I have been interested in the Fergana valley since 1990 when the outside world barely noticed another local bout of rioting between different ethnic groups. Then as now, something almost as depressing as the actual violence was the complete lack of attention by the outside world. Last June, news outlets "covered" the riots through correspondents based no closer than Moscow, without even a presence on the ground in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, a hundred kilometers from the riots themselves (and yet journalists come and go within Iraq and Afghanistan with impunity). Reader comments online are a malarial swamp of apathy, ignorance and trolling interrupted by the occasional impassioned local whose weak command of English and obvious bias toward one faction only seemed to rationalize the trolls.
This is, without exaggerating, one of the oldest consistently settled and civilized areas on earth. Its documented history predates Classical Greece and Rome, and it was a cultural powerhouse while the West wallowed in medieval ignorance. But cities like Osh and Jalalabad may as well be on Mars from the average Westerner's perspective. Small or nonexistent as the audience might be, this is a quiet protest against such willful ignorance and apathy.
Into the Valley
Glance at a map of "the 'Stans", as the American press has nicknamed the five countries of ex-Soviet Central Asia...
Central Asia. Copyright 2002, CIA World Factbook.
Click to Enlarge.
(Note: the Aral Sea as shown here is a relic.
Today, it's basically gone except for the northern tip.)
Click to Enlarge.
(Note: the Aral Sea as shown here is a relic.
Today, it's basically gone except for the northern tip.)
...and you see lots of straight lines. Long straight borders are rare in most European or Asian countries because their national identities were formed by centuries of wars, conquests, defeats and migrations. This was a brutal and messy process, and it shows in these countries' borders, which tend to look random and natural.
Straight lines on a map usually mean one of two things. It may be the sign of a wasteland with few people or resources worth fighting over, making it easy for neighbors to mark a boundary with no fuss or muss. Less pleasantly, straight lines can be the finished result of total imperial conquest and colonization with no regard to the previous cultural landscape by the conquerors. Maybe the native levels of technology and organization were too outclassed to resist (like in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East), or maybe the natives were killed off either deliberately in mass-murder or accidentally by new diseases that arrived with the conquerors (like the states, provinces and territories in Australia and North America with their grid-like borders). Wars in Europe and Asia tend to be more evenly matched and end with boundaries more like those of Croatia or Thailand than Saskatchewan or Wyoming. Central Asia's many straight borders meet both explanations: much of it is barren, and the whole area was conquered by imperial Russia in the late 1800s.
But the straight lines disappear in Central Asia's southeastern corner where three countries – Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan – meet up in a weird jumble of loops and hooks. Look closely enough and you even see enclaves, tiny bits of each country's turf that are physically cut off from the main body and surrounded by the territory of a neighboring country. This area is certainly no barren waste either; its twelve million people account for about a quarter of these three countries' populations, making it the only part of Central Asia with serious rural population density, like a patch of India or China that was accidentally outsourced to the Mideast or the American Southwest.
This nightmare of painful map-making is the Fergana valley. (Different spellings like Ferghana and Fargona show up in different sources depending on where and when they were published, but Fergana is emerging as the standard in English).
The valley's natural borders show much more clarity and sanity than its current geopolitical borders. This eye-shaped bowl of land is almost completely surrounded by several distinct mountain chains, all part of either the Tien Shan range to the north or the Pamirs to the south. Both of these, in turn, belong to the same wrinkly geological mess as the Himalayas.
The valley's geography and climate were millions of years in the making. Over the last eighty million years, India quit its previous life as an island and drifted north into mainland Asia, crushing and wrinkling the seabed between the two landmasses. Gradually but unstoppably, yesteryear's ocean floor became the modern world's Plateau of Tibet and all the surrounding mountain chains, including the world's tallest. Before this happened, much of Central Asia had been a huge grassland, a giant Iowa or Ukraine, watered by humid monsoon airs rolling off the Indian Ocean. Today, those mountain ranges act like a wall and trap that moisture to the south over Bangladesh and northern India, literally the rainiest places on earth, while the prehistoric grasslands to the north live in constant thirst all the way north to frozen Siberia.
