40,000BC – Neanderthal man remains found in cave near Samarkand.
3,500BC – Botai Culture of N Kazakhstan domesticated horses and horse-based nomadism becomes the dominant steppe culture.
Cultural continuity begins in the late 3rd millennium BC, with the Indo-Iranians, speakers of an unrecorded dialect related distantly to English. They passed through Central Asia from their homeland in southern Russia on their way to India and Iran. They herded cattle, forged iron, invented the wheeled chariot and buried their nobles in burial mounds. The Tajik people are linguistic descendants. The Sakas (part of the Scythians people) left rock carvings across Central Asia (best remnant is the ‘Golden Man’ find outside Almaty).
3,000BC – The Bronze Age Gonur-Depe in Turkmenistan was one of the great cities of the ancient world and was an early center of Zorastrianism.
2,000BC – The Oxus River changes flow draining north into the Aral Sea instead of west into the Caspian forming the Khrezm delta and a major center of development.
6th century. Recorded history begins with the large Archaemenad empire of Persia that created client kingdoms in Central Asia at Khiva, and Bactria in Afghan Turkmenistan.
Alexander the Great (356-323BC). From Macedonia, he had a key victory over his Persian nemesis, the Achaemenid emperor, Darius III in 330BC, and developed a taste for conquer. He founded Khojant in modern Tajikistan, conquered Samarkand and married the Bactrian princess Roxana. His growing megalomania and his followers became disenchanted. When he died in 323, he left no named heir.
East Meets West. Alexander was followed by an explosion of East-West cultural exchange. Hellenistic cities and Buddhist monasteries on the borders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan showed a fusion of Greek, Persian art forms.
In 138BC the Chinese emissary Zhang Qian took 13 years to reach the area and was successful in Chinese diplomacy and exploration setting the stage for the birth of the Silk Road.
Kushan Empire (250BC-226AD). After converting to Buddhism, it grew to control northern India and Afghanistan. Vigorous trade on the Silk Road spread Kushan and Buddhist culture. Coins bore images of Greek, Roman, Buddhist, Persian and Hindu deities. Tibetan and Chinese culture were permanently affected.
Huns ruled a vast section of Central Asia from 440-568 but were conquered by the western Turks whose ancestral homelands were in southern Siberia. They fused with the Sogdians from modern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and their language became the lingua franca of the Silk Road.
In 630 the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuan Zang traveled to India via Issyk-Kol, Tashkent and Samarkand.
Islam. From 642-712 the Arab conquest of Central Asia brought Islam. The Chinese Tang dynasty expanded into Central Asia, but the Turks joined forces with Arabs and Tibetans to force them across the Tian Shan, marking the outer limits of the Chinese empire for good. China’s best secrets, papermaking and silk making were taken over by the Arabs who then had a commercial advantage all over Europe. This was the first mortal blow to the Silk Road.
By the 9th century, the peaceful Samanid dynasty brought Persian (Sunni Muslim) culture to Bukhara with some of the Islamic world’s best scholars in the city’s 133 madrassas. The famous library of Bukhara shone as one of the world’s great centers of intellectual development. Science, medicine, astronomy and mathematics (algebra) blossomed.
Karakhanids (Turkic) controlled the area from Burana in Kyrgyzstan to Talas, Kazakhstan in the west to Kashgar in the east and finally converted the population of Central Asia to Islam. Further south the Ghaznavids snuffed out Buddhism and introduced Islam to India. They were later snuffed out by the Seljuqs who controlled an area from Kashgar to the Mediterranean who by the 13th century were conquered by the Khorezmshah who came to control most of the Muslim world. Central Asia was in a perennial state of forgettable wars. In the 12th century, Merv in Turkmenistan was the largest city in the world.
Mongols. Chinggis Khan felt he had all the justification in the world to destroy Central Asia. In 1218, a governor in Otrar (in modern Kazakhstan) received a Mongol delegation to inaugurate trade relations, but he assassinated them all. His strategy of commerce became conquest and the rest is history. In 1219, with 200,000 men, he rode west from the Altay, sacked Khojand and Otrar (the governor had molten silver poured into his eyes) and Bukhara (here he announced “I am God’s punishment for your sins” and burned it to the ground, initially killing 30,000, but after it rebelled, he killed 180,000 in a week). News of this psychological warfare, unrivalled in history, travelled quickly.
The Mongol hordes swept on to conquer and plunder the great cities of Central Asia Samarkand, Merv, Termiz, Urgench, Heart, Balkh, Bamiyan, Ghazni – and eventually under his generals and heirs, most of Eurasia. No opposing army could match their speed, agility and accuracy with a bow. The Mongol invasion could be summed up as “They came, they sapped, they fired, they slew, they looted and they left. It took 600 years for the settled Central Asia to recover under Russian colonization. His descendants controlling Persia favored Shiite Islam, which over the centuries isolated Central Asia even more from the rest of the Sunni Muslim world.
But there was stability, law and order under the Pax Mongolica. The modest flurry of trade on the Silk Road resulted in several famous medieval travellers, including Marco Polo.
On Chinggis Khan’s death in 1227, his empire was divided among his sons. Ukraine, Moscow, west and north Kazakhstan went to his grandsons, Baru and Orda (the Golden Horde). Chaghatai, his second son, got southern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and western Xinjiang (Chaghatai Khanate). Ogetai, the third son got the rest of Central Asia and the Mongol heartland, inherited by the youngest son, Tolui, and this formed the basis of his son, Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty in China. Initially, they tried to preserve their nomadic lifestyle, but the Chagatai line inevitably settled down and attempted to convert to Islam. It was this issue, in the mid 14th century, that split the khanate in two – the Muslim Chaghatais held Transoxiana and the conservative branch retaining the Tian Shan, Kashgar and the vast steppes north and east of the Syr-Dara.
