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Central Asia - Landmarks of History

Central Asia - Desert

Great deserts of the Karakum and Kyzylkum and great rivers of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, vast areas of Turan and the skyscraping tops of the Pamirs, the mountain ‘sea’ Issik Kul and the largest ‘lake’ in the world – the Caspian Sea, a network of concrete highways that run across plains and the Karakum Canal that brings water to the locations as far away as one thousand five hundred kilometers, sandy hills and arterial gas pipeline that runs to the world’s end, the monuments of antiquity and modern Underground, Tashkent, a metropolis with population of more than two million people, and continuously developing Astana, – all this is Central Asia.

Today Central Asia comprises the republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

Since the mid-19th century the vast territory of Central Asia, spreading from the Caspian Sea to the Chinese border, attracted the ruling circles of the Russian Empire. This region was viewed primarily as a huge market for Russian textile and heavy industry and a source of raw materials, cotton above all. Rivalry with England for political domination in Central Asia was one more motive behind the Russian expansion in Central Asia. In 1867 there was formed Turkestan general-governorship with the head-office in Tashkent. During the next 20 years almost the whole territory of Central Asia was annexed to the Russian Empire, except Bukhara Emirate and Khivan Khanate, which retained their autonomy under Russian protectorate.

Another page in the history of Central Asia is closely connected with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and establishment of Soviet Power in Turkestan. As a result of national and state demarcation in the 20-s of the last century there was formed Uzbek, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, Tadjik and Kazakh Soviet Republics which became parts of the USSR.

In 1991, after the collapse of the USSR, the Central Asian republics proclaimed themselves independent and became full members of the world community.

The ruins of the ancient cities and the traces of the past civilizations on the territory of Central Asia testify to the eventful history of the region.

This part of our planet with fertile lands, mild climate and abundance of rivers became one of the first sites where primitive man settled. Scientists found several Stone Age settlements of primitive man in Teshiktash and Amankutan tracts in Uzbekistan. In the vicinity of Ashghabad, at the beginning of the 20th century, the American researcher R.Pampeli discovered the remnants of Anau culture dating back to the fourth millennium before Common Era.

Central Asia - Sogdiana

The ancient states of Sogdiana, Bactria, Khorezm used to occupy the territories between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers. In the middle of the first millennium B.C. these territories fell to the Achaemenid Empire. In one of the inscriptions carved on the rock in Behistun there were mentioned the eastern satrapies subject to Persian kings, including Sogdiana and Bactria. But local people put up a strong resistance to the conquerors. According to Herodotus, ‘Father of history’, the army under the command of Tomiris, the Queen of Massagetaes, crushed the Persian hordes and killed their king Cyrus the Great. From the accounts of the Greek historian Polienus we have learnt the story of shepherd Shirak who purposely misled the Persian soldiers of the king Darius to waterless desert.

Alexander the Great vanquished the Persian empire in Central Asia. Here, on the territory of present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, there were the north-eastern borders of Alexander’s conquests. The Hellenic historian Arrianus, the author of ‘Alexander’s Anabasis’, left us the accounts of the seizure of Maracanda by the Greeks in 329 B.C. The remnants of Maracanda, the ancient capital of Sogdiana, are hidden under the hills of Afrasiab in the outskirts of present-day Samarkand.

Central Asia - Alexander the Great

Legends connect the name of Alexander the Great with the rise of dozens of towns and cities in Central Asia, including Merv, Balkh and Alexandria-Eshata (nowadays known as Khodjent). In the upper reaches of the Amy Darya river Alexander erected a fortress which in the Middle Ages was called Termez.

Graeco-Macedonian troops had stayed in this land for about two years and everywhere faced a strong resistance of the population. In Sogdiana nobleman Spitamenes led his people in a guerilla war against the invaders but finally the Greeks managed to suppress the rebellion. After the death of Alexander the Great Central Asian countries were included first into Seleucid Empire and later into Graeco-Bactrian Empire.

In the 1st century A.D. a powerful Kushan kingdom arose, comprising the southern provinces of present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the territory of modern Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan.

Thus, at the beginning of our era for the fist time in the history there was formed a political system that embraced the whole civilized part of the world: Roman, Parthyan, Kushan and Chinese Empires. In the 6th century Central Asian states became parts of the Turkic Khanate; and two centuries later Arab warriors led by Quteiba conquered Khorezm, Bactria and Sogd. Ten years later after the Arab invasion in Central Asia the last bastion of Sogdians, citadel on Mount Mug near Penjikent, fell, and domination of the Arab Caliphate over Central Asia started.

