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Central Asia

Central Asia is a vast landlocked region of Asia. Though various definitions of its exact composition exist, no one definition is universally accepted. Despite this uncertainty in defining borders, it does have some important overall characteristics. For one, Central Asia has historically been closely tied to its nomadic peoples and the Silk Road. As a result, it has acted as a crossroads for the movement of people, goods, and ideas between Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. It is also sometimes known as Middle Asia or Inner Asia, and is within the scope of the wider Eurasian continent.



The idea of Central Asia as a distinct region of the world was introduced in 1843 by the geographer Alexander von Humboldt. The borders of Central Asia are subject to multiple definitions.

The most limited definition was the official one of the Soviet Union that defined Srednyaya Azia as consisting solely of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, but did not include Kazakhstan. This definition was also often used outside the USSR in this period.

Soon after independence, the leaders of the five former Soviet Central Asian Republics met in Tashkent and declared that the definition of Central Asia should include Kazakhstan as well as the original four included by the Soviets. Since then, this has become the most common definition of Central Asia.

The UNESCO general history of Central Asia, written just before the collapse of the USSR, defines the region based on climate and uses far larger borders. According to it, Central Asia includes Mongolia, Western China, the Punjab, northern India and Pakistan, northeast Iran, Afghanistan, central Russia south of the Taiga, and the five former Soviet Republics.

An alternative method is to define the region based on ethnicity, and in particular, areas populated by Eastern Turkmen peoples. These areas include Xinjiang, the Turkic/Muslim regions of southern Siberia, the five republics, and Afghan Turkestan. Sometimes Mongols and/or Tibetans are also included.


Central Asia is an extremely large region of varied geography, including high plateaus and mountains (Tian Shan), vast deserts (Kara Kum, Kyzyl Kum, Taklamakan), and especially treeless, grassy steppes. Much of the land is too dry or too rugged for farming. The Gobi desert extends from the foot of the Pamirs, 77° east, to the Great Khingan (Da Hinggan) Mountains, 116°-118° east.

Central Asia has the following geographic extremes:

A majority of the people earn a living by herding livestock. Industrial activity centers in the region's cities.

Major rivers of the region include the Amu Darya, the Syr Darya and the Hari Rud. Major bodies of water include the Aral Sea and Lake Balkhash, both of which are part of the huge west/central Asian endorheic basin that also includes the Caspian Sea. Both of these bodies of water have shrunk significantly in recent decades due to diversion of water from rivers that feed them for irrigation and industrial purposes. Water is an extremely valuable resource in arid Central Asia, and can lead to rather significant international disputes.


Since Central Asia is not buffered by a large body of water, temperature fluctuations are more severe.

According to the Köppen climate classification system, Central Asia is part of the Palearctic ecozone. The largest biome in Central Asia is the Temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biome. Central Asia also contains the Montane grasslands and shrublands, Deserts and xeric shrublands and Temperate coniferous forests biomes.


Main article:History of Central Asia (to be summarized here later)

The history of Central Asia is marked by several millennia of dominance by the horse peoples of the steppe, who were some of the most militarily potent peoples in the world. Portions of central Asia, known to historians as Transoxania, were considered part of Persia in antiquity. In the sixteenth century the dominance of the nomads was ended as firearms allowed settled peoples to dominate the region. Most notably, Russia expanded through the region and captured the bulk of it by the end of the nineteenth century. With the collapse of the Soviet Union five countries gained their independence.


Main article: Geostrategy in Central Asia

Central Asia has long been a strategic location merely because of its proximity to several great powers on the Eurasian landmass. The region itself never held a dominant stationary population, nor was able to make use of natural resources. Thus it has rarely throughout history become the seat of power for an empire or influential state. Much like Poland throughout European history, Central Asia has been divided, redivided, conquered out of existence, and fragmented time and time again. Central Asia has served more as the battleground for outside powers, than as a power in its own right.

Central Asia had both the advantage and disadvantage of a central location between four historical seats of power. From its central location, it has access to trade routes, or lines of attack, to all the regional powers. On the other hand, it has been continuously vulnerable to attack from all sides throughout its history, resulting in political fragmentation or outright power vacuum, as it is successively dominated.

