Peoples, regions,  and languages of Central Asia

Languages and alphabets

Old Turkish was the language of the Tujue (Chinese name for the early Turks). All Turkic languages descend from Old Turkish and their vocabularies (see below) are remarkably similar. However, linguists distinguish between groups of Turkic languages. Modern Turkish is close to Azeri. Other groups of related Turkic languages are (1) Kazakh and Kirghiz; and (2) Uigur and Uzbek. The first written texts of Turk are the Orkhon inscriptions of Mongolia, which used an alphabet probably derived from Aramaic with some properly Turkic runes. The most literate of the Turks in the past were the Uigurs of the Tarim basin. They used an alphabet derived from Indo-Iranian Sogdian, which also has its roots in Aramaic. The Uigurs influenced the formation of the Mongol alphabet. When the Turks were Islamized they naturally adopted the Arabic alphabet. The Russians introduced the use of Cyrillic in western Turkestan, which still prevails. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the founder of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, imposed the Roman alphabet for Turkish. The Uigurs retained Arabic, although the Chinese tried to get them to use a version of the Roman alphabet.

Crossing the Roof the World

According to the doctrine of geopolitics, it is geography that has had a determinant influence on politics. Thus, it has been argued that Hitler wanted to conquer Eurasia because that was the key to world domination. Central Asia amply disproves this theory. The mountainous labyrinth that lies at its heart, including the Alataus, the Tien Shan, the Pamirs, and the Karakoran—all of which have elevations of well over 6,000 meters—should have been an unsurpassable barriers to the movements of peoples and goods. Well, it was exactly the contrary that happened for (1) economic, (2) religious, and (3) political reasons. If geopolitics were valid, the Silk Route would have stopped at the foot of the Pamirs. But long before the Common Era, the Chinese were trading silk with the Indo-Iranians of Sogdiana across a pass that reaches 2402 meters before arriving at Ferghana. This was child’s play compared to future feats, but it was still quite rough. The route to Samarkand via modern Dushanbe would have required climbing to 3373 metters at the Anshob pass.

            If it was trade that led the Sogdians to explore and cross the Pamirs, it was religion that motivated the Buddhist monk Xuanzang. Of precocious erudition, Xuanzang was born near Luoyang (ca602), in the Chinese province of Henan. He became a monk at 20 and in 629 decided to go to India, the land of the Buddha. He followed the route north of the Taklamakan desert in the Tarim basin and crossed into modern Kyrgyzstan by the Turugart pass at 3752 meters. From Samarakand he went to Termez on the Amu Darya, where Buddhism was flourishing. He traversed modern Afghanistan to Taxila in modern northwestern Pakistan. Buddhism was prevalent in Bactria and in Gandhara. He saw the Buddhas of Bamian. In India and Nepal he visited all the sites associated with the life of the Buddha. He stayed at the court of Harsha, the Indian Buddhist ruler of Kanauj, and he spent two years at the Buddhist university of Nalanda, in modern Bihar. After compiling a vast collection of manuscripts, he returned to Tang China via the Silk Road. His translations of Buddhist sources into Chinese are considered monumental. He died in 664.

            It was politics that prevailed when, in 1532, the Dughlat prince of Kashgaria Mizra Haidar killed the local ruler and became king in Ladakh (northern India) extending his rule to Kashmir. To achieve this it was necessary to cross the Karakoran passes from modern Pakistan to Xinjiang, the lowest of which is at 4655 meters. The Kashgarian invasion also had an economic motivation, for, despite these formidable altitudes, there was continuous commerce between the southern side of the Karakoran and the Tarim basin.

            The political impulse is unmistakable later when the Russians and the British were briefly at odds over the Pamirs. By 1876, Russia had annexed all of western Turkestan (modern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan). As the distance today between Almaty, in Kazakhstan, and Bishek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is only around 250 kilometers, the annexation of Kyrgyzstan after Kazakhstan was as good as done. But beyond that were the Pamirs of Tajikistan and these bordered on Afghanistan and the Karakoran and its valleys, which the British considered to be the natural boundaries of the viceroyalty of India.

