After Bukhara: Central Asian trading networks in Afghanistan and Beyond

By Magnus Marsden

Several tombs of Afghanistan’s historic figures have been restored in recent years. In the Bagh-e Babur park – elegantly restored by the Aga Khan Foundation – lies the grave of Babur Shah, the Central Asian conqueror who captured Kabul in 1504 AD and went on to lay the groundwork for establishing the Mughal Empire. The burial place of another Central Asian ruler – who also died in Kabul – has attracted far less attention. The final ruler of the Emirate of Bukhara, Emir Mohammad Alim Khan, sought refuge in Afghanistan after the Red Army captured his Central Asian territory in 1920. He died in Kabul in 1943 and was buried in the city’s Shuhada-e Salahin cemetery.

Alim Khan was a controversial figure both in his Central Asian homeland and in Afghanistan. As a thirteen-year-old, he was sent to St Petersburg for education in government and military strategy. Yet on his ascension to the throne of Bukhara, reformists movements such as the Young Bukharans and the Jadids accused the Emir of failing to implement the social, educational and economic reforms they saw as being necessary for the Emirate’s survival.

On his arrival in Afghanistan, the Emir hoped that the country’s sovereign – King Ammanullah Khan -would support him and other Basmachi (resistance) leaders seeking to wrestle back control of Bukhara from communist rule. Afghanistan’s modernising King Ammanullah was less forthcoming in his support for this plan than the Emir had hoped: the monarch did not wish to jeopardise his relationship with the emerging USSR for the sake of the Emir and a jihad in Central Asia.

Tens of thousands of Turkic and Farsi-speaking Muslims, as well as a significant population of Farsi—speaking Bukharan Jews, fled the Emirate of Bukhara, and the neighbouring states of Khiva and Kokand in the decade following their conquest by Bolshevik troops. Flows of migrants to the country continued well into the 1930s, the years of the Stalinist purges and the sealing of the Soviet Union’s borders with Afghanistan.

The early experiences of this wave of Central Asian emigres in Afghanistan was multifaceted. Children of the first wave of emigres – now in their eighties – remember the support local officials and communities provided to them. At the same time, the migrants also experienced the resentment of local officials and people. The son of a Turkic-speaking migrant to Afghanistan from Bukhara who is now in his 70s and based in Istanbul told me how on speaking up at a government meeting in northern Afghanistan in the 1950s, an official had told him: ‘Stay quiet! You are from the other side of the river [the Amu Darya] and have absolutely no place here’.

In the years that followed, Afghanistan’s Central Asian emigres contributed to many aspects of life in the country. They were employed as government officials. Hailing from one of the great centres of learning in the Islamic world, many assumed positions of religious authority, being referred to as men of spiritual insight (eshans), as well as achieving the status of respected religious scholars (ulama). it is in the field of commerce, however, that the emigres and then their offspring have had the most visible and long-lasting impact on Afghanistan.

Since at least the fourteenth century AD merchants identifying themselves as Bukharan were renowned across Eurasia for being skillful and reliable merchants. In settings ranging from Iran, Muscovy, and Siberia, to India and China they established long-distance networks along which they transported goods – ranging from silks, furs and wild rhubarb – and credit.  The Emirate of Bukhara and the neighbouring Khanates of Kokand and Khiva occupied a pivotal position on the trading routes – known today as the Silk Road – that connected China and Europe. While Bukharan traders plied their way across Asia, the rulers of these territories oversaw the movement of caravans laden with valuable goods.

A cross-section of Central Asia’s emigres to Afghanistan brought this commercial acumen with them to their new homeland. From the 1950s onwards, several of Afghanistan’s most reputable merchants hailed from families that had left Central Asia in the 1920s. These merchants earned a reputation for importing high-quality goods from Europe and Japan. The Eshan National trading company, established by merchants from the Ferghana valley, a region that is today divided by the international boundaries of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, for example, dealt in electrical goods. The company continues to run shops in Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif to this day. Other such merchants imported stationary and branded cigarettes. Still more established factories producing glassware.

