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You are here: Home Archive 2019 Kreutzmann, Hermann: Wakhan Quadrangle. Exploration and Espionage during and after the Great Game.

Kreutzmann, Hermann: Wakhan Quadrangle. Exploration and Espionage during and after the Great Game.

Book review Erdkunde 73 (1) 2019, 78-80 by Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt

Kreutzmann, Hermann: Wakhan Quadrangle. Exploration and Espionage during and after the Great Game. 282 pp., 189 figures, 89 maps, facsimile reprint 37 pp. Harrassowitz Verlag. Wiesbaden 2017. ISBN 978-3-447-10812-6. € 58.00.

Wakhan Quadrangle is the second volume in a series of three which is likely to become the capstone of Hermann Kreutzmann’s remarkable career of 40 years of single-minded dedication to research in High Asia. The first volume, Pamirian Crossroads: Kirghiz and Wakhi of High Asia, was published in 2015, and another volume on Gilgit-Baltistan’s Hunza Valley is currently under preparation. Pamirian Crossroads is set in the border areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Tajikistan – the Pamirs and Wakhan – and focusses on life of the Kirghiz and Wakhi ethno-linguistic groups under the influence of forces that originate far away geographically or that have originated back in the historical past. A crucial period was the time of the “Great Game” – the contest for supremacy in Central Asia in the 19th and early 20th century mainly between Russia and the British Empire, but also including China and Afghanistan - as a result of which boundaries were drawn which have had a fundamental influence on the lives of people in this region until today. An important theme of Pamirian Crossroads is how knowledge was produced for scientific and for political ends by the protagonists of the Great Game.
Wakhan Quadrangle takes up the theme of political and non-political knowledge production and views it through the prism of the former principality of Wakhan on the peripheries of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.  Herman Kreutzmann focusses especially on the role of the ‘native explorers’ who were trained and employed by European actors to collect data on routes and other strategic information. However, he prefers the term “indigenous intermediaries” over “native explorers” because not all of these travelers were native to the regions they explored, and because they were able, as intermediaries, to obtain intelligence that would have been inaccessible to their European employers. With few exceptions, such as the famous “Pandit” Nain Singh, whose exploration was directed towards Tibet, these travelers received far less recognition than their employers who claimed most or all of the credit. In Wakhan Quadrangle, Hermann Kreutzmann brings to the attention of his readers an indigenous intermediary who was even more thoroughly ignored than others: Munshi Abdul Rahim, who was sent by John Biddulph, the first British Political Agent in Gilgit, on a winter journey to Badakhshan and the Wakhan in 1879 to 1880 and who produced an extensive account for the Foreign Office that was translated into English five years after the journey. The fact that Hermann Kreutzmann and his collaborators were not able to trace any image of Munshi Abdul Rahim and that answering the question (finally with a ‘no’) whether or not Munshi Abdul Rahim is identical with another traveler in the Wakhan Quadrangle, Mukhtar Shah, occupies considerable space in the narrative and provides a measure of the obscurity that enfolds the person and his achievements. The reproduction of a copy of the printed report “Journey to Badakhshan, with report on Badakhshan and Wakhan” that was made available by the Library of Congress in Washington, is the centerpiece of Hermann Kreutzmann’s book which he wrote for the main purpose of embedding Munshi Abdul Rahim’s report into historical context. The report is preceded by an introduction to knowledge production in Central Asia during the Great Game and by a commented summary of its main topics. It is followed by a sequel on historical events and political developments after the journey of Munshi Abdul Rahim as well as on contemporary life in the region. The book concludes with a postscript on the fate of indigenous explorers and on exploration and research in the Wakhan quadrangle in the past and today.
Wakhan Quadrangle follows the pattern set by Pamirian Crossroads of combining the fruits of fieldwork and archival research. The Avant-Propos features on pp. 12-15 a detailed itinerary and map of the travels of Herman Kreutzmann and his wife Sabine Felmy over 40 years in Badakhshan and Wakhan in the course of which they were able to retrace all steps of Munshi Abdul Rahim. Some of these travels – such as the visit of Afghan Wakhan in 1999 under the protection of the commander of the Northern Alliance’s forces, which were then locked in armed conflict with the Taliban – were probably not less adventurous than travels during the historical Great Game.
The introduction explores the close links between geography and politics that characterize knowledge gathering in Central Asia during the period of the Great Game, and which blur the lines between exploration and espionage. Collecting information on the terrain and its occupants served the purpose of extending the spheres of influence of contestants who strove to become more knowledgeable than their opponents. The introduction also explores the historical and political circumstances of Munshi Abdul Rahim’s journey which took place in the final years when Wakhan was a semi-independent principality, and before it fell under Afghan administration. His report differs from others in that it is not limited to the bare facts of topography and distances that are essential for strategic planning, but also contains a wealth of information on people, their customs, religion, power relations, local economy etc. that reflects the geographical and ethnographical interests of John Biddulph. Very interesting is a listing of commodities that were traded in Badakhshan at the time of the munshi’s travels according to their place of origin which shows how this seemingly remote area was interlinked with other regions. Hermann Kreutzmann provides a commented summary of the report’s content from the perspective of his own travels and research in this area about 100 years later.
The sequel is devoted to developments in Wakhan and Badakhshan after Munshi Abdul Rahim’s visit up to the present. Defining events were the exodus of the last ruler of semi-independent Wakhan accompanied by a significant part of the local population to escape oppression by the Afghan government, and the drawing up of an international boundary that divided Wakhan into two sections: a Russian/Soviet and later Tajik Wakhan that benefitted from infrastructure developments of the Soviet Union such as the construction of the Pamir Highway and which was embedded in a centrally planned economy, and an Afghan Wakhan, far away and detached from Kabul, and largely self-sufficient. This difference between these two realms is still strikingly visible when one travels along the Tajik/Afghan border on the road from Darwaz to Khorog. Hermann Kreutzmann describes this situation as exemplary for the model of path-dependency where development depends on linkages with the respective state economies.
The sequel concludes with an outlook on contemporary life in Badakhshan, and on the life of the Wakhi diaspora in four locations in four countries: Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan.
Like its predecessor Pamirian Crossroads, Wakhan Quadrangle is lavishly endowed with maps and illustrations. 24 of the altogether 89 maps have been designed by the author. The majority of the beautifully reproduced historical maps are from the Pamir Archive Collection which has been compiled by the Swiss cartographer Markus Hauser and which was recently acquired by the University of Central Asia. Another outstanding feature are historical photographs, some dating back to the late 19th century and some published here for the first time. Maps, graphs and photographs are accompanied by sometimes very detailed legends, e.g. the genealogy of the Mirs of Wakhan on p. 110. Each chapter is followed by endnotes. The book ends with a glossary in 14 languages and with a pronounciation guide to the four large language groups in the region.
In resurrecting from oblivion the achievement of an unsung hero of exploration during the Great Game, Hermann Kreutzmann has cast light also on a region that was a central arena for the contest between distant powers, and which epitomizes the effects of boundary-making by these powers on the local populace.
This is an excellent and at the same time idiosyncratic book which defies the orthodoxy that sometimes stifles academic writing by combining features of several genres – travelogue, catalogue, encyclopedia, essay, academic study etc. Hermann Kreutzmann’s initiative to experiment with a new format is complemented by painstaking attention to detail in the execution of this venture.
My complaints are very few. Numbering and listing maps and figures would have been helpful. The price of 58.- Euro is low in view of the high cost that must have gone into the production of this beautiful book.

Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt
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