            The British had tried twice to subject Kabul and got their fingers burned. Not that they couldn’t do it, but that it would have been very expensive. There is no convincing evidence that Russia wanted to annex Afghanistan, but the British convinced themselves that the Russians had in mind the much more ambitious objective of invading India. For the Russians it was not difficult to encircle the Pamirs along valleys that permit transit without having to go into the Karakoran, except on the eastern reaches of the Pamirs where these and the Karakoran are topograhically inseparable and where even today there are few roads (not open to tourism).

            There were British agent-explorers (usually army officers) in the lower Pamirs and there they encountered their Russian counterparts. This put the British in India in a funk, although the Russians were not intending to go into India. (They didn’t have the means even if it had been their intention.) The British-Russian rivalry in the Pamirs was solved after Russia annexed Tajikistan in 1881 and negotiations that went on from 1895 to 1907 created the Wakhan strip (the easternmost part of Afghanistan), geopolitically separating the Pamirs and the Karakoran.

            Before this happened, the British did a lot of trekking and fighting in the Karakoran themselves. After the Great Indian Rebellion (1857-1858), the British had adopted the policy of allowing dependent local autonomy (sometimes quite extensive as in Hyderabad), and this was their attitude towards the principalities of Hunza, Chitral, and Swat. In view of Russian encroachment, which emboldened the rulers of these tiny areas, the British decided to take them one by one. To do so they had to cross passes such as Shandul (3725 meters) and Babusar (4173 meters). Both Hunza and an alliance between Chitral and Swat were vanquished in 1892.

            One of the principal players in what the British called the “Great Game”, was Arthur Younghusband, who instigated the submission of the Karakoran princelings, and when it was reported (unfoundedly as it turned out) that the Russians were intriguing in Tibet, Younghusband in 1903-1904 led a large expedition to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, to do which he had to cross a Himalayan pass through Sikkim, where today there is no road. The Friendhsip Road, from Kathmandu, to Lhasa, lies between two eelevations that are both over 4500 meters high. For scenic routes in the “roof of the world”, see individual entries for Central Asian countries.


The ancient city of Kashgar, today Kashi, in western Xinjiang (China), gave its name to the region of Kashgaria extending beyond Kashgar itself to the Pamirs and to Kyrgyzstan, which includes the Issyk Kul basin, and to the Ferghana valley, mostly in Uzbekistan. The name Kashgaria is sometimes applied to the steppes south east of lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan. These extensions originally derive from that Kashgaria, in the wider sense, was an inheritance of the Mongol Chaghataite Khanate, which included the Tarim Basin and Transoxiana. In 1128 the Karakhitai penetrated and conquered Kashgaria and ruled it as gur-khans. From that base they sallied as far as Khurasan, in eastern Iran, where they defeated Sanjar (1141), the last Seljuk sultan of Persia. The Karakhitai made Irano-Turkic Khwarizm a vassal state. Khwarizm subsequently grew in power and took Transoxiana from the Karakhitai. Küchlüg, a losing rival of Jenghiz Khan in the Mongolian wars, established his lordship over the Karakhitai of Kashgaria. Jenghiz Khan put an end to the rivalry between these states when he destroyed the weakened the Karakhitan Khanate (1218), and captured Urgench, capital of Khwarizm (1221).

