Posted by: Borderless Borderguard | February 26, 2008

Defining Central Asia…

In different epochs of history this region had different names. Alimov, an Uzbek scholar, makes a list of various names Central Asia was once known for. Anita Sengupta, an Indian anthropologist, deals with historical questions, thus in more detail about where the words (to denote the region) come from and how and when and why the region was called in different ways. Two other scholars from German and Austrian Universities/research institutions, whose works are going to be quotes here, are Joerg Stadelbauer and Bert Fragner.

In the wider Media and recent scholarly works the term ‘Central Asia‘ is currently used to denote five post-soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. These are also fancily named as five Stans. The word ‘stan’ has a Persian origin and means ‘a place, a square or land’, such as the land of Turkmen, Afghan, etc. However, throughout the history various names were given to this region, among others, for instance, Transoxiania, Turan, Turkistan, Varorud, Mavaraun-al-nahr, Inner Asia, Middle Asia and Central Asia. According to Anita Sengupta, even if these names are interchangeably used to imply what we now know as Central Asia, ‘their frontiers did not always coincide’ (Sengupta 2002: 16). Various invaders with their own languages left their own terms. Alexander the Great made this region famous under the Greek name of Transoxania, as the territory ‘beyond the Oxus river’ (Alimov, 2005: 249). Later in the 8th and 9th centuries, following the Arab invasion, the region received an Arabic name of ‘Mavaraun-al-nahr’ – meaning again, ‘the other side of the river’ (ibid.). The Persian equivalent of orientation with the help of the river was Varorud. Another great Persian writer Firdousi in his book of kings, ‘Shahname’ calls the region ‘Turon’. The term ‘Turkistan’ which was popular in the 19th and 20th centuries also derives from Persian, which literally means the ‘land of Turks’.

Apart from having various names, this region is defined in various terms too. For instance, Jörg Stadelbauer in his article “Zwischen Hochgebirge und Wüste” reminds us of other geological-geographical definitions of the region made by German geologist and geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, who defined Central Asia as a region having no access to ocean: ‘…Zentralasien ist vor allem durch den fehlenden Wasserabfluss zum Weltmeer zu definieren’ (Stadelbauer 2007: 10).

According to Sengupta, Central Asia geographically can be divided into three zones. The first area ‘lies between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya (also known as Maverrannahr); the second area, ‘referred to as Semirechye, extended north-east of the Syr Darya and north of the Tien Shan as far as the foothills of the Tien Shan’; the third zone ‘Kashgaria or Eastern Turkestan is dominated by the Takla Makan desertand was bounded by the Tien Shan, the Pamirs and the Kunlun Ranges’ (Sengupta 2002: 17). Ecologically, Sengupta considers dividing the region into two zones, ‘the northern steppe and southern sedentary part’ (ibid.). She further argues that ‘the two zones together form a frontier area between two Eurasian civilizations: Islamic-Iranian sedentary and Inner Asian nomadic. Culturally the region belongs to both’ (ibid.). Sengupta notes that their common feature throughout the history was ‘a lack of political centralization’ (ibid.).

German historian Bert G. Fragner (2007) follows the same division, referring to northern steppes as ‘Steppenreiche’ and to southern sedentary civilizations as ‘Hochkultur’ in his article ‘Hochkulturen und Steppenreiche der Kulturraum Zentralasien’. He also notes that northern frontiers of the region are geographically impossible to tell: ‘Die Nordgrenzen Zentralasiens sind naturräumlich nicht genau zu fassen. Hier lassen sich allenfalls kulturspezifische Gründe für die Zuordnung bestimmter Gebiete zu Zentalasien festmachen, eben Nordkasachstans, aber auch von Gebieten wie dem Altai-Gebirge und den Autonomen Republiken wie Tuwa und Burjatien. Im Westen reichen die Ebenen der Kasachensteppe über den Uralfluss hinweg bis an die Ufer der Wolga (nördlich von Astrachan). Ihre entferntesten Ausstülpungen reichen über das Steppenland der Republik der Kalmüken bis zu dem ukrainischen Steppengebiet nördlich der Halbinsel Krim’ (Fragner 2007: 30).

