What Is Central Asia?

Turns out it’s a bit more complicated to define the region of Central Asia than one might initially think. Geographically, I appreciate how this map divides the political states between homeland areas and those areas where some CA peoples are present, but not dominant. Notice all the countries that you might not think of as Central Asian where the darker homeland blue spills over into a predominantly white or light blue nation-state: Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and China.

Culturally, the best shorthand for summarizing this region is to organize it around two primary language and culture groups: Persian and Turkic. The largest people groups and the vast majority of the groups in this area are either Persian-related or Turkic-related. That helps bring some clarity to an otherwise messy situation. Someone working in Pakistan is clearly working in what’s normally politically and geographically called South Asia. But if they are working with Pashtuns (Persian-related) in the West of the country, then they are culturally and linguistically (and even geographically) very much in Central Asia. Part of the issue is the huge Eurasian landmass itself and the fact that the the cultural-linguistic spheres don’t necessary match the political and geographic borders. And then of course if you get into the mountains you will always find minority people groups and languages that will add more complexity to whatever principle of organization is used to label things.

Want to get a sense of what this region of the world feels like? Take a look at this intro video below. Parts of this video were filmed in the area where we serve, but yes, for security’s sake I’m going to have to keep you guessing as to which part of this very big region we ourselves live in.

Thus Beginning the Pax Romana

The first Roman advance across the Euphrates ended in catastrophe in 53 BCE. The Roman triumvir Crassus sought for himself the same glory that his co-rulers Julius Caesar and Pompey had achieved. Instead, at Carrhae, south of Edessa, Rome suffered one of its most humiliating defeats, and Crassus lost his life. Three decades later Emperor Augustus and King Phraates IV ended a war neither could win and, in 20 BCE, recognized the Euphrates as the border, thus beginning the Pax Romana. The river became the place where East met West – whether in friendship or in rivalry. For the spread of Christianity and for the history of the Church of the East, this border took on a fateful significance. Although Roman armies crossed the river repeatedly in the second and third centuries and conquered Seleucia-Ctesiphon, they had to retreat every time. Politically and culturally, Mesopotamia remained part of Asia.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p.9

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

The Euphrates’ Effect on Church History

Even the first Christian historian, Eusebius of Caesarea (265-339) in his ecclesiastical history, devoted scarcely a word to the Asian Christianity of Mesopotamia that had begun to develop rapidly in the second century. The reasons behind this the lack of attention to the Church of the East grew out of the geopolitical situation of the time. In those days the River Euphrates, with its source in the north-east of modern Turkey and its mouth at Basra on the Persian Gulf, separated the Roman Empire from the Iranian Empire. Aside from isolated Roman advances towards the east and Iranian advances towards the west, the Euphrates stood as a stable national boundary, whose political impermeability was breached only by merchant caravans.

Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 1-2

It’s interesting what powerful effect the Euphrates river had on the development of the early church. As a major geographic barrier, it also functioned as political, linguistic, and cultural barrier, separating civilizations and leading to a western forgetfulness, to this day, of the millions of Christians that lived outside of the Roman Empire, in the lands to the East.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash