely to degrade to the point where their contents may be lost forever.

The material that this project intends to collect, archive, and digitise include a variety of manuscripts book-like documents written and published in what is now modern Tajikistan prior to the conquest of the area by the Russian Empire in the 1870s. This encompasses genealogical material (including, but not restricted to, Sufi silsila records), the records of local religious and private organisations (such as vaqf documentation), and more germane personal accounts of life in the centuries leading up to the incorporation of Tajikistan into the Russian Empire. Together, these materials provide an invaluable perspective on the social and cultural history of the region in the otherwise poorly studied period between the collapse of the Timurid Empire and the invasion of the Russian Empire into the region. These materials primarily date to the mid-19th century, and are handwritten in Persian script in a variety of Central Asian languages (pre-Soviet Tajik, Farsi, Chagatay, et cetera). While some material has already been collected by the National Foundation “Great Silk Road – Road to Consolidation,” the majority remain in the personal collections of individuals living in remote mountain villages in Tajikistan’s north. Initial research trips to the mountain villages in the Zeravshan Valley (Kuhistoni Mastchoch, Ayni, Istaravshan, Spitamen, and Shahriston districts) have in particular demonstrated both the plethora of available manuscripts and local individuals’ interest in having their heritage preserved and made publically available.


The EAP910 team was able to identify, collect, and digitise a number of works from a private collection found in the Gissar region of Tajikistan. Over the course of the year, the project team continued this process, visiting villages in outlying areas of the Tajik north and south-west and developing relationships with local collection holders before selecting and digitising materials for inclusion in the project.

In total, the project team was able to collect, digitise, and collate75 individual pre-Soviet monographs, which represent 40 separately bound volumes. This total amounted to 10,604 images. Digital copies were then provided to the British Library and the Tajik National Library, as well as being retained by the National Foundation “Great Silk Road – Road to Consolidation.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: