In oil-rich Central Asia, an intriguing history dovetails with modern political realities
Recent political events in Central Asia, though hardly noticed in Western news media, have undoubtedly created a buzz in intelligence and military communities in Washington, Beijing, Moscow and elsewhere, and possibly prompted some optimistic speculation in the corridors of international commerce as well.
By themselves, the events appear inconsequential. The president of Turkmenistan declared that three months in the calendar that were named by the late dictator Saparmurat Niyazov after himself, his mother and one of his books will revert to their traditional names. During his 17-year reign, Niyazov scattered the country with hundreds of billboards showing his smiling face and he commissioned dozens of statues of himself, including a 39-foot, revolving golden effigy atop a 250-foot tower in Ashgabat, the capital. The new president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhhamedov, now says he will transfer that statue to a site near the city limits.
COURTESY OF WEBSTER NOLAN
In the 16 months since Niyazov died, Berdimuhhamedov has tried to improve his isolated country's foreign and business relations, meeting with oil potentates in Saudi Arabia, agreeing to build a gas pipeline to China, visiting the European Union headquarters in Brussels, giving a warm welcome early in his tenure to Chevron executives, and making visas a little easier for tourists to get. On the domestic front, he's adding an extra year of schooling to required education and he's easing some rules on Internet use.
All this raises the question of whether Berdimuhhamedov might be moving Turkmenistan (population 5 million), with its immensely rich oil and natural gas reserves, away from obscurity and the suffocating pressures inflicted by Niyazov and previous Soviet rulers.
Meanwhile, immediately to the north in Uzbekistan (population 28 million), tensions with the West seem to be easing, if only slightly. In May 2005, Uzbek security forces killed more than 100 demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan. Officials in Tashkent, the capital, put the death figure at 187 but international human rights organizations say it might have been as high as 800. Washington and the European Union demanded an independent investigation. But President Islam Karimov, seen in the West as a ruthless dictator, responded by cancelling U.S. use of an air base for supply missions to neighboring Afghanistan.
But more recently, Karimov has quietly allowed the American military limited access to a base near the Afghan border and granted NATO use of the Uzbek rail system to send supplies into Afghanistan. The tradeoff seems to be a muting of criticism by the West.
For most Americans, the five "Stans" of Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan) are barely on the radar screen, but from a strategic standpoint, the region is an increasingly important element in U.S. geopolitical concerns. That's because of the vast fossil energy reserves in the area (a liter of water costs more than a liter of oil in Turkmenistan), close proximity geographically and culturally to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, and increasing commercial and military ties between the Stans and Moscow and Beijing through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (though Turkmenistan has not yet formally joined).
In fact, without much fanfare, high-level American government officials as well as senior petroleum executives have been making visits to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan for several years. So, when an opportunity arose last year to make a two-week visit to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, I signed on, partly out of curiosity and also to see some of the legendary Silk Road cities.
The trip became a sort of magical mystery tour, not in the whimsical manner of the Beatles lyrics, but full of intriguing stories at each stop along the way. For example, the one I heard most often, in several versions, involves the Mongol leader Genghis Khan and a Turkic ruler named Mohammed II, whose domain stretched from present-day Afghanistan to Iraq.
The story goes that around 1218 A.D., Genghis, having recently conquered much of western China, sent a 500-man caravan with gifts of gold and other Eastern riches to negotiate a trade deal with Mohammed. But the group was intercepted and massacred by one of Mohammed's subordinates. Genghis nonetheless decided to make another attempt at trade talks, sending 20 emissaries to meet with Mohammed, who for reasons still unknown promptly had them beheaded.
Genghis gave up on diplomacy and organized a 200,000-man invasion force that within the next five years plundered and destroyed dozens of cities and towns in Central Asia, butchered thousands of people and enslaved most of the survivors. Nobody knows why Mohammed chose to defy Genghis, or even how accurate the story is. But it stands today as a lasting example of a leader disgraced by his own foolhardiness. (Maybe he had an intelligence director who told him what he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to know).
In any case, the Central Asia story goes well beyond misbegotten political decisions. It's an area where people have endured conquest after conquest, brutal local rulers, extensive poverty and virtual serfdom, not for relatively short periods of five or even 50 years, but for century after century, up to the present day.
Despite all the tribulations, the cultures of the region produced major achievements in engineering, irrigation, craftsmanship, architecture, medicine, astronomy, philosophy, mathematics and other sciences, and, not least, remarkable successes in business.
Scholars still debate exactly when and how human civilization began in Central Asia. Early in the trip, our small group (mainly British) met a man who's been pursuing that mystery for more than 30 years.
(Enroute across the vast Kara Kum desert north of Iran to see him, our Russian-built all-terrain-vehicle was suddenly surrounded by about 50 shaggy camels, some of them peering curiously through the windows, but before I could get my camera clicking, herders drove them forward and they vanished in swirls of sand and dust.)
Our destination was Gonur Depe, a large archaeological dig in eastern Turkmenistan, where we met Viktor Sarianidi, who has been leading exploratory projects in this region since the early 1970s. "Until recently," he said, "we had been working on two main ideas. First, that this site might have been the home of a fifth Bronze Age civilization," the others being the China, India, Egypt and Mesopotamia of 2300 B.C.
