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Central Asia "World History"

Central Asia "World History"
Peter B. Golden


A Layering of Peoples

Historically, Central Asians had no all-embracing term for the region or its peoples. The ties of clan, tribe, status, locale, or religion were the primary components of Central Asian identities, and these were often multi-layered. For its large nomadic population, political delimitations were of little consequence. Control over people brought control over territory.

For millennia a bridge between East and West, China, India, Iran, the Mediterranean lands, and more recently Russia have infl uenced Central Asia, the meeting ground of shamans, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, among others. Its shifting ethnic, linguistic, political and cultural borders encompassed two interacting yet fundamentally different lifeways, each inhabiting different ecological niches: the settled folk of its oases and the nomads of the steppes. Ancient and medieval observers considered it marginal to “civilization.” Modern historians have deemed it the “heartland” or “pivot” of Eurasian history because it produced the largest empires of premodern times.

Central Asia occupies approximately one-seventh of Earth’s landmass, some eight million square miles. Today, western Central Asia, overwhelmingly Muslim, consists of the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, historically called “Western Turkestan”.

Soviet policy determined the names and borders of the modern states, attempting, for the first time in history, to tie politically delineated territories to specifi c ethno-linguistic groups often defining them according to political needs. Muslim Central Asia also includes Xinjiang (also called “Eastern Turkestan”) in China, with its indigenous Uighur and other Turko-Muslim populations. Today, much of the region between the Amur Darya River and Xinjiang, once largely Iranian-speaking, is Turkic in language, a linguistic shift that has been in progress for 1500 years, creating a “Turko-Persian” cultural world. Southward, Afghanistan, tied to its northern neighbors by ethnicity and language, is a microcosm of this mix.

Eastern Central Asia, largely Buddhist, comprises Mongolia, divided today into the Republic of Mongolia, the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China, and Manchuria. Tibet, linguistically distinct from Central Asia, has, at various times, played a critical role in Central Asian affairs.

The forest-steppe zones between the Volga and western Siberia contain substantial Muslim Turkic populations with historical and cultural roots in Central Asia. Politically and culturally, Central Asia, an exporter of peoples, has also extended into Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, and the Middle East.

The steppe, a mix of prairie, desert and semi-desert extending from Hungary to the Altay Mountains and the Manchurian forests, is Central Asia’s dominant ecological zone. Although snow-covered for more than a third of the year, its rich grasslands support large herds. Alongside the seas of grass, baking deserts, punctuated by oases, are the most common feature, especially in the south. The aridity of the region is so great that in the early twentieth century Sir Aurel Stein, the British-Hungarian explorer, could still smell the pungency of materials excavated from a well-preserved medieval “rubbish heap” in Lop Nor (eastern Xinjiang). The melt off from snow-covered mountains produces rivers that, in summer’s heat, turn into puddles or parched riverbeds. Erosion and desiccation are an ongoing problem.

Remarkably, plant life survives in the deserts, blooming in the spring and lying dormant during the long summers and winters. Agriculture flourishes in the oases nourished by rivers, such as the Zeravshan, Amu Darya, and the Syr Darya. The latter two fl ow into the Aral Sea (actually a large lake), now sadly polluted. Rivers are partially ice-covered for more than half of the year and often longer. Unlike the great civilizations of China, India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, riverbanks are relatively sparsely populated and do not serve as arteries of commerce and communication. Mongolia’s Orkhon, Selenge, and Kerulen rivers were associated with the great steppe empires, but played no major economic role in them. Except for fi shing, the nomads never exploited the rivers. Water travel usually meant fording a river on infl ated rafts made from animal hides.

The interaction of the steppe-dwellers with neighboring agrarian states has shaped much of our knowledge of Central Asia. The accounts coming from settled societies are culturally biased against the nomads who dwelt in “the inhospitable land of the Barbarians.” Ancient Persian tradition contrasted Turan, the fi erce Iranian (and later Turkic) world of nomads beyond the Amu Darya, and Iran (historically also termed “Persia”), as the struggle between good and evil. Many of the Chinese words that designated these peoples are customarily translated into English as “barbarian,” but these terms were actually far more nuanced, ranging in meaning from “vassal” and “foreign” to the less charitable “barbarous.” Chinese historians made no attempt to hide their revulsion at the nomads’ “primitive” customs, cuisine, and clothing of animal hides, fur, and felt.

