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  • Writer's pictureElliott Holley

Hidden treasures of Asia: from Astrakhan to Khorasan

The land of Khorasan is steeped in history, legend, myth and the allure of Persia, of Islamic mysticism and of its sheer remoteness from the West. From religious revolution to a Golden Age of Science; from the Russian Empire to aerial attack by the Luftwaffe; the land around the shores of the Caspian Sea has an amazing story.

The Alborz mountains, photographed by Kim and Sebastian of travel blog Wandering Souls.

In July 751, two armies faced each other in a river valley under the foothills of the Himalayas. On one side stood the Chinese Empire, expansionist and proud. On the other stood the upstart Abbasid Caliphate and its ally the Tibetan Empire. The outcome of the battle would decide the destiny of Asia for the next thousand years.

The forces gathered together at Talas reflected the mixing of peoples in this part of the world; Turkic mercenaries belonging to the Karluk federation of tribes began the battle on the Chinese side. The Chinese Tang dynasty intended to expand its control along the lucrative Silk Road trade route to the west; so too did their opponents the Abbasids, but in the opposite direction, to the east. The scene was set for an epic confrontation between these two superpowers of the ancient world.

The Abbasids were an Arab dynasty which had just gained power within the last year by gaining the support of their Persian subjects, excluded from power under the previous Umayyad dynasty. The black standard of the Abbasids was raised in revolt in 747 in Khorasan; an army of 10,000 men flocked to the banner and put Caliph As-Saffah in power. One of the first actions of the As-Saffah was to send an army to face the Chinese expansion.

The Chinese Tang dynasty ruled from 618 to 907. Tang cavalry illustration, source: Pinterest

In any case, the two armies met in battle; the result was a one-sided massacre. Treachery seems to have been at play: 20,000 Karluk mercenary warriors changed sides during the battle, attacking the 10,000 Tang Chinese soldiers from the sides and rear while the Abbasids attacked from the front. The Chinese commander Gao Xianzhi realised that defeat was inevitable and attempted to withdraw with what forces he could from the battle; but only 2,000 Chinese soldiers made it back to China.

Arab sources record thousands of Chinese prisoners taken, which later brought the technology of paper-making to the Islamic world, replacing parchment and papyrus. But the significance of the battle may have been bigger still: Talas ensured that it would be the Islamic civilisation which dominated in Central Asia, and not the Chinese. Had the battle turned out differently, perhaps the Turks and Persians would have been more influenced by Chinese culture, with unpredictable results on world history.

The unknown story of Asia

From the days of the ancient empires such as Achaemenid Persia, Bactria, Parthia and Transoxiana, to the centuries-long struggle between the Roman Empire and various Iranian dynasties such as the Parthians and then the Sassanids: these are fairly familiar to westerners with an interest in history, especially those interested in classical antiquity.

Khorasan, marked here as "Chorassan", can be seen on this 19th century map of Persia.

But after the demise of the last Sassanid king of Persia, Yazdegerd III, who was assassinated in 651 while fleeing in defeat from the expansion of the Islamic Caliphate, most people's knowledge of Persia draws a complete blank. The Great Seljuks, the Khwarezmian Shahs, the Ghaznavids, the Ghorids, the Mongol invasions, the terrifying reign of Tamerlane, the Safavids and beyond: most people in the West have never even heard of these.

This post will only scratch the surface, but I will dip in here and there to a few incidents, places and times that I find interesting - and hope you will, too.

A quick definition of Khorasan: historically, it was considered to be the area between the cities of Nishapur in northeastern Iran; Herat and Balkh in western Afghanistan; and Merv in Turkmenistan. However, the idea of Greater Khorasan includes the wider area around this region.

Historical ruins in Herat, Afghanistan. This city is one of the four centres of Khorasan.

Geography and climate

"The mountain's face lifted me higher than itself," wrote the Persian poet Hafez Shirazi (1315-1390).

