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Volume 36, Number 1January/February 1985

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Chaucer of the Turks

Written by Barry Hoberman
Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale

To most people Western Europe and the Americas, the term "Turk" denotes, simply, an inhabitant of Turkey. Few realize that as many as 60 percent of the world's 90 million Turks - defined as anyone who speaks a Turkic language as a native tongue - live outside the Republic of Turkey.

In the Soviet Union, for example, the numbers of Turkic peoples - Uzbeks, Tatars, Kazakhs, Azeris, Turkoman, Kirghiz, Bashkirs, Karakalpaks, Kumyks, Yakuts, Uighurs and Karachay - roughly equal those in Turkey itself. There are also sizeable Turkish minorities in China, Iran, Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Iraq, Syria, Greece, Yugoslavia, Romania and Mongolia - an agglomeration of sundry peoples exhibiting an exhausting diversity of physical types, social organizations, lifestyles, political allegiances and cultural affinities.

Such differences, however, are mitigated by two unifying factors: Islam - 95 percent of all Turks are Muslim - and a common pride in what, admittedly, are the almost unknown glories of the Turkish past. These glories include, as one excellent example, a venerated 15th-century author whom Bernard Lewis, the distinguished English historian of Islam, called "the Chaucer of the Turks": Mir Ali Shir Nava'i.

Nava'i - to use the pen name by which Mir Ali Shir is universally known - did not invent Turkish literature. In fact, the origins of Turkish literature predate Nava'i by at least 700 years. But as Chaucer had done in England a century before, Nava'i revolutionized a national literature by becoming the first really outstanding writer to use the Turkish vernacular in his works.

In Nava'i's hands, Turkish, a language traditionally regarded by men of letters as uncouth and plebeian, achieved recognition as a graceful medium for poetry and prose of the highest order. Though Arab and Persian literary purists had claimed that "barbaric" Turkish was incapable of expressing complex ideas and lofty emotions with elegance, subtlety and power, Nava'i, by his unparalleled artistry, proved them wrong.

Mir Ali Shir Nava'i was born in Herat, in what is now northwestern Afghanistan, in 1441. Herat was then the capital city and residence of the Timurid Prince Shahrukh, ruler of Khorasan and fourth and ablest son of the mighty Timur - "Timur-the-Lame" or Tamerlane - who had died in 1405 (See Aramco World, November-December 1980). Although Samarkand, situated north of the Oxus River (the modern Amu Darya), had been Tamerlane's capital, it was Herat in Khorasan which, during the long (1397-1447) and brilliant reign of Shahrukh, became the premier intellectual and cultural center in the eastern Islamic world. Samarkand, which from 1409 to 1446 was under the governorship of Shahrukh's son, the celebrated mathematician and astronomer Ulugh Beg, meanwhile, ran a close second.

The dominant culture in Herat throughout the first half of the 15th century was that of Persia. True, Shahrukh himself was a Turk, as were most of the members of the ruling class and many of Herat's ordinary citizens. But the splendid achievements of early Persian civilization were there for all to see, and the Central Asian Turks were mesmerized by its prestige and unquestioned radiance. Authors of Turkish origin preferred to write in Persian - extolled in the Muslim East as the language of culture and learning-and painters of Turkish descent emulated classical Persian models. Persian civilization, in its turn, had been irrevocably transformed by the Arabs via the rejuvenating vigor of Islam.

Such was the environment into which Nava'i was born. He was educated in Mashhad (today in northeastern Iran), Herat and Samarkand, afterwards returning to Herat in 1469 when his old schoolmate Husain Baiqara, a great-great-grandson of Tamerlane, became Sultan of Khorasan. Nothing is known of Nava'i's literary efforts prior to that date. Over the succeeding three decades, however, he carved out one of the truly epoch-making careers in the history of Islamic letters, and was instrumental in Herat's becoming, in Rene Grousset's words, "the Florence of what has justly been called the Timurid Renaissance."

