Reinventing the Samanids E-mail

The Politics of History in Tajikistan: Reinventing the Samanids

Volume V, No. 1. Winter 2001
Written by Kirill Nourzhanov

Producing a nationalist version of history has acquired special importance for the leaders of independent Tajikistan as a means of reinforcing common Tajik identity, particularly in the aftermath of the civil war. The most recent campaign of this kind is the drive to reinvent and glorify the Samanids-a Muslim dynasty which ruled Mawarannahr and Khorasan during the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. The article will discuss the particulars of this campaign launched by President Rahmonov in March 1997 and the ways in which it contributes to the general political discourse in Tajikistan.

Kirill Nourzhanov received his PhD from the Australian National University in 1998 and is currently a Lecturer in the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at ANU. He has published widely on Central Asian history and politics. During 2000-2001, he acted as an adviser to the Government of Tajikistan on parliamentary reform. His book Tajikistan: The History of An Ethnic State will be published by Hurst in 2001.


On 9 September 1999-the 8th anniversary of Tajikistan's independence-President Rahmonov opened an imposing memorial complex in the center of Dushanbe to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the Samanid State. Its centerpiece is an 11-meter high statue of Amir Ismail Samanid (892 - 907), who is portrayed exiting a gilt arc while being guarded by two tamed lions. According to the vision of the creators of this monument, "the enlightened Amir is not put on a high pedestal; on the contrary, he is placed as close as possible to the people ... His body, draped in a flying cloak, projects the idea of moving forward. The noble arc ... is a signpost, symbol, image of the nation". The architectural composition also includes a museum-cum-pantheon of national dignitaries, fountains, a pedestrian esplanade, and three alleys: the Alley of the Presidents, the Alley of the Heroes of the State, and the Alley of the Stars of Poetry of the East. The entire ensemble is aptly called Vahdati Milli (National Unity), and, as the Mayor of Dushanbe explained, its inauguration "underscores the unity of the Tajik nation and all peoples living in Tajikistan, and is yet another testimony to the rallying of the people around the course conducted by the country's leadership headed by the President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmonov."

All governments use historical symbols and historiography to cultivate patriotism, explain and justify policies, and secure the acquiescence and cooperation of the people in times of crises. Symbolic encapsulation of the themes of regime legitimacy, common identity, and cultural revival through historical references is particularly crucial for emerging nations. The newly independent Central Asian countries present no exception from this pattern. President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan has succintly summarized the views of the region's leaders on the subject, "Historical memory, the restoration of an objective and truthful history of the nation and its territory is given an extremely important place in the revival and growth of national self-consciousness and national pride ... The deeds and feats of great ancestors enliven historical memory, shape a new civil consciousness, and become a source of moral education and imitation." However, as interpretation of the historical record invariably takes place under the patronage and vigilant control of the state, the restoration of "an objective and truthful history" across Central Asia has, with ruthless inevitability, acquired the form of a series of symbolic myths, which "must be told (compulsively) again and afresh, and are differently gratifying and terrifying each time." Moreover, historical narrative as a political phenomenon is less concerned with uncovering new or suppressed information, or providing a fresh angle on events in the bygone times based on professional scholarship, as it is with constructing a rounded, systematic, and uniform vision of the past. To paraphrase Robert William Davies, this is propaganda, as much as history.

Because of the civil war and the ensuing fragility of the centralized state, the ruling elite of Tajikistan has been slow to develop a comprehensive ethno-historical paradigm with elaborate mythology, didactic overlay, and a cohort of martyrs, prophets, and champions of the National Idea. However, the achievement of a semblance of stability and the beginning of the process of national reconciliation in 1997 provided an impetus and a rationale for movement in this direction. Rediscovery of the Samanids, which received official blessing by President Rahmonov in March 1997 and reached symbolic culmination two and a half years later, has formed the foundation of the new official history in Tajikistan.

1. The Samanids in Central Asia

In 1925, V.V. Bartold expressed the view that a period of more than one thousand years from Alexander the Great to the advent of Islam passed almost unnoticed in terms of state formation and political organization in Transoxiana. This opinion, which obviously did not fit the Marxist conception of linear political evolution, was severely criticized by Soviet scholars. However, there is no doubt that at the time of the Arab invasion, the Central Asian lands were divided among as many as twenty-seven petty princedoms. Their rulers did not enjoy absolute authority, as real power lay with the members of the traditional landed aristocracy (the dihqans), who had fortified castles and small private armies at their disposal. In times of trouble, princes had literally to grovel for help from their supposed vassals. The whole picture bore a striking resemblance to the post-Achaemenid period, where the political map of Central Asia was changing kaleidoscopically.

