A Thousand and one nights at the crossroads of the universe

Article by Lorant Kiss

Baghdad – A City of the Silk Road

By the river of Tigris, home of the mythical merchant and sailor Sinbad, Baghdad was at the heart of a complex network of trade routes and markets: the Silk Road. This is represented in the various sources and destinations of the trade activity of the city including China, India, Ceylon, Japan, Korea, Russia, Sicily, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Samarkand, Egypt, Eastern Africa, Yemen, Hejaz. But how this metropolis emerged from the sand of desert to be one of the capitals of the Silk Road in the medieval age?

The city of Baghdad between 150 and 300 AH (767 and 912 AD) from Muhammadanism


Ambition of the Abbasids

The history of Baghdad (also known as Madinat al-Salam, the City of Peace or Round City) starts with an assassination and ends with the downfall of the Assassins.

After Omar, the Great had been assassinated by a slave, one dynasty rose to power from the escalating conflict: the Umayyads. As they gained most of their support from Syria, they moved the capital of the Caliphate from  Medina, the Islamic religious centre, to Damascus. The House of Abbas, opposing the Umayyads, retired to Persia to wait for the right time to overthrow the Umayyad rule.

This moment has arrived with Abu Abbas Abdullah who founded the Abbasid dynasty as the ruler of the Caliphate. His successor in power was his brother, Jafar Abdullah al-Mansur, who extended the rule of the empire to Persia, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Syria. To represent the triumph of his dynasty, he wanted to create a new capital, close to his Persian allies somewhere at the heart of his empire.

As he sailed down the Tigris to find the perfect place, he was advised of the most suitable location by Nestorian monks, who had lived there earlier than Muslims. Abundance of water and the possibility of control over strategic and trade routes of Tigris determined the location of the new capital: it was established on the coast of Tigris at the point where it is the closest to the Euphrates, the other main river of Mesopotamia. These two rivers linked the city to north with upper-Syria and Asia Minor, and south with the Gulf of Basra and further to India. It faced east towards the Iranian plateau and Central Asia. Therefore, it is not surprising that according to ninth-century Arab geographer and historian Yaqubi, author of The Book of Countries, the position of Baghdad on the Tigris close to the Euphrates gave it the potential to be “the crossroads of the universe”.

Suq-al-Ghazal Minaret in 1911, the oldest minaret in Baghdad from MidEast Image

It is the ambition of the Abbasids which erected Baghdad’s towers and walls and tempted merchants and adventurers to its bazaars and ports. This is the city from which mythical hero Sinbad set sail and where some of the tales of A Thousand and One Nights takes place. But how did the scene of Arabian Nights look like?

Inside the circle of flames

Reflecting Persian and Sasanian urban design, the city was built in a circle surrounded by walls. Construction works started on 30 July 762 as royal astronomers predicted this day as the most favourable for building work to begin. Mansur supervised the whole procedure rigorously: to ensure the most precise work he placed cotton balls soaked in naphtha along the layout on the ground and set alight to mark the position of double outer walls. Being around a circle three miles in diameter, it was constituted by two-hundred-pound blocks of stones in a height of 90 feet and width of 40 feet. As Yaqubi mentions, 100, 000 workers got involved in the construction process.

The round design was unique in that time and it proved to be effective: four equidistant gates led to the city centre through straight roads. The four gates are: Khorasan Gate to the north-east, Sham (Syrian) Gate to the north-west, Basra Gate to the south-east and Kufa Gate to the south-west. Kufa and Basra opened at the Sarat Canal, a key part of waterways that drained the waters of Euphrates into the Tigris. Sham Gate led to the main road to Anbar, and across the desert to Syria. Khorasan was close to the Tigris and ensured the connection with boats on the rivers.

The main roads starting from the four gates leading to the city centre were connected with arcades crowded by shops and stands of merchants from all along the Silk Roads. However, the heart of the city was a royal preserve with the Great Mosque and the caliph’s Golden Gate Palace an expression of the union between temporal and spiritual authority. Only the caliph had authority to ride within this area. His palace rose above the buildings with its emerald-coloured dome in 130 feet high, nicknamed ,,The Green Dome”.

Buniya Mosque in Baghdad in 1973 from Wikipedia

As the city expanded with bazaars and shops settling outside the walls, Al-Karkh district was formed at the south. The prospering city reached its zenith in the 8th and 9th century where poets, scholars, philosophers, theologians, engineers and merchants raised the intellectual and economic of the city. Wealth poured from every corner of the world to its market and buildings, erected high above the desert and the waters of Tigris. Its library had the largest repository of books which later could be the ground of the great achievements of Arabic and European science.

Courtyard of Mustansiriya madrasa, an institution of higher education, established by Al-Mustansir in 1227 from Wikipedia


Hülegü and the end of an era

In the tenth century, caliph Mu’tasim moved the centre of the empire from Baghdad to Samarra, and the once centralised empire began to demolish. Baghdad has never reached that status it had under the early-Abbasids.
It was 1257 when the greatest political event first reached Baghdad – the Mongols. In September, Mongol Hülegü Khan sent an ultimatum to the caliph bidding him to surrender himself and demolish the outer walls of the capital. As the caliph rejected, the Mongol conqueror set forth to punish the city. He arrived to Baghdad in January 1258 and defeated the city in a month, which fell to the Mongols. Baghdad faced massive destruction of its buildings and massacre killing 800, 000 of its inhabitants.

This is how the medieval glory of Baghdad passed away. It later suffered from Tamerlane and the war of two nomadic Turkic clans, the Black Sheep and the White Sheep. From 1534, after hundreds of years of Ottoman rule, the city became able to develop rapidly again in the twentieth century, but that is another story.

