Part of the Registan Square in Samarkand

Exploring the Rich History and Cultural Heritage of Uzbekistan

For years, countries in Central Asia have remained relatively unexplored by tourists. But, recently, Uzbekistan has been emerging as a major tourism destination in the region. Uzbekistan has been at the crossroads of civilizations for thousands of years. This is where some of the most famous cities of the ancient Silk Road, like Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva can be found. The country also has a fascinating history which involves being part of major empires in history and a former state of the Soviet Union. Its location, significance on the Silk Road and history, make Uzbekistan a culturally rich nation reflected through its architecture, arts, cuisine and customs.

In today’s post, we will explore this gem of a nation in Central Asia. First, we’ll begin with a brief description of the country. Then, we’ll move on to discussing the historical events that led to the creation of modern-day Uzbekistan. Then, we’ll discover the profound cultural heritage of the country, allowing us to understand the role history had to play to shape it.

About Uzbekistan

map of uzbekistan marking the main cities and water bodies
Image Credit: Maps.com via  Pinterest

Uzbekistan is a landlocked country located at the very centre of Central Asia, between the rivers, Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. The country shares borders with Kazakhstan to the north, the Aral Sea to the northwest, Turkmenistan to the southwest, Tajikistan to the southeast, Kyrgyzstan to the northeast and Afghanistan to the south. It is the only country to border all four other Central Asian countries.

Measuring 447,400 km2, Uzbekistan is the third-largest country in Central Asia by size and the first largest by population. As of January 2021, there are around 34 million citizens in Uzbekistan, all belonging to various ethnicities. Uzbeks, a group of Turkic people, comprise around 80% of the total population. This is followed by a population of Tajiks (4.8%), Kazakh (2.5%), Russian (2.3%), Karakalpak (2.2%) and others.

The majority of the country is a desert landscape while the rest is covered by mountains and valleys. The Kyzylkum desert, which is the 15th largest desert on the planet, lies in the middle of the country. The Tien Shan and Pamir mountains lie to the east and north-eastern part of the country. Fertile soil can be found in the gaps and base of the mountains, along the two major rivers in the country. These settlements serve as oases in the middle of the dryland. This is why the majority of the population resides in the eastern part of the country. Tashkent, the largest city and capital of Uzbekistan, is located to the northeast of the country. It is home to roughly 2.5 million people.

Uzbekistan is best known for its well-preserved historic architectural marvels. These include turquoise domed mosques, mausoleums, palaces, fortresses, and madrassas. It is also known for its impeccable hospitality, cuisine and arts.

History of Uzbekistan

The history of Uzbekistan dates back thousands of years. The ancient people of Uzbekistan did not lead a nomadic life. Therefore, they settled down hundreds of thousands of years before their Central Asian neighbours. This makes Uzbekistan one of the oldest inhabited places in the world. Throughout history, many empires were established and destroyed here and remnants of all of these events shape modern-day Uzbekistan.

Early History

Zarautsoy Rock Paintings in Uzbekistan
Zarautsoy Rock Paintings in the Kashkadarya Region. Image Credit: Bradshaw Foundation

The earliest evidence of humans inhabiting Uzbekistan dates back to the Palaeolithic era. Burial sites from the Teshik Tash cave, show that Neanderthals settled in the area during the Upper Palaeolithic era. Additionally, ancient dwellings in the Baysun Tau Mountains and tools found in Samarkand were found from the later periods of the Palaeolithic era.

Then, from the Mesolithic era, rock art was found in the Kashkadarya Region. Moreover, evidence of primitive settlements was uncovered in Samarkand. Then, during the Neolithic era, we see the production of primitive pottery and the development of activities like weaving and cattle breeding. Evidence of these advancements was found near the Amu Darya River, in the Kyzylkum desert, Tashkent, Samarkand and Surkhandarya. Suggesting there were settlements in and around these areas.

So far, the history of Uzbekistan has not been too clear but this changes during the Bronze Age, or between the 3rd millennium BC and 1st millennium BC. During this period, several Iranian tribes settled down in this region. One of the earliest known records of settlement was of a group of Indo-Iranian people around 1000 BC. Upon settling down, they made use of the fertile land along the river valleys to cultivate crops. They also developed irrigation systems, bringing water to drier parts of the land. Their settlements would grow to become some of the most significant cities in Uzbek history, like Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva, Merv, etc. These cities happen to be some of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

Uzbekistan under the Persian Empire

Towards the end of the Bronze Age and the later centuries of the 1st millennium BC, three states emerged prominent. These were Khorezm, located below the Aral Sea and the Amu Darya River; Sogdiana, the area between the Zerafshan and Ferghana Valley; and Bactria to the south. In the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great, the founder of the first Persian Empire, the Achaemenid Empire, conquered Central Asia. He then divided the conquered territories into satrapies. Khorezm, Sogdiana and Bactria then became the satrapies that made up the area we now know as Uzbekistan. During this time, the Persians rapidly urbanized these territories and introduced Zoroastrianism. This became the state religion and was adopted by the masses.

