Central Asia


Abdul Hai Habibi



Central Asia is a vast land which extends eastward to the border of Tibet and the sub-continent of India and Pakistan, north-eastern Iran and the shores of the Caspian Sea. This landscape encompasses Afghanistan and the republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. During historical times this extensive region had a common destiny in politics, economics and culture, despite the fact that political borders were not designated but it remained as one cultural unit. Cultural and intellectual cohesion existed among its people.

We consider these neighboring countries as one cultural unit and cultural ties existed among the people of this region and these features have impacted the economic and lifestyle of the people.


Cradle of Civilization

This Central Asian landscape is composed of fertile valleys with roaring rivers and a vast irrigation system. From time immemorial it has acted as the birthplace of civilization in Central Asia. We consider it as the cradle of civilization and culture. They are the valleys of:

1. The eastern valleys from the Khutan river to Kashgar and the Oxus river as far as eastern Turkistan.

2. Eastern valleys of Sindh river as far as Punjab and Kashmir and tributaries of the Ganges river, which in Vedic geography was named Sapta-Sindhu (the seven rivers).

3. The valleys of Tibet.

4. The fertile valleys of Trans-Oxiana, composed of:

a: The Wakhsh tributary.

b: Tributaries of Zarafshan river (Sughd).

c: Tributaries of Syr-Darya.

d: The Khwarazm valleys at the northern tip of the Oxus.

5. Valleys of southern Oxus, including:

a: Tributaries of Kokcha river in Takhar.

b: Balkh river.

6. Tributaries of Kabul river (Gandahara).

7. Tributaries of the Helmand river as far as Seistan.

8. Tributaries of the Arghandab and Tarnak rivers. In Pahlavi it was known as Rukhadh and in Arabic as al-Rakhj.

9. Tributaries of Khashrud, Farahrud and Harut rivers in northern Seistan.

10. The Hariud and the northern and southern tributaries of this river.

11. Mervrud (Murghab), the Murghab basin.

12. Western Khorasan including: the lands of Tus, Neshapur, Gurgan as far as the Caspian sea.

These vast and fertile valleys of Central Asia have acted as the birthplace of civilization and have been at the crossroad of various civilizations and cultures. Hence ancient cultural aspects of this area form elements and principles of life, which the people of the area have maintained over eons, or certain elements of their lifestyle have been transferred from other places. These traits have been adopted in other regions also.

From prehistoric times the people of Central Asia have shared common cultural features. These traits have manifested among the people over time or they are a part of the admixture of cultural traits which have spread from the east to the west or from the north to the south over time.

Hence we can say that Central Asia has been a cradle of civilization and has acted as a thoroughfare of the movement of civilization and has acted as the initiator of thoughts, beliefs, civility, knowledge, philosophy and culture.

In this article I will briefly touch upon cultures which exhibit the historical closeness of these people:


1. Prehistoric Culture:

This culture existed in Mohenjodaro and Harrapa of the Indus Valley, Arghandab, Trans-Oxiana and Iran six to fifty thousand years ago from the present time.

A: Ancient relics from the Middle Paleolithic or Mousterian period, dating back about 50,000 years have been found at the Dadil, Hazarsum and Kur valleys in northern Afghanistan.

B: Ancient relics dating to the Middle Paleolithic period from 720 to 10,580 BP have been discovered in Qaraqamar, Zarafshan valley and Termez Valley of Turkmenistan.

C: Relics of the Neolithic period without a glaze 100 to 7600 BP have been discovered from Aq Kupruk, Harrapa, Mohenjodaro, Shah Tapa, Kandahar, Seistan, Anu and Turkmenistan.

D: Neolithic relics with a glaze 100+7220 BP at Aq Kupruk.

E: Chalcolithic period relics including polished stones, glazed material and iron implements 100+703 BP at Aq Kupruk, Dehmorasi Mound, Mandigak (Kandahar) and Seistan.

F: Relics of the gunmetal period 5000 to 3000 years old from Aq Kupruk 1-2-3-4, Dehmorasai, Mandigak, Seistan, Harapa, Mohenjodaro, Bampur, Zaranj, Numazgah and Altin Tapa.

G: Neolithic period relics 130+3780 BP at Darra-e Kur.

H: Ancient Bronze Age and Old Iron Age relics 1000 years BC at Aq Kupruk 1-2-3-4, Dehmorasai, Mandigak, Nadali and Seistan.


