Central Asia: through writers' eyes


Central Asia: through writers' eyes


Between these covers, the millennia of mercantile and cultural exchange along the Silk Route are celebrated by travellers and writers from Marco Polo to Sven Hedin, from William of Rubrick to Ella Maillart. Kathleen Hopkirk has spent a lifetime researching this vital heartland, traversed by five, inhospitable deserts but united by ancient chains of trading oases: from the Buddhist Empire of Kushan, to the scholarly Islamic centre at Bukhara. This mysterious homeland of Tartars, Turks, Mongols, Uzbeks, Uighurs, Tajiks, Scythians and Sarmatians gave the world terrifying conquerors of the stature of Gengiz Khan and Tamberlane. Later it became the centre of rivalry for influence in the area between the empires of Russia and Britain played out by spies, ambassadors,agents and travel writers for 150 years, itself a continuation of the old cultural rivalry between Persia and China for the soul of this vast region.

Including: Fitzroy Macclean, Marco Polo, George Curzon, Aurel Stein, Catherine Macartney, Alexander Burnes

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Central Asia: through writers' eyes
ISBN: 978-1-906011-84-0
Format: 320pp demi pb
Place: Asia

Extract from Introduction

After years of almost total obscurity, Central Asia suddenly finds itself caught up in events that have changed the world for ever. Following the collapse of Soviet power there, five entirely new countries exist where stagnation had ruled for seventy years. At the same time, the political whirlwind which swept Communism aside in Russian Central Asia has cast doubts on the other half of the region, today still ruled by China.

Three of the new countries have borders with China’s vast Sinkiang- Uighur autonomous region, where some six million Muslims have far closer ethnic and religious affinities with their kinsmen across the Pamirs than with their Han Chinese rulers. For throughout Central Asia the forces of religion and nationalism have proved immune to political indoctrination and are now reasserting themselves with an alarming vigour. Anxious to maintain a political grip on the region and to forestall the spread of ethnic unrest across its own borders, Peking was quick to recognise Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizstan and Turkmenistan, and to sign trade agreements with them. Other powerful neighbours – Iran, Pakistan and Turkey – have also rushed to fill the vacuum left by Moscow’s hasty retreat, while representatives of Western consumer society have opened fast-food and fast-clothes emporia in the unlikeliest of places. Central Asia’s new leaders, meantime, have suddenly to grapple with the complexities of modern capitalism on the one hand, while being assailed on the other by the conflicting doctrine of Islamic fundamentalism.

For the businessman, diplomat, technical adviser or tourist travelling there today, events are moving so swiftly that no book can attempt to provide up-to-the-minute political or economic information. What I have tried to do in this volume is to set the scene for Central Asia’s volatile present by drawing on the experiences of some of those who were there during its equally turbulent past. I have quoted from the diaries and memoirs of travellers from the first century bc to the present day, but the majority date from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These are people with whom we can easily identify, and the events they witnessed or took part in are still highly relevant to the situation today.

But before setting out for this region which was for so long regarded as the back-of-beyond, it is worth taking a brief look at its history. For many people the words ‘Central Asia’ conjure up a hazy vision of slant-eyed Mongol horsemen sweeping westwards in the Middle Ages, pillaging and destroying everything in their path. And yet religion, art and commerce had flourished there for a thousand years before Genghis Khan and his hordes burst upon the scene in the thirteenth century, and the region had seen the rise and fall of many other conquerors.

Central Asia is a vast region of steppe, desert, mountain and high plateau stretching from the Caspian Sea in the west to Mongolia in the east. Bounded to the north by the endless swamps and forests of Siberia, its southern limits are the long bastion of mountain ranges passing across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Tibet. Contained within this huge oval, 2,000 miles wide, are the world’s highest mountains and no fewer than five deserts: the Gobi, Taklamakan, Lop, Kyzyl Kum and Kara Kum. In much of Central Asia man scrapes a living with difficulty, for the climate is as extreme as the terrain, yet wherever there is water flowers blossom and fruit grows in profusion. For at least 5,000 years there have been oasis settlements alongside the steppe culture of nomadic herdsmen and hunters, and the antagonism between these two ways of life overshadowed the region right up to the nineteenth century, when Chinese and Russian expansion curtailed the migrations of the nomads.

Water – the gold of the desert – was the single most crucial factor for all the peoples living in Central Asia. If there was drought, the grass withered, the wells dried up and the herdsmen moved en masse to new grazing grounds. Irrigation was essential for the farmers’ crops, and if their ditches were neglected, or destroyed by marauders, the entire settlement could be rapidly reclaimed by nature, leaving little trace behind.

But in spite of all the difficulties, civilisation somehow survived. Sometimes the settled peoples tamed their primitive conquerors, sometimes they ran away and hid until the danger had passed, sometimes they were driven out to a completely new area where they had to start all over again. But in times of peace and stability enormous progress was made. City-states grew up, embellished with fine buildings, artists and craftsmen developed their skills, scholars argued and merchants traded. For despite the daunting barriers of desert and mountain, there were always men enterprising enough to load up their donkeys or camels and try their luck in a new market. In time these caravan trails became established trade routes, criss-crossing the whole of Central Asia and extending – wars and marauders permitting – as far as China in the east and Antioch in the west. And along with trade came ideas and influences which often had a profound effect on the lives of people eager for knowledge, or simply curious, or glad of a diversion from the ceaseless toil of subsistence farming. Much later, this network of trade and endeavour, art and religion, became known collectively as the Silk Road.