For centuries various Asian states rose and fell, dynasties superseded each other. At the beginning of the 13th century the hordes of Genghis Khan invaded Central Asia. And only in the late-14th century, when Amir Temur came to power and set up a powerful state with the capital in Samarkand, the region began to prosper again.

The 16th – 18th centuries witnessed the formation in Central Asia of large states, such as Bukhara Emirate, Khiva and Kokand Khanates.

In the middle of the 2nd century B.C. the Great Silk Road, which earlier consisted of several separate tracks, appeared as an integral overland thoroughfare. By that time there already existed “lazurite” and “nephrite” routes named after the semi-precious stones which were mined in Central Asia and were transported wastwards, as well as Incense Road, which ran from Asia Minor. Now all the tracks integrated into one Great Silk Road that stretched from the capital of Hang Empire, Chanyan, to the capital of the Roman Empire. It is probably the only transcontinental highway of more than ten thousand kilometers in length that crossed the countries of two continents.

The main credit of developing the caravan routes should be given to the countries, located between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers: Sogdiana, Bactria, Khorezm and Margiana. Thus, already in the 4th century B.C. the Sogdians began to settle down eastward, on the border with China, where in the later period silkworm breeding began to develop. The caravans of Sogdian merchants reached Byzantium, thus initiating a new route for silk trade.

Nowadays it is not easy to fancy all the difficulties and dangers that lay in wait for caravan men during their travel through the vast expanses of Central Asia. In one of the old ‘diaries’ a merchant from Central Asia wrote: “The country of Khans (China) is rather far from here and a journey along the salty river Tarim is very arduous. Barbarians plunder on the northern tracks. In the southern area foodstuff and water are not sufficient, even in the cities people experience this shortage. In a caravan of 100 people more than a half of the stuff die by the end of the journey.”

Partly for this reason, trade in the old times was effected through middlemen; goods were passed from hand to hand and delivered to remote countries. Chinese merchants usually did not go farther than Central Asia and local traders acted as their middlemen, who often held direct trade relations with China.

Caravan paths of Central Asia served not only as trading channels for various goods but also as a bridge along which spiritual and cultural values were brought. Thus, in Central Asia in different periods there existed Zoroastrianism, which is considered to originate in Khorezm, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, Manichaeism and Islam. Moreover, in pre-Islamic period all these religions were noted for their toleration.

Central Asia gave the world many prominent scientists, thinkers, and poets. Among them Abu Ali ibn Sino (Avicenna), one of the founders of modern medicine, al-Khorezmi, after whom algebra and algorithm were named, Ulugbek, who made for astronomy to become a science, the scientist Abu Rayhon Beruni, poets Omar Hayam and Alisher Navoi, philosophers Bakhouddin Nakshbandi, al-Bukhari, at-Termezi and many others.

Central Asia - Khiva

Monuments of antiquity scattered all about Central Asia represent landmarks of its history. Most of these monuments are located on the territory of modern Uzbekistan, the most highly populated country among other Central Asian countries. There are more than four thousand architectural monuments in the Republic, which are rightfully included in the treasury of the world civilization. Four of them – historical centers of Samarkand, Bukhara, Shakhrisabz and Ichan-Kala complex in Khiva – hold a fitting place in UNESCO World Heritage List.

Ancient Merv, located in Turkmenistan, was called by the Arab historians ‘father of cities’. Thus in the 10th century the Arab historian Makdisi wrote about the city: “Merv Shakhidjan is an old city built by Alexander the Great. Its every gate is guarded by an angel with unsheathed sword thus protecting the city from evil. In Khijasa Mecca is the mother of cities, whereas in Khorasan Merv is the father of cities”. Unfortunately, ‘angels’ were unable to protect Merv from devastation caused by the Mongol invaders. However, Erk-Kala, the inner part of the city enclosed with the walls, Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar and other monuments, managed to survive. UNESCO included reserve ‘Ancient Merv’ in the World Heritage List.

Mausoleum of Khodja Ahmad Yassavi, which is located in Kazakhstan, is of great interest to the world community. It is located in the city of Turkestan that earlier had the name Yassi and was built in the time of Amir Temur. Some original ideas used by the Persian architects in the construction of the mausoleum were later applied in the buildings of Samarkand. The Mausoleum is also included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

A number of historical monuments of the world importance can be found on the territory of Kyrgyzstan. These are Sulaaiman-Too complex, Uzgen site of ancient settlement, Shakh-Fazil, petroglyphs of Saimaluu-Tash. They all deserve the right to be included into the ‘golden fund’ of UNESCO.

They say in the East: “A land free of people is a desert”. History of Central Asia is primarily the history of people who populated, developed and turned the desolate land into a fertile oasis.