"Part of a series of books on everyday life in various parts of the world, this volume offers essays on the different ways that Central Asians lead their daily lives and navigate shifting historical, political, and economic trends in past and present times.... Many of the selections concern the difficult transitions from Soviet rule to independent statehood, restrictions on political and social activity, widening gaps between the rich and the poor, and new opportunities for social mobility and cultural expression. The essays on the varying beliefs and practices of Muslims across this wide region are especially informative. The volume contains illustrations and a listing of the contributors' backgrounds and qualifications.... Recommended." —Choice
Everyday Life in Central Asia: Past and Presentby Jeff Sahadeo
For its citizens, contemporary Central Asia is a land of great promise and peril. While the end of Soviet rule has opened new opportunities for social mobility and cultural expression, political and economic dynamics have also imposed severe hardships. In this lively volume, contributors from a variety of disciplines examine how ordinary Central Asians lead their
For its citizens, contemporary Central Asia is a land of great promise and peril. While the end of Soviet rule has opened new opportunities for social mobility and cultural expression, political and economic dynamics have also imposed severe hardships. In this lively volume, contributors from a variety of disciplines examine how ordinary Central Asians lead their lives and navigate shifting historical and political trends. Provocative stories of Turkmen nomads, Afghan villagers, Kazakh scientists, Kyrgyz border guards, a Tajik strongman, guardians of religious shrines in Uzbekistan, and other narratives illuminate important issues of gender, religion, power, culture, and wealth. A vibrant and dynamic world of life in urban neighborhoods and small villages, at weddings and celebrations, at classroom tables, and around dinner tables emerges from this introduction to a geopolitically strategic and culturally fascinating region.
"Part of a series of books on everyday life in various parts of the world, this volume offers essays on the different ways that Central Asians lead their daily lives and navigate shifting historical, political, and economic trends in past and present times.... Many of the selections concern the difficult transitions from Soviet rule to independent statehood, restrictions on political and social activity, widening gaps between the rich and the poor, and new opportunities for social mobility and cultural expression. The essays on the varying beliefs and practices of Muslims across this wide region are especially informative. The volume contains illustrations and a listing of the contributors' backgrounds and qualifications.... Recommended." Choice
"[This] book... offers to the curious reader a better understanding of Central Asian people, their histories, and everyday livesa diversity of people who otherwise may have been conceptualized as a grey and anonymous mass, or, worse yet, as mere numbers." Irene Hilgers, H-Soyuz, October 2008
"This rich volume should... be commended for its comprehensible style making it accessible to nonspecialists in Central Asian societies and to virtually anyone interested in the region." Ab Imperio
Anara Tabyshalieva, Institute for Regional Studies, Kyrgyzstan
Robert O. Krikorian, George Washington University
"Sahadeo and Zanca have collected a large range of essays written in a clear and accessible style well suited as a textbook for undergraduate teaching or anyone interested in learning about the region." —Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
"[This] book... offers to the curious reader a better understanding of Central Asian people, their histories, and everyday lives—a diversity of people who otherwise may have been conceptualized as a grey and anonymous mass, or, worse yet, as mere numbers." —Irene Hilgers, H-Soyuz, October 2008
"[A]n excellent study.... Readers will be attracted to the richness of the collected stories about the social and cultural diversity of Central Asia. The book provides a sympathetic and insightful analysis of Central Asian societies that face common challenges in their transition to a better life. In sum, this innovative work is a significant contribution to various fields in Central Asian studies." —Anara Tabyshalieva, Institute for Regional Studies, Kyrgyzstan, SLAVIC AND EAST EUROPEAN JOURNAL, Vol. 53.1 Spring 2009
"[A]n excellent and compelling collection of essays.... [T]his book is a valuable addition to our understanding of not only a region heavily influenced by the Russian/Soviet colonial legacy, but also of the ways in which the everyday confronts often competing notions of identity." —Robert O. Krikorian, George Washington University, Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History e-jrnl, Vol. 9.3 Winter 2008
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Everyday Life in Central Asia
Past and Present
By Jeff Sahadeo, Russell Zanca
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2007 Indiana University
All rights reserved.
Turks and Tajiks in Central Asian History
In its modern context, the term Central Asia is most commonly used to refer to the ex-Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Each of these nation-states was established in the early part of the twentieth century, and each was assigned a name based upon the ethnic group that comprises the majority of the state's population. Significant numbers of these groups also live in the territory of northern Afghanistan and the Xinjiang province of eastern China. If there is one primary distinction that can be made among these peoples, it is that the Tajiks alone have an Indo-European heritage and speak a language closely related to the Persian (Farsi) of modern Iran. The four other Central Asian peoples (Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen) are all Turkic, which is to say that their languages belong to the Uralic-Altaic language family and they are therefore unrelated to the Tajiks. But identifying that simple distinction tells us little about what it means to be a Tajik, or what historically differentiates "Oghuz" Turks, such as the Turkmen, from "Qipchaq" Turks, such as the Kazakhs.