From 1469 until his death in 1501, there were really four Mir Ali Shir Nava'is, each with his own distinct importance in Islamic history. The first was Nava'i the public administrator, aide and confidant of Sultan Husain Baiqara. Nava'i, while passionately devoted to his craft and to art in general, was no detached, precious sort. He was thoroughly steeped in the atmosphere of politics and policy-making, having entered that realm largely as a consequence of his close, if occasionally rocky, friendship with the sultan. Despite what some European works have asserted, Nava'i never served as a minister or vizier in the Timurid court of Herat, though he did hold a variety of lesser official posts. Yet his authority was at times comparable to that of a vizier: in at least one instance, in 1479, he governed Herat in Sultan Husain's absence. Such worldly tasks must have cut drastically into Nava'i's writing time, but he appears to have felt a genuine sense of obligation both to his sovereign and to the greater good of the state.

The second Nava'i was Nava'i the builder. He is reported to have founded, restored, or endowed some 370 mosques, schools, libraries, hospitals, caravanserais and other educational, pious, and charitable institutions in Khorasan alone. Probably he used his clout at court to raise money for such purposes, in addition to drawing on his own considerable private resources. Among the most famous constructions for which he was responsible were the Khalasiya madrasa (school) in Herat and the mausoleum of the 13th-century mystical poet, Farid al-Din 'Attar, in Nishapur (northeastern Iran).

The final two roles of Nava'i are those to which we owe his most valuable and enduring contributions to civilization. They are Nava'i the promoter/patron of scholarship, arts and letters, and, of course,

Nava'i the author. Being himself a musician, composer, calligrapher, painter and sculptor, as well as a most versatile writer, Nava'i was involved with the complete spectrum of creative forms of expression. He was a friend and generous patron to such beacons of Timurid culture as the illustrious Persian poet Jami' - the subject of Nava'i's laudatory composition, Kham-sat al-Mutahayyirin ("Quintet of the Astonished") - the Persian historians Mirkhwand and his grandson Khwandamir, the miniature-painters Bihzad and Shah Muzaffar, and the musicians Qul-Muhammad, Shaykhi Na'i, and Husain Udi.

But above all, Nava'i is remembered and revered as a quite marvelously successful shaper and encourager of Turkish literature. Before 1400, it was not uncommon for works of an informal, popular nature to be written in one or another Turkic dialect, sometimes using the Arabic script, sometimes not. Not until the first half of the 15th century did a small group of writers in Central Asia take the initial, tottering steps in the use of Turkish for belles-lettres. The pioneers of this literature - among whom were Sakka-ki, Lutfi, Yaqini and Gada'i were faced with a specific and indeed, formidable problem. Wishing to write poetry that would conform to the accepted rules of Perso-Arabic versification, they had as their raw material a language, Turkish, not especially well-suited to those rules. Nevertheless, by deftly exploiting the full range of the Turkish vocabulary and potential grammatical formations, and by borrowing Arabic and Persian words and expressions, these men created a literary language out of the Turkish vernaculars of Central Asia and Khorasan called "Chagatai" Turkish, or simply "Chagatai."

Some of the early works in Chagatai are works of lasting merit - in particular, the poetry of Lutfi. However, the language of these early Chagatai writers varied from locale to locale and even from author to author within the same city. Nava'i changed all that. The cumulative effect of his 30-odd Chagatai works, written over a span of 30 years, was to standardize and stabilize the new idiom. And it was entirely due to the inimitable excellence of Nava'i's poetry that Turkish was able to win acceptance as a legitimate literary vehicle.

