5 Historical Myths About Central Asia  cover

5 Historical Myths About Central Asia

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From graveyard empires to the Kazakh famine, we break down five historical myths.


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5 Historical Myths About Central Asia

Myth #1

Afghanistan is inherently unconquerable because of its mountainous terrain and its fierce people, the story goes.

Great empires like the Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, Russians and British all stumbled and fell, and none were able to hold on to the country.

With the defeat of American troops in Afghanistan, this story started popping up in big American media outlets like Time, New York Times, Huffington Post. It’s even the title of a book.

Otan, Afghanistan

©iStock

Otan, Afghanistan

It could not be further from the truth.

The Facts

Many have struggled in Afghanistan, but ruled eventually.

This includes Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Afghan self-rule never came into the picture until around 200 years ago, as Thomas Barfield says. Before that, Afghanistan was the cradle of empires, a highway of conquest that was essential to trade before the age of ocean voyages.

Even the British, who suffered big losses at the hands of Afghans, eventually did rule most of the country and effectively used it as a buffer against the Soviets.

Myth #2

Without Stalin, nomads would still be roaming Kazakhstan.

Between 1931 and 1934, forced collectivization under Stalin’s rule led to a major famine that killed 1,5 million Kazakhs, 40% of the total population at that time. Collectivization was a disaster everywhere, but since Kazakhs were largely nomads at that time, it hit them even harder.

Kazakh-famine

The tragedy spelled the end of Kazakhstan’s nomadic tradition.

But even before that time, Kazakhs were abandoning their nomadic existence.

As early as the late 18th century it had become clear that the nomadic Kazakh economy had reached a dead end. Further growth in livestock numbers had run into an insurmountable obstacle: lack of pastureland, particularly winter pastureland. Kazakhs simply could not support their growing population by relying on their previous economic practices.

The migration of large numbers of Russians and Ukranians aggravated the problem, but also formed the solution: they had the expertise of settled agriculture that the Kazakhs lacked.

Kazakh-famine

Public Domain

Kazakh-famine

A freezing woman and child during the Kazakh famine.

Myth #3

Arabs spread Islam in Central Asia.

Shortly after the death of Mohammed, the Arab dynasty of Abbasids started a whirlwind conquest of the world, which led to an empire from Spain to Tajikistan. They brought with them Islam. But when the empire collapsed and Arabs retreated, only a minority of their subjects had converted to Islam.

The Source

Far more important were their successors, the Persian Samanids, who held court in Bukhara, and spread Islam across Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Southern Kazakhstan.

When they were defeated by a confederation of Turkic tribes called the Kara-Khanids, Islam spread further into their territories in Western China.

Artush, Xinjiang

Public Domain

Artush, Xinjiang

The tomb of the first Muslim khan of the Karakhanids in Artush, Xinjiang.

Myth #4

Stalin cut up the Fergana valley to divide and rule.

The strongest myth of all: It was Stalin who deliberately cut up the Fergana valley in crazy chunks to make sure that it could not develop into a powerbase for rebels, or that they could never separate.

Reality, as usual, is far more complex.

Reality Check

In essence, drawing borders was a precarious balancing act between contradictory alliances between the Bolsheviks and the diverse elites of Central Asia.

Russians were definitely concerned with possible pan-Turkic ambitions of the Uzbek leaders, and this is why for instance they separated Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan from the original.

But local elites had a lot more to say than the myth proclaims.

Ideological Support

Who would get Tashkent was a hot topic in the negotiations.

Fergana valley was not. So the Uzbeks for instance gave up the Alay valley at the edge of Fergana to have an extra bargaining chip to get Tashkent, which the Kazakhs also wanted. The Kyrgyz had managed to get ideological support for their own administrative unit, but the concern was that an economy of shepherds would not be able to be self-sufficient. So they threw in Osh.

And so on. It really is very complicated (you can read all about it in this book), and this is probably why the easier it’s-all-Stalin’s-fault myth came into being.

Myth #5

The Uyghurs were first in Xinjiang.

It is said that, like Tibetans, Chinese people suppress Uyghurs, the original inhabitants of Xinjiang. While it is true that Uyghurs cannot practice their religion, language and economic activities in the same way as Han Chinese, it is not true that Chinese came after Uyghurs.

Myth #5

The Uyghurs were first in Xinjiang.

It is said that, like Tibetans, Chinese people suppress Uyghurs, the original inhabitants of Xinjiang. While it is true that Uyghurs cannot practice their religion, language and economic activities in the same way as Han Chinese, it is not true that Chinese came after Uyghurs.

Who was First in Xinjiang?

It wasn’t the Uyghurs, and it wasn’t Han-Chinese either.

The first people to have lived in the Tarim Basin, the heart of Xinjiang, had blue eyes and blond hair. Excavations have revealed 4000-year old mummies of Indo-European descent, most likely from the Afanasevo culture who roamed the steppelands of East-Kazakhstan in that time.

Xinjiang

Xinjiang

©iStock

The Source

They morphed into a tribe called Yuezhi, and were eventually displaced by roaming Turkic tribes, which were in turn defeated by Han Chinese at the end of the first century.

Only in 842 Uyghurs came and settled, after their empire in Mongolia collapsed.

Uyghur separatists claim the Xinjiang province of China, which they call East Turkestan. Since their presence came after that of Chinese settlers, Uyghur separatism is closer to the cause of Kosovo than that of Tibet.

Do you know of any other historical myths of Central Asia that need to be told?

Caravanistan

(CC BY-SA 4.0)