The Fergana valley's was driven by its strategic location along the northern branch of the Silk Road, the ancient caravan routes that connected China, India, Persia and the West to each other. Smaller oases along the Silk Road each have isolated single cities – Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan, Merv (near ancient Mary) in Turkmenistan, Kashgar and Aksu in northwestern China's autonomous region of Xinjiang – but these oases are dwarfed in size by the Fergana valley.
At about 22,000 square kilometers – I prefer metric, with apologies to my countrymen – the valley is hardly enormous but is still much larger than any single oasis, comparable in size to Vermont, Sardinia or (closer to my home) half of Upper Michigan. The valley is big enough to hold many good-sized cities, all quite old: Andijon, Namangan, Khokand and Fergana itself, all in Uzbekistan in the interior; Khujand in Tajikstan to the west; and Osh and Jalalabad in Kyrgyzstan to the east.
The valley gets little rain but is kept watered and fertile by melting snows in the surrounding mountains. Check a satellite view, and the valley's lush greenness contrasts sharply with the surrounding wastes. The mountain streams form two medium-sized rivers that flow into the valley's western tip where they join to become the Syr Darya river, one of the two great rivers of Central Asia. It and its bigger sister to the south, the Amu Darya, run parallel for a thousand kilometers to the northwest like a giant Central Asian version of Mesopotamia, only with scattered oases like Samarkand and Bukhara between them instead of a single giant floodplain like Sumeria or Babylonia. The two big rivers once ended as huge river deltas which fed into the landlocked Aral Sea, but over-irrigation and climate change have drained the two rivers to mere trickles, shrinking the Aral into a few tiny brackish lakes. With the Aral Sea and the two deltas gone, the Fergana valley is the unchallenged garden spot of Central Asia.
From the Land to the People
The valley has been densely settled through all of recorded history. Ages ago, the first humans almost certainly arrived by moving up the course of the Syr Darya river, the least difficult entrance to the valley. To ancient nomads who had just crossed some of the most godforsaken country on earth, the mere sight of so much greenery and fresh water must have been rapturous. We can never know for sure, but the valley may well have inspired Asia's best known legends of earthly paradises like Olmolungring and Shambhala (and their modern Western-invented rip-off, Shangri-La).
Writing a detailed "names and dates" account of the valley's long history is beyond my abilities and not the point of this screed. Let's just say that empires have come and gone, and the valley has moved in and out of the cultural orbit of different civilizations, be it China or India or Persia, many times in its long history. Even the Ancient Greeks reached this distant corner of the world. This was the easternmost conquest of Alexander the Great back in the fourth century BC. Just like in every other part of his huge empire, Alexander built a new city in the southwestern corner of the Fergana valley and modestly named it Alexandria. This Alexandria, the easternmost of them all, was destroyed centuries later, but the modern city of Khujand in Tajikistan sits upon its ashes.
At the broadest ethnic level, most people in Central Asia in general and the Fergana valley in particular are either Turkic or Iranian, with a small but diverse "everyone else" category that includes the area's remaining Russians. The overall histories of these groups and their relationship to each other can be explained without bogging down too badly in the details of specific battles, conquests, and leaders. Following chronological order means starting with the Iranian peoples.
Persia's Northern Outpost
Going back almost three thousand years to the beginning of local recorded history, most of the people in Central Asia and the adjacent steppes of southern Russia and Ukraine were originally, broadly speaking, Iranian. To ordinary folks, the name implies a very specific link to modern Iran, but to scholars who study ethnic identities, the label Iranian simply refers to a family of related languages that are all native to parts of southwestern Asia.