A celebration of history and culture: the World Nomad Games

‘The World Nomad Games have become one of the most significant events in our history, in the history of all nomads.’

Kubatbek Boronov, First Vice Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan

II Nomad Games by Save the Dream

Nomadic culture leaves a deep and colourful imprint on Eurasian history. Nomadic empires first arose as shadow empires in response to the centralisation of China according to one of the main academic debates. On the eastern side of the steppe, necessity forced the nomads into creating a centrally-administered Mongolia to conduct potentially violent business with China in order to maintain their existence. They did not have the capacity to fight China head-on as their existence was built around their mobility in small numbers – entirely distinct from the sedentary cities of the Chinese empire. Nomadic groups aimed to preserve their mobile lifestyles, yet not in conquered lands. They adopted an imperial-style administration system where they ruled indirectly through boyars or Russian noblemen collecting taxes for them. Some argue that the arrival of the Mongol Empire contributed to the emergence and construction of the European nation state. In contrast, to the west of the steppe, nomads made a living not by violent negotiations but by dominating the trading network. These groups created the political framework for the Silk Route through policies providing security to the caravans crossing Eurasia, ensuring the smooth working of the trade network that potentially contributed to European unity. The World Nomad Games thrives to revive, preserve and develop this unique history and ethnocultural particularities of the nomadic civilisation in order to foster more tolerant and open relationships between people in the age of globalisation and amidst the political and economic regional transformations.

Turkmenistan’s performance at the opening ceremony of the II World Nomad Games by Save the Dream

The game is described as a fusion between rugby and polo, with two teams competing to throw a headless carcass of a goat into a goal at each end of the field.

Every two years, beginning from 2014, the Games take place in the lakeside town of Cholpon-Ata, in the Issyk-Kul province of Kyrgyzstan, although the hosting location is set to change for future games. This year, athletes from 74 countries participated in 37 traditional nomad games, involving horse games, wrestling, martial arts, archery, hunting and intellectual games. The zeinth of strength and showmanship is found in horse game of Kok Boru (sometimes known as Buzkashi). The game is described as a fusion between rugby and polo, with two teams competing to throw a headless carcass of a goat into a goal at each end of the field. Traditionally the winner would take the carcass home and cook it up in a feast. Er Ernish, another Kyrgyz sport, sees two athletes wrestle on horseback seeking to dismount their opponent. Wrestling is the most represented sport at the Games with fifteen different types on offer from the participating countries, including Alyh, or belt wrestling, where the participants throw the opponent on the ground by grabbing their belt around their waist.

The ancient nomadic game of Kok Boru by Journeys on Quest

Participants do not only compete in ethnosports but also in everyday activities of nomads, such as yurt building, hunting with a golden eagle (Burkut Saluu), falconry (Dalba Oynotuu), dog racing, and hunting (Taigan Jarysh).

‘If Genghis Khan were alive, he would be here’.

Kazakh athlete with his golden eagle by Save the Dream

While Cholpon-Ata hosts the sports games, the cultural base is the town of Kyrchyn Jailoo in the mountains, displaying performances of Kyrgyz customs, entertainment and games and those of the participating countries. These ethnocultural shows introduce the dances, fashion, bazaars, and music of the nomads – embracing their originality and diversity. In the extensive yurt camp set up both by the official organisers and local Kyrgyz families as accommodation, guests can experience Central Asian hospitality, traditional cuisine, horse taxis, and hot air balloon rides in the mountains.

Nomadic yurt village at the Games by Save the Dream

Unsurprisingly, the 2018 World Nomad Games were won by Kyrgyzstan, with Kazakhstan in second, and Russia on the third place. At the closing ceremony, Kyrgyzstan ceremonially handed a vessel of glacial water -the totem of the Games symbolising simultaneously both life and the difficulty of finding fresh water – and the book of great winners to Turkey, who will host the next Games in 2020.

The World Nomad Games were broadcasted all over the world in over 60 countries, the sports, traditions, cultures and lives of nomads reached hundreds of millions of people. With such an extensive celebration of the nomadic culture and history the commentator of the second Games was right: ‘If Genghis Khan were alive, he would be here’.

Walking in forgotten lands: conservation in Kyrgyzstan

The rural climbs of Kyrgyzstan are legendary. They are also under threat. Brett Wilson has been working as part of an international effort to secure the future of Central Asia’s unique native flora.

One of many stunning views encountered in Kyrgyzstan’s Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve.

Central Asia was once the focus of trade across the world. The Silk Road ran from China across into Europe spanning the mountains and valleys of Asia’s central region. However, as this region became absorbed into the USSR, its links to the Western world were broken and the transfer of knowledge regarding this region’s biodiversity was, unfortunately, limited due to rising tensions between countries. Today, after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the independence of countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the scientific and environmental departments of these countries are growing and the amazing species diversity that these areas hold is becoming apparent.

I worked in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan in one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world, the walnut-fruit forest. These forests are thought to be the origin of an incredible variety of fruits and nuts such as apples, pears, apricots, walnuts, and pistachio nuts as well as a range of flowers including tulips. Due to the history of these countries, little research has been carried out in these forests especially with regard to some of the more Endangered species. The landscapes where these species are found are heavily utilised by the local human population. The resources gathered from these forests have helped support local communities for thousands of years and continue to be an exceptionally important part of local culture and life.

Farming and forest are never far apart in the Kyrgyz landscape. 

The forest ecosystem, however, is under pressure due to overharvesting of resources and excessive livestock grazing within the forest landscape. This is greatly limiting the regeneration capacity of the forest and may mean that these areas are not sustained for future generations. As the local populations continue to increase, this problem also escalates. The remaining habitat fragments are becoming more damaged and populations of many fruits and nuts are declining dramatically. Numerous species located in these forests have been identified as threatened and in need of urgent conservation action. However, limited information on these forest systems and the species within greatly inhibits the targeting and therefore the effectiveness of any action planned.

