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Refocusing Central Asia

Frantz Grenet


Serge Haroche
Traduction de Liz Libbrecht

Texte intégral

1The steppes and mountains of Central Asia cover a vast area that is a dream for anyone fascinated by the history of civilizations or simply by adventure and travelling. At the crossroads of Persian, Indian, Slave and Chinese influences, this immense territory now encompassing Afghanistan and the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union has long been a place of settlement and passage. This is where Zoroastrianism, Persia’s pre-Islamic religion, was born. The famous “Silk Route” taken by traders, linking the Roman world and Byzantium to distant China, crossed through these regions. This is where the Greeks established their most remote colony, on the edges of the known ancient world. Later, this mysterious space was to witness the formation of the empire of the Hephthalite Huns, who terrorized Sassanid Persia during the Early Middle Ages, and to experience the waves of Mongol invasions. Today, the names Samarkand and Bukhara evoke a glorious past, without the lay person always knowing where to situate it in time, or to which civilization it belonged. Say the name “Sogdian” and even the most cultured people will think only of a mysterious land, lost in time.

2Studying this region’s history, separating facts from legend, myths and exaggerations, is a difficult task which historians and archaeologists, essentially French and Russian, have worked on for two centuries. For a long time the difficulty for historians stemmed from the fact that most information came from Persian, Indian or Chinese documents depicting this world from the perspective of other cultures that often perceived pre-Islamic central Asia as foreign or even hostile. This situation is changing with the rediscovery of the autochthonous languages, Sogdian and Bactrian, through a growing body of texts, monumental inscriptions or parchment writings that are enabling us to discover the region’s history “from the inside”, so to speak.

3For many years archaeologists had difficulty accessing the field, for well-known political reasons. This is still so in some regions. In Soviet Muslim Asia, excavations long remained the preserve of Russian archaeologists, while in Afghanistan, war and political instability still currently make fieldwork perilous, as archaeologists must often get there before looters or fanatic Talibans destroying pre-Islamic remains.

4In spite of everything, brave, passionate and enthusiastic researchers are devoted to saving these remains and shedding light on this rich and complex history. Frantz Grenet, you are a distinguished member of the French school of Central Asian archaeology, to which we owe many discoveries affording a better understanding of this region’s past, which has played an important role in world history, both in the West and in the East. You once confided that your calling stemmed partly from reading René Grousset’s books as a child, on the history of the crusades and of Genghis Khan’s and the Mongols’ conquests. Many of us have read such accounts and dreamt of the lands they described. For you, the dream came true and you have devoted your life to it. The surprises and joy that this quest for historical remains has brought you, are a researcher’s ultimate reward. I particularly have in mind the fortuitous discovery of a high-relief sculpted on a cliff in the Afghan mountains, depicting the Sassanid king Shapur I hunting rhinoceros in the far reaches of India, which you described and studied just as the Talibans’ iconoclastic zeal was threatening to destroy it.

5The Collège de France is very pleased to welcome you today as Chair of “History and Cultures of Pre-Islamic Central Asia”. By creating this Chair and appointing you to it, we are contributing to the Collège’s mission in the field of the humanities, which is to illuminate the past of the great areas that have informed our culture, so as to understand the present better. This involves not only fieldwork and the precise factual description of remains and documents, but also putting them into perspective and interpreting them in their historical and cultural context.

6Through your training as a historian and an archaeologist, you have applied this twofold approach with great success as a professor at the École pratique des hautes études and as head of the Mission archéologique franco-ouzbèke de Sogdiane (Franco-Uzbek Archaeological Mission of Sogdia). You will now pursue it at the Collège de France, and I have no doubt that your audience will share your passion for the study of the fascinating history of pre-Islamic central Asia. I now leave the floor to you for your inaugural lecture, titled Refocusing Central Asia.

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