The Black Death plague spread in 1338 from a diseased community at Lake Issyk-Kol in current Kyrgyzstan along the Silk Road to Russian Volga. In 1343, the Golden Horde catapulted the plague-riddled corpses of his dead soldiers over the city walls of Kafa in the Crimea and its Genoese population fled by boat to the Mediterranean coast, spreading it deeper into Europe. The pandemic went on to kill between 30 and 60% of Europe’s population and around 100 million people across Asia. It was the Mongols kiss of death to the world.
Timur. The fracturing of the Mongol empire led to resurgence of the Turkic peoples. From one minor clan near Samarkand arose a tyrant’s tyrant, Timur. After wrestling Transoxiana from Chaghatai , he went on a 9-year rampage resulting in 1 million deaths (famous for building towers or walls of cemented heads of the defeated army) which ended in 1395 with control of Iraq, Syria, eastern Turkey, the Caucasus and modern India. He plundered riches and sent artisans to his capital at Samarkand which, in contrast to his conquered lands, into a lavish showcase of treasure and spectacle. He had little of Chinggis Khan’s gift for statehood and his bloodbaths were not linked to political or military aims, but he is still considered more cultured and religious of the two men. Timur died an old man in Otra in 1405, having just set out to conquer China. His descendants ruled small kingdoms and his wife moved the capital to the cultured city of Heart, populated by Sufi poets and the miniaturist painter Behza whose work had a huge influence on subsequent Persian and Mughal miniatures. Samarkand became a center for mathematics and astronomy attracting scientists to become a center of learning for years to come.
Uzbeks and Kazakhs. The forebears of the Uzbeks, in the 14th century, converted to Islam, and eventually came to control Transoxiana, modern Uzbekistan. With fertile river valleys, they developed a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle and stronger Islamic beliefs. Their rebellious relatives flourished as nomadic herders, practiced a weaker Islam and spread as far as the Ural River and north of the Tian Shan. Babur (1483-1536) continued to Kabul, and the sent armies over the Khyber Pass into India, and ultimately founded the magnificent Mughal empire (a corruption of Mongol).
With the new emphasis on trade by sea, the Silk Road declined and trading cities like Bukhara declined.
Zhungarian Empire (1635-1758). A western Mongol clan that had converted to Tibetan Buddhism came to control eastern Kazakhstan, the Tian Shan, Kashgaria and western Mongolia. Russia’s frontier settlers were forced to pay heavy tribute. They developed fortified outposts on the northern edge of the Kazakh steppe, and the Kazakhs gradually accepted Russian protection.
Uzbekistan Khanates. In the fertile oasis of Uzbekistan, a military regime collapsed in 1747, leaving a void that was rapidly filled by a trio of Uzbek khanates: the Kungrats in Khiva, the Manjits at Bukhara, and the Mins at Kokand, all rivals and constantly at each other’s throats. Boundaries shifted frequently in endless wars. They ruled as feudal despots, some capable, some depraved and despised tyrants. Islam waned, levels of education and literacy plummeted and ignorance and superstition pervaded everything. But trade was vigorous. Bukhara exported cotton, silk, cloth and fleece with Russia and commerce brought in new ideas, like irrigation and better civil administrations.
Russians. At the turn of the 19th century, it began imperialist expansion of its southern unstable neighbors. So many Russian Slavs were captured or sold into slavery by nomadic invaders that the word entered the English language as the word ‘slave’. Desirous of a stable southern border and with nagging fears of British expansion from India, in the mid-18th century, Tatars and Cossacks were sent into northern Kazakhstan to settle and farm. The Kazakhs revolted, but the Russians stripped the autonomy of each of the khans of the three hordes. By 1848, the last of the great rulers descended from Chinggis Khan were removed. Their lands were made into colonies: Bishkek (1862), Tashkent (1865), Samarkand (1868) and then the khans of the three hordes: Kokand first, then Bukhara in 1868 and Khiva in 1873. The Tekke were the last and fiercest to hold out, but a huge force killed 15,000 (losing only 268) to capture the last in 1881. They proceeded along the hazily defined Persian frontier area, ending its most southerly conquest at the Afghan border in 1885. The area was geographically and ethnically diverse, economically rich and it had only taken 20 years with little expense in money or lives.
The Great Game. When two expanding empire’s ill-defined frontiers draw near each other, they scramble for control of what’s between them using a mix of secrecy and stealth – the “Great Game”. It was the first cold war between East and West. The center arena was some of the world’s most exotic and remote terrain. The British disastrously lost the First Afghan War in 1842. By 1848, they had defeated the Sikhs and take control of the Punjab and Peshawar Valley. Then they began a ‘car-and-mouse’ game with Russia across the vaguely mapped Pamir and Hindu Kush ranges. Agents posing as scholars, explorers, hunters, merchants, Muslim preachers and Buddhist pilgrims – crisscrossed mountains, mapped passes, spied on each other and courted local rulers. Russia established a consulate in 1877. The Russian occupation of Merv in 1884 finally sent British blood boiling as Merv was a crossroads leading to Heart, an easy gateway to Afghanist that in turn offered entry into British India. When the Russians went south to control Pandjeh and filled the Pamirs with Russian troops, the British invaded Nunaz in 1881 and the two skirmished in NE Afghanistan. AngloRussian boundary agreements in 1895 and 1907 gave Russia most of the Pamirs and established the Wakhan Corridor, the awkward finger of Afghan territory that divides the two former empires. The Great Game was over with the lesson to the people of the region – “No great power has our interests at heart”, with powerful implications today.
