Ole Olufsen Part I, The Emir of Bokhara and His Country

The title page of Ole Olufsen’s book identifies him as Professor and Secretary to the Royal Danish Geographical Society. He commanded Danish expeditions to Central Asia in 1896-97 and 1898-99. His personal account of these travels, The Emir of Bokhara and His Country, is one of the more readable and detailed volumes of its kind that I have perused. (See previous posts on 19th- and early 20th-century Central Asia travelogues.)

While exhibiting the Eurocentric biases exhibited by virtually all Western travelers of his time (OK–let’s be honest–we’re all a bit biased, even in these enlightened times!), Olufsen displays extensive knowledge of the area and gives evidence of having read all the relevant literature available in his day, dating back to ancient times. He possesses an impressive command of the topography and appears to have traversed much of it, though I’m not able to weigh in on his geographical accuracy. The edition of The Emir of Bokhara that I perused (William Heinemann, 1911) claimed to include a map, but I never located one (see part II of this post for more on that).

A paragraph from the introduction provides fodder for thought from several angles, including Olufsen’s views on Orientalism and the West, his assessment of Russian colonialism, and his predictions regarding the persistence of Central Asian culture into the modern age and the value thereof:

In a way it must be regretted that this country which is so interesting will by degrees be deprived of its old-fashioned Oriental character, and like the many other visitors to Bokhara I am happy in having seen all the peculiarities of the country while it and its people are still the same as in the days of Tamerlane, but when one thinks of the atrocities committed here before the Russians became the advisers of the Bokharan kings, the people must be congratulated upon this change which affords the individuals better conditions of life; and from a scientific point of view one may also be grateful to the Russians because they have always allowed the natives to be their own masters in domestic questions, only taking care to remove the gravest abuses of power and the brutal influence of old superstition; thus Bokhara is still for a good time secured against being arrayed in European garment, and it will be long before the original Oriental character vanishes, and the electric wires are introduced. The Emir of Bokhara still lives as in days of yore behind his high crenelated walls, and his subject kings, the Begs, still keep up their old-fashioned court in the romantic dismal castles. The meandering streets with the flat-roofed mud houses and medresses are not yet disturbed by houses built in the European style (pp. 1-2).

The Emir of Bukhara is helpfully divided into topical sections, like Annette Meakim’s work (see In Russian Turkestan). Chapter titles include The Climate, Vegetation in Bokhara, Animals in Bokhara, The Inhabitants, Houses and their Arrangement (including Harems, Serais, Prisons), Communication and Transport, Religion, Tombs, Amusements and Games, Diseases and Medicine, Articles of Food and Narcotics, Dress, Agriculture, Towns, and The Emir (Government and Officials). Olufsen also includes narratives of his journey, principally in the early portion of the book.

The “Bokhara” of the title includes the entire extent of the Bukharan emirate at the time, which, as Olufsen says, describes a rough crescent, with the rounded part extending to the south. The city of Bukhara sits at one end and the Pamir mountains at the other, encompassing the territories north of the Amu Darya and the Pandj rivers. The crescent shape sinks down to exclude Samarkand, Panjkent, Khujand, Uro Teppe, and Khokand. Olufsen divides the region into “Mountain Bokhara” in the east, “Steppe Bokhara” in the middle, and “Desert Bokhara” in the northwest.

Olufsen published a number of books based on his travels, including Old and New Architecture in Bokhara, Khiva and Turkestan (Copenhagen, 1903), Meteorological Observations from Pamir (Copenhagen, 1903), Through the Unknown Pamirs (London, 1904), and Vocabulary of the Dialects in Bokhara (Copenhagen, 1905).

I should note that I have read only brief excerpts from this work; my intent here is to highlight it as a resource for individuals seeking information on 19th-century Central Asia, particularly primary source material. (Regretfully, very little primary source material representing a Central Asian point of view is available from the period.) That Olufsen intended it for use in this manner is indicated by his comment in the preface: “As I have wished that some sections might be read independently of the others, I hope the reader will excuse some repetitions now and then” (“Preface”).

Incidentally, the 1911 English edition does not identify a translator. Whether it is a translation or written originally in English by Olufsen himself, the diction is a little rough in places, but this does not interfere with clarity. The full text is available in several online archives, including this Google Play version:  The Emir of Bokhara and His Country e-text.

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