The Trans-Oxus principalities never formed a viable confederacy. On top of mutual mistrust and hostility, religion and ethnicity created fundamental divisions among local communities. Such conditions of disunion favoured the piecemeal conquest of Transoxiana by the Arabs. Beginning in 651 AD, the Arabs organized periodic marauding raids deep into the territory of Mawarannahr, but it was not until the appointment of Qutaiba as Governor of Khorasan in 705 AD, during the reign of Walid I, that the Caliphate adopted the policy of annexing the lands beyond the Oxus. Ten years later the task of annexation was accomplished.

The ascension of the Abbasids to rule the Caliphate (750 - 1258) opened a new era in the history of Central Asia. While their predecessors the Omaiyads (661 - 750) were little more than leaders of a loose confederation of Arab tribes, the Abbasids set out to build a huge multi-ethnic centralized state that would emulate and perfect the Sasanian government machine. They gave the Near East and Transoxiana a unity, which they had been lacking since the time of Alexander the Great. In the eighth century, "the enormous expansion in trade brought about an explosion in the growth of cities and market towns everywhere ... The internationalism of the age burst into full bloom, as commerce and culture, hand-in-hand, flourished as never before." The Abbasid caliphate, as a territorial empire, succumbed to centrifugal tendencies and succession disputes soon after the fabled Harun ar-Rashid died in 809. Yet it left a mighty legacy, the Islamic civilization, which for centuries "was the real centre of the ecumene, in contact (as Christianity was not, until the sixteenth century) with all other major societies except, of course, those of America."

Islam spread rapidly in Mawarannahr. The new religion was received mostly by popular acclaim, for it promised greater social mobility and created favourable conditions for trade. Islam provided the peoples of Central Asia with a spiritual and cultural bond and brought them closer to each other as nothing had before. With Islam there came Arabic-not only the language of the Holy Quran and the Abbasid court, but also the language of science and poetry and the lingua franca of trade and diplomacy. It must also have stimulated the emergence of the Modern Persian language (Dari), in which the share of loan-words from Arabic fluctuated from ten percent in the vocabulary of Rudaki (9th to10th centuries) to forty percent in the writings of Baihaqi (11th century). All in all, "the volume of Arabic lexicon, its share in the vocabulary of the Dari language remained exceptionally high until the first quarter of the nineteenth century."

Based on the region's general economic rise and the coexistence of and fruitful interaction between Arabic and Persian literatures, the newly emerged ecumenical Islamic culture reached its zenith during the rule of the Samanid dynasty (875 - 999). The Samanids, who originated from an old dihqan family in Khorasan, created a kingdom of their own which stretched from the Persian Gulf to India. The relatively stable domestic and international situation allowed them to encourage learning and the arts. However, cultural renaissance in Khorasan and Mawarannahr commenced long before their ascendancy and continued after their demise until the Mongol invasion. Their centrality to this phenomenon has to be treated with caution: "Spiritual, intellectual and artistic life in the Samanid domains thrived, although it is impossible to isolate it from similar florescence in several other parts of the Islamic world, beginning with the neighbouring Khwarazm."

The Samanid Empire was the last time that the bulk of Iranian lands became the domain of an Iranian ruler, in the traditions of the Achaemenids and the Sasanians. The Samanids were lucky to have carved a larger kingdom and held it somewhat longer than other regional dynasties of Iranian extraction within the Caliphate; otherwise, they differed little from the Saffarids or the Tahirids. Their base was still a clan, a small professional army, and a handful of big cities. Within the Samanid administration there was a discernible ethno-religious division: an Iranian chancery, staffed with recent converts par excellence, co-existed with the predominantly Arab ulama, while the core of the army consisted of Turkic slaves or mercenaries. Given time, a coherent society might have evolved behind the Samanid empire, but the attack of the Qarakhanid Turks ended its reign in 999, and dominance in Mawarannahr passed on to Turkic rulers for nine centuries to come.

2. The Problem of Ethnogenesis of the Tajiks under the Samanids

Prior to independence, Tajik scholars generally subscribed to Barthold's judgment that "The Samanids ... might well be called the epoch of 'enlightened absolutism'. The monarchs did not carry out any drastic social reforms, but strove to institute a firm rule and peace within their possessions, to protect the lower classes from oppression, and to encourage the development of industry, trade and education." The Samanids were treated as a quintessential ephemeral feudal empire, akin to the Saffarids or the Ghaznavids, whose track record in efficient governance was not impressive. Their special place in textbooks was based on the claim that "the formation of the Tajik nation was completed during the rule of the Samanids."

