The 18th century in Central Asia was a period of weakness and disruption, with continuous invasions from Iran and from the north. In this period, a new group, the Russians, began to appear on the Central Asian scene. As Russian merchants began to expand into the grasslands of present-day Kazakstan, they built strong trade relations with their counterparts in Tashkent and, to some extent, in Khiva. For the Russians, this trade was not rich enough to replace the former transcontinental trade, but it made the Russians aware of the potential of Central Asia. Russian attention also was drawn by the sale of increasingly large numbers of Russian slaves to the Central Asians by Kazak and Turkmen tribes. Russians kidnapped by nomads in the border regions and Russian sailors shipwrecked on the shores of the Caspian Sea usually ended up in the slave markets of Bukhara or Khiva. Beginning in the eighteenth century, this situation evoked increasing Russian hostility toward the Central Asian khanates. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Meanwhile, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries new dynasties led the khanates to a period of recovery. Those dynasties were the Qongrats in Khiva, the Manghits in Bukhara, and the Mins in Quqon. These new dynasties established centralized states with standing armies and new irrigation works. But their rise coincided with the ascendance of Russian power in the Kazak steppes and the establishment of a British position in Afghanistan. By the early nineteenth century, the region was caught between these two powerful European competitors, each of which tried to add Central Asia to its empire in what came to be known as the Great Game. The Central Asians, who did not realize the dangerous position they were in, continued to waste their strength in wars among themselves and in pointless campaigns of conquest. *

The ethnic composition of Central Asia was characterised by extraordinary heterogeneity. Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: In Tajikistan, “apart from Tajiks and Tajik-speaking Turks (called Chaghatai in southern vilayets), there were also various Uzbek tribes, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Jews, Iranians, Afghans, Arabs, Lesgins, Armenians and Indians. The Tajiks were subdivided according to their affiliation with ancient cultural and historical regions: Kulob (medieval Khuttal), Panjakent (in Zarafshon Valley), Asht (Upper Syr-Darya) and Qarotegin (foothills of the Pamirs); the Kulobis may have accounted for more than 60 per cent of the Tajik ethnie in Eastern Bukhara. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ><]

“In terms of genealogical memory, the oral tradition of the Asht Tajiks is illustrative of the tendencies in the Tajik ethnic community in the late nineteenth century. Asht was a locality in North-Western Ferghana that consisted of a number of qishloqs (villages)—with very different histories and ethnic composition—that could be divided into three groups. First, the titular qishloq of Asht allegedly had an uninterrupted cultural tradition since the Achaemenid period and its inhabitants readily referred to Shahnama’s Rustam, Alexander the Great and Qutaiba as contributors to their original Soghdian genealogy. Second, the citizens of Ponghoz claimed that their qishloq was established by migrants from the south, Darvoz in particular, whom they called ‘real Tajiks’, as opposed to the local mixture of Soghdians and Turks (‘also Tajiks’). Third, ‘real Tajiks’ and ‘also Tajiks’ were very persistent in stressing their dissimilarity with the predominantly Uzbek-dwellers of Kamysh-Qurghon in terms of ‘customs, outlook and especially consciousness’, though they admitted that Uzbeks had been living in the region ‘for a long time, too’.><


Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “From the end of the fourteenth century, all nomadic clans of different extraction who lived on the steppes between the Ural and the Irtysh rivers were known under the collective name of the Uzbeks. In the fifteenth century they formed an autarchic community with the beginnings of state organisation, of which the Chengiz-inspired ‘decimal’ military machine was the most notable feature. Like any other nomadic polity, it was bedevilled by the absence of legitimacy and clear rules of succession, and the central political authority remained viable only as long as it could wage successful wars, which provided clan aristocracy with plunder and status. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ><]