The ethnic identities of the modern Central Asian peoples largely became crystallized during the Soviet era, but their respective histories have unfolded over many centuries. Subsequent chapters of this volume will introduce readers to important aspects of everyday life in contemporary Central Asia. The purpose of this essay is to provide a brief survey of the lengthy historical processes that have gradually come together to shape the ethnic landscape of the region. The short discussion here can only introduce this complex topic. Readers whose interest in Central Asian history has been piqued are encouraged to refer to the list of references below.
To begin, it is important to recognize one of the defining features of Central Asian history: the relationship between pastoral-nomadic peoples of the steppe and the sedentary farming peoples of the agricultural oases to the south. Nomadic peoples by definition spend their lives migrating from one area to another, always working to ensure that their animals have adequate water and fresh pastures. Generally speaking, this precludes nomads from engaging in agricultural activities and leaves them dependent upon their sedentary neighbors for necessary foods (e.g., wheat for bread). Similarly, sedentary communities engage in farming and look to their nomadic neighbors for supplies of animals and animal products (e.g., wool for clothing). The relationship between these two peoples can therefore, at least to some extent, be characterized as symbiotic: they lived independently but needed each other to survive. Still, this relationship was not without its tensions. Throughout the course of Central Asian history, it is a recurrent theme that wave upon wave of pastoral-nomadic peoples have periodically quit the steppe to take up residence in a neighboring sedentary society. Any of a number of factors in the everyday life of a nomadic people might precipitate these frequently violent migrations. These include: a rise in population pressures in the steppe brought about by naturally increasing populations and demands for grazing territory in times of plenty; shifting climatic patterns that periodically render entire portions of the steppe uninhabitable for years at a time; and, of course, displacement caused by the migrations of other peoples from elsewhere. Additionally, events as unpredictable as a sudden freeze or an epidemic disease can devastate an entire herd, the sum of a tribe's wealth and the basis of their lives. It is not difficult to understand how such circumstances might motivate nomadic peoples to expand their territory elsewhere at the expense of another nomadic group, or to invade a sedentary society and forcibly take what is needed to stay alive.
CENTRAL ASIA'S IRANIAN HERITAGE
The Tajiks are not the earliest "aboriginal" inhabitants of Central Asia, but their ancestors have inhabited Central Asia far longer than any of the other nationalities listed above. Archeological evidence suggests that sometime around the year 2000 BCE, groups of Indo-Iranian tribes moved southward from what is today Russia and gradually emerged as the dominant ethnicity across both sedentary Central Asia and the steppe, either displacing those peoples who preceded them or absorbing them into their own societies. Iranian peoples retained a largely uncontested position in these areas for some 2500 years, giving rise to numerous vast nomadic confederations in the steppe as well as sedentary empires further to the south. These are the ancestors of the modern Tajiks.
Largely because of their persistent conflict with the Greeks and their inclusion in the narrative of the Hebrew bible, the historical record of the ancient Iranian peoples first becomes clear with the Achaemenid "Persian" Empire. In the early sixth century BCE, the Achaemenid dynasty emerged as a powerful state centered in the southern Fars province (Pars in Greek, hence "Persia") of modern Iran. By the middle of the century, the Achaemenid emperor Cyrus II had firmly established the groundwork for his Persian Empire and expanded his control in all directions. Cyrus was followed by Darius I (r. 522–486 BCE), celebrated in history as Darius the Great and credited with promoting the Zoroastrian religion and consolidating Persian authority over the lands of Central Asia.
Zoroastrianism is a dualistic faith that pits good against evil. Followers of the Avesta, the sacred Zoroastrian texts, worship light and fire as symbols of life, wisdom, and the great god of creation, Ahura Mazda. These are held in opposition to the darkness and corrupting evil of Angra Mainu. While it seems certain that the peoples of Central Asia had been exposed to the Zoroastrian faith by the fifth century BCE, the religion did not become formalized in a meaningful way until much later. This can at least partly be attributed to disruptions brought about by the Greek conquest of the Persian Empire under Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great, r. 336–323 BCE) and the centuries-long Greco-Persian interlude that followed. In general, Alexander and his Hellenistic successors exhibited a lack of interest in supporting Persian cultural traditions, such as the Zoroastrian religion.
