BMCR 2020.05.34

Ancient Chorasmia: a polity between the semi-nomadic and sedentary cultural areas of Central Asia

, Ancient Chorasmia: a polity between the semi-nomadic and sedentary cultural areas of Central Asia. Cultural interactions and local developments from the sixth century BC to the first century AD.. Acta Iranica, 56. Leuven: Peeters, 2015. xiv, 199 p.. ISBN 9789042931381. €94.00.

The book spans the history of ancient Chorasmia as an integral part of Central Asia by placing it within the historical context of the wider region among the Achaemenids, Greeks and other Central Asian polities from 6th century BC to 1stcentury AD. Minardi shows how this ancient polity existed and interacted with its neighbours long before the advent of the Arabs and subsequent Islamic influences. Geographically, ancient Chorasmia occupied the territory of Northern Central Asia, south of the Aral Sea, between the Kara-kum and Kizil-kum deserts with the Oxus delta as the centre of the Chorasmian civilization. The author has used archaeological sources and corroborated them with written sources to provide a fuller picture of Chorasmia. The book is divided into five sections; the first section is the introduction which lays out the foundation of Soviet archaeology of Chorasmia, followed by a methodological foreword, the third section looks at the written sources and historical geography of Chorasmia, the fourth section details the rise of the Chorasmian State (6-5the century BC), the fifth section elucidates the internal development of the material culture in the Chorasmian state in the 4th century, followed by the conclusion. According to Minardi, Persian historiography, inscriptions and iconography are required for a fuller understanding of ancient Chorasmia, which has been subordinated to more western accounts like that of the history written by Herodotus, fraught with inaccuracies, which continues to be the cornerstone for the study on ancient Chorasmia. These western accounts have described Chorasmia as remote, which is supported by the Hellenistic and Late Antique authors. This book is in many ways a response to that claim and Minardi does a thorough job of engaging with non-western sources to make the point.

Minardi has relied on  archaeological expeditions namely, Sergey Tolstov’s Archaeological-Ethnographical Expedition to Ancient Chorasmia (KhAEE) undertaken in 1937, followed by the ‘works of the Chorasmian Expedition’ (TKhAEE) of 1952 and the ‘Materials of the Chorasmian Expedition’ after 1958. Since Chorasmia was situated in the northern borders of Central Asia and was part of the Soviet Union in the 20th century, most of the initial and longer term archaeological surveys on Chorasmia were undertaken by Soviet archaeologists. Minardi was a member of the Karakalpak-Australian Expedition (KAE) with academics from the University of Sydney and the Karakalpak branch of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences. He has used textual evidence to corroborate new archaeological evidence to re-evaluate Chorasmian periodization, which clearly shows external influences throughout its existence: Achaemenid/South Central Asian influence (Antique I), Hellenistic influence (Antique II) and Kushan influence (Antique III). This periodisation forms the basis of the author’s argument that Chorasmia was open to interaction, exchanges and influences, which contradicts Tolstov’s notion of a remote and isolated Chorasmia.

The third section reviews Greek, Persian, and Chinese sources that define, locate and raise questions about the boundaries of ancient Chorasmia. Minardi challenges the remoteness of the Chorasmian state by providing evidence of numerous interactions with its neighbours (sedentary and nomadic) throughout its existence. He describes Chorasmian geography, polity, military, ethnic make-up, and economic relations with neighbouring states and empires. The series of material influences which characterise ancient Chorasmia are shown as examples of a long and continuous history of relations and exchanges which helped mould Chorasmian culture. Specifically, he has used objects of pottery and crafts to show external Persian influences and he has given examples of Hellenistic influences in the construction of palaces and capitals like the Toprak-kala as evidence for these claims. According to Minardi, the attributes in Chorasmian material culture which were used as proof for an ‘undeniable’ independent material culture by Tolstov, for example, can be contested on the grounds that it coincides with a period of global Central Asian warfare. The polities that made up these Central Asian polities had longstanding relations with their neighbours and Minardi attributes the absence of Chorasmia as one of those nations to scanty literary evidence and an incorrect interpretation of archaeological material (p. 88).

Archaeological findings of the Kyuzeli-gyr and Toprak-kala show that Chorasmia was influenced by the Achaemenids, Greeks, and later by the Kushans as well. He describes the period between 530-519 BC as that of Achaemenid influence, when the Chorasmian state acted as a bridge with other steppe entities. After the collapse of the Achaemenids, Chorasmia developed an independent culture of its own which in conjunction with not becoming part of Alexander’s domains led scholars like Tolstov to argue about an isolated Chorasmian state. Evidence of external influences from wider Central Asia (across the desert) and the Persians in both material culture and architecture are found in Kyuzeli-gyr and Dingil’dzhe (p. 81). Material like red-slipped and thin-walled bowls point to relations with southern Central Asian polities, and s-shaped rim and ledge-rimmed bowls also indicate Achaemenid influence. Following the collapse of the Achaemenids, material evidence like Hellenistic/Seleucid bowls or techniques of using unbaked clay point to influences which appear despite Chorasmia’s independence. Findings at the Akshakan-kala also show Hellenistic influences in the way the Chorasmians portrayed the Greek marine monster, ketos, and satyrs. He includes examples of a whole range of pottery (flasks, decorations on storage vessels etc) which all point to a much longer continuum of influences than provided by literary attestations. In all likelihood like other Central Asian nomadic and semi nomadic peoples, Chorasmia had commercial and military relations with its neighbours throughout its history.

