Little do we realize that Pakistan’s historical cultural geography makes it as much a part of South Asia as it is of Central Asia. Historically linked by trade, politics and religion, Pakistan and Central Asia share a historic legacy, which is based on thousands of years of known interaction between the Central Asian and South Asian civilizations. The cultural imprint of Central Asia on the social fabric of Pakistan is reflected in its cuisine, arts, music, architecture, folklore, literature, language, customs and religion. Gandharan culture united Pakistan and Central Asia over two thousand years ago, under the Bactrian, Scythian, and Kushan empires. Silk Road networks connected the people of Indus Valley with Central Asia leading to an exchange of goods and ideas between the two regions. The Central Asian languages, including Persians and Turkic, were spoken in South Asia and the cultural ferment led to the development of a new language called Urdu in the 18th Century, which is presently the national language of Pakistan.

However, the rich shared civilizational history of Central Asia has been eclipsed by the 20th Century politics, when autonomous regions of Central Asia, such as the Emirate of Bukhara and the Khanate of Khiva were merged into the Soviet Union, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Central Asia was divided into five regions, on the basis of ethnolinguistic distinctions, as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. With no room for direct foreign relations under the communist system of centralized management, the historical bonds of kinship between Pakistan and Central Asian Republics were erased from public memory. In the words of late Professor Ahmad Hasan Dani, the champion of Pakistan-Central Asia cultural diplomacy, “Our age old relations with our closet kith and kin in Central Asia were broken and we began to look in two different directions”.
The cultural relations between Pakistan and Central Asia run wide and deep into the civilizational ethos of the two regions. The Hellenic influence of Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (250-180 BC), with historical origins in northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan, led to the splendor of Ghandhara sculptures, as well as influenced the city planning, architecture, and arts of Indus Valley. Scythians (400 BC-200 AD), who created the first Central Asian nomadic empire entered the Gandhara and Indus Valley and left a lasting imprint on present day Pakistani culture. They were the ones after which the Sindh province is named. Scythians also gave us ‘Kand’; placed at the end of names of cities or places such as Samarkand, Tashkent or Malakand. They continued to practice Buddhism and rock carvings found in Gilgit-Baltistan are similar to those found in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The Kushan empire inherited the Greco-Buddhist traditions of the Indo-Greek kingdom they replaced, and their patronage of Buddhist institutions allowed them to grow as a commercial power. Between the 100-300 AD, Buddhism, patronized by the Kushans, extended to China and other Asian countries through the Silk Road. As the golden age of ancient history of Pakistan and Central Asia, Kushan empire laid the foundation of cultural affinities of the Pakistan with Central Asia. The term Shahenshah of modern times originated from Shaonano Shao of Kushan period. The religious category Shah for pious person is of similar derivation. Shalwar Kamiz and Sherwani, that became the national dress of Pakistan, originated from Kushans costumes.
The Huns (400-600 AD) dynasty built up a mighty empire in Central Asia which extended into the Indus Valley. They introduced a new land tenure system by giving feudal rights to the confederating tribes and affected the hierarchy of caste order in India. As landowning tribes, Rajputs of Indus Valley earned social respect in society, which continues till today. In Pashtun speaking tribes of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Hunish system of land tenure is still part of customary practices. Gul is also the survival of name from the Huns which is used as second part of ones name especially among Pashtuns.
The Silk Road network was the first globalized overland road and maritime network and trading system in the ancient world. Silk Road supported the flow of commerce, information, and people across trade routes connecting Asia, North Africa, and southeastern Europe. It also connected Pakistani cities like Quetta, Multan, Taxila and Peshawar directly with the Central Asian cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Merv, and Tashkent among others. Caravanserais, the halting places for the worn out travelers, concentrated in Central Asia, were a vital node of the network of Silk Roads. The caravanserais became crucibles for cross fertilization of cultures, across the length of Silk Road. Sarai Kharbooza in Islamabad is one of those caravanserais that survived partially from the destruction and forms the integral part of a common heritage of nations, connected by the Silk Road that stretched from Asia to Europe.
Under the Ghaznavi empire, founded by Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi (971-1030 AD), the Central Asian Muslim culture, which by then had assimilated and developed the cultures of ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Syrians, found its way into South Asia. It also opened the doors for the Persian language to enter into the domains of knowledge, culture and power in South Asia. Iran’s national poet Ferdowsi (1020 AD) completed the great Persian epic Shāhnāmeh (“Book of Kings”), at the court of Sultan Mahmood in Ghazna, which continues to inspire the Pakistani Urdu poets to express their literary prowess in a similar fashion in the 20th Century, like Hafeez Jalandhari – the lyricist of Pakistani national anthem, who had earned literary fame for his epic Urdu poem Shahnama-e-Islam (Book of Kings of Islam).
