Central Asia's Golden Age (800–1100): Why it Happened, Why it Ended

By
Markian Dobczansky

"It is not an exaggeration to say that from 800 to 1100 A.D., the Central Asian region was the hub of world culture, contributing significantly to the core civilizations of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, including China and India," said S. Frederick Starr, chairman, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and research professor, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and founding secretary, Kennan Institute. Speaking at a 4 December 2007 Kennan Institute lecture, Starr described a cultural and intellectual flowering in Central Asia that extended across many fields, making the region "bluntly, the center of the world."

Starr noted that the region he was discussing encompasses Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, as well as eastern Iran, western China, and northern Pakistan and India. During the time period under discussion, these lands were home to great empires that were crisscrossed by major trade routes, and produced lasting cultural and intellectual achievements in various fields of the arts and sciences.

The region gave rise to many historic figures who greatly influenced the development of mathematics, astronomy, literature, linguistics, political science, religion, and architecture. For example, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who was born in what is now Uzbekistan, is known as the founder of algebra and is the namesake of the algorithm. Omar Khayyam, a leading poet, also contributed to mathematics by identifying and solving all forms of cubic equations. Scholars from Central Asia made breakthroughs in astronomy and cartography. Starr pointed out that many of the great Persian-language poets were from Central Asia, rather than from what today is Iran. Abu Nasr al-Farabi was the "foremost Muslim philosopher, and second only to Aristotle in the firmament of philosophers," he asserted. Bukhari, who was from Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan, contributed to Islam by codifying the Hadiths.

Many of those mentioned by Starr were active in more than one field. "These were really, it seems to me, extraordinarily productive, extraordinarily fertile, creative geniuses in many, many disciplines, all appearing within a few hundred years of one another in an area that is roughly one and a half times the size of France," he noted.

Starr identified four possible reasons for this cultural and intellectual ferment. First, the region was situated on major trade routes that spread ideas and knowledge in addition to wealth. Second, the region was home to great cities, including Balkh in northern Afghanistan, a city Starr called "arguably the greatest city in the world in the 10th century." Third, the region was home to great empires that encouraged the accumulation of great wealth, which provided ideal conditions in which patronage could flourish. A fourth factor was the great mix of religions in the region. Zoroastrianism, Greek polytheism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all either originated in or left a substantial mark on the region. These religions co-existed and created an environment in which great thinkers were forced to engage these various religions and be open to making comparisons in their daily lives, Starr said.

There are various explanations for why Central Asia's golden age ended, Starr said. By the time of Tamerlane in the 14th century, many of the factors supporting the Central Asian renaissance were slipping away, he argued. The great empires, including that of Tamerlane, did not last. As a result of the increased number of borders, trade along the routes through Central Asia became more expensive and merchants such as the Portuguese decided to seek alternate routes. The great traditions of patronage of the arts and sciences suffered. Religious pluralism also underwent a slow decline. By 1100 A.D., the environment had changed from a culture influenced by many religions to one increasingly dominated by Islam. Finally, serious fractures within Islam itself began to assume a greater importance. More and more emphasis was placed on orthodox belief, according to Starr, which had a deadening effect on cultural and intellectual work.

In spite of the impressive achievements of Central Asian civilization, many in the West remain unaware of this history. Many of the great cultural and intellectual figures of the era have been misidentified as belonging to other civilizations. Starr noted that a great deal of the works he mentioned were written in Arabic or Persian, and their authors have often been misidentified as Arabs or as Persians. According to Starr, another reason for the relative obscurity of the role of Central Asia is the legacy of the Soviet period, during which hardly anyone outside of the Soviet Union researched or promoted the classic historical figures of Central Asia.

In spite of the lack of awareness about this period, Starr said that it was quite relevant to today's world. The five post-Soviet states and Afghanistan are in the process of rediscovering their historic legacy. The history of the region is important for Western countries to understand as they advise Central Asian countries on issues of importance in today's world. Third, the world of Central Asia was a cauldron of ideas, religions, and great economic opportunity. In Starr's opinion, free trade brought this world into being and the closing of major trade routes brought about its demise. Finally, Starr observed that the Central Asian case underscores the fragility of civilization and the great achievements of humankind.

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