One of the Last Documents of the Silk Road: The Khataynameh of Ali Akbar

24.12.08 | Xurshid


One of the Last Documents of the Silk Road: The Khataynameh of Ali Akbar
Author: Ralph Kauz
Institut fr Iranistik der ÷sterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna

The patterns of trans-Asiatic communication and trade changed dramatically in the course of the fifteenth century. These changes can be divided into three major periods:

1) In the aftermath of Mongol rule in China and in Iran, the first emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the Timurids (1370-1506) as well promoted commercial and political exchange on a large scale. Especially the leading Chinese economy of this period showed its attraction to other Asian kingdoms. Chinese overtures under the early Ming had thus a huge impact, and Chinese envoys who arrived in Samarqand, Herat and other cities of Central and Western Asia by land and others who called at ports of the Western Indian Ocean were well received by the local rulers. Envoys and merchants from these places repaid these visits in the Chinese capital.

2) However, China abandoned its sea expeditions in 1433 and refrained from sending more embassies to Central and Western Asia at around the same time. Consequently, the pattern of mutual communication changed, and henceforth the traffic flowed only in the direction of China. The Ming showed less and less interest in trade with the outside world and regarded the foreign merchants and envoys rather as a nuisance, one mostly tolerated due to the Mings own policy of superiority but kindness towards foreigners.

3) Islamic maritime trade sustained much more difficulty at the end of the fifteenth century on account of European expansion, rather than from the previous change of Chinese foreign policy. The Portuguese Estado da ndia supplanted the network of the Arabic and Persian traders, although it could temporarily recover in the middle of the sixteenth century, as did the traditional Levant route. At first glance, these European colonial enterprises (first Vasco da Gama and Portugal, then the Dutch Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) seem also to have been responsible for the decline of the Silk Road as a main artery of trans-Asian communication. However, inner Asian developments were rather to blame for the parallel deterioration of the overland route, i. e. the collapse of the Timurid Empire and the subsequent rivalry between the Sunnite Shaybanids in Central Asia and the Shiite Safavids in Iran which prevented smooth interrelations and interactions as in the centuries before.

Though it would be erroneous to assume a complete breakdown of trans-Asian overland traffic, embassies from Central and Western Asia arrived still in Beijing. We can even find embassies from a kingdom called Lumi, registered in the Veritable Records (Ming shilu), offering their tribute since the 1520s for several times at the Chinese court. Lumi could well be a transcription of Rum, i. e. the Ottoman Empire. These embassies might have been faked there is no final proof that they really came from the far-away Ottoman Empire, but the interest in Lumi evidenced in many contemporary Chinese texts may indicate the genuineness of their origin. The interest of Asian merchants in trade with China did certainly not diminish, though the political situation did not support their eagerness.

One of the most important testimonies of this continuous interest in China is the Khataynameh (Book of China), written by Ali Akbar Khatai in 1516 and issued in Istanbul in 1520. There are but a few manuscripts of this Khataynameh extant (one in the National Library of Egypt in Cairo, three in the Sleymaniye Library and one in the Aya Sofia Library of Istanbul, and another one in the University Library of Leiden). Already under the reign of Sultan Murad, probably in the year 1582, Hoseyn Efendi translated the Persian text into Ottoman Turkish with some omissions and amendments, with the title Qanunnameh-ye Chin va Khata (Book of Canons of China and Khatay). Before I turn to a sketch of the modern research on the Khataynameh, a brief outline of its content and some considerations on the author may be given.

The work is not a traditional travelogue like, for example, Ghiyas ad-Dins description of his journey to China as a Timurid ambassador in the beginning of the fifteenth century, but rather a description of China proper. It is divided into twenty chapters, where roads, cities, military, stores, prostitutes, eunuchs, administration, jails, law, agriculture and other matters are discussed.1 Thus Ali Akbars book gave a reader of the sixteenth century a fair impression of China, and it could well have served as a companion for merchants traveling there. However, the book was issued in Istanbul, and merchants on the Silk Road probably gathered there knowledge from themselves and did not necessarily need a guide book.

For whom was it then written? The question seems to be rather uncomplicated, because it was dedicated to Sultan Sleyman and Ali Akbar might have wished to make an impression on the Ottoman court. Lin Yih-Min describes Ali Akbar as a Turkish businessman (1983, p. 58) who probably traveled only to Central Asia, where he gathered the information for his book and returned then to Turkey. However, the name of the author indicates a Shiite background. Mazahry (p. 95) gives justly a vivid sketch of the anti-Shiite movements and sentiments at the time of the battle of Chaldiran when the Safavid ruler Ismael I was defeated by the Ottomans and when Ali Akbar wrote his book. The situation of a Shiite in Istanbul in that period was certainly not an easy one, and he might have had good reason to win the sultans favour by producing a book on China to spur the geographical interest of the Ottomans. In accordance with Schefers assumption (p. 34), a Central Asian origin of Ali Akbar seems rather likely, and Ali Akbar could even have been captured by the Ottomans in Chaldiran and saved his life by writing a book about his former experiences as a merchant. The question of whether he had actually been in China2 will not be discussed here, but it might be stressed that he reported at least the knowledge of China circulating among contemporary merchants dealing with China. This knowledge was by no means meager, as the Khataynameh proves, and one may wonder if it was not an incentive for the aforementioned embassies from Lumi to China.

