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Tartaria: an Empire hidden by history, or revealed by ignorance?6 min read

 In Central Asia, Culture, Opinion
During some recent wanderings on the internet, I came across a most particular subreddit: “Tartaria”. At first, I thought the subreddit was dedicated to some fantasy or steampunk fictional world, but after a couple of posts, I realized that it was actually all about a conspiracy theory regarding an ancient kingdom, either ignored or purposely hidden by historians. Most of the posts there show European-style buildings in the United States built, supposedly, with “Tartarian” technology, or speculate over artistic representations of “lost technology”.

As a historian, these theories sounded really nonsensical and absurd to me. I couldn’t stop wondering what that was all about, though, and where the theory could’ve come from. After some research, I found it to be a symptom of a major problem: disinformation, distrust in science and its methods, and a belief in pseudoscience. There are other problems sprinkled here and there in the theory as a whole, and I’ll cover them shortly – but first things first.

Origins: my ignorance is as worthy as your knowledge

I’ll make a disclaimer: When I say ignorance, I merely mean the lack of knowledge about a subject, and not an ad-hominem to the people believing in these conspiracy theories. Well then: I traced most of the discussion about Tartaria back to a blog called “Stolen History” (that has been removed since then).

The premise of the blog is not bad, it claims that history is written by the victors, so it sets people out to find different perspectives and facts: something historians encourage, by seeking out as many sources as possible. As it is an open forum, though, pretty much all speculations are discussed seriously, without much evidence. That’s when things go sour.

Basically, some people noticed that until the 18th and 19th century, maps included a region called “Tartary” or “Grand Tartary” in  the east of Russia, Central Asia and Siberia. They ally this with quotes from the Encyclopedia Britannica (an 18th century work) in articles like this one to claim that there’s a hidden Empire in history.

This comes to show a profound lack of historical context. European geographers didn’t have a deep knowledge about the region and its peoples – the nomadic nature of the Turkic and Mongolic populations who roamed the steppes. For example, maps simply denoted the region where these nomadic people used to roam, not a kingdom in the molds of a Western one. As geographers learned more about the region, “Tartar/Tatar” lost its use as an umbrella term for the nomadic populations of the region. Other elements like a “Tartarian language”, flag, and crest – which were generalized from one tribe to all the other ones living in the region – are considered by the conspiracy theorists as proof that such a mighty Empire existed.

It gets worse. Another supposed evidence that academic history is a hoax is the discrepancy between 15th – 18th century depictions of people like Genghis Khan, Batu Khan and Tamerlane and more current ones (the examples they use, in fact, are just as old, only they’re paintings made by the actual ruler’s court painter). Only the “old” depictions deemed more accurate are white-washed versions of the sovereigns: because the European artists who made those were not familiar with the ethnicity they were representing, so they just imagined Genghis Khan like a regular Western king. This is not just ignorance but also low-key racism.

Asian and European depictions of Central Asian rulers / Photo-montage of pictures retrieved from Stolenhistory.org

It doesn’t stop there, though. Remember what I said about buildings in the United States? Well, based on color-coding on a couple of old maps and badly interpreted Latin, there’s a belief that Tartary had a hold in North America. That’s right. Linking all of this together, the conspiracy theorists believe that most architectural styles and technology associated with Western Europe, including the ones in Europe and out of it, are actually Tartarian. Old drawings and paintings picturing how technology would be in the future, Jules Verne style, depicting people with flying suits and weird steampunk helicopters, are attributed to Tartary, implying that the Empire held advanced technology that was simply hidden, destroyed or modified by European conquerors.

There are entire discussions about how old maps changed their shape in odd ways (completely dismissing how hard and inaccurate cartography used to be without modern equipment), attributing such changes to great floods and whatnot. I could go on and on, but the examples I gave here are enough to show how this “hidden history” works – by cherry picking and distorted pattern recognition.

1652 World map / Stolenhistory.org
Conclusion: it’s all about context…

As condescending as I may sound while presenting these theories, I don’t think people in these kinds of forums should just shut up. Questioning is a fundamental part of science; all great discoveries originate in a will to understand more, a realization that the things we know are incomplete. Curiosity and the will to increase our understanding of little researched topics is a good thing, but it shouldn’t be just thoughtless guessing. That’s why the scientific method exists: you cross-check facts and information, peer review articles, discuss theories with experts on congresses and seminars, conduct discussions in academia. Truly, it’s fascinating to see people going after knowledge for themselves.

What I see is lacking is an understanding of how knowledge is made. Sometimes, we think the things we know are taken for granted – we listen to our teachers at school and read our books already thinking it has always been there, and that everyone agrees on what’s been deemed as facts, since ever. Believing in conspiracies and pseudo science often seems to originate from the moment people realize that knowledge can be contested – and is being contested constantly, by the way! What do you mean, there are alternative explanations to what I’ve been taught? What else could be a lie? There they go, setting off to seek knowledge, but without method.

Method is important, or rather, fundamental and perhaps we need to learn more about that than learn about what’s been discovered so far. Everyone can do science and produce knowledge, yes, absolutely – but without method, we end up connecting points entirely unrelated to another.

Tartaria shows how a simple ignorance about other people’s culture and history can lead to huge misunderstandings. In Brazil, where I grew up, Asian history and the Russian Revolution are topics barely touched upon, and just because it relates to the bigger European scenario; European history garners the most focus in Western education, giving little attention to African and Asian history. Without studying, I could have just as easily have fallen for it.

If you think this kind of theory is harmless, just take into consideration the setbacks we are experiencing because there are flat-earthers and people who believe the Nazis were left wing. Conspiracy theories like these slow science down, spread disinformation and support delusional thinking. If anything, it distracts scholars from continuing research to expand our current knowledge by making them have to prove what is already widely known.

As most of the problems we have nowadays, the key to solving this general discrediting of science and widespread conspiracy theorizing can be only one: education, good education. The kingdom of Tartaria and all its technology may not be real, but the damage conspiracy theories do to science and trust in academic history is very much real.

Featured image: 1754 map of “Tartary” / Stolenhistory.org
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