This gargantuan work is the official ‘Headquarters Map’ of Central Asia made for the exclusive use of the most senior Russian military officers, whether at the General Staff offices at the Ministry of War in St. Peterburg, or at the regional headquarters in Tashkent. It was made in 1877, towards the crescendo of the ‘Great Game’, which the Russian poetically called the ‘Tournament of Shadows’, a decades-long Anglo-Russian contest for mastery over the heart of Asia, considered to be the first ‘Cold War’.
The work is by far and away the most accurate map of Central Asia of its era, as it features innumerable important details that appear for the first time on printed map. Indeed, the antecedent manuscripts were drafted in Tashkent by Russian military engineers who had access to ground-breaking fresh surveys and reconnaissance that arrived fast and furious from the field; in many cases they represented the first ever mapping of the areas depicted. The attention to empirical accuracy and detailing is meticulous, and the work was brilliantly chromolithographed in St. Peterburg by the press of the Army General Staff.
As indicated by the title, the map is centred upon the Turkestan Military District, a special army zone created in 1867 that embraced modern Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as well as parts of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan; while almost exactly in the middle of the map is Tashkent, home of the regional Russian High Command. However, the map’s ambitious cope extends far beyond the district, running as far north as the 52nd parallel North, in Siberia (Orenburg is in the far upper left); as far south as roughly the 36th parallel to the northernmost tip of British India; while the map runs from the middle of Caspian Sea, in the west, over east deep within Xinjiang Province, China, beyond Urumqi, while taking much of Tibet. Within the Turkestan Military District, the map depicts the famous Silk Road cities of Khiva, Bukhara, Merv and Samarkand, that had been the objects of recent Russian military endeavours.
The map is one of the greatest masterpieces of late czarist Russian cartography; it is exceedingly detailed and makes every effort to define the diverse topography with empirical accuracy, showing only what had been properly reconnoitred or surveyed, while any conjectural details are either omitted or are clearly shown to be such. As shown in the legend that runs below the title, the elevation gradients are expressed through bright chromolithographic colouring, that grow progressively darker as the level ascends, ranging from areas under 1000 feet (light yellow) to over 10,000 being a dark brownish orange. Mountain are defined by careful hachures, with spot heights of major peaks are given in feet, while deserts are shown by a dusting of red dots. Impressively, the map labels every city, town and village, employing symbols to indicate their size, as well as forts, military outposts, post offices, telegraph stations, mines, surviving points, etc. All roads, railways and caravan routes are noted, as are political boundaries. In many newly explored, remote places, the level of detail provided is surprisingly comprehensive.
Interestingly, the present example of the map features contemporary manuscript additions of placenames in Russian and underlining of printed locations, in neat blue and orange crayon, which suggests that it was heavily consulted and used by a Russian officer.
The map was made in 1877, towards the crescendo of the Great Game, or the Tournament of Shadows, when after decades of cold war characterized by territorial aggrandizement, proxy battles and complicated diplomatic manoeuvres, Russia and Britain found themselves eye to eye, as their respective Asian empires had expanded to the
point where they directly bordered each other for the first time.
Since 1847, the Russia had mounted campaigns to conquer the states of Central Asia. After seizing much of Kazakh Steppe, they took Tashkent in 1865; Kokand and Bukhara (1864-8); Samarkand (1868); Khiva (1873); and would later go on to win a decisive victory that assured their eventual conquest of much of Turkmenistan at the Battle of Geok Tepe (January 24, 1881).
Meanwhile, the British, who had consolidated their control over what is today Pakistan in the 1850s, would go on to conquer Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80). By this point there were no more ‘buffer states’ between Russian and British territory, and in what was an environment of extreme tension, the two empires had to decide to either have a final, destructive showdown along the Hindu Kush, or, to diplomatically resolve to respect each other’s presence, and to draw mutually acceptable boundaries between their zones of control. As it turned out, cooler heads prevailed, and realizing the gravity of the situation, during the rest of 1880s and ‘90s, Russia and Britain worked towards a peaceful negotiated settlement. This eventually led to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which established the two empires as allies heading towards World War I.
The present map was the authoritative ‘Headquarters Map’ that was hung up on the walls of the General Staff offices in St. Petersburg and at the headquarters of the Turkestan Military District in Tashkent, where it would have served as the focal point for strategic deliberations concerning military planning, diplomatic-treaty negotiations, and infrastructure development. Specifically, the present map would have been used to plan the climax of the Russian conquest of central Asia, including the strike to Geok Tepe, and the subsequent taking of Merv, Turkmenitan (1884) and the outer regions of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It would also have been used to inform the negotiations regarding the boundaries between Russian, Persia, British and Chinese territories. As the map features incredibly detailed, militarily sensitive information to aid an army on the move, the map would have been considered highly classified. It would not have been sold publicly but distributed to only senior military officers and politicians, as well as few friends of the government in the academic and business communities.
As best as we are aware, the present map was issued in two editions; the first (represented by the present example) was published in 1877, while the second was printed in 1881. There are notable differences between the two editions. The first edition embraces the same territory as the second, save that the later adds extra panels to the south, extending its coverage down to around the 28th parallel, considering the theatre of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, as well as including some updated information with regards the mutually covered territories.
A Note on Rarity
Both editions of the map are exceedingly rare. They would have been issued in only very small print runs exclusively for high-level official use. Moreover, the survival rate of such ‘headquarters’ wall maps is very low, as they were exposed to extensive wear from use and the elements.
While the present first edition of 1877 is cited in several Russian publications, we can definitively trace only a single institutional example, held by the National Library of the Republic of Kazakhstan (Almaty), although there are surely a few other examples in Russian or other former Soviet libraries and archives that we have not been able to trace online. The second edition of 1881 seems to be known in only a single example, of which we had the pleasure of handling earlier this year. Beyond that, we are not aware of any other examples of either edition as having appeared on the market.
One should note that there are several later wall maps of the area assuming similar titles, but these are entirely different works printed from new matrices.
References: National Library of the Republic of Kazakhstan (NLRK): Turkestan Collection. – 1882 .– T. 280.; Vladimir Izmailovich MEZHOV, Туркестанский сборник сочиненій и статей, относящихся до Средней Азіи вообще и Туркестанскаго края в особенности [Collection of Essays on Turkestan and Articles related to Central Asia in General and the Turkestan Region in Particular] (St. Petersburg, 1884), p. 41; Zinaida Kuzminichna SOKOLOVSKAYA, Картографические и геодезические работы в Росии в XIX-начале XX в [Cartographic and Geodetic Works in Russia in the 19th and early 20th Centuries] (Moscow, 1967), p. 108; Eleonora Ivanovna IVANCHIKOVA, Казахстан на страницах “Туркестанского сборника”: аннотированный библиографический указатель литературы [Kazakhstan in the ‘Turkestan Collection’: An Annotated Bibliographic Index of Literature] (Astana: Institute of Eurasian Integration, 2002), p. 184.