The Khataynameh aroused considerable interest not only in the Ottoman Empire but also in Europe in the early nineteenth century. Matthaeus Norberg used the Turkish Qanunnameh for his Latin commentaries on China in the course of his translation of and research on Marco Polos narrative. This Qanunnameh was also the basis of the studies of Zenker and Fleischer. It was Charles Schefer who discovered the Persian original in the Sleymaniye Library and translated three chapters of it. Paul Kahle started to make a complete translation with the assistance of Muhammad Hamidullah. This was in fact finished in manuscript but never published. Kahle even exchanged letters with the famous Chinese scholar Zhang Xinglang in order to invite him to Germany for work on the Khataynameh, but due to the situation of Germany in the 1930s the journey of Zhang Xinglang proved to be impossible. A late fruit of this communication was the Chinese translation of Hamidullahs and Kahles translation by the son of Zhang Xinglang, Zhang Zhishan. Only a few scholars worked later on Ali Akbars book: Iraj Afshar, who produced a critical edition of the text and the Taiwanese Lin Yih-Min who translated the text into modern Turkish and wrote an English article about it. Aly Mazahri then translated the text into French together with other Persian texts dealing with the Silk Road. Lastly, a student of Chinese Studies in Vienna, Christine Beckmann, wrote a diploma thesis on the basis of Hamisullahs and Kahles text in comparison with Chinese material.

The author of this note is currently working on a critical English translation of the Khataynameh which will be also compared with relevant Chinese texts.
About the Author

Dr. Ralph Kauz is a research scholar at the Institut fr Iranistik of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. He wrote his Habilita-tionsschrift (in American terms, the second doctorate) on Die Ming-Dynastie und die Timuriden: Chancen ihrer politischen und wirtschaftlichen Interaktion. Among his publications is Zheng He und der Islam in Fujian: Das Bild Zheng Hes als glubiger Muslim in der neueren chinesischen Geschichtsschreibung, in: Claudine Salmon and Roderich Ptak, eds., Zheng He: Images & Perceptions / Bilder & Wahrnehmungen, South China and Maritime Asia 15 (Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 2005), pp. 75-89, and a forthcoming article on The Maritime Trade of Qish during the Mongol Period.

* Al Akbar Khat. Khatynma: sharh-e mushhdt-i Sayyid Al Akbar Khat dar sarzamn-e Chn. [Book of China: Account of the Observations of Sayyid Al Akbar Khat in the Territoy of China.] raj Afshr, ed. 2nd ed., Tehran: Markaz-e asnd-e farhang-ye sy, 1993/4.
* Al Akbar Khit. The Book on China: Khitynma. Fuat Sezgin and Eckhard Neubauer, eds. Publications of the Institute for the history of Arabic-Islamic Science, Series C, vol. 56. Frankfurt am Main: Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, 1994.
* Christine Beckmann. China in der islamischen Historiographie: Aus dem Hitynme des Al Ekber unter Bercksichtigung chinesischer und westlicher Quellen. Unpublished diploma thesis, Wien, 2001.
* H. L. Fleischer. ӹber das trkische Chat-nme. Kleinere Schriften, Vol. 3. Leipzig, 1888, (reprint Osnabrck: Biblio Verlag, 1968), pp. 214-225, from: Berichte ber die Verhandlungen der kniglichen Schsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig, Philol.-histor. Cl., 1851: 317-327.
* Geng Sheng, tr. Aly Mazahri, Sichou zhi lu Zhonguo-Bosi wenhua jiaoliu shi. [Silkroad: the history of the cultural exchange between China and Persia.] Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1993.
* Paul E. Kahle. China as described by Turkish Geographers from Iranian Sources. Opera Minora: Festgabe zum 21. Januar 1956, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1956, pp. 312-324 [From: Proceedings of the Iran Society, vol. 2, London 1940).
* . Eine islamische Quelle ber China um 1500: Das Khitynme des Al Ekber. Acta Orientalia, 12 (1933): 91-110.
* Lin Yih-Min. Ali Ekberin Hitayname: adl eserinin in kaynaklar ile mukayese ve tenkidi, Dissertation, Taipei 1967.
* . A comparative and critical study of Ali Akbars Khity-nma with reference to Chinese sources [English summary]. Central Asiatic Journal, 27 (1983): 58-78.
* Aly Mazahri. La route de la soie. Paris: Papyrus, 1983
* Ming shilu, 133 vols. Taipei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan lishi yuyan yanjiusuo, 1966.
* Matthaeus Norberg. Selecta opuscula academica. Johannes Norrmann, ed. Londini Gothorum: Litteris Berlingianis, 1817-1819.
* Juten Oda. A Note on the Historical Materials of the Khitay-name by Ali Ekber. Shirin, 52 (1969): 858-879, 908-909.
* Charles Schefer. Trois chapitres du Khitay Namh: texte Persane et traduction Franaise.In: Ecole des langues orientales vivantes (ed.), Mlanges Orientaux, Paris: E. Leroux, 1883, pp. 31-84.
* Z. V. Togan. Ali Ekberin. Islam Ansiklopedisi, 1 (1962): 318-319.
* Franz Taeschner. Geographische Literatur der Osmanen. Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenlndischen Gesellschaft, 77 (1923): 31-80, 144.
* J. Zenker. Das chinesische Reich nach dem trkischen Khatainame. Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenlndischen Gesellschaft, 15 (1851): 785-805.
* Zhang Zhishan (tr.), Ali Akebaer, Zhongguo jixing. [The Book on China, Chinese translation of Hamidullahs English translation.] Beijing: Shenghuo, Dushu, Xinzhi sanlian shudian chubanfaxing, 1988.


1. For more detailled descriptions see Kahle (1933), Lin Yih-Min (1983), or the translation of Mazahry.
2. For conflicting views see Kahle (1933) and Lin Yih-Min (1983).

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