Colonization of Turkestan. The 1861 outbreak of the US Civil War ended Russia’s imports of American cotton. They turned to Central Asia for cotton, other cheap raw materials and labor and new markets. It was a captive, virgin market. In the late 19th century, European immigrants, especially Russian an Ukrainian serfs hungry for land flooded the land, 1 million in Kazakhstan alone. Enterprising Russians could climb socially. The Russian middle class brought straight streets, gas lights, telephones, cinemas. Amateur theatre, parks and hotels were all in enclaves apart from the original towns. The Muslim fabric of life was left alone and development took the form of small industry, irrigation and modest primary education. In 1988, railways reached Samarkand and Tashkent, tying Central Asia firmly to the Russian heartland. Mongol destruction of irrigation canals, Russian harnessing of water for cotton production and the death of the Aral Sea make water a central issue to the future.
The Kazakhs were influenced the most with a small, Europeanized, educated class arising. They began to think of themselves as a nation with an illustrious past.
WW I. In SE Kazakhstan massive herds of cattle were requisitioned for the war effort. Samarkand, Syr-Darya and Fergana provinces supplied cotton and food. In 1916, the tsar demanded men for labor. Staring in Tashkent, the people revolted and violence spread eastward, resulting in reprisals from the Russians. Attacks on Russian militias and facilities gave way to rioting, raiding and looting. Colonists were massacred and their villages burned. Russian troops and vigilantes brutally slaughtered or burned whole Kazakh and Kyrgyz villages and perpetrators man hunted. An estimated 200,00 fled toward towards China and froze, starved and shown little mercy by the Chinese.
Revolution and Civil War. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Central Asians had some hope and agitated for social and educational self-reform, but the conservative khanate officials objected. Tashkent SSR was created. In 1917, and independent state was declared in Kokand with the goal of modernizing the religious establishment and educating the people. Within a year, this government was destroyed by the Red Army, more than 5000 Kokandis were massacred after the city was captured. Central Asian’s illusions about peacefully coexisting with Bolshevik Russia were shattered.
They hated the godless Bolsheviks. In response to the first ultimatum to submit, the Bukharan Emir slaughtered the Red emissaries and declared holly war supported by the White Russians. The Bolsheviks defeated the insurrection with the Red Army capturing Khiva and Bukhara.
The Soviets. The Bolsheviks changed the face of Central Asia by emancipating women, redistributing land, starting mass literacy campaigns and requisitioned food, livestock, cotton, land and forced farm labor. In 1924, The Uzbek SSR (comprising Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and the Turkmen SSR were created out of the Turkestan SSR. In 1928, Latin scrip replaced Arabic divorcing the region from its Muslim heritage and rendered millions illiterate over night (Latin was replaced by Cyrillic in 1939). In 1929, Tajik SSR was created by rejigging borders. Forced collectivization reformed feudalism to communism in the First Five Year Plan (1928-1932) by eliminating private land and ending nomadism. The effect was disastrous as people slaughtered their cattle and ate what they could rather than give them up. Resistors were executed and imprisoned. 20% of Kazakhs fled with their flocks, trade and agricultural output plummeted and the resulting famine claimed at least 1 million lives (20% of the population). The economic collapse is estimated at three times greater than the Great Depression of 1930s America. Stalin’s aim was to depopulate Kazakhstan to make real estate for Russian expansion.
Central Asia had many bright citizens working for national liberation and democracy and they caused Stalin serious problems. Stalin foresaw that brains were just as dangerous as guns and systematically murdered or purged tens of thousands of Central Asians in the late 20s and throughout the 30s. Arrests were made in the middle of the night, charges rarely made (having bourgeoisie-nationalist or Pan-Turkic attitudes), trials not held and mass executions and mass burials common. In 1937, the entire 140 man Kyrgyz SSR government were shot and dumped in a brick kiln outside of Bishkek.
The solution to the ‘nationality question’ was geographic, drawing lines on the map. Before the Russian Revolution, there was no concept of firm national borders but a tangle of criteria: religion, clan, valley or oasis, way of life, even social status. So, starting in about 1924, nations were invented – Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen – and each was given its own distinct ethnic profile, language, history and territory. Islam was relegated as an outmoded and oppressive cult and severely suppressed. Each of the republics was shaped to contain numerous pockets of the different nationalities – a divide and rule technique.
During WWII, industrial enterprises were evacuated from the war-threatened parts of the USSR and relocated to the remote safety of Central Asia remaining and producing there after the war. More than half the 1.5 million Central Asian draftees deserted with large numbers actually fighting for the Germans against the Soviets. More than 22 million Soviet citizens died in WWII and millions of Koreans, Volga Germans, Poles, Chechens and others whom Stalin suspected might aid the enemy were deported from the borderlands and relocated in all the Central Asian countries, especially Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Most Central Asian economies had an agricultural base and the Soviets encouraged specialization in a limited range of products making the individual economies dependent of Soviet trade. Uzbek SSR supplied 64% of Soviet cotton. The Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya rivers were diverted into the cotton bowl and the downstream Aral Sea was left to dry up. Agricultural chemicals polluted waters and blew around in dust storms causing serious health problems. In the Brezhnev years, a huge ring of corrupt officials over-reported cotton production and swindled Moscow out of billions of rubles. When the lid blew off in the early 1980s, more than 50,000 were arrested or kicked out of office.
