Yusuf of Balasagun

To follow up the last post about Balasagun, I wanted to write about a guy who actually lived there: Yusuf Balasaguni.

Standing where it once stood, with the Chu River not far away and the mountains in the distance looking now like they did then, probably provides the best prospect at imagining Balasagun as the bustling capital city it once was.  Yusuf Balasaguni’s epic poem Wisdom of Royal Glory, though, offers another way of getting at it.

Frederick S. Starr, eloquent as always, says:

No one more fully embodies the two-way process of cultural assimilation [between Arabic and Turkic] than the Karakhanid philosopher, poet, and statesman Yusuf Balasaguni, or Yusuf of Balasagun, the author of the didactic volume for rulers entitled “Wisdom of Royal Glory.”  He completed his book in 1069[…] Yusuf Balasaguni’s great achievement was to have shaped and disciplined the vivid but unruly spoken Turkic into a flexible literary language, and then to use that language to compose over two hundred pages of rhymed verse on a subject that would have been familiar to any educated Persian or Arab: advice for princes.

I’m doing a pretty cursory reading of Wisdom of Royal Glory, which is, I think, pretty cool.  I mean isn’t it cool that anyone is able to read, in English, something written almost 1000 years ago in some ancient Turkic language in a city that’s basically a lumpy field today?  The most compelling thing about it though, is definitely the setting of it’s authorship.  The plot not so much.

Nonetheless, it goes something like this:  An ambitious young man comes to the court of the local Khan, proves himself to be capable, and eventually gets the job of vizier.  He unfortunately dies, and his two sons are raised in the court.  One grows up to replace his father as the vizier and the other becomes a religious recluse.

There’s some allegory and metaphor in there too, but that’s the gist of it.

Is there some meaningful lesson to glean from the fact that best preserved remnant of Balasagun isn’t a structure, but a poem?  I think there probably is.


Yusuf Balasaguni on the Kyrgyz 1000 som note.


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About Cole Bedford