            During the 14th century, the Chaghataite Khanate was divided between a sedentarized part in Transoxiana and its nomadic component north of the Syr Darya. The vassal Dughlat Mongol rulers of Kashgaria were instrumental in the reunification of the khanate under Tughlugh Timur. After 1429, there was a Chaghataite succession struggle between Esen-bugha II and his brother Yunus. With the support of Ulugh Beg, the Timurid ruler of Transoxiana, Yunus invaded Kashgaria but in 1433 he was defeated by the Dughlat Sayyid Ali. The Timurid Abu Sa'id, who after internecine contention became ruler of Transoxiana, helped Yunus to invade the Ili river region and, after Esen-bugha's death in 1462, to become sole ruler of the Chagahataite domains (the Ili and Mogholistan). Kashgaria reverted to its vassalage to the Chaghataite line, but in 1479-1480 the Dughlat Abu Bakr rebelled against Yunus. Ahmed, Yunus' successor (1499), defeated Abu Bakr, but the Dughlats remained rebellious until they were subjected by Sa'id Khan (1514-1533). A pro-Chaghataite Dughlat prince, Haidar-mizra (in some works Mizra Haidar), invaded Ladakh and in 1541 even ruled Kashmir, which normally was the suzerain of Ladakh.

            The Chaghataites of the steppes were run to the ground by the Kirghiz-Kazakhs, but the Chaghataite line continued under Abd ar-Rashid (1533-1565) in Kashgaria. By ca1600, however, Kashgaria was under the effective rule of the Khojas, Muslim clerics who claimed descent from Muhammad (hence, in effect a religious dynasty). In 1678, the last khan of Kashgaria, Ismail, tried to reduce the power of the Khojas, but these appealed to Junggar and the Khoja Hazrat Apak put an end to Chaghataite rule, although Kashgaria was hopelessly divided into local theocracies in Kashi, Yarkand, Aksu, and Khotan. Kashgaria as such ceased to exist and most of it became part of the Chinese empire when it annexed the Tarim Basin in 1759. The rest of Kashgaria was under the political influence of the Shaybanid dynasties of Transoxiana

Silk Road

Although the Silk Road is not a state or a province, the name does allude to a fairly well-delimited geographical entity which had in the past considerable influence on political and cultural processes in the areas which it crossed and connected. As the name implies the Silk Road was the conduit for the export of silk from China to countries to the west and particularly to Europe. It was originally (3rd century BCE) a route to Khotan (Ho-t'ien), in modern Xinjiang (Sinkiang), where the Chinese obtained jade, but it was an important intercontinental trade link at the beginning of the 1st millennium CE through which China exchanged silk with Rome for woolens and precious metals. During its early heyday, which lasted to the 3rd century, it was also a passage a for Nestorian Christian and Buddhist ideas, especially the latter, which became very influential in the countries of the Far East. The Silk Road lost importance as Rome decayed and the central steppes became pastures to lawless hordes. It was also interdicted to Europe by the Islamic advance to Central Asia. The Silk Road was opened again to trade with the West by the Mongols, who at the height of their power controlled it along most of its length. Roughly, the Silk Road began in Xi’an, known to Ptolemy, the 2nd century CE Greek geographer, as Sera (silk); it followed part of the Great Wall, which it crossed at its western reaches, and went on to Dunhuang, on the eastern edge of the Tarim Basin. There it bifurcated into a routes north (Kucha) and south (Khotan) of the Taklamakan desert. The routes joined in today’s Kashi (Kashgaria), crossed the passes of the Pamirs between the Tien Shan and the Kunlun ranges and went on the Samarkand and Bactria. There the road went either south through Pakistan to ports on the Arabian sea or west to Merv, through Persia, and on to Antioch, on the eastern Mediterranean. A related trade route crossed the Kirghiz steppes from Kashgar to the Crimea, where in the 15th century the Genoese had trading posts. The Silk Road mainly consisted of caravan routes and was divided into stages where goods were transhipped. To do the entire course, as the Venetian Polos did, was not usual.


Archaeologically, the Cimmerians can be located in the steppes north east of the Black Sea in the 13th century BCE. Historically, they were the first of the Indo-Iranians to irupt violently on sedentarized societies, beginning in the late 8th century BCE, in eastern Anatolia. They had for enemies their Indo-Iranian relatives, the Scythians, who dominated the southern Russian steppe including the Crimea during the 8th century. The Scythians must have been hovering north of the Cimmerians and probably outflanked them towards the west.

