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Edward Allworth: The Last Of The Great Masters Of Central Asian Studies

A photo of Central Asian scholar Edward Allworth during his time with the 101st Airborne in World War II.
A photo of Central Asian scholar Edward Allworth during his time with the 101st Airborne in World War II.

The field of Central Asian Studies lost perhaps the last of its great masters when Dr. Edward A. Allworth died on October 20 at the age of 95.

He was already a legend in the field when I first met him in 1986. I had read some of his books (I'm still not sure how many he wrote) but each of his books could only show one part of Professor Allworth.

In person, he was a force.

Allworth started teaching at Columbia University in 1961 and though he is best known for his work in the field of Central Asian studies, he also wrote on the Crimean Tatars, Afghanistan, and was a leading authority on nationalities of the Soviet Union.

His knowledge of Central Asia was second to none, whether it was ancient or contemporary history, languages, or culture (and he was especially fond of the classical literature of the region). He seemed to know everything.

I said exactly that to him once and he laughed and said I was making him out to be more than he was. He was being way too modest there.

He taught me, and others, Uzbek and Uyghur, but he knew many more languages; not only Turkic languages, but Slavic and Germanic as well.

Edward Allworth was a distinguished gentleman, a scholar of "the old world," I used to think, someone who had read copiously and retained a huge amount of information. He spoke eloquently and his manner and behavior were at all times proper and impeccable. He always wore a suit and tie to class.

We could not have been more different I think, certainly when I started my course work with him, and I know I tried his patience more than once in my early years studying under him. (Ask me sometime about my reports for his classes on The Miracle Play of Husan and Husain and on Mahmud of Ghazna).

But he did not give up on me and gradually he opened Central Asia up to me and my fellow students. And more, he reveled in our successes. We were his children in a way, and when we did well it was clear that this gave him great satisfaction. When I returned from Central Asia in late 1993, after 21 months "in country," we spent hours together as I recounted my journeys and showed him photographs from all of the places I had been.

Hugely Respected

It was one thing, and quite natural, that I and his other students in Columbia's Middle East Languages and Cultures Department looked up to Professor Allworth in awe.

But it was not only his students. Professor Allworth was also a member of the Harriman Institute (at that time the Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union). He did not drop by the Harriman Institute often, but when he did the professors made sure they came out of their offices to meet with him and it was clear from the way they looked at him and spoke to him that he was a hugely respected figure.

Edward Allworth in later life
Edward Allworth in later life

After I left school, I had the great fortune to meet some of his peers; other giants in the field of Central Asian Studies: Richard Frye of Harvard, Denis Sinor of Indiana University (and also once a lecturer at Cambridge), and Edmund Bosworth, who taught at St. Andrews, the University of Manchester, Princeton, and Exeter University.

At first, all of them took no more than a mild, but polite, interest in meeting me, but when I explained I studied under Professor Allworth, everything changed. They asked about him, told stories they knew about him, and made me promise to send their regards to him when I next spoke with him. They also made it clear that being a student of Edward Allworth meant I had a lot to live up to.

And amazingly, there seemed to always be another tale about his life I had not heard. We lived close to one another and sometimes rode the bus home together. One day, during one of those journeys, I said something about World War II and he told me he was with a unit that parachuted into Europe on D-Day.

"Wow, what was that like?" I asked.

In an almost monotone voice, Professor Allworth simply said, "We were all a little nervous."

He neglected to tell me he was with the 101st Airborne Division and that he and his "unit" fought many battles in northern Europe right up to the end of World War II.

A Lifetime Of Achievement

People who aren't interested in Central Asia have probably never heard of Edward Allworth. But for those who do follow the region, Edward Allworth is one of the greatest of names in the field.

I am not one of his best students. I would be fooling myself if I thought that. But just to be a student of Edward Allworth means to have a pedigree, and if that is my only distinction in the field, that's good enough for me.

I will never be the equal of my master. But he showed me what excellence in the field is, and that will always motivate me to be better.

I am going to the United States now for several events. The crowning moment of the trip was going to be, and still is, attending the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) conference at Princeton University where a lifetime achievement award will be bestowed on Edward Allworth for his work.

I, and others, had hoped to see him accept the award in person but his health had not been good lately, so we hoped to at least be able to bring the award to him.

That is no longer possible but I was comforted by the words Morgan Liu, one of the brightest of the current Central Asian scholars, who wrote: "CESS is what has emerged in part because of his [Allworth's] legacy."

For my part, I say: "Thank you, my master for giving me a gift that has served me so well. I will always be your student."

RIP Edward Allworth, December 1, 1920 -- October 20, 2016

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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