Sir Aurel Stein, the archaeologist, once said of Central Asia: ‘On looking at the map it might well seem as if this vast region had been intended by Nature far more to serve as a barrier between the lands which have given our globe its great civilisations than to facilitate the exchange of their cultural influences.’ But in fact, as his own excavations were to show, the cultures of ancient Greece, Rome, India and China met and merged in Central Asia, giving rise to a form of art which Stein called Serindian. And influences closer to home, from Persia and the Arab Near East, and indeed from some of the steppe nomads who went on to found civilisations of their own, all left a lasting imprint on the region. All the great religions of the world left their mark there, too: indeed the two most powerful forces behind the interchange of ideas in Central Asia were religion and trade. But how did it all begin?

Probably the earliest inhabitants of northern Central Asia were tent-dwelling nomads, who about 2,000 bc began to move westwards and southwards, some groups settling, others moving on with their flocks and herds, until they had taken over the whole of southern Central Asia and had spilled over on to the Iranian plateau. They were an Aryan or ‘white’ race, with no written language, but by the ninth century bc they were being referred to in Assyrian records, and were probably the forerunners of the Medes and Persians. The northern steppes then became the territory of the Scythians and Sarmatians (also ‘white’ men), who likewise were hunters and herdsmen with no written culture but who were nevertheless skilled craftsmen, and who seem to have had links with the eastern extremities of Greek civilisation. At some point in pre-history the Scythians and Sarmatians made one of those periodic leaps forward in man’s development: they learned to ride horses. An offshoot of this was the invention of trousers, when the rest of humanity was clad in skins, robes or kilts – if indeed it wore anything at all.

The art of horsemanship turned the Central Asian herdsmen into formidable warriors, and the Scythians were soon developing a form of armour while the Sarmatians seem to have invented the stirrup. Both perfected the technique of firing arrows from the saddle, and the famous ‘Parthian shot’ which later helped to rout the Romans was almost certainly learned from the Scythians – who may, in fact, have been the Parthians’ ancestors. Herodotus, writing in the fifth century bc described how the Scythian chiefs distributed booty according to the number of enemy heads each warrior produced after a battle. The more successful warriors had entire cloaks made of scalped heads. But despite their ferocity, the Scythians were themselves the victims of the next great migration. Their sister-race, the Sarmatians, who lived to the east of them, had over the centuries become their bitter enemies, and around the third century bc they invaded the Scythian lands. Most probably this was because of an irresistible pressure on their own eastern borders, for the peoples of Manchuria and the Mongolian plateau had nowhere to go but west as they expanded. To the east was the sea (once the Korean peninsula had been populated); to the north the impenetrable taiga of Siberia was quite unsuited to horse-borne nomads. And to the south lay the advanced and powerful land of China, which had erected 1,400 miles of wall along its northern boundaries expressly to keep the barbarians out.

Whatever the reason, the Scythians were moved on – many of them to southern Russia and the Caucasus – killing, displacing or absorbing any intervening peoples. Perhaps the Huns were to blame, for soon after this the Chinese Annals, or historical records, began to refer to a race of barbarians whom they called the Hsiung-nu. These people seem to have been neighbours of the Sarmatians and to have picked up horsemanship from them. In time-honoured fashion they then proceeded to drive their neighbours out, and themselves took control of a vast area stretching from western Manchuria, through Mongolia and southern Siberia, into the Tarim Basin and right up to the Pamirs. The Hsiung-nu, later to be called the Huns and become the scourge of Europe in the Dark Ages, were a Turanian or Turkic people, with a language quite different from the Iranian tongue of the Scythians and Sarmatians. They were nevertheless a ‘white’ race, with prominent noses and deep-set eyes; according to the Chinese they were also ‘very hairy’. The Chinese hated and despised the unlettered and uncultured Hsiung-nu, but they had good reason to fear their raids, and during the second century bc they determined to crush them.

The story of how China subdued the Huns and made contact with the West is told in the ninth chapter (the silk road). Briefly, after a war of attrition which cost the lives of thousands of Chinese soldiers, the Hsiung-nu submitted to the Han Emperor in 52 bc. This enabled regular trade routes to be established between China and ultimately Rome, where there was great demand for Chinese silk, via the various territories of Central Asia and the Middle East. Naturally, no caravan travelled the entire distance: the route divided itself into numerous segments, and the merchandise changed hands many times. This in turn necessitated a regular string of staging-posts and entrepôts, where goods could be stored and bartered, and caravans equipped. Of course the Huns were not permanently eliminated in 52 bc. They continued to be a nuisance, and raided caravans whenever they thought they could get away with it, but while China was strong they had to keep a respectful distance. Forever after, the power of the Han dynasty and the submission by the barbarians in 52 bc were celebrated by the Chinese as a glorious chapter in their history. Six hundred years later a poet of the Tang dynasty was inspired to write the following poem:

Beyond the frontiers lie the hard winters and the raging winds;

The waters of Chiao Ho are frozen over with huge icebergs. On the Han Lake come the hundred layers of waves, Over the Yin mountains lie thousands of li of snow.


The garrisons live hard, gazing out for beacon-fires. On the highest peaks, the banners of the commander are

unfurled, But the soldiers fold theirs: the hunt begins. They water their horses at the foot of the Great Wall. Interminable the footprints of horses over endless cold sands. Hear on the frontier the howling of the north-wind. We entered the land of the Huns and subdued them in their

desert strongholds. To the west were the natives of Chiang, who played on flutes

and cymbals to welcome us, Here the Huns themselves laid down their arms and

surrendered. The soldiers of Han returned in triumph. High in the air flew the banner of victory. A tablet was engraved with their names, for the sake of

posterity. In battle with barbarians peace was assured, And on the altar of Heaven we sang our victory.