Also, under the Persian Empire, trade flourished in these territories. Being in control of the region, the Persians could now easily trade with China. The trading route would eventually become part of the Great Silk Road. As a result, many central Asian cities grew wealthy, which led to further urbanization. The Sogdian cities of Samarkand and Bukhara became major centres of trade and commerce due to their advantageous location. For this reason, these two cities in particular grew very wealthy and influential. Today, both cities are enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage sites for they preserve the Silk Road heritage.

The time under the Persians wasn’t necessarily a peaceful one. The people of Central Asia did not like living under Persian oppression and so frequent conflicts would occur. After years of conflict, the Khorezm gained independence from the Persians in the 4th century BC. Soon after, other Central Asian satrapies followed. Constant rebellions and conflicts had weakened the Persians, but their empire finally fell when Alexander the Great of Macedonia arrived.

Alexander the Great’s Rule

Ruins of the Nur Fortress
Ruins of the Nur Fortress, built after Alexander the Great established the town of Nur. Image Credit: Bookatour

After conquering areas of Asia Minor, Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt and Persia, Alexander the Great headed for Central Asia. He arrived in 329 BC, defeated the Persians and conquered the satrapies of Bactria and Sogdiana. This marked the beginning of the Hellenistic era in Uzbekistan. He first captured Samarkand and captured many fortresses. He then moved along the Syr Darya River to establish the easternmost city of Alexandria in the Fergana Valley.

This wasn’t before the local Sogdians put up a fight with him and his forces. The local Sogdian leader used guerrilla warfare, delaying Alexander’s forces from moving forward for two years. Despite this, the Sogdian ruler was defeated and moved on to conquer many more fortresses, strengthening his power there. During his conquest, he married Roxana, the daughter of a local Sogdian ruler. This was to ease local tensions and strengthen alliances with his newly conquered territory. By 327 BC, Alexander left Central Asia to begin his campaign in India.

Alexander’s Death and the Seleucid Empire

After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his territories were divided among his generals. After the territories were split, one of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus Nicator, founded the Seleucid Empire in 312 BC. Seleucus expanded his territory drastically and ended up ruling the area stretching from Thrace to the borders of India. This meant that Sogdiana came under the Seleucid Empire.

During this time, Seleucus and his son focused on strengthening their position in this region. For example, they built numerous fortresses and cities where the Greeks settled down. By 260 BC, Seleucid currency, made of gold and silver, was being circulated.

By 256 BC, Diodot, the governor of the Seleucid state of Bactria, separated from the Seleucid Empire and established the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. This state comprised Sogdiana, Bactria and Margiana. During this time, Hellenistic influences spread in the area. For instance, Greek was used as the language of communication among government and military officials. Moreover, Greek literature and theatre were also enjoyed by the locals, particularly the elite. The state was also performing well culturally and economically as agriculture, crafts, trade and city planning prospered. Also during that time, roads were paved to connect the Seleucid states to Bactria. This connected many countries together, facilitating trade in the region. But soon, this led to conflicts within the Greek-Bactrian Kingdom.

Also, by this time, other satrapies separated from the Seleucid Empire, like Parthia. Parthia, located in modern-day Turkmenistan and northern Iran, emerged as a powerful state in Central Asia after its separation. Parthian rulers would rise to power in the west, conquering Persia, parts of Mesopotamia and even a part of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom in the 2nd century BC.

The Kushan Dynasty

The Buddhist Stupa Zurmala in Termez.
The Buddhist Stupa Zurmala in Termez. This stupa dates back to the 3rd century to the time of the Kushan Dynasty. Image Credit: Uzbek Travel

During this time, in the 2nd century BC, internal conflicts within the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom caused it to collapse. That is also when a nomadic tribe from the east, called Kushan or Yuezhi, invaded Khorezm. Up until this point, Khorezm remained an independent state. By the 1st century AD, they would go on to establish a vast empire that included parts of Central Asia, parts of Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and northern parts of India. The most notable of the Kushan rulers was King Kanishka. He adopted Buddhism and commissioned the construction of Buddhist temples throughout the kingdom, further promoting the religion. It is believed that the Sogdians went on to introduce it to the Chinese during their trade. This is one of the ways Buddhism spread to China. Interestingly, Zoroastrianism, local religions, Christianity and Manichaeism were also practised alongside Buddhism during this era.

During the Kushan Empire, Central Asia became a major trade, art and cultural centre. Plus, new trade routes stretching from China to Europe were developed. Central Uzbekistan and the Fergana Valley became significant points of this route. The Kushan Empire also brought advancements to land irrigation and cattle breeding and saw the use of fertilizers in agriculture.

By the 3rd century, the Kushan Empire started to decline. By the 4th century, they ceased to exist.

Islamic Rule and Islamisation

Samanid Mausoleum built by the Samanid Dynasty
Samanid Mausoleum in Bukhara, built in the 10th century. Image Credit: University of Michigan

The next major event in Uzbekistan’s history happened in the 7th century. To the Arabs, the land beyond the Amu Darya River was known as Mawarannahr and they were determined to reach there. They first started visiting the area in 649 and then began invasions in 673. It was only between 706 and 712 that they conquered major cities like Bukhara, Samarkand, Khorezm and Tashkent. As such, Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia became a part of the Arab caliphate. The new rulers of the region introduced Islam and converted the local residents. They also discontinued practising any other religion in the region. The locals did attempt to resist but were unsuccessful.

