Visions of Central Asia

Samarkand: The tombs of Kings at Shah-i-Zinda

The wind blew hard and mixed dust with history. I had to look closely to know the dust was history. The guide motioned, “Genghis Khan entered through this gate”. I looked around. Nothing indicated that history’s greatest conquest began at this very spot. Just the dust and the hardscrabble brush. Some mounds. Even those mounds were being erased by the elements. The irascible Sun bore down on us. The steppe stretched horizon to horizon. Flat. Infinite. Primordial. Elemental.

We stood on the ruins of Otrar in today’s Kazakhstan. 800 years ago, Otrar was a thriving city ruled by the Khwarazmians (Kh-raz-miam) Empire, the greatest empire of their time. Otrar’s Khwarazmiam ruler received envoys from Genghis Khan and duly killed those envoys, thinking them unworthy steppe nomads. This killing taught Genghis Khan the bloody but everlasting tenet of Central Asia. The tenet that respect is earned through conquest. Genghis Khan exercised this tenet to level Otrar, comprehensively putting the Khwarazmiams to the sword, and leaving nothing of their empire but motes of dust. At Otrar, history’s accounting books were the mounds of dust before us.

Otrar, Kazakhstan: Dusty mounds under excavation.

If Otrar was where the tsunami began, Otrar is also where the tsunami ended. Two centuries after Genghis Khan began, his heir in terror if not blood, Timur, passed through Otrar’s gates. Timur was at his zenith. His Timurid Empire subsumed Asia and his conquests were measured by the piles of skulls of his defeated. But history was determined to erase the palimpsest once more, and not even Timur was exempt. Timur was struck down by illness at Otrar. So it passes that these dusty mounds bracket history. Let Otrar be both the fountainhead of the Mongol Conquest and the curtain call. Come to Otrar and witness how the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan and Timur blotted out the world to forge civilization anew.

The cycle of conquest. The inexorable ouroboros of history. Central Asia reifies these words.

Inside Timur’s mausoleum in Samarkand

These empires, both pre-Mongol and post-Mongol, were nourished by the two famed Central Asian rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Mythical rivers known in antiquity as Vaksha or Oxus. Both rivers tumble from the glaciers of the gigantic, riven mass of mountains called the Pamir Knot, the roof of Asia, the highest land anywhere. From the plane, we saw both rivers paint languid green brushstrokes across the brown, arid canvas, embossing their gift of civilization. We saw the life they breathe into this vast Kyzylkum desert, letting civilization blossom, before losing themselves in the unkempt mud of the Aral Sea like writhing snakes.

Just as ash from forest fires fertilizes new life, we learnt that the Mongol denudation resulted in a tabula rasa that fertilized an efflorescence of wisdom and learning. Timur’s successor, Shahrukh Mirza, broke from Timur’s destructive conquests to foster the arts and sciences. His son, Ulug’bek, also eschewed military campaigns for the natural sciences, publishing the most accurate star catalog of his day, and birthing the construction of Samarkand’s Registan Square, which over the next several centuries became the greatest sight in Central Asia. Registan is defined by the facades of three massive madrassas, where their cascading tilework and refined, interlocking geometry lured our eyes into an endless dance, and a greater awareness of Timurid architecture.

Registan, Samarkand: Defined by the facades of three massive madrassas.

Only fragments of pre-Mongol civilization are handed down the ages. The fragment most empyrean is the Kalyan Minaret at Bukhara. Some monuments are so perfect, so whole, so composite, that they demand unwavering genuflection from the pilgrim. The Kalyan Minaret at Bukhara is that. The banded brick geometry seems to throw itself into the sky, transcending the earthly realm, poised to embrace the epochs, to bind both mind and spirit into brick, rooting the holy city of Bukhara. The name “Kalyan” hearkens to the ancient Zoroashtrian past. The symbology of the minaret speaks to the Islamic present. The gestalt is so arresting that even Genghis Khan spared the Minaret.

Kalyan Minaret, Bukhara: The banded brick geometry seems to throw itself into the sky

Bukhara reached her apogée during the Islamic Golden Age, when the ruling Samanid dynasty patronized the refined erudition of Bukharan polymaths. Ferdowsi wrote the Shahnameh, the foremost Persian text. Rudaki perfected Persian poetry. Avicenna’s medical textbooks were standard for multiple centuries thereafter. Al-Biruni is famed for his treatise on India, and contributions to astronomy. During her Golden Age, Bukhara burned ever so brightly into history’s firmament.