Li Shih-ming, ad 597–649 (translated by Wang Sheng-chih)

Having for the time being subdued the Huns, the Chinese were pleased to discover that there were civilised countries to the west, or at any rate semi-settled peoples who had more interest in trade and friendly relations than in war and raiding. The ‘natives of Chiang’ mentioned in the poem seem to have been the Tibetans, many of whom were in fact rather fierce in this period and more given to banditry than playing on flutes and cymbals. But beyond them, in what is now Afghanistan, were the Bactrians, a peaceable trading people who lived next to a vast territory ruled by the Yueh-chih, former nomads forced westwards by some earlier population migration. Similar but distinct former steppe- dwellers were to be found in the Ferghana valley and in Khorasmia, south of the Aral Sea – tribes or peoples for whom the horse was still pre-eminent but who were in the process of transforming themselves into what the Chinese regarded as civilised. Already they lived mainly in houses rather than tents, they had shops and farms, and they were taking an interest in religion and art. Beyond them in the west lay the powerful kingdoms of Persia and Parthia, which had by now thrown off the Greek yoke, and to the south lay Gandhara and the land of India. For the first time, envoys of China began to hear on their travels of another empire as large as their own – Rome, with whom the Parthians bartered Chinese silk for gold.

Around the beginning of our era China extended its Great Wall and set up garrisons with beacon towers to protect the flow of trade along the routes to the west. Gradually, the fusion of ideas and culture which had already occurred when Alexander the Great encouraged his generals to take Asian wives in the fourth century bc (he himself had married a Bactrian princess) was enriched by the introduction of Chinese influences. China already had a very advanced culture and civil structure, which allowed philosophy as well as art and poetry to flourish, and Chinese scholars were interested in the new religions of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and later Christianity which began to come to their notice. All of these, and especially Buddhism, had their converts both in Central Asia and in China, where they joined the existing creeds of Taoism and Confucianism.

During the first century ad trade prospered, for much of Central Asia was ruled by the Kushans, a Buddhist people descended from the Yueh-chih, whose empire stretched from northern India, through Afghanistan and much of what was to become Russian Central Asia, to the shores of the Aral Sea. Caravans were allowed to travel freely through their territories, unlike those of the Parthians to the west. Parthia was another great power of the day, and an unavoidable middleman in the trade with Rome, but the exchange of goods had to take place on the frontier, for its borders were closed to all foreigners. The whole of southern Turkmenistan was included in Parthia at this time, and the remains of the Parthian city of Nissa can be visited near Ashkhabad. East of the Kushan empire lay a third great power, China, approached via the various trails of the Silk Road which skirted the Taklamakan desert or passed through the northern foothills of the Tien-shan. These routes were particularly vulnerable to marauders, for the oasis staging-posts were many miles apart, and the Chinese garrisons often needed to summon reinforcements by means of beacon fires. When the Han dynasty was temporarily ousted by a usurper in ad 8, the Huns were quick to take advantage of the ensuing disorder. Oases were raided, caravans plundered, and in ad 23 the Huns were even bold enough to invade northern China and sack the capital. They were soon driven out and after ad 25 a restored Han dynasty gradually regained control of the trade routes.

For some of the oasis kingdoms of the Tarim Basin, though, China seemed very far away. Khotan, Yarkand and Kashgar, in particular, often found it more expedient to be on good terms with the Huns or the Kushans. The Huns simply exacted tribute, offering nothing in return, but the more civilised Kushans converted their neighbours to Buddhism, and shrines and temples began to appear along the Silk Road. But in ad 220 the Han dynasty collapsed, and China was too preoccupied with internal power struggles to devote much time to keeping the peace in the frontier lands to its west. The Kushan empire also began to break up, and in the lonely outposts of the Chinese in the Tarim Basin and the Kushans in Khorasmia the soldiers of the garrisons felt cut off and abandoned. Scanning the horizon anxiously from their watchtowers, they listened for the drum of hoof-beats which meant the barbarians were once more on the offensive, and waited for reinforcements which rarely came. Central Asia went through one of its periodic times of trouble and, with no strong overlord to keep the peace, relapsed into a mass of petty oasis kingdoms. Far to the west Rome itself declined, to be superseded later by Byzantium, and even the fierce Parthians were supplanted by an equally aggressive Persian dynasty – the Sassanids.

The Chinese Annals, or historical records, were interrupted for two hundred years in the third and fourth centuries, for China was once again devastated by the Huns and north China became, in the words of one scholar, ‘a mere appendage of the Mongolian steppe’. Yet somehow or other trade continued, even if on a reduced scale, for East and West had by now developed an appetite for each other’s products, and this was an important factor in foreign relations. Silk still reached the West, sometimes by sea from south China, and the more intrepid merchants still conducted their caravans through steppe and mountain whenever there seemed a chance of getting through. Buddhism remained strong, with a flow of pilgrim traffic between China and India in spite of all the difficulties, and there were evidently local centres of civilisation and wealth even in the darkest of times. Certainly by the end of the fourth century there were flourishing Buddhist townships along the southern arm of the Silk Road, especially in the kingdom of Khotan, which was visited by the Chinese traveller Fa-hsien. There was no sign of devastation here, and the monasteries were richly decorated with gold, silver and precious stones.

In the fourth and fifth centuries the Hunnish clans began to split up, some settling down in northern China, others migrating to the north of India, while some of the most ferocious invaded eastern Europe and the Balkans, displacing the Goths who in turn menaced Byzantium. Then, in about ad 550, a new confederation of nomad tribes known as the Western Turks moved into Central Asia from the Mongolian plateau. To the Chinese they must have seemed like yet another wave of barbarians from a seemingly inexhaustible source in the north, but the Turks were not mere marauders and despoilers. They settled all over Central Asia, giving the region stability and thus encouraging both trade and craftsmanship. They were helped enormously in their endeavours by a very ancient Central Asian people, the Sogdians.