In 1954, the ‘Virgin Lands” campaign ploughed up huge amounts of the Kazakh steppes and resettled huge numbers of Russians to work the farms. Irrigation schemes diverted water from as far as the Ob River in Siberia, but the initial gains soon dwindled as the fragile exposed soil of the steppes literally blew away, but the Russians remained.
But benefits did accrue to much of Central Asia. Overall standards of living improved with the help of health care, vast new infrastructure, industry, mines, farms, ranches and services. Rural Central Asia remains largely Soviet. From a men-only network of Islamic madrassas, education was expanded to all, pure and applied sciences nurtured, literacy rates hit 97% and languages of all nationalities were given a standard literary form. Women had the chance to study and work alongside men (while still retaining all the responsibilities of homemakers) and literacy approached male levels. Maternity leave was introduced and women assumed responsibilities in middle management and academia. Artistic expression was encouraged with cinemas and theaters and professional artists trained by the Soviet state. All Central Asian republics were prepared when independence came.
The Soviet-Afghan war. In 1979, the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to prop up a crumbling communist regime. But no one wins a war in Afghanistan. 40% of Soviet troops engaged in the war were Central Asian, mainly Uzbeks and Tajiks. But they faced a highly motivated guerrilla force united in their jihad funded by the USA with money funneled via the Pakistan Secret Service. The Afghans found themselves in the middle of a proxy cold war. After 10 years, 15,000 Soviets and 1.5 million Afghans were dead, 6 million Afghans fled to refuge camps in Iran and Pakistan and the Soviets limped out. This contributed to the end of the Soviet empire and Afghanistan was shattered.
Post-Soviet Central Asia. The Soviets brought a new system, but it was the wrong one. By the spring of 1991, all 5 Central Asian republics had declared independence, but none were prepared for it. The old Soviet communists were the only ones with the experience to rule and most of these men are in power today. All are authoritarian. The old Communist Party apparatus renamed themselves various combinations of the words ‘People”, ‘Party’, and ‘Democratic’. Political opposition was marginalized. Presidents Nazarbaev (Kazakhstan, in power since 1990), Karimov (Uzbekistan 1990) and Rahmon (Tajikistan 1994) continue to rule without opposition. Niyazov of Turkmenistan proclaimed himself ‘president for life’ in 1999 but dies in 2005. Kazakhstan found itself with a space program and nuclear weapons, which it promptly handed back to Russia. All formed national airlines.
But much has changed. The end of Soviet subsidies has meant a decline in everything from the economy to education with the deepest effect in the countryside. Pensioners, especially the Slavs, saw their pensions made worthless overnight with the devaluation of the ruble. One of the most common sites across Central Asia are old women sitting quietly on street corners, surrounded by a few worthless possessions for sale, trying to not look like beggars. The Soviet era began to look like a golden age.
Central Asia and the Caspian region are a mother lode of energy and raw materials representing perhaps the greatest concentration of untapped wealth in the world. Kazakhstan has the third largest oil reserves and Turkmenistan the fourth largest gas reserves. New pipelines through Turkey threaten Russia’s stranglehold on supply routes. China is a major shareholder of PetroKazakhstan and has built a 3000km pipeline to Urumqi. But plummeting oil prices in 2015 threaten the wealth.
PEOPLE OF THE SILK ROAD
Centuries of migrations and invasions, and a location a the crossroads of asia have added to Central Asia’s ethnic diversity creating an absorbing array of faces from Turkish, Slavic, Chinese and Middle Eastern to downright Mediterranean.
Before 1917, they identified themselves as either nomad or settled, as turk or Persian, as imply Muslim or by their clan. Later, separate nationalities were “identified” by the Soviets as ordered by Stalin. But many owe their survival as a nation to the Soviet process of nation building. Each independent republic inherited an ethnic grab bag – every country as many of each of the other with Russians and Ukrainians everywhere.
Kazakhs. They were nomadic horseback pastoralists until the 1920s and trace their roots to he 15th century when a rebellious Uzbek khan broke away and settled in present day Kazakhstan. They divide themselves into 3 main divisions: Great (south), Middle (north and east) and Little (west) Hordes. Family and ancestry remain crucial to Kazakhs to this day.
Most have Mongolian facial features and adhere rather loosely to Islam. They are at the fringe of the Muslim world and their nomadic lifestyle never sat well with religious authority. The earliest contact came in the 16th century came from wandering Sufi dervishes or ascetics. Many were not converted until the 19th century and often still coexisted with Shamanism. With a longer history of Russian influence and because of oil wealth, Kazakhs are Central Asia’s most cosmopolitan. The women are the most confident and least restricted by tradition. The 10 or so million Kazakhs have only recently become a majority in their country.
Kyrgyz. As far back as the 2nd century BC, ancestors lived in the upper Yenisey Basin in Siberia and migrated from the 10th to 12th centuries fleeing wars or in the ranks of Mongol armies. Clans originated with 40 clan mothers, some of which still remain relevant. The southern and northern halves remain culturally, ethnically and politically divided. Men often wear a white, embroidered felt cap. Most live in towns in cities but herders still trek with their yurts to summer pastures. Horseback sports and eagle-hunting remain important.
