Central Asian stories - epics and poems
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Central Asian Stories


People speaking Mongolian

Around 3000 BC, most people in Central Asia spoke one of three different kinds of languages. Some people spoke Indo-European languages like Sogdian or Tocharian. Other people spoke East Iranian languages like Pashto. And some people, especially in the eastern part of Central Asia, spoke Altaic languages like Turkish or Mongolian (nobody is sure whether Turkish is really related to Mongolian or not).

Around 2000 BC, the Indo-Europeans spread out to live in Iran and Afghanistan, and so more people spoke Indo-European languages like Sogdian and not so many people in Central Asia spoke East Iranian languages. By 1000 BC, most people in western Central Asia spoke an Indo-European language and most people in eastern Central Asia spoke a Turkish/Mongolian language.

Turkic inscription
An early Turkish inscription
(ca. 700s AD)

Beginning about 300 AD, Turkic and Mongolian speakers like the Rouran began to conquer land from the Indo-Europeans. By the time of the Mongol Empire in the 1200s AD, most people in Central Asia spoke a Turkic or Mongolian language, though on the western side of the Ural Mountains people still spoke Indo-European languages like Russian, Polish, Ukranian, or Armenian.

People may have started to write some of the Indo-European languages like Scythian down by around 650 BC, long after their neighbors to the south in China and West Asia, but earlier than the Germans in Europe to their west. If they did write, it was only short lines here and there - there aren't any written Scythian stories or poems. By the 1100s AD, people were writing Russian epic poems like the Tale of Igor's Campaign. They also wrote biographies of Russian saints. About 1475 AD, a Russian traveler wrote an account of his visit to India.

Nobody wrote down anything in Turkish until about 700 AD. After that, Turkish poets began to sing long poems like the Alpamysh and the Book of Dede Korkut. (Compare these to Beowulf, composed in Europe about the same time). Around 1000 AD, people were singing the Epic of Koroglu. By around 1400 AD, somebody wrote down the Book of Dede Korkut.

Nobody wrote down anything in Mongolian until 1227 AD, the year that Genghis Khan died (and then it was just a short thing). Instead, Mongolian poets sang long poems, usually about a hero who fights a monster called a manggus. The manggus has many heads, and the hero always wins. For example, poets sang the Epic of King Gesar in the 1400s AD, though nobody wrote it down until the 1700s. About 1240 AD, somebody wrote a long poem about Genghis Khan's life called "The Secret History of the Mongols".

But as the Mongols conquered all of Asia, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, the people of those countries continued to write poems and histories and stories. About 1290, Rabban bar Sauma wrote a short account in Syriac of his travels to Europe, for example.

Bibliography and further reading:

More Central Asian stories
More about Central Asia
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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