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The history of Modern Palestine begins somewhere in the 19th century. Writing it, or about it, is a huge challenge. It is very hard to distinguish between the history and the historiography of the country, as it is narrated to this very day, including by scholars, in two diametrically opposed ways. Even the term modern Palestine itself is a contentious one, let alone the history of the country itself.
The history of Palestine cannot be dissociated from that of Israel, one of the few states in the world whose modern, indeed, its contemporary history is still contested and highly charged. Therefore, the historiographical research on Palestine is inconclusive.
The best way of approaching such complexities is recognizing the prevalence of more than one narrative about the country’s past and present realities as well as acknowledging the dynamic and dialectical relationship between the competing narratives. Thus, the pendulum keeps oscillating in favor or against the validity and acceptance of the two major competing narratives about the country’s history: the Israeli Zionist one and the Palestinian one.
In such a world, the historian’s own positionality is as much a factor in the story he or she tells as is the evidence itself. For this reason, the history of modern Palestine, in particular, cannot be easily presented as an entry to an encyclopedia. Any scholarly work on such a place will reflect, despite all the attempts at professionalism and fairness, a certain moral as well as an emotive position. An intelligent reader could easily detect within a factual presentation, where a more subjective commentary is proposed.
It is not only the personal views of the historians that affect the analysis of the country’s history, but also the changing balance of power between the competing narratives that plays a crucial role in the way articles like this one are written. This balance of power has changed in recent years. In crude terms, one could say that scholarly works around the world on Palestine reflected the Zionist narrative until the 1980s and were far more critical toward this narrative ever since.
From the Israeli Zionist narrative, the history of Palestine is closely associated with the history of the Jewish religion. Thus, this narrative begins in the biblical times, when the Jewish nation was born as a monotheistic religion on the land, which today is Israel and Palestine. It continues with the expulsion of the Jews by the Romans around 70 AD and defines Jewish life ever since as life in exile. The modern history of Palestine commences in 1882 with the return of the Jews to their homeland after centuries of neglect that left the county arid and derelict for centuries: in fact, until the arrival of Zionism. The Zionist immigration is thus depicted as a “return” to an ancient homeland on the one hand, and as an act of modernization, on the other. The arid, desert-like country was bloomed, and the new arrivals founded a democratic state, the only one in the Middle East. The native people are described as semi nomads without any sense of national or even ethnic aspirations. Their rejection of Zionism is therefore attributed to their primitivism or to the incitement by others: namely Islamic leaders, Arab tyrants, or anti-Semitic gentiles.
This would be the explanation for the attempt by the Arab world to defeat the Jewish state in 1948, after it was recognized by the international community (through the United Nations’ General Assembly Resolution 181 from November 29, 1947), which accorded roughly half of the country to the local Arabs who rejected what par this narrative was as a just and fair solution.
The history of Palestine ever since 1948, from the perspective of this narrative, is exclusively the history of Israel, which moves between endless and hostile attempts to wipe Israel out by military force—in several recurring regional wars and recently Islamic terrorism—and a wish to find a solution to the bits of Palestine Israel occupied in 1967—the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. A lack of Palestinian leadership, internal Israeli debates about the future of the occupied territories, and international diplomatic incompetence are provided as explanations for failing to end this conflict.
The Palestinian narrative, on the other hand, depicts a society that at least since the 7th century lived a normal and organic life as the indigenous people of the country. Contrary to the Zionist maxim that Palestine was a land without people waiting for the people without land, the Palestinian historiography reveals a vibrant society, mostly rural but with a dynamic urban center that survived foreign and regional occupiers. The one disruption it could not cope with was the arrival of Zionism, depicted in this narrative as a colonial movement that eventually led to the Nakba, the 1948 catastrophe. Ever since that year, the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland through the agency of the PLO, which in the late 1980s was willing to partition the country into two states but was not reciprocated by any goodwill on the part of Israel. This is a narrative of dispossession on the one hand, and a liberation struggle that still continues today, on the other.