Tajiks. With Mediterranean features and the occasional green-eyed redhead, Tajiks are descended from an ancient Indo-European people, the Aryans, making them relatives of present-day Iranians. They consider themselves the oldest ethnic group in Central Asia predating the arrival of the Turkic peoples. There are still many subdivisions and clans. Pamir Tajiks are a distinct group with a mix of languages quite distinct from Tajik and following a different branch of Islam (the Shiite Ismailis and have no formal mosques). Most though are Sunni Muslim. There are 8 million Tajiks in Afghanistan and some 33000 in China’s Tashkurgan region.
Turkmen. They were displaced nomadic horse-breeding clans who, in the 10th century, drifted into the oases around the Karakum desert (and into Persia, Syria and Anatolia) from the foothills of the Altay mountains. The men are recognizable by their huge, shaggy sheepskin hats, either white (for special occasions) or black with thick ringlets worn year around on top of a skullcap, even on the hottest days. They would rather suffer the heat than that of the sun. Baggy trousers tucked into knee-length black boots and white shirts under a cherry-red jacket complete the ensemble. Women wear heavy, ankle-length velvet or silk dresses with colourful trousers. A woman’s hair is always tied back and concealed under a colourful scarf. They share the nomad’s affinity for Sufism with the cult of holy men, amulets, shrines and pilgrimage. The Turkman language is closest to Azeri.
Uzbeks. Islamized descendants of Chinggis Khan, they left their home in southern Siberia in search of conquest, establishing themselves in Uzbekistan in the 15th century. They transitioned from nomad to settler. The focal point of society is the urban districts and rural villages where advice is sought from a revered elder. They resisted Russification and emerged from Soviet rule with a strong sense of identity and cultural heritage. A unibrow is considered attractive and often penciled in.Both sexes flash a lot of gold teeth.
Slavs. Russians and Ukrainians have settled in Central Asia in several waves, the first in the 19th century with colonization, and the latest in the 1950s under the virgin lands campaign. As political and administrative power has devolved to ‘locals’, many have emigrated to Russia and Ukraine. At the height, more than 280,000 Russians left Kazakhstan and 200,000 left Tajikistan in a single year, most of them well-educated professionals. Some returned.
Others. Dungans are Muslim Chinese who moved to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan u 1882, to escape persecution. Few still speak Chinese, but have a distinctive cuisine. Koreans. More than 500,000 arrived as deportees in WWII. They sell pickled salads in bazaars.
Germans. 500,000 were deported in WWII from their age-old home in the Volga region, or came as settlers (some of them Mennonites) in the late 19th century. Most have departed to Germany, but pockets remain. Jews. An important part of Bukharian commerce since the 9th century, most have moved to Israel and Queens, New York. Karakalpaks have their own republic in NW Uzbekistan and have cultural and linguistic ties with Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
History and Schisms.
The Prophet Mohammed was a wealthy Arab of Mecca,, in 612, started preaching a new religious philosophy based on revelations from Allah that were compiled into the Quran.
It incorporates elements of Judaism and Christianity (heaven and hell, a creation story like the Garden of Eden, and Noah ark like stories) and shares a reverence for Abraham/Ibrahim, Moses/Musa and Jesus/Isa, but considers them all to be forerunners of the Prophet Mohammed. Islam regards itself as the summation of and last word on these faiths.
In 622, Mohammed and his followers were forced to flee to Medina due to religious persecution (the Islamic calendar counts its years from this flight, known as Hejira). There he built a political base and an army, taking Mecca in 630 and eventually overrunning Arabia. The militancy of the faith meshed neatly with a latent Arab nationalism and within a century Islam reached from Spain to Central Asia.
Succession disputes after the Prophet’s death in 632 soon split the community. When the fourth caliph, the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali, was assassinated in 661, his followers and descendants became the founders of the Shiite sect. Others accepted as caliph the governor of Syria, a brother-in-law of the Prophet, and this line has become the modern-day orthodox Sunni sect. In 680 a chance for reconciliation was lost when Ali’s surviving son Hussein and most of his male relatives were killed at Kerbala in Iraq by Sunni partisans.
About 80% of Central Asia is Muslim, nearly all of them Sunni (and nearly all of the Hanafi school, one of Sunnism’s four main schools of religious law). There is also a tightly knit community of Ismailis in the remote western Pamirs in eastern Tajikistan. A small but increasingly influential community of the ascetic, Sunni Wahhabis found mainly in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley.
Devout Sunnis pray at prescribed times: before sunrise, just after high noon, in the late afternoon, just after sunset and before retiring. Prayers are preceded if possible by washing, at least of the hands, face and feet. For Ismailis the style of prayer is a personal matter (there is no prostration, the mosque is replaced by a community shrine or meditation room and women are less excluded.
Just before fixed prayers a muezzin calls the Sunni and Shiite faithful, traditionally from a minaret, nowadays mostly though a loudspeaker. The melodic call to prayer translates roughly as ‘God is most great. There is no god but Allah, Mohammed is God’s messenger. Come to prayer, come to security, god is most great.’ Islam has no ordained priesthood, but mullahs (scholars, teachers or religious leaders) are trained in theology, respected as interpreters of scripture, and are quite influential in conservative rural areas.
The Quran is considered above criticism: it is the direct word of God as spoken by the Prophet Mohammed. It is supplemented by various traditions such as the hadith, the collected acts and sayings of Mohammed. In its fullest sense Islam is an entire way of life, with guidelines for nearly everything, from preparing and eating food to banking and dress.
The five pillars of Islam are: 1. the dawn-to-dusk fast during the holy month of Ramadan, 2. the haj or pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s life 3. alms giving, in the form of the zakat, an obligatory 2.5% tax 4. there is only one god, Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet and 5. prayer 5 times a day, prostrating toward the holy city of Mecca in a mosque (for men only) when possible , but at least on Friday, the Muslim holy day).
