Ole Olufsen Part II, Exploring Central Asia, by Esther Fihl

A valuable companion to Olufsen’s personal works is the two-volume Exploring Central Asia, by Esther Fihl (University of Washington, 2010). Partially a commentary on Olufsen’s travels, the work is largely a photographic tour of the museum artifacts Olufsen brought back to Denmark (see Olaf Olufsen Part I for more about the mission). A text box on page 140 (Vol. 1) contains an interesting account from his previously unpublished writings of how he acquired artifacts from the bazaar in Bukhara with the help of one of the emir’s men.

Exploring Central Asia contains numerous vibrant color photos of household items, clothes, shoes, ornaments, jewelry, accessories, tools, and so forth, from various regions. The captions for many of these include excerpts from Olufsen’s writings, both published and unpublished, describing their use or manner of acquisition. Fihl reports that Olufsen was instructed not to return with worn or cast off items ( p. 138). Accordingly, many of the artifacts are gorgeously decorated and in excellent condition, especially considering they are more than one hundred years old (of course, they have spent their entire lives in a museum). Thus, they may not be representative of articles of everyday use, but they at least give one an idea of some of the handicrafts in circulation at the time.

Fihl provides a biographical sketch of Olufsen, describing him as the son of a farmer who became a military officer. He did not have impressive academic credentials, but he excelled as a student and educated himself during his military years by reading and visiting museums. Volume I of Fihl’s book includes a section on the geography and the emerging 19th-century study of ethnography as the background for the two Central Asia expeditions Olufsen superintended. Volume II also includes a map of the emirate of Bukhara (page 435), which I found very helpful in ascertaining the region that Olufsen designates as “Bokhara” (see Part I of this post).

The two volumes of Exploring Central Asia are divided into the following geographical regions: Kyrgyz Nomads in the Pamirs, Agropastoralists in the Vakhan, Turkmen Nomads in Merv, The Khanate of Khiva, The Emirate of Bukhara and the Russian-Controlled part of Turkestan. The introductory section describes the expedition, including black and white photos of its members, and the final section contains analysis of and reflections on Olufsen’s work.

A few items of interest (all from Vol. II, concerning the Emirate of Bukhara):

  • Qalandars: A “choir” of eight qalandars is pictured on p. 463 singing religious songs for the benefit of the Danish expedition at a palace in Bukhara. A typical outfit is pictured in color on p. 491, along with an explanation of the qalandars’ dress and lifestyle (pp. 490-94). Their accoutrements include a tall conical hat, a bowl made of some sort of nut shell, and a water container made from a gourd grown in a mold, dried and suspended in leather straps. The Khiva Photographic Archive (see review here: Khiva) contains a photo of a similarly attired man identified as a “beggar”–probably a qalandar, or singing Sufi mendicant who roams the streets and bazaars promoting piety, according to Olufsen (p. 492).
  • Belt pouches: Not pictured but described are pouches that men would attach to their belts and use for carrying needful items, including a razor (p. 480) and tea.  
  • Farandje: A photo of the long mantle that covered women from head to foot (almost) (p. 418 and 484) and a close-up showing the weave of the black horsehair veil worn along with this to cover the face (p. 418). Variously transliterated elsewhere as paranja or farangi. 
  • Jewelry: Assorted photos of elaborate earrings, necklaces, hair accessories, amulet cases, and assorted ornaments made with coral and turquoise, accompanied by explanations of their use and significance (pp. 506-16).

All  explanations of the artifacts include detailed descriptions of their appearance and size, as well as references to other works.

Esther Fihl is a professor at the University of Copenhagen and vice president of the Danish Research Counsel for Strategic Research. She has researched and published extensively on colonialism and Danish travel literature in the 17th to 19th centuries. Exploring Central Asia is more difficult to access than Olufsen’s own work, most online prices for the two-volume set being over $100. It should, however, be available through inter-library loan.

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