Nicolaas Witsen

This website contains the bilingual (Dutch and Russian) digital version of Nicolaas Witsen’s 17 th -century book on Inner Eurasia, Noord en Oost Tartarye (North and East Tartary, second edition 1705 with the images from the 3rd edition, 1785). The book discussed the geography, ethnography, flora, fauna and linguistics of remote areas of Inner Eurasia. These were known as ‘Tartary’ or ‘Tartaria’: the lands of the ‘Tartars,’ nomadic peoples about whom Western European scholars knew very little at that time. This sizeable book was intended as an explanation to accompany the large and detailed map of Tartary that Witsen had published in 1687. It described the Crimea, the Caucasus, the lower and middle Volga region, the Ural Mountains, Siberia, Mongolia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Tibet, Manchuria, the islands and shores of Northern Japan, the Amur basin and Korea.

Witsen, a mayor of Amsterdam and amateur scholar, had travelled to Moscow in 1664-65, but he never visited any of the countries he put on his map or described in his book. The prominent statesman drew on a large number and wide variety of sources for his writings. He carefully studied classical, medieval and contemporary authors and also collected an enormous number of manuscript and oral reports. As a very rich man, he could afford to pay large sums for valuable information. Witsen was not only driven by scientific curiosity, but also interested in the practical aspects of the relationship between empire-building and economics. He described Russian and Siberian expansion and relations, as well as those of various groups of Inner Eurasian merchants, and their trade and itineraries.

Witsen was aware of the tentative character of his research and did not allow Noord en Oost Tartarye to be sold in Dutch bookshops, although he presented copies of his book to friends and important acquaintances. Prior to the recent re-evaluation he had never been properly honoured for his pioneering studies, except in Russia. There, copies of his map and book, which was dedicated to Peter the Great, were available in the library of the Academy of Sciences, and Witsen has always had an excellent reputation. In the nineteenth century, Russian historians and ethnographers discovered that Witsen had used many Russian sources that had since been lost, and they praised Noord en Oost Tartarye ‘as the most remarkable book about Asiatic Russia ever written by a foreigner.’ During the Soviet period, Witsen was seen as scholar who had ‘opened up a new era in the study of Siberia.’ Nowadays, he is respectfully mentioned o n many local Russian websites as the first to have reported on their town, province, nationality or language.

In 2010, the joint Russian-Dutch ‘Witsen Project’ produced a three-volume Russian edition of Noord en Oost Tartarye, published in Amsterdam by Pegasus publishers. The first two volumes included a translation of the whole text and all the illustrations from the two-volume edition of 1785. A third volume (579 pages) contained introductory articles along with notes, indexes and other explanatory materials. This digital version makes the Russian edition available for the first time to all who wish to consult it, with some English and Dutch supplements, alongside the original version in Dutch.