I studied the apple species Malus niedzwetzkyana, already on the Endangered list, with the hope of reducing the knowledge gaps surrounding threats to this species and its ecology. The apple is unique as it has a red pigment which permeates through its leaves, flowers and fruit leaving red-tinged leaves, a deep red fruit from its skin through to its flesh, and pink flowers. This red pigment is a type of anthocyanin which has been shown to have beneficial health properties, with anti-inflammatory and anti-viral being two of the most significant. Its unique genetic makeup highlights it as a critical species to protect as it has important potential use in developing new apple varieties.

The red fruit of the Niedzwetzky’s apple tree. The unique pigmentation of this species makes it identifiable against other apple species.

Working with Fauna and Flora International and Imperial College London, I collected data in four forest fragments that were known to be strongholds of the walnut-fruit forest ecosystem and where local communities were willing to provide support to conservation practices. During my trip, I located around 150 individuals [the largest dataset known globally] and recorded the extent of threats from livestock grazing and firewood collection across these areas. I also explored the basic ecology of the species and developed a species distribution model to investigate historical forest cover and try to develop evidence for past habitat loss.

By gathering this information, I have been able to contribute to the protection of an iconic Central Asian landscape and change the fate of one of its more unique species.

My research highlighted that all forest fragments were greatly affected by humans.  However, in the sites of Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve and Kara-Alma Forestry Unit, there was potential to strengthen exceptionally stressed populations through sapling planting projects. I identified south-west slopes with relatively open canopy as good areas to plant saplings. Using the species distribution model, I provided evidence that the historical range of this species was much larger than its current range, highlighting the effect of habitat loss. This affects not only Malus niedzwetzkyana but the whole community found in the walnut-fruit forests.

By gathering this information, I have been able to contribute to the protection of an iconic Central Asian landscape and change the fate of one of its more unique species. This work is critical in designing the conservation actions that will protect this species in the future and the community in which it grows. To have been able to explore a scarcely known corner of the world, walking through the forests where few have been before, was a truly remarkable experience. The contrast of Russian and Turkish influences alongside the unique traditions of the region make this a veritable cultural melting pot. This region, hidden from the world I grew up in, is full of incredible people, exciting nature, and wonderful opportunities, a land which I hope the rest of the world will come to appreciate as I have done.

Brett Wilson carried out his research with the support of Fauna and Flora International, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Imperial College London, with funding from the Global Trees Campaign. His interests lie in tree conservation research and he is currently an intern at Botanic Gardens Conservation International where he works on protecting tree species worldwide.

All photography by the author.

Europe and Kazakhstan

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 edition of Politique Internationale. Permission to republish has been kindly granted by the author.

Dr Benita Ferrero-Waldner, former Minister of Foreign Affairs for Austria, outlines the growing interdependence of Kazakhstan and the European Union.

In 1991, as the USSR broke up, the republics in Central Asia found themselves in a new and challenging world. The region as a whole has advanced in leaps and bounds since then. Each year, the five nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are making greater contributions to global dialogue on issues of critical importance to the countries of Europe. For almost every major sphere of international policy — from energy security to the environment, combating people and drug trafficking, and counter-terrorism — there is an ever-growing alliance with Europe, and the potential for further collaboration is enormous.

A Soyuz spacecraft is transported by train to its launch pad at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, where many European Space Agency launches take place.

I have taken a great personal interest in the region since my first visit in 1999 ahead of Austria’s chairmanship of the OSCE, during which we focused on the region in particular.   I was struck then, as I still am today, by the industry and ambition of the Central Asian states, and of Kazakhstan in particular. These qualities have seen the country rise from a very challenging start to become the confident player on the world stage that we see today.

From the early days of its Independence Kazakhstan has adopted a multidimensional foreign policy, and recently set out a “2050 Strategy” which aims to make the country one of the 30 most competitive nations in the world by the mid-point of the century.

Considered as a whole, the European Union is Kazakhstan’s largest foreign trade partner, accounting for 50% in of its total external trade, and the largest investor in Kazakhstan, with a 60% share in its FDI. As for Kazakhstan, it exports 60% of its oil to Europe, making it Europe’s third largest provider of hydrocarbons among non-OPEC countries. In 2015 Kazakhstan and the European Union signed an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement — the strongest possible framework of bilateral cooperation between non-neighbour states, which assesses 29 potential areas of cooperation.

The partnership is set to grow further, as witnessed by Kazakhstan’s joining the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in 2014, the first Central Asian country to do so. Kazakhstan’s landmark election as a non-permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council in 2016 will have greatly strengthened the country’s standing in Europe; as will its accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2015, a development which was strongly advocated by the European Union throughout nearly two decades of negotiation.

A new EU strategy for Kazakhstan and other Central Asian Countries was announced in 2015, emphasizing areas for economic and social development. Since then, European leaders have lauded the improvement in business conditions in Kazakhstan and pushed for further investment and trade in the country. An improved visa regime has been mooted, as has further cooperation in education.

A major priority for both Kazakhstan and Europe has been establishing a partnership in the energy field. Kazakhstan’s vast energy resources are deemed to have played an important role in the development of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) project, set to bring vast quantities of gas from the Caspian Basin to Europe. European countries are also aware of the great potential for the production of green energy in Kazakhstan, a territory well-suited for solar and wind energy production. “Future Energy” was the theme of EXPO 2017, which concluded recently in Astana.

