By Sally P. Ragep
My adventure began on a Sunday morning, a day after returning to Montreal from visiting my daughter in Wisconsin for American Thanksgiving. Two days later I arrived in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. Talk about culture shock, I really didn’t know what to expect but I was excited and up for an adventure; I was simply hoping that just being physically in the region of Khwarizm (present-day Turkmenistan) and soaking up its history, culture, and ambiance would somehow provide insights for my research. I wasn’t disappointed.
My research centers on a scholar named Mahmud ibn Muhammad ibn `Umar al-Jaghmini who flourished the first half of the 13th century from Jaghmin, a village somewhere in the region of Khwarizm (located roughly just south of the Aral Sea). Jaghmini wrote one of the most important works of Islamic science, a ubiquitous elementary astronomical text called the Epitome of Astronomy. The Epitome, written in Arabic, is extant in thousands of copies and was the subject of over two-dozen commentaries, super commentaries, and glosses. To give you a sense of its popularity, just think Starbucks or Tim Horton’s. There is hardly an Islamic manuscript library anywhere in the world that doesn’t contain some version of the Mulakhkhas. A summary of Ptolemaic astronomy for non-specialists, the Mulakhkhas was a kind of elementary astronomical textbook for dummies, hence its vast success. But its enormous significance lay in the fact that the text (along with the rather sophisticated and extensive commentary tradition it inspired) can document an active, continuous chain of astronomical learning within Islamic societies, one that spanned eight centuries.
Therefore it may surprise you to learn that we know very little about Jaghmini the man, the scholar, his life circumstances, his audience, and even exactly where Jaghmin was located within Khwarizm. To date the texts themselves provide few clues. Which is why when the opportunity presented itself for me to actually go to the region of Khwarizm, I jumped at the chance even if it meant traveling half way around the world.
The Academy of Science of Turkmenistan was holding a conference in December 2010 entitled “The State of the Koneurgench Turkmen and Central Asia in the first half of the 13th Century.” Though obviously not everyone’s cup of tea, the topic was tailor-made for me, so I submitted a paper abstract entitled “The Importance of Jaghmini’s Mulakhkhas for the History of Science and Islamic Civilization.” For over a month I heard nothing back from them. Then two weeks before the conference I received an email requesting copies of my ticket receipts, passport information, and so on for my upcoming arrival to Ashgabat. (I immediately Googled the location of Ashgabat, and spent the next few days figuring out how to get there from here; it ain’t easy.)
I represented Canada. In fact, I alone represented all of North America. Other non-local participants hailed from the other “stans” (Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) plus Armenia, Azjerbaijan, Bulgaria, China, Georgia, Egypt, Germany, Hungary, India, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Oman, Russia, Syria and the Ukraine. Our mini-UN became a rather close-knit group cross communicating in various gradations of Turkmen, Russian, Arabic, Persian, German and English.
Since I brought neither laptop nor cell phone with me, once in Turkmenistan I was without communication to my family or the outside world. Little did they know that the members of my group had become celebrities. Newspapers and television interviewed us and the entire conference was broadcast multiple times. Our lives were micro-managed – let’s just say that the members of the organizing committee had an extremely finely-tuned schedule planned for us, and seemed to execute it with little notification. One shock was discovering that I was one of the plenary speakers. So much for the 25 handouts I had brought to accompany my talk – there were over 500 attendees (government officials, scholars, students, locals) spread throughout a massive auditorium and into the balconies. Another surprise was being flown in the wee hours of the next morning from the rather soviet-looking city of Ashgabat to Dashoguz in northeastern Turkmenistan near the border with Uzbekistan. This was the site of the conference, chosen for the nearby ruins of the ancient town of Urgench, the 12th-century capital of Khwarizm, today a World Heritage Site.
Everywhere we went we were warmly welcomed with dancing parades, young women in beautifully embroidered dresses lined-up carrying trays of various foods, Turkmen wearing jumbo
woolen hats (of various colors), musicians playing both traditional and “western” songs (I’m sure I heard a version of the Beatle’s “Yesterday”). We were treated to dancing and theatrical performances, cultural exhibits of crafts, clothes and carpets. And of course we were bused the two-hour, 150-km drive (at a speed, I’m convinced, that was meant to fly us over the potholes) past villages and fields of harvested cotton plants and scarecrows to the archeological sites of Koneurgench, the heartland of the Khwarizm shahs of
the eleventh to thirteenth-century in Central Asia near the mouth of the Amu Darya River. There, among other ruins, an eleventh/twelfth century 64-metre-high minaret greeted us. This ancient capital, which saw the likes of many famous scholars such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Biruni, Umar Khayyam and Khwarizmi, was a region where science and culture flourished over centuries.
Needless to say we were well fed. (We had breakfast four times one day!) Staples among Turkmen food are meat and vegetable soup, chunks of meat and rice (cooked in large cast-iron cauldrons) and dumplings filled with ground meat. But the vegetarian would not starve; one could easily subsist on their wonderful baked bread (thick, round loaves baked by being stuck to the sides of a clay oven) and honey-sweet melons.
Although snow awaited me after my 34-hour trip back to Montreal; I was (and remain) warmed by all that I bring back – memories of the people and sites visited, colleagues and affiliations made. And did I mention the glass bowl I won in a Turkmenistani dancing contest?
Sally P. Ragep is a PhD candidate (jointly in the History Department and at the Institute of Islamic Studies) and is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Islamic Studies.