Central Asia is the core region of the Asian continent and stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east and from Afghanistan in the south to Russia in the north. It is also sometimes referred to as Middle Asia, and, colloquially, "the stans" (as the six countries generally considered to be within the region all have names ending with the Persian suffix "-stan", meaning "land of"). The region, along with Russia, is also part of 'the great pivot' as per the Heartland Theory of Halford Mackinder, which says that the power which controls the Central Asia –richly endowed with natural resources– shall ultimately be the Empire of the world.
In modern contexts, all definitions of Central Asia include these five republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan (pop. 17 million), Kyrgyzstan (5.7 million), Tajikistan (8.0 million), Turkmenistan (5.2 million), and Uzbekistan (30 million), for a total population about 66 million as of 2013-2014. Afghanistan (pop. 31.1 million) is also sometimes included.
Various definitions of its exact composition exist, and not one definition is universally accepted. Despite this uncertainty in defining borders, it does have some important overall characteristics. For one, Central Asia has historically been closely tied to its nomadic peoples and the Silk Road.
During pre-Islamic and early Islamic times, Central Asia was a predominantly Iranian region that included the sedentary Eastern Iranian – speaking Bactrians, Sogdians and Chorasmians, and the semi-nomadic Scythians and Parthians. The ancient sedentary population played an important role in the history of Central Asia. After expansion by Turkic peoples, Central Asia also became the homeland for many Turkic peoples, including the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, Uyghurs and other extinct Turkic nations. Central Asia is sometimes referred to as Turkestan.
Since the earliest of times, Central Asia has been a crossroads between different civilizations (Silk Road). This crossroads position has intensified the conflict between continuing formations of tribalism and traditionalism and intensifying processes of modernization.
From the mid 19th century, up to the end of the 20th century, most of Central Asia was part of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, both being Slavic majority countries. As of 2011, the 5 "stans" are still home to about 7 million Russians and 500,000 Ukrainians.
The idea of Central Asia as a distinct region of the world was introduced in 1843 by the geographer Alexander von Humboldt. The borders of Central Asia are subject to multiple definitions.
The most limited definition was the official one of the Soviet Union, which defined Middle Asia as consisting solely of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This definition was also often used outside the USSR during this period.
However, the Russian culture has two distinct terms: Средняя Азия (Srednjaja Azija or "Middle Asia", the narrower definition, which includes only those traditionally non-Slavic, Central Asian lands that were incorporated within those borders of historical Russia) and Центральная Азия (Central'naja Azija or "Central Asia", the wider definition, which includes Central Asian lands that have never been part of historical Russia).
Soon after independence, the leaders of the four former Soviet Central Asian Republics met in Tashkent and declared that the definition of Central Asia should include Kazakhstan as well as the original four included by the Soviets. Since then, this has become the most common definition of Central Asia.
An alternative method is to define the region based on ethnicity, and in particular, areas populated by Eastern Turkic, Eastern Iranian, or Mongolian peoples. These areas include Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Turkic regions of southern Siberia, the five republics, and Afghan Turkestan. Afghanistan as a whole, the northern and western areas of Pakistan and the Kashmir Valley of India may also be included. The Tibetans and Ladakhi are also included. Insofar, most of the mentioned peoples are considered the "indigenous" peoples of the vast region.
There are several places that claim to be the geographic center of Asia, for example Kyzyl, the capital of Tuva in the Russian Federation, and a village 200mi north of Ürümqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region of China.
Central Asia is an extremely large region of varied geography, including high passes and mountains (Tian Shan), vast deserts (Kara Kum, Kyzyl Kum, Taklamakan), and especially treeless, grassy steppes.
Much of the land of Central Asia is too dry or too rugged for farming. The Gobi desert extends from the foot of the Pamir Mountains, 77° E, to the Great Khingan (Da Hinggan) Mountains, 116°–118° E.
Central Asia has the following geographic extremes:
- The world's northernmost desert (sand dunes), at Buurug Deliin Els, Mongolia, 50°18′ N.
- The Northern Hemisphere's southernmost permafrost, at Erdenetsogt sum, Mongolia, 46°17′ N.
- The world's shortest distance between non-frozen desert and permafrost: 770km.
- The Eurasian pole of inaccessibility.
A majority of the people earn a living by herding livestock. Industrial activity centers in the region's cities.
Major rivers of the region include the Amu Darya, the Syr Darya, Irtysh, the Hari River and the Murghab River. Major bodies of water include the Aral Sea and Lake Balkhash, both of which are part of the huge west-central Asian endorheic basin that also includes the Caspian Sea.