Nava'i's best-known poems are found in his four Divans (collections of poetry): Ghara'ib al-Sighar ("Wonders of Childhood"), Naivadir al-Shabab ("Witticisms of Youth"), Bada'i' al-Wasat ("Marvels of Middle Age"), and Fawi'id al-Kibar ("Advantages of Old Age"). He also took it upon himself to write technical works that would be helpful to other Turkish poets - such as Mizan al-Awzan ("The Measure of Meters"), a detailed treatise on poetical meters - as well as compile the monumental Majalis al-Nafa'is ("Assemblies of Distinguished Men"), a collection of over 450 biographical sketches of more or less contemporary poets, and a gold mine of information for modern historians of Timurid culture.

Perhaps his most impassioned work, however, was his very last - Muhakamat al-Lughatayn ("Judgment between the Two Languages"), completed in December, 1499,13 months before his death. In essay form, Nava'i voices a forceful plea on behalf of the Turkish language. Hoping to inspire authors of Turkish origin to write in Chagatai rather than Persian, he endeavors to demonstrate what he views as the inherent superiority of Turkish to Persian. Intended as the poet's definitive statement on the subject dearest to his heart, the Muhakamat is a perfect example of an author's final work acting also as his last will and testament.

Early in the essay, Nava'i suggests that the four main varieties of language, "each having many arms and branches," are Arabic, Hindi, Turkish and Persian. Being a good Muslim, he does not contest the absolute supremacy of Arabic. "Of all languages, Arabic possesses the most eloquence and grandeur, and there is no one who thinks or claims differently." But he curtly dismisses Hindi as sounding like "the scratching of a broken pen," whose script "suggests the footprint of a raven." That leaves Turkish and Persian, the two languages spoken in Herat and throughout Muslim Central Asia.

Repeatedly, Nava'i emphasizes the richness, precision and malleability of the Turkish vocabulary as opposed to Persian. The Turks, he informs us, have a word for the beauty mark on a woman's face, but there is no comparable word in Persian. Many Turkish words have three or four or more meanings; Persian, according to Nava'i, lacks such flexible words. To illustrate the capacity of Turkish to make more precise distinctions, he lists nine Turkish words used to identify separate species of duck. Persian, he claims, has but one word that covers all of these. Arguments of this nature fill page after page of the Muhakamat.

Nava'i admits that it is more difficult to write well in Turkish than in Persian. In the following passage, taken from Robert Devereux's translation of Muhakamat al-Lughatayn (E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1966), the "Chaucer of the Turks" discusses the obstacles confronting the young Turkish poets of his day, and shows a sympathetic understanding of their artistic dilemma:

The beginner, upon encountering difficulty in composing, shuns Turkish and changes to an easier road (i.e., Persian). After this has happened several times it becomes habit; and after it has become habit the poet finds it difficult to abandon the habit in order to venture down a more difficult road. Later, other beginners, noting the conduct and the compositions of those who have preceded them, do not consider it proper to stray off that road. The result is that they too write their poems in Persian.

It is natural for a beginner to wish his works to be known to others. He wishes to submit them to scholars. But these are Persian-speakers who are not acquainted with Turkish, and this thought makes the poet shrink. Thus he is drawn to the use of Persian. He establishes relations with others and becomes one of them. This is how the present situation has come to be.

But, he continues, in spite of obstacles and snares, poets of Turkish origin must strive to write in Turkish. Perhaps to spur novice writers on, Nava'i recounts his own youthful discovery of the ineffable splendors of Turkish:

It is unfortunately true that the greater superiority, profundity and breadth of Turkish as compared to Persian as a medium for poetry has not been realized by everyone... In the early days of my youth I began to perceive a few jewels from the inkwell of my mouth. These jewels had not yet become a string of verse, but jewels from the sea of consciousness which were worthy of being placed on a string of verse began to reach shore, thanks to the nature of the diver.

Then I reached the age of comprehension and God (whose praises I recite and who be extolled!) instilled in me sensitivity and attentiveness and a desire for the unique. I realized the necessity of giving thought to Turkish words. The world which came into view was more sublime than 18,000 worlds, and its adorned sky, which I came to know, was higher than nine skies. There I found a treasury of superiority and excellence in which the pearls were more lustrous than the stars. I entered the rose garden. Its roses were more splendid than the stars of heaven, its hallowed ground was untouched by hand or foot, and its myriad wonders were safe from the touch of other hands.