Ever since the 1980s, the scholarly world tends to accept the basic arguments included in the Palestinian narrative, not least because there are quite a few Israeli historians who endorsed them. Thus, the Palestinian narrative ascended not just as the “other side” of the story that was silenced, but also appeared as the more universal one among the two. It became the narrative of the human rights’ agenda in which the Palestinians were depicted as victims of settler colonialism and the Zionist movement, and later the state of Israel, as colonial victimizers. This is a work in progress and recent scholarship is not content with such a simplified dichotomous historiographical approach. This new updated look on human history, from a moral and not just factual point of view, still requires a paradigm that would help the historian to make sense of a complicated reality.
The narrative thus chosen for this article reflects these historiographical developments. It narrates the history of Palestine as the tale of an indigenous population that since the 630s was ruled by Muslim dynasties (apart from a short period of a Crusader conquest), until it was colonized by a settler colonial movement arriving there in 1882.
The colonization effort expanded and grew during the period of the British rule (1918–1948). It resulted in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel over 78 percent of Palestine and the transformation of half of the Palestinian population into refugees. These two outcomes affect the modern history of the country ever since. This year, 1948, was a miraculous year for the Zionist movement and a disastrous year for the Palestinians. The Israeli attempt to maintain its 1948 achievements and the Palestinian struggle to rectify the 1948 catastrophe inform both the history and historiography of Israel and Palestine. This is not a closed chapter in our modern global history; it is an ongoing story that has wider implications for the history of the region and the world at large.
Fred H. Lawson
Modern Saudi Arabia emerged in the 1920s as the successor to a collection of local political entities on the Arabian peninsula, whose histories are only starting to be investigated. Existing studies of Saudi history emphasize the actions and objectives of successive rulers, most notably the founder of the kingdom, 'Abd al-'Aziz bin 'Abd al-Rahman Al Sa'ud, and his sons Faisal, Khalid, Fahd, and 'Abdullah. Popular responses to the rise and consolidation of Saudi rule have received little sustained attention. Equally lacking is an objective analysis of the pivotal period of the late 1950s, when elite and mass movements for political reform took shape. Instability during this period is generally attributed to the personal failings of King Sa'ud bin 'Abd al-'Aziz, rather than to conflicts among influential social forces. Current scholarship explores the emergence of radical Islamist movements in the Sunni and Shi'i communities alike.
Modern science and technology (S&T) has been present in India almost as long as it has anywhere else in the world. But the nature of its blossoming in India was substantially different, due to the huge (if not sole) role played by India’s colonial experience—especially the British colonial rule. The colonial state used modern S&T in practical and ideological ways to control the territory and its resources, and to keep colonial subjects in awe and submission. Correspondingly, the local intelligentsia’s interest in science was marked by ideological and instrumental concerns. The compulsions of colonialism did not allow for an easy flow of knowledge and expertise. Yet, with limited openings in education and scientific professions, Indians were able to acquire a measure of proficiency that could even lead to a Nobel Prize. The engagement, however, was not marked by one-way diffusion and passive acceptance, but by active appropriation and redefinition according to local imperatives. There was also an active critique of modern S&T—especially in its “big” forms and violent faces. After independence, the new nation state opted for a path of massive development of industry and agriculture through deployment of modern S&T, whereby world-class institutions, infrastructure industries, and research laboratories were opened in different parts of the country. While these have produced remarkable results, the meeting of science and state has led to stark ironies and difficulties. Also, continuing critiques of the authority of modern S&T, the undesirable economic, social, and ecological effects produced by it, and the renewed interest in “traditional alternatives” pose serious challenges to any uncontested or triumphalist march of modern S&T in India.
Tajikistan became an independent country in 1991, but it also owes its existence as an arbitrary creation to the central Soviet authorities. Since the Soviet era the term “Tajik” has been applied to identify speakers of Persian and several Eastern Iranian languages in Central Asia. Political and cultural leaders in Tajikistan have grappled with the meaning of Tajik identity in relation to Persian speakers beyond Central Asia, as well as other identities among Tajiks within Central Asia. During the Soviet era, Tajikistan was faced with several projects, such as modernization and “internationalization” of society and the economy, as well as its mistrust of nationalism and ties to kindred peoples within and outside of the Soviet Union. At the end of the Soviet period and in the early years of independence, Tajikistan was wracked by a power struggle between coalitions of factions that wanted to depart from the old Communist authoritarian rule and the neo-Communist elite who tried to maintain power. This escalated into a civil war (1992–1997), which was costly in terms of lives being lost and economic damage to the country. Since the civil war, Tajikistan remains a poor country with an authoritarian government.