“By 1512, the Uzbeks had gradually conquered Mavarannahr and pushed vast masses of the sedentary population out of the fertile river valleys. This was the last large-scale influx of nomads into Turkestan. Afterwards, a distinctive demographic pattern emerged in what now is Tajikistan: mountainous regions were inhabited almost exclusively by the Tajiks; the broad river valleys and steppes were dominated by the Kipchak Uzbeks; while the expansive transitional areas between the two ethnic and geographic zones were characterised by a mixture of the indigenous sedentary population (Tajik and Turkic) and semi-nomadic Uzbeks. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ><]

“Once the Uzbeks captured Mavarannahr, each clan was quartered around a certain city from which it collected taxes. In such circumstances the demise of the state of the nomadic Uzbeks was inevitable, but permanent warfare against the Safavids put it off until the mid 1580s. The Khans tried to find alternative means to create unity amongst the clans and sponsored Sufi orders, especially Naqshbandiya, to this end. This policy backfired, however, for the dervish brotherhoods failed to engender strong bonds in the society, and at the same time these orders became substantial economic and political forces themselves, due to lavish endowments made by the rulers. At the end of the sixteenth century, ‘the Uzbek polity demilitarised itself and became a kind of Polish commonwealth: weak king, irresponsible aristocracy and dominant clericalism. The dervish orders became the leading institution in state, society and culture.’ ><

“The period of feudal sedition that ensued had disastrous results for Turkestan, comparable with those produced by the Mongol invasion. The endless fighting amongst Uzbek clans, exacerbated by the dramatic decline of the transcontinental caravan trade in the seventeenth century, led to economic devastation, which reached its nadir in the first half of the eighteenth century, when ‘there were no citizens left in Samarkand’ and ‘Bukhara had only two inhabited mahallas’. Even the rise of relatively centralised states—the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva and later Kokand—could not reverse the trend. The history of the principality of Uroteppa is illustrative of this process. In the period 1800–66, Uroteppa (Istaravshon) suffered some 50 attacks; as a result, it lost two-thirds of its population and turned into ‘one of the most devastated areas of Central Asia’. ><


In the 17th and 18th centuries large areas of Central Asia was controlled by the Oryats (Oirats, Jungans. The Oryats were a western Mongols clan that converted the Tibetan Buddhism. They established the Dzungarian (Zungarian) empire in eastern Kazakhstan, western China, western Mongolia and the Tien Shan area which lasted from 1635 to 1758.

At their height the Oryats claimed Chinese territory in Tibet and western China and challenged the Manchu (Qing) Chinese for dominance in central China. The state finally came to an end in 1758 when a powerful leader died and during the battle of the succession and large Manchu army pounced on their homeland and destroyed the Oryat army and slaughtered many civilians, bringing their civilization to a close.

The cruelty and the aggression of the Oryat is related in the epic poetry of the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz. The Oryat are now a small minority that live in the Altai area of China and Russia.

With the collapse of the Oryat, Central Asia was thrown into chaos. The Manchus in China were too weak to exert control over the region as were the Chaghatai khans. The Kyrgyz controlled much of the Tien San mountains; the Uighars took over the cities in western China; the Kazakhs formed an alliance of with the Russians; and Uzbekistan was controlled by an Iranian interloper Nadir Shah.

Nadir Shah

Nadir Shah (Nader Shah) was a brilliant but ruthless tribal leader from the north. In 1736, he helped the Safavids return briefly to power and threw out the Afghans as well as the Russians and Turks and then overthrew the Safavids and embarked on a campaign of conquest and tried to reintroduce Sunni Islam to Iran.

The Safavid dynasty collapsed in 1722 when Isfahan was conquered without much of a fight by Afghan tribesmen with the Turks and Russians picking up the pieces. A Safavid prince escaped and returned to power under Nadir Khan. Afghan supremacy was brief. Tahmasp Quli, a chief of the Afshar tribe, soon expelled the Afghans in the name of a surviving member of the Safavid family. Then, in 1736, he assumed power in his own name as Nader Shah. He went on to drive the Ottomans from Georgia and Armenia and the Russians from the Iranian coast on the Caspian Sea and restored Iranian sovereignty over Afghanistan. He also took his army on several campaigns into India.

