Central Asia today consists of five republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Originally, the Soviets did not plan to include Kazakhstan in this Islamic region, preferring rather to associate it with neighbouring Russia and Siberia. Today, however, the Republic is considered part of the Central Asian region by Kazakhstan and also by the rest of the world.
The area of Central Asia is 3,994,300 square kilometres. It includes some of the less densely populated regions in the world. The total population of over 51 million consists of more than 100 different ethnic groups, from Germans and Austrians to Tibetans and Koreans. The largest ethnic group is the Uzbeks.
Uzbekistan has over 33 million inhabitants and Uzbeks are present as a national minority in every other region of Central Asia. In 1992, about 10.6 million Russians lived in Central Asia. However, due to the mass exodus of Russians from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, their numbers decreased significantly.
Tashkent and Ashgabat, the capitals of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have a long history, while Dushanbe in Tajikistan, Almaty in Kazakhstan and Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan were created by the Bolsheviks to emphasise the ethnic identity of these nationalities. Uzbekistan is home to four famous historical cities of Central Asia – Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand. These are the capitals of nomadic empires and great states of the past, as well as the centres of Islamic cultural development in the Central Asian region. For centuries, the numerous madrasas and Islamic colleges in Bukhara and Samarkand have attracted students from distant lands. For many Muslims, Bukhara is a place of pilgrimage and an important Islamic city, second in importance only to Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Central Asia is also the place of origin of Sufism – a school of thought in Islam (VII-VIII century) that quickly spread to Africa and Asia.