A History of Inner Asia

Svat Soucek

Cambridge University Press 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001 http://dannyreviews.com/
A History of Inner Asia wouldn't be a bad choice for a traveller wanting to learn something about the region, but it is really aimed more at students or scholars after a framework for deeper delving into its history: it is a useful reference as well as an accessible introduction. Covering fourteen hundred years and a huge area, Soucek can't go into much depth, but he offers an excellent outline of the geography and political history of the region, with some hints at its cultural, linguistic, and economic history.

"Inner Asia" is a scholarly neologism, used by Soucek to refer to Mongolia and traditional "Central Asia" — the five ex-Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekhstan, Tajikstan, and Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese autonomous region of Sinkiang, and portions of Iran, Afghanistan, and Russia. Soucek begins with a historico-geographical survey of this region, covering the geographical divisions, delimited by rivers and mountain ranges, that have often been reflected in political and cultural boundaries: Khurasan, Transoxiana, Fergana, Khwarazm, northern and southern Sinkiang, Semireche, and so forth. The maps accompanying Inner Asia show only the modern political units and are nowhere near good enough to follow this survey, but Soucek does offer a list of recommended atlases, after writing with some understatement "in the course of our narrative, names of regions, cities, and natural phenomena will appear that may be unfamiliar to the reader". The remainder of the introduction surveys the region's languages (Turkic, Mongolian, and Tajik/Persian) and religions, with a brief introduction to Islam, its origins, early history, and divisions.

The bulk of Inner Asia is a chronological narrative focused on political history. This begins with a quick survey of the situation in 622, just before the advent of Islam — Sasanian Persia with Khurasan as a province, Tang China exerting influence over Sinkiang, the Kok Turks ruling the steppe, and petty principalities in Transoxiana. The Arab conquest of Transoxiana took almost a century from 650; a key event was the battle of Talas in 751, where the Arabs defeated a Tang army, putting a stop to Chinese expansion west of Sinkiang.

In Khurasan and Transoxiana Arab governors were replaced by an Iranian dynasty, the Samanids, which lasted through the 9th and 10th centuries. (Many dynasties feature in the history of Central Asia: an appendix with fifteen pages of dynastic tables provides some assistance in keeping track of them.) In the 11th and 12th centuries the Quarakhanids ruled in Transoxiana, Fergana, and Semireche, with Ghaznavids and Seljuks to the south, in Khurasan and Afghanistan and Iran and Iraq. Displaced from Mongolia by the Kyrgyz, the Uighur founded the kingdom of Qocho in Sinkiang, which was to last from the mid-9th to mid-13th century.

The Mongol conquest in the early 13th century was a watershed in the history of Central Asia, though most regions (outside Semireche) recovered fairly rapidly from the immediate effects of plunder and depopulation. Mongol prestige was such that subsequent dynasties had to claim a connection to the Genghisids, or offer nominal allegiance to puppet lineages that did. The Chaghatayids — the descendents of Genghis Khan's son Chaghatay — inherited Transoxiana, and lasted in Sinkiang till the late 17th century. They were succeeded by Timur and his successors in the 15th century, who in turn were displaced in the 16th century by the Uzbek Shaybanids, rivals of the Shiite Safavids in Persia. In Mongolia itself the Mongols converted to Buddhism in the 16th century, linking them to Tibet and changing their way of life (the spread of monasteries not only making fixed settlements more important but reducing birthrates).

The khanates of Khoqand, Bukhara, and Khiva lasted from the 17th through 19th centuries, but the modern history of Central Asia has been dominated by Russia. The Kazakh nomads were conquered in the century up to 1850 and the khanates gradually lost their independence, with the final blows coming in the European scramble for colonies towards the end of the 19th century; their administration as governorates-general was not unlike colonial regimes elsewhere. After the tumultuous events of the Revolution and the civil war, Soviet rule brought tighter integration and more drastic administrative, linguistic, economic, and political changes. One key event was the 1924 division into republics along ethnolinguistic lines, creating what are now the boundaries of independent states. Despite differences, these share a common heritage and geopolitical context, as well as some tensions over ethnic minorities, the future of Islam, and colossal environmental problems. Mongolia (an independent state since 1921, albeit a Soviet satellite) and Sinkiang (part of China) are part of the broader central Asian community.

Soucek touches only briefly on economic history — the role played by religious "dynasties" such as the Ahraris in agriculture and manufacturing, the effects on long-distance trade of the alternative European maritime route, the drawbacks for the modern states of being land-locked, a little about irrigation and agriculture. He goes into more detail with scholarly and literary history, using a few key individuals to illustrate broader trends: among them Ulugh Beg (and the Samarkand observatory), Babur, and Sadriddin Ayni.

March 2001

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%T A History of Inner Asia
%A Soucek, Svat
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 2000
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521657040
%P xiii,369pp