The first people known to have occupied Central Asia were Iranian nomads who arrived from the northern grasslands of what is now Uzbekistan sometime in the first millennium B.C. At this time, cities such as Bukhoro (Bukhara) and Samarqand (Samarkand) began to appear as centres of government and culture. By the fifth century B.C., the Bactrian, Soghdian, and Tokharian states dominated the region. As China began to develop its silk trade with the West, Iranian cities took advantage of this commerce by becoming centres of trade.
Using an extensive network of cities and settlements in the province of Mawarannahr (a name given the region after the Islamic victories) in Uzbekistan and farther east in what is today China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the Soghdian intermediaries became the wealthiest of these Iranian merchants. Because of this trade on what became known as the Silk Route, Bukhoro and Samarqand eventually became extremely wealthy cities, and at times Mawarannahr was one of the most influential and powerful Persian provinces of antiquity. The dominant religion until the 6th Century in the region was Zoroastrianism, but Buddhism, and Christianity also attracted large numbers of followers.
The wealth of Mawarannahr was a constant magnet for invasions from the northern steppes and from China. Numerous intraregional wars were fought between Soghdian states and the other states in Mawarannahr, and the Persians and the Chinese were in perpetual conflict over the region. Alexander the Great conquered the region in 328 B.C., bringing it briefly under the control of his Macedonian Empire.
The Arrival of Islam
However it was not the wealth of the region that attracted the first Muslims to Central Asia but the drive to seek the pleasure of Allah (SWT) by conveying the message of truth - Al Islam. The opening of Central Asia and the implementation of Islam was completed in the eighth century A.D., and brought to the region a new belief and culture that until now continues to be dominant. The Muslims first entered Mawarannahr in the middle of the seventh century through raids during their conquest of Persia. The Soghdians and other Iranian peoples of Central Asia were unable to defend their land against the Khilafah because of internal divisions and the lack of strong indigenous leadership. The Muslims, on the other hand, were led by a brilliant general, Qutaybah ibn Muslim, and were highly motivated by the desire to spread the Islamic ideology. Because of these factors, and the strength of the Islamic aqeedah and the nature of the Shariah, the population of Mawarannahr was easily liberated.
The new way of life brought by the Muslims spread throughout the region. The native cultures were replaced in the ensuing centuries as Islam moulded the people into a single ummah - the Islamic ummah. However the destiny of Central Asia as an Islamic region was firmly established by the Khilafah's (Caliph Abu'l-Abbas) victory over the Chinese armies in 750 in a battle at the Talas River. Under Islamic rule, Central Asia was an important centre of culture and trade for centuries. The language of government, literature, and commerce, originally Persian became Arabic (however as the Abbasid Caliphate began to weaken and Arabic became neglected, the Persian language began to regain its pre-eminent role in the region as the language of literature and government). Mawarannahr continued to be an important political player in regional affairs. During the height of the Abbasid Caliphate in the eighth and the ninth centuries, Central Asia and Mawarannahr experienced a truly golden age. Bukhoro became one of the leading centres of learning, culture, and art in the Muslim world, its magnificence rivalling contemporaneous cultural centres such as Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba. Some of the greatest historians, scientists, and geographers in the history of Islamic culture were natives of the region, and one of the copies of the Noble Quran originally prepared in the time of Caliph Uthman is kept in Tashkent.
The new Islamic spiritual and political situation in Central Asia determined a new technological and cultural progress. It marked the production of the Samarkand paper (since the 8th century under the Chinese influence the people of Samarkand learned to manufacture paper from the rags), which supplanted papyrus and parchment in the Islamic countries at the end of the 10th century. Furthermore scientists who were citizens of the Khilafah such as al-Khorezmi, Beruni, Farabi, Abu Ali ibn Sino (Avicenna) brought fame to the area all over the world, generating respect across the world, and many scientific achievements of the epoch made a great impact on the European science (it is enough to mention the astronomical tables of Samarkand astronomers from Ulughbek's observatory). During the comparatively peaceful era of Islamic rule, culture and the arts flourished in Central Asia. Jizya was imposed upon all who refused to accept Islam and the Jewish historian Benjamin of Tudela noted during his travels in 1170 the existence of a Jewish community numbering 50,000 in nearby Samarkand.