In order to avoid the terminological quagmire associated with the usage of the value-laden concept of 'nation', it would be more appropriate to focus on the emergence of the primary form of ethnic community-the ethnie, which, in Anthony Smith's characterization, is a given population, a social group "whose members share a sense of common origins, claim a common and distinctive history and destiny, possess one or more distinctive characteristics, and feel a sense of collective uniqueness and solidarity." In the case of the Tajiks, the problem of collective cultural individuality put in historical perspective is twofold: (a) their distinctness from non-Iranian peoples of Central Asia and (b) their dissociation with the peoples of Khorasan and Iran proper.

There can be little doubt about the existence of a potent cleavage between Iranians and Turkic tribes at the time of Ismail Samani in Central Asia, complemented by religious overtones: "The Samanids are also remembered ... for the jihad that they waged on the northeastern frontier of their territories, in the Bilad al-Turk, the Turkestan of that period." The second part of the equation, i.e. the separation of the Tajiks from other Iranian peoples, poses greater problems.

The assumption of a collective, identifying name is one of the most important attributes of a viable ethnic community. Usage of the word 'Tajik' as an ethnonym was not registered before the second quarter of the 11th century. It has been generally accepted among scholars that the term was initially used in Mawarannahr to refer to the Arabs (it was probably derived from the Arab Tai tribal name). Afterwards, it became a collective name for both Arabs and local converts to Islam (predominantly Iranians), and only much later was this term transformed into the ethnonym of an entity among Central Asian Iranians. A number of Tajik experts adhere to a different theory which implies that the word 'Tajik' originated from the Persian 'Taj' (meaning 'crown') and that as early as the eighth century, Iranians of Mawarannahr, especially in the mountainous areas, called themselves Tajiks, that is, the 'Crown Headed'. By calling themselves as such, these Iranians emphasized their supposed superiority over all other local peoples.

Another important element in the making of an ethnie is an elaborate set of myths which explains the origins of a community in space and time, stresses the common fate of its members, and provides legitimation for its policies in relation to other communities. Called mythomoteur by John Armstrong, it "sustains a polity and enables it to create an identity beyond that which can be imposed by force or purchased by peace and prosperity." The mythology of an ethnie finds its reflection in epic tradition. All ethnic groups of Aryan descent in Iran and Central Asia had practically identical mythomoteurs until the late Middle Ages. The mythologies were first codified in Avesta, then in Middle Persian literary monuments, for example, Yadkari Ardashir Papakan, Ayatkar Zareran, Artavirnamak, and reached a felicitous epitome in Ferdowsi's Shahnama, circa 1011 A.D. All major motifs and protagonists in Shahnama (as well as in Iskandarnama, Darabnama, Jamaspnama, Gushtaspnama and so on) are common for Tajiks and Iranians. There might have been local deviations from the canon, such as the autochthonal cults of Bibi Seshambe or White Div in the eastern part of Tajikistan, but, generally, as late as the eleventh century, there existed a collective mythomoteur of Greater Iran, with the struggle against the Turkic world (Ferdowsi's Turan) as its pivotal point.

The ideas of Shahnama continued to form the backbone of the 'state epos' in Persia under the Safavids. In contrast, the mythical tradition of Iranians in Central Asia underwent a dramatic change by the second half of the 16th century, as the Tajik epic poem Gurugli testifies. Its very title is a replica of a cluster of Turkic folklore legends (Kørogly in Azerbaijan, Gørogly in Turkmenistan, Gorogly in Uzbekistan), as is its plot. Behind the figure of Avaz-khon, a fervent fighter, noble knight, and gifted commander of the Iranian (forget the Turkic name!) Shah Gurugli, there is the historical character of Ayaz, a Turkic slave and favourite of Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi (997 - 1030). However, having acquired the plot from their Turkic neighbours, the Tajiks largely reiterated their own ancient epos on its basis. Gurugli has direct parallels with Shahnama's Faridun and, unlike his Turkic counterparts, is more of a fair monarch than a pahlavan (a gallant and reckless warrior). Also, of course, Gurugli is a poetic work and "several times as big" as the prosaic Azerbaijani original.

Language and religion are considered the most basic traits of an ethnie's shared culture. Under the Samanids, ordinary people continued to speak local dialects (Soghdian, Khorezmian, and so on), while Dari was primarily the language of official documents and court life, only beginning to spread en masse in Bukhara, Samarkand, and Ferghana. Literary Modern Persian remained uniform in Western Iran and Mawarannahr until the 15th or even 16th century. Similarly, legal and educational systems based on shari'a stayed almost identical across pax Iranica. The sunni - shi'a dichotomy was yet to become a watershed among different ethnic communities, and to find its reflection in Gurugli through the mediation of the Turkic text.

