History & Background
Tajikistan, literally the "land of the Tajiks," has ancient cultural roots. The people now known as the Tajiks are the Persian speakers of Central Asia, some of whose ancestors inhabited Central Asia at the dawn of history. Despite the long heritage of its indigenous peoples, Tajikistan has existed as a state only since the Soviet Union decreed its existence in 1924.
Tajikistan borders China to the east, Kyrgyzstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the West and Afghanistan on its southern frontier. The 1999 population was estimated at six million. Two-thirds of its people are ethnic Tajik, about a quarter are Uzbek and other groups make up the rest. Russians, who numbered roughly half a million a decade ago, fled the country en masse during the recent civil war.
Of the five Central Asian states that declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan is the smallest in area and the third largest in population. Landlocked and mountainous, the republic has some valuable natural resources, such as waterpower and minerals, but arable land is scarce, the industrial base is narrow, and the communications and transportation infrastructures are poorly developed.
The origin of the name Tajik has been embroiled in twentieth century political disputes about whether Turkic or Iranian people were the original inhabitants of Central Asia. Until the twentieth century, people in the region used two types of distinction to identify themselves: way of life—either nomadic or sedentary—and place of residence.
Most if not all, of what is today Tajikistan was part of ancient Persia's Achaemenid Empire which was subdued by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. and then became part of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. The northern part of what is now Tajikistan was part of Soghdiana.
As intermediaries on the Silk Route between China and markets to the west and south, the Soghdians imparted religions such as Buddhism, Netorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Manichaeism, as well as their own alphabet and other knowledge, to peoples along the trade routes. Islamic Arabs began the conquest of the region in earnest in the early eighth century. In the development of a modern Tajik national identity, the most important state in Central Asia after the Islamic conquest was the Persian-speaking Samanid principality (875-999). During their reign, the Samanids supported the revival of the written Persian language. Samanid literary patronage played an important role in preserving the culture of pre-Islamic Iran.
During the first centuries A.D., Chinese involvement in this region waxed and waned, decreasing sharply after the Islamic conquest but not disappearing completely. As late as the nineteenth century, China attempted to press its claim to the Pamir region of what is now southeastern Tajikistan. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, China occasionally has revived its claim to part of this region.
Beginning in the ninth century, Turkish penetration of the Persian cultural sphere increased in Central Asia. The influx of even greater numbers of Turkic peoples began in the eleventh century. The Turkic peoples who moved into southern Central Asia, including what later became Tajikistan, were influenced to varying degrees by Persian culture. Over the generations, some converted Turks changed from pastoral nomadism to a sedentary way of life, which brought them into closer contact with the sedentary Persian speakers.
Until 1991, Tajikistan was part of the former USSR. In Soviet times, the investment in social structures allowed Tajikistan to reach a high level of development within the education system. Up until the beginning of the 1990s, literacy among the adult population (99 percent according to the 1989 census) and well-educated labor force were maintained: 77 percent had a secondary education and above. The educational institutions at all levels were accessible to the majority of the population.
Following independence in 1991, Tajikistan faced a series of crises. Separation from the Soviet Union caused an immediate economic collapse. Noninclusion in the ruble zone caused a cash crisis which was exacerbated when Russia delayed payments on shipments of cotton because of Tajik debts to Russia. A civil war in 1991-1993 resulted in significant loss of life and property and left close to 500,000 people homeless and set back children's education. General damage is estimated at US$7 billion.
As of 2000, Tajikistan ranked among the 20 poorest nations of the world. With an average per capita annual income of some US$130, about 85 percent of Tajiks live below the poverty line.
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