Formal Name: Republic of Uzbekistan (O'zbekiston Respublikasi). Short Form: Uzbekistan (O'zbekiston). Former name: Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Term for Citizen(s): Uzbekistani(s). People in Uzbekistan are referred to as Uzbeks and and Uzbekistanis. Uzbek officially refers to the ethnic group but is often used to refer to Uzbekistan citizens. Uzbeks are also found in sizable numbers in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, China and Afghanistan. [Source: CIA World Factbook, Library of Congress February 2007]

Isetan is the old Persian word for "place of." Thus Uzbekistan means "place of the Uzbeks," the main ethnic group of the country. The word Uzbek may comes from two Turkic words: v., which means "Genuine" and be which means "man." Thus Uzbek means "genuine man.” According to “The Uzbek designation is thought to refer to Öz Beg (Uzbek), the Mongol khan under whom the Golden Horde attained its greatest power.”

During the Soviet era Uzbekistan was the equivalent of an American state known as the Uzbek Soviet Republic. It became Uzbekistan after independence in 1991. Although the Uzbeks and other peoples of Central Asia—Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Kazakhs—have a long history the creations of states based on these ethnic groups was a Soviet idea hatched in the 1920s.

Stan -stan suffix \stan, stan\[Per.] 1: place, place of 2: land. Adopted into several languages from Persian, the court language employed in antique kingdoms of Central Asia. Thus the place or land of the Afghans is Afghanistan, the place of the Tajiks, Tajikistan. [Source: National Geographic, February 2002]

Books: “Central Asia: 120 Years of Russian Rule,” edited by Edward Allworth, offers a comprehensive treatment of the region. A more concise summary of each country’s geopolitical position in the 1990s is found in Charles Undeland and Nicholas Platt's “The Central Asian Republics”. “Central Asia,” edited by Hafeez Malik, offers a collection of articles on the history and geopolitics of the region. For historical background on Uzbekistan, Elizabeth E. Bacon's “Central Asians under Russian Rule” and Vasilii V. Bartol'd's “Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion” provides valuable insights. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996]

James Critchlow's “Nationalism in Uzbekistan” provides useful background on the development of nationalism among the elites of Uzbekistan during the Soviet period, and William Fierman's “Soviet Central Asia: The Failed Transformation” covers social issues and the development of Islam. For information on environmental issues in Uzbekistan, Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly, Jr.'s “Ecocide in the USSR” and Philip R. Pryde's “Environmental Resources and Constraints in the Former Soviet Republics” are useful sources. Nancy Lubin's “Labour and Nationality in Soviet Central Asia” provides a detailed description of the background to the development of corruption and organized crime.

Books: “Tamerlane’s Children” by Robert Rand (Oneworld Oxford, 2006); “Uzbekistan a Short Road Traveled” by William Duncan, “Unknown Sands” by John W. Kropf; “The Devil and the Disappearing Sea” by Rob Ferguson. Ferguson’s book is a memoir of his time working in Uzbekistan. Rand lived and worked in Uzbekistan between August 2001 and November 2004 as a writer and freelance journalist. Tamerlane’s Children is divided into two sections. The first consists of seven journalistic chapters covering topics and personalities such as love in Uzbekistan, cotton, Amir Timur, and Sevara Nazarkhan. The second part tries to capture what it was like living in Uzbekistan and is compiled from Rand’s personal diary, his reporter’s notebooks, and interview transcripts. [Source: Nathan Hamm, Registan, January 5, 2007]

Uzbekistan: the Most Repressive Stan?

