The large reforming process which occurred in the territory of Eurasia in the 15th century changed the geopolitical and socio-political order in the region. The domination of the Golden Horde had finished and the era of global colonial expansion began. Hanseatic merchants, who supplied the entire West with Eastern products such as spices, precious stones, silk and other luxury goods, were replaced by merchants from Portugal in the period from the 12th-15th centuries and England in the second half of the 16th century. Between the 16th and the beginning of the following century, dominance appeared at the hands of Holland. During the entire period, Europeans randomly came to the Kazakh steppes or had the opportunity to learn about the region first-hand.
At the same time, the area of nomadic distribution in Eurasia began to constrict and the level of political instability started to grow. The efforts of local individual rulers led to the creation of sufficiently-strong military states; however, after their deaths these alliances typically failed. The caravan routes were changed to avoid these areas because of the lack of economic benefits. With the collapse of the Golden Horde, the geopolitical vector of the development of Eurasia shifted to the other course.
The Kazakh Khanate was established in the 15th century and forced to endure the hardships of that time. Multiple targets of colonial policy required specific knowledge. Thus, the role of missionaries, diplomats, merchants, soldiers, officials and travelers was of high importance. The period was one of rapid development of European cartography and experts note the first modern world map was created in 1450 by Venetian monk Fra Mauro. It is believed he used information collected by travelers such as Marco Polo, Niccolo de Conti and others and the map shows the cities of Otrar and Almalyk, as well as the Aral Sea and Sarysu and Ilek rivers.
Jehoshaphat Barbaro, a Venetian nobleman and diplomat who made several trips to Central Asia in the middle of the 15th century, was trying to reach India. In his 1543 book “Journey to Tan,” he described the steppe inhabitants called Tatars. He also noted Italians could use their ships to travel across the Caspian Sea. Another Venetian ambassador, Cantarini Ambrogio, also mentioned Tatars after traveling across Persia, Caucasus, Moscow and the Volga River two decades after Barbaro returned from his journey to Tan.
The territory of modern Kazakhstan was once part of various political unions which emerged in the Eurasian space. This influenced the perception of the state from the outside. Several openings in the region also occurred irregularly at different periods of time. This was due to the gradual interest in the region as a result of changes in both the geopolitical and national attention of neighbouring countries. Such interests were caused by diplomatic or missionary purposes, as in the case of journeys to the East organised by William of Rubruck, Giovanni da Pian del Carpineand Polo. After the Mongol invasion, the territory of the Kazakh steppe became of high interest again only in the 18th century.
With his 1549 book “Notes on Muscovite Affairs,” Baron Sigismund Herberstein played a significant role in the formation of certain representations of the region. For example, he highlighted different groups of Tatars who lived in this territory. Siberian Tatars were also described by Rafael Barberini, who visited Muscovy in 1564 and told about the trip in his book, “Travel to Muscovy.”
The 16th century brought a new type of traveler connected to trade issues. One of the first merchants who visited the Kazakh steppe was Anthony Jenkinson. He kept a diary where he mentioned Kazakh ruler Khan Hak-Nazaire and the wars he led to conquer towns near the Syr Darya River, as well as the activities and beliefs of the locals. In addition, Jenkinson was one of the creators of the unique map of Russia, Muscovy and Tartaria published in London in 1562, where he also distinguished the territory of Kazakia.
In the 17th century, Frenchman Barthélemy de Molenvil in his “Eastern Library” formed a particular image of the Asian region. This work was published in Paris in 1697 in the form of a historical dictionary dedicated to the Orient and created on the basis of Persian, Arab and Chagatay sources. The dictionary contained information including names and concepts such as Otrar, Turk, Turkic features, Tyurkaman, Tyurkesan, Karakum, Genghis Khan, Uzbek, Ulugbek Khanbalik and others which related to the Kazakh Khanate.
Philippe Avril, of France, visited Russia twice in order to obtain permission to travel to China. He arrived in Moscow for the first time in January 1687, where he found Tatar and Uzbek merchants who originally came from Central Asia. They convinced him to use the Siberian route to China, as it was the shortest and most convenient one. It is possible to find references concerning the individual characteristics of Uzbek Tatars, Oriental Tatars, Yakuts, Tungus and others in his travel notes.
In the book written by Nicholas Spafaria, who served in the Embassy in Moscow and earlier made a trip to China through Siberia, readers can learn about the steppes that lie on the border with China and were inhabited by Kalmyks and Tatars. As part of his diplomatic mission, Spafaria had to go through the territory of the Kazakh steppes, but once he learned it was not a safe place because of permanent conflicts he decided to go along the Irtysh and Ob rivers.
Amsterdam mayor, politician and businessman Nicholas Cornelius visited Russia in 1664 and 1665 as part of a diplomatic mission. In his book “Northern and Eastern Tatars” published in Amsterdam in 1692, he introduced the territory of the nomadic steppes of Eurasia, as well as Russia, Siberia and even the Arctic region.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to mention all the European authors who wrote about the Kazakh Khanate. Instead, some of the ideas about the region that began to spread and then dominate the minds of Europeans about people living in Eurasia can be related. The territory of the Kazakh Khanate became a transit area for Europeans on their way to India, Iran and China.
Diplomats, missionaries and merchants were among those who visited the Kazakh steppes and then published maps, travel records or scientific works about it. In the 18th century, this territory was also visited by the military, officials and academics in exile. Each of them made a valuable contribution to the study of the country.
The author is a professor of history at the L.N. Gumilev Eurasian National University in Astana.