Central Asia in World History

NEH Summer Institute for School Teachers

Dr. Scott Levi, The Ohio State University, Project Director

It is our pleasure to introduce Central Asia in World History and welcome you to apply to become one of the twenty-five NEH Summer Scholars to join us at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, July 10-29, 2016. This Institute provides a firm foundation in the defining features of Central Asian history and the region’s connections to larger, world historical processes from the ancient Silk Road to the modern day. We aim to bring together a dynamic group of teachers from various humanities disciplines that will benefit from participation in the Institute. We also welcome applications from full-time graduate students pursuing a K-12 teaching career. This is a slightly modified, expanded version of an earlier Summer Seminar that we conducted in 2012.

Situated at the heart of the Silk Road, the peoples of Central Asia have long mediated the trans-Eurasian exchanges of religions, cultures, goods, technologies and more, connecting the great civilizations on the Eurasian periphery. The region is also known for giving rise to world empires of its own in antiquity and the medieval era, and it famously served as the playing ground for the Anglo-Russian “Great Game” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This Institute provides an opportunity for a deep engagement with Central Asian history through a series of presentations by experts in the field, analysis of both narrative and documentary source materials, screenings and discussion of films, immersion in traditional food, music and art of the region, and the development of unit plans for use in your classroom.

Geographically, Central Asia stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to East Turkestan (modern day Xinjiang, China) in the east, and from the steppes of Russia in the north to Afghanistan and Iran in the south. Central Asia has long captivated the imagination of many, but until recently the vast majority of the historical work on the region relied on historical sources produced elsewhere. Institute participants will explore the ways that relying on works produced by authors inhabiting the civilizations on the Eurasian periphery has obscured our understanding of Central Asia, leading many either to idealize its inhabitants or dismiss them as simple barbarians.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Central Asia has become more open to outsiders and it has attracted serious attention from scholars trained in the region’s languages and social history. We can now point to a growing body of literature that has made substantial achievements in improving our understanding of the region’s history and society, the multifaceted relations that Central Asians have had with their neighbors, and the region’s larger contributions to world history.

In addition to its historical significance, Central Asia represents an extraordinarily important geopolitical zone in the post-Soviet, twenty-first century world. The region is embedded in the events and conflicts that have unfolded in Russia and the Caucasus, China, Iran and Afghanistan. It is home to groups of Islamists, some of whom aim to transplant the Taliban/ISIS revolution to their own soil. Since the late 1980s, we have also seen a rise in ethnic nationalism and recurrent waves of politically motivated violence that have led to the deaths of many thousands of people and the displacement of many more. Additionally, the region boasts rich reserves of natural gas, and the support of the region’s leadership has been crucial to our nation’s war effort in Afghanistan. 

Structure of Institute

Beginning on Monday, July 11, 2016, NEH Summer Scholars will meet daily, Monday through Friday, beginning at 9:30AM for a period of three weeks. The Institute will consist of a series of thematic presentations and workshops led by specialists in the field, listed below, all of whom have been selected because of their international reputations in their areas of expertise and their engaging presentation styles. These presentations will be organized chronologically and supplemented by video presentations and several cultural events. The Institute will also include a significant component on the examination of strategies for teaching the history of Central Asia. Our aim is to immerse you in our topic and give you the confidence to take the material back to the classroom.

Institute activities will include two special events. On the Saturday during our first weekend together, we will charter a bus for a daytrip to the Cleveland Museum of Art for a private exhibition on “Textiles from Islamic Lands” and “Art of the Silk Road.” The following Saturday, we will treat you to an informative presentation and concert performance by the Silk Road Ensemble, followed by a Central Asian cooking demonstration and banquet.

The Institute will begin with a brief survey of the historical, anthropological and religious background necessary to navigate Central Asian history. Paramount among these are the pastoral nomadic way of life and the interactions between nomadic and sedentary peoples. We will explore the Silk Road as a medium for cultural exchange, studying, for example, how travelers exported Buddhism from India to Central Asia and on to China, where it found a remarkably receptive audience. We will also investigate the transmission of other religious traditions along the ancient Central Asian caravan routes (Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity and, later, Islam), as well as the transfer of technologies, artistic styles, scientific knowledge and more.

Our attention will then turn to a more focused analysis of Central Asia in the medieval period, exploring such major social transformations as the gradual association of Central Asian peoples with the Islamic faith and the concomitant “Turkicization” of the region as wave upon wave of Turkic nomads migrated from the steppe to the southern sedentary areas, and further into the Middle East and Anatolia. We will then shift our attention to the thirteenth-century unification of the nomadic tribes under Chinggis (Genghis) Khan and the cataclysmic Mongol conquests, which culminated with the establishment of the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world. In the late fourteenth century, Tamerlane overthrew his Mongol overlords and, from his Central Asian capital in Samarkand, established himself as the last “great” nomadic conqueror that the world would see.