In 1739, the Nadir Shah marched into Delhi, massacred many of its residents and carted away numerous treasures, including the Mughal’s famed Peacock Throne, back to Tehran. He annexed territories west of the Indus. After his death the kingdom of Afghanistan was founded by Ahmed Shah Durrani and the Indus territories merged into his kingdom. These included Punjab and Kashmir.

Nadir Shah’s cruelty and ambition made him unpopular. Although he achieved political unity, his military campaigns and extortionate taxation proved a terrible drain on a country already ravaged and depopulated by war and disorder, and in 1747 he was murdered by chiefs of his own Afshar tribe. Both the Persians, exhausted by his military campaigns, and Persia’s neighbors, heaved a sigh of relief. After he died there was period of upheaval. His Afshan dynasty ruled weakly in some places until 1803.

A period of anarchy and a struggle for supremacy among Afshar, Qajar, Afghan, and Zand tribal chieftains followed Nader Shah's death. Finally Karim Khan Zand (1750-79) was able to defeat his rivals and to unify the country, except for Khorasan, under a loose form of central control. He refused to assume the title of shah, however, and ruled as vakil al ruaya, or deputy of the subjects. He is remembered for his mild and beneficent rule.*

Khanates of Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand

After the regime of Nadir Shah collapsed in 1747, three Uzbek Khanates quickly rose to fill the vacuum. They were the 1) the Khiva-based Kungrats, 2) the Bukhara-based Manghits, and the 3) Kokand-based Mins. All three were ruled by khans who closed themselves off to outside world, fought among themselves and lived in kind of fairyland, medieval-style desert kingdoms.

On the fringes of their empire roamed nomads—Turkmen to the south, Kazakhs to the north and the Kyrgyz in the Tian Shan—that occasionally battled the khans. The towns where filled with ordinary Uzbeks and Tajiks, who were similar except the spoke different languages.

Some of the Uzbek khans were capable leaders but they are remembered most for their cruelty and capriciousness. They ruled as despots in a world full corrupt mullahs, towns people and nomads who lived beyond the khans control. The Khanates— Bukhara in particular—grew rich from the trade of crafts, carpets and cloth. European visitors wrote fanciful tales about the exotic things they saw.

Nasrullah "the Butcher" Khan

Nasrullah "the Butcher" Khan, a 19th century emir of Bukhara, seized the throne after killing all of his brothers and 28 other relatives. He and some of the other khans made a fortune from Bukhara's lucrative slave market. Nasrullah once kidnaped the wife of a rival khan from Kokand and demanded that she marry him. When she refused Nasrullah had her and her children and brother-in-law beheaded .

Nasrullah knew he was not a popular man. His water was brought to him directly from the river in sealed container. His food was delivered in a locked box from his palace kitchen . Both his water and food were first sampled by servants before he consumed it.

Those that displeased him could be dealt with in a number of ways: torture, execution with a sheep butcher’s knife, beheading, cudgeling, confinement in the Bug Pit or tossed off the Tower of Death. His prisons were holes in the ground covered by iron grating, where prisoners wasted away in darkness and their own filth.

The Bug Pit of Zindan Prison (behind the Ark in Bukhara) is where enemies of the emir waited to have their throats cut with a sheep butcher’s knife after they were tortured. It is so named because it was filled with unpleasant insects as well as spiders, ticks, rats, and scorpions. The two most famous occupants of the pit were British: Col. Charles Stoddart and Capt. Arthur Conolly. See Separate Article THE GREAT GAME

Slavery in Khiva

Khiva prospered between the 16th and 19th centuries through the sale of slaves, most of which were sold in the large slave market in the middle of the city. In 1819, one foreign visitor to Khiva estimated that there were 30,000 slaves in Khiva, included 3,000 Russians. Russians, especially young and beautiful boys and girls, were highly prized. It was said that a Russian male in good health was worth four healthy camels. The Khan of Khiva kept the best ones for himself.

