Tengrism has historically been the predominant religion among the peoples of Central Asia. Tengrism combines animism with shamanism and the cult of ancestors; it worships Tengri, a supreme power which is associated with the sky. Tengri is the force which determines everything from the weather to the fate of individuals and nations. Tengri, say Tengrists, is the unknowable One who knows everything and who judges people’s actions as good or bad and rewards them accordingly. Tengrists believe in spirits too. There are spirits of trees, mountains, planets and ancestors, and they are either evil, benevolent, or of mixed temperament. Chosen mediums can contact the spirits and convince them to intercede on behalf of human beings or to reveal the future to us. Some shamans have powers that resemble those of spirits, like the power of prophecy or the ability to cast spells. Genghis Khan was a Tengrist, and so were all Mongol rulers until the early fourteenth-century CE when some of them converted to Islam. To this day it is common for Mongols to refer to their country as Munkh khukh tengri, the land of the “eternal blue sky.” This is not a weather report as much as a hope concerning divine protection.

There has been a revival of Tengrism in Central Asia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Or rather, some academics and politicians have sought to promote Tengrism as an indigenous alternative to foreign religions such as Christianity and Islam. Neo-Tengrists are particularly active in Kyrgyzstan where a scientific center for Tengrist studies has been set up in the capital Bishkek. Observers argue that 60 percent of the rural population follow Tengrist traditions.

In 2011 a proponent of Tengrism, Kubanychbek Tezekbaev, was put on trial in Kyrgyzstan for inciting religious and ethnic hatred because of statements he made in an interview describing Muslim mullahs as ”former alcoholics and murderers.” Tezekbaev is an outspoken critic of what he sees as the growing influence of fundamentalist Islam in his country, especially among young people, calling it a danger to the nation’s future. Tezekbaev has spoken out against the use of Islamic head scarfs among women and urged young men not to grow long beards. He calls himself a half-Muslim. “I don’t fully follow Islam, I just partially follow some Muslim rituals. I am a pure Kyrgyz.”

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Lev Gumilev and Eurasianism

Lev Nikolayevich Gumilev, 1912-1992, was a Soviet historian, anthropologist and translator, and the son of two celebrated Russian poets, Nikolay Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova. His father was shot when Lev was only 7 years old and he spent most of his youth in Soviet labor camps. His mother wrote paeans to Stalin to save her life but she never managed to help her son. After Stalin’s death, Gumilev began working at the Hermitage Museum in Moscow where he became interested in the history of the Khazars and other people of the Central Asian steppes. Gumilev was a neo-Eurasianist and he regarded Russian identity as closer to the identity of the peoples of Central Asia than to Europeans.

The Eurasianist movement originally arose among the Russian diaspora in Western Europe in the 1920s. Although the Eurasianists were staunchly anti-Communist, they defended the October Revolution of 1917 as a way to protect Russia against European capitalism and its materialistic values. Yet when their main organization in 1929 turned out to be sponsored by the Soviet regime, the Eurasianists lost credibility. In today’s Russia, Eurasianist arguments are used to defend the notion of a “Greater Russia,” a Russia which is based on Central Asian rather than European values, and which once again incorporates Central Asian states within its territory. A “Eurasian Economic Community” was established in October 2000, with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as members. Some observers regard this organization as a way of recreating a Soviet-style empire or perhaps a twenty-first-century version of the Golden Horde.

Gumilev’s most notorious argument was that the Mongol invasion never happened. Rather, he said, the small Russian principalities concluded a defensive alliance with the Mongols in order to repel the European forces which had attacked them from the west. [Read more:The Mongol invasion of Europe”] Gumilev supported the nationalist movements of Tatars, Kazakhs, and other Turkic peoples, as well as of Mongolia, but his ideas were rejected by the Soviet authorities and he, much as his parents, was unable to publish anything he wrote. This changed when the Soviet Union was disintegrating in the 1980s and Gumilev came to be widely read by nationalists in both Russia and in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. A monument was erected in Gumilev’s honor in Kazan, Tatarstan, in 2005; he was featured on stamps in Kazakhstan in 2012, and a university in Astana, the Kazakh capital, is named after him.

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Muhammed Alim Khan, the last emir of Bukhara

Muhammed Alim Khan, 1880-1944 CE, was the last emir of Bukhara, in today’s Uzbekistan. His family considered themselves the direct descendants of Genghis Khan via Nogai, Ghengis’s great-great grand-son. Once the Mongols had been ousted from Russia, the Nogai Horde, as it was known, retreated to two main areas, one north of the Black Sea and the other north of the Caspian Sea. From here they conducted raids on Russian territory, absconding with young boys who they sold to the Ottomans in Constantinople as soldiers. [Read more: “The Janissaries and Turkish music“]

Little by little, however, the Nogais were pushed south and eastwards by Russian settlers and by the advancing Russian army. In the end they came to inhabit an area in Central Asia known as Transoxania, with Bukhara and Samarkand as its two main cities. Here the family established themselves as emirs in 1785. Yet the Russians eventually caught up with them and in 1868 they occupied and annexed much of the emirate. The remainder became a Russian protectorate in which the emirs retained full power only over domestic matters.