            In 529, Cyrus I the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, was killed fighting Scythians in Sogdiana (central Uzbekistan). Since the Asian Scythians, called Saka (also Shaka) by the Indians and also known as Kshatrapas, were occupying the steppes north of the Syr Darya river (central Kazakhstan) in the 3rd century BCE, then presumably the original or proto-Scythians must have divided into the western Scythians and the Asian Scythians. The Scythians in a strict historical sense are the western Scythians of the Russian steppes.

            When the Indo-Iranian Yuezhi/Tokharians were expelled from Gansu (China) in the 3rd century BCE, they moved towards the Ili river valley, east of Lake Balkhash, where its inhabitants, the Wusun (according to Chinese chronicles), resisted their advance and sent them towards the Syr Darya river. There ca140-135 they encountered the Asian Scythians, who by then had also occupied Marakanda (Sogdiana) and had penetrated Ferghana (eastern Uzbekistan).

            Other Asian Scythian bands were raiding Parthia, whose ruler Mithradates I was killed fighting against them. The Tokharians attacked the Scythians and expelled them from Sogdiana and Ferghana. The other Asian Scythians were keeping the pressure on Parthia, whose king Artabanus II they killed in 124. These Scythians occupied Seistan or Sakastan (derivations from their name) and Kandahar, where they were finally subjected by Mithradates II ca100.

            The Scythians moved in on Bactria and took over from its divided rulers. The Greek descendants of the founders of Bactria were predominant in Gandhara, where they were flourishing under the greatest of their kings, Menander (ca150), known to Buddhists as Milinda. It might have been the Parthian Mithradates II (124-90) who drove the Tokharians out of Sogdiana and Ferghana. The Tokharians then invaded Bactria and expelled the Scythians to Gandhara, where the latter wiped out the remains of the Indo-Greeks and became known as Saka. There was a Saka king names Maues in Gandhara ca94. A successor called Azes ruled ca58. The datings of Indian history constitute a highly complex affair. One widely accepted premise is that there was a Saka kingdom in 78 BCE. The Saka kingdom in Gandhara cannot have been very cohesive for ca20-ca46 there is numismatic evidence of a king Gondopharnes, whom historians usually describe as being "Indo-Parthian" and who apparently ruled in Taxila. The Tokharians, under Kujala Kadphises established in Bactria ca50 CE the Kushana kingdom, which promptly invaded Gandhara and drove the Saka further into India.

            There were two Saka dynasties. One ruled in west central India (Malwa and Ujjain) from the 1st century until it was overthrow by the Guptas in the early 4th century. The other ruled briefly in Gujarat in the early 2nd century and was destroyed by the Satavahana.

            Scythian gold artifacts have been found in southern Russia. They can be seen in the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg. Considering the barbaric nature of Scythians—they were headhunters and also practiced scalping—archaeologists speculated that it was Greek artisanship that crafted Scythian ornaments. However, in 2001 near Arzhan, in the Russian federated republic of Tuva, north of Mongolia, un-looted kurgans (central Asian funerary mounds) were excavated and found to contain artifacts with motifs very much like those of south Russian Scythian works. The Tuvan mounds were dated to ca700 BCE. Arguably, the grandest of all Scythian remains is the Golden Man, a full golden armor and a tall, fantastical headgear discovered in a kurgan east of Almaty, in Kazakhstan, where replicas are on display. The originals are in the keeping of the Kazakh central bank. The Golden Man dates from the 5th century BCE.


Transoxiana is a conventional Greek designation (as opposed to native or telluric) for a territory which extends from the Aral Sea to Sogdiana (central Uzbekistan). It is divided today between southern Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Since it lies between the Amu Darya (ancient Oxus) and the Syr Darya (ancient Jaxartes) rivers, it is literally the land beyond the Oxus. It contains the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, which have sometimes given their names to states in Transoxiana. The Arabic name for Transoxiana is Murannawarh (also Mavrannakhar). Bordering on the central Asian steppes, Transoxiana was a corridor for invaders and it was a bone of contention between nomadic empires and sedentary states. It was peopled by Indo-Iranians in the remote past. As Sogdiana, eastern Transoxiana was a province of the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanid empires. Its Turkification began as early as the 5th century CE. By the time the Arabs introduced Islam (8th century), Transoxiana was probably already Irano-Turkic. By then, Sogdian, the Indo-Iranian language native to Transoxiana, was either already extinct or on its way to extinction.

