This year Kyrgyz historians and officials are planning celebrations of the 2,200th anniversary of the first mention of the "Kyrgyz" people in ancient Chinese manuscripts. The celebration is the latest in a decade-long string of festivities throughout Central Asia. By staking claims about the past, the various states of Central Asia have sought to bolster the credibility of their respective state-building efforts in the wake of the Soviet Union's implosion. But the attempts to design distinct national identities have prompted nations to occasionally clash over history. The debates also serve as an ongoing source of tension in the region.
Since 1991, hardly a year has passed in Central Asia without a major cultural anniversary being marked in one or more states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Indeed, it has sometimes appeared as though the newly independent Central Asian countries have engaged in a competition to demonstrate the most vibrant heritage. Kazakhstan has marked the anniversaries of the poet Abay and the foundation of the town of Turkestan. Uzbekistan has held celebrations in honor of the medieval Mongol warlord Timur, as well as honoring the great Persian thinkers Bukhari and Ferghani. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan has marked the millennium of the epic "Manas," and the 3,000th anniversary of the foundation of Osh. Tajikistan, not to be outdone, has commemorated the millennium of the Samanid dynasty.
These events have been largely staged with an aim towards promoting a cultural revival, and shaping national identity. In a relatively short time, Central Asian states have managed to distance themselves from the Soviet legacy. School curricula, dominated a decade ago by the Russian view of history, have been overhauled. At the same time, local historians with and without governmental support are intensely studying Central Asia's past, searching for national roots. A new generation of students is learning history through new books, and governmental mass media eagerly devote their coverage to the revival of history that had remained obscure during the Soviet era.
However, historians of each of the Central Asian republics greatly differ in their interpretation of the past. New ideologists have created a new approach, looking at everything through a national mirror. Some even feel inclined to assign a particular ethnic identity to historical figures who had been previously considered common ancestors. For example, attempts have been made to portray the medieval Turkic thinker Farabi (circa 9th-10th century) as a Kazakh because was born on the territory of modern Kazakhstan.
Likewise, some Kyrgyz historians claim that the Turkic scholar Makhmud Kashgari-Barskani (12th century), and the author of the first poem in Turkic language Jusup Balasaguni (11th century), are Kyrgyz because they lived during the Karakhan dynasty, which controlled the territory of the modern Kyrgyz Republic. Furthermore, a few Kyrgyz experts claim that some elements of the ruling Karakhan tribes are thought to have been incorporated into the Kyrgyz ethnic fabric. Those assertions are disputed by Uighur academics, who claim Balasaguni and Kashgari as their own. To strengthen their own claim to Balasaguni and Kashgari, Kyrgyz authorities erected statues of both men in the capital Bishkek.
Uzbekistan has perhaps been most aggressive in claiming direct connections to the past. In the Uzbek view, the medieval warlord Timur, also known as Tamerlane, is no longer a Mongol-Turkic figure but a father of the Uzbek nationality. "Tamerlane spent his lifetime fighting against Uzbeks, whom he considered arch enemies. If only he knew that he was going to be given a new ethnic origin he would not have wasted his time," Kyrgyz historian K. Kasimov quipped. "Even his true Mongolian anthropological appearance has been distorted in favor of politics. To ensure an easy acceptance of him by ordinary people his giant statue in Tashkent was given Pamirian-Ferghana race's features which are characteristic to the modern Uzbeks."
The people of Central Asia remain sensitive about cultural heritage. Aware of the sensitivities, Soviet authorities handled matters of history with great caution, doing everything in their power to control discussion of the past. In the post-Soviet era, disputes over history have played prominent roles in some recent inter-ethnic clashes. For instance, history was a factor in the 1990 Osh rioting between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, in which dozens died. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Babur, the 16th century ruler of what now comprises south Kyrgyzstan, was Uzbek. Some Uzbeks complain that his legacy in and around the city of Osh is being neglected because of his heritage.
Some Kyrgyz experts, however, are reluctant to accept Babur as Uzbek. They say that Babur, a direct descendent of Genghis Khan, does not fit any modern ethnic profile. His Mongolian and nomadic origins mean that he is closer to the Kyrgyz in ethnic identity than to the more sedentary Uzbeks, those experts add.
When Tajiks planned the celebration of the Samanid dynasty (9th-10th century) in 1997 it nearly became a subject of interstate tensions between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Alarmed by prospective growth of national identity sense among its own Tajik people, which comprises a significant part of the Uzbekstan's population, especially in and around Samarkand, officials in Tashkent tried hard to play down the significance of the event.
Arslan Koichiev is a freelance journalist who specializes in Central Asian affairs.