The mysterious Sogdians, a people destined to disappear completely from Western knowledge for about a thousand years, were at their peak in the sixth and seventh centuries ad, but they had been known to the Greeks in the fourth century bc. At that time they controlled a powerful empire from their capital of Maracanda – later the site of Samarkand – and were fierce warriors. After their defeat by Alexander the Great in 329 bc they were never again a warlike power, and saw many other overlords, including the Kushans. But they became the master traders of Central Asia and their language – related to Aramaic – became the lingua franca of the region. Over the centuries they adopted a number of different religions through their contacts with other peoples: Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism were picked up from the Persians and Buddhism probably from the Kushans. Some may even have been Nestorian Christians, for after the Council of Ephesus in ad 431 had declared them heretics, many Nestorians fled to Central Asia and eventually to China. Because of their extensive travels the Sogdians played an important part in spreading religion.

The ruins of a Sogdian city can still be seen at Penjakent in Tajikistan, about fifty miles across the border from Samarkand. There Soviet archaeologists uncovered wall-paintings which portray the Sogdians as having long thin faces, prominent noses, deep-set eyes and luxuriant beards. The building excavated seems to have been a prince’s residence, and the frescos depict banqueting scenes and either jousting or fighting. But Hsuan-tsang, the seventh-century Chinese pilgrim who left a record of his travels in search of Buddhist scriptures, described the ordinary Sogdians more prosaically. He found them peaceable and industrious, their activities divided between farming and trading. They were also noted for their wood- carving, glass-making (which they seem to have learned through their commercial links with the eastern Mediterranean), carpet- weaving and metal-work, and had introduced both the vine and the cherry tree to China.

By the end of the sixth century China was again a strong and united country, with the new Tang dynasty also controlling Tibet and challenging Turkish supremacy in the Tarim Basin. But a fresh threat to the eastern world was brewing: not this time from the nomads of the north, but from a new religion born in the deserts of Arabia. Syria fell to the sword of Islam in 636, Alexandria in 641. In 674 the King of Persia fled to China, having surrendered his mighty kingdom. A power struggle now developed for mastery of Central Asia, in which both the Western Turks and the Tibetans somewhat short-sightedly decided to back the incoming Arabs rather than their traditional rivals, the Chinese. In 749 a Chinese army was routed near Tashkent by a joint force of Arabs and Western Turks, and a year later the Tibetans captured Tunhuang and cut off the Tarim Basin from direct communication with China. Some of the beleaguered Chinese garrisons of Central Asia managed to hold out for another forty years, unaware that in the meantime the Tibetans had invaded China and sacked the capital in 763. Tibetan domination was not destined to last, however, and in 822 they made peace with China, for their erstwhile friends the Arabs had proved an implacable enemy to Buddhism and the Tibetan way of life.

The Western Turks, too, must have regretted their alliance with the Arabs, who simply brushed them aside once the Chinese had been driven out of Central Asia, and took over instead. It seems likely that some of the Turks moved west, and their allies the Sogdians perhaps moved with them, for Penjakent was abandoned at this time. Certainly, anyone who remained was forcibly converted to Islam. During these violent upheavals many Buddhist, Manichaean and Christian shrines were desecrated or destroyed, for they were invariably adorned with figurative wall-paintings and sculptures, and these were anathema to the Muslims. Many entire monastery settlements in the Tarim Basin were now suddenly abandoned, their monks having been put to the sword, and were gradually engulfed by the desert sands. Thanks to the extreme dryness of the climate, many wall-paintings, sculptures and documents were perfectly preserved by their blanket of sand, and lay hidden for the next thousand years – to the joy of Sir Aurel Stein, Albert von Le Coq and other early twentieth-century archaeologists. Although the Arab Caliphate soon fell into schism and internal wrangling between Shias and Sunnis, allowing Central Asia to succumb to a succession of other conquerors, the region remained overwhelmingly Muslim ever after.

The next great empire to emerge was another Turkic one, that of the Seljuks under their two renowned leaders, Alp Arslan and his grandson Sultan Sanjar, who ruled vast areas of western Central Asia and the Middle East in the eleventh century. Their magnificent capital of Merv was known as ‘the Queen of the World’, and their territories stretched from the Mediterranean to the Oxus. At the Chinese end of Central Asia, however, the Eastern Turks or Uighurs were now in control. Driven from their traditional grazing grounds in the Altai mountains by the Kirghiz (another Turkic people) in the ninth century, they swept south and west into Kansu and the Tarim Basin, and established kingdoms at Tunhuang and Turfan. Their religious beliefs (like those of their Siberian and Mongolian neighbours) were based on a primitive spirit-worship, but they were evidently impressionable, for as they migrated south the Uighurs adopted first Manichaeism, then Buddhism and finally Islam. Their territories became known as Eastern Turkestan, while those on the other side of the Pamirs were known as Western Turkestan.

The beginning of the thirteenth century saw sweeping changes in Central Asia – not to mention Russia – for this was the time of the great Mongol migration. Unlike the Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns and Turks who had preceded them, these barbarians who erupted from the far-off borders of Manchuria were of an entirely different race. Round-headed, yellow-skinned, with slanting eyes and high cheek- bones, they were related to the peoples of northern China and Korea, although they spoke a Turkic language. They were also indescribably dirty and malodorous, for water was something they regarded as too precious to be wasted on personal hygiene. They were not a hirsute people, but so infested were they with lice that their chests appeared to be thickly covered in hair.