(If you'll pardon a short tangent, the Iranian languages are just one branch of a much bigger family of distantly related languages, Indo-European, which includes most languages spoken in modern Europe and much of southern and western Asia. English belongs to another branch of Indo-European, the Germanic (or Teutonic) branch, along with German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages. Indo-European has many other branches: the Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, and others, all descended from ancient Latin), the Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, and others), the Indo-Aryan languages (Sanskrit and its modern relatives like Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi and literally dozens of others spoken in India and Pakistan), the Celtic languages (Irish and Scots Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton), the Baltic languages (Lithuanian and Latvian), and the three "stand-alones" – Greek, Armenian, and Albanian – who each have no other close living linguistic kin. Even without memorizing all that, you can see that a deep and ancient familial bond ties together hundreds of distinct languages scattered across much of western Eurasia. Scholars first pieced together this relationship in the 1700s when knowledge of the past was still filtered through the Old Testament. Back then, this was all taken as evidence of descent from Noah after the Flood, and one early alternate name for the Indo-European family was the "Japhetic" family because these languages supposedly marked the offspring of Noah's son Japheth, while his brothers Shem and Ham were ancestral to other languages, logically known as the Semitic and Hamitic families. But that's a whole other essay.)
Anyway, by far the most popular modern Iranian language is Farsi (the national speech Iran itself, logically, though only about half of Iran's diverse people actually speak Farsi as their first language). A belt of smaller Iranian languages closely related to Farsi extends east of Iran across Afghanistan, western Pakistan, and into the southern edge of ex-Soviet Central Asia. West of the Persian heartland, the Kurds – whose homeland straddles Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria – also speak a distinct Iranian language. For certain, at some point I will write about one of the smallest and most geographically remote Iranian peoples: the Ossetians, whose homeland in the Caucasus mountains was cut in two by Stalin and divided between Russia and Georgia.
Most of these peoples, especially in Iran and Afghanistan, see themselves as the living heirs to the cultural legacy of ancient Persia. Persia was the closest of the great early civilizations to Central Asia and had the strongest impact upon its history and cultures until the last three hundred years. The southern part of Central Asia was an integral part of Persia for thousands of years and even contributed some ruling dynasties to the Persian Empire. One of the biggest was the Parthians (Rome's chief enemy during the Roman Empire's early heyday) whose homeland was in modern Turkmenistan.
The specific Iranian people most relevant to the story of the Fergana valley are the Tajiks. There are actually more ethnic Tajiks in northern Afghanistan (seven million, over a quarter of the population) than in Tajikistan itself (six million, four-fifths of its people). The modern border between the two countries is an awkward legacy of the nineteenth century Great Game, which I'll mention later. At least a million more Tajiks live to the north and west in Uzbekistan, and I'll come back to that too.
Of the five national languages in ex-Soviet Central Asia, Tajik is the only Iranian language. The other four all belong to a more recent arrival in the region: the Turkic family.
I will almost certainly ramble on about the Turkic language family and its history in detail sometime, but that's several essays in itself. Turkic languages are not Indo-European and so are completely unrelated to Tajik, though Turkic and Iranian peoples have been neighbors for centuries and frequently intermarry. Over the last thousand years, many nations and civilizations in Central Asia have had dual Turkic-Iranian cultural identities. At the risk of repeating this same message too much, ethnicity and language were not as important, certainly not as divisive, in this part of the world until the rise
The ultimate origins of the Turkic peoples are far to the north and east of the Fergana valley in what's now Siberia, Mongolia and Chinese Xinjiang. Turkic languages are not Indo-European and hence are completely unrelated to Iranian languages like Tajik (although the two groups have lived as neighbors for centuries, in peace more often than in war). Like Indo-European, the Turkic group split long ago into different branches with many specific languages in each branch. Over time, Turkic peoples migrated to many different parts of Eurasia. In the West, the most familiar Turkic people are of course the Turks (the people of Turkey itself), who account for two-fifths of everyone who claims a Turkic ethno-linguistic identity. Out of the huge and far-flung Turkic family, three branches and five distinct ethnic groups are directly relevant to Central Asia.
Both figuratively and literally, the Uzbeks are at the center of Central Asia. Uzbekistan only ranks third in size out of the five 'Stans, but Uzbeks are the most numerous local ethnic group by a comfortable margin. More than twenty-one million Uzbeks live within Uzbekistan itself (four-fifths of its people), and another two or three million more are scattered across adjacent parts of the other ex-Soviet 'Stans, with another million in northern Afghanistan. Of all Turkic peoples, Uzbeks are the only serious demographic competition to the eighty million Turks themselves.
