A thousand or so years ago, the swathe of land that straddles Asia and Europe — which we now call Central Asia — was buzzing with action. In the 12th century, Genghis Khan conquered most of it, making him arguably the biggest ruler of all time, with an empire spanning 4.86 million square miles. After being subsumed under the Soviet Union for several decades, the Central Asian Republics are slowly rearing their heads again, albeit very slowly, in the international economic arena.
Dilip Hiro’s account of the political and cultural history of the five Central Asian republics (and Turkey and Iran) brings a reader up to speed on how to fathom these largely unknown and misunderstood entities. Hiro, who has been writing books for half a century, largely on Islam, the Middle East and Central Asia, however, exploits every bit of information he finds out around the region. The legendary hospitality of the Pathans and the Turks, the development of Islam in the state, the effect of Gorbachev and the subsequent turbulence — it’s all dealt with, in immense detail. What makes the book interesting is Hiro’s ability to relate every event in the present to history and the tradition of several centuries. For example, Hiro tells you that The Epic of Manas, with 500,000 lines of verse, is two-and-a-half times the length of Mahabharata, and that it is the only piece of literature to have survived for nine centuries in an oral form. It then makes sense why, on the millennium anniversary of Manas in August 1995, the cash-strapped Kyrgyzstan government diverted $5 million to fund the weeklong Manas 1000 International festival.
As these countries slowly emerge from the Soviet shadow and eke out their own living, Hiro’s insights will provide business readers with a good understanding on the aspects that dictate the business policies of the region.
Inside Central Asia: A Political and Cultural History of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Iran; by Dilip Hiro; HarperCollins; 448 pages; Rs. 599
(This story appears in the 19 November, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)