In the third century of the Common Era, another Persian dynasty emerged in the Fars province and rapidly extended its control across the formerly Achaemenid lands, stretching from North Africa to the Indus River in modern Pakistan, and including the ethnically Iranian Soghdian citystates of Central Asia. In many ways, the Sasanian era (224–651 CE) represents a pre-Islamic "Persian Renaissance." The Sasanians portrayed themselves as the heirs of the Achaemenid Persian tradition, and they rallied their Persian subjects to purge the Hellenistic (and other) influences that had been incorporated into Persian culture during the five centuries since Alexander's conquests. Toward this end, the Sasanians sponsored Zoroastrianism as the classical "Persian" religion, and they elevated it to an esteemed position across their empire. During these centuries, Zoroastrian practices were popularized, codified, and made more uniform.
Although some practices in Central Asia differed significantly from those in Iran, the Zoroastrian cultural heritage of Central Asia remains the ancient Persians' most apparent legacy in the region, and it has proven to be extraordinarily persistent among the descendants of the ancient Persians and also the Turkic Muslims of modern Central Asia, comparatively recent migrants into the region. This is most notable in the popular celebration of the ancient Zoroastrian holiday of Nau Ruz [Navruz] (literally "New Day"), an annual celebration of the vernal (spring) equinox, the day on which the amount of darkness and sunlight are equal as the world emerges from the cold slumber of winter and awakens to the approaching summer. While Nau Ruz has no foundation in Islamic theology, its annual occurrence is much anticipated in modern Central Asia and it is arguably the most widely celebrated holiday in the region. Special dishes are carefully prepared (sumalak for women and khalim for men), and children are entertained with traditional games, competitions, and pageantry.
Appreciating that Zoroastrian traditions have informed aspects of everyday life in Central Asia for well over 1,500 years, we should not overstate the Sasanians' cultural influence and political authority over the Soghdian Central Asian city-states. As a confessional faith, Zoroastrianism proved to have only a weak hold over the peoples of Iran and Central Asia. With the rise of Islam in the early seventh century and the subsequent Arab-Muslim conquests of the Sasanian Empire, Persian state-sponsorship of Zoroastrianism was withdrawn, Zoroastrian institutions fell into decay, and with few exceptions (e.g., the Parsis of India), adherents gradually came to identify themselves as Muslims. In the centuries prior to this, the Soghdians are known to have boasted a largely independent and unique society with a highly active commercial culture. This can be attributed to another defining feature of everyday life in Central Asia: the region's position at the hub of a vast network of trans-Eurasian caravan routes that connected virtually all of the classical civilizations of Europe and Asia.
It was in the early centuries BCE that the east-west "Silk Road" trade in luxury goods from China and India first rose to prominence, and in subsequent centuries the Soghdians developed a vibrant merchant diaspora with communities dispersed across much of Asia. From their central location in the oasis towns of Central Asia, Soghdian merchants mediated the trans-Eurasian trade in all varieties of valuable commodities and bulk goods. These included especially precious stones from the Pamirs and Hindu Kush mountain ranges, Central Asian slaves, horses from their nomadic neighbors in the steppe, Siberian furs, precious metals from the Mediterranean, and fine porcelain and countless bolts of silk from China. Soghdian towns grew as commercial centers large and small, equipped with numerous caravanserais and bazaars where local goods were sold alongside merchandise from across Asia and the Mediterranean. The Soghdian merchant diaspora also participated in the transmission of religious traditions across much of Asia. Soghdian communities in China commonly adopted Buddhism, while Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, and Judaism all enjoyed popularity in Central Asia in this period.
As observed above, in the ancient period, the nomadic peoples of the steppe were predominantly Iranian. However, as the Soghdian civilization flourished in sedentary Central Asia, a new group of nomadic peoples emerged in the steppe. In the middle of the fifth century, a confederation of Turkic tribes from around the eastern Altai Mountains moved westward and began to exert pressure on the various Iranian steppe nomadic groups. From the middle of the sixth century, as the Iranian groups migrated in large numbers into India, Turkic tribes replaced them as the dominant population of the pastoral-nomadic steppe. The Turk Qaghanate (also referred to as the Kök Turk Empire, or the First and Second Turk Empires, ruling from 552–659 and 682–744, respectively) exercised control over a vast domain extending from the Black Sea to Mongolia. In the 560s, the Kök Turk Empire—in collaboration with the Sasanians—invaded Central Asia and divided the territory between them. This Turko-Persian alliance was short-lived, however, as lucrative commercial interests in the Mediterranean quickly led the Turks to turn against the Sasanians in favor of Byzantium, the Persians' Greek rivals to the west. Soon thereafter, the Turks moved further south and asserted political authority over the Soghdian city-states. Although this period did not see significant Turkic migration into the sedentary areas of Central Asia and its impact on the everyday lives of Central Asian peoples was limited, it was a momentous event that marks the beginning of the long process of Turkic migration into Central Asia—a process that has gradually led to the emergence of Turkic peoples as the dominant populations in the formerly Iranian stretches of sedentary Central Asia. For the time being, however, Turkic migration southward was stalled: first in the mid-seventh century by the westward expansion of the Chinese T'ang Dynasty (617–906), and more directly in the early eighth century by the arrival in Central Asia of a conquering force of Arab Muslim armies.
Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, died in Arabia in the year 632, and just two years later the second Caliph ("Successor"), Umar (r. 634–644), led the Arab troops to victory over the Sasanians at the Battle of Qadisiyya. The Persians lost their capital of Ctesiphon, near modern Baghdad, and were forced to retreat from what is now Iraq. By the year 651 the Arab troops had extended their control over virtually all of Persia, reaching even as far as the Amu Darya, and the Sasanian Empire was eliminated. The Arab conquest of the Soghdian principalities began in the year 709, when Qutayba bin Muslim, the governor of Khurasan (northeastern Iran), organized the first Arab raids of Bukhara. In succeeding years the Muslim armies turned their attention to Khwarezm [Khorezm] and then Soghdiana, thereby inserting the emerging Arab power into a tripartite struggle for dominance in Central Asia that involved the Muslim Arabs, the T'ang Chinese, and a number of competing groups of Turkic tribes. The Chinese had just a few years earlier defeated the Second Turk Empire when, in the year 749, a Chinese army crossed the Tien Shan Mountains and asserted authority over the Ferghana Valley (in the southeast corner of modern Uzbekistan). The Arab Muslims had meanwhile extended their influence eastward as far as Tashkent. In 751, the struggle between these two remaining superpowers culminated northeast of Tashkent at the Battle of Talas. As the Arab-backed troops of Tashkent faced off against the Chinesebacked troops of Ferghana, a number of Turkic tribes defected from their Chinese patrons, and the Arab side was victorious. The T'ang were pushed back to the east, and it would be a thousand years before another Chinese dynasty would again exert its influence westward across the Tien Shan. Islam emerged as a dominant force in the new Arab province of Mawarannahr ("that which lies beyond the river," an Arabic version of the earlier Greek "Transoxania").
Mawarannahr was placed under a series of Arab regional governors in the early years of the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258). Consolidation of caliphal control over the region was difficult at first, but was considerably advanced as the aristocratic Central Asian landlords rapidly embraced Islam and professed their allegiance to the Sunni Muslim caliph in Baghdad. Already in the ninth century, Central Asia produced its first Islamic ruling family, the Samanids (819–1005), an Iranian dynasty from near Termiz that had converted to Islam earlier in the eighth century. The Samanids gradually rose in power, and in the year 875 political expediency led the Abbasids to recognize them as the official rulers of both Mawarannahr and Khurasan. The Samanids earned a reputation as enlightened Muslim rulers, and their era is considered to have been one of prosperity and great support for literature and scholarship. In this period Central Asia produced such illustrious scholars as Jafar Muhammad al-Khwarezmi, author of al-Jabr (The Reduction), the basis for the mathematical field of algebra (al-Khwarezmi's name has also been memorialized in the English word "algorithm," meaning a decimal calculation); Ibn Sina, known to his contemporaries as the Prince of Physicians and famous in Europe as Avicenna, author of the authoritative encyclopedic medical resource, The Canon of Medicine; and the famed astronomer al-Biruni, who in the eleventh century—some 500 years before Galileo—turned his keen mind to the stars and calculated that the Earth did indeed revolve around the Sun.
The Samanids' legacy in the arts and sciences was great, but their greatest achievement was arguably their synthesis of the Islamic faith with Persian language and culture. After two centuries of Arabic dominance, the Samanids rehabilitated the Persian language as an Islamic literary language in Central Asia and Iran. In subsequent centuries, this would greatly facilitate the process of Islamization across the region and lay the foundation for Central Asia—especially the Samanid capital of Bukhara—to emerge as a great center of Islamic civilization. It should be noted that the spread of Islam in this period was not limited to the sedentary areas: through their proselytizing missionary activities, wandering Muslim mystics (Sufis) even promoted the expansion of Islam among the nomadic peoples of the steppe.
Excerpted from Everyday Life in Central Asia by Jeff Sahadeo, Russell Zanca. Copyright © 2007 Indiana University. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jeff Sahadeo is Assistant Professor, Institute of European and Russian Studies and Department of Political Science, Carleton University, Ottawa. He is author of Russian Colonial Society in Tashkent, 1865–1923 (IUP, 2006).
Russell Zanca is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Northeastern Illinois University. He is author of The Big Cotton Collective: Uzbeks after Socialism.
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