Uzbekistan was created in 1924 as a result of the so-called national-territorial delimitation of Soviet Central Asia. Although created in the context of the implementation of the Soviet policy of granting territorial autonomy to different nationalities in the Soviet multinational state, Uzbekistan was in many ways the embodiment of a national idea of the Central Asian intelligentsia.
For the first sixty-seven years of its existence, Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union. It experienced the massive transformations unleashed by the Soviet regime in the realms of politics, society, and culture (the establishment of a command economy, collectivization, an assault on Islam, forced unveiling) that reshaped society in significant ways. Purges in the 1930s removed from the scene all actors with any experience of public life before the consolidation of Soviet power and installed new political and cultural elites in their place.
The Second World War was in many ways a watershed. Participation in the war integrated Uzbekistan and its citizens into the Soviet Union. The postwar period saw increased investment in the republic and the achievement of mass education and universal literacy. The postwar era also saw the consolidation of Uzbek political elites at the helm of the republic as well as the crystallization of an Uzbek national identity, the work of the Uzbek Soviet intelligentsia. Yet, Uzbekistan’s primary duty to the Soviet economy remained that of producing as much cotton as possible. Production quotas kept on increasing (by the early 1980s, the hope was to produce 6 million tons of raw cotton annually) and the cotton monoculture meant that the Uzbek population remained primarily rural and socially conservative. A complex gender regime emerged in which women had legal equality, access to education, and high rates of participation in the labor market, but were also the guardians of national tradition. The later Soviet period also witnessed high rates of population growth that doubled the ethnic Uzbek population between 1959 and 1979.
By the early 1980s, the high costs of the cotton monoculture were becoming obvious. An anti-corruption campaign directed from Moscow antagonized both the Uzbek party elite and the general population, just as Mikhail Gorbachev began the series of reforms that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. In this turbulent period, the Uzbek party elite refashioned itself as the champion of the Uzbek nation and emerged in control of the state as Uzbekistan became independent.
The independent Uzbek state has sought its legitimacy by its claim to serve the interests of the Uzbek nation. It works on the basis of an Uzbek national identity that had predated the Soviet Union but had crystallized during it. Now, after independence, that identity can be articulated without the constraints placed on national expression during the Soviet period. There remain significant continuities with the Soviet period in terms of basic assumptions about politics and society, and they are the most clearly visible in the state’s fraught relationship with Islam.
East Asian monetary systems were traditionally based on commodity monies, the most famous of which were round copper coins (Cash) with a square central hole, and silver ingots (Tael, from around 1000
Huiwen Helen Zhang
An expeditionary force soldier. A jungle war survivor. A patriot who traded opportunities in the United States for a tedious journey home to the newly founded People’s Republic of China. A “counterrevolutionary.” A forced laborer who spent the last third of his life translating English and Russian literature.—A poet. Careful study of Mu Dan’s (1918–1977) poetry enables us to explore a string of moments in modern China’s transformation.
Twenty-two poems by Mu Dan have been selected as a history of China from the climax of the New Culture Movement (1919) through the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1976). Fusing linguistic audacity, philosophical acumen, and historical vision, they weave a thread of themes illuminating the tortured path of a nation and an individual. Further, they span a spectrum of sentiments ranging from those of ordinary people to those of extraordinary intellectuals.
To reveal the turning points in modern China’s history, the twenty-two poems have been contextualized along two axes. A vertical axis, the thread of themes, consists of eleven motifs developed and revisited by Mu Dan from 1940 through 1976; they are: Youth, War, Disillusion, Maturity, Sacrifice, Exposure, Enlightenment, Conversion, Awakening, Anguish, and Reflection. A horizontal axis, the spectrum of sentiments, exhibits Mu Dan’s contradictory attitudes toward modern China’s transformation by identifying him with his countrymen or distancing him from them as a free spirit and cultural critic.
This conceptual framework assists in examining the interaction between history and literature. It demonstrates how modern China’s history informs, provokes, and shapes a poet whose life span coincides with it and, at the same time, how poetry can be and is being read as history itself. This reading allows more than new access to the historical events that mold a poet and his poetry. Reading poetry as history uncovers lost sentiments, struggles, observations, and critiques that advance our understanding of modern China.