"Second, we thought this might be the birthplace of Zoroastrianism (the fire-worshipping religion believed to be the first to preach monotheism). Almost everyone agrees about the first idea but not on the second."
The foundations of a 4,300-year-old palace and nearby buildings indicate a community of several hundred people who possessed a refined artistic sensibility, basic knowledge of mathematics, trigonometry and physics, and, significantly, some form of contact with far-away civilizations to the west and east. "Perhaps we have here a little Mesopotamia," Sarianidi said.
Another intriguing question is how commercial interaction with China got started. Some writers trace it to 138 B.C., when the remarkable adventurer Zhang Qian arrived in the region as an envoy from the Chinese Emperor Wu Di. The main purpose of the mission was to seek allies in ongoing battles with the Huns in Mongolia. But Zhang's visit also led to trade agreements (Chinese silk for Central Asian horses) and ultimately to the network of commercial routes between the West and China that became known collectively as the Silk Road.
A dominant figure in Central Asia stories is the Turkic-Mongol warrior Tamerlane, who burst out of present-day Uzbekistan in the mid-14th century A.D. to conquer a region that includes today's Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern India, southern Russia and much of the Stans. In nearly 50 years of warfare, Tamerlane slaughtered millions and destroyed many cities, including Baghdad and Delhi.
His capital, Samarkand, was a major Silk Road hub still ranked by international travelers as one of the world's most beautiful cities, particularly its main square (Registan) of three Islamic madrassas (seminaries) with high mosaic archways and domes of glittering tiles, the hillside remnants of the 15th-century observatory built by Tamerlane's grandson Ulu Beg in his quest to map the stars, and the awesome Shah-i-Zinda, a half-mile street of about 20 radiantly decorated mausoleums honoring scholars, royals and holy men of the past.
Samarkand also figures prominently in the business legends of Central Asia. The city had been serving as a base for the Sogdians, a federation of Persian peoples, when Alexander the Great invaded in 329 B.C. Harassed by Sogdian guerrilla attacks for more than a year, he finally bought peace by marrying Roxana, daughter of the local ruler.
For the next nine centuries, off and on, the Sogdians displayed their genius for making pragmatic deals. Working in what today would be called a multi-ethnic, multi-faith environment, they operated caravans, rest stations and bazaars for many miles along the Silk Routes, securing military protection from powerful tribes along the way.
Bazaars still serve as major gathering places throughout in the region for shopping, gossiping and entertainment. Just outside Ashgabat, we visited the Sunday bazaar called Tolkuchka, largest in the country, where locals and tourists crowd through the stalls seeking bargains in carpets, food, bolts of cloth and compact discs, varieties of kim chee prepared by descendants of Korean migrants, truck parts and household appliances, to name only a few items. It's a Wal-Mart with camels (a healthy female camel costs about $300.)
Other stops included:
» Khiva, near the Uzbek-Turkmenistan border, a large restored walled medieval city
» Bukhara, a day's drive across the desert from Khiva, with the famed 155-foot Kalon Minaret, first built nearly 1,000 years ago, said to have so impressed the sky-worshipping Genghis Khan that he spared it from the destruction he ordered for the rest of Bukhara.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, these two cities and others attracted the elite of academia, including the peripatetic polymaths Avicenna (author of a medical encyclopedia used for centuries in Europe as well as Asia), al-Biruni (astronomer, geologist, physicist, philosopher, anthropologist) and astronomer/poet Omar Khayyam.
The long desert rides, especially in Uzbekistan when our group had shrunk to just me and a driver, afforded time to reflect on the past and present of the region. After the Greek, Persian, Arab and Mongol invasions, a succession of Turkic tribes, ruthless local emirs, khans and sultans, Russian armies and Soviet communists ran the region.
Even today, nearly 20 years after independence from the Soviets, the situation for most people looks grim. Humanitarian organizations periodically criticize the authoritarian regimes in both countries, citing political corruption, the lack of free speech and free press, imprisonment and sometimes torture of political dissenters.
There's no tradition of democracy, few visible indications of a significant middle class except in the larger cities, and almost every town we passed or visited recalled photos of the Old South during the 1930s Great Depression. State ownership of land, industry and businesses is pervasive. The irksome bureaucracies are a socialist legacy.
Religion is an intriguing question. Population statistics describe the two Central Asia nations as about 90 percent Islamic, but a guide in Uzbekistan told me, "About 70 percent of us are what you might call passive Muslims," due largely to the 70-year Soviet era, which brought persecution, destruction of many mosques and elimination of religious education. Essentially, three generations have gone without organized religion, although some observers believe an extensive underground kept the faith alive.
Islamic education is on the rise, with madrassas and other institutes attracting a growing number of students. Unlike nearby Iran, which is Shiite, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are traditionally Sunni, with a strong mixture of Sufi mysticism, as evidenced by centuries-old mausoleums, including some architectural masterpieces, scattered around the region and built to honor Sufi scholar/saints.
Webster K. Nolan is a retired journalist. He worked at the Star-Bulletin from 1970-74.