A review of the al-Beruni Institute for Oriental Studies, Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
The al-Beruni Institute for Oriental Studies at the Uzbek Academy of Sciences, established in 1943, houses the largest oriental and Islamic manuscript collection in Central Asia and one of the largest in the world. Some 45,000 works in Arabic, Persian and Turkish are preserved in approximately 26,000 volumes. This review is based on my visit to the al-Beruni Institute in July 2012 as part of the IMPAcT project based at the University of Oxford. My primary purpose there was to assess Islamic manuscripts written in the fields of philosophy and theology between the 13th to 16th centuries. My overall experience was a very positive one, although predicated, of course, on careful planning and realistic expectations. The Institute provides a pleasant and attractive research environment, and Tashkent and the surrounding region hold much charm.
Collection. There are three collections at the al-Beruni Institute. The Main Collection holds approximately 13,000 volumes; the Hamid Sulaymanov Collection some 7,300 volumes; and the Duplicate or Doublet Collection some 5,000 volumes. The Main Collection has three card catalog categories: subject, author and title. The card catalog for Hamid Sulaymanov is organized only by language and title. Lastly, the card catalog for the Duplicate Collection has no organizing principle: it lists works in a wholly random manner, giving each a consecutive number starting from one. Moreover, the name “duplicate collection” is a misnomer: some of the copies can be quite old, suggesting that valuable manuscripts were also assigned to this collection.
Although the card catalogs are generally sufficiently detailed, experts I met with at the Institute state that the trade-off between the pace and quality of work and the level of expertise of the earlier cataloguers took its toll. Quite a few works are either misidentified or left unidentified. Fortunately, the Main Collection has a print catalog in addition to the card catalog: Sobranie Vostochnykh Rukopisei, 11 vols., Tashkent, 1952-1987. However, the staff at the Institute again caution that this catalog, although rich, is not particularly systematic or comprehensive. I was informed that work is currently in progress on similar print catalogs for the Hamid Sulaymanov and Duplicate collections.
Except for rare manuscripts, the entire collection is accessible to researchers with a research permit. To see rare manuscripts requires special permission from the director, and this can sometimes be denied. Nevertheless, the frequency of denied permits does not really impede research.
Administration and permissions. The administrative structure of the Institute is as follows: the reading room and card catalog room are under the supervision of the Director of Collections, Professor Mahmud Hasani (the deputy director is Babakhan Qasimov); both he and the Office of the Secretary of Science report to the President, Dr Bahrom Abdulholimov.
Correspondence with the Institute takes place through the Office of the Secretary of Science (Ilmi Katib). It is this office to which one applies for a research permit. This office then takes the application to the director, informs the applicant of the decision of the president, and guides them through the application process proper (for both research permit and visa) if the decision is positive.
It is necessary to procure both written permission from the Institute and an Uzbekistan visa in order to undertake research at the Institute. The first step in this procedure is contacting the Institute by email, informing them in detail about one’s research plans and requesting their assistance in getting a visa. In their reply email the Institute will a) confirm that the research plan is accepted and give written permission to work at the Institute, b) send a form to be filled out, and c) ask for the relevant pages of the researcher’s passport and a copy of their CV. Items b) and c) are necessary for starting the visa procedure: the Institute sends these materials to the Academy of Sciences, which then passes them to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues a confirmation number for the visa application which the Institute emails both to the researcher and to the Uzbek consulate where the visa application will be made. Without this number one cannot get the type of visa the Institute requires. The entire procedure (first contact with the Institute to successful receipt of visa) took me approximately seven weeks.
Once at the Institute, the official procedure for starting work at the Institute involves a modest amount of bureaucracy: a meeting with the president, submission of official support letters from one’s home institution, payment of the annual membership fee (US $50) to the institute, and preparation of the relevant paperwork. The entire process takes about 1.5 hours, but can take longer if relevant personnel are not in the office. Still, this does not impede work because they let the researcher carry on with research and continue the process the next day. At the end of this process, they issue an “ID paper” (no picture but otherwise official) which should not be lost. It is not only the researcher’s permit document for the Institute but also the lesser of the two official connections to the Uzbek bureaucracy. I never needed to use it but was advised that outside the Institute it could be very useful to show it to the authorities should the need arise.
Hours and policies. A typical work day at the Institute begins at 9:15 am, when the staff of the reading room and catalog room arrive; it usually ends at around 4:50 pm (or sometimes as early as 4:30 pm) when the staff recall the manuscripts from readers. Manuscript access is very straightfoward, and three manuscripts are typically given out at a time. Toward the end of my research trip when the time limitation made itself felt they were kind enough to be flexible with this rule.