Michael H. Fisher
Founded in 1526, the Mughal Empire expanded during the late 16th and 17th centuries across almost the entire Indian subcontinent (except for the southern peninsular tip). At its peak, the empire contained roughly 1.24 million square miles and about 150 million people (half of western Europe in size but double its population). The imperial dynasty was originally Turco-Mongol. But, especially under Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), the dynasty established the Mughal Empire by incorporating Hindu and other Indian cultures and mobilizing India’s human and natural resources more effectively than any previous state there. Nonetheless, emperors almost constantly faced rebellions and revolts by rival members of the dynasty, imperial administrators, army commanders, regional rulers, and popular movements. By the early 18th century, the empire fragmented into successor states, but the dynasty remained on the throne until 1858 when the British Empire finally displaced it.
Throughout, the imperial court patronized extensive histories and literature (in Persian and a range of Indian languages) and works of architecture and representational arts. The imperial administration compiled detailed records, including about the court, army, and the lands it ruled. Historians, from the time of the empire onward, have used these diverse source materials in their own analyses.
China’s minority policy after 1949 combined the Qing legacy with a socialist affirmative strategy. The concept of a multiethnic Chinese state derived from Qing ideology and policy in the 18th century, when the Qianlong emperor realized his vision of universal rulership by expanding the Qing empire deep into Central Asia. During the nation-building period of the first half of the 20th century, the imperial geobody was reconstituted as a Sinocentric and multiethnic nation-state. Ideological rivals the Guomindang and the Communist Party both pursued hegemonic strategies of national unity by constructing a new myth of national belonging firmly rooted in history. But China’s weak international position and the internal crisis of the Republican state prevented the implementation of any territorial concept of national unity. In the People’s Republic of China, ethnic diversity was restructured according to a majority-minority dichotomy. Historical multiculturalism was reduced to fifty-six rigid minzu “containers” defined by strictly applied criteria of language, religion, and customs. The minorities were integrated into the unitary Chinese nation and granted only regional autonomy. Although the autonomous regions produced expectations of belonging among their titular nationalities, the official minority policy was strongly assimilationist in the 1960s and 1970s, generating centrifugal forces of ethnic resistance. Since the 1990s, a popular nationalism stoked by the central government has been expanding into a broader sense of Chineseness in a globalizing world.
Nomadic warfare in the Eurasian steppes centered on a mobile horse-archer whose composite bow was surpassed by firearms only in the 17th and 18th centuries. Until the rise of effective firearms, pastoral nomadic horse-archers were the most dominant element on the battlefield. Even after the advent of firearms, nomads remained effective. The horse-archer’s bow possessed comparable accuracy, range, and a more favorable rate of fire than slow-loading harquebuses. As early firearms tended to be slow and inaccurate, they were not decisive against nomads until cannons became sufficiently mobile to disrupt formations of swift moving horse-archers. Even then, it was still necessary for states to have well-developed logistical systems in order to support sedentary-firearms-based armies in the steppes. These armies still found it necessary to have suitable numbers of nomads to serve as scouts and to protect their flanks. While massed firearm-wielding infantry, accompanied by cannons, could defeat nomadic armies, they remained vulnerable in transit.
The success of nomadic warfare prior to firearms was dependent not only on technological factors such as the composite bow and lamellar armor, but also factors such as tactics that became a standard part of steppe warfare, including the feigned retreat and encirclements. The strategic and tactical level of steppe warfare reached its zenith during the period of the Mongol Empire, which also ushered in a revolution in steppe warfare. Other factors also played a part, including the training for warfare through hunting and herding. Combined with a vigorous and often harsh lifestyle on the steppes, sedentary observers often viewed the pastoral nomadic warrior as if bred for war.