The astonishing conquests of Genghis Khan swept aside several empires and innumerable petty kingdoms, and brought all countries from the Black Sea to the Yellow River under direct Mongol control by the end of the first quarter of the thirteenth century. The unstoppable Mongol tide continued under his successors. Baghdad fell in 1258, the Sung capital of Hangchow in 1276. In Europe the Mongol empire – the largest in history – extended as far as Poland and Hungary, taking in most of Russia on the way. After all this carnage and destruction no one dared challenge the Mongols for a long time. Peace reigned throughout the empire – of distinct benefit to trade and travel – and the conquerors themselves began to acquire at least a veneer of civilisation. The Mongols had been entirely unlettered but now, with the help of the astute Eastern Turks, they set about writing their language down, using the Uighur script. This fruitful collaboration, accompanied by inter-marriage, was in time to produce a new hybrid master-race and a new world leader, Tamerlane, but in the meantime a Mongol emperor sat on the illustrious throne of China and entertained curious visitors from distant Europe.

Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis, had become Great Khan, or Chief of all the Mongol clans, in 1260. Karakoram, in Mongolia, was the headquarters of the huge empire, to which all the clan leaders were summoned periodically, but in time Kublai came to prefer the splendour of the Chinese court and made Peking his capital. The Chinese aristocracy disdained this upstart dynasty of Yuan and kept their distance, but Europeans flocked to the new emperor’s court. Foremost were the monks, for Kublai Khan had a Nestorian mother and was reputedly interested in Christianity. Hot on their heels came the merchants, among them the Polo family from Venice. Marco Polo is said to have served Kublai for seventeen years, between 1275 and 1292, although some scholars wonder whether he ever got as far as China, there being no mention of this ‘foreign devil’ in the Chinese Annals. Others, like Sir Aurel Stein, were excited at following in his footsteps. As he tramped along the southern arm of the Silk Road on the fringes of the Taklamakan desert, Stein re-read his Marco Polo and found that the descriptions of Kashgar, Yarkand, Khotan, Cherchen and Tunhuang tallied very well. Whatever the truth of the matter, the thirteenth century was something of a golden age for trade, and eastern Central Asia in particular flourished. For the Yuan dynasty, shunned by the Chinese, depended heavily on the Uighurs, whose capital was at Turfan, both to maintain law and order and to organise trade.

But the mighty Mongols, like all the conquerors before them, had their moment of glory and then declined. In little more than a century the Yuan dynasty came to an end, and in 1368 was replaced by the Chinese house of Ming. The Mongols, weakened by internal power struggles and faced in China by famine, floods and peasant uprisings, were driven back to the steppes, and their collaborators the Uighurs were expelled in their wake. The Ming dynasty concerned itself with reunifying China and consolidating its power: contacts with the West were severely restricted.

Further west the Mongols had fared better. The Golden Horde had established themselves in Russia during the thirteenth century under Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu, and became known as the Tatars. Their despoliation of Poland and Hungary so alarmed the Pope and other Western leaders that a succession of plucky friars were dispatched with messages of friendship to the Tatars’ tented capital at Sarai, on the Volga. From there, some were induced to attend the Mongol grand capital at Karakoram, 3,000 miles and four months’ hard travelling further east. Unfortunately these missions were taken by the Mongols as a sign of submission by the West, and their modest gifts were haughtily cast aside as quite insufficient as ‘tribute’. Two of the friars who managed to return safely from their arduous journeys were John of Carpine, sent by the Pope in 1245, and William of Rubruck who was dispatched by the King of France in 1252. Both brought back valuable intelligence on Mongol manners, customs and organisation, together with arrogant and insulting messages for their masters. Nobody in the West felt able to take on the Mongols, and it would be three hundred years before Russia succeeded in casting off the Tatar yoke.

Meanwhile, in 1336, Tamerlane was born in Kesh (modern Shakhrisabz), south of Samarkand. Within thirty years he established a new empire in Central Asia. He first made himself master of Turkestan, and then proceeded to conquer Persia, parts of southern Russia (weakening the power of the Golden Horde), and northern India as far as Delhi. Towards the end of his life, in 1402, he defeated the Ottoman Turks – who had succeeded the Seljuks in Asia Minor – at Ankara, and even took Sultan Beyazit captive. Notorious for his savagery, it has been estimated that he caused the deaths of seventeen million people. Some of these were the slave-labourers used for his extravagant building projects, for paradoxically there was a creative side to his nature. In the course of his conquests he commandeered the best local artists and craftsmen, and sent them back to embellish his capital of Samarkand, which became renowned throughout the world. He died in 1405, on the eve of a campaign against China, and the seeds of decay were planted when his empire was divided among his sons and grandsons. The Timurid princes were a strange mixture of the warrior, the aesthete and the barbarian: they built beautiful mosques and palaces in Herat, Balkh and Meshed, but fought savagely among themselves and had anyone who displeased them skinned alive. The exception was Ulugh Beg, a scholarly man and Tamerlane’s favourite grandson, under whom Samarkand continued to flourish for a while as a centre of civilisation. He was assassinated, however, by his own son.

The sixteenth century brought with it a new invader of Central Asia, the Uzbek Turks from the north, who gave their name to a large territory in western Turkestan which has recently become a new country: Uzbekistan. Turks and Mongols were by now thoroughly intermixed, and the Uzbek leader Shaybani Khan could count Genghis Khan as a collateral ancestor. So too could Prince Babur, Timurid ruler of Khokhand and a distant cousin of Ulugh Beg’s, but after a fierce fight he was ousted from the Ferghana valley and made his way south to find a new territory. A man of artistic tastes as well as military prowess, he conquered northern India in 1526 and founded the Mogul dynasty. India blossomed, but Central Asia declined. Ming China had long since shut its gates on the West, fearing the power of the Uighurs, and this had dramatically reduced trade. The whole of western Asia was in the hands of the Ottoman Turks, now recovered from Tamerlane’s invasion, and they looked west rather than east for both trade and foreign relations, having, for example, particularly close ties with France. So Central Asia, marooned in the middle, became a backwater, a nest of suspicion and fanaticism, subject to the whims and quarrels of rival petty despots.