Both of these bodies of water have shrunk significantly in recent decades due to diversion of water from rivers that feed them for irrigation and industrial purposes. Water is an extremely valuable resource in arid Central Asia and can lead to rather significant international disputes.
The northern belt is part of the Eurasian Steppe. In the northwest, north of the Caspian Sea, Central Asia merges into the Russian Steppe. To the northeast, Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin may sometimes be included in Central Asia. Just west of Dzungaria, Zhetysu, or Semirechye, is south of Lake Balkhash and north of the Tian Shan Mountains. Khorezm is south of the Aral Sea along the Amu Darya. Southeast of the Aral Sea, Maveranahr is between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. Transoxiana is the land north of the middle and upper Amu Darya (Oxus). Bactria included northern Afghanistan and the upper Amu Darya. Sogdiana was north of Bactria and included the trading cities of Bukhara and Samarkhand. Khorasan and Margiana approximate northeastern Iran. The Kyzyl Kum Desert is northeast of the Amu Darya, and the Karakum Desert southwest of it.
Because Central Asia is not buffered by a large body of water, temperature fluctuations are more severe. In most of the places the climate is moderate.
According to the WWF Ecozones system, Central Asia is part of the Palearctic ecozone. The largest biomes in Central Asia are the temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biome. Central Asia also contains the montane grasslands and shrublands, deserts and xeric shrublands as well as temperate coniferous forests biomes.
The history of Central Asia is defined by the area's climate and geography. The aridness of the region made agriculture difficult, and its distance from the sea cut it off from much trade. Thus, few major cities developed in the region; instead, the area was for millennia dominated by the nomadic horse peoples of the steppe.
Relations between the steppe nomads and the settled people in and around Central Asia were long marked by conflict. The nomadic lifestyle was well suited to warfare, and the steppe horse riders became some of the most militarily potent people in the world, limited only by their lack of internal unity. Any internal unity that was achieved was most probably due to the influence of the Silk Road, which traveled along Central Asia. Periodically, great leaders or changing conditions would organize several tribes into one force and create an almost unstoppable power. These included the Wu Hu attacks on China and most notably the Mongol conquest of much of Asia. During pre-Islamic and early Islamic times, southern Central Asia was inhabited predominantly by speakers of Iranian languages. Among the ancient sedentary Iranian peoples, the Sogdians and Chorasmians played an important role, while Iranian peoples such as Scythians and the later on Alans lived a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle. The well-preserved Tarim mummies with Caucasoid features have been found in the Tarim Basin.
The main migration of Turkic peoples occurred between the 5th and 10th centuries, when they spread across most of Central Asia. The Tang Chinese were defeated by the Arabs at the battle of Talas in 751, marking the end of the Tang Dynasty's western expansion. The Tibetan Empire would take the chance to rule portion of Central Asia along with South Asia. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongols conquered and ruled the largest contiguous empire in recorded history. Most of Central Asia fell under the control of the Chagatai Khanate.
The dominance of the nomads ended in the 16th century, as firearms allowed settled peoples to gain control of the region. Russia, China, and other powers expanded into the region and had captured the bulk of Central Asia by the end of the 19th century. After the Russian Revolution, the western Central Asian regions were incorporated into the Soviet Union. The eastern part Central Asia, known as East Turkistan or Xinjiang, was incorporated into the People's Republic of China. Mongolia remained independent but became a Soviet satellite state. Afghanistan remained relatively independent of major influence by the USSR until the Soviet invasion of 1979.
The Soviet areas of Central Asia saw much industrialization and construction of infrastructure, but also the suppression of local cultures, hundreds of thousands of deaths from failed collectivization programs, and a lasting legacy of ethnic tensions and environmental problems. Soviet authorities deported millions of people, including entire nationalities from western areas of the USSR to Central Asia and Siberia.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, five countries gained independence. In nearly all the new states, former Communist Party officials retained power as local strongmen. None of the new republics could be considered functional democracies in the early days of independence, although in recent years Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia have made further progress towards more open societies, unlike Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, which have maintained many Soviet-style repressive tactics.
At the crossroads of Asia, shamanistic practices live alongside Buddhism. Thus, Yama, Lord of Death, was revered in Tibet as a spiritual guardian and judge. Mongolian Buddhism, in particular, was influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. The Qianlong Emperor of China in the 18th century was Tibetan Buddhist and would sometimes travel from Beijing to other cities for personal religious worship.