According to Anthony Smith, "a strong sense of belonging and an active solidarity, which in time of stress and danger can override class, factional, or religious divisions within the community" is the decisive factor for a durable ethnic community. This was not the case amongst Iranians in Mawarannahr before, during and after the Samanid rule. Internal divisions in principalities, valley communities, or other territorial sub-units were more potent sources of identity than affiliation with an ethnie. Khuttal, Chaganian, Isfijab, Khorezm and princedoms of Badakhshan nominally acknowledged the supremacy of the Samanids, yet in practice they "were ruled by local dynasties according to their old traditions." By the twelfth century, four distinct regions had formed in the territory of Tajikistan that were characterised by political and cultural autarchy: (1) Northern Tokharistan and Khuttal; (2) the Zaravshon Valley; (3) the basin of Upper and Middle Syr-Darya, including Ustrushana, Khujand, and Western Ferghana; and (4) the Pamirs. With some variations, these specific cultural-geographic areas have survived until today. Prior to the Mongol invasion, their populations never acted in unison to repel aggressors. Moreover, cases of mass resistance to aggression were almost unheard of in Mawarannahr.

In summary, it is difficult to single out a distinct Tajik ethnie in the 10th century. Central Asian Iranians remained an integral part of a wider Iranian community that came into being in the Achaemenid era and from which they drew their name, history, inspiration, and shared culture. However, the Samanid period can be regarded as an important landmark in the process of the ethnogenesis of the Tajiks. It produced an encoded fund of myths, memories, values and symbols, the puissant core of the future ethnie in Tajikistan, which showed remarkable resilience in the face of countless invasions and eventually formed the backbone of the 'Tajik Soviet nation'.

3. The Rise of Nationalist Historiography

Gorbachev's perestroika ushered in a period of unprecedented nationalist mobilization in Central Asia, and with it came a new wave of reconsidering 'official versions' of the past. As the Soviet Empire was losing its cohesion and ethnic conflicts were flaring one after another, professional historians, members of the intelligentsia, and politicians set out to activate and refresh the Tajik mythomoteur. Nationalist historiography in the late 1980s and early 1990s was particularly concerned with the following issues:
- the establishment of a unique Tajik identity based on a long and distinguished pre-history;

- the identification of historical injustices inflicted upon the Tajiks by extraneous forces (Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Uzbeks, Russians and the Soviets);

- the justification of claims to specific territories ('historical homeland').

History books made instant bestsellers. Bobojon Ghafurov's monumental work The Tajiks: Archaic, Ancient and Mediaeval History (1970), in which he claimed most of the classical Persian canon for 'Tajik culture', was re-published in 1989 with a circulation of 60,000 copies. It quickly became the Bible of every Tajik intellectual. In 1989, 62 percent of tertiary students of the titular nationality had the book in their possession. Ghafurov gave rise to a whole school of academics that propagated the notion of the civilizational superiority of the Tajiks and their Kulturträger mission in Central Asia. Professor Rahim Masov, then the director of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, insisted that "without the knowledge of the Tajik language, study of the cultural heritage of Turkic peoples is impossible ... All pre-revolutionary spiritual culture of the peoples of Central Asia can be comprehended only with the assistance of the Tajik language."

Crucial to the formation of a new historical belief-system was the direct association of modern-day Tajiks with the indigenous Aryan population of Central Asia. In some extreme cases, any new addition to the pristine Zoroastrian heritage of the Aryans, including Islam, was treated as undermining the ethnic specificity of the Tajiks. However, the main source of grievances and misfortunes of the Tajik people was identified with the pernicious activities of a readily recognizable 'other'. For Masov, the history of Central Asia has been "the struggle of sedentary population against nomads, of the Iranian-speaking people who had achieved a high level of cultural development against boorish and ignorant Turco-Mongol tribes ... [The latter] flooded the greater part of Central Asia, pushing the indigenous population south and into the mountain gorges." Turks in all guises-the Qarakhanids, the Chingizids, the Manghyts, Uzbek Bolsheviks-were proclaimed the culprits behind the Tajiks' plight. The Russian conquerors of the 19th century and Soviet leaders of the 20th century were denounced not so much for their own destructive policies, as for being auxiliary instruments in advancing the agenda of Turkicization in Central Asia.

