Throughout more than two millennia, the extensive droughty areas in East Asia were occupied by pastoral nomads. A long history exists of hybridity between steppe and agricultural areas. The ancient nomads had a specific pastoral economy, a mobile lifestyle, a unique mentality that assumed unpretentiousness and stamina, cults of war, warrior horsemen, and heroized ancestors that were reflected, in turn, in both their verbal oeuvre (heroic epos) and their arts (animal style). They established vast empires that united many peoples. In the descriptions of settled civilizations, the peoples of the steppe are presented as aggressive barbarians. However, the pastoral nomads developed efficient mechanisms of adaptation to nature and circumjacent states. They had a complex internal structure and created different forms of social complexity—from heterarchical confederations to large nomadic empires. The different forms of identity in pastoral societies (gender, age, profession, rank) are presented in this article. Special attention is given to how ethnic identity is formed from small groups. The ethnic history of the ancient nomads of East Asia is described, particularly for such pastoral societies as the Xiongnu, the Wuhuan, the Xianbei, and the Rouran.
Scott C. Levi
Contrary to long-held notions that gunpowder weapons technologies were devised in the West and gradually transmitted eastward into Asia, more recent scholarship indicates that innovations flowed in both directions. Scholars have also come to recognize that there was no uniformity in the ways that states implemented gunpowder weapons, and that multiple factors relating to environment, demographics, and cultural preferences informed decisions about when and how to embrace the new technology. The major Asian agrarian states of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (the so-called Gunpowder Empires) and the Ming and Qing dynasties in China implemented gunpowder weapons differently. The Ottomans were the most aggressive in this regard, the Mughals preferred a hybrid force, and the Safavids long favored cavalry. Chinese militaries employed hybrid forces to great effect, but in later years a lengthy peace during the Qing era slowed the implementation of new technologies. In Central Asia and other places where rulers could rely on large numbers of well-trained, fast-moving mounted archers and a nearly endless supply of horses, they found little reason to rush to embrace what for several centuries represented an expensive, slow, and unreliable technology.
Much has been said and written about the “Silk Road” since Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen coined the phrase in 1877. Fostered by spectacular discoveries by so-called explorers such as Sir Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, Sven Hedin, and others, the Silk Road soon became the subject of countless articles, books, museum exhibitions, and even legends. In times when almost any location—virtual or real—is but one mouse click away, the catchphrase Silk Road has not lost any of its original appeal. On the contrary, the term is almost constantly present in all kinds of media. Yet, it is never quite clear what exactly the Silk Road concept really entails. When was it established? Was it even formally established? What was its purpose? Was there but one function? And, more importantly, how useful is it as an analytical concept in the first place?
These are the main questions this article seeks to answer. Its arguments are based on an analysis of the earliest available sources: archaeological finds from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, indigenous documents written in Kharosthi script, and early Chinese historiography. The article will argue that the history of the early Silk Road (and its so-called prehistory) was considerably more complex than generally claimed. For instance, we can certainly not pinpoint a fixed date on which the Silk Road was established; neither were the intercontinental land routes primarily traveled (and populated) by traders. China’s initial forays into Central Asia in the 2nd century
In the 19th century, the Emirate of Bukhara was one of three independent Uzbek principalities known as khanates. Ruled by the Manghit amīrs, Bukhara was the biggest and most important of the southern Central Asian polities and one of the major power centers in the wider region. To the readers of 19th-century European travelogues, Bukhara was known for the despotism of its rulers notorious for their cruelty and strange tastes. From a geopolitical point of view, the Bukharan Emirate was part of an anarchic transition space between Central and South Asia made up of half a dozen petty principalities without centralized power structures. While the bulk of the 19th- and 20th-century secondary sources stress the despotism of its amīrs and its isolation in view of the declining caravan trade on the Central Asian caravan routes, Bukhara and other urban centers such as Samarqand and Qarshi were embedded in transregional religious and trading networks. As a crossroads of commerce and an important religious center, Bukhara in particular and other Transoxanian towns as well attracted flows of goods and people from all directions and was well connected to other places and areas such as Siberia, China, India, and Persia. In the second half of the 19th century, the Emirate of Bukhara and its neighbors north of the Āmū Daryā River came into the focus of Russia. After a series of military defeats in 1868, Bukhara was turned into a Russian protectorate, which finally became a People’s Republic after the Bolshevik conquest in 1920. This political entity was absorbed into the emerging Soviet Union in 1924.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.
