The Persians’ Lost Home
For many centuries Central Asia, strategically located in the cross-roads of the Orient and the Occident, was a thriving hub of global trade and courtly culture. But all that began to change with the rise of a certain Çingis Hán in Mongolia and the rise of sea routes. And then the Russian conquest in the 19th century all but ended the trade and cultural importance of Central Asia.
The great Mughal empire, originating in the Central Asian steppes, ruled India for several centuries and made Persian the official language until the 1850s! So why were the Turkic Mughals so Persianized when they often had conflict with contemporaneous Saffavid Persia? Simple; they were just following the tradition in Central Asia for centuries. The Persian culture, language and home has its roots in Central Asia.
Modern Uzbekistan, from where the Mughals originated, was born as a result of arbitrary Soviet ethnic engineering and borders. The ethnically mixed Fergana Valley, the most fertile part of Central Asia, was divided by the Soviet Union into three units, each part of the Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Tajik Soviet republics respectively.
One of the most unfortunate characteristic of the Central Asian demographics is the bad hand dealt to the Persian speakers of Central Asia, once the region’s dominant and elite cultural group. Today, the Persians of Central Asia (locally known as Tajiks) are pushed into a backwater area Tajikistan; the core Persian cultural centers of Samarkand and Bukhara, which are also the region’s main cultural centers, are in modern Uzbekistan thank to uncle Stalin!
Persians still form the majority of people in Bukhara, Samarkand, and most of southern Uzbekistan, (based on censuses from the late Russian Empire) they only identify as Uzbek on their national identity cards in order to stay in Uzbekistan. Up to 30 percent (or more) of Uzbekistan’s population is Persian. That’s about 9 million people–more than in entire Tajikistan! In fact, the recently died ruler of Uzebistan, Karimov, born in Samarkand, is a half Persian.
The original inhabitants of most of Central Asia were Iranian peoples who spoke languages closely related to modern Persian. These people included the Sogdians, Bactrians, Khwarezmians and others, all of whom were very active with overland trade across Asia. The Samanid Empire which rose in 819 AD, based in Samarkand and Bukhara, was the first independent Persian state after the Arab conquest, reviving Persian literature and culture. Tajiks (Persians) today claim the Samanid Empire as the first Tajik state.
Increasing migration by Turkic tribes, who were being pushed down south by the Mongols, eventually altered the demographics of Central Asia, and the Mongol conquest lead to millions of millions deaths. Millions more fled south of the Hindu Kush and Kopet Dag mountains to modern Iran and Afghanistan. Although Tajiks remained the majority in some parts of Central Asia and Persian culture remained the culture of belles-lettres, the region came under Uzbek political dominance by the 16th century and Turkic speakers became the majority. All this led to the Persian of Central Asia becoming increasingly isolated from the Persians in Iran and thus did not become Shia!
Going into the 1800s the situation was such, the Russian Empire ruled the region mostly through Uzbek intermediaries, thus the Persians of Central Asia were unable to regain any political power or status. They had ceased to be the majority in Merv, though they remained dominant in Samarkand and Bukhara. Things did not improve once the Soviet Union was established, because the Russians never feared the militaristic Uzbeks but they were wary of the Persians who had traditionally been the urban elite and intellectuals.
On the Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara where once the Persian culture and language blossomed and spread to far off lands, from the great plains of India to the rolling hills of Anatolia, now only Uzbek and Russian are official languages!