Within the Turkic family, Uzbeks belong specifically to the Southeastern or Uygur branch. (The group's namesake, the Uygur people of northwestern China, got the group name because they have a longer-established identity despite being outnumbered by their Uzbek cousins.) The ancestors of the Uygurs and Uzbeks were the first Turkic peoples to reach Central Asia, arriving from the northeast back in the 600s. It was these early Turkic tribes who pulled Central Asia out of Persia's cultural orbit over the next several centuries. This process sped up after Central Asia was conquered by Genghis Khan in the early 1200s.
By about six hundred years ago, a local Turkic language called Chagatai became the court language of the last strong local power in Central Asia. Known today as the Timurid Empire, it was founded in 1370 by a distant descendent of Genghis Khan's named Timur, better known in the West as Tamerlane. Chagatai became a sophisticated and elegant literary language thanks mostly to a brilliant poet and statesman known by the pen name of Nava'i, "the weeper." Chagatai is the mother tongue of modern Uzbek, just as Italian is the modern descendent of Latin, and Uzbeks revere both Timur and Nava'i as Uzbek national founding figures (though Uzbeks prefer the spellings Temur and Navoiy, names as visible in Uzbekistan as Washington and Lincoln are in America).
A different group of Turkic languages, the Southwestern or Oghuz branch, spread across Asia starting in the eighth century. Oghuz tribes cut all the way through to the Middle East and left Central Asia almost entirely in their dust. A few even reached the Persian heartland, where their descendents survive as obscure minority groups hidden in the nooks and crannies of modern Iran. More powerful Oghuz tribes like the Seljuks and Osmanli (or Ottomans, as Europeans called them) built their own empires in southwestern Asia starting in the 900s. The Turkish people themselves and the Azeri people of Azerbaijan both claim direct descent from these original Oghuz Turkic conquerors. The Turkish and Azeri languages are so similar that the two peoples can carry on simple conversations without formal translation, and non-Turkic neighbors like the Armenians rarely distinguish between the two and refer to both interchangeably simply as Turks.
After Turkish and Azeri, the third biggest Oghuz Turkic language is Turkmen or Turcoman, the national language of Turkmenistan. Considering that oil-rich Azerbaijan and highly industrialized Turkey are the two wealthiest Turkic states, this close linguistic tie would probably be a big advantage for Turkmenistan's young and struggling economy, if it weren't for the sad fact that Turkmenistan's first two presidents have been paranoid, corrupt, isolationist, egomaniacal dictators cut from the same fabric as Kim Jong-Il or, for that matter, Stalin. Five and a half million Turkmen – seven-eighths of the country's people – live in Turkmenistan itself, with another million apiece in Iran and Afghanistan.
The third and last major Turkic branch to arrive in Central Asia was the Northwestern or Kipchak branch. Back in the 1200s, the original Kipchak tribes (or Kypchak, Qypchak, etc.) were the majority of Genghis Khan's armies, outnumbering the true ethnic Mongols. Kipchak Turkic languages are still spoken by many minority groups in different parts of modern Eastern Europe and western Russia, including the Crimean Tatars, whom I discussed recently. Three Kipchak languages are popular in Central Asia: Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Karakalpak.
Kazakh is the biggest of the three in both numbers and area; it's the official language of Kazakhstan, the second-biggest ex-Soviet country after Russia and the ninth-largest in the whole world, with sixteen times the area of my native Wisconsin but less than three times as many people. Besides the ten million Kazakhs in huge but empty Kazakhstan, another four million live in adjacent parts of Russia, China and the other 'Stans. During the Soviet heyday in the Sixties, Kazakhs were actually outnumbered by ethnic Russians in their own homeland. Millions of Russians moved back to Russia after the USSR broke up, but Kazakhs are still less than two-thirds of Kazakhstan's sixteen million people today. The relationship between the two ethnic groups is complicated and sometimes strained but has avoided violence so far.