Cooperation in international and domestic security is another key component in the Europe-Kazakhstan partnership. Kazakhstan has been fully supportive of EU regional programmes aimed at coordinating efforts in the field of counter terrorism, counter-narcotics and border management. The country’s pioneering policy of nuclear disarmament, and the concrete steps it has taken to prevent nuclear proliferation worldwide, have continued to receive the EU’s full backing since the early 1990s.

As a European diplomat who has followed the rise of Central Asia since the fall of the USSR with great interest, the mutual benefits of an ongoing partnership between Kazakhstan and the countries of Europe seem self-evident. From a European perspective, it is now crucial to build on the momentum for engagement with Kazakhstan afforded by these positive recent developments, and keep strengthening a fruitful partnership based on common interests and shared values. I look forward to seeing what prospects the future holds in this respect.

Dr Benita Ferrero-Waldner is a prominent Austrian diplomat and politician. Ferrero-Waldner served as Foreign Minister from 2000 to 2004 and was the ÖVP’s candidate in the 2004 Austrian presidential election, which she narrowly lost with 47.6% of votes. She has served as the European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy, and as the European Commissioner for Trade and European Neighbourhood Policy, and is credited with being the key diplomat in the 24 July 2007 release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor imprisoned by Libya. She also worked to improve conditions for children infected with HIV/Aids.

Wu-Stan Clan: Central Asia’s ancient rap tradition

“It’s all about improvising. Who has the sharpest verses with the most musicality and rhythm and wisdom and wit?”

That’s Alagushev Balai, a Kyrgyz interviewed thirteen years ago by the author Peter Finn. He’s describing aitysh, Central Asia’s adversarial, ad-libbed performance tradition that’s half music and half sick flow.

Didar Qamiev, born 1988, is a celebrated member of Kazakhstan’s new generation of akyns.

Aitysh is a contest between two participants, or akyns. They sit across the room from each other, improvising rhythmic, rhyming rebuttals on subjects suggested by the audience. Though good-natured and often comedic, aitysh has teeth. When one akyn needs to diss another, nothing is off limits: there’s a long-standing custom that allows akyns all forms of slander. They make backhanded political statements, criticise each other’s style, flirt, and flat-out insult one another.

“During an aityshakyns sing their songs in turns,” said Balai. “It is a musical dialogue, like a debate. When one akyn starts an argument, the second one should continue it starting a new rhyme or following the competitor’s one.”

The akyn’s goal is to convince his audience that’s he is the better performer. Just as in a rap battle, a crowd of onlookers is crucial in deciding the victor.

The tradition is artful too, and often cuttingly satirical. Politics and morals have alwasy been central to aitysh, and it’s as philosophical as Dylan, as gritty as Nas, and — sometimes — as egomaniacal as Kanye.

No one seems to know exactly where aitysh came from, but it’s been a fixture for at least a thousand years. In the pre-Soviet days of majority illiteracy, akyns played a vital cultural role. They were the agents of social and historical identity, but also helped each generation to expound its zeitgeist, celebrate its heroes and hold its leaders to account.

During the Soviet period, unusually, aitysh wasn’t entirely scrubbed from Kazakh and Kyrgyz culture, but requisitioned as a way to adapt old legends to the new rulers.

“A lot of attention was paid to akyn and the communists used it as a propaganda loudspeaker,” said Balai. “Akyns sang about Lenin and the revolution and the achievements of the party.”

It was dangerous to be an akyn in Communist Central Asia.

“During the Soviet period, akyns and their poetry were strictly controlled,” the young performer, Aaly Tutkuchev, told author, Elmira Köchümkulova. “The KGB told them to write down the text of their poetry before they went out to sing in front of people.”

So tightly did aitysh come to be associated with communism, that by the collapse of the Soviet Union the akyn art was almost extinct. According to Finn, Kyrgyzstan had only four akyns left in 1991. An influx of Western music — some of it, let’s hope, from Queensbridge and Compton — gave aitysh all the cachet of morris dancing and oompah.

As the new nation states matured, however, young people began to rediscover the tradition. Across the board, by the early 2000s, Central Asia’s cultural heritage gained a new importance. In 2003, UNESCO added the akyns to its list of intangible cultural heritage. In 2001, Kyrgyz public figure, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz, established the Aitysh Public Fund, a charitable organisation that publicises the art and has trained over a hundred new akyns.

Now, Kyrgyz and Kazakh akyns participate in the democratic political process — passing from village to village to deliver a commentary, soapbox-style.

“Akyns have always given heart to the Kazakh people in times of hardship and misery,” Kazak akyn, Didar Qamiev told the researcher, Jangül Qojakhmetova. “During the Great Patriotic War, in 1943, an aitysh in Almaty raised people’s spirits and hopes. Contemporary aitysh enlighten people and enrich them spiritually.”

The natural and unnatural wonders of Central Asia

In terms of space, Central Asia has a lot of it.

With a combined land area of 3,926,790 square kilometres, the Five Stans cover 2.63 percent of the world’s landmass. Although that is an area far larger than India, Central Asia has a population density of just eighteen people per square kilometre. India, by comparison, is 25 times as densely populated. What is in all of that space in-between the people? What does the natural world conjure across Central Asia? In this article we take a trip to six of the most extraordinary centres of the natural (and unnatural) world of Central Asia, to discover how the people of Central Asia are both shaped and shaping the vast environment around them.

Pamir Mountains (Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan)

It makes sense to begin with the “Roof of the World” — the Pamir Mountains. Written about in the West since the time of Ptolemy, centuries ago three branches of the Silk Road used to cross the Pamirs. Whilst most of the range lies within Tajikistan, its fringes seep into Afghanistan, China and Kyrgyzstan. A diverse array of societies live in semi-autonomous and autonomous areas of the mountains. Many are small nomadic communities of Tajiks, but sizeable populations live in small cities such as Khorog.