It is in another corner of Bukhara that Central Asia furtively unfurled her secrets to us. We discovered Central Asia’s oldest extant building, Maghoki Attori, once Zoroastrian fire temple, part-time synagogue, and a mosque for a thousand years. The facade records symbolism both Zoroastrian and Islamic, forming a self-palimpsest, the incised and chipped brick appearing to hold embers of time that still glow with memories of the past.

Muqarnas ceiling carvings in Bukhara.

Bukhara herself was fertilized by the ash of conquest. 500 years before Genghis Khan, the Arab conquest brought the winds of Islam. To understand how, we had to travel east of Bukhara a few hundred kilometers, just across the border into today’s Tajikistan, where the mofussil town of Panjakent betrays a storied past. Astride the southern flanks of the town, we found a familiar sight, the sight of dusty mounds foretelling the past. These mounds speak of Ancient Panjakent, the remnants of pre-Islamic civilization. Because, by the standards of Central Asia, Islam is young. Islam arrived just 1200 years ago. The mounds of Panjakent are older, embodying a pre-Islamic past of an Iranian peoples called the Sogdians. Theirs was a radically different culture, fertilized by Zoroastrianism, but projected into a pluralistic composite of Zoroastrian, Hindu, Buddhist, Nestorian, and Manichean beliefs. At Ancient Panjakent, the many murals excavated testify to this Cambrian explosion of beliefs and cultures: Iranian, Indian, Turkish, and lest we forget, Greek. For many heeded the Silk Road’s clarion call, and among them was a commander called Alexander the Great.

Panjakent, Tajikistan: A familiar sight, the sight of dusty mounds foretelling the past.

The tidal wave of Alexander’s conquering armies washed over Central Asia 2300 years ago, bearing Hellenistic culture, amalgamating these Transoxanian lands into the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms, and their offspring, the Indo-Greek kingdoms. Such was Greek influence that murals painted in Panjakent 800 years later still bore visibly Greek styles. Alexander’s conquests erased the palimpsest once more, wiping the slate clean for a succession of nomadic peoples to co-mingle with the settled Iranian kingdoms. Until these Iranian peoples were themselves erased by the Arab-Muslim conquest 1200 years ago. The Arabs too were desert nomads, but from the Arabian desert, not the Asian steppe-desert. Their conquest would have been another cycle in history’s wheel but for one crucial distinction–they brought monotheism, and the incandescent fire of monotheism consumed the Sogdian polytheistic pluralism, and cast down the old polytheistic gods from their pantheon. Stronger armies can be fought, but stronger gods cannot. Monotheism’s scythe felled all who resisted, and forged the rest into a singular religion with a singular mind. The empires that tumbled out of the Arab conquest firmly established Islam until the Khwarazmiam empire self-annihilated by goading Genghis Khan at Otrar.

The susurration of the wind-blown sand filled our ears and teased geckos out of their crevices. The sand was a baked, rust red. The sheen of blown sand, the susurration of the blown wind, and the solemn Sun filled our senses. We stood at a turning point, where the endless Kyzylkum desert met the settled banks of the Amu Darya. A turning point because here, the steppe meets civilization. Here, for millennia, desert nomads have borne down on agrarian settlements to decide history’s course. We stood at one such epochal moment, the fortress of Ayaz Kala, which functioned for centuries as a bastion against nomadic invasion. Built 2000 years ago by the ancient Iranian peoples to guard against the northern nomads, the crumbling walls still stand, resolutely memorializing a forgotten people.

The 2000-year old runs of the Ayaz Kala fortress, where the Kyzylkum desert runs into the green fields of the Amu Darya.

If these walls could speak, they would tell us about the Achaemenid Persian empire, the apogée of ancient Iranian culture, the true beginning of civilization in Central Asia. of a great consciousness of identity and flowering of culture. The ancient Iranians were themselves northern nomads once, migrating southwards to assimilate this land. These Iranians inscribed their imprimatur on the inexorable ouroboros of history’s palimpsest, beginning yet another cycle of nomads who adopt civilization only to be replaced by the next wave of nomads.