Mir Ali Shir Nava'i died on January 3, 1501. Sultan Husain Baiqara attended the funeral, and afterwards observed three days of mourning in the home of his lifelong friend. A huge commemorative feast was held to enable the citizens of Herat collectively to honor their departed poet laureate.

Almost immediately, other writers took up the standard of literary Turkish. Babur (1483-1530), founder of the Mughul dynasty of India and a descendant of both Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, composed his famous autobiography in the Chagatai language. Far to the west, in the Ottoman Empire, writers of Ottoman Turkish studied Nava'i's works assiduously, and modeled their poems on his. The Herat bard, though he wrote in a different dialect of Turkish, indisputably functioned as a catalyst in the evolution of Ottoman poetry. Nava'i also exerted a huge influence on the style of Fuzuli of Baghdad (d. 1556), the Azerbaijani who over the centuries has been the most beloved poet in the Turkic-speaking world. With the rise of the great Ottoman and Azeri poets, the place of Turkish as the third classical language of Islam was solidified.

Back in Central Asia, Nava'i's reputation as the peerless master of Chagatai remained unchallenged, and if anything his stature increased with the passage of time. For 400 years after his death, Chagatai served as the literary language of Muslim Turks from the Volga to Chinese Turkestan. The linguistic conservatism of Chagatai during this period can be attributed in part to the towering prestige of Nava'i, and the desire of writers to imitate his style and vocabulary. Eventually, Chagatai outlived its usefulness, and gave way to its genetic offspring - the modern Central Asian Turkic languages, among them Uzbek, Kazakh, Kirghiz, and East Turki (also known as New Uighur). The supplanting of Chagatai by daughter languages parallels, in fact, the replacement of Latin by the modern Romance languages.

The story of Nava'i does not end with Chagatai's demise early in this century. A new chapter is still being written, thanks to the extraordinarily high regard in which the poet is held by the Muslim Uzbeks of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan and China. If Nava'i is the Chaucer of the Turks in general, to this one particular group of Turks he is Chaucer, Dante, Cervantes and Shakespeare all rolled into one.

Along with East Turki - the language of the Muslim Uighurs of China and the Soviet Union - Uzbek is the modern tongue that has the closest affinity with classical Chagatai. The Uzbek people have adopted Nava'i as their national poet, and in the Soviet Union Chagatai is commonly referred to as "Old Uzbek." In 1966, which marked the 525th anniversary of Nava'i's birth, a year of official and deeply felt celebration took place in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan, or the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, contains no fewer than five historic centers of Islamic civilization: Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Kokand and Khiva. To commemorate the poet and facilitate access to his oeuvre, a complete, 15-volume edition of his works was published in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Separate editions of individual works and an assortment of anthologies also appeared, as did novels and plays based on Nava'i's life and a torrent of scholarly and biographical literature.

Yet let us not forget that Mir Ali Shir Nava'i is hardly the exclusive property of the Uzbeks. Wherever Muslim Turks are found - in cities as far apart and different from one another as Istanbul in Turkey, Tabriz in Iran, Kazan in European Russia, Tashkent in Soviet Central Asia and Urumchi in China -Nava'i's poetry is still cherished almost 500 years after his death. Like Dante and Chaucer before him, he single-handedly made a language respectable, and added that language to the roster of the world's major literatures. And as is true of Dante and Chaucer, it is impossible to envision a time when his works will no longer be read. In this connection, one is reminded of the following couplet of Nava'i's:

Barry Hoberman, who studied Islamic and Central Asian history at Harvard and Indiana universities, now freelances from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

This article appeared on pages 24-27 of the January/February 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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