Turkestan, or Turkistan, a large, indefinite region in Central Asia. It extends eastward from the Caspian Sea through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and southern Kazakhstan into Xinjiang in China. A small part of the region lies in northeastern Afghanistan. Turkestan covers some 1,600,000 square miles (4,100,000 km2).
The western part of Turkestan is made up largely of deserts, such as the Kara Kum and the Kyzyl Kum. The central portion of Turkestan contains steppes and deserts in the north and high mountains, including the Pamirs and part of the Tien Shan, in the south. Chinese Turkestan, in the eastern part of the region, includes the Tarim and Junggar basins and most of the Tien Shan.
Except in the mountains, where the climate varies with elevation, Turkestan is extremely dry and has hot summers and cool to severely cold winters. Settlement is based primarily on farming and is restricted to valleys where water from the mountains is available. Nomadic herding is still practiced in all but the driest areas.
In ancient times Turkestan was inhabited by Indo-European peoples, including the nomadic Scythians who roamed the northern steppes. The trade route known as the Silk Road, which connected China and the Mediterranean world, passed through Turkestan. From China it skirted the Tarim Basin to Kashgar or Yarkand on the east side of the Pamirs, then to Marakanda (Samarkand), Bukhara, Margiana (Merv, or Mary), or Bactra (Balkh) on the west side. Most of the goods were carried over the mountains by the Sogdians, whose country was between the Oxus River (Amu Darya) and Jaxartes River (Syr Darya) at the foot of the Pamirs. The Sogdiana region as a whole was known as Transoxiania (“across the Oxus”).
Transoxiania was annexed to the Persian Empire in the sixth century B.C. Alexander the Great conquered it in the fourth century B.C., but Persian rule was soon reestablished. In the second century B.C. China gained control of the northern rim of the Tarim Basin and extended the Great Wall toward it.
During the early Middle Ages various Mongolian peoples moved westward across northern Turkestan—first the Huns, who appeared in Europe in the fourth century, and then the Avars and the Bulgars. The Scythians, scattered and assimilated, disappeared. The Mongolian Turks began settling in Turkestan.
Turkestan was the meeting place of the Muslim Arabs, who had conquered Persia in the seventh century, and the Chinese, who extended their sovereignty far westward under the Tang dynasty. In a battle fought in 751 at the Talas River, northeast of Tashkent, the Chinese were overwhelmingly defeated, and their power rapidly declined in Central Asia. During the next century the Turks gained control of eastern Turkestan.
In the ninth century western Turkestan became the domain of the Muslim Persian Samanids, who made Bukhara (their capital) a rival of Baghdad in beauty and culture. Control of the region fell to the Turks in 999, and the native peoples were gradually absorbed by them.
The Mongols of Genghis Khan conquered all of Central Asia during 1219–20, and Turkestan became part of the Mongol Empire. The order maintained by the Mongols made it possible for Marco Polo to travel over the old Silk Road to China in the 1270's, and the resulting commerce flourished for several centuries.
As the Mongol Empire began to break up in the 14th century, Tamerlane seized power in the west. Under his heirs, however, his empire shrank to the Bukhara-Samarkand region, and in the early 16th century it disappeared. Turkestan was split between a number of warring Turkish principalities. The Silk Road became too dangerous to use; Anthony Jenkinson, an English trader, in 1558 could go no farther east than Bukhara. Sea routes to the Far East had been found, however, and Central Asia was no longer important to the Western world.
In the mid-18th century Russia expanded into northwestern Turkestan, and China began subjugating the southeastern region. Russia's final territorial advances occurred in the latter half of the 19th century. In 1922 the western and central portions of Turkestan became part of the Soviet Union. Soviet Turkestan was made up of the Uzbek, Turkmen, Tajik, Kyrgyz, and part of the Kazakh soviet socialist republics. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these republics became independent.