A major field to which Afghanistan’s Central Asian emigres contributed was carpet production. For at least two hundred years, a market for ‘Bukharan’ and ‘Turkmen’ carpets had existed in Europe. The emigres brought to Afghanistan knowledge about this global market, as well as the skills required to produce and design the carpets themselves. By the 1960s, prominent carpet dealers – including the ethnically Turkmen Aq Murad Boy whose skills as a trader are legendary across much of Afghanistan to this day – helped to establish a cottage industry production system of handwoven carpets. A further industry in which these merchants played an active role  was the trade in luxurious Karakul furs. These were exported principally to Copenhagen, New York, and London, and provided one of the major sources of Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves. From the 1960s onward merchant families from Central Asian backgrounds grew increasingly concerned about the likely trajectory of Afghanistan’s political future.  They were especially concerned about the growing influence of the USSR. A decade before Afghanistan was hit by major political crisis, merchants began exploring the possibility of conducting business abroad. In the 1960s, the merchants opened offices and warehouses in the West, notably in Hamburg, Istanbul and New York. Several families expanded their trading activities into Saudi Arabia, a part of the Arab world about which many had extensive knowledge: historic ties of trade and pilgrimage had long connected Central Asia to the Hejaz. During these years the children of such families were also sent to school and university in the Arabian peninsula, Europe and America.

The gradual departure of this group of merchants from Afghanistan hastened from the mid-1970s onwards. After the onset of the conflict between the USSR and the Western-supported mujahidin in the 1980s, less wealthy carpet traders also increasingly fled their homes in the small towns of Aqchah and Andkhoy in northern Afghanistan. They feared conscription both by the government and mujahidin forces. The traders opened carpet weaving workshops and trading offices in Pakistani cities, especially Lahore and Peshawar. Others moved to Saudi Arabia, where they made contact with Central Asian families that had migrated to the Hejaz in earlier waves.  Even in the face of strict legislation in Saudi Arabia restricting the commercial activities of foreigners based in the country, this new generation of two-time exiles pioneered the commodity trade between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, especially in the import of machine-made prayer carpets – an item traditionally taken home by Hajis as gifts for their friends and relatives.

Against the backdrop of China’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s, Afghan emigres based in Saudi Arabia also started playing a role in the import of Chinese goods to the Gulf countries. Today, families often oversee trading operations that operate in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and China. Family members are stationed in offices across these countries.  Yet these same families have also been frustrated by their inability to gain access to Saudi Arabian citizenship, despite having lived and worked in the country for three generations or more. Resultantly, many of these Central Asians continue to hold Afghanistan citizenship and to identify themselves as being both Afghan and ‘from Bukhara’.

What of these families’ relationship to Central Asia as well as to Afghanistan, the country that was their home through much of the turbulent twentieth century? Central Asian emigres have sought to rebuild their ties, connections and in some cases commercial activities in the independent Republics of Central Asia. Yet the relationships they have established have been fraught. Businesses became ensnared in the notoriously shadowy world of Central Asian commerce and politics; marriages with distant relatives broke-down in the context of cultural misunderstandings that arose from years of living on different sides of Cold War boundaries; visits to Central Asia were restricted by the region’s political elites who accused the emigres of importing Wahabi Islam into the region and thus spawning political unrest. These skilled merchants are willing to invest in Afghanistan. Yet their ability to do so has been tempered by safety concerns. They are also put off by the fear that the reputations their individual families have carefully nurtured over decades for being trustworthy traders will be easily blackened through working in a country in which corrupt practices are ubiquitous. The merchants also say that only low quality and cheap goods now sell in Afghanistan, and that dealing in the bottom end of the global market is something their families are not prepared to do.

Two tombs. Two Central Asian rulers. Two men who lived and were buried in Kabul. On the face of it, here the similarities between Babur and the Emir of Bukhara end. Babur-the-conqueror’s resting place is a magnificent memorial to the role he played in laying the foundations for a Mughal high culture that arose from centuries of interaction between the South and Central Asian cultures, political traditions, and religions. The conquered Emir’s tomb by contrast is but a crumbling structure in a vast and arid cemetery. But, think again. The offspring of Babur created a shared arena that stretched from the fertile Ferghana valley to Calcutta. So too did the Central Asians who fled their villages and cities along with the Emir to Afghanistan in 1920 go on to lead lives that stimulated industrial production in South Asia’s great cities. These same emigres also played a major role in connecting the Hejaz to China. These two waves of Central Asian migrants to Afghanistan have contributed to the country’s economy but also forged Asian interconnections more generally. Their legacy is as an important reminder for Afghanistan’s opinion formers of the fact that interregional interaction, exchange and communication are elements of this region’s dynamics that its people cannot live without.

This article was first published on the BBC in Persian and republished in English on the University of Copenhagen website

Magnus Marsden is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex and Director of the University of Sussex Asia Centre. He has spent fifteen years conducting research in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and, with Benjamin Hopkins, is the author of Fragments of the Afghan Frontier and editor of Beyond Swat: History, Society and Economy Along the Afghanistan-Pakistan FrontierHis most recent book, Trading Worlds: Afghan Merchants Across Modern Frontiers, was published by Hurst in March 2016.

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