After the military conquest of the Kazakh Steppe in 1920, Russian and Kazakh Bolsheviks implemented policies of hard decolonization (1921–1922): tens of thousands of Slavic settlers were expropriated and land was distributed to nomads. During the period of 1923–1927, soft decolonization prevailed: Kazakhstan was created as an ethnonational administrative region and agricultural immigration was prohibited. Kazakhs were given priority in access to land and water and they were included in the state and party administrations. No sedentarization plans were drafted. With the Soviet economic policy turn of 1928, Kazakhstan became the object of plans for expansion of grain cultivation (to this end, peasant colonization from Russia was made legal again) and of industrialization. Moscow lunched an offensive in order both to subjugate and to incorporate Kazakh society: Kazakh pastoral elites and former Tsarist administrators were expropriated and deported; and young Kazakh men were drafted into the Red Army for the first time. In 1929, plans for the total sedentarization of Kazakh nomadic pastoralists were suddenly proclaimed, then rapidly became of secondary concern as they were merged with the total collectivization drive. Policies toward nomadic pastoralists were dependent and auxiliary to grain production policies from 1928 to early 1930. Then, from late 1930 to 1932, Kazakh livestock was requisitioned in order to feed Moscow, Leningrad, and the army, as the Soviet peasants had slaughtered their animals during collectivization. Procurements turned an ongoing starvation crisis into a calamitous famine that killed one-third of the Kazakhs. When no livestock were left, procurements were discontinued in Kazakhstan. Private ownership of animals and pastoral nomadic ways were explicitly allowed again. Kazakh mobile pastoralism had been transformed: pastoral routes were shortened; pastoralists were a smaller share of the population; and their work was organized within state and collective farms. The famine turned the Kazakhs into a minority in Kazakhstan and forced them into Soviet state institutions.
Aruna Pulipaka Magier
Because so much of South Asia’s archival and primary source materials as well as precolonial and colonial-era published sources traditionally referred to by historians reside in physical archives and libraries that are difficult to access, the work of individual historians until recently had often been limited to resources they could access only from significant collections outside of South Asia, such as those at the British Library and at some major US research libraries. Research travel to South Asia to consult domestic collections there has always been expensive, impractical, and too often an exceedingly challenging endeavor because of the local limitations on access. But with the growth of the internet since the 1990s, and the relative ease of putting materials online, there has been an explosion of small- and large-scale efforts at digitization and online publishing of more unique and previously inaccessible treasures from South Asia. As of the early 2000s, a wealth of valuable open-access as well as commercially produced and distributed content is available online to scholars of South Asian history.
However, this profusion itself has created new challenges. The lack of selectivity, peer review, or other quality evaluations for much internet publishing, the dearth of standards for long-term website continuity and presentation, the absence of centralized pathways for structured discovery of these resources, the bewildering array of user interfaces, the increasing monetization of online access to primary source content, and the inadequate attention to digital preservation all make this universe of digital content a far from ideal setting for historical research. To enable historians more effectively to identify authoritative online sources that meet their research needs and how to access them, collaborative endeavors by South Asia librarians and academic institutions are beginning to yield useful results and to create orderly oases in the general chaos of the internet.
Opium was used as a medicinal herb during the Tang-Song dynastic era, if not earlier, but this medicinal role was transformed during the Ming dynasty as it became an ingredient in aphrodisiacs produced for the Ming court. Small countries in South-Southeast Asia included opium in their tribute items to the Ming. Tribute missions were a form of trade as well as the best way to maintain foreign relations. Opium transformed again in the early Qing dynasty as Southeast Asian Chinese brought the habit of smoking opium mixed with tobacco back to the mainland. This was soon integrated in and promoted by the sex recreation industry in the mid-18th century, and the demand for opium grew rapidly in the early decades of the 19th century. By the 1850s, increasing supply fueled a level of consumption that neither repeated attempts at prohibition, nor two opium wars could stymie; it exploded into a consumer revolution. Opium became vital to the economy as all the polities since the late Qing taxed it to sustain themselves. It also became a symbol of China’s humiliation and anti-imperialist political platform. It has now come back to haunt the country despite the Mao era success in eradication.
