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The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History

The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History

Rian Thum

ISBN 9780674598553

Publication date: 10/13/2014

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For 250 years, the Turkic Muslims of Altishahr—the vast desert region to the northwest of Tibet—have led an uneasy existence under Chinese rule. Today they call themselves Uyghurs, and they have cultivated a sense of history and identity that challenges Beijing’s official national narrative. Rian Thum argues that the roots of this history run deeper than recent conflicts, to a time when manuscripts and pilgrimage dominated understandings of the past. Beyond broadening our knowledge of tensions between the Uyghurs and the Chinese government, this meditation on the very concept of history probes the limits of human interaction with the past.

Uyghur historical practice emerged from the circulation of books and people during the Qing Dynasty, when crowds of pilgrims listened to history readings at the tombs of Islamic saints. Over time, amid long journeys and moving rituals, at oasis markets and desert shrines, ordinary readers adapted community-authored manuscripts to their own needs. In the process they created a window into a forgotten Islam, shaped by the veneration of local saints.

Partly insulated from the rest of the Islamic world, the Uyghurs constructed a local history that is at once unique and assimilates elements of Semitic, Iranic, Turkic, and Indic traditions—the cultural imports of Silk Road travelers. Through both ethnographic and historical analysis, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History offers a new understanding of Uyghur historical practices, detailing the remarkable means by which this people reckons with its past and confronts its nationalist aspirations in the present day.


  • In The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, [Thum] documents how the Muslims of the region now called Xinjiang understood their past in the three centuries before the Cultural Revolution. Then he explains how that historical identity was torn apart, by inside and outside forces, in the course of the 20th century… What makes Sacred Routes so valuable is its coverage of both the modern and pre-modern periods, taking us back before the Chinese conquest of Altishahr. This enables Thum to show what happened to the older cultural technologies of manuscript, shrine, and pilgrimage in the age of mass printing, competing nationalisms, and commercial tourism… Refusing to reduce his ‘biography of history’ in Altishahr to a simplistic binary of oppression and opposition, Thum instead leads readers beyond the familiar ideologies of modern times toward older ways of knowing and belonging. The empathy and magnitude of this humanist project show the experience of the past in a society few have tried to understand in its own terms… This is Uyghur history as everyman’s history.

    —Nile Green, Los Angeles Review of Books


  • 2015, Winner of the John K. Fairbank Prize in East Asian History
  • 2015, Winner of the Francis L.K. Hsu Book Prize


  • Rian Thum is Associate Professor of History at Loyola University New Orleans.

Book Details

  • 336 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press