Tarim Basin

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Coordinates: 39°N 83°E / 39°N 83°E / 39; 83

Tarim Basin
Xinjiang regions simplified.png
  Tarim Basin
Chinese name
Chinese 塔里木盆地
Chinese 南疆
Literal meaning Southern Xinjiang
Uyghur name
تارىم ئويمانلىقى

The Tarim Basin is an endorheic basin in northwest China occupying an area of about 906,500 km2 (350,000 sq mi).[1] Located in China's Xinjiang region, it is sometimes used synonymously to refer the southern half of the province, or Nanjiang (Chinese: 南疆; pinyin: Nánjiāng; literally: "Southern Xinjiang"). Its northern boundary is the Tian Shan mountain range and its southern boundary is the Kunlun Mountains on the edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The Taklamakan Desert dominates much of the basin. The historical Uyghur name for the Tarim Basin is Altishahr (六域), which means "six cities" in Uyghur.

Geography and relation to Xinjiang[edit]

Physical map showing the separation of Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin (Taklamakan) by the Tien Shan Mountains

Xinjiang consists of two main geographically, historically, and ethnically distinct regions with different historical names, Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin (Altishahr), before Qing China unified them into one political entity called Xinjiang province in 1884. At the time of the Qing conquest in 1759, Dzungaria was inhabited by steppe dwelling, nomadic Tibetan Buddhist Dzungar people, while the Tarim Basin (Altishahr) was inhabited by sedentary, oasis dwelling, Turkic speaking Muslim farmers, now known as the Uyghur people. They were governed separately until 1884.


NASA landsat photo of the Tarim Basin

The Tarim Basin is the result of an amalgamation between an ancient microcontinent and the growing Eurasian continent during the Carboniferous to Permian periods. At present, deformation around the margins of the basin is resulting in the microcontinental crust being pushed under Tian Shan to the north, and Kunlun Shan to the south.

A thick succession of Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic sedimentary rocks occupy the central parts of the basin, locally exceeding thicknesses of 15 km (9 mi). The source rocks of oil and gas tend to be Permian mudstones. Below this level is a complex Precambrian basement believed to be made up of the remnants of the original Tarim microplate, which accrued to the growing Eurasian continent in Carboniferous time. The snow on K2, the second highest mountain in the world, flows into glaciers which move down the valleys to melt. The melted water forms rivers which flow down the mountains and into the Tarim Basin, never reaching the sea. Surrounded by desert, some rivers feed the oases where the water is used for irrigation while others flow to salt lakes and marshes.

The Tarim Basin, 2008

Lop Nur is a marshy, saline depression at the east end of the Tarim Basin. The Tarim River ends in Lop Nur.

The Tarim Basin is believed to contain large potential reserves of petroleum and natural gas.[2]:493 Methane comprises over 70 percent of the natural gas reserve, with variable contents of ethane (<1% ~18%) and propane (<0.5% ~9%).[3] China National Petroleum Corporation's comprehensive exploration of the Tarim basin between 1989 and 1995 led to the identification of 26 oil- and gas-bearing structures. These occur at deeper depths and in scattered deposits. Beijing aims to develop Xinjiang into China's new energy base for the long run, supplying one-fifth of the country's total oil supply by 2010, with an annual output of 35 million tonnes.[4] On June 10, 2010 Baker Hughes announced an agreement to work with PetroChina Tarim Oilfield Co. to supply oilfield services, including both directional and vertical drilling systems, formation evaluation services, completion systems and artificial lift technology for wells drilled into foothills formations greater than 7,500 meters (24,600 feet) deep with pressures greater than 20,000 psi (1379 bar) and bottomhole temperatures of approximately 160 °C (320 °F). Electrical submersible pumping (ESP) systems will be employed to dewater gas and condensate wells. PetroChina will fund any joint development.[5]

In 2015 Chinese researchers published the finding of a vast underground sea beneath the basin, containing more carbon than all the world's plants combined.[6][7]


Tarim Basin in the 3rd century

It is speculated that the Tarim Basin may be one of the last places in Asia to have become inhabited: It is surrounded by mountains and irrigation technologies might have been necessary.[8]

The Northern Silk Road on one route bypassed the Tarim Basin north of the Tian Shan mountains and traversed it on three oases-dependent routes: One north of the Taklamakan Desert, one south, and a middle one connecting both through the Lop Nor region.

