Central and North Asia, 1800–1900 A.D.

  • Central and North Asia, 1800–1900 A.D.



During this period, the region (excluding Xinjiang Province in China) becomes a battleground in the rivalry between imperial Britain and czarist Russia.

For almost a century, Afghanistan is a pawn in the “Great Game” played by European imperial powers as they vie for influence in Central Asia. The Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839–42, 1878–80, 1919) end inconclusively. In 1893, Britain establishes an unofficial border, the Durand Line, separating Afghanistan from British India. British intervention in Afghanistan stems from growing British concerns about Russian ambitions in Central Asia.

In the beginning of the century, parts of the region are organized into the three khanates of Kokand (present-day Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), Bukhara (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan), and Khiva (Kazakhstan). Slave-based agriculture expands, trade increases, and new demands for luxury goods spur an artistic revival in Central Asia. By the 1850s, the Kazakh nomads are conquered and the khanates gradually lose their independence, the final blows dealt in the European scramble for colonies. The Russian campaigns end in 1884 with the conquest of Merv and by 1895 the southern borders of Russia and Central Asia take definitive form. For the Russians, the chief objectives of these campaigns are to thwart British colonial expansion and gain access to a rich source of raw materials, particularly cotton, and create a colonial marketplace in which Russian goods can compete.

Central Asia is often referred to as the land of textiles. Producing beautiful textiles is an integral part of a nomad or villager’s life. Young girls often produce textiles for their dowries, and the interior of even the most modest of homes is covered with woven, embroidered, or appliqué textiles in silk, cotton, wool, or felt. Textiles and embroidered objects play important roles in rites of passage, and in the most challenging periods of life. Many contain talismanic motifs intended to protect the user from harm. They are used as prayer rugs, saddlecloths, cradle covers, mirror cases, yurt bands, tent flaps, salt bags, gift wraps, and articles of clothing. Throughout Central Asia, individual regions develop their own distinctive designs. Among the most splendid textiles are colorful suzani embroideries and brilliant ikats (woven textiles, resist-dyed prior to weaving).

The Turkmen, particularly, are the acknowledged master weavers of Central Asia. They produce various types of pile carpets and embroideries, including bags, cradles, covers, weavings for dividing the space within a tent, and entrance covers using striking ornamental patterns of protective and magical significance. Among the ubiquitous motifs on Turkmen carpets are the göls, or octagonal medallions, which appear in horizontal or diagonal rows often on a red ground. Other motifs consist of abstract representations of rams, birds, dogs, and other zoomorphic forms. The Turkmen are also known for producing some of the most graceful and elegant silver tribal jewelry in Inner Asia. Jewelry often expresses the taste and preferences of a certain tribe. Silver pendantlike ornaments, plaques, beads, rings, and bracelets make up the components of Turkmen jewelry. These are incised with a variety of talismanic motifs and sometimes set with carnelian stone or red glass.

Few Western innovations make their way into the region in the first half of the century. Photography is introduced around 1870 with Russian troops and administrators. Most photographers are foreigners based in Kokand, Samarqand, and Tashkent. Unlike in other parts of the Islamic world, Central Asian photography is not a market-driven enterprise; photographs are mostly of a documentary nature and taken by amateur photographers working for governmental institutions. A Western school of painting does not develop in this region until the twentieth century.


“Central and North Asia, 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=10&region=nc (October 2004)