Before the Indo-Iranian nomads settled this land, we know something of their predecessors. They are called the Bactrian-Margianans. These most ancient peoples bear hallmarks of formative Neolithic cultures: fertility goddesses, bronze age artefacts, mud forts, and extensive trade networks with Indus Valley and Elam. We know the Bactrian-Margianans were supplanted by the Indo-Iranians. We can also hazard that some other culture must have preceded them, but whoever preceded them is lost to history fully. The palimpsest is silent, the cycles turn, the ouroboros eats itself.

Centuries old carved wood columns, Khiva.

The end of the Timurid Empire heralded the slow decline of Central Asian civilization. Where the world’s largest cities once existed, where the foremost polymaths of their age corresponded, where East and West communed, now history elided like a river shifting course. Central Asian power dispersed to warring khanates and nomadic tribes, winning and ceding territory, bypassed by the sea routes, and isolated by geography. The Uzbek (Oz’bek) group of Turkic nomads completed their conquest of Central Asia and adopted the sedentary life of the Amu Darya. The Oghuz Turks moved westwards, becoming the Turkmen and Ottomans respectively. The nomadic Kazakh Turks split from the sedentary Oz’bek Turks and occupied the lands north. The Tajik peoples were the only Iranians to remain, buffered by the Pamir mountains. Now, Central Asia formed the heart of a vast Turkic homeland, stretching from Istanbul to Urumqi.

Central Asia’s decline post-Timur is laid bare in the Khiva Khanate of the 19th century. The Khiva Khanate rose to prominence as the largest slave market in Central Asia, and is known for little else. The history speaks of slave markets, slave revolts, freed slaves, and quarrels with neighboring polities. The Russians colonized Central Asia in 1873 and russified the region, introducing Russian as the lingua franca, forcibly resetting inhabitants, and encouraging large numbers of Russians to settle the lands. The Soviets instituted arbitrary colonial boundaries to simplify governance, and introduced wandering nomads to the notion of nation-states and national identities. Correspondingly, nomads who thought themselves Turkic now thought themselves Uzbek, Kazakh, Turkmen, or Kyrgyz. Tashkent is a wholly Soviet creation, once the Soviet capital of Central Asia and the region’s largest city, exhibiting the massive avenues, Soviet-era metro, grandiose government buildings, and parks that characterize Soviet planning. Russia still exerts tremendous influence in the region, though Turkey and China are gradually asserting themselves.

Khiva’s minarets glow at sunrise.

Contemporary Central Asia’s journey traces a path of gradual self-actualization. The atheistic legacy of the Soviets has lead to generally secular states that enforce a moderate Islam. The countries gradually accommodate the painful and misshapen boundaries bequeathed by the Soviets. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have parlayed their oil fortunes into semblances of the developed world. The Soviet rule was both repressive and invigorating. Repressive for obvious reasons, and invigorating for allowing new ideas to germinate, chief among them the reimagination of religion.

Soviet futurism in the Tashkent metro station Kosmonavtlar.

What lessons does the mammoth sweep of Central Asian history hold? You learn that names mean little and borders even less. That entire civilizations come and go. That proud peoples and their raised-up gods will be cast down and forgotten when history’s page turns. That the sword can be mightier than the pen, but religion is mightier than both. Today’s relative peace obscures titanic battles of the past. The Bactrian-Margianans gave way to Persians, who were conquered by Greeks, who bowed to Khwarezmiams, who parted for Iranian & Turkic nomads, who were conquered by Arabs, who fell to Persian Samanids, who were supplanted by Karakhanid Turks & Khwarazmians, who were comprehensively destroyed by Mongols, who were smashed by Timur, whose empire was riven by Oz’bek and Oghuz Turks, who were then ruled by Russians.

You also learn that the ash of each conquest fertilizes a new efflorescence. The nomadic conquests create a tabula rasa that welcomes new precepts and wisdoms. The palimpsest will be erased and rewritten. New peoples will rise, conquer, and fall. Their language and culture will be consigned to dusty mounds and forgotten fortresses, and new peoples will build their magnificent towers and temples and claim dominion and destiny.

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Mountains in Tajkistan.

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