During this time, Arabic became the official state language and was therefore used in government and commerce. In the initial years after the Arab conquest, the economy and culture of the region were destroyed. However, over the next few centuries, Uzbekistan saw its golden age. Starting with the Takhirid Dynasty in the 9th century, water supply was improved and new standards were set on how to best use water for irrigation. Then, during the Samanid Dynasty between the 9th and 10th centuries, the region saw tremendous political, economic and cultural growth. During this period, the empire produced some of the most prominent scholars in the field of science, literature, medicine, mathematics and astronomy. Also during this time, Bukhara grew to become one of the wealthiest cities in the world as trade flourished like never before.

By the end of the 10th century, the Samanid Dynasty was replaced by the Turkic Karakhanid Khanate. They ruled over Transoxiana, taking over the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, while the Ghaznavid Empire ruled over Khorezm. Then, by the 11th century, another Turkic group called the Seljuks took over both areas. During their reign, arts, crafts and architecture thrived. This period saw the building of numerous palaces and monuments.

Genghis Khan Invades Uzbekistan

In the 13th century, the land of Mawarannahr would face the wrath of Genghis Khan and his troops. They were a group of fierce Mongol horsemen who were skilful archers and had the ability to adapt quickly to their environment. After his conquest of China in 1215, he looked toward the west. Initially, he looked to establish trade relations with the Khwarazmian Empire in the region. In 1218, the Mongols sent a merchant caravan and three envoys to the Khorezmshah or ruler of the empire. The Khorezmshah burned the merchant caravan, killed one of the envoys and humiliated the others by burning off their beards. This meant war.

So, the mighty Mongols, with roughly 200,000 troops, marched into Central Asia. First, they captured the city of Otrar, then they seized and destroyed Samarkand, Bukhara and Urgench by 1221. Genghis Khan’s territory now spanned from China to the Caspian Sea.

Lots of changes came to Central Asia with Genghis Khan’s invasion. Firstly, many of the buildings and architecture from before this period were destroyed. Secondly, it marked the end of Islamic power in the area. Finally, a new Turkic identity was introduced. It was during this time that the population of Central Asia became culturally and genetically Turkified. Thus being responsible for the genetic making of the Uzbeks today.

Before his death in 1227, Genghis Khan divided his vast territory among his sons. The vast majority of the Uzbek territory came under his son Chagatai and was known as the ulus of Chagatai. In this period, the Mongol rulers installed Muslim merchants as the leaders of Mawarannahr. They were cruel to the people and forced them to pay high taxes, leading to a lot of unrest and rebellions. This eventually resulted in Mawarannahr breaking into smaller holdings.

Timurid Era

Bibi-Khanym Mosque in Samarkhand
Bibi-Khanym Mosque in Samarkhand, built in the 15th century. This is a prime example of the revival of art during the Timurid Renaissance. Image Credit: Wikipedia

As parts of the once vast Mongol Empire started breaking into smaller territories, several local tribes fought to gain regional influence. One tribal chief named Timur emerged and dominated the area throughout the 14th century. His empire would stretch from Asia Minor all the way to Delhi in India. Timur, also known as Tamerlane, made Samarkand his capital and rebuilt the city and restored its former glory. Once again, Samarkand became a major economic, cultural and religious centre in Central Asia. Under this reign, art, architecture, literature and academics flourished again. The finest artists were brought to build stunning architectural marvels. Some became palaces, others mosques and mausoleums. Today, Timur is considered a national hero in Uzbekistan for his contribution to Uzbek history.

After Timur’s death in 1405, there were constant conflicts and battles for power among his heirs. From this conflict, Shahrukh, Timur’s son, emerged on top and became the leader of the Timurid Dynasty. However, the Timurid Dynasty by then no longer remained the empire it was. It split into two main parts, eastern Persia and Samarkand. Shahrukh, ruled eastern Persia from Herat, while Shahrukh’s son Ulugbek ruled Samarkand. Both areas then comprised smaller fiefdoms ruled by other descendants of Tamerlane. During Ulugbek’s reign, Samarkand saw a revival in the arts and sciences, marking the beginning of the Timurid Renaissance. Shahrukh died in 1447, transferring the seat of power to his son Ulugbek. However, he was killed by his son, Abdullah, in 1449.

Shaybanid Dynasty

Soon after, Ulugbek’s nephew, Abu Said, ventured to avenge his death. He sought help from Abul Khair, the leader of the Turco-Mongol nomadic Uzbek tribes from the Dasht-I-Kipchak steppes in the north. Abul Khair’s grandson, Mohammed Shaybani, would return in 1499 to invade Mawarannahr and succeed. By 1501, Shaybani seized Samarkand and founded the Shaybanid Dynasty. By 1506, he conquered Tashkent, Bukhara, Urgench and other cities. Soon, the Shaybanid dynasty ruled the majority of Central Asia and had driven the Timurids out of the region.

