In the early 1970s the Italian conceptual artist Alighiero e Boetti often visited the hotel he had bought in Kabul, Number One Hotel:
By 1972 it was being used not just by Boetti’s friends but by more and more western travellers.
All around them in Kabul revolutionary forces were emerging who wanted to overthrow the King. One of these forces was Islamism. The westerners heard odd stories about a man called The Engineer on the university campus. He was supposed to be going round throwing acid in the faces of girls who didn’t cover their heads.
Two hundred years before, the first modern Islamist had emerged to the north of Afghanistan, in the Caucasus. He was called Sheikh Mansur. Mansur fused ideas of nationalism and anti-colonial struggle with Islam and used them to lead a struggle against the Russian forces that were trying to occupy Chechnya and Daghestan.
In 1876 a professor in Turin discovered a collection of letters written by Sheikh Mansur to the professor’s father. In them Sheikh Mansur reveals that he was in reality an Italian from Turin called Giovanni Battista Boetti.
He was a direct ancestor of Alighiero e Boetti.
The letters tell an amazing story. Giovanni Boetti had been born near Turin. In the early 1770s he had run away from home and become a monk for the Dominican order. He then travelled as a missionary in Asia Minor and had all sorts of adventures and scandalous intrigues and love affairs. Then at some point Boetti converted to Islam and became a “Mussulman Prophet” with the power to raise and lead an army of thousands of Muslims.
From other accounts of Sheikh Mansur it is clear that this power came from the fact that he had fused what were modern western ideas of nationalism and anti-imperialism with Islamic ideas. Up to that point the resistance to the growing Russian empire had been from secular leaders in Chechnya. And they had failed.
Mansur-Boetti was something new and mysterious.
Then the Russians noticed Boetti. In 1785 General Potemkin wrote to Catherine the Great:
“On the opposite bank of the river Sunja in the village of Aldy a prophet has appeared and started to preach. He has submitted superstitious and ignorant people to his will by claiming to have had a revelation”
The Russians decided to send an army of three thousand men to destroy this prophet. They marched though the mountains and the farmland where Grozny now stands and across the river into the village of Aldy. But when they arrived they found no-one there. It was as if Boetti and all his army had disappeared. “As though they were ghosts” wrote one Russian.
The Russians destroyed the village completely and then set off on the return march. But Boetti had hidden his army in the forest covered mountains and he had set up an ambush. The Islamists slaughtered over half the Russian force and most of the survivors drowned trying to flee across the Sunja River. It was the start of what the Chechens today see as a 200 year war to remove the Russian occupation.
Here are photos of Giovanni Battista Boetti and his descendant Alighiero e Boetti. Both were cultural warriors — the fake Sheikh struggling against the Russian attempt to destroy Chechen national identity, the later Boetti struggling against the culture of individual self expression which he believed was corroding the west. The Sheikh used armed struggle, his descendent used the possibly less effective weapon of performance art.
But maybe its not true. Over the last 100 years scholars have argued about the authenticity of the letters.
Possibly they were extraordinary fantasy? An elaborate fiction about Islam and the west written by the older Boetti. Or possibly forged and planted in the archive by someone else? No One knows for sure.