The Tocharian languages were once spoken in the Tarim Basin. They were the easternmost group of Indo-European languages, and may be related to the "Yuezhi" (Chinese 月氏; Wade–Giles: Yüeh-Chih). Besides Tocharian, various Eastern Iranian Khotanese Scythian dialects were also spoken.

Han dynasty[edit]

Around 200 BCE, the Yuezhi were overrun by the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu tried to invade the western region of China, but ultimately lost and lost the area to the Chinese. The Han Chinese wrested control of the Tarim Basin from the Xiongnu at the end of the 1st century under the leadership of Gen. Ban Chao (32–102 CE), during the Han-Xiongnu War.[9] The Chinese administered the Tarim Basin as the Protectorate of the Western Regions. The Tarim Basin was later under many foreign rulers, but ruled primary by Turkic, Han, Tibetan, and Mongolic peoples.

The powerful Kushans expanded back into the Tarim Basin in the 1st–2nd centuries CE, where they established a kingdom in Kashgar and competed for control of the area with nomads and Chinese forces. They introduced the Brahmi script, the Indian Prakrit language for administration, and Buddhism, playing a central role in the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism to Eastern Asia.

Lop Nur is the site of the bronze-age Xiaohe Tomb complex from which more than 30 well-preserved mummies have been excavated. It is now a nuclear test site for the People's Republic of China.

Tang dynasty[edit]

During the Tang Dynasty, a series of military expeditions were conducted against the oasis states of the Tarim Basin, then vassals of the Western Turkic Khaganate.[10] The campaigns against the oasis states began under Emperor Taizong with the annexation of Gaochang in 640.[11] The nearby kingdom of Karasahr was captured by the Tang in 644 and the kingdom of Kucha was conquered in 649.[12]

Map of Taizong's campaigns against the Tarim Basin oasis states, allies of the Western Turks.

The expansion into Central Asia continued under Taizong's successor, Emperor Gaozong, who dispatched an army in 657 led by Su Dingfang against the Western Turk qaghan Ashina Helu.[12] Ashina was defeated and the khaganate was absorbed into the Tang empire.[13] The Tarim Basin was administered through the Anxi Protectorate and the Four Garrisons of Anxi. Tang hegemony beyond the Pamir Mountains in modern Tajikistan and Afghanistan ended with revolts by the Turks, but the Tang retained a military presence in Xinjiang. These holdings were later invaded by the Tibetan Empire to the south in 670. For the remainder of the Tang Dynasty, the Tarim Basin alternated between Tang and Tibetan rule as they competed for control of Central Asia.[14]

Islamicisation and Turkicisation of the Tarim Basin[edit]

The Tarim Basin was originally populated by Indo-European Tocharian and Iranic Saka peoples who practiced the Buddhist religion. The area was subjected to Turkification and Islamification at the hands of invading Turkic Muslims.

Buddhist Uyghur migration into the Tarim Basin[edit]

The discovery of the Tarim mummies has created a stir in the Turkic-speaking Uighur population of the region, who claim the area has always belonged to their culture, while it was not until the 10th century when the Uighurs are said by scholars to have moved to the region from Central Asia.[15] American Sinologist Victor H. Mair claims that "the earliest mummies in the Tarim Basin were exclusively Caucasoid, or Europoid" with "east Asian migrants arriving in the eastern portions of the Tarim Basin around 3,000 years ago", while Mair also notes that it was not until 842 that the Uighur peoples settled in the area.[16]

Protected by the Taklamakan Desert from steppe nomads, elements of Tocharian culture survived until the 7th century, when the arrival of Turkic immigrants from the collapsing Uyghur Khaganate of modern-day Mongolia began to absorb the Tocharians to form the modern-day Uyghur ethnic group.[16]

Professor James A. Millward described the original Uyghurs as physically Mongoloid, giving as an example the images in Bezeklik at temple 9 of the Uyghur patrons, until they began to mix with the Tarim Basin's original eastern Iranian inhabitants.[17]

The modern Uyghurs are now a mixed hybrid of Mongoloid and Caucasian.[18][19][20]

Turkic-Islamic Kara-Khanid conquest of Iranic Saka Buddhist Khotan[edit]

The Islamic attacks and conquest of the Buddhist cities east of Kashgar was started by the Turkic Karakhanid Satok Bughra Khan who in 966 converted to Islam and many tales emerged about the Karakhanid ruling family's war against the Buddhists, Satok Bughra Khan's nephew or grandson Ali Arslan was slain by the Buddhists during the war. Buddhism lost territory to Islam during the Karakhanid reign around the Kashgar area.[21] A long war ensued between Islamic Kashgar and Buddhist Khotan which eventually ended in the conquest of Khotan by Kashgar.[22]