During this time, the unified territory was separated into three khanates. These were kingdoms that were ruled by a khan or king. One was the Khanate of Bukhara, which was the most powerful of all khanates. The majority of the territory now known as Uzbekistan came under this khanate. The Khanate of Bukhara would eventually become the Emirate of Bukhara in 1785 as the Manghit Dynasty took over control. The second was the Khiva Khanate, with Khorezm as the capital, and the third was the Kokand Khanate. The Kokand Khanate was the last to be formed, in the 18th century. It served as the political centre of the Fergana Valley region.

Also, during the Shaybanid Dynasty, more specifically throughout the 17th century, Uzbek tribes continued to settle in this region. They assimilated with the existing inhabitants. Soon they became the predominant ethnic group in the region.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Uzbekistan faced a difficult time. Activity on the Silk Road declined as the sea routes became more active. Merchants trading by land were often robbed and looted. Moreover, this part of the Islamic world was left in isolation after the Safavid Empire in Persia established its state religion as Shia Islam. This restricted cultural exchange between them and Central Asia, where the population followed Sunni Islam.

The Arrival of the Russians

Seige of Samarkand by Russians
Image showing the Russian troops besieging Samarkand in 1868. Image Credit: Silk Road Research 

Through trade with the Russian merchants, Russian leadership realized what potential lay in Central Asia. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Russian troops slowly started looking across their southern borders. They marked their presence in the steppe region above and east of the Syr Darya River. By the early 19th century, this part of the world became the site of the Great Game. This was a set of diplomatic and political actions taken by the Russians and the British to prevent each other from gaining power in Central Asia.

By the 1860s, they finally invaded the three khanates of Central Asia. They first attacked the Kokand Khanate and set up the Turkestan Governor Generalship in its place in 1867. Tashkent became the centre of this generalship. Soon after, the Emirate of Bukhara and Khiva Khanate became protectorates of the Russian Empire.

Power to control Turkestan, its people, military and civil administration was given to the general governor. The new government did not interfere in the cultural and religious make-up of the territory. They did, however, bring about social and economic changes. They made use of the resources to produce cotton for their homeland. Production of these items was being done at the cost of producing other necessary food crops and cattle breeding. Moreover, the Russians set up other industries that were important to Russia. For instance, cottonseed oil mills were built, gin houses were built and mining activities started. The Russians even built the Trans Caspian Railway to connect Turkestan with Russia and parts of Europe.

The completion of the railway brought about some cultural change as well, as it brought back a large number of Russians to the khanates. Gradually, the Russians began interfering in matters of the khanates. They introduced policies leading to a decrease in income and, subsequently, a decline in the living standards of certain prominent families.

How Uzbekistan became part of the Soviet Union

For these reasons and more, towards the end of the 19th century, the Russians faced resistance from the people. Particularly, those who pursued the Jadidist ideology. The Jadids were a group of intellectuals in Central Asia who sought to preserve the Islamic Central Asian identity. Through their guidance, there was a rise in a sense of nationalism among the masses.

Rebellions grew when the Russian government, in 1916, issued a decree forcing the conscription of locals into the Russian army. This was after the Russian forces incurred great losses during the First World War. Making matters worse, the tsarist administration made it clear to not include the local Muslim population in political matters.

The following year, in 1917, the February and October revolutions took place in St. Petersburg, Russia. Here the Russian monarchy was overthrown by the Bolsheviks and later seized power, establishing the beginning of the Soviet regime. In the same year, similar events transpired in Tashkent as the Tsarist administration was taken down. Instead, a provisional government with direct links with the Soviets was placed. Turkestan was now a part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic or, RSFSR. As part of the RSFSR, it was known as the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.

The people of Turkestan were unhappy with this decision. To make matters worse, much like their predecessors, the provisional government showed no interest in involving the Central Asians in political matters of Turkestan. So, for the next 4 years, nationalist groups tried to separate themselves from the Soviet powers and gain autonomy. It began the Basmachi movement where Basmachi guerrilla fighters were constantly in conflict with the Soviet Red army. Finally, the red army emerged victorious. During this time, the culture and architecture of Turkestan were destroyed and Soviet culture became dominant.

Soviet Uzbekistan

emblem of soviet uzbekistan
Emblem of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in a parade in Moscow. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By 1924, the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic split into 4 soviet republics. One of which was the Uzbek Socialist Republic, which comprised modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. By 1929, however, a separate republic called the Tajikistan Soviet Socialist Republic was established. In the initial years of the Soviet Regime, education and literacy were given priority. Many schools were built and there were campaigns to end illiteracy. During this time, the local Uzbek culture, practices and customs were discouraged. Moreover, the Uzbek script changed from Arabic to a Latin-based script called Yanalif. The 1930s saw the industrialization of the soviet republic as plants were constructed, new cities were built and old ones were rebuilt.

The 1930s also saw many Uzbeks joining the communist party, but this would quickly end due to Joseph Stalin’s repressions. Numerous Uzbek leaders were arrested and executed during this period. Members of the government were then replaced by Russian officials and Uzbekistan witnessed the Russification in the political and economic domain.

During the Second World War, the men in Uzbekistan and other Soviet republics went to war. The country also served as a refuge and evacuation centre for people across the Soviet Union. As a result, Uzbekistan came to be known as a place of kindness, hospitality and sunshine. Tashkent in particular, was known as the City of Bread and Friendship.