When Anthony Jenkinson, a merchant from the City of London, arrived in Bokhara at the end of 1558 he had already suffered enough misfortunes to send a less resourceful man running for home. After sailing down the Volga and leaving his boat on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, he set out on 14 September across the notorious sandy wilderness of Transcaspia. At various times stricken by fever, attacked by bandits, cheated by his guides, his merchandise rifled by packs of Turcomans, he and his loyal caravan men were forced to fight a pitched battle at one point with ‘a banished prince with fortie men’ east of Khiva. Jenkinson formed a very low opinion of the petty princes of Transcaspia, for not only were they constantly fighting among themselves – to the impoverishment of their people – but they all ‘lived viciously’, surrounded by catamites and concubines. ‘Arte or Science they have none,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘but live most idly, sitting round in great companies in the fields, devising and talking most vainely.’

It must have been a relief to arrive in Bokhara which was still an important market town for the region, although none of the merchants showed much interest in the Englishman’s woollen cloth. Jenkinson evidently had a talent for making friends, and was soon on familiar terms with the King, Abdullah Khan, who particularly enjoyed firing his guest’s arquebur. Like most Central Asian towns, Bokhara was built mainly of baked mud bricks, with a high defensive wall and a bazaar where every trade had its own quarter. Although speaking a Persian language, the Bokharans were usually at war with Persia – and, indeed, with most of their neighbours. Jenkinson had planned to take his goods on to Cathay, or China, but his hopes were soon dashed. No caravans had emerged from Cathay for at least three years, he was informed, and it was impossible to travel even as far as Samarkand because a local war was in progress. After an interesting three months’ stay, he retraced his steps to the Caspian, taking with him twenty-five Russian slaves whom he had rescued from Bokhara’s notorious slave market. He found his boat still on the beach, but totally stripped of equipment and fittings. (In view of the reputation the Turcomans had for thieving, perhaps he was lucky to find even the boat still there.) Undaunted, he set about spinning ropes from hemp and weaving a new sail. The former slaves joined in cheerfully, and made him a temporary anchor out of an old cartwheel. At last allwas ready, and the party gladly turned their backs on Central Asia, the Russians rowing with a will as they approached their native land. Jenkinson had come to Turkestan by way of Russia and returned the same way, sailing up the mighty Volga and being entertained by the Tsar in Moscow, for while Central Asia stagnated its great northern neighbour had awoken from a long hibernation. The descendants of the Golden Horde, though weakened by Tamerlane’s incursions, had remained in control of much of Russia and were divided into three khanates at Kazan, Astrakhan and the Crimea. Every year the Russian princes had the humiliation of paying tribute to these Tatar overlords, until in 1552 Ivan the Terrible, Prince of Muscovy, attacked and defeated Kazan. Four years later, the heady scent of freedom in their nostrils, he and his boyars crushed Astrakhan, and the Tatars were overlords no more. But Russia had been cut off for the best part of three centuries from intellectual and artistic developments in the outside world, including the phenomenon of the Renaissance in Europe. It had become a poor and primarily agricultural land, for its wooden-built towns had been regularly sacked and burnt by the Golden Horde. Tsar Ivan set about modernising his country, and by the time of Anthony Jenkinson’s visit the population of Moscow had already risen to 100,000, greater than that of London. It was a thriving city, moreover, unlike the Tatar capitals of Kazan and Astrakhan, which Jenkinson found to be pitifully poor and ravaged by the plague. So desperate were the Tatars of Astrakhan that Jenkinson could have purchased ‘many goodly Tatars’ Children ... from their owne Fathers and Mothers’ for a sixpenny loaf. (He did, in fact, buy a little girl on his way back, and presented her to Queen Elizabeth on his return to England.) Nevertheless, despite Russia’s newly won freedom it would be a slow and painful process before the huge, unwieldy country became a unified nation, and it would continue to be regarded by the rest of the world as a land of backward savages for many years to come. In India, meanwhile, Babur’s grandson – the Emperor Akbar – was bringing Mogul rule to its zenith. By the end of the sixteenth century he had established a sound administrative framework, while peerless cities like Agra and Fatepur Sikri proclaimed the artistic glories of his reign. Far away in London, however, the East India Company was founded in 1600, with profound implications for the future of the sub-continent.