Uzbekistan is regarded as the most repressive of the “stans” (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, etc). Its government has been called a “Ministry of Fear”. According to National Geographic: “Following old Soviet ways, the government keeps an ironclad grip on the press and political foes.It's risky to be a pious Muslim in Uzbekistan. The security forces have cracked down so hard on suspected Muslim militants that men come under suspicion who merely grow a beard or who belong to a religious family. [Source: National Geographic, February 2002]

Mike Edwards wrote in National Geographic, “Thousands have been arrested. A U.S. State Department human rights report cites case after case of suspects who were beaten in jail, were forced to sign bogus confessions, or died in custody. The Uzbek government blames Muslim militants for a series of explosions in Tashkent, the capital, in 1999 — apparently an attempt to assassinate President Islam Karimov — and for guerrilla attacks in the Fergana Valley, the richest farming area. The largest radical group, said to have a few thousand fighters, calls itself the Islamic Party of Turkistan, using the name once applied to a broad swath of Central Asia. It has vowed to install Islamic regimes not only in secular Uzbekistan but in all the neighboring Stans as well. Raids and acts of terrorism are the reason the Uzbek government gives for its harsh treatment of men who appear to be devout Muslims. Critics say many of those arrested are innocent, merely following their faith, and that some are political opponents of President Karimov. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, February 2002 ><]

“Like their neighbors the Kazakhs, Uzbeks are a Turkic people who mixed with the conquering Mongols of Genghis Khan. They have managed to hold on to their culture better than the Kazakhs, and they're proud that in the 10th to 15th centuries the cities of Samarqand, Bukhara, and Khiva nourished poets, mathematicians, and astronomers. The savage warrior Tamerlane, born near Samarqand, is a national hero, admired as a conqueror who ruled from Persia to India. ><

“Agriculture is Uzbekistan's biggest employer, and cotton is king, as it was in Soviet days, when irrigation canals were stitched across the arid landscape and ground-water became polluted with agrochemicals. State farms, also Soviet relics, have not been abolished, and the government still tells farmers what to plant: cotton. The system enriches the state at the expense of the peasants, for the crop must be sold to the state at a fraction of its value. ><

“Nearly half of Uzbekistan's 25 million people, a population almost half that of the five former Soviet Stans, are under 18. Nearly all have a basic education (give the Soviet system credit for encouraging universal schooling). But jobs are scarce, and inevitably some of the jobless are attracted to militant Islam. As a U.S. official said: "They go off to Pakistan to study religion [where many Taliban leaders studied], and they go from learning about the Koran to learning about Kalashnikovs."” >< Brief History of Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, the most populous state in Central Asia, has a long and magnificent history. Located between two rivers--the Amu Darya to the north and the Syrdariya to the south--the region that is modern Uzbekistan has been one of the cradles of world civilization. Some of the world's oldest sedentary populations and several of its most ancient cities are located here. Beginning at the height of the Roman Empire, the region was a crossroads on the transcontinental trade routes between China and the West. Subject to constant invasion and to in-migration of nomads from the great grasslands to the north, Uzbekistan became a region of legendary conquests where various peoples with different traditions have consistently had to live together. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Uzbeks are proud of their history and their association with Tamerlane, the Silk Road, Genghis Khan and the ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Modern Uzbekistan is the remnant of a series of Islamic culture that evolved after the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan fragmented.

Russia conquered the territory of present-day Uzbekistan in the late 19th century. Stiff resistance to the Red Army after the Bolshevik Revolution was eventually suppressed and a socialist republic established in 1924. During the Soviet era, intensive production of "white gold" (cotton) and grain led to overuse of agrochemicals and the depletion of water supplies, which have left the land degraded and the Aral Sea and certain rivers half dry. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Independent since 1991, the country has lessened its dependence on the cotton monoculture by diversifying agricultural production while developing its mineral and petroleum export capacity and increasing its manufacturing base. However, long-serving septuagenarian President Islom Karimov, who rose through the ranks of the Soviet-era State Planning Committee (Gosplan), remains wedded to the concepts of a command economy, creating a challenging environment for foreign investment. Current concerns include post-Karimov succession, terrorism by Islamic militants, economic stagnation, and the curtailment of human rights and democratization. =

Ancient History of Uzbekistan

In the first millennium B.C., Iranian nomads established irrigation systems along the rivers of Central Asia and built towns at Bukhara (Bukhoro) and Samarkand (Samarqand). These places became extremely wealthy points of transit on what became known as the Silk Road between China and Europe. In the seventh century A.D., the Soghdian Iranians, who profited most visibly from this trade, saw their province of Mawarannahr overwhelmed by Arabs, who spread Islam throughout the region. Under the Arab Abbasid Caliphate, the eighth and ninth centuries were a golden age of learning and culture in Mawarannahr.[Source: Library of Congress February 2007 **]