Most of the slaves were Kurds and Persians. Turkmen used to boast, “No Persian ever approached...without a rope round his neck.” Captives were often taken hundreds of miles from Khiva. For the long journey the captives were bound together by their hands and fed nothing but chopped straw. The slave trade existed in the French colonies and in America at the same time. Many argue that serfdom in Russia was no better or worse than slavery.

The slaves were supplied by Turkmen and Kazakhs who took hostages during raids and kidnaped anyone who was stupid enough to wander into their territory. To keep these tribesmen from raiding Khiva, the khans of Khiva hired Turkmen as mercenaries and provided them with land and money in return for security.

Sometimes the victims were Russian men working in their fields near Orenburg, or whole families in their beds at night. Other times they were Russian sailors who had strayed too close to shore. Most often, they were northern Persians travelling to visit relatives or traders with their caravan of camels. For Turkoman tribes, the 'Alaman' or raiding party was an integral part of Turkoman life. They would usually attack a settlement at night or a caravan at sunrise and would make full use of their reputation for immense cruelty and barbarism. [Source: khiva.info *^*]

Arminius Vambery, a Hungarian traveler disguised as a dervish was given hospitality amongst one of the Turkoman tribes. "Often," recounted one of the raiders he met, "The Persians, struck with a panic, throw away their arms, demand cords and bind each other mutually; we have no occasion to dismount, except for the purpose of fastening the last of them." Vambery was horrified at this trade in slaves and the wretched state of many Persians whom he saw in captivity. *^*

"Let us picture to ourselves the feelings of a Persian, even admitting that he is the poorest of his race, who is surprised by a night attack, hurried away from his family, and brought hither a prisoner and often wounded. He has to exchange his dress for old Turkoman rags that only scantily cover parts of his body, and is heavily laden with chains that gall his ankles and occasion him great and unceasing pain every step he takes; he is forced upon the poorest diet to linger the first days, often weeks of his captivity. That he might make no attempt at flight, he has also during the night a Karabogra (iron ring) attached to his neck and fastened to a peg, so that the rattle betrays even his slightest movements. No other termination to his suffering than the payment of a ransom by his friends; and failing this, he is liable to be sold, and perhaps hurried off to Khiva or Bukhara! To the rattle of those chains I could never habituate my ears; it is heard in the tent of every Turkoman who has any pretensions to respectability or position. Even our friend Khandjan had two slaves, lads only in their eighteenth and twentieth year; and to behold these unfortunates, in the bloom of their youth, in fetters made me feel indescribable emotion, repeated every day." [Source: Arminius Vambery - Travels in Central Asia 1864]

On what he learned about the Central Asian slave trade, the Englishman Captain Richmond Shakespear wrote: "The average number of years of slavery of Turkestan is thus: males, ten years and a half, females, nearly seventeen. One of the males has been sixty years in slavery, and some of them only six months. Most men were seized when fishing and were from Orenburg.... With one exception they were all in fine health. They all seemed poor people, very grateful, and altogether it was one of the pleasantest duties I have ever executed." [Source: Richmond Shakespear, “A Personal Narrative of a Journey from Herat to Orenburg, on the Caspian, in 1840", 1842]

Khiva Slave Market

The Khiva Slave Bazaar was located within the Palvan Gate. Sometimes whole caravans would be bartered over and sold after being captured and dragged through the desert, hands tied and with ropes around their necks to the bazaars of Khiva or Bukhara. Distrusted Turkoman raiders were only tolerated within the city limits due to the lucrative income that their slave trading brought. [Source: khiva.info *^*]

Nicholai Muraviev, a Russian who disguised himself as a Turkmen trader, wrote: "A young Russian (up to 25 years of age) fetches from fifty to eighty tillas. The Persian slaves are much cheaper. Of the latter there may be 30 thousand in Khiva, but there are not more than 300 Russian slaves there. The Persians...come into the market in batches of five, ten, and even thirty at a time. Their captors do not trouble themselves about them on the road and if they get exhausted, leave them without compunction to die on the steppe. On arrival at Khiva the owner sets himself down with them in the market, and purchasers surround him, inspecting and examining the poor wretches and haggling about their price as if they were horses... masters have the power of putting their slaves to death, but seldom avail themselves of this right from economical considerations. [Source: Nicholai Muraviev, “Journey to Khiva through the Turkoman Country,” English Edition, 1871 +++]

