Turkistan is Persian for "land of the Turks," but although most of the population speak Turkic languages, the region is not the oldest known home of the Turks, nor do the majority of the Turkish peoples dwell there. Turkistan may be regarded as a single region, however, because a combination of geographical and historical factors made it the bridge linking the Eastern and Western worlds and the route taken by many of the great conquerors and migrating peoples. Turkistan, as the focus of trade between Europe and Asia, had great wealth and large cities (notably Bukhara, Samarkand, and Merv) that could be plundered.
Perhaps the earliest empire to bring Turkistan under its sway was that of the Persians, who by 500 B.C. had cleared the Lydian empire from the region around the Caspian Sea. Persia was destroyed by the march of Alexander the Great through S Turkistan, the ancient Bactria, which was colonized by Greeks after his victories. After Alexander's death, Turkistan fell to Seleucus; but by the middle of the 2d cent. B.C. it was divided between Parthia in the west and Bactria in the east. Parthia expanded eastward at Bactria's expense. Bactria around 130 B.C. was bordered on the E by China, which controlled (from the 2d cent. B.C. to the 2d cent. A.D.) much of the area extending from Lake Balkash S to the Hindu Kush. In the late 1st cent. A.D., the Kushans took Bactria's holdings, and the Huns were disputing the region near Lake Balkash with China.
China's conquest of E Turkistan, meanwhile, opened the way for Chinese travel through Turkistan to India and permitted the introduction of Buddhism in oases along the trade routes in an attempt to convert the warlike nomads to a pacifist philosophy. With the fall (220) of the Han dynasty, however, China lost control of E Turkistan to Persia, which ruled the region between the 3d and 4th cent. and introduced Zoroastrianism. When China reestablished control there in the middle of the 7th cent., it came into contact with Persia, which, under the Sassanids, occupied nearly all the rest of Turkistan except the central zone.
The Persian holdings were swept away by the Arab invasion of the 8th cent.; first the Umayyad and then the Abbasid caliphate held all of Turkistan. Zoroastrianism was suppressed, and Islam, which today remains the chief religion of Turkistan, was imposed. The Abbasid caliphate weakened in the middle of the 9th cent.; at the same time, China lost its holdings in the east, and many states, notably Khwarazm (Khorezm), occupied parts of Turkistan.
The Seljuk Turks began moving into the region from the 8th cent. Their language was adopted by most of the peoples there (with the notable exception of the Tajiks), but the Turks themselves tended to adopt the Iranian culture, which in fact was the dominant culture of Turkistan until the 20th cent. All of Turkistan fell to the Mongols in the late 13th cent., and the territory was mostly bestowed upon the khan Jagatai. Timur conquered Turkistan in the late 14th cent., pushing the Mongols into the steppes of Kazakhstan. After Timur's death (1405), his successors, the Timurids, controlled much of the territory for about a century. The later internal history of Turkistan is mainly one of prolonged struggle involving the khanates of Khiva, Bukhara, and Kokand and the nomadic peoples of the region, most notably Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Turkmens, and Uzbeks.
In the late 17th and early 18th cent., the vigorous young Ch'ing dynasty of China controlled E Turkistan, but it gradually lost more and more territory to Russia, whose troops invaded the khanate of Kokand in 1865 and took Tashkent. A military administration under a Russian governor-general was established in 1867 in the conquered territories. In 1868 the emir of Bukhara and the khan of Khiva were forced to accept a Russian protectorate. An Anglo-Russian treaty of 1881 designated the southern limits of Russian rule in the area. Harsh Russian administration sparked frequent native revolts, but they were suppressed.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Turkistan Autonomous Soviet Republic (1918) and the Bukhara and Khorezm soviet republics (1920) were set up in the region. However, in 1924 the southern part of Russian Turkistan was divided along geographical and ethnic lines into new divisions—the Uzbek SSR (now Uzbekistan), the Turkmen SSR (now Turkmenistan), the Tadzhik SSR (a union republic as of 1929, now Tajikistan), the Kirghiz Autonomous Oblast (made an autonomous republic in 1926 and a union republic in 1936, now Kyrgyzstan), and the Kara-Kalpak Autonomous Oblast (made an autonomous republic in 1932, now the Karakalpak Republic, Uzbekistan); the northern part of Turkistan was included in the Kazakh SSR (now Kazakhstan). During Soviet rule, the term Russian Turkistan was officially replaced with Soviet Central Asia.