The costumes, food, utensils, arts, architecture, music and other aspects of social and cultural life were transformed through contact with Central Asian civilizations, especially under the influence of the Mughals – the Turkic rulers from Central Asia. The entire ethnocultural life of the region, including the literary and intellectual life of Peshawar, Lahore and Multan, was remodeled on the patterns of Central Asia. The cultural imprint of Central Asia on Muslims of South Asia is reflected in the historical use of copper vessels, silver plates, vases and Chinaware. Dastarkhān, is a Turkic word meaning “tablecloth” which is spread on the ground, floor, or table. It is used as a sanitary surface for food, but it is also used more broadly to refer to the entire meal setting. It is now part of the traditional Central Asian cuisine as well as an integral part of the food culture of Pakistan.
Along with the warriors and statesmen came the men of scientific learning. Central Asian scholars and intellectuals thronged the Mughal courts which generated the cultural renaissance of Muslim India. Abu Raihan Alberuni (973-1048 AD), the illustrious historian from Khwarizm, belonged to a region which encompasses modern-day western Uzbekistan and northern Turkmenistan. Al-Biruni is regarded as one of the greatest scholars of the medieval Islamic era who was well-versed in physics, mathematics, astronomy, and natural sciences and also distinguished himself as a historian, chronologist and linguist. He researched and traveled in medieval India and contributed to the growth of philosophy, history and sciences in South Asia.
A galaxy of sufis and saints from Central Asian regions descended in South Asia. Ali Hujwiri (1009-1072/77), after whom Lahore earned its title as Data Ki Nagri is the legendary saint from Central Asia. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti (1141-1236), the founder of Chishtiyya order, is another Central Asian saint who spread Islam through the message of love and peace. The spread of Islam in South Asia brought in its wake the tradition of funerary architecture of Central Asia which adorns the heritage landscape of Pakistan. The mausoleum of Sultan Sajar Khan, a 12th Century Seljuk ruler in Merv, has a direct architectural influence on the mausoleums of Shah Rukn-e-Alam in Multan and Mahra Sharif in the Gomal Valley, Dera Ismail Khan.
With the reemergence of Central Asian societies as independent states on the world map in the 90s after the fall of Soviet Union, the centrality of the Central Asia has been established on the world stage. The regional and international powers such as America, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan are competing to take advantage of the resources of Central Asia. The independence has unleashed an internal process of transformation of the societies in political, economic, religious and cultural spheres. Hitherto ruled from the secular Communist center, the Central Asian countries began to carve their own destiny by assessing their natural and human resources and asserting their particular national interests in an increasingly globalized work. Most of Central Asia possesses rich mineral deposits and important metallic ores such as silver, iron, lead, zinc, antimony, mercury, gold, tin, and tungsten. Non-metallic minerals include common salt, carbonates, quartz sand, and precious and semi-precious stones. Energy resources include sizeable coal deposits and reserves of natural gas and petroleum.
Pakistan was among the first countries which extended immediate recognition to the Central Asian Republics and Pakistani embassies were immediately established in all the Central Asian countries. Pakistan has reciprocated to the opportunities offered by Central Asia, especially in the energy sector. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline (TAPI) is key project to utilize the energy resources of Central Asian Republics. However, there is a dire need to cement the historical bonds of friendship with Central Asia through cultural diplomacy, in addition to building land and air routes.
To facilitate and regenerate the inter civilizational contact between Pakistan and Central Asia, a number of suggestions are in order. A joint program of research and documentation, publications and exhibitions should be initiated to highlight the historical affinities of shared cultural heritage of Pakistan and Central Asia. To bring the youth of two countries together, government should promote exchange of popular culture of Pakistan and Central Asia through films, drama, music and performing arts. The government should also encourage youth exchange programs between Pakistan and Central Asia through arts, sports and education.
Pakistani government should offer academic support to the Orientalist institutes in Central Asian Republics, which are known for teaching Urdu to Central Asian students. It should promote the learning of Central Asian languages and literature in the humanities departments in Pakistani universities. The Persian and Turkic literary traditions form the common root of Central Asian and Pakistani literature. The heroic epics of Central Asia, such as the Manas, Shu Batir, and Alpamysh should be translated in Urdu to promote greater understanding of each other’s cultures.
Pakistan’s geo-strategic location provides a strong material foundation in reviving historical links with Central Asia. Pakistan provides the shortest outlet to landlocked Central Asian Republics to the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and further to rest of the world. Karakoram Highway is a part of an ancient Silk Route between Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China and Pakistan and for having access to Gwadar Port, this route provides land link to Central Asian Republics through Tajikistan. Pakistani ports of Karachi, Pasni and Gwadar which are around 1600 km away from Central Asian Republics are the shortest route for economic link between Pakistan and Central Asian Republics. It can boost bilateral trade in raw material and manufactured goods. It is hoped that the development of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under the Belt and Road Initiative projects will pave the way for a 21st Century Silk Road, which will connect Pakistan with its Central Asian relations.