Independence and Post-Soviet Era

Landscape of the capital Tashkent
City of Tashkent in the 21st century. Image Credit: Sada El Balad

On August 31, 1991, the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic declared independence from the USSR. It then received the name Republic of Uzbekistan. For this reason, the country celebrates its independence day on the 1st of September every year. In the same year, Islam Karimov was elected as the country’s first president in a non-democratic presidential election. Since independence, Karimov remained in power till his death in 2016. In 1992, Uzbekistan became a member of the United Nations and, in the same year, adopted a new constitution. Since independence, Uzbekistan has been working on building a democratic republic with a market economy.

Culture in Uzbekistan

After looking at the main events in Uzbekistan’s vast history, it is clear why the country is a melting pot of ancient cultures. The country has been home to many cultures in the past. This is also reflected in the ethnic makeup of the country. Its location, being at the crossroads of the eastern and western worlds, further explains its cultural diversity. Mixed with this multi-ethnic diversity is the influence of Islam. Since the Arab conquests in Central Asia, the population of Uzbekistan has predominantly been Muslim. Even today, around 90% of the population is Muslim. This Islamic influence can be found in Uzbek cuisine, architecture, art, music, literature and customs. It is true that, in the past, practising Uzbek culture was discouraged and parts of the country’s cultural heritage were destroyed. But these restrictions or obstacles weren’t enough to completely take down the cultural identity of the people.

Language

To take a closer look at Uzbek culture, let us first begin by looking at the languages used in the country. The official and national language of Uzbekistan is Uzbek, which is an Altaic Turkic language. It is used in official documents and spoken widely, not only in Uzbekistan but around Central Asia and even in Afghanistan and Pakistan. During the era of Islamisation in the 8th century, the Uzbek language developed its first writing system. This writing system used the Arabic script.

Then, in the initial years, as part of the Soviet Union, the Arabic script changed to a Latin-based script called Yanalif. Following the Russification of the Uzbek SSR, the Cyrillic script was used to write Uzbek between the 1940s and independence. After independence, the Latin script was adopted to write the language, but in practice, Cyrillic alphabets are still used sometimes. Today, roughly 65% of the population can speak Uzbek.

Russian is another widely spoken language in Uzbekistan. While it is the mother tongue of only around 6% of the population, more than half the population of Uzbekistan can understand and speak Russian. Russian is still the working language of central government and business. This phenomenon can be called a hangover from the Russian occupation.

Following Uzbek and Russian, Tajik, a type of Persian language, is the most spoken language in the country. Roughly 7.7% of the population are Tajik speakers. Tajik speakers are mostly concentrated around the areas of Samarkand and Bukhara as that is where many Tajik people reside.

Finally, a smaller population of Uzbekistan speak other Turkic languages such as Kazakh (3.8%), Tatar (2.2%) and Karakalpak (1.9%). Nowadays, English has also become an increasingly spoken and studied language in the country. Uzbek schools have started teaching English as part of their curricula, so the younger generation is more familiar with it. English can mostly be heard in popular tourist places and in big cities.

Art

There are few countries in the world where folk art and crafts still flourish and Uzbekistan happens to be one of them. For centuries, historic Uzbek cities have been major centres of art. The local artisans were already talented but cultural exchange on the Silk Road further developed artistic styles and skills. Moreover, various rulers commissioned artists from different parts of the Silk Road to craft artistic pieces for them. Artists in this area were skilled in producing ceramics, weaving cotton and silk, carpet weaving, carving wood and stone, engraving metal, stamping leather, calligraphy, embroidery, miniature painting, jewellery making and more.

Knowledge of these arts has been passed down to younger generations for ages. Many retain the traditional way of working while others have developed more modern methods of producing art. Fortunately, this knowledge still survives despite decades of cultural oppression. These art forms have stayed alive and have been revived because of how the people of Uzbekistan cherish and revere their cultural heritage.

Below, we’ll look at some of the most symbolic Uzbek items that require special artistic skills to produce.

Skullcaps

skullcap from the city of Chust
Doppi from the city of Chust. Image Credit: Alesouk

Skullcaps called Doppi are the national headdresses of Uzbekistan. In Uzbekistan, a skullcap is more than an element of clothing. It is an identity of the Uzbek culture.

They are made of both soft and hard fabric and are decorated with embroidery or beads. Doppis can be either circular or square in shape.

The make of the Doppi indicates the unique style of the artist. This is why the skullcaps from different parts of Uzbekistan vary. There are also different skullcaps for men, women, children and elderly men. Elderly women do not wear skullcaps. The most famous type of skullcap is the men’s Doppi from the city of Chust in the Fergana Valley. This Doppi has a square base and a dome-like crown on top. This form of Doppi is made of black fabric and is adorned with symbolic white embroidery.

Its unique feature is its height and embroidered patterns. Craftswomen in Chust continue to handcraft these skullcaps. The patterns carry an important message often associated with concepts such as life and death, light and darkness, earth and sky, and good and evil. The use of white thread for the embroidery assures wealth, and protection from the evil eye.

About a few decades ago, the skullcap was the main type of headdress in Central Asia. In recent times, the hat is mostly worn on special occasions, funerals and holidays.

