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The Stans

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By Mike Edwards Photographs by Tyler Hicks, Getty Images

From Kazakhs in the north to Pashtun in Pakistan, over 100 ethnic groups call these storied lands home.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

They are a diverse lot, these seven Stans. Only Kazakhstan, one of the five Stans born ten years ago in the breakup of the Soviet Union, seems likely to enjoy a prosperous future, thanks to enormous oil reserves. Someday Turkmenistan may also be rich—it has abundant natural gas—but for now it stagnates in one-man rule. Pakistan must be reckoned the most formidable Stan, possessing a large army and nuclear weapons to boot. It is also volatile and violent. Two of the ex-Soviet states, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, seem likely to become welfare nations, depending on the largesse of international lenders. After 23 years of conflict Afghanistan is the neediest of all, a gutted shell of a state with millions of land mines embedded in its earth.

The Stans’ common denominator is the harshness of their shared landscape, sweeps of desert and near desert riven by soaring mountain chains: the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, the Safed Koh. Mountains mean life. Snowmelt feeds the rivers that support cities and farms; in Pakistan the Indus nourishes one of the most intensely irrigated regions on Earth. Engineers in the Soviet Stans harnessed the Amu Darya and Syr Darya to grow cotton on huge farms. The new nations still grapple with the aftereffects, land poisoned by agricultural chemicals and transformed into barren salt marshes.

In ancient times, the British historian Arnold Toynbee has written, Afghanistan was a “round-about,” a traffic circle, with routes converging “from all quarters of the compass and from which routes radiate out to all quarters of the compass again.” Those routes—silk roads and spice roads arcing across mountain passes, leaping from spring to well to river valley—knitted Afghanistan and the other Stans into a single skein. Mighty conquerors strode these routes: Cyrus and Darius of Persia, Alexander, Attila, Mahmud, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Babur. The number of dynasties domestic and foreign grew to more than a score. From India in the third century B.C. came Buddhism with Asoka, a bloody conqueror who became an evangelist of peace, renouncing the killing of any living thing. Buddhism endured for hundreds of years, time enough and more for artisans to carve soaring Buddhas in the rock of Bamian—statues gone forever, the last two destroyed by Taliban dynamite in March of last year.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

e-mail this page to a friend

Join author Mike Edwards in a live chat on Friday, Feb. 8 at 11 a.m. EST on Questions can be submitted in advance.

Online Extra
In 1966 the Peace Corps sent Mike Edwards to Kabul as deputy director of its Afghanistan program. Now a Geographic assistant editor, he wrote this memoir of his time there.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

All of Central Asia, from Siberia in the north to Afghanistan in the south, from the Gobi desert in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west, used to be known as Turkistan. The name was meant to indicate the areas inhabited by Turkic people, yet this region also contained other ethnic groups such as the Tajik, and didn’t encompass some Turkic people of the former Ottoman Empire and the Volga River areas. The whole of Turkistan was ruled by various Turkic rulers until the arrival of Mongol Genghis Khan in 1220. Eventually the region was divided into East and West Turkistan with China controlling all of East Turkistan. Much of West Turkistan came under Russian rule starting in 1876. Until the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Russian government didn’t involve itself with the traditional lives of these people. However, after the revolution, European Russians began immigrating to the area. Beginning in 1924, Soviet leaders divided West Turkistan into states with artificial borders, often splitting ethnic groups. Within the newly created states, ethnic groups competed for dominance. Now living in independent nations, the ethnic groups vie for a prominent role in their fledgling governments.

—Marisa Larson

Central Asia-Caucus Institute
Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Connect with various articles, op-ed pieces, and interviews from experts on Central Asia.

Interactive Central Asia Resource Project
Discover all that the five former Soviet Central Asian states have to offer by way of culture, scenery, and wildlife.

Information about Countries of Central Asia
A catalog of Central Asian materials on the Web, including history, culture, geography, politics, economics, travel, and religion.

Daniel Sheehan Photography
Click through a portfolio of photographs taken when Daniel Sheehan was in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. See additional photographs from other fascinating parts of the world including the Silk Road, Haiti, and T’bilisi, Republic of Georgia.


Dupree, Louis. Afghanistan. Princeton University Press, 1980.

Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia. I. B. Tauris Publishers, 2000.

Robinson, Francis. The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World. Cambridge University Press,1996.

Soucek, Svat. History of Inner Asia. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Talbot, Ian. Pakistan: A Modern History. St. Martin’s Press, 1998.


Girardet, Edward. “Eyewitness Afghanistan,” National Geographic (December 2001), 130-137.

Miller, Peter. “Afghanistan: Land in Crisis.” National Geographic, (December 2001), map supplement.

Cullen, Robert. “The Rise and Fall of the Caspian Sea.” National Geographic, (May 1999), 2-35.

McCarry, John. “The Promise of Pakistan.” National Geographic, (October 1997), 48-73.

McCarry, John. “High Road to Hunza,” National Geographic (March 1994), 114-134.

Mackenzie, Richard. “Afghanistan’s Uneasy Peace.” National Geographic, (October 1993), 58-89.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. “Islam’s Heartland, Up in Arms,” National Geographic (September 1980), 334-345.

Shor, Franc and Jean. “We Took the Highroad in Afghanistan,” National Geographic (November 1950), 673-706.

Lattimore, Owen. “New Road to Asia,” National Geographic (December 1944), 641-676.

Murray, Edward Stevenson. “With the Nomads of Central Asia: A Summer’s Sojourn in the Tekes Valley, Plateau Paradise of Mongol and Turkic Tribes,” National Geographic (January 1936), 1-57.

Nabours, Robert K. “The Land of Lambskins: An Expedition to Bokhara, Russian Central Asia, to Study the Karakul Sheep Industry,” National Geographic (July 1919), 77-88.

Williams, Maynard Owen. “Where Slav and Mongol Meet,” National Geographic (November 1919), 421-436.

Williams, Maynard Owen. “Russia’s Orphan Races: Picturesque Peoples Who Cluster on the Southeastern Borderland of the Vast Slav Dominions,” National Geographic (October 1918), 245-278.


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