The new theorists of ethnic revival asserted that the greatest sin committed by the Uzbeks vis-�*-vis the Tajiks was to rob the latter of the heartland of their civilization- Samarkand and Bukhara, and to assimilate the Tajik population remaining in Uzbekistan by force. Analysis of such claims is beyond the scope of this work, but it is plausible to suggest that the efforts of Tajik nationalist historians were at least partially inspired by the concurrent revision of history instigated by Tashkent. In 1987, an Uzbek historian went so far as to deny the Iranian presence in medieval Mawarannahr altogether, maintaining that at the time of the Samanids, the entire Central Asia, including Samarkand and Bukhara, was inhabited by Turks and that Arabic was the tongue of administration and learning, and "the ordinary, conversational language was the language of various Turkic tribes."

Teaching materials used in Tajikistan in the early 1990s suggest that a radical and comprehensive reassessment of the Samanids had not yet occurred. This dynasty continued to be treated, in a Marxist tradition, as an object, not subject of history. Ismail Samanid and his successors were still pictured as feudal overlords whose empire was constantly weakened by the conflict between the ruler and the ruled. Nonetheless, such leaders were beginning to acquire additional symbolic significance in the mythology of restoring the greatness of the Tajiks within a particular historical terrain. Shortly after independence, academician Numan Negmatov wrote, "Ethnic-territorial nucleus of the Tajik ethnos' formation within the boundaries of the Samanid State ... does not coincide with the territory of the present-day Republic of Tajikistan, which is now the bearer of the ethnic name of the people and the nation. This logically necessitates the usage of the term of 'Historical Tajikistan' to designate the ethno-cultural and historical habitat of the Tajik people in the past."

There was but one step from 'Historical Tajikistan' of the Samanids to 'Greater Tajikistan' of today. However, a special reading of history based upon ethnic myths of descent and continuity did not result into an articulated program of nation-building. In May 1992, the country slipped into the abyss of a five-year civil conflict. Regional elites involved in the confrontation began to develop local histories, justifying the cultural (and hence political) supremacy of Khujandis, Gharmis, or Hissoris over other groups of Tajiks. Kulobis, who had won in the civil war, were particularly active in glorifying 'the pure land of Khatlon'. Upon the initiative of President Emomali Rahmonov, the 680th anniversary of Mir Sayyed Ali Hamadani, a Sufi writer and philosopher who allegedly had been buried near Kulob, was celebrated as a national holiday in Tajikistan in September 1994.

Political stabilization and prospects of national reconciliation compelled Rahmonov's regime to substantiate its legitimacy symbolically, through historical narratives, school textbooks, holidays, dramas, and monuments that would be understood and accepted if not by the bulk of the population, then at least by the majority of the elites. This time around, the Samanids proved to be an ideal choice for a comprehensive ethno-historical reconstruction.

4. Reinterpreting the Samanids

"Collective memory is plastic, but its reshaping is usually not produced by an arbitrary dictate from above." President Rahmonov begged to disagree. On August 17, 1996, he published an article headlined, "The Tajiks in the Mirror of History," that outlined a new philosophy of history to undergird the nation-(re)building project. The article formed the core of a book with the same title, which carried a meaningful sub-heading: "Teaching methodology for secondary, secondary-vocational, and high schools." It became clear that the wheels of the symbol-making factory were rotating again.

Using simple yet powerful language, Rahmonov postulated the following axioms for public consumption:
- the Tajiks were the original inhabitants of Central Asia, renowned for their "wisdom, love for freedom, export of knowledge, dignity, and pure unblemished lifestyle," who shared the fruits of civilization with all the latecomers in the region;

- the words 'Tajik' and 'Aryan' are synonyms. 'Iranian' also means 'Aryan', but only in the context of modernity;

- the Tajiks had to fight war- but those were of purely defensive nature, reflecting the eternal struggle to protect their sublime culture and pure language from aggressors (Arabs, Turks, etc.);

- the Tajiks had reached withering heights of sovereign statehood prior to the Mongol invasion, from which they never recovered;

- the Great October Socialist Revolution gave the Tajik statehood a second life. Soviet rule, despite the massive injustice of the national delimitation, was beneficial for the rise of Tajik culture and self-awareness;

- the independence gained in 1991 was a precious gift that became hijacked by "power-hungry political adventurers, demagogues and careerists supported by external forces that detested the existence of an independent and sovereign Tajikistan."

The ethnic mythology of foundation, chosenness, homeland, trauma, and redemption received a tremendous boost; what was lacking was the all-important account of the Golden Age. In the words of Anthony Smith, "the ideal of a golden age is not simply a form of escapism or consolation for present tribulations. For later generations, the standards of golden ages come to define the normative character of the evolving community. They define what is, and what is not to be admired and emulated ... They define an ideal, which is not so much to be resurrected ... as to be recreated in modern times."

