A Brief History of Central Asia

A brief summary of the history of Central Asia from the 7th century to the early 20th century.

The Samanids-7th to 10th Century

In her book, Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence, Shoshana Keller wrote that “if you look at a map, Central Asia is at the center of everything but is itself nowhere.” I think that’s a pretty useful way of thinking about this region. It is surrounded by Russia, China, Iran, and India and so is easy to dismiss, but was also the wealthy center of the Silk Road, the center Islamic intellectual and religious life, and home to the great conquerors such as Chinggis Khan and Timur.

When thinking about Central Asia, I’ve seen their history divided into six different time blocks: the pre-Islamic , the Arab period, the Mongol period, the Timurid period, the Uzbek period, and the Russian period.

Between the 7th and 10th century, which can be thought of as the pre-Islamic age, Central Asia was home to mostly nomadic Iranian steppe peoples, known as Scythians. Historians love to create a deep divide between nomads and settled people, but in Central Asia it’s almost impossible to do that because you had nomads who would settle for periods and then move again or what historians call semi-settled nomads, farmers who settled until it was no longer profitable to do so. At this time, the region was mostly Iranian nomads, but there was a growing Chinese and Tibet presence as well.

Image of a man in a turban and robe write on a scroll
Avicenna courtesy of Wikicommons

The Arabs invaded in the 8th century CE, defeating the Chinese army at the battle of Taraz in 751, ending the Chinese presence in Central Asia for a millennium and enfolding Central Asia into the Abbasid empire. The Arabs brought Islam with and encouraged conversions, while leaving political power to local forces. Eventually, the Samanids grew to prominence and became an autonomous power. During the Samanids reign, Bukhara became a center of Muslim learning and home to many famous Islamic scholars such as Avicenna and Abu Rayahn al-Biruni.

At the same time, there was a massive migration of Turkic peoples into Central Asia creating multiple dynasties such as the Qarakhanids, the first Turkic-Muslim dynasty in Central Asia, the Ghaznavids the dynasty centered in Ghazna (modern day Afghanistan), founded by a Samanid military commander, and the Saljuqids, a Turkic dynasty the would rule over much of Western Asia during the 11th and 12th century. The Samanids would fight with the Qarakhanids, but also recruited Turks into their armies since they were considered to be superior fighters. This enabled them to rise to prominence and take over the region by the end of the 10th century Many converted to Islam, the most famous being the conversion of the Qarakhanid ruler, Satuq Bughra Khan.

The three Turkic dynasties divided the Samanid Empire amongst themselves with the Saljuqs (soul-jook) gaining control by the late 1080s, creating a new dynasty of kings in Khorezm (cor-riz-em) Eventually the Turks would be worked into the Muslim narrative by making them the descendants of Yafith (also known as Japheth, one of Noah’s three sons.)

Chinggis Khan and Timur-1200-1500s

By the 1200s, Central Asia was facing a new foe: Chinggis Khan and the Mongols. While Chinggis’ main foe was China, he quickly realized that Central Asia was too powerful to leave alone. So, in 1219, he led an invasion and eventually conquered the region When Chinggis Khan died, he divided his territory amongst his sons with Chaghatay, Chinggis’ second oldest son, receiving the steppe lands to the north of sedentary Central Asia. Chaghatay’s son would expand their reach to most of Transoxiana, which includes parts of modern day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan, and southwest Kazakhstan. Mongol rule would see Islam spread throughout Central Asia and the rise of the Sufis, who would remain powerful after the Mongols were long gone.

Chinggis Khan courtesy of Wikicommons

The Mongol Empire shattered after three generations and the remaining fragments formed their own independent dynasties. Within Central Asia, they would build their khanates around key cities such as Bukhara, Khiva, and Kokand. One such powerful Turkic lord was Timur.

Timur’s family seems to have taken part in the Mongol’s invasion of Central Asia and solidified their power in the city Kish, south of Samarkand. By 1370, Timur became the most powerful man in Central Asia, but since rulers required Chinggisid lineage, he employed a puppet on the throne. Timur also married into the Mongol royal family and established Samarkand as his capital. Timur will always be known for his conquests and military campaigns, but Central Asia will remember the increased trade, the beautification of Samarkand, and the explosion of architecture.

When Timur died, his dynasty ruled Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Persia. His descendants known as the Timurids became dedicated patrons of the arts and sciences, (also known as the Timurid Renaissance), the profound rise of the Sufis, and establishing a model of governance that inspired governments in Uzbek Central Asia, Mughal India, Safavid Iran, and the Ottoman Empire. The Timurid state would last until the 16th century when a new race of people migrated to Central Asia: the Uzbeks.

The Uzbeks – the 1500-1700s

The Uzbek migration, the last great nomadic invasion, even though the region would continue to see mass migrations, occurred in the 1500s and created three famous khanates: Khiva, Bukhara, and Kokand.