As Turks began entering the region from the north, they established new states. After a succession of states dominated the region, in the twelfth century Mawarannahr was united in a single state with Iran and the region of Khorazm, south of the Aral Sea. In the early thirteenth century, that state then was invaded by Mongols led by Genghis Khan, under whose successors Turkish replaced Iranian as the dominant culture of the region. Under Timur (Tamerlane), the last great Mongolian nomadic leader (ruled 1370–1405), Mawarannahr began its last cultural flowering, centered in Samarkand. After Timur the state began to split, and by 1510 Uzbek tribes had conquered all of Central Asia. ***


Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “From the end of the fourteenth century, all nomadic clans of different extraction who lived on the steppes between the Ural and the Irtysh rivers were known under the collective name of the Uzbeks. In the fifteenth century they formed an autarchic community with the beginnings of state organisation, of which the Chengiz-inspired ‘decimal’ military machine was the most notable feature. Like any other nomadic polity, it was bedevilled by the absence of legitimacy and clear rules of succession, and the central political authority remained viable only as long as it could wage successful wars, which provided clan aristocracy with plunder and status. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ><]

“By 1512, the Uzbeks had gradually conquered Mavarannahr and pushed vast masses of the sedentary population out of the fertile river valleys. This was the last large-scale influx of nomads into Turkestan. Afterwards, a distinctive demographic pattern emerged in what now is Tajikistan: mountainous regions were inhabited almost exclusively by the Tajiks; the broad river valleys and steppes were dominated by the Kipchak Uzbeks; while the expansive transitional areas between the two ethnic and geographic zones were characterised by a mixture of the indigenous sedentary population (Tajik and Turkic) and semi-nomadic Uzbeks.[Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ><]

“Once the Uzbeks captured Mavarannahr, each clan was quartered around a certain city from which it collected taxes. In such circumstances the demise of the state of the nomadic Uzbeks was inevitable, but permanent warfare against the Safavids put it off until the mid 1580s. The Khans tried to find alternative means to create unity amongst the clans and sponsored Sufi orders, especially Naqshbandiya, to this end. This policy backfired, however, for the dervish brotherhoods failed to engender strong bonds in the society, and at the same time these orders became substantial economic and political forces themselves, due to lavish endowments made by the rulers. At the end of the sixteenth century, ‘the Uzbek polity demilitarised itself and became a kind of Polish commonwealth: weak king, irresponsible aristocracy and dominant clericalism. The dervish orders became the leading institution in state, society and culture.’ ><

“The period of feudal sedition that ensued had disastrous results for Turkestan, comparable with those produced by the Mongol invasion. The endless fighting amongst Uzbek clans, exacerbated by the dramatic decline of the transcontinental caravan trade in the seventeenth century, led to economic devastation, which reached its nadir in the first half of the eighteenth century, when ‘there were no citizens left in Samarkand’ and ‘Bukhara had only two inhabited mahallas’. Even the rise of relatively centralised states—the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva and later Kokand—could not reverse the trend. The history of the principality of Uroteppa is illustrative of this process. In the period 1800–66, Uroteppa (Istaravshon) suffered some 50 attacks; as a result, it lost two-thirds of its population and turned into ‘one of the most devastated areas of Central Asia’. ><

Origin of the Uzbeks

The Uzbeks are an ancient Iranian people that intermingled with nomadic Mongol and Turkic tribes that invaded Central Asia between the 11th and 15th centuries. They have traditionally been regarded as nomads who settled down while their rivals the Kazakhs were regarded as nomads who didn't settle down.