2. The Vedic Culture

Related to the four old books of Veda which the Bactrian Aryans and the people of Northern India recited as ballads 1400 BC. The four Vedas are composed of the thoughts, beliefs, mode of life, prayers and migrations of these people from the Central Asian countries to the east and west. The Vedas also reveal linguistic relations with Bactrian and Afghan languages, the names of tribes and places in Afghanistan and Central Asia and a myriad of properties of this old culture.


3. The Avesta Culture

Related to the book of Avesta which was started 1200 BC in parts of Bakhdi (Bakhtar), Iran and Trans Oxiana and culminated with the reforms of Zoroaster and the propagation of Mazda-Yasna beliefs around 588 BC. The association of this culture with Vedic beliefs and its spread to the east (India) and west (Iran) took place over the eons. Its amalgamation with the Achaemenid culture of Iran is also noted around 512 BC.


4. Greek Culture

This culture arrived with the invasion of Alexander (330-326 BC) to Central Asia resulting in the spread of its traditions, arts, script, architecture and urban development.

The period of direct rule of the Greco Bactrians lasted for two and a half centuries until 100 BC. Archeological remnants of a Greek city are present in Ai-Khanum, a city on the southern shores of the Oxus river. It is here that this culture, beside mixing with the customs of the land, also blended with the culture which arrived to the region from the east (India) as explained in the next section.


5. Greco-Buddhism Culture

Shakyamuni (the Shakya philosopher) who became famous as Buddha, meaning the enlightened one, after establishing and propagating his religion died in Kushinagar in 483 BC. His religion was spread by Ashoka (273-236 BC), the great warrior king of the Maurya family in Central Asia, as far as the Arghandab river. A tablet dedicated to the king, and inscribed in Aramic and Greek script in 250 BC, has been found in Kandahar.

Buddhism resulted in furthering thought and culture in Central Asia. This wave of Indian culture which came from the east amalgamated with Greek culture which is known as Greco-Buddhism or Greco-Bactrian culture which spread as far as the Jehlam basin to the east. Aspects of this culture admixed with Buddhism.


6. Kushani Culture

The Greco-Bactrian kingdom came to an end during the first century BC with the spread and invasion of the nomadic Kushans of Central Asia who had poured in from the regions north of the Oxus river. However, the effects of the Greco-Buddhism and Greek script lasted in this region for nine centuries. When the Kushani clansmen reached Takhar and Bactria from Trans-Oxiana an admixture of former cultures took place. With the expansion of the fourth great empire of the time, during the reign of Kanishka (125-144 AD), and through contacts with the enlightened people of the east and west, we see the creation of a pantheon of 33 Iranian, Indian, Greek and Roman religions depicted in coins of the time. This admixture shows the richness of cultural and thought process of the Kushan-Shahar. As a result arts also flourished during this period and the mixing of the eastern and western cultures resulted in the blending of a special culture which is manifested in the language, arts, religious thoughts and thinking of the people of this land. Its effects can be seen to the east in parts of India also.


7. Sassani Culture

During the first five centuries AD, the greater and lesser Kushani rulers and their remnant princes, had brought about a special culture in Central Asia and Aryana. From the west they faced the invasions of the Sassani kingdom and the effects of their culture and arts. This advanced culture effectively mixed with the past traditions of the region.


8. The Hepthalite Culture

Around 425 AD the White Huns rose from Central Asia and passed through Bactria and Takhar, the domain of the Kushani rulers, and took over the Kushani empire in Afghanistan and northern India, and fought with the Iranian Sassani rulers. In northern India they spread as far as the valleys of Kashmir. Relics of the composite culture of this period are seen in the languages, literature and culture of the region. Tablets inscribed in Greek letters have been discovered in this area.


9. Islamic Culture

During the first half of the seventh century AD, the victorious Arab armies penetrated Central Asia from the west with Koran, Islamic religion and their swords resulting in the creation of their new and intact order. This Islamic culture came face to face with the historic traditions of the area. This new culture of monotheism and Arabic language, resulted in the abolishment of idol worshiping, and sun and fire worshiping. It resulted in the deep penetration and impact of Arabic language and literature on the people of Central Asia and Khorasan.





10. Khorasani Culture

This culture is a branch of Islamic traditions which was founded as a result of the mixing of past cultures and Islamic customs in Khorasan resulting in its spread all over Central Asia and has continued to last for the past fourteen centuries.

Through the use of the Arabic and Dari languages this culture impacted Turkish, Indian and Afghan languages and influenced the economics, arts and mode of thinking of the people. Through the influence of Afghans converted to Islam it spread in India as far as the Bay of Bengal and the Trans-Oxiana Moslems spread it as far as Mongolia. With the invasion of Genghis Khan and his progeny elements of Mongol civilization also admixed with this culture.