The mountains, valleys, rivers, forests, deserts and plateaux of Persia and Khorasan are very different to how many outsiders would think, for a "Middle Eastern" country. This is a region where you could be skiing on snow-capped mountains in the morning, and sunbathing on the beach in the afternoon, before heading into the jungle to look for rare species of plants and animals the next day.

The region to the south of the Caspian sea was called Hyrcania in ancient times. The Hyrcanian forest still exists today; this is a forest in Iran's Gilan province.

Poppies are often seen in the mountains of Persia and Khorasan; these are growing on Mount Damavand, Iran.

There are several major rivers that run through the region; these include the Amu Darya, known as the Oxus in ancient times, which rises from the Pamir mountains north of the Hindu Kush; the Hari river, which runs past the city of Herat into Turkmenistan; and the Syr Darya, also known as the Jaxartes, which runs north of Uzbekistan to the Aral Sea.

Unique and rare animal species have inhabited this land for centuries; the Asiatic Cheetah is an incredibly endangered species found only in parts of Iran, of which there are thought to be fewer than 50 individuals surviving in the wild. Until the 1970s, this region was also home to the Caspian Tiger, a unique subspecies of Tiger related to the large Siberian Tiger which still survives in parts of Russia.

The Asiatic Cheetah is critically endangered. Remote areas of Iran are its last refuge.

The hidden Imam of Time

Ideas shape history, perhaps even more than any single individual, empire, army or king. In the past, I've covered the mysterious Shia Islamic sect of Hassan e-Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountains, and the Ismaili link with Greek Platonic philosophy; I've also talked about the Chinese Jesus Sutras, and the link between Christianity and Buddhism. The hidden Imam of Time is an equally fascinating story.

In 873, a three year-old boy went into hiding. Concealed and hidden from all but the most trusted from birth, his life was now in mortal danger. The boy's name was Muhammad ibn al-Hasan, and he was no ordinary child: he was the Twelfth Imam - God's chosen representative on Earth, according to his followers, a religious sect that would eventually grow into the main branch of the Shia faith, the dominant religion in Iran, with 170 million followers today.

The Shia were a persecuted religious group in the 9th century; the Abbasid Caliphs viewed the Shia as a threat to their authority, and many of the previous Imams had been assassinated or disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Muhammad's father al-Askari was the latest to be eliminated - many believed on the orders of the ruling Caliph. Thus the infant Muhammad had to be concealed, for his safety.

For the next 68 years, he would remain in touch with his followers through four messengers, who would deliver his letters to the community. This period is called the 'minor occultation', meaning the era of being hidden. However, things were about to get much more interesting.

An Iranian Shia depiction of the 12 Imams of the Shia faith, with Husayn and Hasan in the background. Husayn was the grandchildren of Prophet Muhammad. He was killed in battle at Karbala by the forces of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid; popular discontent about this contributed to the overthrow of the Umayyads 70 years later.

In 941, just a few days before the death of his last messenger, the hidden Twelfth Imam delivered a final message, in which he said he would not be in contact with his followers, but instructed them to follow pious clerics. He was 71 years of age. Opinions differ on what happened next.

Twelver Shia Muslims believe that Muhammad ibn al Hasan went into a state of 'major occultation'; hidden from sight, his life divinely extended, he has remained in hiding until the present day and is still alive! Further, they believe that he was the Mahdi, a messianic leader prophesied in holy scripture, who will return at the end of time to restore peace and justice to the Earth, and together with Jesus, usher in the final victory of good over evil.

"From the day of your death [the last deputy] the period of my major occultation will begin. Henceforth, no one will see me, unless and until Allah makes me appear."

Did he really exist?

However, it has been disputed whether the Twelfth Imam ever even existed. His uncle Jafar ibn Ali insisted that al Askari did not have a son (i.e. Muhammad never existed), and according to some sources the child appeared only once, after which he was never seen again.

The volcanic peak of Mount Damavand is Iran's highest mountain and the highest volcano in Asia at 5609 metres elevation. At least three of the earlier Shia Imams disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and at least one is said to have disappeared into the mountains.