Central Asia also has an indigenous form of improvisational oral poetry that is over 1000 years old. It is principally practiced in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan by akyns, lyrical improvisationists. They engage in lyrical battles, the aitysh or the alym sabak. The tradition arose out of early bardic oral historians. They are usually accompanied by a stringed instrument—in Kyrgyzstan, a three-stringed komuz, and in Kazakhstan, a similar two-stringed instrument, the dombra.
Photography in Central Asia began to develop after 1882, when a Russian Mennonite photographer named Wilhelm Penner moved to the Khanate of Khiva during the Mennonite migration to Central Asia led by Claas Epp. Upon his arrival to Khanate of Khiva, Penner shared his photography skills with a local student Khudaybergen Divanov, who later became the founder of the Uzbek photography.
Some also learn to sing the Manas, Kyrgyzstan's epic poem (those who learn the Manas exclusively but do not improvise are called manaschis). During Soviet rule, akyn performance was co-opted by the authorities and subsequently declined in popularity. With the fall of the Soviet Union, it has enjoyed a resurgence, although akyns still do use their art to campaign for political candidates.
The first years of the Soviet regime saw the appearance of modernism, which took inspiration from the Russian avant-garde movement. Until the 80's Central Asian arts had developed along with general tendencies of Soviet arts. In the 90's, arts of the region underwent some significant changes. Institutionally speaking, some fields of arts were regulated by the birth of the art market, some stayed as representatives of official views, while many were sponsored by international organizations. The years of 1990 - 2000 were times for the establishment of contemporary arts. In the region, many important international exhibitions are taking place.
By a broad definition including Mongolia and Afghanistan, more than 90 million people live in Central Asia, about 2% of Asia's total population. Of the regions of Asia, only North Asia has fewer people. It has a population density of 9 people per km2, vastly less than the 80.5 people per km2 of the continent as a whole.
Russian, as well as being spoken by around six million ethnic Russians and Ukrainians of Central Asia, is the de facto lingua franca throughout the former Soviet Central Asian Republics. Chinese has an equally dominant presence in Inner Mongolia, Qinghai and Xinjiang.
The languages of the majority of the inhabitants of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics come from the Turkic language Turkmen, is mainly spoken in Turkmenistan, and as a minority language in Afghanistan, Russia, Iran and Turkey. Kazakh and Kyrgyz are related languages of the Kypchak group of Turkic languages and are spoken throughout Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and as a minority language in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Xinjiang. Uzbek and Uyghur are spoken in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Xinjiang.
The Turkic languages may belong to a larger, but controversial, Altaic language family, which includes Mongolian. Mongolian is spoken throughout Mongolia and into Buryatia, Kalmyk, Tuva, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang.
Middle Iranian languages were once spoken throughout Central Asia, such as the once prominent Sogdian, Khwarezmian, Bactrian and Scythian, which are now extinct and belonged to the Eastern Iranian family. The Eastern Iranian Pashto language is still spoken in Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. Other minor Eastern Iranian languages such as Shughni, Munji, Ishkashimi, Sarikoli, Wakhi, Yaghnobi and Ossetic are also spoken at various places in Central Asia. Varieties of Persian are also spoken as a major language in the region, locally known as Dari (in Afghanistan), Tajik (in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), and Bukhori (by the Bukharan Jews of Central Asia).
Other language groups include the Tibetic languages, spoken by around six million people across the Tibetan Plateau and into Qinghai, Sichuan, Ladakh and Baltistan, and the Nuristani languages of northeastern Afghanistan. Dardic languages, such as Shina, Kashmiri, Pashayi and Khowar, are also spoken in eastern Afghanistan, the Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of Pakistan and the Kashmir state of India.
Central Asia has long been a strategic location merely because of its proximity to several great powers on the Asian landmass. The region itself never held a dominant stationary population nor was able to make use of natural resources. Thus, it has rarely throughout history become the seat of power for an empire or influential state. Central Asia has been divided, redivided, conquered out of existence, and fragmented time and time again. Central Asia has served more as the battleground for outside powers than as a power in its own right.
Central Asia had both the advantage and disadvantage of a central location between four historical seats of power. From its central location, it has access to trade routes to and from all the regional powers. On the other hand, it has been continuously vulnerable to attack from all sides throughout its history, resulting in political fragmentation or outright power vacuum, as it is successively dominated.
- To the North, the steppe allowed for rapid mobility, first for nomadic horseback warriors like the Huns and Mongols, and later for Russian traders, eventually supported by railroads. As the Russian Empire expanded to the East, it would also push down into Central Asia towards the sea, in a search for warm water ports. The Soviet bloc would reinforce dominance from the North and attempt to project power as far south as Afghanistan.