The Kyrgyz – I sometimes slip and use the Cold War spelling Kirghiz – are the second-biggest Kipchak Turkic ethnic group. Kyrgyz mostly live in the small mountainous country that is usually called Kyrgyzstan even though it legally changed its name back in '93 to just the Kyrgyz Republic. Besides the not-quite four million Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan, another few hundred thousand live just over the border in China, with smaller Kyrgyz minorities in the other 'Stans. They were about seven-tenths of Kyrgyzstan's population before the June 2010 riots, but their share probably grew after the riots when thousands of Uzbeks left the country. The Siberian ancestors of the Kyrgyz actually spoke a non-Kipchak Turkic language, but centuries of close contact with the Kazakhs in Central Asia has essentially transplanted the Kyrgyz language into the Kipchak branch of the family.
The third Kipchak group in Central Asia, the Karakalpaks, don't directly involve the Fergana valley but are interesting enough for a one-paragraph detour. Their long name literally means "black hats", but no one even remembers what the cultural significance of black hats used to be. Their homeland – the ex-southern shore of the ex-Aral Sea around the ex-Amu Darya delta – is now one of the world's worst environmental disaster areas. The old seabed is now a toxic salt pan saturated by chemicals from Soviet irrigation. Our DDT was amateur hour compared to Soviet pesticides and fertilizers; they even tested chemical and biological weapons on an island in mid-sea that is now part of the mainland. Life expectancy is low, infant mortality is high, rates of congenital birth defects and respiratory diseases are out of control, and the loss of fishing and other sea-related livelihoods has left the region without jobs. The place is a dismal wreck. Despite having closer ties to the Kazakhs, Stalin gave the area to Soviet Uzbekistan, probably for the sake of giving Uzbekistan access to the Aral Sea back when that meant anything. Karakalpakstan covers Uzbekistan's westernmost third and looks substantial on a map but has only one-twentieth of Uzbekistan's entire population. It inherited the Soviet-era status of an autonomous republic with its own government, flag and laws, but its political and cultural autonomy exist only on paper. Karakalpakstan's people are a roughly equal three-way mix of Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Karakalpaks.
Wrapping up this first section marks a good point to add just a few words about religion. As the riots were breaking out and the outside world barely noticed, online comments by foreigners who could barely find their own state or country on a world map tended to summarize this as "Muslim-on-Muslim violence," but religion plays almost no role in this mess. Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are both traditionally Muslims. Most belong to the same specific school of Sunni Islam, the Hanafi, with small Sufi and Ismail minorities. Islam came to Central Asia from the southwest in the early 700s about a century after the first Turkic tribes arrived from the northeast. During the Middle Ages, cities like Bukhara and Samarkand were famous throughout the Muslim world (and beyond) as centers of high culture.
By the twentieth century, the region was an integral part of the Muslim world (but also had an ancient and very distinctive Jewish community, though most have since emigrated to Israel or the West). The whole region endured seventy years of mandatory Soviet atheism, and religious observance in the cities especially took a big hit. Like the rest of the ex-USSR, local interest in religion has revived since the Soviet Union broke up. Governments have tolerated Islamic revivals within the context of national identities reasserting themselves after a century of Russian rule, but all five regimes are staunchly secular and, to some degree or another, live in dread of Islamic fundamentalism. A radical Islamist insurgency, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, has made some noise since the late Nineties, but the recent riots are not directly related to religion in any way. Whether or not radicals will exploit the violence to push their own agenda in the future is another matter.
There is one historic religious difference that is worth mentioning in the context of the Fergana valley. The city-dwelling ancestors of today's Tajiks and Uzbeks mostly converted to Islam a thousand years ago or more, but the nomads – Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Turkmen and Karakalpaks – resisted Islam for much longer. Kazakhs and Kyrgyz were still mostly pagans as recently as the 1700s and are still prone to certain pre-Islamic habits that Uzbeks regard with contempt (including one custom that lapsed during Soviet times but is becoming a serious social problem in rural Kyrgyzstan today: bride abduction).
The next post will take matters into slightly more recent times.
End part one of (probably) three.