Pichak

pichak traditional Uzbek knives
Pichak Knives from Chust. Image Credit: Manzara Tourism

The historic city of Chust is also famous for crafting traditional knives known as pichak. A Pichak is a traditional knife with a straight wide blade and a narrow handle which is often decorated. It is designed in a way that makes cutting vegetables and meat very convenient. The knife has a better grip than modern knives, plus it puts less strain on the wrist. Skilled Uzbek cooks are masters of using this knife.

Historically, pichak knives weren’t only used for cutting food, they were multifunctional. Pichak knives were a part of the men’s traditional costume. Moreover, they are believed to possess special protective properties and are therefore used as amulets. For this reason, traditionally, a pichak knife is placed under a baby’s pillow. This would protect the infant from evil spirits. This custom is still practised today. The knife was also believed to have healing properties. So, in earlier times, it would be applied to the head of a sick person or to the site of a poisonous snake bit to heal the malady.

Today, right in the centre of the city of Chust, there is a quarter where suzangars or blacksmiths forge these special knives. The pichaks made in Chust are incredibly sharp, beautiful and strong, and remain that way throughout the years. Pichaks made in other cities have other notable characteristics. Other than Chust, Shakhrikhan in the Andijan region is also famed for its pichak knives. Well forged pichak knives are highly valued by collectors and chefs not only in Uzbekistan but around the world. They also make for great gifts, especially in the Eastern world.

Pottery

Rishtan Ceramic bowls
The sheer beauty of Rishtan Ceramics. Image Credit: Suitcase and World

Another uniquely Uzbek form of art is pottery, particularly from the city of Rishtan. Rishtan is a small city in the Fergana Valley. It has been an important centre of ceramics since ancient times.

What makes Rishtan ceramic so special is firstly the use of clay and, secondly, its design. Ceramics in this city are made using a type of red clay only found in that region. Rishtan ceramics are also known for their intricate floral and geometric patterns made with various shades of blue. This blue glaze called ishkor is made with a mix of minerals and ashes from burning specific plants.

The art of producing the dishes is passed on from father to son while painting and decorating are traditionally done by women.

Ceramics from Rishtan are not only used for their intended purpose but also to decorate homes where they act like talismans.

Architecture

Poi-Kalyan Minaret in Bukhara
Kalyan Minaret at the Poi-Kalyan mosque complex in Bukhara. Image Credit: Premium Stock

Architectural development flourished most in the middle ages when trade was actively taking place on the Great Silk Road. Uzbek cities were located at strategic points of this historical trade route, making them major commercial and cultural centres. During this time, not only were goods exchanged but cultural ideas did too, leading to the creation of some of the most spectacular structures in Central Asia. These include palaces, minarets, mausoleums, mosques and madrassas, largely built in places like Samarkand, Bukhara, Shakhrisabz and Khiva.

Some of the most notable attractions in these places are the Bibi-Khanim mosque, Gur Emir mausoleum, Shah-i-Zinda, Registan square, Ak-Saroy palace, Poi-Kalyan and Kalyan minaret, among others. What is unique about these monuments is that they contain colourful and azure mosaic art, complex geometric patterns and religious symbols.

Music

Musicians in traditional attire performing Shashmaqam
Musicians performing Shashmaqam music. Image Credit: Make Heritage Fun

Music is a crucial part of Uzbek culture and there are many genres of traditional music. Shashmaqam, for example, is a widely known form of classical music. Similar to classical Persian music, Shashmaqam originated in the city of Bukhara. Shashmaqam is a Persian word meaning six modes, referring to the six modes that the genre features. The most famous Shashmaqam musicians are Bukharan Jews. When a portion of the Bukharan Jews immigrated to the west, they introduced this style of music there.

Shashmaqam songs are sung either in Bukhori, Uzbek or Tajik and they are often about Sufi philosophy and ideas. Some instruments used to perform Shashmaqam music include tar, tanbur, and ghijak, all of which are long-necked lute-like string instruments and dayra, a type of drum. This style of music is often performed by a group of singers and musicians. In 2008, Shashmaqam was inscribed in UNESCO’s list of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind.

Another prominent type of music is Bakhshi singing, which is a type of folk music. Folk music is a part of daily life in Uzbekistan as it is played during festivals, religious events, weddings and other special events. In Bakhshi singing, historical folk stories are sung and performed by Bakhshis. This art form is transmitted through oral tradition over generations. It takes tremendous practise and skill to become a Bakhshi as it is a difficult type of singing. The bakhshi usually plays an instrument while singing. The instrument used differs from region to region. It could be a dombra, a type of long-necked lute, or dutar, a two-string instrument, or some other string instrument.

Dance

Another cultural practice is dancing and traditional Uzbek dance forms truly capture the beauty of the culture. Uzbek dance forms generally tend to be highly expressive and extensively use hand movements. There are three main schools of dance in Uzbekistan – Fergana, Bukhara and Khorezm.

female dancers dancing the lyazgi
Lyazgi. Image Credit: Uzbekistan Travel

Starting with the most popular is the Lyazgi dance of Khorezm. This dance form is a unique way of expressing one’s feelings, emotions and perspectives. Here, the dancers half bend their legs, lightly shake their shoulders and arms, move their hands in a fluttering motion and move their heads from right to left and vice versa. All while using facial expressions extensively. The dance is meant to convey the love of life, sincerity to work and the beauty of nature. This is a characteristic of the Khorezm school of dance.

