From ancient times, Afghanistan has been the crossroads of Asia, inviting both trade and invasion. The region has been tramped by armies of infamous conquerors - Alexander the Great, Genghis Kahn, Tamerlane - as well as recent ones vying for British, Russian and Iranian interests. At the center of that cross - long before borders defined the convergence of Iran, Russia and Afghanistan - was Iran's Khorasan Province that included part of modern Afghanistan.

The traditional home of the ethnically mixed Aimaq tribes stretched from northeastern Iran into western and central Afghanistan, where they still reside. A small group also lives in Tajikistan and others are refugees in Iran.

Not an ethnically distinct people group, the larger tribal society is the Char Aimaq, first known as the chahar (four) Eimaks (Mongolian for tribes), a designation recognizing its make-up of four major tribes: Taimani, Firozkohi, Timuri and Jamshidi. These four are further comprised of some 250 sub-tribes.

Never politically united, tribal alliances joined them for protection against invaders. Aimaq are known as formidable warriors. For such a large population, little has been recorded about them, leaving them relatively obscure.

Once nomadic peoples, they were forced by cycles of severe drought and war into semi-nomadic lives, traveling seasonally to graze decimated herds and/or subsisting as sedentary farmers and carpet weavers in mud-brick villages.

Aimaq live principally in Badghis, Ghor and Herat Provinces where agriculture and animal husbandry provide an economic base. Nearby, the Aimaq "capital", Chaghcharan, and the ancient city of Herat lend economic, political and spiritual influence.

As with the great majority of Afghans, Hanafi Sunni Islam is the belief system among the Aimaq tribes.

Most semi-sedentary Jamshidi and Timuri tribes live northeast of Herat city in the Kush River area of fertile Badghis Province. People here are less likely to identify themselves as Aimaq.

A Persian ruler, Jamshid, gave his name to that tribe, but the Timuri name origin is unknown. Usually well-watered land produces rice, cotton, grapes, wheat and melons. Most Aimaq no longer possess sizable herds (by which wealth is counted), but sheep can be grazed year-round in this climate.

Surplus produce brings income in Herat markets as do high-quality Herat Baluch rugs. At one time, Timuri were the most numerous and powerful of the four major Afghan tribes, declining when many relocated to northern Iran in the 18th - 19th centuries.

The mountainous and largely barren Ghor Province is the primary home of the Taimani and Firozkohi tribes. Taimani trace their name to Taiman, a prominent 1650's Kakar Pushtan alliance builder, whereas the Firozkohi name derives from firuzkuh, meaning "mountain of turquoise."

Living along the Hari Rud River and in the Murghab River valley, respectively, they endure severe winters and sparse rainfall regularly interrupted by drought. In such times, virgins here still perform pre-Islamic dances begging for rainfall.

Semi-nomadic and poorer than tribes in Badghis Province, their limited fields grow dry crops like wheat, melons and fodder to feed animals that must be stabled in winter. When moving their flocks in summer, the Firozkohi alone still dwell in traditional yurts, other tribes having abandoned them for black nomad's tents.

Some characteristics likely apply to most Aimaq. Once there was a generally used, common Aimaq language but now, few seem to speak it anymore. Dialects spoken today resemble Dari (Afghan eastern Farsi) admixed with words of Mongolian and Turkic origin.

Researchers are attempting to determine if the Aimaq may be speaking Dari that is influenced by individual manners of speaking within their villages. Dari is spoken in schools.

Food and dress among Jamshidi and Timuri are likely similar in other tribes, as well. The staple food, eaten at every meal, is thick, whole wheat bread baked in mud ovens. Rice, chickpeas, potatoes and summer garden vegetables accompany chicken, eggs or lamb (for guests or celebrations). Dugh, a beverage made with yogurt, salt, pepper and water, is also served.

Women enhance drab lives by wearing brightly colored clothes sewn with glittering sequins over white or colored tumbons (pants). Outside their homes, women modestly wear the chadder namoz, a dark head-to-toe covering, and many still don a burka when in Herat. Men are seen in turbans or round caps with rough-textured cloaks draped around their shoulders.

Based on clan and extended family, the Aimaq are led by men and trace ancestors through male lines. Even so, Aimaq women exercise unusual privileges compared to other rural Afghan people groups in that they meet with the men and freely voice opinions, even with strangers present.

Marriage is the most important life event celebrated among the Aimaq and is celebrated with much dancing to rhythms beaten on flat drums. By tradition, a union is arranged in early childhood. Marriage takes place when a girl is 13 or 14, usually to a blood relative slightly older, 16-20, or as a second wife to a much older man in his 40s.

Uniquely among the Taimani and Firozhoki, girls marry at age 18 and may reject a father's choice of husband. Traditionally, a bride traditionally moves immediately into the home of her husband's family following the wedding rites. There are unusual instances, however, of a groom moving into his future in-law's compound for two or more years of service before the marriage ceremony is performed.

Aimaq tribal customs remain stronger than Afghan nationalism, due in part to long-enjoyed independence and geographical distance from the central government in Kabul. Tribal law vested in village leaders usually prevails over government authority and even some Islamic rules.

Location within Afghanistan:

Central northwest Afghanistan, west of Hazara, eastern Iran, and Tajikistan (Jamshidi and Khazara)

People Name: Aimaq, Taimani, also: Char Aimaq Population: 563,000Ethnicity Affinity Bloc: Persian-Median

Primary Language: Aimaq Primary Dialect: Taimani