In this pioneering and well-researched monograph the Moscow-based historian Ilya Zaitsev examines what is certainly the most poorly-documented and enigmatic of the Golden Horde successor states. Before Zaitsev’s work, there was no monographic treatment of the Astrakhan Khanate for a number of reasons. Besides the well known Soviet policy of 1944 denouncing the Golden Horde and by extension, its study, there was no clear scholarly consensus on certain critical aspects of the khanate, such as its borders, its rulers, and the dates of its existence. Indeed, some scholars early in the twentieth century suggested the Astrakhan Khanate was a historical myth. The elusiveness of the Astrakhan Khanate was compounded by problems of sources common to the other Golden Horde successor states, such as the khanates of Kazan and Sibir, but in this case even more severe. Not only were there no native narrative sources, but even typically problematic Russian sources were in short supply. Furthermore, unlike for Kazan and Siberia, where oral tradition about these khanates, and even the vestige of a Chingisid court historiography, survived, the memory of the Astrakhan Khanate is barely reflected in the traditions of the Astrakhan Noghais.
The author divides the book into nine chapters, with three appendices. The first two chapters examine Astrakhan, or Hajji-Tarkhan, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the emergence of the Astrakhan Khanate. The third through the fifth chapters each examine three of its most prominent rulers, ‘Abd al-Karim, Janibek b. Mahmud, and Husayn b. Janibek. The sixth and the seventh chapters respectively examine the khanate’s internal political disintegration in the 1530s and 1540s and the Russian conquest and annexation of the khanate in the 1550s. The last two chapters examine the khanate’s culture, economy and social structure. In fact, one of the monograph’s strong points is that it comprises both a political history of the Astrakhan Khanate and a history of the city of Astrakhan.
Zaitsev argues convincingly that we should look at the Astrakhan Khanate not so much as a direct successor state of the Golden Horde, but rather as a successor state of the Great Horde. The Great Horde was established by Mahmud b. Kichi-Muhammad b. Timur, in the lower Volga region in the 1460s, and politically functioned as a rump Golden Horde. It was later ruled by Kichi-Muhammad’s son Ahmad Khan, and by Sayyid-Ahmad b. Ahmad. Whereas previous historians, such as Marjani and Safargaliev have argued that the Astrakhan Khanate emerged in the 1460s, Zaitsev counters that until the collapse of the Great Horde in 1502 Astrakhan in fact served as its capital. He proposes that the first ruler of an “independent” Astrakhan Khanate, ‘Abd al-Karim Khan b. Mahmud Khan (r. 1502-1514), was in fact a puppet ruler of the Noghai ruler Yamghurchi Biy. Throughout its fifty-odd years of political existence the Astrakhan Khanate was dependent on diminishing Noghai support, first in the face of Crimean pressure, and later against Muscovy.
The two chapters on the cultural, social, and economic history of Astrakhan are a particularly welcome contribution to our broader understanding of Muslim society in the lower Volga region. The author examines the few surviving manuscripts linked to the Astrakhan Khanate. These include a copy of a chapter from Rashid a-Din’s Jami‘ al-Tawarikh, from the library of Qasim Khan d. Sayyid-Ahmad b. Ahmad, as well as a poem by Sharif Hajji-Tarkhani, the Zafar-nama-yi wilayat-i Qazan, written in 1550. However of particular interest is the author’s discussion of shrines and pilgrimage in Astrakhan. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, traditions of Muslim hagiolatry were particularly strong in the Astrakhan region. They remained so during the Soviet era and down to the present day. There is little documentary evidence for pilgrimage before the Russian conquest, but Zaitsev in particular makes use of the travel accounts of the Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi, who visited Astrakhan, to show that in the seventeenth century a strong tradition of hagiolatry already existed in Astrakhan. Indeed, among the saints buried in an around Astrakhan we find Baba Tükles, a saint credited with converting Özbek Khan to Islam in the first half of the fourteenth century. Zaitsev also cites a recent work derived from Jahan Shah b. ‘Abd al-Jabbar al-Nizhgharuti’s Ta’rikh-i Astrarkhan that contains a list of saints buried in Astrakhan province. However, this is a twentieth-century source that in fact sheds little light on the Astrakhan Khanate, although it is useful for establishing continuity in shrine veneration in the region. The three appendices contain separate essays on the names of Astrakhan as they appear in medieval sources, the borders of the khanate, and finally a dynastic table on the rulers of the khanate.
The author has brought to bear a wide range of sources. These include not only the relevant secondary works, and the Russian documentary and narrative source, but also important Ottoman and Crimean Islamic sources. He also makes use of European documentary sources and maps. It bears note that in his introduction Zaitsev acknowledges the important contribution of his colleague V. Trepavlov, who himself has produced a pioneering monograph on the history of the Noghai Horde. The two works complement one another well, and will certainly serve as solid platforms for the further evaluation of the Golden Horde successor states in western Inner Asia.