On the other hand, Jafar's reliability is in question since he wanted to be the Imam himself. Further, it is claimed by some genealogy charts from Khorasan that al Askari (the eleventh Imam) did have a second son, Sayyid Ali Akbar, which would lend support to the idea that Muhammad may have existed, although Sayyid Ali's existence is also disputed by both Shia and Sunni sources.

Khorasan: repository of god's word?

In any case, Khorasan played an important role in the preservation of Islamic sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, which are called hadith. These were not written down until the 9th century; and when the best-known collection appeared, it was gathered in Khorasan.

In 846, the Persian scholar al Bukhari travelled around Khorasan, interviewing the inhabitants about what they knew of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. His work resulted in the first and most authoritative collection of sayings, the Sahih al-Bukhari. It contains 2,600 sayings, on topics from charity and perseverance, to marriage, family, manners and courtesy, seeking knowledge, work, business, faith, fairness, justice and everything one can think of.

"Give food to the hungry, pay a visit to the sick and release (set free) the one in captivity (by paying his ransom)." - Chapter 70, Sahih al Bukhari

A Persian-style mosque in Herat Afghanistan. This is typical of Khorasan and Iran.

Bukhari attempted to verify the sayings he recorded, choosing only sources he believed to be trustworthy and including a chain of transmission, which records who the saying was heard from, and where the speaker heard it from, tracing (as much as possible) the origin of the saying back to either Muhammad himself or one of his companions. It is said that Bukhari sifted through 600,000 sayings over a period of 13 years, eventually refining these down to 7,563 whose reliability he fully trusted, of which 2,600 are unique (some of the 7,563 are slightly different wordings of the same saying, which were nevertheless well-attested enough to include).

Regardless of how they were transmitted, the memories and oral traditions of Khorasan have come to be of long-lasting, world-spanning importance for 1.6 billion people.

A 'Lost Golden Age' of Science? Central Asia

It has been argued that the cities of Central Asia were among the most advanced in the world between the 9th century and the 15th century. The Golden Age of Arabic Science is relatively well known by people interested in Medieval history, although it probably not as widely known as it should be. The House of Wisdom in Baghdad, for instance, is often mentioned in historical accounts that touch on the Islamic world. But Central Asia's role is even less known.

"Central Asia led the world in trade and economic development, the size and sophistication of its cities, the refinement of its arts, and, above all, in the advancement of knowledge in many fields," wrote historian Frederick Starr in his book Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab conquest to Tamarlane.

"Central Asians achieved signal breakthroughs in astronomy, mathematics, geology, medicine, chemistry, music, social science, philosophy, and theology, among other subjects. They gave algebra its name, calculated the earth's diameter with unprecedented precision, wrote the books that later defined European medicine, and penned some of the world's greatest poetry. One scholar, working in Afghanistan, even predicted the existence of North and South America--five centuries before Columbus. Rarely in history has a more impressive group of polymaths appeared at one place and time."

A re-imagining of the famous "School of Athens" painting by the 16th century Renaissance artist Raphael; the right half of this image has been edited to give credit to scholars from the Islamic world such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and al-Khwarezmi.

An 11th century list of all the most praiseworthy people who could speak Arabic, the international common language of the civilised world at the time, featured scientists among other categories; 90% of them were from Central Asia. Arabic is not the native language to this region; most of these people would have been Persians and Turks who learned the language through study, just as many international students learn English today.

The Golden Age of Arabic Science would deserve a post of its own; but we must move on.

Astrakhan: Russian Tsars, Ottoman Sultans, and the Luftwaffe

The region of Khorasan is separated by an inland sea from Astrakhan - a city with its own varied and interesting history. For the benefit of readers, a quick map of the Caspian Sea.

Astrakhan is located at the other end of the Caspian Sea from Khorasan, close to the mouth of the Volga river. Yet it shares in the fascinating history of this region.