Climbers in 1978 pose for a photograph with ‘Peak Communism’, as the highest point in Central Asia was then known.

The tallest peak of the Pamirs — Kongur Tagh — is not in Central Asia, but China. Ismoil Peak is the highest in the region, at a modest 7,495m — the fiftieth tallest mountain in the world. Formerly known as Peak Communism, the mountain was more formerly still named after Joseph Stalin, but gained its current name in the late twentieth century to commemorate the Samanid emir, Ismail Samani.

Gates of Hell (Turkmenistan)

‘The Gates of Hell’, which for the past four decades has been a benchmark for ‘The hottest thing in Turkmenistan since…’

From the heights of heaven, we journey to the Gates of Hell. Yes, the door to the underworld can be found in Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert, 275km north of the country’s capital. The Darvaza Gas Crater emerged in 1971 following a Soviet drilling accident. In an attempt to extract oil, engineers ruptured a natural gas pocket unearthing an enormous crater, and swallowing up the rig. Immediately, toxic gas spewed from the 230 feet-wide crater and animals in the area soon began to perish. In an attempt to cull the spread of methane, geologists opted to set the crater on fire, and thus the Flames of Hell came to Earth. It is not unusual for gas craters to be set on fire but, usually, they extinguish within a few weeks, months, or at most, years; no one knows when, or even if the Darvaza Crater will stop burning. Today, the Gates of Hell is a popular tourist attraction, which Google helpfully informs us is “Open 24 Hours”.

Aral Sea (Kazakstan and Uzbekistan)

The famous ‘disappearing lake’ act.

Tragedy hit Central Asia in the 1960s, in what many experts believe to be one of the greatest ecological disasters of all time. The Aral Sea was one the world’s fourth-largest lake — the second largest in Asia. Covering 26,000 square miles, it truly was one of the natural wonders of the region, dividing a chunk of border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Fish, and thus the local fishing industry, has declined immensely since the disappearance of water. This photograph of a beached fishing vessel in the Bay of Zhalanas, Aralsk, Kazakhstan, illustrates the point.

Today, that border requires not a boat to cross, but feet. In the 1960s, as part of the Soviet economic plan to make Central Asia the world’s largest producer of cotton, the two great rivers of Central Asia were diverted for an irrigation project. The Amu Darya and the Syr Darya had fed the Aral, but catastrophic negligence rapidly depleted the sea’s water supply. By 1990, the sea split in two, and by 2003, the depth had fallen by 72 feet. Eventually, the Aral held just one-tenth of its original volume. Fishing ports turned to barren wastelands and dust bowling swept up sand and chemical residues from the now exposed seabed. Although a global effort led by the World Bank has sought to reinvigorate the Northern Aral Sea, many experts believe that the vast majority of this once great lake will remain barren. The Aral Sea disaster provides a stark and rather apocalyptic prequel to the world’s looming water crisis.

Fedchenko Glacier (Tajikistan)

At eleven times the length of Canada’s Athabasca Glacier, the Fedchenko Glacier is the world’s longest non-polar Glacier.

2000km away from the Aral is Fedchenko Glacier, the world’s longest non-polar glacier. First discovered in 1878, it is by far the biggest glacier in the Pamir range and its runoff eventually trickles into what is left of the Aral Sea. The ice on Fedchenko Glacier, found in the east of Tajikistan, is 1000m thick in parts and measures 77km in length. Put in perspective, Canada’s famous Athabasca Glacier is just 7km long. The source of Fedchenko is found in Gorno-Badakhshan province upon Revolution Peak, the highest point in the eastern part of the Yazgulem Range.

Sharyn Canyon (Kazakstan)

Kazakstan’s great Canyon will most likely become grand in the next few hundred million years.

Close to the border with China is one of Central Asia’s more unusual sites: Sharyn Canyon. The valley began to be formed rather recently – just 90 million years ago. Its most famous point—The Valley of Castles—provides the off the beaten track tourist with some truly epic photos for their Instagram. Although it is dwarfed by the Grand Canyon for length, it is still nearly 100km long, and holds some remarkable ecological sites. A prehistoric forest, for example, containing a large number of Sogdian Ash, a particularly rare species of Ash. Sharyn Canyon National Park is 120 miles east of Almaty and the staggering views of the ancient dust-orange rock canyon walls are a key attraction for Kazakstan’s incipient tourist industry.

Chuy Valley (Kazakhstan)

Kazakhstan is the alleged birthplace of cannabis, and in the Chuy Valley, 400,000 hectares have grown wild in amongst the Tien-shan mountains. Ever since the restrictive drug policies of the Soviet Union, this has been something of a political headache; whereas nature was defeated in the Aral Sea, the hardy nature of wild cannabis has allowed the crops to survive multiple eradication attempts, making cannabis Kazakhstan’s most potent perennial weed. Under the cover of night, locals are known to descend into the valley to collect small quantities of wild cannabis – which is famed for a low potency and consequent lack of hangover effects. Large-scale harvesting is inhibited by an annual police crackdown on efforts to organise collection efforts – as such, organised criminals rub shoulders with bohemian enthusiasts, with no groups having a monopoly on the region of natural abundance.

A ‘high’ valley in Kazakhstan. Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak.

There is your heaven to hell then — a whistle-stop tour of the natural wonders of Central Asia. Though it would rarely come to mind when we think of the epic of our natural environment, Central Asia possesses some of the most remarkable examples of the undiscovered, the unbelievable, and unfortunately, the unnatural. Whilst the Darvaza Gas Crater is an example to poke fun at, the Aral Sea disaster is not. Perhaps the great measure Central Asia’s natural wonders is, then, humankind’s utterly fragile relationship to the natural world.