In China the Ming dynasty was beginning to crumble, and a new race of Central Asian nomads – a Tungusic people who came to be known as the Manchus – was gathering strength in Manchuria, Korea, Mongolia and parts of northern China. Its headquarters were at Mukden, dangerously close to the Great Wall. But in an extraordinary sequence of events, the Manchu armies were actually invited into China in 1644 by a Ming general, to help him put down a rebellion. Unfortunately the Manchus showed no sign of leaving again afterwards, and gradually took control of the whole country. In the event they were to rule China for the next three hundred years, calling themselves the Ching dynasty. By the end of the seventeenth century the Manchus had absorbed the Gobi and Altai districts into the Chinese empire, and by the middle of the eighteenth they had taken over the Tarim Basin. Large numbers of nomads were wiped out by the Manchus between the Altai and Pamir mountains at this time, and colonists from metropolitan China were introduced instead. The days of the freebooting nomad, and even of the migrating pastoralist, were drawing to a close, as both Russia and China expanded.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Russian Cossacks colonised Siberia, and in the eighteenth it was the turn of the mountain stronghold of the Caucasus, then part of the Shah of Persia’s domains. That century also saw Russia’s first, disastrous, expedition to Central Asia. In August 1717 Prince Alexander Bekovich, envoy of Peter the Great, was slaughtered with most of his companions outside Khiva after the rascally Khan had pretended to welcome them. Peter was too busy in the Caucasus and elsewhere to exact vengeance at the time, but Russia never forgot this treachery and western Turkestan would later pay dearly for it. Peter the Great was the first of the Tsars to be taken seriously in the West. His tour of Europe in the 1690s opened his eyes to education and technology, which he energetically applied to his own country with the help of foreign advisers, while his victory over the Swedes at Poltava in 1709 gained Russia international status. European architects helped to build his splendid new capital of St Petersburg, and his uncouth boyars were forced to shave off their beards and adopt Western dress instead of the loose robes inherited from Tatar culture. His successors, especially the German-born Catherine the Great, continued the process, but it was the Napoleonic Wars which catapulted Russia into the heart of Europe – and brought it into contact with the rationalist movement known as the Enlightenment. After Alexander I’s triumphal entry into Paris in 1814 nothing could be quite the same again. This mysterious Tsar, whose mainly illiterate people regarded him as a god, and whose entire peasant population was held in a form of slavery, had now to be treated on equal terms by Western leaders. The Russians, for their part, were dazzled by everything Western, and especially French, and carried home with them French chefs, Parisian dressmakers and tutors – and a collection of half-digested liberal ideas which would shortly get them into a lot of trouble. Alarmed at the destabilising effect of liberalism, Alexander tried to back-pedal, and after the abortive Decembrist Revolt of 1825 the new Tsar, Nicholas I, instituted a repressive era. Travel abroad was drastically curtailed, trouble-makers were banished, crippling censorship was imposed, and the dreaded Third Section – or secret police – was set up. The age of the ‘superfluous man’ had begun, and in view of the universal muzzling of expression it was perhaps not surprising that to an outsider like the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle Russia seemed to be ‘a great dumb monster’, lacking any voice of genius. He was mistaken, and the nineteenth century was to produce some Russian writers and thinkers of considerable stature, but to many young men the army seemed the only road to glory, or indeed to activity. At all events, Russia’s expansionist campaigns in the Caucasus and in the steppeland of the wandering Kazakhs took on a new impetus at this time. And beyond the Kazakh steppe lay

another no-man’s land: the deserts and oases of western Turkestan. Russia’s activities in Central Asia were watched with disquiet by the British in India. For by the beginning of the nineteenth century most of India was under the control of the East India Company, which had its own Governor-General, administration and army, the better to protect its trade monopolies. While Russia annexed Kazakhstan and sent ‘trade delegations’ to the Khans of Turkestan, the British sent ‘friendly missions’ to Sind, the Punjab and Afghanistan. It went without saying that a great deal of valuable strategic information was gathered in the course of these unsolicited visits, and the native states were filled with foreboding, having seen their neighbours engulfed by the colonial tide. The Khan of Khiva kept the Tsar’s envoy, Nikolai Muraviev, under house arrest for seven nerve-racking weeks in 1819, but did not dare kill him for fear of Russian retribution. And the following year the Emir of Bokhara had little choice but to co- operate with a Russian trade delegation when he noticed that it was accompanied by a couple of artillery pieces. In India a holy man lamented: ‘Alas, Sind is now gone,’ as he watched a British mission sail past him up the Indus in 1831. ‘The English have seen the river which is the road to our conquest.’

To the British the prospect of an expansionist Russia seemed very alarming indeed, for if Central Asia were to become another province of the already vast Russian empire, the armies of the Tsar would be literally on India’s doorstep. And India was so vital to Britain’s economic interests that after the Mutiny in 1857 control of the country was transferred from the East India Company to the Crown. On the face of it, India was impregnable from the north, protected by the massive bastions of the Himalayas, Pamirs and Karakorams. But all the invaders of the past had come that way, from Alexander the Great onwards. The question was, could a modern army encumbered with artillery do the same thing? Military experts could not agree, for the area had never been systematically surveyed and the position of the various mountain passes could only be guessed at.

From the 1860s both Britain and Russia began to map as much of Central Asia as they could, using any means available: officers on ‘shooting leave’, explorers sponsored by their geographical societies, scientists and naturalists, would-be tea traders – they could all be shown how to use basic surveying equipment. There was no lack of daring young men on both sides to volunteer for such assignments in what became known as the ‘Great Game’, though it was a hazardous business and not all of them returned. If you escaped death from exposure in the mountain passes or from thirst in the deserts, you were quite likely to die of fever, be murdered by brigands or be imprisoned in loathsome conditions by some brutal petty despot. For there was an extreme distrust of strangers – not to mention Islamic fanaticism – among the backward tribesmen, most of whom had never seen a white man. In fact, some areas were so dangerous that the Survey of India would only send native ‘pundits’ there, usually in the guise of holy men or pilgrims but with secret surveying equipment hidden in their prayer-wheels or staffs. Even these men took their lives in their hands.


In retrospect it seems doubtful whether Russia seriously intended to wrest India from Britain’s grasp, although this was clearly the desire of many Tsarist frontier officers, who thought of little else. Nevertheless, the contradictions between St Petersburg’s soothing assurances and military action on the spot did nothing to allay British fears. Tashkent was annexed in 1865 and immediately became the forward base for further Russian incursions into Central Asia, although the Tsar insisted that his aim was not conquest but simply the securing of his southern borders. There was some justification for such a policy, as the nomadic Turcomans in particular were highly unsatisfactory neighbours: unwary Russian subjects from the border settlements were continually being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the markets of Khiva and Bokhara. At all events, the Central Asian khanates began to fall to the Russian army in a dismaying progression: Samarkand and Bokhara both fell in 1868, Khiva in 1873, and the Turcoman fortress of Geok-Tepe in 1881. When the Tsar turned his attention to Merv in 1882 a new word – ‘Mervousness’ – was coined in Britain, for Merv was a staging-post on the way to Herat in Afghanistan, the traditional ‘gateway to India’. And yet in 1879 the Russian Foreign Ministry had assured the British ambassador to St Petersburg that the Tsar had positively no intention of annexing Merv.

