Behind Soviet Muslims' growing vitality, visible even in newspaper stories of recent months, lies a grand legacy of ancient and medieval culture.
Descended from some of the world's most powerful peoples - the redoubtable archers and horsemen of Attila, Timur (Tamerlane) and Genghis Khan - the Muslims of the USSR occupy an area of the world that, throughout history, has been both a communications hub and a garden of high civilizations, which flowered in the glittering caravan cities of the Silk Roads. (See Aramco World , July-August 1988)
Much of the region's turbulent history has stemmed from competition for control of these lucrative trade routes and the fortress towns and agricultural centers that, as early as the eighth century BC, developed at oases along them. Many citizens of these ancient towns were former nomads, converted by economic necessity or lured by urban comforts to take up the settled life.
The Persian Achaemenids, including Cyrus the Great, Xerxes and three rulers named Darius, were the first to establish an empire in what today is Iran; it extended over parts of Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Their empire dates back to 559 BC.
Between 330 and 327 BC, Alexander the Great overthrew the Achaemenids as he conquered most of the land from the Mediterranean to the Indus River valley of India. When he marched into Central Asia, such cities as Samarkand and Bukhara were already flourishing trade centers.
Following Alexander's death in Babylon, his empire was divided up among his generals. The general who won control of the eastern part founded the Seleucid dynasty, but the sheer size of the territory made it difficult to rule. In the more remote areas, particularly in Central Asia, native aristocrats took matters into their own hands, and by the middle of the third century BC Iranian chieftains had staged a successful revolt in Parthia.
Mithradites II came to the Parthian throne in 124 BC, and during his reign he conquered Babylon and extended the empire's sway northward along the Euphrates River. He made contact with both China and Rome and established Parthia as middleman in the rich East-West trade.
Parthian power began to wane in the second century of this era. Part of the resulting power vacuum in Central Asia was filled by the-Kushans, a semi-nomadic tribe that encouraged commerce by protecting the trade routes through the Pamirs and the caravan centers of Bukhara, Merv and Samarkand.
The third century Sassanian revolution in Iran brought dynamic new leadership to the region, and by the fourth century the Sassanians had wrested control of Central Asia from the Kushans and reimposed a central authority over the Silk Roads.
But by the middle of the sixth century new disturbances had broken out on the steppes of Central Asia, and once again central authority over the trade routes was lacking. Trade continued, however, partly as a result of the activities of city dwelling minorities, such as the Sogdians, whose communities provided secure settings for the exchange of goods.
At this stage a new group of steppe nomads suddenly appeared: the Turks. Their origins, like those of nearly all Central Asian peoples, are shrouded in mystery and legend. Chinese historians say their origins were connected with the late Huns, but there is no real evidence to support this theory, and the opinions of contemporary researchers differ. The story favored by the Turks themselves centers around a youth – the sole survivor of a tribal massacre-and the 10 sons he begot, one of whom, A-shin-na, founded the line which in turn, several generations later, gave rise to the Turks.
The Turks, whose name means "forceful" or "strong," are first mentioned in Chinese annals in the third century BC, but it was not until the sixth century that they became a force to be reckoned with. Their homeland was in the Altai mountain range in present-day Mongolia, where they were originally a subject people of the Juan-Juan, whom they served as blacksmiths and ironworkers.
The rise of the world's first Turkic empire, typically for the steppelands, revolved around a single charismatic personality - in this case that of Bumin, who challenged the Juan-Juan overlordship by requesting a Juan-Juan princess in marriage.
In AD 552, allied with forces from the Western Wei, the Turks destroyed the Juan-Juan state and subjugated their other, nomadic, neighbors to become uncontested masters of the Mongolian steppe. In the west they conquered Central Asia and reached the Volga; in the east their power extended to the Yellow River. It was the first time so great an expanse of Asia had come under the control of a single ethnic group.
By 565, the Turks had extended their sway over most of the main caravan cities of Central Asia, including Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, and controlled the Silk Roads. Between the sixth and seventh centuries, the Turkic Empire split into eastern and western segments. Weakened by internecine wars, the East Turkic Umpire became a protectorate of the Chinese Sui dynasty.
Then, in the seventh century, the Umayyad Arabs, centered in Damascus, swept east under the banner M Islam and conquered Central Asia, including the West Turkic Empire.
The swiftness of the early Arab conquests was astonishing; scarcely two decades after the death of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam in AD632, the entire Near Hast hail fallen to the Arabs..
In 651, the last Sassanian shah, Yazdagird, was killed at Merv; the Sassanian dynasty was at an end and the Arabs' way to Central Asia lay open. It was some time, however, before they turned their attention to the territory across the Oxus River and the cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent now under the influence of the Sogdians, who had come loan uneasy alliance with the Turks.
Arab soldiers initially crossed the Oxus, now the Amu Darya in Soviet Uzbekistan, in 654, but it was not until 705, when Qutaiba ibn Muslim became the Umayyad governor of Khorasan, that the Arabs achieved real success in Central Asia. In the following decade Qutaiba subjugated the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, and by the end of the Umayyad period in 750 most of Central Asia had been incorporated into the Islamic realm.
