Central Asia - Region facts
Central Asia is a vast landlocked region of Asia. Though various definitions of its exact composition exist, no one definition is universally accepted. Despite this uncertainty in defining borders, it does have some important overall characteristics. For one, Central Asia has historically been closely tied to its nomadic peoples and the Silk Road. As a result, it has acted as a crossroads for the movement of people, goods, and ideas between Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. It is also sometimes known as Middle Asia or Inner Asia, and is within the scope of the wider Eurasian continent. It is also sometimes known as Turkestan.
Central Asia is an extremely large region of varied geography, including high plateaus and mountains (Tian Shan), vast deserts (Kara Kum, Kyzyl Kum, Taklamakan), and especially treeless, grassy steppes. Much of the land is too dry or too rugged for farming. The Gobi desert extends from the foot of the Pamirs, 77° east, to the Great Khingan (Da Hinggan) Mountains, 116°-118° east.
Central Asia has the following geographic extremes:
The world's northernmost desert (sand dunes), at Buurug Deliin Els, Mongolia, 50°18' north, the Northern Hemisphere's southernmost permafrost, at Erdenetsogt sum, Mongolia, 46°17' north, the world's shortest distance between desert and permafrost: 770 km (440 mi).
A majority of the people earn a living by herding livestock. Industrial activity centers in the region's cities.
Major rivers of the region include the Amu Darya, the Syr Darya and the Hari Rud. Major bodies of water include the Aral Sea and Lake Balkhash, both of which are part of the huge west/central Asian endorheic basin that also includes the Caspian Sea. Both of these bodies of water have shrunk significantly in recent decades due to diversion of water from rivers that feed them for irrigation and industrial purposes. Water is an extremely valuable resource in arid Central Asia, and can lead to rather significant international disputes.
Since Central Asia is not buffered by a large body of water, temperature fluctuations are more severe.
According to the Köppen climate classification system, Central Asia is part of the Palearctic ecozone. The largest biome in Central Asia is the Temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biome. Central Asia also contains the Montane grasslands and shrublands, Deserts and xeric shrublands and Temperate coniferous forests biomes.
The history of Central Asia is defined by the area's climate and geography. The aridness of the region made agriculture difficult and its distance from the sea cut it off from much trade. Thus few major cities developed in the region, instead the area was for millennia dominated by the nomadic horse peoples of the steppe.
Relations between the steppe nomads and the settled people in and around Central Asia were long marked by conflict. The nomadic lifestyle was well suited to warfare and the steppe horse riders became some of the most militarily potent peoples in the world, only limited by their lack of internal unity. Periodically great leaders or changing conditions would organize several tribes into to one force, and create an almost unstoppable power. These included the Hun invasion of Europe, the Wu Hu attacks on China and most notably the Mongol conquest of much of Eurasia.
The dominance of the nomads ended in the sixteenth century, as firearms allowed settled peoples to gain control of the region. Russia, China, and other powers expanded into the region and had captured the bulk of Central Asia by the end of the nineteenth century. After the Russian Revolution the Central Asian regions were incorporated into the Soviet Union. Mongolia remained independent but became a Soviet satellite state. The Soviet areas of Central Asia saw much industrialization and construction of infrastructure, but also the suppression of local cultures, hundreds of thousands of deaths from failed collectivization programs, and a lasting legacy of ethnic tensions and environmental problems.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union five countries gained independence. In all the new states former Communist Party officials retained power as local strongmen. In no state is repression as great as it was in Soviet times, but none of the new republics could be considered functional democracies. Other parts of Central Asia remain part of China or Russia.
By the most inclusive definition, more than 80 million people live in Central Asia, about 2% of Asia's total population. Of the regions of Asia, only North Asia has fewer people. It has a population density of 9 people per km², vastly less than the 80.5 people per km² of the continent as a whole.
The languages of the majority of the inhabitants of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics come from the Turkic language group. Turkmen, closely related to Turkish (they are both members of the Oghuz group of Turkic), is mainly spoken in Turkmenistan and into Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tatar are related languages of the Kypchak group of Turkic languages, and are spoken throughout Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and into Afghanistan, Xinjiang and Qinghai. Uzbek and Uighur are spoken in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Xinjiang. Russian, as well as being spoken by the ethnic Russians of Central Asia, is a lingua franca throughout the former Soviet Central Asian Republics. Chinese has an equally dominant presence in Inner Mongolia, Qinghai and Xinjiang.
The Turkic languages belong to the much larger Altaic language family, which includes Mongolian. Mongolian is spoken throughout the region of Mongolia and into Qinghai and Xinjiang.
Iranian languages were once spoken throughout Central Asia, but the once prominent Sogdian, Bactrian and Scythian languages are now extinct. However, the Persian language is still spoken in the region, locally known as Dari or Tajik. Pashto is spoken in Afghanistan and western Pakistan.
The Tibetan language is spoken by around six million people across the Tibetan Plateau and into Qinghai.
At the crossroads of Asia, shamanist practices live alongside Buddhism. Thus Yama, Lord of Death, was revered in Tibet as a spiritual guardian and judge. Mongolian Buddhism in particular influenced Tibetan Buddhism. The Qianlong Emperor of China in the 18th century was Tibetan Buddhist, and would sometimes travel from Beijing to other cities for personal religious worship.
Note the human skulls and severed heads that festoon Yama's crown and necklace, which give some concept of the size that Yama was expected to be when one faced him at one's death.
This particular Dharmapala is painted wood, four feet high in total.
Central Asia also has an indigenous and ancient form of rap which is over 1000 years old. It is principally practiced in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan by akyns, lyrical improvisationists. They will engage in lyrical battles, the aitysh or the alym sabak. The tradition arose out of early bardic oral historians. They are usually accompanied by a stringed instrument—in Kyrgyzstan, a three-stringed komuz and in Kazakstan a similar two-stringed instrument. Some also learn to sing the Manas, Kyrgyzstan's epic poem (those who learn the Manas exclusively, without engaging in rap, are called manaschis). During Soviet rule, akyn rap was co-opted by the authorities and subsequently declined in popularity. With the fall of the Soviet Union it has enjoyed a resurgence, although aykns still do use their art to campaign for political candidates.
Islam is the religion most common in the former Soviet Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan, Xinjiang and the peripheral western regions. Most Central Asian Muslims are Sunni, although Shia comprise the great majority in Azerbaijan, and in Afghanistan and Pakistan there are sizable Shia minorities. Tibetan Buddhism is most common in Tibet, Mongolia, and the southern Russian regions of Siberia, where Shamanism is also popular. Increasing Han Chinese migration westward since the establishment of the PRC has brought Confucianism and other beliefs into the region. Nestorianism was the form of Christianity most practiced in the region in previous centuries, but now the largest denomination is the Russian Orthodox Church, with many members in Kazakhstan. The Bukharan Jews were once a sizable community in Uzbekistan, but nearly all have emigrated in recent years.