When the origins and development of the Chinese Communist Movement before it seized the state power in 1949 are examined, while conventionally the movement is periodized according to its respective main task of struggle, it can also be divided into four distinct phases in reference to the dominant ethos and style in each phase. To avoid the movement-centric pitfalls, it can be shown how the structural circumstances and organizational ecologies in each phase conditioned the fashioning of its dominant ethos. In its earliest phase, a failing parliamentary politics with relatively strong civil society and weak state institutions thus shaped its ethos as a social movement led by intellectuals, with sprawling networks but loose coordination. After being purged and outlawed by the Kuomintang, the movement began to bifurcate into two segments, one dedicating to urban clandestine activities and the other capitalizing on the state devolution in the countryside. The KMT’s incremental state building efforts narrowed the space of the movement, until it came almost to the brink of organizational extinction, even though its intellectual fellow travelers had helped score much success in ideological and cultural domains. The forced retreat of the Long March inaugurated a third phase of exploration and openness, when the movement regained its legal activities and attracted broadening support from a variety of social sectors. Yet, the scrambling of resources as a result of the structure of triadic conflicts with Japan and the KMT ended that phase of exploration and openness. A new phase of internal tightening and external softening cemented its hegemony yet also consolidated and institutionalized a leader-centric organizational culture that partly mirrored its competitor and partly borrowed from the Soviet template. Tracing its transformation from a social movement to an institution with its own organizational myths, rituals and rules, the teleological narrative gives way to an emphasis on the contingent interactions between its organizational environment and its internal evolution. Such a viewpoint also underscores the politics of interpretation in the formation of its organizational power and authority.
In India, as in much of the world, the 19th century witnessed the emergence of urban capitalist classes, effected by the rapid growth of global mercantile capitalism and, later, industrial manufacturing. As a colonial city, Bombay—like its eastern counterpart, Calcutta—developed two connected, but distinct business communities: one, a European community with foreign, imperial connections, and the other, an Indian community with roots in long-standing regional networks. In Bombay, the latter took the form of a class known as the “Merchant Princes,” who capitalized on long-standing commercial traditions in western India and their ability to command both Indian and colonial networks to establish themselves as commercial powerhouses. These commercial networks and patterns of behavior, established before the arrival of the British, had an indelible impact on the character of Indian business in colonial Bombay. The business community brought such traditions with them when they migrated to Bombay at the end of the 18th century and used them to build the famous mercantile firms of the early 19th century.
The Indian business elite likewise built collaborative links within their own community to expand their business interests; when barriers erected by the colonial establishment sought to limit their expansion, Indian businessmen used the resources at their disposal (both in the Indian hinterland and within the city itself) to circumvent them. Class identity similarly began to emerge as they cooperatively campaigned for particular agendas, intended to improve the fortunes of the entire community. They fought for greater influence in the Bombay government—in line with the wealth they then commanded—and used their financial resources to mold the physical and intellectual landscape of the city in their favor.
The origin of British India can be traced to warfare in 18th-century Europe and India, trade-related conflicts and disputes, and the East India Company’s business model. The state that emerged from these roots survived by reforming the institutions of capitalism, military strategy, and political strategy. As the 19th century unfolded and its power became paramount, the Company evolved from a trading firm to a protector of trade. The rapid growth of the three port cities where Indo-European trade and naval power was concentrated exemplifies that commitment. But beyond maintaining an army and protecting trade routes, the state remained limited in its reach.
A. C. S. Peacock
With its conquest of the Arab lands in the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire (1300–1923) came to control some of the major entrepots of the Indian Ocean trade in the west. This expansion, however, also brought the Ottomans into confrontation with the Portuguese, who were seeking to establish a monopoly of the lucrative spice trade. In the first half of the 16th century, Ottoman involvement was limited to the western half of the Indian Ocean, but in the later 16th century, the Southeast Asian sultanate of Aceh forged an alliance with the Ottomans, which, if short-lived in practice, was to attain considerable symbolic importance in later times. Ottoman involvement in the Indian Ocean resumed in the 19th century, again as a reaction to European colonial activities. In the meantime, both commercial and religious links, in particular the hajj, meant that the Ottomans had a prominent role in the Indian Ocean despite only controlling limited littoral territories.
Four-centuries-long encounters between the Ottoman Empire and the Grand Duchy of Muscovy/Russian Empire point to complex relations that have been triggered and defined mostly by territorial, trade disputes, and wars, and maintained by diplomatic rivalry and occasional military alliances. Starting as friendly encounters during Sultan Bayezid II reign at the beginning of the 16th century, these relations, essentially and persistently asymmetrical, reveal an initial and long Ottoman dominance over the Muscovy/Russian side; one that lasted from the early 16th to the late 18th century—whereby the two sides shared no direct borders, traded and did not fight each other until the late 17th century—followed by a late 18th-century and mid-19th-century Russian ascendency. This ascendency was achieved largely thanks to the military reform that Tsar/Emperor Peter the Great undertook, namely, the establishment of a standing and professional army and consequentially due to the many wars that Russia won throughout the 19th century; the decisive ones being those fought during the reign of Empress Catherine the Great. The mid-19th century and the early 20th century—which witnessed the implosion of the Russian Empire due to the Bolshevik Revolution and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France—was a long period that saw few and brief military alliances, contested trade relations and yet continued wars. It was ultimately marred by an Ottoman drive to counterbalance Russia’s dominance, while the latter sought to preserve it, by involving other European powers (British and French)—the most crucial moment being the British, French, and Ottoman armies defeating the Russian one in the Crimean War (1853–1856)—transforming their bilateral interactions into multilateral but unsustainable relations.