Islam in Central Asia.
Islam first appeared in Central Asia with Arab invaders in the 7th and 8th centuries, though it was mostly itinerant Sufi missionaries who converted the region over the subsequent centuries.
It never was a potent force in the former nomadic societies of the Turkmen, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, and sill isn’t. Islams’ appeal for nomadic rulers was as much an organizational and political tool as a collection of moral precepts. The nomad’s customary law has always superseded Islamic sharia law.
There is also a significant blurring between religious and national characteristics, partly because the region was for so long cut off from mainstream Islamic teachings. The majority, although interested in Islam as a common denominator, seem quite happy to toast the Prophet’s health with vodka.
The Soviet Era
The Soviet regime long distrusted Islam because of it potential for coherent resistance, both domestically and internationally. Three of the five pillars (fasting of Ramadan, the haj and the tax) were outlawed in the 1920s. The banning of polygamy, child marriage, the paying of bride price and the wearing of paranja (veil) probably pleased many women but the banning of Arabic script, the holy script of the Quran, was much less popular. Clerical (Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim) land and property were seized. Madrassas and other religious schools were closed. Islam’s judicial power was curbed with the dismantling of traditional sharia courts based on Quranic law.
From 1932 to 1936, Stalin mounted a concerted anti-religious campaign in which mosques were closed and destroyed, and mullahs arrested and executed as saboteurs or spies. Most were transformed into museums, dance halls, warehouses or factories.
During WWII, things improved some as Moscow sought domestic and international Muslim support for the war effort. Some mosques were reopened and a handful of leaders were allowed to make the haj in 1947. But beneath the surface little changed. Khrushchev, in the 60s closed another 1000 mosques and only 200 or so mosques and 2 madrassas, one in each of Bukhara and Tashkent were open. It seems amazing that after 70 years of oppression, is that so much faith remains intact, due mainly to underground Islam.
The percentage of practicing Muslims ranges from 47% in Kazakhstan, 75% in Kyrgyzstan, 85% in Tajikistan, 88% in Uzbekistan and 89% in Turkmenistan.
The original Sufis were purists, unhappy with the worldliness of the early caliphates and seeking knowledge of God through direct personal experience. Not a single movement it was in all branches of Islam. Music, dance or poetry were routes to a trance-like moment of revelation and direct union with God. Secret recitations and an annual 40-day retreat remain cornerstones of Sufic practice.
Sufis were singularly successful as missionaries, perhaps because of their tolerance of other creeds. It was largely Sufis, not Arab armies, who planted Islam firmly in Central Asia, and appealed most to nomadic lifestyle. Clandestine anticommunist brotherhoods helped Islam weather the Soviet period. The most important Sufi shrines are the Bakhauldin Mausoleum in Bukhara and the Yasaui Mausoleum in Turkestan in Kazakhstan.
Since independence, there has been a resurgence of Islam with mosques and madrassas spouting across the region, often financed with Saudi or Iranian money. They are as much political as religious statements in a search for Central Asian identity. All governments keep strict tabs on Islam. Mosques and imams are state approved.
There is some Islamic extremism with terrorist activities in 1999 to 2001 in Uzbekistan but it has largely disappeared. The Uzbek government arrested thousands mostly in the Fergana Valley even though many were peaceful.
Folk Art. Most of today’s souvenirs are remnants of a recent nomadic past. Woven carpets, decorative blankets, inlaid saddles, jewellery, woven bags, quilts, daggers and knives.
Carpets and Textiles. Most Central Asian countries have their own traditional carpet and rug styles. Turkmenistan is the most famous, but now a significant number of silk rugs are made in Bukhara.
Uzbeks make silk and cotton wall hangings such as the beautiful suzani (embroidery, suzani is Persian for needle) they are made in a variety of sizes and used as table covers, cushions, quilts and wall hangings. Rich in floral and celestial motifs (depictions of people and animals are against Muslim beliefs), the average suzani takes 2 years to complete, often in the home as a social pastime.
Literature. Think Rudacki, Omar Khayam and Rumi (1207-73, today the most widely read poet in the USA). It was only with the advent of Soviet rule that literacy became widespread.
Music. Characterized by the swirling melodies of Persia and Anatolia, most instruments are stringed, flutes, tambourines, drums or zithers. In the Pamirs, the Aga Khan Trust has developed music schools throughout Central Asia.
Painting. Miniature painting, friezes and frescos predated Islam. After the 8th century, representational art was put on hold for 1300 years. So traditional art developed in the form of geometric design and calligraphy, the carving of doors and screens, and floral and repetitive geometric motifs.
This is Central Asia’s most impressive surviving heritage. Some of the world’s most audacious and beautiful Islamic buildings grace the cities of Bukhara, Khiva and especially Samarkand.
Few early desert citadels and fortified palaces survived Chinggis Khan. The lack of local wood and stone forced architects to turn to brickwork as the cornerstone of their designs. Tall portals were built to face and catch the prevailing winds had a cooling effect in the heat of summer. Fired brick was developed in the 10th century, colored tile work in the 12th, and glazed polychrome in the 14th. Corner bracketing allowed the construction of monumental domes that started in the Timurid era.
Timurid Architecture. Most of the monumental architecture still standing dates from the 14th or 15th centuries. During his campaigns of terror, Timur forcibly relocated artisans from Beijing to Baghdad. The trademark is the beautiful, often ribbed and elongated, azure-blue outer dome, arched entrance portals, tapering minarets, and exuberant, multicolored tile work (best evident in the Registan in Samarkand).