Cheques through the mail: the changing nature of Central Asia’s remittance economy

Central Asian nations must supersede historic economic ties with Russia both by fostering employment and investment links elsewhere, and by generating a meaningful internal economy.

A worker moves fish at a processing plant in Aralsk, Kazakhstan.

The economies of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are heavily dependent on remittances from migrant labourers in Russia. Tajikistan is the most remittance-dependent country in the world, with four in ten adult males seeking employment abroad. The increased movement of people across post-Soviet Eurasia echoes the historical connectivity and cross-cultural interactions within the region. These young workers have found employment in low-income jobs industries such as construction sites and natural resource extraction.

According to the World Bank, remittance inflows in Tajikistan represented 42% of the country’s GDP in 2014. At an individual level, remittances support the daily subsistence of poor families, and act as a medium for domestic consumption. In turn, this improves the balance of payments by providing governments with tax from goods purchased through remittances. However, remittances to Central Asia have begun to diminish.

Country 2015 2016
Uzbekistan $3 billion $2.74 billion
Tajikistan $2.2 billion $1.9 billion
Kyrgyzstan $1.5 billion $1.7 billion

Remittances from Russia to Central Asia, www.eurasianet.org

The above figures demonstrate the decline of remittances from Russia to Central Asia. This fall is linked to developments in the global economy. The global plunge in oil prices has caused a slump in the Russian economy, triggering a recession.

“Migrant workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan face tougher immigration laws as the two countries do not belong to the Eurasian Economic Union”

Western sanctions imposed after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea has further compounded the economic crisis. These two developments have resulted in a devaluation of the Rouble and thus the value in dollars of remittances. The weakness of the rouble has resulted in the falling of real wages in Russia. Economic deterioration in Russia has, in turn, lowered demand for Central Asia labour, forcing migrant workers to return home. Moreover, migrant workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan face tougher immigration laws as the two countries do not belong to the Eurasian Economic Union. This phenomenon has also affected migrant workers from the Caucasus. It will be interesting to see if the lack of employment opportunities in Russia precipitates a flow of migration to other countries in Europe or Asia.

Beyond Russia’s economic travails, a remittance-dependant economy signals low levels of investment (and thus a lack of productive non-primary jobs), declining terms of trade, and persistent vulnerability to the vicissitudes of the global economic climate. Moreover, the iterative waves of emigration serve to undermine the fragile national consciousness in nascent democracies and cause a variety of social fractures as a consequence of widespread absenteeism. Hence there is a need both to move away from Russian dependence, and the remittance economy itself.

“Increased foreign direct investment (FDI) from China and Turkey highlight the geopolitical shifts occurring in the region.”

The structural over-reliance on remittances have created an economic dilemma for Central Asian governments. Lower remittances have engendered a fall in economic growth as the purchasing power of citizens diminish. Taking into account the excessive debt affecting these countries, governments are forced to increase spending, thereby exacerbating fiscal deficits.

However, the combination of established migrant communities from Central Asia in Russia and the ease of assimilation via a shared language act as recalcitrant barriers to swift transitions in the nature of Central Asian remittance economies.

Clearly, these countries must seek alternative solutions and diversify their economies. Increased foreign direct investment (FDI) from China and Turkey highlight the geopolitical shifts occurring in the region. Increased investment in infrastructure will reduce the dependency on remittances and stimulate the employment market in a region that offers cheaper labour than its neighbours. The pursuit of alternative currency inflows signals a region willing to adapt and evolve to changes in the global economy.

China is currently the largest investor in the region. Its Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), established in 2013, offers an alternative to economic strategies oriented towards Russia. Likewise, the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank represents a novel source of funding for economic development and infrastructure-building in Central Asian states. As Central Asia re-orients itself in the global economy, it is faced by a plethora of opportunities, challenges, and potential traps. Will leaders look beyond Moscow and seek friendship elsewhere?

Banking on Islam: Central Asia’s future in the world of Islamic finance

Unsurprisingly, things changed in Central Asia after the end of the USSR. Like Russia, industry was privatised and market capitalism embraced. However a less obvious transition is the uptake in Islamic finance (IF) facilities, both as a commercial source of investment and liquidity, and private banking services.

The financial district in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where Islamic has its first foothold in Central Asia.

According to Reuters, Islamic finance growth worldwide has been double-digit since 2000, and this trend is manifesting in Central Asia with the emergence of new facilities and incorporation into wider global IF networks. Islamic finance is structured by, and complies with, sharia law — especially in consideration to the goods and services it funds (for example, pork or alcohol) and the prohibition of particular forms of interest. These institutions have grown in tandem with a global revival of Islamic identity since the late twentieth century, and a disillusionment with ‘western’ banking forms and the perceived regularity of their failure to successfully underwrite risk. In tandem, the Soviet policy of religious suppression once enforced in Central Asia was lifted after independence, creating a regional renaissance of Islamic observation and expression across this Muslim majority region, which further facilitates the enthusiastic embrace of IF.

To varying degrees other Central Asian nations have embraced Islamic finance (most notably Kyrgyzstan), but Kazakhstan leads the way in the development of IF. In 2009 Kazakhstan became the first former-Soviet nation to issue IF guidelines, and in 2010 the first Islamic financial institution — Al Hilal Bank — was granted a license to trade through an intergovernmental agreement between Kazakhstan and Abu Dhabi. Since then, a previously conventional bank — Zaman — became an internationally recognised Islamic Finance institution, and in 2015 the government outlined its policy objectives for the future of IF, with optimistic targets set for 2020. Kazakhstani governmental support for Islamic Finance has included growing multilateral cooperation with more established IF regulatory bodies, including the Islamic Financial Services Board (IFSB), the Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI), and the International Islamic Financial Markets (IIFM). Furthermore the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) has committed to financing investment in infrastructure and industrial projects valued at $1.5 billion, demonstrating the impact of global IF networks.