  • To the North, the steppe allowed for rapid mobility, first for nomadic horseback warriors like the Huns and Mongols, and later for Russian traders, eventually supported by railroads. As the Russian empire expanded to the East, it would also push down into Central Asia towards the sea, in a search for warm water ports. The Soviet bloc would reinforce dominance from the North, and attempt to project power as far south as Afghanistan.
  • To the East, the demographic and cultural weight of Chinese empires continually pushed outward into Central Asia. The Mongol Yuan dynasty would conquer parts of East Turkestan and Tibet, and the later Manchu dynasty would reconquer those areas several centuries later. As part of the Sino-Soviet bloc, China would swallow Tibet. However, with the Sino-Soviet split, China would project power into Central Asia, most notably in the case of Afghanistan, to counter Russian dominance of the region.
  • To the Southeast, the demographic and cultural influence of India was felt in Central Asia, notably in Tibet, the Hindu Kush, and slightly beyond. Several historical Indian dynasties, especially those seated along the indus river would expand into Central Asia. India's ability to project power into Central Asia has been limited due to the mountain ranges in Pakistan, and the cultural differences between Hindu India, and what would become a mostly Muslim Central Asia.
  • To the Southwest, Middle Eastern powers have expanded into the Southern areas of Central Asia (usually, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). Several Persian empires would conquer and reconquer parts of Central Asia; Alexander the Great's hellenic empire would extend into Central Asia; two Arab Islamic empires would exert substantial influence throughout the region; and the modern state of Iran has projected influence throughout the region as well.

In the post-Cold War era, Central Asia is an ethnic cauldron, prone to instability and conflicts, without a sense of national identity, but rather a mess of historical cultural influences, tribal and clan loyalties, and religious fervor. Projecting influence into the area is no longer just Russia, but also Turkey, Iran, China, Pakistan, India and the United States:

  • Russia continues to dominate political decision-making throughout the Caucasus, and former SSRs, although as these countries shed their post-Soviet authoritarian systems, Russia's influence is slowly waning.
  • Turkey has some influence because of the ethnic and linguistic ties with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, as well as serving as an oil pipeline route to the Mediterranean.
  • Iran, the seat of historical empires which controlled parts of Central Asia, has historical and cultural links to the region, as is vying to construct an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf.
  • China, already controlling Xinjiang and Tibet, projects significant power in the region, especially in energy/oil politics.
  • Pakistan, a large but unstable nuclear-armed state, helped to sustain Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and is capable of exercising some influence. For some Central Asian nations, the shortest route to the ocean lies through Pakistan. Pakistan seeks Natural Gas from Central Asia, and supports the development of pipelines from its countries.
  • India, as a nuclear-armed rising power, exercises some influence in the region, especially in Tibet with which it has cultural affinities. India is also perceived as a potential counterweight to China's regional power.
  • And the United States with its military involvement in the region, and oil diplomacy, is also significantly involved in the region's politics.

Oil politics

Oil geostrategy , Pipelines, Caspian Sea

War on Terror

In the context of the United States' War on Terror, Central Asia has once again become the center of geostrategic calculations. Pakistan's status has been upgraded by the U.S.-government to a "major non-NATO ally" because of its central role in serving as a staging point for the invasion of Afghanistan, providing intelligence on Al-Qaeda operations in the region, and leading the hunt on Osama bin Laden, believed to still be in the region. Afghanistan, which had served as a haven and source of support for Al-Qaeda, under the protection of Mullah Omar and the Taliban, was the target of a U.S. invasion in 2001, and ongoing reconstruction and drug-eradication efforts. U.S. military bases have also been established in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, causing both Russia and the People's Republic of China to voice their concern over a permanent U.S. military presence in the region.

The PRC and Russia, as well as several of the former SSRs, have taken advantage of the War on Terror to increase oppression of separatist ethnic minorities in Central Asia. China has taken a harder line against the Uighur separatists of Xinjiang, while Russia has pursued the second war in Chechnya with greater intensity. Washington, which considers Russia and China as strategic partners in the War on Terror, has largely turned a blind eye to these actions. The ethnically diverse former SSRs, especially Uzbekistan have reclassified ethnic separatist attacks as terrorist attacks and pursued more oppressive policies.