This conquest put the Muslims on a collision course with China, which was also in the midst of a vigorous period of expansion.
The two powers met for the first and only time in 751, at Talas near Tashkent (See Aramco World , September-October 1982), in a battle which determined which of the two civilizations, the Chinese or the Muslim, would dominate Central Asia. Aided by the Turks, the Muslim Arabs won.
During the seventh and eighth centuries the Islamic hegemony left an indelible imprint on the region south of the Aral Sea. The teachings of the Prophet rapidly superseded other religions, and Islamic customary law took firm root. The whole of Central Asia was influenced by Islamic tradition and practice from the ninth century onward; by the middle of the 10th century Islam had become the only religion of the vast region, and Central Asia had become one of the world's most verdant and influential centers of culture.
Although many strong traditions of pre-Islamic Turkic culture were stubbornly preserved, most of the Turkic peoples embraced Islam during the 11th and 12th centuries. Indeed, the Turks of Central Asia came to be among Islam's main champions. As they fanned out across the steppe, tribal divisions among them had become more pronounced, and several Turkish tribes now had kingdoms of their own, the Seljuqs among them. In the 11th century, under the banner of Islam, the Seljuq Turks swept west into Asia Minor, which makes up most of today's Turkey.
Meanwhile, in the Last, a group of tribes from northeastern Mongolia, who traced their origins back to the forests of the Amur River basin, began a remarkable rise under their leader Genghis Khan. They were the Mongols. Early in the 13th century, they successfully laid siege to Bukhara and Samarkand, and became the new rulers of Central Asia.
At its zenith, the Mongol Empire was one of the largest the world has ever known stretching from the Pacific to the Danube and from Siberia to Burma. Genghis Khan and his successors ruled the massive empire by force, but also with considerable skill and with tolerance for its assorted cultures. Their diligent patronage of trade encouraged merchants, pilgrims and travelers - among whom the best known is Marco Polo.
The united Mongol Empire was, however, short lived. The Tatars - Turkic troops lighting under Genghin Khan - occupied the Crimea. Kazaks, descended from Turkic and Mongol tribes, settled in the vast steppelands south of Siberia. Uzbek Turks occupied the semi-desert and oasis system on the southern rim of the present-day Soviet Union, while the Turkmen roamed the deserts east of the Caspian Sea and the Azeris settled on its western shores.
Nonetheless, the dream of Asian empire was not dead: A final dramatic chapter of Central Asian history was written in the 14th century by the Timurids. Timur, the dynasty's founder, known in the West as Tamerlane, claimed to be a descendant of Genghis Khan, and was one of the most successful warriors the world has ever known. In a series of military campaigns, Timur conquered all of Asia from the Great Wall of China to the Urals and made Samarkand his capital -embellishing it with buildings sheathed in millions of blue-glazed tiles which, even today, give the city a distinct character all its own.
Timur's descendants made Samarkand a center of science and art. His grandson Ulugh Beg, using an enormous sextant set in a hillside overlooking the city, plotted, without the aid of a telescope, the positions of over 1,000 stars. The royal astronomer also built and lectured at the first of a trio of great religious colleges which today command three of the four sides of the Registan - considered to be architecturally Central Asia's noblest square.
Timur's successors, however, lacked the authority of their ancestor, and were unable to hold together the vast steppe empire he had created. Tribes revolted and political instability set in - followed by a curtailment of trade, of economic depression and cultural decline.
In 1500 Uzbek tribes overwhelmed Samarkand and by 1507 they had driven the Timurid dynasty into obscurity. Nonetheless, the brilliant artistic legacy of the Timurids - in calligraphy, poetry, metalwork, bookbinding and a broad range of other arts, as well as in architecture - has survived for centuries, and in careful restorations now under way in the USSR, as well as in museum exhibitions in the United States and Europe, is receiving tin recognition it deserves.
Weak and disorganized, Central Asia was no longer capable of playing an important role in history, or even of maintaining its independence. In the 1800's, the Russians began to advance into Central Asia. By 1900, they had conquered it all.
Finally, in 1927, the Soviets - successors of the Russian empire after the communist revolution of 1917, and in complete physical control overall lands inhabited by Muslims in the USSR - divided the area. In place of one cultural entity called Turkestan, they created six republics, naming them after the Muslim nationalities which, despite Central Asia's ever-changing fortunes, still remain its majority population today.
Contributing editor John Lawton is a veteran foreign correspondent who has lived in and covered the Middle East, Turkey and Eastern Europe for 15 years for UPI. He studied Soviet affairs in Columbia University's Advanced International Reporting Program in New York and, more recently, traveled across Central Asia from Istanbul to China to research and write "Traveling the Silk Roads"- his eighth single-subject issue of the magazine. Lawton is currently writing a book on Samarkand and Bukhara for RIA Publishing Services' "Travel to Landmarks" series.