            The Chinese Tang dynasty extended its power to Sogdiana but was defeated at Talas (751) by a coalition of Arabs, Turks, and Sogdians. The political influence of the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad was overshadowed in Transoxiana by the Tahirids of Khurasan (8th-9th centuries). The Samanids were the last Persian dynasty to rule in Transoxiana (10th) and they were overthrown by the first Transoxianan Turkic dynasty, the Karakhanids.

            With the arrival of the Seljuks (11th century) and the rise of Khwarizm (12th), Transoxiana became a Turkic territory subject to Persian cultural influences. In the 12th-13th centuries, with the invasion of the non-Muslim Karakhitai, sinicized Mongols (Khitan Khanates), Transoxiana became the stage for a cultural conflict, which was resolved politically by the Mongol invasion (13th century). Transoxiana became a part of the Chaghataite Khanate (13th-14th century), whose rulers did not settle down but preferred to live in the steppes north of the Syr Daria.

            A Persianized Turk claiming descent from Jenghiz Khan, Timur (Tamerlane), made Transoxiana, specifically Samarkand, the center of an empire that stretched as far as Damascus and Smyrna and to the Crimea. However, it was very fragile and when Timur died (1405) his descendants ruled Transoxiana unsteadily, under attack from the Shaybanids, lords of Uzbek hordes, and from the remnants of the Chaghataites. In the 16th century the Shaybanids shared out Transoxiana into two khanates: Bukhara and Khiva. Khiva was more or less suzerain of Merv (Mary). In the early 18th century, the Kokand khanate separated from Bukhara in Ferghana, east of Transoxiana. The Transoxianan khanates put up a stiff resistance to Russian advances but all three had fallen by 1881.

Turks, Turks, and more Turks

That Mongolia should have been called something like “Turkia” in the remote past is borne out by persuasive circumstances and historical evidence. The first Turkic wave to go as far as western Asia were the people the Chinese called Tujue (for once they got the sound of a non-Chinese name approximately right). That the Tujue’s homeland was today’s Mongolia is demonstrated in the stirring words of the incription that the Tujue leader Kultegin had written on the Kosho-Tsaidam stele in the Orkhon basin, the heart of Mongolia: “When the blue sky above and the dark earth beneath were created, between them were created the sons of men. Above the sons of men, arose my ancestors, Bhumin khagan and Istami khagan. When they had become masters, they governed and established the empire and the institutions of the Turkic people. At the four corners of the world they had many enemies, but, making expeditions with armies, they subjugated and pacified many peoples at the four corners of the world. They made them bow their heads and bend their knees. They made us move eastwards as far as the forests of Kadirkhan [the Khingan mountains of Manchuria] and westward to the Iron Gates [of Transoxiana]. Over all the land between these uttermost points the Blue Turks had sway as sovereigns. They were wise khagans; all their officers were wise and brave; all the nobles and the whole people were righteous.” There are indications here of Mongol influence—the title khagan and sky-worshipping—but the plain message is that Turks ruled Mongolia.

            A nearly contemporaneous people, but much less self-conscious, were the Ephthalites. It is these that first began the transformation of Sogdiana into Turkestan. The Xiongnu (future Huns) have never been tagged as decidedly Mongols, and given that the Turks were dominant and the Xiongnu were from Mongolia, these people were probably also Turkic. If this is a likely identification then it was Turks and not Mongols who had been terrifying China for various centuries before the common era. The Avars, also an unknown quantity, came from the same homeland as the Turks and were probably also Turkic. The Uigurs who once dominated Mongolia were definitely Turks as were the Kirghiz that chased them out of Mongolia. The first unmistakable Mongols were the Khitai, who defeated the Kirghiz. The Khitai ruled northern China and were Sinicized, but Mongolia by then was divided into various Mongol clans and tribes. It was these whom Jenghiz Khan unified and built into the efficacious war machine that conquered Asia as far as Anatolia.