There is a local story that explains how the dance was created. According to legend, the governor of Khorezm had gathered his wives and chose one to perform a dance for him. The one he picked was naturally charming and graceful. The other wives became jealous and did not want to be neglected by their husband. So, during her performance, one of them threw some beads and candy at her feet. Subsequently, she fell and broke her leg. Despite being in pain, she did not want to disappoint her husband, so she continued her dance but with restricted movements. This was enough to impress the governor. After all, he thought she had presented a new dance form to him. This is how the Lyazgi was born.

In 2019, the Lyazgi was enlisted in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Bukhara and Fergana Dance

Bukhara Dance is complex and emphasizes the use of the upper body, arms, shoulder, and chest. The shoulders lean back and the hand gestures used in this dance are quite sharp. During the dance, dancers tend to use instruments like the kairaki and dangers. Kairaki is a metal plate that most closely resembles castanets, while dangers and round bells are worn on the wrists and shoes.

Lastly, the Fergana Dance can be described as smooth, flowy and lyrical. The most distinctive feature of Fergana Dance is that the palms must face up. This isn’t the case in other dance schools. Fergana dance usually explores the lyrics of the song and shows human relations. This dance is usually performed in large groups at festivals, holidays and weddings.

Festivals

Festivals and holidays allow people to gather and celebrate their history and cultural heritage. Below are some of the many holidays observed in Uzbekistan.

Navruz

Navruz, meaning new day, is the Zoroastrian or Persian New Year. This holiday dates back to the time of the rule of the Achaemenid Empire back in the 6th century BC. Navruz is, therefore, the oldest national holiday in Uzbekistan. For a long time, the holiday was no longer observed, but it was revived after independence. It falls on the day of the Vernal or Spring Equinox when the length of day and night are equal. On this day, Uzbek households prepare traditional dishes like Halim, Samsa, Plov, etc. and share a meal together.

Day of Memory and Honour

May 9th is the Day of Memory and Honour. On this day in 1999, the Square of Memory was opened in the capital, Tashkent, to honour those who fought and worked to protect the country’s sovereignty and freedom. Many of the country’s national heroes are honoured that day.

The Boysun Bahori Festival

Boysun Bahori Festival celebrations
Boysun Bahori Festival at Surkhandarya. Image Credit: Uz Daily

This is a one of a kind festival that only exists in Uzbekistan. It is a festival held in spring where people gather to collect, preserve and display the heritage of the past. It originated in the Boysun region in southern Uzbekistan and is said to date back to the time before the Islamic era. Celebrations include wearing costumes, music and dance performances, storytelling and practising customs that have managed to survive throughout history. This festival is so unique and such an integral part of Uzbek culture that in 2001 UNESCO named the culture of Boysun a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Independence Day

This is an important day for the people of Uzbekistan. Held every 1st of September, it is the biggest national holiday in the country. It remembers the day Uzbekistan declared independence from the USSR in 1991. On this day, the president of Uzbekistan addresses the nation at the Alisher Navoiy National Park in Tashkent. Then, the country’s top singers and actors perform for the public and, finally, there is a huge fireworks display. Also on this day, many cities and towns hold their own celebrations. They organize shows and feasts for the residents.

Cuisine

Uzbek cuisine is similar to the cuisines of other Central Asian countries. It is a rich cuisine as it makes use of a lot of meat, particularly mutton. Grains are also used to make bread and noodles. Some of the more widely used vegetables in this cuisine are carrots, pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants. Uzbek cuisine is also defined by the large use of seasonings and herbs such as coriander, mint, basil, dill and red pepper. To digest this heavy food, it is customary to drink hot green tea with lemon after meals. Below we discuss some of the most popular dishes found in Uzbek cuisine.

Palov

Uzbek Palov a meat and rice dish
Uzbek Palov. Image Credit: Arbuz

Palov is the national dish of Uzbekistan. It is a rice dish with meat, vegetables and spices slowly cooked in animal fat. The end result is a rich, heavy, hearty and aromatic dish that entices all the senses. Palov can be prepared as an everyday dish, as a special dish made as a gesture of hospitality, or for weddings, holidays, the birth of a child, funerals, festivals, and even for those returning from their Hajj pilgrimage. In Uzbek culture, guests cannot leave their host’s house unless they are offered palov. It is a symbol of hospitality, strengthened relationships, good health and immunity. The culture around palov is so strong that in 2016, this culture was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

There are more than 200 varieties of Palov, with each region having its own variety of the dish. Typically, it is made in a massive cauldron using onions, carrots, meat and rice. But in Bukhara, for instance, mung beans are added to the dish. In other areas, they may even add sausages and eggs. Another variety is the Palov Osh, which is a seven ingredient palov. There is even a story related to the Palov Osh.