In March 1997, addressing an assembly of Tajik intelligentsia, Rahmonov singled out the Samanid state as the one in which "the lofty tree of Tajik civilization flourished, bloomed and bore splendid fruit across Central Asia and the Middle East." He added that the Tajik government had asked UNESCO to proclaim 1999 as the Year of the Samanids, and he called the literati to revitalize historical memory, particularly reflected in the "sagacity of statehood and spiritual greatness of our forefathers."

The message was heeded, and the next two and a half years witnessed a steady stream of works dedicated to the Samanids and their relevance to polity and society today. The historicists' task was made easier by the fact that events during their reign are fairly well documented (not least in the works of the famous Ghaznavid chronicler Abu'l-Fazl al-Baihaqi, who openly admired this aristocratic dynasty). Had Rahmonov selected the semi-legendary Keyanids for an 'heroic age' of the Tajiks, the blending of real figures and occurrences with idealization and hyperbolization in a convincing and palatable narrative would have been next to impossible.

The Samanids as Gatherers and Protectors of the Tajik Homeland

In a break with the previous interpretation, the Samanids are now treated as being qualitatively different from the preceding and succeeding dynasties of Iranian extraction. They are not mere regional dynasts preoccupied with personal survival and exploitation of local populations. They are imbued with the 'Tajik Idea', and all their conquests and territorial acquisitions are regarded as a mission to bring unity, prosperity, and security to the ancient Aryan land: "The Samanid epoch is comparable to European Renaissance in its significance to the Tajik people. It was marked by a string of important historical and cultural processes, the most salient of which were: the completion of the formation of the unified Tajik people; the wide proliferation of literary Farsi-Dari-Tajik; and the emergence of the first centralised state of the Tajik people, which assembled practically all territories populated by the Tajiks."

The Samanids are juxtaposed with the Buyids-an Iranian dynasty, which successfully challenged the Abbasids at the time of Nasr b Ahmad Samanid (914-944). Unlike the Samanids, the Buyids are considered to be selfish empire-builders, who, although reviving the old Iranian title of Shahanshah, "completely succumbed to the influence of the Arabic language." The idea of the 'purity' and 'authenticity' of the Samanids, which is popularized in speeches by Tajik leaders today, runs contrary to the official line of the 1996 vintage, when it was maintained that "harmonious national development has nothing to do ... with the struggle for the nation's 'purity'."

A special connection is established between the Samanids and the sacred Tajik sites of Bukhara and Samarkand. Ismail Samanid's apocryphic phrase 'So long as I live, I am the wall of Bukhara' is reproduced on any opportune occasion.

The Samanid State As a Model Polity

The Samanid Golden Age is praised as a time of social harmony, efficient governance, and dynamic development. Professor Karim Abdulov has been particularly succinct in producing a schematic picture of the Samanid state that is congruent with Rahmonov's vision for a strong independent Tajikistan; Abdulov's usage of modern political science cliches makes the resemblance most uncanny:
- the Samanids "mobilized the masses using ideals of common good" and "strengthened the technical-material basis of the country";

- their success derived from a synthesis of secular and religious civilizational modes; they harnessed traditions of many religions, particularly Islam, but pre-Islamic creeds as well;

- the Samanids invested in agriculture, "on which basis light and food industry progressed rapidly";

- the dynasty concerned itself with the advancement of education, science and technology; the court had "utmost respect for creative people and the intelligentsia."

Less palatable aspects of the Samanid belle epoque, such as intra-dynastic struggle, incessant feudal squabbles, devastating peasant revolts, and ruthless suppression of the Ismaili sect under Nuh ibn-Nasr Samanid (943-954) are carefully ignored. The Tajik Golden Age is linked to the virtuous conduct of the rulers, which derives from the patrimonial nature of Tajik society. Says President Emomali Rahmonov, "We can talk a lot about the epoch of the Samanid state and find historical parallels or note its distinctive features, but the most important thing to take into account is the ancient tradition of statehood, which we must recreate at full scale. The key concept here is 'kadkhuda' ... The revitalization of the state tradition of kadkhuda is topical today." The implications are clear. It does not matter what title a ruler carries-Amir, General Secretary, or President-so long as this ruler is a true Father of the Nation, who takes care of his people as if they were all members of one big family. There is no coincidence that neo-patrimonial historical discourse in Tajikistan unfolds parallel to the general discussion on the importance of preserving traditional family values in Tajik society.

