The Mongol khanates

Muhammed Alim Khan and Russian imperialism

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Muhammed Alim Khan, 1880-1944 CE, was the last emir of the Manghud dynasty who ruled the emirate of Bukhara, in today’s Uzbekistan. (See the photo above) The Manghuds considered themselves the direct descendants of Genghis Khan via Nogai Khan, Genghis’ great-great-grandson who was a leader of the Golden Horde. Once the Mongols had been ousted from Russia itself, the Nogai Horde, as it was known, retreated to two main areas, one north of the Black Sea and the other north of the Caspian Sea. From here they conducted raids on Russian territory, absconding with young boys who they sold to the Ottomans in Constantinople as soldiers. The Nogais, that is, were in charge of supplying the Ottomans with janissaries. [read more: The Janissaries and Turkish music]

Little by little, however, the Nogais were pushed south and eastwards by Russian settlers and by the advancing Russian army. In the end they came to inhabit an area in Central Asia known as Transoxania, with Bukhara and Samarkand as its two main cities. Here the Manghud family established themselves as emirs in 1785, but the Russians eventually caught up with them here too and in 1868 they occupied and annexed much of the emirate. The remainder became a Russian protectorate in which the emirs retained full power only over domestic matters. The emirate of Bukhara displayed a multicultural mix of peoples, including Uzbeks, Tajiks and Jews, and the capital became home to prominent poets, calligraphers and scholars. (See the photos below)

At the age of thirteen, Muhammed Alim Khan was sent by his father to Saint Petersburg to study government and modern military techniques. He returned home in 1896 and was appointed governor of one of the emirate’s provinces. In 1910, on his father’s death, he replaced him as emir. Muhammed Alim Khan started out as a modernizing ruler with an ambition to combat corruption but he soon realized that any lasting reforms were bound to make his own position more precarious. He was challenged by modernizers – “Young Bukhara” – who sought more far-reaching change. After the Russian revolution in 1917, these radicals called on the Soviet state to help them and in September 1920 the Red Army intervened and established a “Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic.” Muhammed Alim Khan took refuge in Afghanistan and this is where he died in 1944. He had a son who turned on his father and joined the Red Army. He also had a daughter who first worked for Radio Kabul and, when the Russians in 1979 invaded also Afghanistan, emigrated to the United States and continued to work as a journalist for Voice of America. Muhammed Alim Khan was the only Manghud ruler to add the title of “caliph” to his name and he was the last direct descendant of Genghis Khan to serve as the ruler of a state.

The photo of Muhammed Alim Khan above was taken by the Russian chemist and photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, 1863-1944 CE. This too is a remarkable story. Prokudin-Gorsky was one of the first Russians to experiment with color photography, having learned the technique from Adolf Miethe in Berlin in 1902. After a successful demonstration before the tsar and his family in 1909, Prokudin-Gorsky was given the official commission to travel around the Russian empire and document its many wonders on color plates. He was given a refitted railway car to use as a lab and until the eve of the revolution he produced up to 10,000 photographs. It was during these travels that he visited Bukhara and took the photo of the emir.

After the Russian revolution, Prokudin-Gorsky was appointed professor by the new regime but he preferred to emigrate to Paris where he opened a photographic studio which he ran together with his children. He died in 1944, the same year as Muhammed Alim Khan. The photographic plates which had been gathering mold in the basement of his Parisian apartment house were sold to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. in 1948. The collection contains close to 2,000 negatives and is now in the process of being digitalized and put on-line. See link to the right.