Undoubtedly, the comparatively recent reinstitution of Islam across Central Asia has contributed massively to the uptake of Islamic finance, a new religiosity (not necessary confined to Islam) equally pervading the population and the institutions that uphold these society’s structures. However more pragmatic interpretations of IF’s rise in the region have been mooted by foreign scholars. Sebastian Peyrouse highlights the potential political benefits accrued by established Islamic states (including the Gulf States and Malaysia) through the use of IF as a vehicle for closer economic, political and religious/ideological relations. On the other hand Davinia Hoggarth at Chatham House highlights IF as part of a wider ‘multi-vector’ strategy which, in Kazakhstan especially, seeks to reduce economic reliance on any single foreign partner by embracing investment from a maximum number of sources. Although current estimates suggest that Islamic finance is of minimal scale in Central Asia, the consequences of its growth undeniably are not limited to commercial and financial interests, and IF’s growth will surely be tracked intently by international businesses and governments alike.

Observers must be realistic when noting this upwards IF trend. After all, even as the Central Asian nation with the deepest relationship with Islamic finance, Kazakhstan’s target for total IF banking assets by 2020 is only 3-5 percent of the national , while IF assets today make up only one percent. However Reuters’ outlook for Islamic financial investment ranks Astana as a top rank destination, with multiple internationally trading banks including Al Baraka and MayBank showing interest in Kazakhstan’s bourgeoning Islamic finance markets. The majority-Muslim population of Central Asia is currently an untapped customer base for IF institutions, while governments across the region are realising the investment opportunities of IF as an alternative to Russian and Chinese sources. Though young, Islamic finance seems likely to expand throughout Central Asia in the coming years.

One Belt, Whose Road?

China National Highway 215, a new 641km road in China’s Aksai Kazakh Autonomous County that’s firmly aimed at Kazakhstan.

With remarkably sparse international fanfare and a great deal of nominal confusion, China’s première, Xi Jingping launched the largest development push since the Marshall plan onto the world. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an increasingly catchy term, will profoundly impact Central Asia. The Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) forms the BRI’s key component, it is a development strategy that focuses on infrastructure investment; especially construction materials, railway and highway construction, automobile production, real estate creation, and power grid generation.

At an estimated $900 billion, the SREB project is set to be the largest investment program in human history. The investment billions will be channelled into projects throughout Central Asia, with the official aim being to help them to move away from an export-oriented economic model, particularly in terms of natural resources, along with better connecting China to growing (i.e. Western Africa), as well as established (namely European) markets. Current discussions regarding the project typically focus on what the initiative implies in the context of a rising China. Many overlook the fact that the other participants in the initiative are equally important.

The Belt and Road Initiative promises infrastructure developments on a scale never before seen.

Geographically, the Central Asian states connect Tibet and the Xinjiang province to the Caspian Sea, they also serve as a halfway point between Europe and Africa. In the past, they formed the meeting point of the East and the West; in today’s world, the quantities of undiscovered resources surrounding the region are at the core of competing world powers’ materialistic interests, especially in the context of climate change. Indeed, the first stage of the project indicates that billions will be devoted to establishing rail and road links to Central Asia and across it to Iran, Russia, the Caucasus, Turkey, and Europe. The goal is to minimise physical, technical and political barriers to trade, with a long-term vision of a free trade agreement in the region.

Whether this will empower Central Asian states in their newfound independence, or consolidate them as either vassal states of China (or, if China’s designs fail, and Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union takes root, Russia) remains to be seen.

Certainly, the multilateral ties built through the Initiatives will be very useful in expanding the China’s global soft power capacity. There have been debates on how the SREB symbolises a contest between Russia, China and potentially India in terms of ‘latent’ control over Central Asia. However, coming from an alternative perspective, having the agential power to choose who to support enables different states to become more active in the region. It has been said that the Central Asian states now dare to openly criticise Russia, such as how the President of Kyrgyzstan openly addressed how Kyrgyz migrants have been under attack in Russia because of xenophobia in one of his speeches. Whether this will empower Central Asian states in their newfound independence, or consolidate them as either vassal states of China (or, if China’s designs fail, and Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union takes root, Russia) remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, beyond the focus on capital provision, the plan inherently carries an ideological meaning. Ultimately, the whole development strategy is deeply relevant to the so-called ‘China model’, with an emphasis on state-led approach. It also reinforces the Chinese investment model that prides itself on not forcefully imposing any conditionality on the receiving parties, as has been demonstrated in a number of African cases. In such circumstances, it is vital to not forget about the lived experiences of such projects. For instance, In the case of Kenkiyak, where the Kazakhstan–China oil pipeline passes through, the town kindergarten has become a hostel for Chinese workers. Moreover, the quality of their living environment has also deteriorated subject to pollutants produced by the project. And as for the allure of promise jobs, the best roles are granted to Chinese workers rather than locals.

The BRI seeks an infrastructure development programme on a scale unseen since the Marshall plan — but will it trap Central Asia in debt?

