The Early History of Central Asia and the Great Steppe

Being the world’s largest continent in terms of landmass and population, the lands making up Asia are as fascinating as they are diverse. Centuries ago Europeans, starting with the ancient Greeks and Romans, referred to everything east the Bosporus as Asia. This definition eventually expanded to India and the faraway (and at that time mythical) lands of China. In a sense, “Asia” became a blanket term for the lands of the East.

Central Asia among many Asias

Map of Asia
Today when people in the West think of “Asia,” their minds often conjure up images of what is popularly known as the “Far East,” i.e. parts of the continent such as eastern China, Japan and the two Koreas. Not too far away from these countries is the area known as “Southeast Asia.” The countries which encompasses this region include modern Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and a few others. Then there is “South Asia” which is made up of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sir Lanka.

However, the annals of history scarcely mention the words “Central Asia.” In fact, this is a fairly recent term in the western lexicon that came into common use after the breakup of the Soviet Union. This breakup created several independent “republics,” namely Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. These new countries, now technically independent of Moscow, became “Central Asia.” This term though proved to be fluid. After all, political boundaries created by Soviet politicians and geographers do not always reflect realities on the ground, For example, countries such as Mongolia or areas such as China’s Xinjiang province and parts of south-central Siberia have less in common with the other “Asias” described above and are geographically and culturally more similar to Central Asia. Potentially problematic indeed, especially given that the historical and present importance of this region cannot be understated. This is an ancient land with peoples and traditions which go back several thousand years. I don’t claim to be writing something that is exhaustive of this region’s history. However, I do hope that it piques your interest of this fascinating and diverse region of the world.

What and Where is Central Asia?

Central Asia is a vast expanse of land that occupies nearly eight million square miles, or approximately one seventh of the Earth’s landmass. Historically, this region has been a diverse place with numerous ethinic groups, tribes, languages and religions. For much of recorded history, the peoples of this region have been primarily nomadic. The concept of belonging to a “state” with predefined borders was alien to many of the region’s inhabitants. Most groups were nomadic and organized into various clans or tribes, generally sharing (or believed to be descended from) a common ancestor. It was to this group and not any kingdom, country or state that most Central Asian peoples were ultimately loyal to. The same is true today.

Map of Modern Central Asia

Where as modern Western Central Asia is a mix of Turkic, Persian and Russian influences, Eastern Central Asia, which comprises Mongolia, Tibet and parts of China (Manchuria), is predominantly Buddhist and culturally quite different. Some scholars even add Russia, Ukraine and Hungary to the Central Asian mix, though politically and culturally they are closer to Eastern Europe.

Ancient Central Asia

Early Linguistic Groups of Central Asia

Though Central Asia is home to many different languages, most of these fall into two main families: Indo-European and Altaic. People of Indo-European origin first came to the steppes of Central Asia around 4000 BCE, though some scholars believe it was actually earlier. Around 3000 – 2500 BCE, a branch of these people spread southward towards the Iranian plateau and Indian subcontinent. Their language developed into Persian and its various dialects as well Hindi, Punjabi and the other Sanskrit-based languages of the north Indian subcontinent.

The second main group of Central Asian languages belong to the what is known as the Altaic family. These include Turkish and its many sister tongues such as such Kazakh, Uzbek, Azeri and Uighur. It also includes Mongolian and, at least according to some scholars, Korean.

The Steppe

One factor that has defined Central Asia is the steppe, the large area of flat, treeless terrain that makes up a great chunk of the region. Given the area’s rough and often not-so-hospitable terrain, most people in ancient Central Asia were nomads. While there may not have been a lot of stable farmland, the steppe did have something of great value: horses.

The nomads of the steppe put these horses to good use and became extremely skilled at riding and fighting on them. Over time their skills with a the horse made them some of the most fearsome and cunning warriors in the ancient world. In fact in many steppe societies, living a sedentary life and farming were considered to be reserved for those of low status. A man’s wealth in those days was determined by the number of fine horses and sheep that he possessed. Along with mobility, horses also provided meat and and even milk.

For those who lived in the city, the steppe was a land filled with barbarians. The ancient Iranians referred to the area (especially the lands beyond the Amu Darya river) as Turan, a country that was, at least in literature, their historic rival.

Ancient Chinese historians also wrote about the peoples of the steppe in condescending terms. They believed them to be primitive horse herders who lacked any form of sophisticated culture and dressed poorly in rough clothes made of animal hides (makes sense since the Chinese were extremely fond of silk). This of course was a generalization and in many cases, not even true. In fact, archaeologists have uncovered a great deal of evidence to the contrary. Many Central Asian nomads were cultured and lived luxurious lives:

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 finery…. “Barbarian” clothing … 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 qobïz still played by Central Asian peoples such as the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz today. 1

How very primitive indeed.

The “Golden man of Kazakhstan,” most likely an Indo-European nomad

In general the early nomads of Central Asia stayed away from most cities. However over time, they began to interact more with the settled peoples and urban centers that they came in contact with. The reasons for this were quite obvious: the nomads needed or wanted things that their free-roaming lifestyle was not conducive to producing such as textiles, bronze and iron goods, agricultural foodstuffs, fruits, vegetables, gold and wine. The warriors of the steppe also served as mercenaries for wealthy city dwellers.

The Early Aryans of the Steppe

From the large group of people known as the Indo-Europeans came various subgroups. One of these were known as the Indo-Iranians or Indo-Aryans. They descended onto the steppe from what is now southern Russia around 3000 – 2500 BCE and continued to move southward through the area into what is now Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Their tribal name was Ârya which means “lord” or “free person.” 2 Some translate the word to mean “noble.” As they moved further south, they split into various groups with one moving towards South Asia (today northern India and Pakistan) and the other around 1500 BCE to a land that to this day bears their name: Iran (the name Iran means “Land of the Aryans”). These Aryans were also known to be great warriors and were known as rathaeshtar which means “one who stands on a chariot.”