Heroes of the Age

The Golden Age is a time of heroes, people whose thoughts and deeds can inspire admiration and hope amongst their enfeebled descendants, and whose virtuous example may show the ways to remedy contemporary decay. Heroes mirror "the best of the community's traditions, its authentic voice in the moment of its first flowering, so sadly silent today."

The figure of Ismail Samanid had been in the focus of nationalist historians for some time before 1996, by virtue of his being the real founder of the dynasty's grandeur. He was singled out as a "fair, law-abiding, enlightened, clever, politically astute, and militarily capable" Amir. However, this was not enough for the creation of an icon. President Rahmonov has taken the lead in discovering additional personal qualities of the Amir that would account for the efflorescence of the medieval pax Ariana, "Ismoil ibn Ahmad Somoni was an outstanding, wise, and sage politician. Having studied contemporary sciences, he honed his skills of running the state from childhood ... The young Amir listened to the demands of the people and overcame the existing difficulties through iron will and power of the mind, which earned him love and respect of the people." These characteristics are general enough to be easily transposed on today's leaders of Tajikistan.

Ismail Samanid is endowed with superhuman abilities. He is hailed as a patron-saint of Bukhara, who even after death continues to look after its Tajik-speaking residents. Timur Pulatov, a famous bilingual Bukharian writer, has explored miraculous properties of the Amir's mausoleum in Bukhara and lamented the oppressed position of Tajiks, "Ismail Samanid is the only entity in Bukhara which one can address in Tajik and receive a reply in the same language ... Turkicisation of the beyond has not eventuated ... I shall never forget one scene: an old Bukharian was repenting, talking to Ismail Samanid, asking for forgiveness, because he, the Tajik, had allowed the police to write 'Uzbek' in the 'nationality' graph in his passport. This had been done to all hereditary Tajiks by force, without exception."

There is a whole pantheon of cultural heroes who owe their existence to the fact that "the Samanids saw in the scientific and creative activity an important mechanism of perfecting society and elevating culture." A tourist brochure, written in fractured English and distributed by Tajikistan Airlines in 1998, had a section 'Great Tajik Men', which informed foreigners, "There are a few places in the world, which gave birth to so many great scientists and poets, talented artists and architects as did the lands of Persian-Tajik people." The list of 'Great Tajik Men' included, amongst others, encyclopaedists and philosophers al-Khorazmi, al-Farabi, al-Razi, ibn Sina and al-Biruni, alongside poets Rudaki, Daqiqi and Ferdowsi. While the tussle for the possession of the brilliant minds of the Islamicate has a long history in Tajikistan-Uzbekistan relations, the new cycle of exclusionist cultural appropriation by Dushanbe has caused an angry response even in Kazakstan. Taking exception to Rahmonov's characterisation of al-Farabi as a 'glorious son of the Tajik people', one commentator wrote, "Rahmonov has spat on the national sentiments of the Kazaks (and not only them) ... We don't want to demonstrate the same arrogance stemming from the overflowing feeling of national superiority. Maybe, Farabi is a Turk. Maybe a Tajik. But, perhaps, he is neither Turk nor Tajik, but Arab, as it is written in Western reference books. In any event, he was born on the territory of today's Kazakstan ... And now his name is one of the symbols of the Republic of Kazakstan."

The continuity of the great Tajik cultural tradition is stressed by the promotion of the 'Ferdowsi - Aini - Ghafurov' triad as the valiant champions of Tajik literature and history. Abulqosim Ferdowsi is credited with codifying the entire cultural fund of pre-Samanid Aryans in the heroic epic Shahnama. Sadriddin Aini (1878-1954) is celebrated as the classic writer of modern Tajik literature who revived the canon after centuries of its being under the Manghyt yoke. Bobojan Ghafurov, who served as the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Tajikistan between 1946 and 1956, is regarded as a patriot who stood up to Moscow and Tashkent in the noble cause of advancing his republic's culture and composed the first comprehensive history of his people. Throughout 1999, celebrations of the 1100th anniversary of the Samanid state were accompanied by laudations for Aini and Ghafurov. They received posthumous awards of the title of the Hero of Tajikistan, and both gained the privilege of being represented in the museum underneath the statue of Ismail Samanid.

Explaining the Decay

Academician Ghafurov has left a succinct and devastating account of the demise of the Samanids:

Class antagonism, as well as the struggle between feudal lords and central government, the quarrels between the Samanids and their Turk generals, endless intrigues between representatives of the court and diwan officials-all these shattered the Samanid state and led to a situation where by the end of the 10th century its might had left but a dream ... The Samanids couldn't fend off external aggressors. The populace of Mawarannahr which groaned under heavy taxation and had rebelled in the past, did not hurry to their defence. And the Turkic guard which remained the only pillar of the throne did not have a proper rear and was not in a position to parry the enemy's thrust.