Iranic Saka peoples originally inhabited Yarkand and Kashgar in ancient times. The Buddhist Iranic Saka Kingdom of Khotan was the only city-state that was not conquered yet by the Turkic Uyghur (Buddhist) and the Turkic Qarakhanid (Muslim) states and its ruling family used Indian names and the population were devout Buddhists. The Buddhist entitites of Dunhuang and Khotan had a tight-knit partnership, with intermarriage between Dunhuang and Khotan's rulers and Dunhuang's Mogao grottos and Buddhist temples being funded and sponsored by the Khotan royals, whose likenesses were drawn in the Mogao grottoes.[23] The rulers of Khotan were aware of the menace they faced since they arranged for the Mogao grottoes to paint a growing number of divine figures along with themselves. Halfway in the 20th century Khotan came under attack by the Qarakhanid ruler Musa, and in what proved to be a pivotal moment in the Turkification and Islamification of the Tarim Basin, the Karakhanid leader Yusuf Qadir Khan conquered Khotan around 1006.[23]

The Taẕkirah is a genre of literature written about Sufi Muslim saints in Altishahr. Written sometime in the period from 1700-1849, the Eastern Turkic language (modern Uyghur) Taẕkirah of the Four Sacrificed Imams provides an account of the Muslim Karakhanid war against the Khotanese Buddhists, containing a story about Imams, from Mada'in city (possibly in modern-day Iraq) came 4 Imams who travelled to help the Islamic conquest of Khotan, Yarkand, and Kashgar by Yusuf Qadir Khan, the Qarakhanid leader.[24] Accounts of the battles waged by the invading Muslims upon the indigenous Buddhists takes up most of the Taẕkirah with descriptions such as "blood flows like the Oxus", "heads litter the battlefield like stones" being used to describe the murderous battles over the years until the "infidels" were defeated and driven towards Khotan by Yusuf Qadir Khan and the four Imams, but the Imams were assassinated by the Buddhists prior to the last Muslim victory so Yusuf Qadir Khan assigned Khizr Baba, who was born in Khotan but whose mother originated from western Turkestan's Mawarannahr, to take care of the shrine of the 4 Imams at their tomb and after Yusuf Qadir Khan's conquest of new land in Altishahr towards the east, he adopted the title "King of the East and China".[25] Due to the Imams deaths in battle and burial in Khotan, Altishahr, despite their foreign origins, they are viewed as local saints by the current Muslim population in the region.[26]

Muslim works such as Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam contained anti-Buddhist rhetoric and polemic against Buddhist Khotan,[27] aimed at "dehumanizing" the Khotanese Buddhists, and the Muslims Kara-Khanids conquered Khotan just 26 years following the completion of Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam.[27]

Muslims gouged the eyes of Buddhist murals along Silk Road caves and Kashgari recorded in his Turkic dictionary an anti-Buddhist poem/folk song.[28]

Satuq Bughra Khan and his son directed endeavors to proselytize Islam among the Turks and engage in military conquests.[29] The Islamic conquest of Khotan led to alarm in the east and Dunhuang's Cave 17, which contained Khotanese literary works, was closed shut possibly after its caretakers heard that Khotan's Buddhist buildings were razed by the Muslims, the Buddhist religion had suddenly ceased to exist in Khotan.[29]

In 1006, the Muslim Kara-Khanid ruler Yusuf Kadir (Qadir) Khan of Kashgar conquered Khotan, ending Khotan's existence as an independent state. The war was described as a Muslim Jihad (holy war) by the Japanese Professor Takao Moriyasu. The Karakhanid Turkic Muslim writer Mahmud al-Kashgari recorded a short Turkic language poem about the conquest:

English translation:

We came down on them like a flood,
We went out among their cities,
We tore down the idol-temples,
We shat on the Buddha's head!


Alternate English translation:

We came down on them like a flood
We went out upon their cities
We tore down the idol temples
We shit upon the idols' heads.


In Turkic:

kälginläyü aqtïmïz
kändlär üzä čïqtïmïz
furxan ävin yïqtïmïz
burxan üzä sïčtïmïz


Alternate Turkic transliteration:

kãlñizlãyũ aqtimiz
kãndlãr õzã čiqtimiz
furxan ãwin yiqtimiz
burxan ũzã sičtimiz


German translation:

Wir strömten wie eine alles vor sich herschiebende Flut,
wir drangen in ihre Städte ein (eroberten sie),
wir zerstörten die buddhistischen Tempel,
wir koteten auf die Buddha-statuen.