The Story of Palov Osh

One day, the son of Bukhara’s ruler met a beautiful young girl, but she was from a poor family. Due to their differences, they are unable to get married. This made him so upset that he lost all interest in food and life and eventually became weak and depressed. Seeing this, his father summons Abu Ali ibn Sin, the famous healer, and asks him to find out what was wrong with his son. The healer soon discovers that his heart aches from being unhappy in love.

He then suggests two ways to restore the prince’s health. The first is to get him married and the second is to feed him with a special high caloric dish. The dish, which acted like medicine, was called Palov Osh and was made with seven ingredients. In fact, the word Palov Osh is an acronym for the seven ingredients used to make the dish. P for piyoz or onion, a for ayoz or carrot, L for lakhm or meat, O meaning olio or fat, V for vet or salt, O for ob or water and Sh for shali or rice. The dish was prepared for him and as soon as he consumed it, he healed and gained strength. Since then, palov osh and palov, in general, became popular among the masses and was viewed as a medicinal dish. One that would bring health and boost immunity.

Samsa

pastry filled with meat and vegetables
Samsa. Image Credit: Wallpaper Flare

Samsa is a food item typical of Central Asian cuisine. This is essentially a type of pastry filled with meat, vegetables or both. They are very similar to the Indian samosa. But instead of being deep-fried, they are baked in a tandoor, a type of traditional clay oven. Samsas are enjoyed as a snack and can therefore be found everywhere. The variety of samsas available in the market is endless, as they vary in shape, size and type of filling. What makes samsas more exciting is that each region in Uzbekistan bakes its own type of samsa.

Lepeshka

Traditional uzbek bread lepeshka
Lepeshka. Image Credit: Uz Daily

No meal is complete without the traditional Uzbek bread called lepeshka. It is alternatively also known as non. This is a type of thick, soft and crispy circular bread typical to Uzbekistan. It is made with flour, water, salt, yeast, sugar and butter. Then it is baked in the tandoor until it is golden brown and crispy on the outside. Before the dough is placed in the oven, however, it is stamped at the centre with a beautiful pattern.

Lepeshkas accompany any meal but they are a particularly popular breakfast food. Best enjoyed with fresh cream or butter and tea.

According to local custom, the bread is always broken by hand, it is never sliced with a knife. Before beginning the meal, one person at the table, usually an elderly person, breaks the bread and places it near everyone’s plate. Also, according to custom, it is offensive and disrespectful to place the bread upside down, meaning when it’s facing flat side up. For the same reason, it should also never be placed on the floor or ground, even if it is wrapped in plastic.

Shashlik

Uzbek Shashlik a type of kebab
Uzbek Shashlik. Image Credit: ABC Tourism Uzbekistan

Shashlik or kebabs is another popular dish in Central Asia. They are made of lamb, beef and sometimes chicken. These kebabs are marinated with spices, then placed on a skewer and roasted in the tandoor. They are enjoyed with pickled or raw onions on the side.

Lagman

Shivit osh from Khorezm
Shivit osh from Khorezm. Image Credit: Wandering Wheatleys

Lagman is another very popular item on the menu in Uzbekistan. It basically refers to a dish made of hand-pulled noodles in a meat or vegetable sauce. It is believed that noodles were introduced to this region by the ancient Chinese through trade on the Silk Road. The style of preparing the noodles was, however, a result of different cultural influences in the region throughout history.

In Uzbekistan, there are several types of Lagman, each highlighting its own qualities. The best known Lagman comes from Khorezm, called Shivit osh or Khorezm Lagman. It is essentially a type of bright green noodle served with white sour-milk sauce, a vegetable sauce called Vaju and meat. The noodles get their colour from dill. This is a special form of Lagman usually only prepared in summer.

Customs and Traditions

Hospitality is a big deal in Uzbekistan and hosting guests is taken very seriously. It is of the utmost importance in the local culture to make guests feel welcomed, and be warm and friendly towards them. Having guests at someone’s house is considered an honour. They make sure to have food prepared for visitors. Speaking of hospitality and visiting, it is common for people to visit friends, family or neighbours without any special reason.

When a guest visits someone’s house, they are given a special seat at the table. This is usually at the head of the table and facing away from the door. When there is no guest in the house, this seat is usually occupied by the eldest person in the house. Meanwhile, the hosts or in the case where there are no guests, the youngest members of the household sit by the door. They act as waiters as they bring food to the table, serve, clear dishes, pour tea, etc. Traditionally, only the right hand is used to serve food.

Other common customs in Uzbekistan involve dressing. With around 90% of the population being Muslim, the people of Uzbekistan maintain a certain level of modesty while dressing. Women, in particular, are advised to wear clothes that aren’t revealing in any way in public places. In Uzbekistan, it is frowned upon to display one’s wealth, so wearing heavy jewellery is generally not advised.

A Major Tourism Destination in the Future

City of Samarkhand, Uzbekistan
Image Credit: The Times

A country with such a rich past and cultural heritage has a lot to offer to its visitors. From its spectacular architecture to its delicious cuisine, arts and its unmatched hospitality. The potential of Uzbekistan as a prime tourist destination hasn’t been tapped yet, which is why it may not be at the top of the average tourist’s list. But, this is good news for travellers who are venturing out to seek the most authentic experiences. Now is the perfect time to visit the Central Asian gem, before it becomes another destination where the masses flock to.

 

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