Islam is the religion most common in the fromer Soviet Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan, Xinjiang and the peripheral western regions. Most Central Asian Muslims are Sunni, although Shia comprise the great majority in Azerbaijan, and in Afghanistan and Pakistan there are sizable Shia minorities. Tibetan Buddhism is most common in Tibet and is also practiced in Mongolia, where Shamanism is also popular. Increasing Han Chinese migration westward since the establishment of the PRC has brought Confucianism and other beliefs into the region. Nestorianism was the form of Christianity most practiced in the region in previous centuries, but now the largest denomination is the Russian Orthodox Church, with many members in Kazakhstan. The Bukharan Jews were once a sizable community in Uzbekistan, but nearly all have emigrated in recent years.


At the crossroads of Asia, shamanist practices live alongside Buddhism. Thus Yama, Lord of Death, was revered in Tibet as a spiritual guardian and judge. Mongolian Buddhism in particular influenced Tibetan Buddhism. The Qianlong Emperor of China in the 18th century was Tibetan Buddhist, and would sometimes travel from Beijing to other cities for personal religious worship.

Note the human skulls and severed heads that festoon Yama's crown and necklace, which give some concept of the size that Yama was expected to be when one faced him at one's death.

This particular Dharmapala is painted wood, four feet high in total.

Central Asia also has an indigenous and ancient form of rap which is over 1000 years old. It is principally practiced in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan by akyns, lyrical improvisationists. They will engage in lyrical battles, the aitysh or the alym sabak. The tradition arose out of early bardic oral historians. They are usually accompanied by a stringed instrument—in Kyrgyzstan, a three-stringed komuz and in Kazakstan a similar two-stringed instrument. Some also learn to sing the Manas, Kyrgyzstan's epic poem (those who learn the Manas exclusively, without engaging in rap, are called manaschis). During Soviet rule, akyn rap was co-opted by the authorities and subsequently declined in popularity. With the fall of the Soviet Union it has enjoyed a resurgence, although aykns still do use their art to campaign for political candidates. [1]


By the most inclusive definition, more than 80 million people live in Central Asia, about 2% of Asia's total population. Of the regions of Asia, only North Asia has fewer people. It has a population density of 9 people per km², vastly less than the 80.5 people per km² of the continent as a whole.

Major languages
of Central Asia
Turkic languages
Iranian languages
Other major languages
Linguae francae


The languages of the majority of the inhabitants of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics come from the Turkic language group. Turkmen, closely related to Turkish (they are both members of the Oghuz group of Turkic), is mainly spoken in Turkmenistan and into Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tatar are related languages of the Kypchak group of Turkic languages, and are spoken throughout Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and into Afghanistan, Xinjiang and Qinghai. Uzbek and Uighur are spoken in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Xinjiang. Russian, as well as being spoken by the ethnic Russians of Central Asia, is a lingua franca throughout the former Soviet Central Asian Republics. Chinese has an equally dominant presence in Nei Monggol, Qinghai and Xinjiang.

The Turkic languages belong to the much larger Altaic language family, which includes Mongolian. Mongolian is spoken throughout the region of Mongolia and into Qinghai and Xinjiang.

Iranian languages were once spoken throughout much of Central Asia, but the once prominent Sogdian, Bactrian and Scythian languages are now extinct. However, various dialects of Persian are still spoken in the region, including Dari and Tajik. Pashto is spoken in Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

The Tibetan language is spoken by around six million people across the Tibetan Plateau and into Qinghai.


  • Dani, A.H. and V.M. Masson eds. UNESCO History of Civilizations of Central Asia. Paris: UNESCO, 1992-
  • Mandelbaum, Michael. ed. Central Asia and the World: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994.
  • Olcott, Martha Brill. Central Asia's New States: Independence, Foreign policy, and Regional security. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996.
  • Soucek, Svatopluk. A History of Inner Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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