This Russian ambivalence to the literal truth has always been inexplicable to Westerners, and sometimes even to the Russians themselves. ‘In no other State’, sighed the nineteenth-century statesman Speransky, ‘do political words stand in such contrast to reality as in Russia.’ Turgenev remarked: ‘It is a well-known fact, though not very easy to understand, that Russians are the greatest liars on the face of the earth, yet there is nothing they respect more than the truth, nothing they sympathize with more.’ In the 20th century Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned the West in one of his Delphic utterances: ‘Never forget that the Russians are an Asiatic people.’ This element of fantasy in the national make-up infuriated the Germans and pained the British. The French simply shrugged and remarked: ‘Grattez un Russe et vous trouverez un Tatare’ (‘Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tatar’). Certainly, in the realms of diplomacy it was a hugely complicating factor.

While complaining of Russian duplicity over Turkestan and Transcaspia, the British were not idle themselves during the nineteenth century. But their incursions into Central Asia were far less single-minded than those of the Russians, for the British were subject to the checks and balances of democracy and uncensored public opinion. A hawkish government which supported the ‘forward policies’ of the military would be succeeded by one advocating a policy of ‘masterly inactivity’, relying on distance and natural hazards to protect India from invaders. A British officer who exceeded his instructions and negotiated an agreement with a local potentate would probably be severely reprimanded by the government, even if he was applauded in the popular papers. His Russian equivalent, on the other hand, would almost certainly be promoted. Regardless of the avowed policy of the moment, the Tsars were never averse to a territorial fait accompli.

Both sides had their tragedies and disasters in the Great Game. Apart from the massacre of the Bekovich expedition to Khiva in 1717, the Russians lost 1,000 men and 8,000 camels when General Perovsky led another expedition to the same isolated khanate in 1840. Alexander Burnes was torn apart by a frenzied mob in Kabul in 1841 and a year later Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly were beheaded in Bokhara after spending months in a verminous pit. Yet neither side gave up, and by the end of the nineteenth century the rivalry between Britain and Russia in Central Asia had reached such a fever pitch that Lord Curzon dedicated his magisterial work Russia in Central Asia, published in 1889, to ‘the great army of Russophobes who mislead others and Russophiles whom others mislead’, noting that his book would be found ‘equally disrespectful to the ignoble terrors of the one and the perverse complacency of the others’. There was certainly little comfort in Curzon’s statistics: in 1725, when Peter the Great died, Russia’s empire in Asia had covered four million square miles, whereas it now extended to six and a half million. At the start of the nineteenth century the British and Russian empires had been 2,000 miles apart. By the end of it the gap had shrunk to a few hundred, and in the Wakhan – the pan-handle of Afghanistan – to a mere twenty.

After centuries of oblivion Central Asia had become headline news, and the Victorians regarded this far-off region, peopled by primitive heathens, with a mixture of horror and fascination. Certainly anyone who ventured there could be sure of a wide readership for the book, pamphlet or newspaper article which resulted. Many of these books are long forgotten and hard to find today, but they make wonderful reading, for in the course of all the surveying and colonising, the fabled caravan cities of the old Silk Road had been revealed to Western eyes. And as the Russians built railways through their new territories it gradually became possible for quite ordinary people to travel the iron road to Samarkand. Western travellers began, too, to penetrate the eastern parts of Central Asia, still nominally under Chinese control, where a backward Muslim society existed side by side with the corrupt officials of the declining Manchu dynasty. Persistent rumours of ‘buried cities’ in the Taklamakan desert brought explorers and archaeologists to the region around the turn of the century, and they found to their astonishment that much of the lost Buddhist civilisation which had flourished before the Muslim conquest in the eighth century was still preserved under the dry sands. Undaunted by the stupendous difficulties posed in transporting their finds, they proceeded to remove wall-paintings and sculptures by the ton and manuscripts by the sackful, and send them to the museums of England, France, Germany, Russia, India, America and Japan.

Most of the travellers left accounts of their triumphs and disasters, as did many of the soldiers, diplomats and administrators whose duties brought them to Central Asia, before the Communists seized control of first Russia and then China, and they became forbidden lands. Some of the writers were caught up in those cataclysmic events and had harrowing stories to tell of their escape. It is from this wide variety of eyewitness accounts that I have drawn in the following pages, in the belief that anyone interested in Central Asia – and especially anyone going there – will want to know what it was like before the dead hand of totalitarianism did its best to destroy its special character.

The centuries have witnessed the rise and fall of countless civilisations in Central Asia, and now the collapse of Communism in Russia has seen the downfall of yet another empire there. Rather as Russia shook off the yoke of the Tatars in the sixteenth century, so the Central Asian republics have broken free from Russia at the end of the twentieth. Today they stand once more on the brink of a new era. Will their newly won freedom and vast natural resources bring them stability and prosperity, or will disunity, backwardness and corruption drag them back into darkness and oppression? At the time of writing the answer is very far from clear. Indeed, to watch the future as it gradually – and painfully – takes shape, one must turn to the newspapers, whose correspondents are the modern eyewitnesses to the momentous events now unfolding in Central Asia.