“The practice of catching human beings and selling them to the Khivans has become an absolute necessity to the nomadic tribes; that is to say, that the latter have to depend for grain on Khiva, and grain cannot be grown there without extraneous labour, so that the abominable trade has become an institution for the mutual benefit of Khiva and the predatory tribes, without which neither could exist." +++

“The first time a slave attempted escape they would have a whipping or an ear or minor body part cut cut off. But should a slave be suspected a second time of the intention of running away, he is nailed by an ear to a post or to the house door, and left for three days without food or drink, exposed to the jibes of passers by. Few survive this, as they enter on the ordeal with frames already exhausted by toil and hardship." +++

On the slaves he saw, Captain James Abbott, an Englishman sent on a diplomatic mission to Khiva, wrote: “The men are chained together by the throats at night. So that rest is scarcely possible, whilst the contact of the frozen iron with their skin must be a torture. My heart is full of heaviness when I think of all the heart-rending misery of which this system is the cause. Alas! He who once enters Khiva abandons all hope, as surely as he who enters hell. His prison house is girdled with tracks of desert, whose sole inhabitants are the sellers of human flesh." [Source: Captain James Abbott, “Narrative of a Journey from Herat to Khiva,” 1840)

Abbott was sent to Khiva in 1839 to convince the khan there to release all the Russian slaves there so that Russia would not have an excuse to attack and annex the khanate. Recounting his experiences in the book Journey from Herat to Khiva, he was captured by Turkmen, narrowly escaped execution and managed to make his way back to England. Captain Shakespear achieved the objective of winning the release of 418 Russian slaves in Khiva in 1840. Theses tactics delayed the Russian capture of Khiva, a stepping stone to Afghanistan, by 33 years.

Cruelty and Ignorance of the Khivan Khans

The knanates who profited from the slave trade were notorious for their cruelty and their use of torture. In 1863, Vambery, observed eight men, lying on the ground, having their eyes gouged out by a torturer, who wiped his knife on his victims beards. He wrote “at a sign from he executioner, eight aged men lay down on their backs on the earth” and the executioner “gouged out their eyes in turn, kneeling to do so on the breasts of each poor wretch, and after every operation wiping his knife, dripping with blood, upon the white beard of the hoary unfortunate.” Men sentenced to death were often impaled in such a way that took several days to die. One khan decreed that anyone caught smoking or drinking alcohol would have their mouth slit so that they would be left with a permanent goofy smile not unlike that of the Joker in Batman.

On the punishment for flirting, Vambery wrote: “To have cast a look upon a thickly-veiled lady, sufficed for the offender to be executed by the Redjm according as religion directs. The man is hung, and the woman is buried up to the breast in the earth near the gallows, and there stoned to death. As in Khiva there are no stones, they use Kesek (hard balls of earth). At the third discharge, the poor victim is completely covered with dust, and the body, dripping with blood, is horribly disfigured, and the death which ensues alone puts an end to her torture.” [Source: Arminius Vambery “Travels in Central Asia 1864"]

The khans demanded huge taxes from farmers. They controlled the irrigation system and threatened to cut off water to anyone who didn’t pay. Despite this many large landowners became quite wealthy and owned palaces with elaborate gardens and rooms filled with works of art.

Khiva was very isolated and the khans were very ignorant. They believed the world didn’t extend much further than Uzbekistan and that the English were a caste of Russians. Even after the Russians arrived they refused to allow electricity, telephones and schools. One court member that encouraged reforms was murdered on the orders of the conservative clergy. At that time Khiva was one of the most dangerous cities in the world for outsiders.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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