- To the East, the demographic and cultural weight of Chinese empires continually pushed outward into Central Asia since the Silk road period of Han Dynasty. However, with the Sino-Soviet split and collapse of Soviet Union, China would project its soft power into Central Asia, most notably in the case of Afghanistan, to counter Russian dominance of the region.
- To the Southeast, the demographic and cultural influence of India was felt in Central Asia, notably in Tibet.
- Pakistan has a history of political relations with neighboring Afghanistan and is termed capable of exercising influence. For some Central Asian nations, the shortest route to the ocean lies through Pakistan. Pakistan seeks natural gas from Central Asia and supports the development of pipelines from its countries. The mountain ranges and areas in northern Pakistan lie on the fringes of greater Central Asia; the Gilgit–Baltistan region of Pakistan lies adjacent to Tajikistan, separated only by the narrow Afghan Wakhan Corridor. Being located on the northwest of South Asia, the area forming modern-day Pakistan maintained extensive historical and cultural links with the central Asian region.
Major cultural and economic centers
The capital and second largest city in Kazakhstan. After Kazakhstan gained its independence in 1991, the city and the region were renamed Aqmola. The name was often translated as "White Tombstone", but actually means "Holy Place" or "Holy Shrine". The "White Tombstone" literal translation was too appropriate for many visitors to escape notice in almost all guide books and travel accounts. In 1994, the city was designated as the future capital of the newly independent country and again renamed to the present Astana after the capital was officially moved from Almaty in 1997. It was the capital of Kazakhstan (and its predecessor, the Kazakh SSR) from 1929 to 1998. Despite losing its status as the capital, Almaty remains the major commercial center of Kazakhstan. It is a recognized financial center of Kazakhstan and the Central Asian region. The capital and the largest city of Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek is also the administrative center of Chuy Province, which surrounds the city, even though the city itself is not part of the province, but rather a province-level unit of Kyrgyzstan. The second largest city of Kyrgyzstan. Osh is also the administrative center of Osh Province, which surrounds the city, even though the city itself is not part of the province, but rather a province-level unit of Kyrgyzstan. Dushanbe, the capital and largest city of Tajikistan. Dushanbe means "Monday" in Tajik and Persian and the name reflects the fact that the city grew on the site of a village that originally was a popular Monday marketplace. Ashgabat, the capital and largest city of Turkmenistan. Ashgabat is a relatively young city, growing out of a village of the same name established in 1818. It is not far from the site of Nisa, the ancient capital of the Parthians, and it grew on the ruins of the Silk Road city of Konjikala, which was first mentioned as a wine-producing village in the 2nd century BCE and was leveled by an earthquake in the 1st century BCE (a precursor of the 1948 Ashgabat earthquake). Konjikala was rebuilt because of its advantageous location on the Silk Road, and it flourished until its destruction by Mongols in the 13th century CE. After that, it survived as a small village until the Russians took over in the 19th century. Bukhara, the nation's fifth-largest city and the capital of the Bukhara Province of Uzbekistan. Bukhara has been one of the main centers of Persian civilization from its early days in the 6th century BCE, and, since the 12th century CE, Turkic speakers gradually moved in. Its architecture and archaeological sites form one of the pillars of Central Asian history and art. Kokand is a city in Fergana Province in eastern Uzbekistan, at the southwestern edge of the Fergana Valley. It has a population of 192,500 (1999 census estimate). Kokand is 228 km southeast of Tashkent, 115 km west of Andijan, and 88 km west of Fergana. It is nicknamed “City of Winds”, or sometimes “Town of the Boar". Samarkand, the second largest city in Uzbekistan and the capital of Samarqand Province. The city is most noted for its central position on the Silk Road between China and the West. Tashkent started as an oasis on the Chirchik River, near the foothills of the Golestan Mountains. In ancient times, this area contained Beitian, probably the summer "capital" of the Kangju confederacy. In the Rig Veda (composed between 1700–1100 BCE), the word Kubhā is mentioned, which appears to refer to the Kabul River. Mazar-e Sharif, the fourth largest city in Afghanistan and the capital of Balkh province, is linked by roads to Kabul in the southeast, Herat to the west and Uzbekistan to the north.
- The Library: Central on politics, universities, culture, languages, etc.
- Central Asian Gateway Project of UNDP and CER, managed by N. Talibdjanov (since 2003).
- Modernity, State and Society in Central Asia: A Research Guide
- General Map of Central Asia: I is a historic map from 1874