Khiva was created when the old Khwarazm Empire (a native dynasty) was taken over by the Uzbek family the Arabshanids. The Arabshanids moved the capital to Khiva in the 1500s and established control over most of what is modern day Turkmenistan. Khiva would flourish until the 1540 and 1593 Bukharan invasions. They served as a Bukharan vassal state until the Nadir Shah invasion in the 1700s. They regained their independence under the Kongrat Dynasty in 1804 but would struggle with a Turkmen rebellion from 1855-67 when two to three Khans were killed.

The Bukharan Khanate was created when a group of Uzbeks, led by Muhammad Shibani Khan pushed Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur out of his family’s home in Samarkand and into Afghanistan where he would invade India and create the Mughal Empire. The Shibani Khanate would rule from 1500-1599 before being taken over from the inside out by Toqay Timurids.

The Shibanids utilized the appanage system to govern: the appanage system relied on the senior member of the ruling family as the greatest amongst equals and divided the territory amongst other family members. Bukhara became the khanate’s capital, but they also ruled important cities such as Tashkent, Samarkand, and Balkh.

The Uzbeks were Sunni Muslims and that put them in conflict with the Shia Muslims the Safavid dynasty in Persia. This conflict expressed itself via a struggle over the Khurasan region. Shibani Khan himself would die in battle against the Safavids. As can be guessed, the appanage system was unstable and the Shibanids would undergo civil wars every time a ruler died. The Khanate also had to contend with conflicts with Kazakh warriors, the Safavids, and neighbor khanates such as Khiva.

In 1681, the Khivans invaded the Bukharan territory, took Bukhara itself and forced the Khan to step down. The Khan’s brother ascended the throne but struggled with rebellious amirs, who were slowly consolidating power into their hands. They assassinated several khans worsening internal crises while the region suffered several invasions from neighbors such as the Jungar Mongol invasion in 1723. This would spark what is known as the Barefoot Flight, a mass migration of Kazakh people into Bukharan territory.

Nader Shah courtesy of Wikicommons

Things were made worst in 1736 when the Shibanid’s old enemies, the Safavids were defeated in Persia and replaced by Nadir Shah. While invading India, Nadir Shah forced Khiva and Bukhara to submit to his authority. When Nadir Shah died in 1747, Muhammad Rahim Bey, the man Nadir sent to Bukhara to keep order, killed the last Shibanid khan and took control himself, ending the Shibanid/Toqay-Timurid dynasty.

The Kokand Khanate was a creation of the Shibanid dynasty and originated in the Ferghana valley. The ruler Narbuta Bey negotiated trade deals with the Qing dynasty in China, and created a dynamic system of government that his sons Alim and Umar would take advantage of and create a golden age for Kokand.

The Kokand khanate established their legitimacy by modeling their government and society on Timurid society and even tried to trace their linage to the Timur family. While they were more centralized than the Bukharan Khanate, they were in no way a modern central state. Their system worked best when they could balance and play the needs of all their constituents against each other. Naturally, the Khanate began to fail when the khans could no longer manipulate their constituents effectively.

The Russians 1700-1900s

While internal divisions hurt Khanate rule, it was the Russians and Chinese who were tolling the death bells. It started in 1758 when China invaded Xinjiang, shocking Central Asian Muslims. The Kokand Khanate responded by agreeing to be a subordinate to the Qing dynasty, but no one seemed to define what that meant and that make their relationship rocky from the start. The Russians made several excursions into Central Asia, eying the Kazakh and Kyrgyz Steppes, and reaching out to various Khanates for alliances and vassalages.

The Central Asians, at first, saw more opportunities than dangers. They increased trade with China and Russia and thought they could play their neighbors against their rival khanates. In 1715, Khiva considered allying with Russia to defeat their neighboring Turkmen tribes, but Khiva executed the Russian diplomats instead. Russian established a militarized border known as the Orenburg line by the mid-eighteenth century. The Russian and Chinese invasions, combined with the Persian invasion in the 1700s, left Central Asia off-kilter and many people seems to turn to Sufis and ulama for guidance.

The Russian expansion was inspired by need for land and resources as much as it was inspired by British interference. What we now called the Great Game took place in Central Asia during the 18th and 19th century and trapped the Central Asians between two colonial powers. The Khanates tried to navigate the difficult times as best they could, but could not prevent Russia from taking all of Turkestan (most of modern day Central Asia) by 1895, leaving the Emirates of Khiva and Bukhara as loosely independent entities whose loyalty was to Russia.

References:

For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia by Robert D. Crews Published by Harvard University Press, 2006

The Rise and Fall of Khoqand: Central Asia in the Global Age 1709-1876 by Scott C. Levi Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017

The Bukharan Crisis: a Connected History of 18th Century Central Asia by Scott C. Levi Published by University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020

Tatar Empire: Kazan’s Muslims and the Making of Imperial Russia by Danielle Ross Published by Indiana University Press, 2020

Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Coexistence by Shoshana Keller Published by University of Toronto Press, 2019

Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia: Bukhara and Khiva, 1865-1924 by Seymour Becker, Published by RoutledgeCurzon, 2004

Tournament of Shadows: the Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac Published by Basic Books, 1999

Russian Rule in Samarkand, 1868-1910: a Comparison with British India by Alexander Morrison, Published by OUP Oxford, 2008

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