The land at the Volga delta is fertile, making it a good place to found a city. First mentioned in the 13th century, the Khanate of Astrakhan was a Turkic state that ruled over the city in the 15th and early 16th centuries until it was conquered by the Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1556. The Tsar had a new fortress constructed on a hill overlooking the city in 1558, to protect it from attack. Given what was to come, this turned out to be a good choice.

Astrakhan in the 17th century, when it was conquered by Russian ruler Ivan the Terrible.

Astrakhan under Russian rule was a very mixed place; people came to the city from Armenia, Persia, India and Central Asia. However, in 1569, Astrakhan was besieged by a large Ottoman Turkish army, which must have been operating at the extreme end of its supply lines; they had 20,000 Turks and 50,000 Tatars, if one believes the sources.

The defenders resisted bravely, and sallied forth against the attackers. Together with a Russian relief army of 30,000 men, the defenders were able to force the Ottomans to retreat. Up to 70% of the Ottoman force is reported to have either frozen to death or been killed by partisans on their retreat, and the Ottoman fleet at Azov was sunk by a storm. Nevertheless, in the peace that followed, the Ottoman Sultan Selim II still managed to secure safe passage for Muslim traders and pilgrims from Central Asia. With peace restored, Astrakhan became a prosperous city with a diverse population.

This traditional oud-style song is named after the city of Asktrakhan, on the Volga delta.

However, the city's greatest challenge came in the Second World War, when it was attacked by the forces of Nazi Germany during Fall Blau, Hitler's plan to force the defeat of the Soviet Union by marching into the Caucasus and securing the oil fields. The campaign became infamous for the terrible battle of Stalingrad, about 230 miles further upstream on the Volga river, in which the Axis and Soviet forces suffered around two million casualties on both sides, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Units from German army group A came within 62 miles of Astrakhan. Several Luftwaffe air raids struck the city, targeting its oil terminals and harbours. However, like the Ottomans before them, the Germans failed to take Astrakhan.

German Luftwaffe He-111 Heinkel bomber. Aircraft from Kampfgeschwader 4 and KG-100 were used to attack Russian cities including Astrakhan between June and November 1942.

Fukuyama versus Islam: the End of History?

Our final port of call in this whirlwind tour of Khorasan/Central Asia is Persia, better known as Iran (the native name for the country). For that, we'll need to pass back across the Caspian Sea, and fast-forward 47 years.

American academic Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1989 of the 'End of History'. He meant that with the demise of Soviet Communism, the triumph of the West pointed the way to the perfection of human society. The West, he wrote, had answered all the big questions that had dogged society for so long. The matter had been decided, in favour of capitalism and western-style democracy. All other systems had failed; the West was the perfection of human achievement and the "end" of history, in the sense that it was the only model that worked; all others must be discarded and fall away. But Fukayama wasn't the only one to sense change was coming. And the conclusions some others drew did not (surprise, surprise) involve bowing down to the 'superiority' of the West.

In January 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini wrote a letter to Russian leader Gorbachev. Now that Communism was consigned to the dustbin of history, Khomeini wrote, he invited the Russian leader to try Shia Islam instead. He recommended several scholars, mystic poets and philosophers, including Ibn Arabi, Avicenna and al-Farabi.

"Mr. Gorbachev! It is clear to everybody that from now on Communism will only have to be found in the museums of world political history, for Marxism cannot meet any of the real needs of mankind. Marxism is a materialistic ideology and materialism cannot bring humanity out of the crisis caused by a lack of belief in spirituality: the prime affliction of the human society in the East and the west alike."

Khomeini is a complex figure. Vilified in the West, particularly for the notorious fatwa he issued calling for the death of novelist Salman Rushdie, he has been seen as epitomising the kind of fanatical, intransigent Islamist who hates the West and who embodies inhuman, regressive views on freedom, religion, the role of women and politics. Khomeini made some appalling decisions: he banned music; he also forced women to wear the veil in public; under his rule, critics say, many basic human freedoms were lost, and Iran became a joyless place characterised by state oppression, mass executions of dissidents, a lengthy and destructive war with Iraq which resulted in a million casualties, and endless hostility towards the United States and Israel. It looks undeniably like a rather dark, depressing period.