            Before this happened the Uigurs were settled in the Tarim basin and the Kirghiz were the most powerful of the Central Asian hordes. A Turkic people that the Tujue never quite managed to keep in hand were the Oghuz. This was the mother horde of all subsequent Turkic hordes. The Seljuks and the Turcomans left their steppe brethren drawn to the lands of western Turkestan and of Persia. Riding with the Seljuks were also the Osmanlis. The Seljuks conquered Persia and went on to Anatolia. The Osmanlis assumed the task of confronting the dimninished Byzantine Empire and formed the Ottoman Empire from the fringes of western Anatolia to deep into the Balkans. They eventually converted Constantinople into Istanbul.

            The Mongols of Jenghiz Khan and his successors rode roughshod over all of Turkestan, Persia, and Anatolia. Their ethnic and racial influence diminished as they rampaged westwards, which is the reason why today most Kirghiz and Kazakhs have some Mongolian features wheras the Turks of Turkey are what Americans call “Caucasians”. The Seljuks, and the Turcomans to a lesser extent, begat different Turkish clans. Ironically for such a warlike people—the wolf is the animal that the Tujue claimed as their anthropomorphic ancestor—these Turks adopted devices with a lamb on them. Thus, Turks who ruled in Tabriz, Iran, called themselves the Karakoyunlu, or Black Lamb Turks, and those who had Biyarbakir, in Turkey, as their base went by the name of Akkoyunlu, or White Lamb Turks. Both White and Black Lambs were eventually decimated by the Persians and the only western Turks that remained intact were the Ottomans, who eventually begat modern Turkey. Thus, strictly speaking, there are three Turkestans: Turkey proper, western Turkestan (which is the subject of this guide), and eastern Turkestan or Uiguria, today the southern part of the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The language of the modern Turks is a direct descendant of the language used in the Koshan-Tsaidan stele.


The Uigurs were a Turkic nation leading a nomadic life in Mogholistan and Mongolia during the 6th century CE. The Uigur and Uzbek languages are related. In 603, instigated by the Chinese, the Uigurs rebelled against their overlords, the Tujue, the first historical Turks, with whom they remained at odds until in 741 they decisively defeated them in Mongolia. The Uigur capital was Karabalgasun, on the Orkhon river valley. During a state of civil war in the middle of the 8th century, the Chinese Tang dynasty appealed to the Uigurs, who helped restore it to power. The Uigurs did not attempt to conquer China but became dominant in the Tarim basin, the core of the Silk Road, which had been a Chinese dependency. Trade through the Tarim was carried on by Sogdians and it was by this means that the Uigurs absorbed Persian cultural influences, including Manicheism, which they adopted as their religion. The Uigurs developed an alphabet of their own based on the Sogdian script ultimately derived from Aramaic. The Karabalgasun inscription, composed some time between 808 and 821 in Sogdian, Uigur, and Chinese, lists the Uigur khans or idiquts.

            Around 840, another Turkic people, the Kirghiz, invaded Mongolia from Siberia and overwhelmed the Uigurs, who retreated to the Tarim basin. Despite being the most culturally advanced of the many Turkic peoples at that time, the Uigurs did not manage to create an unified state, although the Tarim after their occupation became known as Uiguria and is still referred to as Chinese Turkestan (modern Xinjiang). The former Sogdiana, known to the Arabs as Murannawarh, was Turkicized and Islamic and the Uigurs too became Muslims (10th-12th centuries).