As mentioned above, Central Asia can be defined in a broad geographical term or in a narrow political term. In broad geographical term Central Asia includes apart from five post-soviet states, also Mongolia, southern Siberia, Afghanistan parts of China and Iranian Khorasan. As Alimov suggests “historically this vast zone which spreads from the Urals up to the Pamirs and from the shores of the Caspian Sea up to the Altai mountains, was a single entity, even through its name differed (Turan, Mavrounakhr, Deshti-Kipchak, Turkestan, etc.). During the pres-soviet period, the Central Asian cultural space comprised not only of aforementioned territory but also Northern Iran, Afghanistan and some regions of western China” (Alimov 2005: 249). In political terms, as mentioned above, CentralAsia is limited to five post soviet nation states, which have emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Russian (Soviet) literature differentiated between Middle and Central Asia (Средняя Азия и Центральная Азия). According to a German historian Jörg Stadelbauer Middle Asia referred to the four Soviet Central Asian Socialist Republics, whereas Central Asia referred to a wider georaphical area: „Die sowjetrussische Fachliteratur hatte zwischen „Zentralasien” in diesem weiten Sinn, bisher sogar meist ausschließlich auf die außersowjetischen Gebiete bezogen, und „Mittelasien” für die vier Unionsrepubliken Turkmenistan, Usbekistan, Tadschikistan und Kirgisien unterschieden’ (Stadelbauer 2007: 10). So Middle Asia was a political term, and Central Asia was a geographical term for the region. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union the term Middle Asia was very rarely used, and Central Asia refers to five post soviet states. As Stadelbauer puts it:‚Als Ende 1991 das Attribut Soviet obsolet wurde, blieb Central Asia, in der Regel erweitert um Kasachstan als den fünften Nachfolgestaat der UdSSR in der Großregion’ (ibid.).

Alimov in his book quotes the words of Mohammed-Reza Djalili and Thierry Kellner, that the term ‘Central Asia/Asie Centrale is an abstraction which proceeded from the western rationalism and spatial separation which was inherent to the geographers in the 19th century and beginning of the 20th centuries’ (Djalili M. and Kellner T. 2000 in Alimov 2005: 249). In western scholarship various terms were used to name the region, such as ‘Inner Asia’, ‘High Tartaria‘, ‘High Asia’ and much later ‘Soviet Central Asia’ or ‘Soviet Orient’ (see Alimov 2005; Stadelbauer 2007). In 1843, for the first time in the history, as Alimov puts it, Alexander von Humboldt ‘described the given region ‘‘as an independent geographicalensemble from the scientific point of view” (Humboldt A. 1843 in Alimov 2005: 251).

According to Alimov, ‘the tsarist administration ‘‘divided the territory in Asia, gained by military means, into 2 separate regions’: ‘steppe lands’ or ‘Kyrgyz lands’ in the north and the ‘Turkestan governorship-general’ with the centre in Tashkent in the south (Alimov 2005: 250). The term Turkestan was soon gone with the wind and the official expression to denote the region was ‘Kazakhstan and Central Asia (Казахстан и Средняя Азия) according to Alimov (ibid.). He argues that this expression bears a note of artificial separation: ‘Bolsheviks consider[ed] the ‘Kazakh steppes’ as a geostrategic buffer zone, which played a particular role in their foreign strategy towards the south and east’ (ibid. 251). Which was an approach of ‘divide et empera’, according to Alimov (ibid.).

However some Kazakh politicians and scientists would oppose this argument, as they believe they are part of larger Eurasia, rather than Central Asia. Uwe Halbach makes interesting observations, about the legitimacy to call Central Asia a region, and how Kazakhstan fits into this concept:

‚Außerdem ist unklar, inwieweit das riesige Land noch als regionaler Bestandteil Zentralasiens angesehen werden kann – wie es überhaupt umstritten ist, ob die ‚fünf-Stan-Länder’ (Kz, Kg, Uz, Tk, Tj) eine Region bilden. Regionalexperten bezweifeln, dass Kasachstan ‚just another -stan’ ist, da es – vor allem in seiner Wirtschaftsentwicklung mehr Ähnlichkeit mit Russland als mit seiner südlichen Nachbarn aufweise. Und die Tochter des Kasachischen Präsidenten, Dariga Nasarbajewa, betont mit Nachdruck, dass Kasachstan ein eurasisches und kein zentralasiatisches Land sei‘ (Halbach U. 2006: 7).

The Uzbek scholars, such as Dadabaev and Alimov are convinced that Central Asia is a region, which ‘share[s] a widely recognised geographical identity’ (Dadabaev 2004: 35). As Makarivech notes that ‘‘region is a set of countries that are more markedly interdependent over a wide range of different dimensions… than they are with other countries” (ibid. 36). Along these lines Dadabaev argues that Post Soviet Central Asian states are ‘regional constituents of both’ greater Eurasia and Central Asian region (ibid. 36). I would argue, that due to a long isolation of Central Asia states from their natural neighbours, like China, Afghanistan, and Iran Central Asians are identity-wise north- and west-oriented, i.e. countries of CIS.

Well, this is astonishing how unclear the term is, when it comes to scholarly investigations, as well as many other things which have to do with Central Asia…


  1. You’re quite right about how unclear the term is. I’ve taken to just telling people which countries I study rather than saying “Central Asia”. And they reply: “oh, the ‘stans.”

    And then there is the “academic iron curtain” issue of attempting to attach northern Afghanistan culturally and politically with the former Soviet republics.

    I think my wish that an organic name and geographic definition will be someday be agreed upon is just wishful thinking.

  2. I’m not sure why but this website is loading very slow for me. Is anyone else having this issue or is it a problem on my end? I’ll check back later and see if the problem still exists.

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