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Central Asia that obscure region somewhere beneath Russia, little understood, almost ignored in recent times has suddenly been catapulted back into the lime light in the wake of recent events in Afghanistan.
But it was not always so; Central Asia is the landmass which connected the Chinese Empires of old to Ancient Roman and Western civilisation. Covered with wide deserts (the Kara Kum and Kyzl Kum) and some of the highest mountain ranges in the world (the Pamirs), and with vast steppes, bound by long rivers (Amu Darya, Syr Darya) and scattered with a sudden spatterings of highly fertile oasis, this harsh but strangely beautiful land once used to be the centre of the world.
Central Asia was inhabited in earliest history by Turkic nomads in 2000 BC. These had spawned many warrior tribes, notably the Huns who roamed this steppe with impunity. The Chinese Empire of the West sporadically sent exploratory trading missions westwards but they repeatedly fell victim to the warrior tribes. Eventually after many massacres the 'Silk Road' was established. These were in fact a series of roads threading their way across this difficult land, connecting China to the Empires of the West, and allowing an exchangeof valuable goods and silk from China with those of Rome, but also an exchange of a cacophony of concepts, ideas philosophies and religions which bundled along with the flow of trade. Trading caravans never covered the whole length of the 'Silk Route' journey, but would stop at intermittent nodes. Oasis cities such as Samarkand and Bukhara became thriving centres for trade for goods arriving from the opposite direction. These would then be traded on in the next oasis city, for ever more exotic items at ever increasing prices. The cities of Central Asia became legendary. Art, culture, religion and commerce fermented in an atmosphere of competition and tolerance. New ideas were often imported peaceably by traders but the true history of Central Asia is one of conquest and re-conquest, with Empires swinging to and fro between Turkic and Persian peoples.
As the Silk Route became increasingly profitable, Central Asia rose from obscurity to being the most coveted landmass in the world, and any conqueror worth his salt was determined to add it to his belt. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Timur the Lame each in their turn conquered it, gaining control over the great Silk Route in the process.
The last of the historical conquests came from the Shaybani Uzbeks to whom present day Uzbeks trace their lineage. These finally defeated the Timurids in 1500 and Turkic script and peoples replaced the then dominant Persian. To this day a Turkic atmosphere prevails over the majority of Central Asia except in Tajikistan which alone identifies with a Persian heritage and culture.
After the 16th century the Silk Rroute fell into disuse as sea routes took over, following the naval exploits of the likes of Vasco da Gama. The importance of empires whose former power resulted from their control of the Silk Route diminished. An impoverished and increasingly obscure Central Asia was now governed by many small Khanates surviving on the slave trade and exorbitant taxation of the population. Her northern regions fell easy prey to the expansive missions of the invading Russian tsars in 1715 under Peter the Great.
In the 18th centaury as Britain expanded her territory from India towards Afghanistan, Russia too edged forwards and Central Asia was caught in a strategic stand-off between the two empires, a pawn caught between two foes playing out the 'Great Game' of colonial times.
A series of Islamic resistance movements opposing Russian encroachment broke out from in the Fergana Valley region. In order to quieten the area Russia enforced a policy of forced resettlement of ethnic Russians and Cossacks to dilute the population and turned the land over to large-scale cotton production.
Famine in 1916 combined with Russian attempts to draft the Central Asians into the Tsarist army during WWI ignited revolt in the impoverished areas, which the Tsarists brutally suppressed killing tens of thousands.
The Russian revolution erupted in 1917. The Muslims of Central Asia had no desire to be part of the Soviet Union and the so-called Basmachi's or bandit groups resisted bitterly but were eventually overcome by Stalin. Stalin then proceeded to implement a policy of divide and rule, carving across ethnic, religious and traditional boundaries to form the five Central Asian states: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan of today. No one state can be said to have an overwhelming presence of any one ethnicity, leaving a legacy of continuous agitations for secession from the mother country and exacerbating political instability of the region since independence.
Neglected and repressed during Soviet times, Central Asia has become a coveted
asset post-independence. These 1,542,200 landlocked square miles with its 52
million people and hundreds of ethnic groups have become commercially significant.
Where once nomadic conquerors grappled for control of its profitable Silk Route,
the new great powers compete for the modern day equivalent, oil and gas pipelines.
Central Asia has once again become the centre of a new Great Game as the Powers
vie for control of its multitudes and its vast mineral resources.