Central Asia

Geography of the Area Known as Central Asia

Central Asia Timeline > Geography of Central Asia

Some early civilizations won places in the history books through writing; others by creating large empires or pervasive religions. Although there were major empires in the area, the claim to fame for Central Asia comes from fierce bands of horseback warriors and a dominant role in the trade between East and West.

Central Asia, centered on the modern nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, is mostly steppe, desert, and mountain. Here are some geographical highlights of ancient Central Asia.

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Ukrainian Steppes
Ukrainian Steppes. CC Ponedelnik_Osipowa at Flickr.com

Much of the region of Central Asia is covered by a semi-arid, treeless, mostly flat land known as the Steppe or Steppes. Part is in Europe by the Ukraine, but most is in Asia extending to eastern Mongolia.

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Taklamakan Desert on the Silk Road
Taklamakan Desert on the Silk Road. CC Kiwi Mikex at Flickr.com
The first use of the expression "Silk Road" -- actually "Silk Roads" appears to have been in German: Die Seidenstrassen. Geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905) used the expression "silk roads" to describe the trade routes linking China, India, and the Mediterranean world via central Asia. More »
Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan
Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. CC Carl Montgomery at Flickr.com

Bactria was a region of Central Asia that is thought to have been home to the religious figure Zoroaster. It was in what is modern northern Afghanistan between the Hindu Kush mountain range [Gd on Map] to the south and the Oxus River to the north. After Alexander the Great conquered Bactria between 329 and 327 [Map of Alexander's Itinerary], he married a Bactrian noblewoman named Roxane. Margiana was located in today's Turkmenistan.

The Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, also known as the Oxus Civilization, is the name archaeologists gave the area's Bronze Age civilization that lasted from c. 2200-1700 B.C. The people of the BMAC were sedentary and may have been Indo-Iranians. More »

Lake in the Kyzyl Kum Desert of Uzbekistan
Lake in the Kyzyl Kum Desert of Uzbekistan. Photo CC User golden road at Flickr.com
Called the Oxus River, by the Greeks, the Amu Darya is the longest river in Southwest Asia. In ancient times it was said to flow into the Aral or the Caspian Sea from the Pamir Mountains [Hd on Map] of Central Asia. The area between the Oxus and Jaxartes (Syr Darya) rivers was known by the Latin name of Transoxiana, in antiquity. As a Persian satrapy, Transoxiana, located along the northern routes of the Silk Road, was known by the name Sogdiana. The area contains two deserts, the Kyzyl Kum and the Kara Kum. The deserts' names mean 'red sand' and 'black sand'. More »
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Pazyryk Horseman. c 300 B.C. Detail from a carpet in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
Pazyryk Horseman. c 300 B.C. Detail from a carpet in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Photo by PHG

Horse-riding nomadic existence extended to Mongolia and China. We have evidence from the Pazyryk region of southern Siberia that lies in the Altai Mountains. Archaeologists have found remains of the nomads who lived there in the first millennium B.C. because they were buried in the kurgan tombs common to the Scythian and Sarmatian nomads and frozen in the permafrost.

This exhibit shows many of their artifacts and mummified remains: State Hermitage Museum :: Southern Siberia/Pazyryk More »

Takla Makan Desert
Desierto de Takla Makan (China) (NASA Terra-Modis). CC Flickr User Banco de Imágenes Geológicas

The Takla Makan Desert is in the Tarim Basin of modern China. In Archaeological GIS and Oasis Geography in the Tarim Basin, by Mariner Padwa, the Silk Road Foundation describes it as sand dunes, pebble deserts, and salt flats. It is one of the world's largest deserts. Archaeologists have uncovered a 4000-year-old Bronze Age Caucasian body preserved by the dry conditions. People lived in areas of the Takla Makan Desert in eras past when the desert covered a smaller area. The Tarim River, which is the largest inland river of Asia, has changed its course since ancient times. The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region relies on this river to keep the desert from encroaching further, according to "Fears over Western Water Crisis," by R. S.; Science, New Series, Vol. 321, No. 5889 (Aug. 1, 2008), p. 630. Snow melting from mountain ranges around the desert provide water for oases at the edges of the desert. More »

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Geographical Extent of Central Asia

Ancient World
Ancient World, from The Atlas of Ancient and Classical Geography by Samuel Butler, Ernest Rhys, editor (Suffolk, 1907, repr. 1908). Public Domain. Courtesy of Maps of Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and Neighboring Lands

In his 19th century Central Asia: from the Aryan to the Cossack, James Hutton defines the area as "bounded on the west by the Caspian; on the south-west by the Persian Province of Khorassan; on the south by Afghanistan, Kashmeer, and Little Tibet; on the east by the Chinese Empire; on the north by the river Irtish; and on the north-west by the Ural river...." or as "Between Great Tartary on the north, and Tibet, India, and Persia on the south, there runs a long tract of land, extending from the Great Kobi, or desert on the north-west part of China, westward as far as the Caspian Sea...."

By the start of the first millennium B.C., Indo-European speakers, presumed by Central Eurasian Studies professor Christopher I. Beckwith in his 2009 , to have been pastoral nomads with a strong warrior ethos and a war chariot technology, had infiltrated most of Eurasia even to China. From around 1000 B.C. these nomadic people in Central Asia began exerting a military presence on the bordering settled areas. This list looks at a few of the major events and trends. More »