Mosques. Islam dominates Central Asian architecture. Common to most is the portal that leads into a colonnaded space and covered are for prayer. Some have a flat, brightly painted roof supported by carved wooden columns of a roofed space supported by many columns. There are local mosques, Friday mosques, built to hold the entire city congregation once a week, or festival mosques, all with the mihrab, a niche that indicates the direction of Mecca. Central Asia’s largest modern mosque is the Hazret Sultan Mosque in Astana, built in 2012.
Madrassas. These Islamic colleges, normally two-stories high are set around a cloistered central courtyard, punctuated with arched portals on four sides. Rows of little doors in the interior facades lead into cell-like living quarters for students and teachers, or prayer cells for the ascetic wandering dervishes who would overnight there. Most are fronted by monumental portals with lecture rooms to the left and a mosque to the right.
Mausoleums. Built for millennia for rulers to ensure their own immortality or to commemorate holy men, most consist of a prayer room set under a domed cupola. The actual tomb may be housed in a central hall or underground in a side tomb. Popular sites offer lodging and even kitchens for visiting pilgrims centered around tombs of Sufi saints. The most impressive are the whole street of tombs found at the glorious Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand.
Minarets. These tall, tapering towers were designed to summon the faithful during prayer time, so most have internal stairs for the muezzin to climb. They were also used as lookouts to spot invaders, as a means of execution, or purely for decoration.
Decoration. Tile work is the most dramatic form of decoration in Central Asia, instilling a light, graceful air into even the most buiking of Timurid buildings. The deep cobalts and turquoise (“colour of the Turkic”) of Samarkand’s domes have inspired travellers for centuries.
Decoration almost always takes the shape of abstract geometric floral or calligraphic designs, in keeping with the Islamic prohibition on the representation of living creatures. Geometric and knot designs ere closely linked to the development of Central Asian science – star designs were a favorite with astronomer king Ulugbek. Calligraphy is common, either in the square, stylized Kufi script favored by the Timurids or the more scrolling, often foliated thuluth script.
Tiles come a variety of styles, either stamped, carved into wet clay and then fired, polychromatic (painted and then fired) or jigsaw-style mosaic.
Patterned brick decoration in monochrome created a lightness of design. Carved alabaster and intricately carved and painted wood is also very special.
Landlocked Central Asia comes in an incredible range of landscapes. It is the transition between Europe and Asia. Years of Soviet rule have taken a massive toll and serious problems remain, fuelled mostly by economic hardship. But it still hides some of the wildest and pristine corners on earth.
The Land. A tour starts on the oil-rich Caspian Sea (actually a salt-water lake), then southeast along the low crest of the Kopet Dug Mountains between Turkmenistan and Iran to east over the Turkestan plains and into the high Pamir plateau, to the 7000m snow peaks of the Tian Shan range, NW over the Altay Mountains, and then turn west to Kazakhstan’s flat, farmed, wooded border with Russia, ending in the basin of the Ural River and the Caspian Sea.
The overwhelming majority of the territory is flat steppe (arid grassland) and desert. These areas include the Kazakh Steppe, the Betpak Dala Steppe, the Kyzylkum (Red Sands) desert and the Karkum (Black Sands) desert. These latter two combined make the fourth-largest desert in the world.
The mountains are part of the huge chain that swings in a great arc from the Mongolian Altay to the Tibetan Himalaya. The high ground is dominated by the Pamirs, a range of rounded 5000 to 7000m mountains known as the “Roof of the World” that stretch across 500kms of Tajikistan. With very broad, flat valleys, which are nearly as high as the lower peaks, the Pamirs might be better described as a plateau. Tajikistans’s 7495m Koh-I Samoni is the highest point in Central Asia and was the highest in the USSR. The Pamirs is probably the least explored mountain range on earth.
Varying from 4000m to 7400m, the crests of the Tian Shan form the backbone of eastern Central Asia, extending for over 1500kms from SW Kyrgyzstan into China.
These two ranges hold some of the largest glaciers and freshwater supplies on earth and are the region’s most significant natural resources. The 77km Fedchenko Glacier is the longest glacier outside the polar regions and allegedly contains more water than the Aral Sea.
The Caspian Sea is either the world’s biggest lake or the world’s biggest inland sea. The Caspian Depression dips to 132m below sea level.
Most of Central Asia’s rainfall drains internally. What little flows out empties into the Arctic ocean via the Irtysh River. The region’s two mightiest rivers, the Ayr-Darya and Amu-Darya used to replenish the Aral Sea until they were bled dry for cotton.
The compact, balled-up mass of mountains bordering Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Afghanistan rise is the hub from which the Himalayas, Karakoram to the southeast, the Hindu Kush to the SW, the Kunlun to the east and the Tian Shan to the northeast all radiate like spokes. All arose from by the Indian subcontinent smashing into the Asian crustal plate more than 100 million years ago. The Tian Shan are currently rising at the rate of 3cm per year.
Not surprisingly, it is a major earthquake zone. Ashgabat was 80% destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1948 that killed 110,000 and Tashkent was levelled in 1966.
Comprising only 17% of the former USSR’s territory, the contain 57% of it s variety in flora and fauna. Mountains and high summer pastures in the mountains support wild flowers, marmots, pikas, eagles snow leopards, ibex Svertsov ram and Marco Polo sheep, Forests of Tian Shan spruce, ash, larch and juniper provide cover for lynx, wolves boars and brown bears. Lower down are ancient forests of wild walnut, pistachios, juniper, apricot, cherry and apple.