Idols of "infidels" were subjected to desecration by being defecated upon by Muslims when the "infidel" country was conquered by the Muslims, according to Muslim tradition.[33]

Islamic conquest of the Buddhist Uighurs[edit]

The Buddhist Uyghurs of the Kingdom of Qocho and Turfan were converted to Islam by conquest during a ghazat (holy war) at the hands of the Muslim Chagatai Khizr Khwaja.[23]

Kara Del was a Mongolian ruled and Uighur populated Buddhist Kingdom. The Muslim Chagatai Khan Mansur invaded and used the sword to make the population convert to Islam.[34]

After being converted to Islam, the descendants of the previously Buddhist Uyghurs in Turfan failed to retain memory of their ancestral legacy and falsely believed that the "infidel Kalmuks" (Dzungars) were the ones who built Buddhist monuments in their area.[35][36]

Qing dynasty[edit]

Northern Xinjiang (Junggar Basin) (Yellow), Eastern Xinjiang- Turpan Depression (Turpan Prefecture and Hami Prefecture) (Red), and the Tarim Basin (Blue)

Xinjiang did not exist as one unit until 1884 under Qing rule. It consisted of the two separate political entities of Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin (Eastern Turkestan).[37][38][39][40] Dzungharia or Ili was called Zhunbu 準部 (Dzungar region) Tianshan Beilu 天山北路 (Northern March), "Xinjiang" 新疆 (New Frontier),[41] or "Kalmykia" (La Kalmouquie in French).[42][43] It was formerly the area of the Zunghar Khanate 準噶爾汗國, the land of the Dzungar people. The Tarim Basin was known as "Tianshan Nanlu 天山南路 (southern March), Huibu 回部 (Muslim region), Huijiang 回疆 (Muslim frontier), Chinese Turkestan, Kashgaria, Little Bukharia, East Turkestan", and the traditional Uyghur name for it was Altishahr (Uyghur: التى شهر‎, ULY: Altä-shähär).[44] It was formerly the area of the Eastern Chagatai Khanate 東察合台汗國, land of the Uyghur people before being conquered by the Dzungars.


Fresco from a stupa shrine, Miran

Although archaeological findings are of interest in the Tarim Basin, the prime impetus for exploration was petroleum and natural gas. Recent research with help of GIS database have provided a fine-grained analysis of the ancient oasis of Niya on the Silk Road. This research led to significant findings; remains of hamlets with wattle and daub structures as well as farm land, orchards, vineyards, irrigation pools and bridges. The oasis at Niya preserves the ancient landscape. Here also have been found hundreds of 3rd and 4th century wooden accounting tablets at several settlements across the oasis. These texts are in the Kharosthi script native to today's Pakistan and Afghanistan. The texts are legal documents such as tax lists, and contracts containing detailed information pertaining to the administration of daily affairs.[45]

Additional excavations have unearthed tombs with mummies,[46] tools, ceramic works, painted pottery and other artistic artifacts. Such diversity was encouraged by the cultural contacts resulting from this area's position on the Silk Road.[47] Early Buddhist sculptures and murals excavated at Miran show artistic similarities to the traditions of Central Asia and North India[48] and stylistic aspects of paintings found there suggest that Miran had a direct connection with the West, specifically Rome and its provinces.[49]

See also[edit]


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  24. ^ Thum, Rian (6 August 2012). "Modular History: Identity Maintenance before Uyghur Nationalism". The Journal of Asian Studies (The Association for Asian Studies, Inc. 2012) 71 (03): 632. doi:10.1017/S0021911812000629. Retrieved 29 September 2014. 
  25. ^ Thum, Rian (6 August 2012). "Modular History: Identity Maintenance before Uyghur Nationalism". The Journal of Asian Studies (The Association for Asian Studies, Inc. 2012) 71 (03): 633. doi:10.1017/S0021911812000629. Retrieved 29 September 2014. 
  26. ^ Thum, Rian (6 August 2012). "Modular History: Identity Maintenance before Uyghur Nationalism". The Journal of Asian Studies (The Association for Asian Studies, Inc. 2012) 71 (03): 634. doi:10.1017/S0021911812000629. Retrieved 29 September 2014. 
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  30. ^ 第三十五屆世界阿爾泰學會會議記錄. 國史文獻館. 1993. p. 206. ISBN 978-957-8528-09-3. 
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External links[edit]