According to to “The Uzbek designation is thought to refer to Öz Beg (Uzbek), the Mongol khan under whom the Golden Horde attained its greatest power. The Uzbeks grew out of a mingling of ancient, settled Iranian populations with a variety of nomadic Mongol or Turkic tribes that invaded the region between the 11th and the 15th century. The former were ethnically similar to the Tajiks, and the latter included Kipchaks, Karluks, and Turks of Samarkand (relatively more Mongolized groups). A third element was added with the invasion of Mongol nomadic tribes under the leadership of Muhammad Shaybani Khan in the early 16th century. []

Öz Beg (Uzbek), was a local ruler in the Mongol Empire in the 14th century. Himself a Muslim, the Uzbek Khan spread Islam in his Khanate. In the 15th century, a number of Uzbeks moved to the Chuhe River valley, where they were called Kazakhs. Those who remained in the area of the Khanate continued to be known as Uzbeks, who later formed the Uzbek alliance. [Source: *|*]

Genetic Data on the Origin of the Uzbeks

Modern Uzbeks represents varying degrees of diversity derived from fact that many ethnic groups traveled through Central Asia and had varying impacts on the region. Originally populated by Iranian tribes and other Indo-European peoples, Central Asia experienced numerous invasions and intrusions emanating out of Mongolia, the Altai region and Eurasian steppe. Genetic studies show that the Uzbek population has substantial Asian and Indo-European ancestry. The Uzbeks display a somewhat closer genetic relationship with Turkic-Mongols than with Iranic populations to the south and west. [Source:]

According University of Chicago study on genetic genealogy of Central Asia ethnic groups, the Uzbeks cluster somewhere between the Mongols and the Iranian peoples: From the 3d century B.C., Central Asia experienced nomadic expansions of Altaic-speaking oriental-looking people, and their incursions continued for hundreds of years, beginning with the Hsiung-Nu (who may be ancestors of the Huns), in 300 B.C., and followed by the Turks, in the 1st millennium A.D., and the Mongol expansions of the 13th century. High levels of haplogroup 10 and its derivative, haplogroup 36, are found in most of the Altaic-speaking populations and are a good indicator of the genetic impact of these nomadic groups. [Source: A Genetic Landscape Reshaped by Recent Events: Y-Chromosomal Insights into Central Asia, Tatiana Zerjal, R. Spencer Wells, Nadira Yuldasheva, Ruslan Ruzibakiev, and Chris Tyler-Smith, American Journal of Human Genetics, September 2002 ]

“The expanding waves of Altaic-speaking nomads involved not only eastern Central Asia, where their genetic contribution is strong, as is shown in figure 7dbut also regions farther west, like Iran, Iraq, Anatolia, and the Caucasus, as well as Europe, which was reached by both the Huns and the Mongols. In these western regions, however, the genetic contribution is low or undetectable (Wells et al. 2001), even though the power of these invaders was sometimes strong enough to impose a language replacement, as in Turkey and Azerbaijan (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994). The difference could be due to the population density of the different geographical areas. Eastern regions of Central Asia must have had a low population density at the time, so an external contribution could have had a great genetic impact. In contrast, the western regions were more densely inhabited, and it is likely that the existing populations were more numerous than the conquering nomads, therefore leading to only a small genetic impact. Thus, the admixture estimate from northeast Asia is high in the east, but is barely detectable west of Uzbekistan.”

According to an Uzbekistan study despite the fact that the majority of modern Central Asians speaking Turkic languages, they derive much of their genetic heritage from the conquering Mongol warriors of Genghis Khan. “ The Turkic peoples as a whole share common languages and many common cultural traits, but do not have common origins. The Uzbeks are descended to a large degree from Turkic-Mongol invaders whose invasions span literally millenia from the first millenium CE with the early migrations of the Gokturks to later invasions by the Uzbeks themselves during the early and mid period of the 2nd millenium. These migrating Altaic peoples outnumbered the native Iranian peoples of Central Asia and appear to have assimilated the vast majority through intermarriage, while mainly the Tajiks survived albeit with some Turkic intermingling as well. Thus, in the case of Uzbekistan and most other Central Asian states, it was not a process of language replacement, such as what took place in Turkey and Azerbaijan, but rather a mass migration and population replacement that helped to shape the modern Turkic peoples of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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