The western end of the Himalayan mountain chain links up with another mountain chain – the Karakoram . This one runs north for 500 kilometres and is the most heavily glaciated part of the world outside the polar regions. At its southern tip is the Saichen glacier, which, at 18,900 feet, is the world’s highest live battlefield. At its northern end, the Karakoram range blends into the Pamir mountain range which runs further north for another 350 kilometers.
The Pamir mountains
This formidable wall of mountains, nearly 900 kilometers long, is the dividing line between the steppes of central Asia and the deserts of western China. Running westward for 500 kilometers from the Pamir mountain chain is another mountain chain – the Hindu Kush. This wall of mountains is the dividing line between the steppes of central Asia and the plains of India.
Marco Polo sheep ( Argali )
Lammergeier (bearded vulture)
The lands enclosed between these great dividing ranges are the steppes of central Asia.The Karakoram and southern Pamir mountains and the plains immediately to the west, are the land of the Tajiks – Tajikistan . The northern Pamir mountains and the lands immediately to the west are the land of the Kyrgyz – Kyrgystan. The plains west of both these countries are the land of the Uzbeks – Uzbekistan. The mountainous regions to the South of Uzbekistan are the land of the Afghans – Afghanistan .
snow leopard image credit : National Geographic magazine
The territory covered by these four countries has belonged, over the centuries, to every one of the world’s great conquerors – barring the Romans and Napoleon. Darius I of Persia annexed Uzbekistan in 516 B.C. Alexander the Great claimed it for Greece around 330 B.C. ( For good measure he also took Tajikistan and Afghanistan ).
greek cameo image credit : National Geographic magazine
The Han Chinese emperor Wu invaded the steppes of Uzbekistan in 104 B.C. and paved the way for the famous Silk Road from China, to commence in 119 A.D. Kadphises and Kanishka of the Kushans retook all these regions from the Chinese and the Greeks from around 95 B.C.to 41.A.D. And all the land down to central India. Ardeshir I and Shafur I, the Sassanian kings of Persia over-ran all Kushan territories by 220 A.D. From 651 A.D. successive muslim caliphates exercised control over the region. Chenghis Khan and his sons captured all these lands from the muslims in 1220 A.D.and added them to the vast mongol empire. Timurlane — the Uzbek warlord — rose in 1370 A.D. from his capital at Samarkhand and overran all land from Turkey to North India.
Babur, great-great-great grandson of Timur, rising from the Ferghana valley of Uzbekistan, founded the Mughal empire on the Indian sub-continent in 1526 A.D. Nadir Shah of Persia re- claimed these lands for Persia in 1740. A.D. Tsar Alexander II of Russia added the entire region ( except Afghanistan ) to the Russian empire in 1876. ( The Great Game – between Russia , Britain and China — for these prized lands went on till 1905 ). The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics took possession of the Central Asian republics ( except Afghanistan) in 1924.
The Steppes of Central Asia have history deeply embedded – both above and below the ground. This blog attempts to present a few snippets, not generally known, from their hoary history.
For 5000 kilometers – from Turkey to China’s Xinjiang region — the languages are Turkic.
necklace of a noblewoman of a nomadic tribe image credit : National Geographic magazine
The river Amur Darya (Oxus) separates Uzbekistan from Afghanistan . It was to Balkh in Afghanistan that the commander of the Scythian cavalry – Bessus – and Darius II of Persia fled after their defeat by Alexander in Persia in 321 B.C. The indefatigable Alexander pursued them for seven years . Darius did’nt make it . Bessus did and met his end at the hands of Alexander just across the Oxus in Uzbekistan in 328 B.C.
During the time of Alexander , Uzbekistan was called Sogdiana . Whatever resistance the mountain tribes of this region offered Alexander vanished when he demonstrated the prowess of his ‘flying soldiers’. No mountain or plateau appeared too inaccessible to them.
In some of those valleys Alexander’s Greeks settled — and some remain there to this day. These are the Kalash Kafirs of the Brumboret and Rumbur valleys of the Hindu Kush. Their territory is the setting of Rudyard Kipling’s story , and subsequent film, ‘ The man who would be king ‘.
Kalask kafir girl image credit : National Geographic magazine
During the time of Alexander and thereafter, the fertile valley of Ferghana in Uzbekistan produced the world’s finest war horses. It is not generally known that Alexander’s horse Bucephalus was of this breed – still renowned today as the Akhal Teke breed . Many centuries later, the Han emperors of China and the Mughal emperors of India still prized these horses , and were even willing to go to war to procure them.
Akal Teke horse
The Han invasion of the central asian steppes, and the Ganshu corridor in China opened the way for the Silk Road to commence in 119 A.D. The route west from the desert of Taklamakan was : the city of Kashgar just east of the Pamir mountains — the mountain passes of the Pamirs – Samarkand & Bukhara in Uzbekistan – Balk and then Herat in Afghanistan – Tehran in Iran – Asia minor. It was to become the centre of the world economy for a thousand years thereafter .
Wusun diadem ( china)
Most of the archeological evidence of the goods carried along this road is to be found in Afghanistan . Dozens of sites are regularly being uncovered to reveal the extent of this trade.
Afghanistan, in 1100 B.C.,was probably the birthplace of Zoroaster,the founder of the Zoroastrian religion. It was also a great centre of Buddhism in the 6th century A.D.
Sandstone rock-cut Buddha ( Bamyan district)
Afghanistan’s Herat region was home to Nestorian christian monks , two of whom in 550 A.D. were the first to smuggle silk-worm eggs from Khotan in China’s Tarim basin through Merv in today’s Turkmenistan to the Byzantinian court in Istanbul.
Afghanistan was the center of the vast Kushan empire which stretched from the Tarim basin of China to central India.
Boddhisattva . ( Gandhara school of art ) image courtesy : Asian civilisations museum , Singapore
Afghanistan provided the springboard for Babur to found the mughal empire in India & Pakistan. Afganistan’s warrior kings – Mahmud of Ghazni and Ahmed Shah Abdali– conquered large parts of India.
Today Afghanistan is a nation producing 92% of the world’s non-pharma grade opium – most of it going to drug traffickers , warlords, insurgents and officials. The region bordering Pakistan is the world’s largest producer of cannabis.
opium extractable poppy capsules
Not included in this blog are the nomadic tribes of the steppes to the far North — Kazakhistan. Though among the first to develop mounted warfare they confined themselves to slipping between the great empires mentioned above, and migrating ever southward.. They did not have a kingdom until they reached the land in which this writer lives — western india. These were the Scythians . They are the subject of my next blog . Stay posted .