Number One: Ancient Beginnings

And so the blog begins. I am leaving for Kyrgyzstan this Wednesday, arriving 3 AM on Friday morning, 10 April. My husband and I spent a year in Kyrgyzstan 2003-2004. He was a Fulbright Scholar and I a visiting academic. While there, I also consulted with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, developed projects for Global Visits and developed the American Studies in Central Asia Symposium. It is now in its sixth year. I have been invited back by the US Embassy in Bishkek to return as a Senior Fulbright Specialist to help with this year’s symposium. I will be the keynote speaker, help with program content, help secure future symposiums as well as conduct workshops with various universities. And, I will be meeting up with a considerable number of friends!!

I developed the symposium because until recently, Central Asia had been part of the former Soviet Union. I am passionate about educational and cultural exchanges, and I saw the symposium as a wonderful opportunity to create a bridge of collaboration as well as friendships between educators and students in Kyrgyzstan and the US.

I will be doing daily blogs about my modern experience in Kyrgyzstan….. but to begin really means to begin with this region’s history……it is a matter of understanding and respect.

The history of Kyrgyzstan dates back 2000 years BC. In the 7th to 3rd Centuries BC people began to inhabit the Chui Valley. In 500 BC Central Asian tribes are mentioned for the first time in historical sources. Fast forward to 600 AD, and the Muslin calendar is initiated; and in the 9th Century, Islam is announced as the official religion. These are great leaps between centuries for the light reader of history, but of great content for the true lover of what took place in this, among the richest regions on earth.

Central Asia is sandwiched between the southeastern area of Russian and the southwestern area of China. Five countries compose Central Asia: in addition to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In earlier centuries, there were conflicts among people of these regions….among people who were either nomads in the flatlands or among those who dwelled in the mountains. In the 7th Century, there was also conflict among the Chinese and Arabs. Central Asia is landlocked and far from any connecting seaport, but real estate was important, as territory meant power.

Americans who do know of Central Asia might for a few simple reasons: the movie ‘Borat’ which I found vulgar and insulting to my friends who are of the region; a strategic American air base in Kyrgyzstan that has been in the US news of late; and the Silk Road which you may – or not – remember from World History.

“Christian crusaders must rank high among America’s direct discoverers. Clad in shining armor, tens of thousands of those European warriors tried from the eleventh to the fourteenth century to wrest the Holy Land from Muslim control. Foiled in their military assaults, the crusaders nevertheless acquired a taste for the exotic delights of Asia. Goods that had been virtually unknown in Europe now were craved…silk for clothing, drugs for aching flesh, perfumes for unbathed bodies, colorful draperies for gloomy castles, and spices – especially sugar, a rare luxury in Europe before the Crusades – for preserving and flavoring food. Europe’s developing sweet tooth would have momentous implications for world history.

The luxuries of the East were prohibitively expensive in Europe. They had to be transported enormous distances from the Spice Islands (Indonesia), China and India, in creaking ships and on swaying camelbacks. The journey led across the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea; or along the torturous caravan routes of Asia or the Arabian Peninsula, ending at the ports of the eastern Mediterranean. Muslim middlemen exacted a heavy toll en route. By the time the strange smelling goods reached Italian merchants at Venice and Genoa, they were so costly that purchasers and profits were narrowly limited. European consumers and distributors were naturally eager to find a less expensive route to the riches of Asia or to develop alternate sources of supply.”

Chances are you fell asleep during World History. Our American History is so new, that it is virtually covered in a few brief chapters in European history books! And we tend to nod off when stories are older than a few hundred years….hard to relate!! The Smithsonian did a marvelous job featuring the Silk Road in a major national exhibition just a year before we arrived in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan was a major focus of that Silk Road.

Because of its geography, up until the 19th century, the Kyrgyz lived also under the Russian Empire, the Chinese Qing Dynasty, and the Kokhand and Jungar Khanates. To escape Mongol aggression, the ancestors of today’s Kyrgyz migrated from their home in the upper Yenisei Basin in Siberia to the area near the Tien Shan mountain range. Originally having fair hair and light-hued eyes, the Kyrgyz are now more typically Asian in complexion due to Mongol blood.

In the 1800s, the Russians became more dominant, playing greatly with the capitals of the region and the boundaries. Acting like colonists anywhere, they reset boundaries to some degree, but basically established who was part of what region based on what they see as the ethnicity….which was truly reflecting what countries they bordered against

In 1918, following the October Revolution, the Bolshevik regime began to rule the entire ‘stan’ region, and in 1922, the USSR was created. Initially for the ‘stan’ region, there was a flourish of creativity with a number of cultural and educational associations being formed, reflecting the rich diversity and history of the region. However, Russian rule was not kind, and Stalin committed his atrocities against this diverse group of people through ethnic cleansing or outright executions throughout the region, including Kyrgyzstan. Stalin also used Kyrgyzstan as a dumping ground for unwanted people or waste. Following Stalin, Kyrgyzstan continued to be an outpost of the Soviet empire until the early 1990s. Wanting to rid itself of expensive appendages, the Soviet Union began to let loose unwanted regions, and granted ‘independence.’ Stalin’s tyranny now long over, people in the region had grown accustomed to a security that took one from ‘cradle to grave.’ That security was now gone, and with it were some of the country’s most skilled workers, technicians and educators…….all returning to mother Russia.

Remaining however was the rich history and cherished culture that previous dominations never tore out of Kyrgyzstan, the heart of Central Asia.

The history lesson is over. Blogs will be more recent! Stay tuned………………

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