At present, this classic viewpoint is being thoroughly reconsidered and refocussed. Any reference to social unrest that runs contrary to the myth of class harmony under the Samanids is being expunged. All other factors are verbalized in such manner as to make them equally applicable to the recent civil war in independent Tajikistan. This concerns the state of disunity in the ruling elite first and foremost: "A thousand years ago, just like during the events of 1991 and 1992, appanage (udelnye) rulers of Tajik regions, profit-seeking intriguers and religious demagogues rose against the central government for the sake of greater power, rank and position." Accusations against the treacherous role of the Muslim establishment form a novel development in reading the history of the Samanids. Their intensity and scope vary according to the current political moment, ranging from blanket indictments of the 'reactionary Islamic clergy' as a class (Rahim Masov) to criticisms of the "anti-national and seditious activities of some religious groupings."

Another new motif that contributes to the explanation of the ignominious end of the Samanids is that of the loss of traditional spiritual values, the diminished vigilance, the weakening of discipline, and the excessive luxury and outright debauchery which enabled barbarian Turks to defeat civilized Tajiks. "Turks and women interfered in the business of government, which led to the emasculation and decay of the Samanids."

5. Will Emomali Rahmonov Become the Ismail Samanid of Today?

The reconstructed history of the Samanid dynasty has a dual didactic value for Tajik polity. First, it provides examples of ethnic authenticity and regeneration that are transcendental in the Tajik community, and second, it produces concrete recipes for stability and prosperity. Unity, tolerance, cultural synthesis, non-aggressiveness, and emphasis on human development are touted as both innate features of the Tajik ethnie and hallmarks of successful government policies. When President Rahmonov delivers his vision of the Samanids, he wants the audience to build instant associations with his own regime, "In this mighty state representatives of many nationalities lived together; everybody's rights were protected. Plurality of opinion was cherished ... The Samanids ... wisely joined together and used in state administration spiritual norms of Islam with Aryan heritage ... And today we are convinced that a multitude of views, and coexistence of various creeds in sovereign Tajikistan will facilitate the development of a secular democratic state and will assist the triumph of peace and concord on our ancient land." If an ideal construct based not so much on facts as on symbolically appealing and psychologically convincing myths is repeated with due consistency and reaches out to a sufficiently wide strata of the community, it may well evolve into a powerful legitimising tool for the regime.

Objectively, Tajik society, which came close to irreparable fragmentation between in 1992 and 1997, is in dire need of potent national symbols. It appears that the Samanids represent a uniquely suitable signpost in the Tajiks' collective memory, and reconstruction of their history will serve the cause of national reconciliation and unification. At the same time, this process is fraught with several possible dangers.

First of all, ethnic mobilization based on historical precedent may result in the renewal of territorial claims. President Rahmonov makes a special effort to refute such speculations. However, this did not prevent him from planting a capsule with the 'sacred soil of Bukhara' in the innards of Ismail Samanid's monument in Dushanbe. Second, monopoly on ethno-historical 'truth' is conducive to monopoly on political power. Currently, the regime strictly controls the process of rewriting history, to the extent that in October 1998 a presidential decree was adopted which prohibited the usage of unauthorised images of Ismail Samanid on the territory of Tajikistan. The officially prescribed portrait of the Amir bears certain resemblance to President Rahmonov, which contributes to fears of the third unwelcomed ramification of the drive to glorify the Samanids: it may contribute to the nascent personality cult of President Rahmonov. Tajikistan is still at a fair distance from the full-blown sultanistic regimes of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and even Kazakstan, but there are signs of the excessive adulation and personification of power in that country.

It is hard to ascertain what effect the campaign to reinvent the Samanids has had on the people of Tajikistan. New myths take time to settle, and it seems that the high point of symbolic output was reached in 1999, when scores of streets were renamed, the Peak of Communism in the Pamirs became the Peak of Ismail Samanid, the Order of his name was established, and several high-profile conferences, symposia and lavish theatrical productions were organised. The only event of any symbolic import in 2000 has been the introduction of a new currency unit called somoni. It seems that there is simply not enough money in the state coffers to sustain the process. At the same time, Rahim Masov-an academic who has turned into a politician and a close ally of President Rahmonov, continues to argue that "who controls the past, controls the future", which promises new interesting developments in Tajikistan's post-communist historiography.
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