Despite Central Asia’s long history and enduring importance to world politics, today’s students are barely learning about this region. When I recently thumbed through a middle school-level World History textbook issued by a major publisher, I found only 18 pages out of 800+ that touched on Central Asia. By that estimate, Western students today spent no more than 0.02% of their time reading about one of the oldest and most important regions of the world!
As a former teacher, my point here is not to criticize textbooks or educators. History is a vast subject, and there is no way to cover it all in a year. Even if it could be done, the breakneck pace would only allow a surface-level investigation of most places and events. And there is no single (or easy) way to organize such a large amount of information. Thus, priority must be given to certain civilizations, cultures, or phases of societal development. Nevertheless, Central Asia seems to have fallen between the chapters.
Here are five reasons why Western students should spend a little more time learning about this important region:
1. Geostrategic value. Central Asia is history’s most significant “pivot point.” Since before Alexander the Great, empires bent on ruling Eurasia understood that they had to first control the steppes east of the Caspian. Domination of these lands gave them flexibility of movement – the option to swivel their forces west to Europe, north to Russia, east to China, and south to the Middle East and India. This strategic reality made Central Asia the focal point of the “Great Game” – a 19th century struggle between Russia and British India for supremacy of Eurasia. Modern powers are not oblivious to Central Asia’s geostrategic value, leading many analysts to speculate that there is a New Great Game in progress today.
Image: The "geographical pivot of history" identified by the "founding father of geopolitics," Halford Mackinder. Source.
2. Crossroads of trade. For millennia, Central Asia’s place on the map has made it a crossroads of international trade. Just as armies used the region to “pivot” in multiple directions, so too did Silk Road merchants traverse its routes and visit its oasis-cities to distribute their goods to and from the far corners of the world. Today, traditional Silk Road powers like China, India, and Iran are reestablishing these geo-economic connections with the construction of a “New Silk Road” that will join the “Old World” via highways, railways, and pipelines across Central Asia. Efforts such as these will rebalance international commerce in the coming decades.
Image: The Silk Roads. Source.
3. Abundant natural resources. Central Asia possesses abundant natural resources, including massive energy reserves (oil, gas, and uranium), metals deposits (zinc, lead, chromite, copper, gold, etc.), precious stones, agricultural goods, and fish. These resources will continue to entice resource-hungry powers like China and India (as well as adversarial powers that wish to cut them off from these resources).
Image: Mineral deposits of Central Asia. Source.
4. Diverse culture and history. Central Asia contains a great variety of ethnic groups, religions, and languages. Ancient cities like Bukhara, Samarkand, Merv, and Kashgar were lighthouses for the study of science, mathematics, literature, and religion, as well as hubs for trade and commerce. Today’s inhabitants are descendants of these great cultures and civilizations – an important point to keep in mind when considering their present-day perspectives, ambitions, and allegiances.
Image: Major ethnic groups in Central Asia. Source.
5. Relevance to current events. Central Asia’s history and geography are useful lenses for understanding today’s “local” conflicts. At the same time, they also shed light upon the present-day actions and policies of regional and world powers. For example, the civil wars and separatist movements in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Xinjiang are largely driven by long-standing disputes among inhabitants over ethnic differences or farmland or water. At the same time, these quarrels inevitably attract the attention and involvement of larger players (i.e., China, Russia, India, Iran and the United States) that each have their own interests to protect. In fact, many of these local disputes are manipulated (and exacerbated) by great powers to advance their broader foreign policy agendas. Therefore, study of Central Asia can also help students understand conflicts along the region's periphery, such as in Syria and Turkey.
Image: The Caucasus and Central Asia. Source.
Teachers and parents may not have the time or resources to incorporate Central Asia into their curriculums. Fortunately, there is a novel that makes this region’s history, geography, and current events understandable and relatable for young learners!
Chaturanga tells the story of 14-year-old Patrick Eaton’s journey on the Silk Road, and brings together learning with plenty of fun, adventure, and self-discovery. The book contains no violence, profanity, or “adult themes,” making it appropriate for readers of all ages. Get your copy here.
©2016 Andrew C. Katen. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to share this article with others, as well as to print or post it on other websites, so long as credit is given to the author.