While there are no written sources from Chorasmia itself because it was a semi-nomadic polity, the author has used scholarship from neighbouring contemporary Empires to corroborate archaeological evidence mentioned above. The use of textual sources in research on Chorasmia is complicated by problems of labelling that tend to obscure evidence for the polity. Within the confines of actually placing and defining Chorasmia, Minardi meticulously provides information from contemporary and modern historians. The Greeks, Persians and the Chinese all mention Chorasmia but do not furnish a clear picture of the Chorasmian state. Among these texts, one of the most important texts is the Avesta, the religious texts of Zoroastrianism, to explain the importance of Chorasmia as the birthplace of Zoroaster, founder of the religion, and the place from which Zoroastrianism spread to Sogdiana, Bactria and other neighbouring polities. This is provided as further evidence of  the importance of this ancient polity for the region and points to a level of interaction and connection with neighbouring polities. Western sources, while not emphasising the role of Chorasmia in the Achaemenid sphere, emphasised its militaristic role, which is in tune with what has been reported about other nomadic entities on the steppe as well. The author has tried to go beyond a simplistic view of the polity and build a fuller picture of Chorasmia and of Central Asia, which on the whole suffers from a paucity of written historical texts and thus remained misunderstood and/or mislabelled.

The confusion regarding Chorasmia in textual material has persisted in large part due to Herodotus’ mislabelling and this has percolated into the analysis of archaeological evidence which requires literary sources for confirmation. The primacy of Herodotus’ history, even over Persian testimonies about the Achaemenid Empire itself goes to show the importance of western sources over eastern sources.  However, there is room and even a necessity for a view of the steppe from an eastern perspective; the author does this by emphasising evidence of the Chorasmian nation as part of, or under the influence of, the Achaemenid Empire. In addition to material influences mentioned above, Achaemenid royal inscriptions provide evidence of relations, if not complete submission of Chorasmia to the Persians. In other words, while Herodotus’ information on Chorasmia cannot be disregarded and is part of the larger literature on Chorasmia, the use of evidence from eastern sources has been used in order to expand the knowledge of ancient Central Asia, and in this case of Chorasmia.

The study of the history of Central Asian and its peoples in general suffers from what Minardi has aptly referred to as mislabelling in the historical sources. This mislabelling has led modern scholars to ignore the existence and importance of various groups of people on the steppe, especially because of the lack of written sources. The links with Kushan studies are an area which the author touches upon and could expand in the future. [1] The contribution of linguists has been huge in the field of Central Asian studies and the author could consider using the linguistic evidence to further his argument. [2]  Genetics is yet another avenue which might be interesting in this respect.[3] The author’s attempts to open up the dialogue to include Persian and eastern textual evidence to confirm archaeological findings is indeed noteworthy and commendable. In summary, the book contributes to the knowledge of Chorasmia by including information from fragments and inscriptions from eastern sources and even suggesting that, for the purposes of this polity, Achaemenid sources could be the starting point is noteworthy.


[1] See Staviskiĭ, Bongard-Levin, and Bongard-Levin, G. M. Central Asia in the Kushan Period : Archaeological Studies by Soviet Scholars. Moscow: Central Dept. of Oriental Literature, “Nauka” Pub. House, 1968; Sharma, G. R., and International Conference on History, Archeology Culture of Central Asia in the Kushan Period. Kuṣāṇa Studies : Papers Presented to the International Conference on the Archaeology, History and Arts of the People of Central Asia in the Kuṣāṇa Period. Allahabad: University of Allahabad, 1968; Gafurov, Bobodzhan Gafurovich, and International Conference on History, Archeology Culture of Central Asia in the Kushan Period. Kushan Civilization and World Culture. Moscow: Nauka, Central Dept. of Oriental Literature, 1968.

[2] See W. B. Henning, “The Khwarezmian Language,” in Zeki Velidi Togan’a armağan, Istanbul, 1951 (1955), pp. 421-36; Idem, “The Structure of the Khwarezmian Verb,” Asia Major, N.S. 5, 1955, pp. 43-49; A Fragment of a Khwarezmian Dictionary, ed. D. N. MacKenzie, London, 1971; H. Humbach, “Choresmian,” in R. Schmitt, ed., Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum, Wiesbaden, 1989. Harmatta, J. Prolegomena to the Sources on the History of Pre-Islamic Central Asia. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1979; Harmatta, J. From Alexander the Great to Kül Tegin : Studies in Bactrian, Pahlavi, Sanskrit, Arabic, Aramaic, Armenian, Chinese, Türk, Greek and Latin Sources for the History of Pre-Islamic Central Asia. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990.

[3] Nicola di Cosmo’s key note speech entitled ‘Central Eurasia in Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval Period: Towards an Integrated View’at ESCAS2019 included a note on understanding ancient Central Asian polities through genetics. His edited volume (Di Cosmo, Maas, and Maas, Michael. Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity : Rome, China, Iran, and the Steppe, Ca. 250–750, 2018) adopts an integrated view which includes a variety of sources, especially Eastern sources.