Resistance to the United States is a founding part of the Islamic Republic of Iran's ideology

However, some of the philosophers he recommended were Sufis. He is known to have authored poetry on the subject of divine love; these two factors seem to suggest he may not have been entirely the closed-minded hardliner that he is often presented as. He defended Sufi philosophers against what he called "stupid mullahs"; in the Islamic world, the more dogmatic forms of faith usually stand in opposition to Sufism, which is a more open-minded philosophy. On the other hand, there seems to be very little of the Sufi love and tolerance in his social policies.

Of course, it is difficult to know how reliable any information about him really is, given the ongoing propaganda war in the English-speaking world against Iran. I am sceptical of the claims of both sides in this conflict.

Famous mural in Iran, depicting the US statue of liberty as a hideous, undead monster. The mural was no doubt intended to highlight the hypocrisy of the United States' claim to be upholding liberty, while at the same time invading other countries and supporting coup attempts (such as the one in Iran in 1953 which overthrew the democratically elected president Mossadegh and installed the autocratic Shah, a Western puppet ruler who lived in a state of decadent luxury until he was overthrown in 1979).

Many of the restrictions of the Khomeini era were lifted after his death in 1989; music returned and has since flourished in the country. Many people protested in favour of more democracy and more liberalisation in recent years; moderates swept the elections in 2017, although unfortunately they were unable to achieve one of their central goals, namely better relations with the West, due to the presidency of Donald J. Trump, which unluckily happened to coincide with their electoral victory. Trump immediately took a harshly anti-Iran stance, thereby undermining the moderates and reformers within Iran and blocking all chance of constructive dialogue. This disastrous turn of events was deeply unfortunate, and may result in hardliners winning the 2021 elections. If so, the supporters of liberalisation in Iran may have to wait even longer for their next chance to improve the situation of the country.

Threatened societies become defensive; if one leaves them alone, they'll develop on their own. There is a great deal of evidence that young people in Iran would like to see their country become more liberal; it is precisely the external threat, which holds them back from developing. The foreign policy of successive US governments (e.g. George W. Bush, Trump) has been damaging and counterproductive. One can only hope things get better with a different, more constructive approach in the future. One way or the other, I feel certain that one day Iran will reach a brighter future, more in harmony with its illustrious past.

The mausoleum for the Persian Sufi poet Attar Neyshabouri, who wrote 'The Conference of the Birds', a philosophical work in which a group of birds must make a great journey across mountains, valleys, snowstorms and many obstacles to find the 'king of the birds'. The story is full of metaphors about facing one's fears and finding our better inner nature. Persia was for many centuries the home of poetry. Nishapur, Iran.

Epilogue: the return of China

Khorasan has a long and distinguished history, which belies its relative obscurity in the modern world. We began this article with a confrontation between the Chinese and the Abbasids over the fate of Central Asia. One irony of history is that Chinese may have lost at Talas, but it's entirely possible that the future of Khorasan may yet be influenced by a new era of Chinese influence.

China's Belt and Road represents a fresh vision of the future, away from the control of the Atlanticist powers (the USA, Britain). It's no coincidence that in March 2021, Iran signed a 25-year deal with China which promises $280 billion to $400 billion investment in Iran's industries, including the port of Chabahar.

If China succeeds, Belt and Road could help shift the balance of power and influence around the world, back in favour of the Asiatic nations in a way not seen since the discovery of the Americas in 1492. But that would be a topic for another day.

Thank you for reading.

“If you will but aspire

You will attain to all that you desire.

Before an atom of such need the Sun

Seems dim and mirky by comparison.

It is life's strength, the wings by which we fly

Beyond the further reaches of the sky.”

- Attar Neyshabouri, the Conference of the birds

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