The Parsi community enjoyed a special status in western India as enterprising traders, who were quick to appreciate the advantages of the British connection especially in driving a huge trade in the Indian Ocean and specifically with China from roughly the latter half of the 18th century. Arriving in India as asylum seekers, the community quickly adapted to the host society by adopting the local language (Gujarati) and by deploying their commercial and manufacturing skills in consolidating their social location in the region. They were mindful of the ruling powers and developed over time important strategies of working closely with local interests, so much so that they acquired a foothold in landed and commercial society. It was in the late 17th and 18th centuries that they forged important links with European traders and trading companies, working as brokers for procurement of textiles and in the process acquiring a very close understanding of foreign markets. This was an important resource that enabled the community to play a major role on the emerging proto-colonial trade of western India, largely channeled through Bombay. The late 18th and 19th centuries saw the community produce major players and merchants of renown who amassed considerable wealth from the trade in raw cotton and opium with China and invested that wealth in philanthropy and subsequently in entrepreneurship. The community was primarily located in Bombay and western India, although their ventures took them as far as Calcutta and Canton. More recently there has been a considerable volume of scholarship on the community, emphasizing its origins, its histories and self-representation, and its use of the English colonial law in defining its own status and streamlining its customs.
With an estimated thirty million or more in Pakistan, twelve million in Afghanistan, and perhaps a million or more in a global diaspora, Pashtuns or Pukhtuns comprise a complex ethno-linguistic population with a rich cultural tradition and literature, varied political and economic contexts, and diverse national and Islamic identities. Historic and literary references to communities that have been thought to identify “Afghans” date to the 10th century and, according to the source and scholar consulted, many centuries earlier. The assumption of any uniquely “Pashtun” identity as equivalent to the diverse “Afghan” cultural, religious, and ethnic identities that evolved over centuries has obfuscated a full understanding of the emergence of distinct regional Pashtun ethno-linguistic communities and the origins of frequently studied cultural idioms. Millions of Pashtuns have lived in close and daily contact with many other ethnic groups (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Baluch, Punjabis, etc.), and color-coded maps of ethnic homelands in Afghanistan and Pakistan are best seen as guides to often complex social geographies rather than absolute markers of ethnically pure settlement areas.
For perhaps a thousand years, Pashtuns and regional forefathers have circulated within imperial and merchant networks connected by Silk Road pathways, Persian and north Indian trade routes, and Indian Ocean sea lanes. Pashtuns sought livelihoods as horse traders, military entrepreneurs, agrarian pioneers, and regional rulers in the northern, eastern, and Deccan regions of India. An Afghan state with variable territorial claims consolidated after 1747. Leading Pashtun clans from around Kandahar and the eastern districts took positions in the dynasties that soon ruled from Kabul and core provinces.
Pashtuns between the Oxus and Indus rivers adapted to, avoided, and served 18th- and 19th-century Russian and British imperial economic and political forces. In the high European “new imperialism” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Afghan territories were framed by treaty-negotiated boundaries. Never colonized, Afghanistan became economically dependent on British–India subsidies and linkages. Into the mid-20th century, Afghanistan’s Pashtun political dynasties and Islamic and political activists on both sides of the British-Indian Durand Line offered leadership and alternative visions of the future to anticolonial and Muslim nationalists, including those in British India.
In recent decades, core Pashtun homelands and diasporic communities have fully experienced the disruptions and violence that followed the partition of British India in 1947, postcolonial “national” consolidation, conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Cold War alliances and conflict, the rise and fall of the Taliban, and civil war. Like others, Pashtun lives were shaped by the transnational dynamics of economic globalization, urbanization, migration, and the international crises that traumatized the world after September 11, 2001.