Though nomads, the Aryans of the steppe were a cultured people possessing a sophisticated society and class structure. They had a polytheistic religion in which many gods and goddesses were worshiped. The also believed in Asha, the divine law which was responsible for order in the universe. In a broad sense, Asha means “truth” and is described as the force that essentially governs everything from the way the cosmos functions and natural phenomenon that occur to an individual’s proper relationship and dealings with others and the world around him or her.

Zarathushtra, Prophet of Central Asia and Iran

It is into this society and religious doctrine that the Iranian Prophet Zarathushtra (called Zoroaster in the West) arrived. Born sometime around 1500 BCE in Central Asia (some scholars believe near the Aral Sea in present-day Uzbekistan), Zarathushtra preached a religion that was based on many of the ideals of the Aryan religion of the time with one major exception: the belief in monotheism, or One God. He taught that the world was divided into good and evil and that God, whom he called Ahura Mazda, was the only Being worthy of being worshiped. At first many in Aryan society were vehemently opposed to Zarathushtra’s teachings, but eventually the religion that he taught caught on when a local king named Vishtasp became one of his followers. This religion, known today as Zoroastrianism, in at least one form or another became the state creed of several pre-Islamic Persian kingdoms and Empires and was the dominant religion for the Indo-Iranians in both Iran and Central Asia for several thousand years.

Zoroastrian Teachings

Zarathushtra taught his followers that the world was a battleground between the forces of good and evil and that mankind should be aligned with Ahura Mazda and all that is good. If at death man’s good deeds outweighed the bad, he would then enter into Heaven or Paradise; if the opposite were the case, he would descend into the depths of Hell. At the end of time, there would be a resurrection where all souls would arise and face a final judgement, with evil eventually being defeated. Those who were wicked would then be purified and allowed to enter the eternal abode of happiness, i.e. Heaven, with those who were already good. Scholars of religion believe that Zoroastrian teachings and doctrines, such as the concepts of Heaven and Hell, Angels, a Day of Judgement and the appearance of a savior at the end of time, are the source of many similar beliefs in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. In Central Asia, Zoroastrianism was often called Mazdaism or Mazdayasnism, both terms translated loosely as “Mazda Worship.”

The Scythians and other Indo-European Steppe Peoples

Not all of the Iranian-speaking peoples shared Zarathushtra’s ethical philosophy. Some actually seemed to practice the antithesis of it. For example the nomadic Scythians, also members of Iranian-speaking tribes, were known to be vicious warriors. Herodotus, the Greek historian and “father of history” claims that Scythian warriors could not be defeated and made trophies and drinking cups out of the heads of their vanquished enemies. 3 Despite legends of their brutality, the Scythians and other steppe peoples did have codes of honor and conduct. They were generally known to be very straightforward in their dealings and to honor contracts with others, including other tribes. Their women were also said to have been of equal status to men, something not common in the patriarchal societies of the ancient world. In terms of religion, Scythians were polytheists like other early Aryan tribes, though they had a special fondness for animals and believed many of them had special powers.

Artist depiction of Scythian warriors

Other Indo-Iranian tribes settled in the fertile river valleys and oases of the Central Asian steppe. These peoples became the Sogdians, Bactrians, Khwarazmians and the Khotanese Saka, the later extending their domains as far east as Chinese Xinjiang province. Despite their geographic dispersion, these peoples maintained many similarities with each other in terms of their language, culture and customs.

Early Empires in Central Asia

Though fiercely independent, the tribes of central Asia were, at least in theory, brought under the same political apparatus when the Persian Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus the Great conquered the region around the 540s BCE. The empire further expanded into Central Asia under one of his successors, Darius the Great. The arrival of the Achaemenid Persians and the spread of their Empire in the mid 500s BCE brought many changes to the Central Asian steppe. As the Persians expanded their realm to include parts of Central Asia, they brought with them access to the lucrative trade routes of Mesopotamia and the world beyond the Mediterranean. The steppe in turn (and what became the famed “Silk Road”) became the main conduit to linking the west with the wealthy Chinese kingdoms of the East.

The nomads of the steppe were instrumental in protecting these important trade routes, especially the dangerous routes that led through the deserts of Mongolia (the Gobi) and the Taklamakan in what is today China’s Xinjiang province. Guides who knew the ins and outs of the steppe and deserts were crucial for merchant caravans that wished to cross from one end to the other (Taklamakan means “once you enter, you cannot leave.” 4

Though there were many similarities between the Persians and the Iranian peoples of Central Asia, centralized rule of this area proved to be difficult. There were frequent rebellions and Cyrus the Great even met his death at the hands of a Scythian woman, Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae tribe.

Eventually though the areas of Sogdia, Khwarazm, Bactria and Margiana were subdued and became important satrapies or provinces, of the Persian Empire. Alexander of Macedonia, who conquered the Achaemenids, also incorporated these regions into his empire. He even took his wife, Roxana, from among these people (Roxana was believed to be a princess from Bactria) and founded several cities named after himself (known as “Alexandrias”) throughout his new Central Asia realm.

As powerful as Alexander was, his Greco-Macedonian empire proved to be feeble shortly after his death. Eventually the Greek colonists in places such Bactria and Sogdia broke away and formed their own independent kingdoms, blending native Iranian culture and religion with that of their Hellenistic forbearers.

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