Tuesday evening I saw a movie from Kazakstan called The Fall of Otrar. I had wanted to see it for some time, since it deals with a time and place of intense interest to me, Central Asia in the early 13th century, at the beginning of Genghis Khan’s conquests. In 1218 most of what’s now northeastern Iran, northern Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan was ruled by the Khwarezmshah Muhammad, who had expanded Khwarezm (or Khorezm) from its base south of the Aral Sea into a substantial empire. Then he was foolish enough to provoke Genghis, who at that point simply wanted to trade with him; within a couple of years he was dead and his empire was ravaged by the Mongols in one of the most brutal episodes of world history. This story (summarized nicely here, and there’s an interesting sidelight on clothing here) is the focus of the movie, which personalizes it by focusing on a (presumably invented) Kipchak scout named Unzhu who spends seven years as a commander under Genghis learning everything he can, comes back to Khwarezm to warn the ruler about the Mongol peril, gets tortured as a spy, and escapes; by the time he’s proved right, it’s too late. Anyway, the movie is long and relentlessly violent, but it’s in Kazakh (with bits of Mongol and Chinese), so I considered my time well spent. And let me take this opportunity to remind NYC-area readers that the Films from Along the Silk Road: Central Asian Cinema festival is just under way at Lincoln Center and will be going on all month.
Of course, it would have been nice if Khwarezmian had been spoken at least by the court (many of the underlings and military were Turks by this time, and Kazakh is a reasonable substitute for their dialect), but since it’s been extinct for centuries, I’ll give them a pass on that.