Professor wins $10,000 grant for research in Tajikistan

Jo Ann Gross, professor of history specializing in the Middle East and Central Asia, received a $10,000 grant to fund research she is conducting in religious shrines in Tajikistan, a Central Asian country.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation proposed the grant to Gross. It is associated with the Swiss Consular Agency in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and is funded by the Swiss government.

All the funds will be used in Tajikistan to support the salaries of Tajik scholars with whom she will collaborate, and to pay for production costs.

Gross began the project four years ago, wanting to focus on the Islamic shrines of Tajikistan.

“In comparison with the better-known urban shrines of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran, the shrines of Tajikistan are little known and unstudied outside of Russian scholarship,” Gross said.

She has conducted ethnographic research – research that deals with the scientific description of specific human cultures – and has taken photos and created drawings of the landscape.

The photographs will be used for a traveling exhibition and afterward will be donated to the National Museum of Tajikistan in Dushanbe. The exhibit is expected to open in July.

The photographic exhibition is based on research that Gross conducted over the past four years, particularly the research she did during a six-month sabbatical in 2004.

An International Research and Exchanges Board Senior Research Award funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities supported that research.

Some of the photographs will also be included in a book she is working on called “The Islamic Shrines of Tajikistan: A History of the Sacred Landscape.”

A Tajik scholar and graphic designer are also working on the project, which will be featured in a calendar for 2006.

She said the subjects of her photographs are shrines and families associated with the shrines, whether they are descendants of the eminent people buried there, caretakers, local townspeople or villagers.

“The goal of the traveling photographic exhibition is to bring visual expression to an important and dynamic aspect of Tajik culture and to provide a link between local culture, social development and historical memory, past and present,” she said.

Historically, Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, played a central role in the religious and communal life of Central Asian Muslims through the popularity of Sufi saints, legends and especially shrines.

“The spiritual and social meaning of shrines has endured in the hearts and minds of urban and rural Tajiks through the Soviet period, the Tajik Civil War and the present post-Soviet period,” Gross said.

“We’re living in a global community and it’s very important to be aware of histories and cultures,” she said.

She also expressed interest in the changes the country and its people have undergone since forced to abandon their religion while occupied by the Soviet Union, a Communist union that does not mention any gods.

“It’s interesting how, post-Soviet, you have this reformulation of Islamic identity,” Gross said. “One aspect of it is the shrine culture.”

The shrines, called Sina, are an important part of culture and history.

Gross said pilgrimages and shrine-centered religion lay at the heart of Muslim religion in Tajikistan. One family is held responsible for taking care of the shrines and the descendants of those buried there, Gross said.

“The burial places of those charismatic figures have a certain spiritual energy,” she said.

Gross is now working on a side project that involves studying present-day descendants of a person memorialized by a shrine.