The steppes are covered with grasses and low shrubs and, where they meet the mountains, have vast fields of wild poppies and several hundred types of tulip. Roe deer and saiga, ring-necked pheasant, partridges, black grouse, bustards and falcons and hawks have their homes on the steppe.
Rivers and lakes have dense thickets of elm, poplar, reeds and shrubs with wild boar, jackal and deer (90% along the Amu-Darya has been lost.
Deserts have goitered gazelle, gophers and jerboss preyed on by vipers and cobras.
Turkmenistan has leopards, porcupines and a desert crocodile that can grow up to 1.8m long.
Central Asia has been famed for its horses, especially Turkmenistan’s Akhal-Teke, the forefather of the modern Arab thoroughbred (of 2000 in the world, 1200 are in Turkmenistan).
Endangered species include the Caspian tiger extinct since 1972 and a few wild Bactrian camels. 1000 of the world’s 7000 snow leopards are in Central Asia and are a keystone species. 8 Pezrwalski’s horses were introduced into Kazakkhstan’s Altyn-Emel NP after being extinct for 60 years. Bactrian deer have also been reintroduced.
National Parks. The 36 nature reserves and protected areas and 12 national parks are a legacy of the USSR are antiquated and inadequate from a lack of government funding, poaching, grazing and firewood gathering. In Kyrgyzstan only 2.5% is protected. Tajik NP and Saryarka Steppes and Lakes region of northern Kazakhstan are Unesco listed.
Environmental Issues. Soviet experiments in taming nature led to mismanagement and destruction of natural habitat on an unimaginable scale: the Aral Sea, radiation from nuclear-testing around Semey and Khrushchev’s Virgin Land scheme (degraded thousands of acres of Kazakh steppe) are some examples.
In the economic malaise of post-Soviet times, the environment has taken a back seat. Poaching, hunting tours and pollution from gold mining have all been important in the bleak economic times.
The Aral Sea. Straddling the border between southern Kazakhstan and northern Uzbekistan, it’s fed by the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya Rivers flowing down from the Tian Shan and Pamirs. In the 1950s, they brought an average 57 cubic kilometers of water a year to the sea, that stretched 400km by 280kms producing clear water, pristine beaches, a vibrant fishing industry and even passenger ferries. Then Soviet planners decided to boost cotton production for the Soviet textile industry. Many fields were on poorer desert fields and fed by long, unlined canals open to the sun required much more water and the annual flow into the Aral Seas was less than a tenth of the 1950s supply. Between 1960 and 1993, the level fell by more than 16m and the eastern and southern shores recede by up to 80km. The two main fishing ports were left high and dry and were abandoned in the early 1980s. Of the 60,000 people who used to live off the Aral fishing industry, almost all are gone. Of the 173 animal species that used to live around the sea, only 38 survive.
With this the climate has changed with drier air, colder and longer winters and hotter summers. Every year 150,000 tons of salt and sand is blown hundreds of kilometers in big salt-dust sandstorms that also pick up chemicals. A nightmare of blighted towns land and communities resulted.
Resulting human health problems are cancers of the throat and esophagus, poor drinking water and high rates of thyroid, paratyphoid, hepatitis and dysentery, 10% infant mortality and birth deformities.
In 2005 the channel still connecting the north and south seas was blocked by a dam, preventing further water loss from the northern sea and it has risen by 4m since then and should reach equilibrium by about 2025. The southern sea is expected to dry up completely by 2020.d
Options are uneven. Budget places are considered anything under $25 in high season.
B&Bs. Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand offer the best with rates around 20$ with breakfast.
Homestays. On the rise, they cost between 10-15$. Toilets are often in the garden. A kitchen may be available for use. Most are priced per person and you will not have to share a room. Couchsurfing is gaining in popularity but almost impossible in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan due to the registration process.
Hotels. You don’t often get what you pay for in a government or Soviet-style hotel. Windows that don’t open or close, dim or absent lights, toilets that flush poorly, only single beds and pillows the size of suitcases are routine, but may be improving.
Uzbekistan has the best mid-range choices. Most hotels offer their own discounts and prices can always be bargained down especially out of high-season. Floor ladies are common in Soviet-style hotels – they give out keys and hot water, and can be helpful but tend to be on the morose side.
Hostels. Are becoming more common and are the consistently the cheapest places to stay. Some of the best hostels I have ever stayed in are in Central Asia: Top-Chan in Tashkent, Alibek in Khiva, Five Seasons in Almaty, Tesky in Karakol. Find in Booking.com or Hostelworld.
Yurtstays. Available in central Kyrgyzstan and the eastern Pamirs, they are a great way to get a taste of live on the high pastures.
Uzbekistan. You are required to declare every last penny of money brought into the country. The only problem would be trying to leave with more money than you came in with, so don’t withdraw much money from ATMs.
Exporting Antiques. You can’t export anything of cultural or historical value – including art, furnishings, manuscripts, musical instruments, coins, clothing and jewellery – without an export license and payment of an export duty. If your purchase looks old, get a letter stating that it has no such value. In Uzbekistan, any book or artwork more than 50 years old is considered antique. In Turkmenistan, cultural artefacts include all handicrafts and traditional-style clothing, no matter how mundane. To export a carpet here, it must be certified at Ashgabat’s Carpet Museum or buy it from one of the state carpet shops.
Keep the customs forms given when first entering the countries and registration slips from every hotel in Uzbekistan.