The heartland of the vast expanse of Central Asia encompasses the territories of the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan as well as northern Afghanistan (Bactria) and northwestern China (Xinjiang). It was in this area that some of the most active intercommunication between Asia and Europe took place at the turn of Antiquity to the Medieval Period. The highly branched network of the “Silk Roads” look back upon a millennia-long ancient history, during which cultural spheres of wholly different forms became involved in an ever-increasing close contact and exchange.
The natural geographical conditions of this heartland exacted their influence upon the cultural and historical development of Central Asia. The South is marked by the so-called Southern Peripheral Mountains of the Kopet Dagh, Pamir, Tien Shan und Alatau, which run from the Caspian Sea in the west to the Altai in the east. These mountainous regions are the source of the great rivers Irtysh, Syr Darya and Amu Darya, which, fed by glaciers and snow, flow through Central Asia from the southeast to the northwest. In the north is the peneplain of the Kazakh Uplands that forms the border to Siberia. The dry steppe and the semi-desert areas of central Kazakhstan have been rather unfavourable for habitation since time immemorial and were not always settled with the same intensity. The Semirechye Plain, the “Land of Seven Rivers”, extends from the southern banks of Lake Balkhash to the aforementioned Southern Peripheral Mountains. While mountain vegetation dominates at higher altitudes, the lower-lying plains and river valleys are determined by deserts and dry steppes, which already led to the development of an oasis economy with artificial irrigation in early times. This stretch of land, extending from the areas north of the Aral Sea in the west as far as the upper Irtysh River in the east, joined the Eurasia steppe belt in the south, and thus it stood in close connection with the cultures there throughout all times.