Defining ethnic identity is a difficult task. This is true for Central Asia as for any other place in the world. The fact that, for earlier periods of history, the Central Asian records—both native ones and foreign—used a great variety of terms for human ethnicity in Turkic Central Asia populations, does not make it any easier. It is largely unclear, which of the tribal groups or early statehoods correspond to a contemporary understanding of ethnicity.
Anthropological scholarship on Central Asia has, by contrast, stressed the rather vague and floating categories that people in the region used to define themselves and others. According to this view, the creation of ethnic groups was largely a product of more or less artificial engineering during Soviet times. Before that, local communities and extended kin groups, regularly reshuffled and redefined in history, were of much greater importance for people’s identification and alliances than language or assumed genetic ties.
While there is some truth in that, the picture is more complex. In particular, among the Turkic-speaking groups in the region, a steady process of consolidation set in following the decline of the Mongol Empire, resulting in the emergence of the contemporary ethnic groups out of earlier configurations. The underlying concepts of attachment and self-understanding vary, however, and can be distinguished in two different modes, roughly corresponding to the nomadic-sedentary divide. While among the former, the idea of patrilineal descent, or a genealogical model, is at the bottom of internal divisions as well as external demarcation, in the oases the prime criterion is proximity and shared culture, or a territorial model of ethnic identity.
Processes of ethnic demarcation were, indeed, greatly accelerated during the Soviet period and its aftermath. Today, we observe a hasty search across the region, for national identities, that, while following lines of Soviet ethnicity concepts, fundamentally changed their understanding as well as their inter-ethnic and majority-minority relations. This is still a very open and dynamic process leading to new (inter-)ethnic constellations and political power relations.
Stephen H. Rapp Jr.
Nestled in one of Eurasia’s most energetic crossroads, Georgia has a long and multifaceted history. The remains of Homo georgicus excavated at Dmanisi in southern Georgia belong to the oldest hominids yet discovered outside Africa. They have been reliably dated to 1.8 million years ago. Subsequent Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze Age sites are distributed throughout the region between the Black and Caspian Seas. But it is not until the early 1st millennium
The peoples of Caucasia were thrust upon the Eurasian stage principally as a result of their associations with Iran. They were, at the same time, active members in the first Iranian Commonwealth, a massive cross-cultural enterprise stretching from Central Asia to the Balkans. Toward the end of the 4th century
The Kʻartʻvelian monarchy was abolished by the Sasanians circa 580 and remained in abeyance until 888. In the afterglow of the interregnum, the ascendant Bagratid dynasty—following the “Byzantinizing” path blazed by the Georgian Church—consciously reoriented kingship from an Iranian to a Byzantine basis as it politically integrated eastern and western Georgia for the first time. Nevertheless, at the height of the all-Georgian kingdom, many aspects of Iranic culture flourished, including epic literature. Mongol hegemony across much of the 13th century marks a crucial turning point in Georgian history. Under Īlkhānid rule, Caucasia’s access to the Eurasian ecumene expanded significantly, but the political fragmentation of Georgia intensified. In the new phase of imperialism ushered by Timur (Tamerlane), the Irano-Caucasian nexus blossomed one last time under the Safavids before the isthmus fell under Russian and then Soviet control.
The Pamirs have been a contested space in different periods of time. Access to fertile pastures characterized the local economic competition between nomads and mountain farmers. International attention reached its peak when the Pamirs became a pawn in the “Great Game”; during the second half of the 19th century, Great Britain and Russia disputed control over the mountainous area. Local and regional interests took on a subordinate role. The imperial contest resulted in dividing the Pamirs among four interested parties that are nowadays independent countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China. Since the division, separate developments have emerged in all parts that are abodes of farmers and pastoralists who share a common heritage but have experienced quite different political and social developments. Thus the Pamirs represent a focal region of similar ecological properties in which political and socioeconomic developments that originated in the 19th century have changed development paths through the Cold War period until the early 21st century. From Tsarist Russia to post-independence Tajikistan, from the Afghan monarchy to the post-Taliban republic, from British India to Pakistan, and from the Middle Kingdom to contemporary China, political interventions such as nationality policies and regional autonomy, sociotechnical experiments such as collectivization and subsequent deregulation, and varying administrative systems provide insight into external domination that has shaped separate developments in the Pamirs. In the early 21st century, the Pamirs experienced a revaluation as a transit corridor for transcontinental traffic arteries.