Laptops are allowed while working, but cells phones are to be kept in backpacks, suitcases, etc., which may be left on a table in the reading room. There is a no camera in the building policy: they do not carry out searches but if they notice a camera they remind you of the policy and ask you to keep it in a room other than the reading room during research. What really impeded work was the smell of fresh paint as a result of the recent renovation. Apart from a clean working environment renovation also meant air conditioning, which did make research easier in the summer heat, but until the smell decreased to bearable limits I had a hard time working. This should no longer be an issue, however.
Digital copies. To obtain digital copies of manuscripts, one must submit a petition to be approved by the president, Dr. Bahrom Abdulholimov. Since he also holds the position of vice president of the Uzbek Academy of Science, he spends half of his time away from the Institute. Researchers who require his permission and signature must learn his schedule and submit their requests accordingly. His permission is necessary on other occasions as well, but the staff is helpful in contacting him over the phone for his permission when that is possible. Also, there is only one staff member who is authorized to scan manuscripts for digital copies, Argash Kamilov, and he is not always at the Institute. Requests for digital copies should therefore never be left to the last minute.
The rates for digital copies run from US $4/folio for entire works (defined as an entire volume between two covers) to US $2/folio for partial copies (anything less than an entire volume). On this and previous visits I did not encounter any limitations on what can be digitized; as long as one has the permission to work with a given manuscript, it is also possible to digitize the desired sections.
Accommodation and logistics. I stayed at a hotel for the length of my visit, Uzbek National House (95 Soghbon St.). This is a traditional Uzbek house with several rooms opening onto a central courtyard. Some of the rooms have a private bathroom with shower, others use common facilities. My room was ensuite, with two beds, and included breakfast. The rate for this room was US $40/night (though because of my earlier connection I paid a bit less). It is about 50 minutes from the Institute by public transportation, which is quite cheap, or half an hour by taxi (7,000-8,000 sums).
However, for longer research trips a short-term apartment rental is preferable, if one can be found. This can cut accommodation costs significantly (it is around US $300/mo. for a furnished, three-bedroom apartment). But it may be significantly harder to arrange because of the legal issues involved. In Uzbekistan every foreign national must have a registration document stating the address and duration of stay. As an easy solution, hotels supply this document. When renting an apartment, the landlord must be willing to deal with the bureaucratic procedure of ensuring registration.
The above-mentioned registration document is one’s crucial connection to the Uzbek bureaucracy, and should therefore be kept with you all times along with your passport. Though police identity checks have become less frequent of late, they still happen with some regularity, so this is the document they will want to see after the passport. It makes one traceable in the country. If you decide to change hotels or go on an overnight excursion the hotel manager is bound by law to make sure that you have this document showing that you stayed at an officially recognized institution the night before. Not being able to document your location while in the country will definitely invite trouble.
In terms of currency, it is strongly recommended that you carry US dollars in intact but not newly issued bills. Slightly damaged or newly issued banknotes are likely to be refused at official or unofficial exchange points (July 2012 official rate: US $1 = about 1,800 sum; unofficial market rate: US $1 = 2,700 sum). The Euro is at a disadvantage, and it was surprising to note that the Pound Sterling was not commonly recognized in the marketplace.
For an internet connection, the best solution is to get a USB modem from one of the telecommunication companies. Beeline is especially recommended as I found them to offer the most reliable service, but this should be checked as things can change very quickly in the Uzbek economy. By visiting a branch with my passport I was able to get a phone number and a modem for about US $35. Internet cafes appear to have become less prevalent in recent years.
Budget. I spent nearly $2,500 in total for my three-week research trip. Approximately 50% of this was spent on airfare (London-Tashkent). The second largest budget item was accommodation (around 25%). Food and transportation are relatively minor items in the budget as Uzbekistan is still a very affordable country. The amount of digital copies one purchases at the Institute can, however, up the costs dramatically.
Al-Beruni Institute of Oriental Studies, Uzbek Academy of Sciences
O’zbekiston Respublikasi, 100170, Toshkent sh., Mirzo Ulug’bek ko’chasi, 81
Tel.: +99871 262 54 61
Office of the Secretary of Science: +99871 262 42 56; +99871 262 54 61; +99871 262 52 77
The Institute is located in the Akadem Gorodok (Academy Town) neighborhood around two kilometers from the Buyuk Ipak Yoli (formerly Maksim Gorki) metro station.
Oriental Institute/Pembroke College
University of Oxford
Image: Photograph of the al-Beruni Oriental Institute, Ulugh Beg statue, by Ertuğrul Ökten.
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