At the age of thirteen, Muhammed Alim Khan was sent to Saint Petersburg to study government and modern military techniques. In 1910, when he succeeded his father, he tried to reform the country but soon realized that any lasting changes only were going to make his own position more precarious. He was challenged by modernizers – a movement known as “Young Bukhara” – who sought a far more radical transformation of society. After the Russian revolution in 1917, these radicals called on the Soviet state to help them and in September 1920 the Red Army intervened. A “Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic” was established. This was exactly 800 years after Genghis Khan himself first had invaded Bukhara. Muhammed Alim Khan was the last of Genghis Khan’s direct descendant to rule a state.

Muhammed Alim Khan took refuge in Afghanistan. His daughter, Shukria Raad Alimi, ended up working as a journalist for Radio Kabul. When the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979, she emigrated to the United States and continued to work as a journalist for Voice of America, a radio station which propagated the official American view of the world during the Cold War.

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Sogdian letters

Sogdia was a Central Asian kingdom which flourished between the fourth and the ninth centuries CE. The Sogdians are famous above all for their business acumen. They bought paper, copper and silk in China and sold Persian grapes and silverware, glass, alfalfa, corals, Buddhist images, Roman wool and amber from the Baltic sea. They operated as financial intermediaries too, setting up business deals, organizing caravans, arranging for money to be transferred and invested. While most merchants only traveled quite short distances, Sogdian communities could be found along the entire network of Asian trade routes. There were Sogdians in Constantinople as well as in Xi’an. The Sogdian language was the universal language of commerce across the Eurasian landmass. In this way they created a commercial empire which was far bigger than their own Central Asian kingdom.

In 1907, the British archaeologist Aurel Stein discovered a pouch of papers in the ruins of an old watch-tower in the Chinese city of Dunhuang, on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. The letters turned out to be far older than anyone could have imagined – from early in the fourth century CE. Unusually, the letters were not written by officials but by ordinary members of the Sogdian business community. One of them, a wealthy merchant, writes to his home-office to give an account of a recent attack by Xiongnu forces; another complains about his business partners who have abandoned him [Read more:The Xiongnu confederation“] The most touching letter, however, is from a woman, Mewnai, to her mother. She complains that her husband has deserted her and her young daughter and that they are not allowed to leave Dunhuang on their own. “I live wretchedly; without clothing, without money; I ask for a loan, but no-one consents to give me one, so I depend on charity from the priest.” Perhaps her husband perished somewhere along the perilous trade routes. Yet Mewnai’s mother never received the letter. For one reason or another it was left in the watch-tower for close to two thousand years.

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The Mongols tried to invade Japan twice. Late in the autumn of 1274, a Mongol fleet of some 300 ships and 20,000 soldiers reached the Japanese island of Kyushu. At the ensuing battle the inexperienced and badly equipped Japanese army was defeated, yet an impending storm convinced the Mongol generals to set out to sea so as not to become marooned on the shore. The fleet was destroyed and the few ships that remained in the harbor were easy for the Japanese to deal with. In the summer of 1281, the Mongols attempted another invasion. They landed in Kyushu, and once again the Japanese were outnumbered. Again, however, a large typhoon appeared and wiped out the Mongol fleet. The Mongols, clearly, were not very experienced seamen and the flat-bottom boats they had built for the passage to Japan were not well suited for the task. After these experiences, the Mongols gave up the attempts to invade the country.

Given that they twice had been saved by miraculous typhoons, the Japanese began to believe that their country enjoyed divine protection – that the winds, kaze, were sent by the gods, the kami. The Kamikaze was also the name given to the “Special attack units” of the Japanese air-force established at the end of the Second World War. The unit sent pilots on suicide missions with the goal of dropping their planes, themselves, and their explosive cargo on important enemy targets – on American airplane-carriers in particular. The pilots were all volunteers – young recruits without much training who the military authorities considered expendable. In fact, there were many more volunteers than airplanes. At least 47 Allied ships were sunk by means of the kamikaze suicide pilots, some 300 ships were damaged, and altogether 3,860 pilots were killed. However, the term “kamikaze pilot” was not commonly used in Japan itself during the war. It is instead an American usage which was imported after 1945, together with many other features of American culture.

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