The Ismailis are one of the largest Muslim minority populations of Central Asia, and they make up the second largest Shiʿi Muslim community globally. First emerging in the second half of the 8th century, the Ismaili missionary movement spread into many areas of the Islamic world in the 10th century, under the leadership of the Ismaili Fatimids caliphs in Egypt. The movement achieved astounding success in Central Asia in the 10th century, when many of the political and cultural elites of the region were converted. However, a series of repressions over the following century led to its almost complete disappearance from the metropolitan centers of Central Asia. The movement later re-emerged in the mountainous Badakhshan region of Central Asia (which encompasses the territories of present-day eastern Tajikistan and northeastern Afghanistan), where it was introduced by the renowned 11th-century Persian poet, philosopher, and Ismaili missionary Nasir-i Khusraw. Over the following centuries the Ismaili movement expanded among the populations of Badakhshan, reaching a population of over 200,000 in the 21st century. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Ismailis suffered a series of severe repressions, first under local Sunni Muslim rulers and later under the antireligious policies of the Soviet Union. However, in the decades since the end of the Soviet period, the Ismailis of the region have become increasingly connected with the global Ismaili community and its leadership. While many aspects of the history of Ismailism in the Badakhshan region remain obscure and unexplored, the discoveries of significant corpuses of manuscripts in private collections since the 1990s in the Badakhshan region have opened up wide possibilities for future research.
The Khojas of Kashgar name a Sufi lineage, which became a ruling dynasty in eastern Turkestan or present-day Xinjiang in western China. Founded by the Samarkandi spiritual master Ahmad Kāsānī (d. 1542), a member of the Naqshbandiyya Sufi order strongly implicated in politics, the lineage divided into two competing branches, one led by Ishāq Khoja (d. 1599) and the other by Āfāq Khoja (d. 1694). Both leaders were influential at the court in Yarkand and engaged in frequent proselytizing missions among Turkic, Mongol, Tibetan, and Chinese populations. Yet, only Āfāq Khoja and his group of followers, the Āfāqiyya, with the support of Zunghar Mongols, created a kind of theocracy whose religious capital was Kashgar, and which was based on Sufi organization, practice, and ideology. Venerated as Sufi saints (īshān), the Khojas embodied a politico-religious form of Islamic sanctity (walāya) while promoting a doctrine of mystical renunciation. Paradoxically, although the regime did not survive internecine conflicts and the Qing conquest in 1759, the Khojas of Kashgar, including the Ishāqiyya sublineage, continued to be very active in the long run. They conducted insurrections throughout the Tarim basin and created short-lived enclaves until their complete neutralization in 1866 with the forced exile of the last great Khoja, Buzurg Khān Töre (d. 1869). In Xinjiang, the Khojas have remained venerated figures of the past until now, although collective memory kept a contradictory picture of them, oscillating between holy heroes and feudal oppressors. Descendants of the exiled Khojas in eastern Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan formed communities that still preserve relics and oral as well as written traditions.
Michael R. Drompp
The people who called themselves Türk (Chinese Tujue突厥) appear in historical records only a few years before they overthrow their political masters in the middle of the 6th century CE and create a powerful steppe empire that stretched at its height from Manchuria to the Black Sea. These early Türks are sometimes called “Kök” (Old Turkic “Blue,” referring particularly to the color of the sky but also indicating the East) Türks to distinguish them from other peoples who spoke Turkic languages and called themselves by various names, some of which included the term Türk. The Kök Türks dominated much of Inner Asia for most of the period from the mid-6th to the mid-8th centuries; during that era their polity waxed and waned in strength and did not always enjoy political unity. Nevertheless, they exercised authority throughout much of Eurasia for some two centuries; Türk military, diplomatic, and economic interactions with their neighbors, including the Chinese, Persians, and Byzantines, are an important component of their historical significance. They created Inner Asia’s first native script and first known examples of historiography, and promoted the international exchange of goods and ideas on an unprecedented scale. The expansion of Türk power and culture helped shape the Inner Asian world in which the Mongols later established their empire.