            With the final defeat of the Tibetan Xixia (modern Ningxia in China) by the Mongols (1226), Uiguria became part of the Mongol Empire. It was an Uigur who devised for Jenghiz Khan the Mongolian alphabet, later modified with Tibetan writing. In the division of the Jenghizid empire, the Tarim Basin was allotted to the Chaghataite Khanate, whose suzerainty was exercised through the minor Uigur state of Beshbaliq (Turfan). The Sinicized Mongol Yuan empire controlled the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and thus facilitated trade with the west. Eventually, the Yuan and the Chaghataites warred over the Tarim and commercial links to the west were disrupted. The Chaghataites retained control over the Tarim, but when their khanate gradually dissolved (16th century), Uiguria became a mosaic of Muslim theocracies, the most prominent of which were headed by clerics known as Khojas.

            The Oirats or Western Mongols invaded Uiguria and as far as Tibet in the 17th century. The history of the Tarim Basin after that is mostly of Chinese encroachment until the Qing definitely established Chinese authority over the region (1759). An Uigur, Yakub Beg, created an independent emirate in Uiguria (1865-1877), which the Chinese suppressed after Yakub's death. Turkic Uigurs are still a large part of the population of the Tarim Basin. Through emigration the ethnic Chinese or Han have become a majority in Xinjiang.

Where did the Indo-Iranians end up?

We saw in the history of Central Asia section that the Indo-Iranians, a branch of which had much earlier invaded Persia, were the sole occupiers of Central Asia until the first Turks arrived and gradually displaced them. Most of the nomadic Indo-Iranians settled permanently in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and in Tajikistan. But there remains the question of the Indo-Iranians of the Ili river/Balkhash area called Wusun by the Chinese, who described them as blond and blue-eyed (probably an exaggeration). What happened to these Indo-Iranians? Since it was the probably Turkic Xiongnu who displaced the Wusun from their homeland in the 2nd century CE and then rode westwards where they appeared in Europe in the 5th century as the Huns, what were the Wusun doing during this lapse of time? The Goths were a Germanic people that had migrated to the north west of the Black sea. It is assumed that the Wusun met the Goths in that general area where together they raided the Roman Empire. The Goths had been doing so since the 3rd century CE. Goths and Alans invaded in force during the 5th century and created the Visigothic Kingdom of southern France and Spain. The name of Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, is often said to originate in the conjuction of Goths and Alans. This is not the only argument for a Goth-Alan alliance, but putting all the pieces together, it is believed that the Wusun/Alans joined the Goths and were probably Germanized. Not all Alans struck at Europe. Some remained north of the Caucasus and today’s Ossetians, west of Chechnya and north of Georgia, are considered descendants of the Alans. But the Alans, like the Uigurs at a time, were in many places at the same time and it is reported that even Jenghiz Khan’s army had Alan contingents.

Russians in Central Asia today

Under the Tsarist and the Soviet regimes, millions of Russians migrated to Central Asia, where they either founded cities (Almaty) or clustered around sites which later became large cities (Tashkent, Dushanbe, and Merv, today’s Mary). When the USSR was dissolved, many Russians returned to their country of origin, but the majority (except in civil war-torn Tajikistan) remained where they were. Today, they constitute 23% of the population of Kazakhstan, 5.5% of that of Uzbekistan (although they are probably over half the population of Tashkent), 9% of that of Kyrgyzstan, around 1% of Turkmenistan, and even a lower percentage of Tajikistan. Nevertheless, Russian is still the lingua franca for all the Central Asian republics (See below the Russian glossary.) The Russians remaining in Central Asia are ambivalent about their status. Most consider themselves rightful citizens of their respective countries, although probably all also have dual nationality. A Russian driver we once hired in Uzbekistan  got so fed up with our visits to the site of Afrasiab and its museum that he said: “I’ll show you the real Samarkand”, and he gave us a ride through the apartment blocks built during the Brezhnev era in the USSR. Another Russian, this one from Almaty, told us that his grandparents were originally from Novosibirks in Siberia, but that on trips there he did not feel fully Russian. On the other hand, he spoke not a word of Kazakh!