It is widely acknowledged that Western media has paid limited attention to the Central Asia region. And as this development initiative catches the world’s attention, the region gradually develops its own voice as well. Some may say that such views exaggerate the significance of Central Asia, because the region per se does not cast much impact other parts of the world; Their names are barely seen. However, it is not the case that there is nothing to study or to understand; rather, throughout human history, there has been a tendency to overlook what we deem as inapplicable in or irrelevant to our contexts, often to be proved spectacularly wrong. Situated at the crossroad of the world, the area is embedded with a diverse array of historical stories and buried knowledge. In light of the SREB, it may be high time for us to a rediscover Central Asia.

Manas, memory, and the making of the Kyrgyz national myth

“Truth is not necessarily fact, and fact not necessarily truth” (Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)

The plane ride into a new country makes for a good opportunity to brush up on a bit of local knowledge. For some, that’ll mean drowsily browsing through a handful of helpful phrases on the red-eye shift before a dawn landing. For others, it’ll be a quick peruse through the sites, sounds and tastes proposed by a guide book. For those inclined to the culturally refined, it may even mean a dig into the nation’s house author — every Russia has a Dostoyevsky just as every Nigeria has a Soyinka. Yet, looking at the little orange puffs of the oil fields in the dark expanses on a night-time flight over northern Kazakhstan, I didn’t want to turn on the light for fear of disturbing the gentle chorus of snores from the seats around me. Instead, I found myself listening to Harvest by Neil Young, and pondering whether I was the first to do so in this situation. (I probably wasn’t, but I imagine I’m safely embedded in the first ten).

As such, my ignorance on arrival is somewhat justifiable. As I was to find out, a dive into the Epic of Manas would have served me a better education on the country I was entering. At 500,000 lines though, the Kyrgyz epic poem is no Aeroflot flick — indeed, it is one of the longest epic poems in the world. All the same, Manas is a dynamic, indeed living document on Kyrgyz history — and a touchstone for Kyrgyz identity. So much so, that there exists a special role in society for the bards who perform and pass on the story of Manas, the manaschi.

As an account of the past, it is an “absurd gallimaufry of pseudo-history”… yet this is why it is so damn interesting

Why then, is the story of Manas so important? As a story, it follows the lives of three generations of Kyrgyz leaders: Manas, the skilled horsemen who throws off the yoke of Uighur domination to return his people to their mountainous homeland; and his son and grandson — also respectable warriors. This might be fascinating in its own right, but it does little to justify Manas’s pre-eminence among other stellar tales by Kyrgyz authors.

As an account of the past, it has been described by VV Bartol’d as an ‘absurd gallimaufry of pseudo-history’ — its age is unknowable (although it was likely transplanted, and hence frozen, in writing during the eighteenth century), and it concerns events that occurred between 995AD and 1800AD (albeit, most likely closer to the latter), and its account of these events muddles them considerably. Yet it is this last point that makes it so damn interesting; how can the fluidity of a myth mould and be moulded to the malleable memory narratives of a changing society, and hence tinker, support, and challenge national identity? Just as individuals build their identities on the string of memories that fit their stories, so too does a country. By this process of self-shaping, a nation can look to the past to define its future. As William Faulkner posits, “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past”.

The Kyrygz composer, Abdylas Maldybaev, here pictured on a Kyrgyz 1 som note, based his first opera, Ai-Churek, on the Epic of Manas.

Here stems an antagonism between historicity; the eurocentric ideal of history as a linear account of verifiable events in a fixed and static past; and narrative, with its focus less on what actually happened, and more on what should have happened. The former approach treats our present reality as a moment created by, but ultimately cut off from, the past. Narrative, on the other hand, is a fluid story that seeks to explain and guide the present. Narratives compete and constantly adapt. Perhaps the most apt example of this is the historic treatment of the Bible — selective interpretations have justified everything from the Jewish pogroms of Russia to the liberation theology of Latin America.

From these two approaches to the past, it’s no surprise that the European world sanctifies written text — but Central Asians have long feared the potential loss of oral traditions, and the living flexibility that comes with them. In The Uses and Abuses of History, Nietzsche decried static monolithic accounts of history, and instead favoured memory as a dynamic and critical exercise: memory makes us, and as such, we should work to make memory.

How does this relate to the Epic of Manas?

Enough theory. How does this relate to the Epic of Manas? To explain this, we should look to the differences between Manas the man and Manas the myth. Sometime during the the 1920s and 1930s, Manas’s apparent tribe ceased to be the Nogay people and became the Kyrgyz. This highlights the importance of establishing an ethnic link around the time that Kyrgyzstan was organising its place as a state in the USSR.

Moreover, although it was widely agreed that the events described in the epic took place  only about 400 years earlier, in 1995 the new Kyrgyz government hosted mass celebrations of Manas’s thousandth anniversary. No doubt linked intrinsically with the collapse of the USSR four years earlier, this disparity between dates emphasises the need in Kyrgyzstan to establish deep historical roots; the legitimacy to hold together a brand new nation state.

Finally, beyond being an adept ruler and a skillful warrior, Manas fought off neighbouring societies to establish the independence of what is now Kyrgyzstan. A powerful counter-narrative to historic occupying powers (indeed, the USSR suppressed circulation of the Epic of Manas on account of its apparent ‘bourgeois-nationalism’), it now acts as a defiant symbol for a free Kyrgyzstan — a nation with a nomadic past and an independent future. Every major town and city is pillared with images, statues, accounts and museums that revel in Manas. Even the flag invokes Manas — its forty rays represent the forty tribes united under Manas. It is through these symbols that interpretations of the past form the identity of the present, and set the course of the future.

The Epic of Manas, even in English translation, is by no means light reading for a airline journey into Kyrgyzstan. Yet a quick dive into the history of the epic could explain why, four hours by plane from Moscow, one might find oneself touching down amidst the last of the winter snow on a chilly March morning at Manas International AirportBishkek.

The main terminal building at Manas International Airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.