However, archaeological fi nds show that some nomads lived rich, even luxuriant lives, often confirmed by the same scornful contemporary observers. They lined their fur garments, necessary for the cold, with silk obtained from China and other precious textiles from Iran. They made extensive use of gold and gilded objects in their fi nery. The ceremonial costume of the “Golden Man” largely made from gold or decorated with golden articles, replete with a high golden headdress (such high headdresses were also common among women well into medieval times—indeed some archaeologists think that the so-called “Golden Man” may actually be a warrior priestess), shows that “Barbarian”clothing, an early, all-gold version of a top hat and tails, was anything but primitive. Nomads had a rich tradition of oral poetry, song and music. Some scholars credit them with the invention of bowed musical instruments, such as the violin, derived perhaps from the ancestor of the qobпz still played by Central Asian peoples such as the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz today. The oldest example of a “horsehead fiddle,” called morin khuur in Mongol, dating to the seventh or eighth century was found in warrior’s burial site in Mongolia in 2008.

The themes of “barbarism” and the “noble savage” are common in the writings of ancient and medieval authors describing what they perceived as an alien world. In reality, the nomads were no more bloodthirsty or covetous of gold or silks than their “civilized” neighbors. Life on the steppe was harsh, but many nomads felt theirs was a superior existence to those who spent a lifetime in backbreaking labor on the soil. Urban Central Asia, with its rich and cosmopolitan culture and its agrarian and commerce-oriented economy, had a symbiotic relationship with its nomadic neighbors, often serving as the connecting bond between steppe and sown.

A key theme of Central Asian history is the movement of peoples and languages and the creation of new ethnic entities. Languages are usually grouped into “families” indicating origins in a common linguistic, but not necessarily biological, source. Two language families, Indo-European and Altaic, dominate the history of Central Asia. The Indo-Europeans formed a linguistic community that lived in the Black Sea steppes around 4500 to 4000 bce. By 3000 or 2500 bce, this community began to break up, with groups moving into central, south, and west Asia and the northern Mediterranean. Their linguistic descendants extend from the Indic speakers of South Asia (Hindi-Urdu, Punjabi, and many other languages in the Indian subcontinent) and Iranian speakers of Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (Persian, Tajik, Pashtun, and other Iranian languages) to the British Isles and include all of the languages of Europe except for Basque, Finnish, Estonian, and related Finnic languages, and Hungarian, its distant relative.

Altaic was located in Southern Siberia, eastern Mongolia, and Manchuria. Its members include Turkish and various Turkic tongues spoken in Central Asia, such as Uzbek, Kazakh, and Uighur, as well as Mongolian found in various forms in Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and adjoining areas of China and Russia, including the Kalmyk people in the Volga region. Manchu (now nearly extinct) and the smaller Tungusic peoples of Manchuria constitute the eastern branch. Some scholars would include the ancestors of Korean and Japanese in the Altaic “family.” Others not only reject this connection, but also contest the idea that Altaic constitutes a language family. Rather, they argue, the parallels between the different Altaic languages are merely the result of centuries of interaction and lexical borrowing.

As the history of Central Asia amply demonstrates, medieval and modern “peoples” are often the product of many ethnic and linguistic layers mixed over time and brought together with no small measure of political calculation, especially in modern times. The means by which a language spread is not always clear. Conquest, mass migration, and the total displacement of one people by another is one model. Another is marked by gradual infi ltration, interaction, and resultant bilingualism. Migrating groups are themselves often the products of extensive ethnic and linguistic interaction. With each new movement, the ethnic name and the changing language associated with that name will be passed on to another grouping, in a relay-race fashion. The result is that peoples bearing the same name and speaking forms of a common language may actually have multiple and diverse origins. The movement of peoples has produced an intricate mosaic. The ethno-linguistic map that we see today is merely a snapshot, at a given point in time, of blendings that have been taking place over millennia. The creation of peoples is an ongoing process.