The early modern era (sixteenth through eighteenth centuries) remains one of the least studied periods in Central Asian history. In this segment of the Institute we will analyze the long-held belief that, after Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498, Eurasian trade shifted from caravan routes to maritime routes. Scholars have assumed that the rise of European activity in the Indian Ocean brought an end to the Central Asian “Silk Road” trade, sending the region into a lengthy period of isolation and cultural stagnation. We will contrast this received wisdom with readings in primary sources and more recent studies that suggest our region remained vital, engaged, artistically productive, and very much involved in world historical processes.

The final segment of the Institute begins with the Chinese and Russian colonial expansion into the region, which instigated a growing friction between representatives of the region’s “traditional” Islamic heritage and “reformist” social leaders determined to transform and modernize Central Asian society. We will then survey several of the traumatic events and processes that confronted Central Asians during the early Soviet era, including efforts to undermine Central Asians’ religious identities and ethnic traditions, the forced and very sudden end of the nomadic way of life, and Soviet collectivization programs. The Institute will conclude with an analysis of the geopolitical landscape of contemporary Central Asia, including the ways in which China, India, Russia and the United States are all competing in a new “Great Game” for control over Central Asia’s energy resources. Summer Scholars will emerge from the Institute with an improved understanding of the unique qualities of Central Asian Islam and the roles that the religion continues to play in post-Soviet Central Asian societies today.

More detailed information on the schedule of the Institute, readings, and the materials that will be provided to Summer Scholars in advance can be found in Institute Schedule.

A key component of the Institute is to give you the opportunity to create a unit plan based on the material and teaching strategies presented during the Institute that you determine to be most useful in your classroom instructions. Please visit the Unit Plans section to read more about developing unit plans and view examples from a prior Summer Seminar.

Institute Director

Scott Levi, Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University, is author and editor of several books, including The Indian Diaspora in Central Asia and its Trade: 1550-1900 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2002). This volume examines the emergence, social organization, and decline of an Indian merchant diaspora in Central Asia and the role that the Indian merchants played in Central Asian society. He has also co-edited, with Ron Sela, Islamic Central Asia: An Anthology of Historical Sources (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010). This collection of fifty-five extracts from primary source documents—many original translations published in this volume for the first time—will be used as one of the primary texts of the Institute.

Professor Levi is eager to welcome you to the Ohio State campus and share with you stories and photographs from his time living in India, Pakistan and Central Asia. Additionally, he knows his way around the kitchen as you will see in his cooking demonstration “Culinary Adventures Along the Silk Road.” He will be present throughout the Institute and also available for individual meetings.

Bios of the specialists that will be presenting throughout the Institute can be found under the Institute Faculty section.

Library Resources

The William Oxley Thompson Library on the OSU main campus provides materials and services related to the humanities and social sciences, and houses the university’s exceptionally rich Middle East, Central Asia and Islamic Studies Collection. Dr. Johanna Sellman manages this collection. She will arrange for participants to receive library privileges, including unrestricted access to on-line scholarly databases. She will be available to assist participants with their research at times scheduled in the Institute syllabus and also by appointment.

Stipend, Tenure, and Conditions of Award

NEH Summer Scholars will receive a stipend of $2,700 to help cover travel expenses to and from the project location, books and other research expenses, and ordinary living expenses. Stipends are taxable. Applicants to all projects should note that supplements will not be given in cases where the stipend is insufficient to cover all expenses. 

Seminar and institute participants are required to attend all meetings and to engage fully as professionals in the work of the project.  During the project's tenure, they may not undertake teaching assignments or any other professional activities unrelated to their participation in the project.  Participants who, for any reason, do not complete the full tenure of the project must refund a pro-rata portion of the stipend.

At the end of the project's residential period, NEH Summer Scholars will be asked to submit online evaluations in which they review their work during the summer and assess its value to their personal and professional development.  These evaluations will become part of the project's grant file.

Please visit the Accommodation page to read more information about housing options for participating Summer Scholars.


Participants may receive three graduate credits for the institute by enrolling in HIST 7193 (Seminar in History) during Summer Semester 2016 (The Ohio State University has not yet released the tuition schedule for Summer). Those enrolled in this course will be required to complete additional research-based writing and instructional assignments. NEH Summer Scholars will also receive a letter and certificate as documentation for in-service credit and/or professional development hours.

Status of NEH Summer Scholars at The Ohio State University

NEH Summer Scholars participating in the Central Asia in World History Institute will be designated by the University as “visiting scholars” to ensure access to computer labs, library holdings, and library research databases.

Questions about Central Asia in World History? Please contact us.