The most important single cultural commonality among the republics is the practice of Sunni Islam, which is the professed religion of a very large majority of the peoples of the five republics and which has experienced a significant revival throughout the region in the 1990s. Propaganda from Russia and from the ruling regimes in the republics identifies Islamic political activity as a vague, monolithic threat to political stability everywhere in the region. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

However, the role of Islam in the five cultures is far from uniform, and its role in politics has been minimal everywhere except in Tajikistan. For Kazaks, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen, whose society was based on a nomadic lifestyle that carried on many traditional tribal beliefs after their nominal conversion, Islam has had a less profound influence on culture than for the sedentary Tajik and Uzbek Muslims, who have a conventional religious hierarchy.

Since break up of the Soviet Union, their has been a reawakening of ethnic pride and revival of traditional beliefs and customs. But the going has been tough because overcoming the Soviet mind set and bring backing forgotten customs has been hard.

Culture in Central Asia in the Soviet Era

The Soviets encouraged the arts on their terms. Artists and craftsmen were pampered by the state. Some expression of ethnicity was allowed within certain limits. To some degree people were taught that ethnic pride was a bad thing and told that their traditional beliefs and customs were backward.

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “A combination of factors, such as the autonomy of the nativised bureaucracy, the existence of a stratum of indigenous intellectuals, and a growing ability to express national identity through artistic means, had contributed to the phenomenon of ‘Soviet-encouraged cultural nationalism’ in Central Asia. It remained confined, however, by and large, to specialised and governing elites in Tajikistan. In Donald Carlisle’s words, ‘the intelligentsia and middle class, and urban settings as opposed to rural locales, are the initial incubators for nationalism. But unless such restive elites have mass backing and their urban base expands into rural support, no powerful national amalgam emerges and no successful national movement can be born’. Modernist city-based intellectuals were as alien to their traditionalist compatriots in the countryside as hi-tech factories were to the agricultural economy of Tajikistan. Moreover, the competence and breadth of outlook of writers, artists, scholars and other professionals who were trained inside and outside the republic in quite sufficient numbers were often inadequate. In the 1980s, only one-quarter of all research projects pursued under the aegis of the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan corresponded to the All-Union level. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“In the national republics ‘the reproduction of intellectual and governing elites had acquired unprecedented proportions … For the sake of maintaining the symbols of national statehood enormous resources were pumped into the structures of local academies of science, professional creative unions, cinematography, theatre, elite sports, etc.’ The new indigenous middle class in Tajikistan was reared for one purpose only: to serve USSR, Inc.; it was part of the nomenklatura. There was little danger that ‘Soviet cultural nationalism’ in the republic would become political nationalism. Asliddin Sohibnazarov, one of the genuine proponents of Tajik nationalism, has remarked bitterly that at the beginning of perestroika there were just ‘one–two dozen … Tajik intellectuals who had accepted progressive [that is, nationalist] ideas’.”

Art and Crafts in Central Asia

Examples of miniature painting, as beautiful as that practiced by the Persians, has been unearthed from the 6th Afrasaib Palace near Samarkand. After the arrival of Islam, most of the art that has come out of Central Asia has been Islamic art or folk art.

Islamic art forbids the depictions of human figures and animals. It features calligraphy, arabesques and floral and geometric designs repeated over and over. The best examples, are found in tiles, mosaics, cloth, carpets and metal work.

The Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva were famous for their crafts. Craftsmen produced silk embroidery, jewelry, carpets. Genghis Khan and Tamerlane famously spared the lives and gathered up the craftsmen in the cities they plundered and brought them back to their capitals, in Tamerlane's case, Samarkand.

Central Asian art and crafts features influences from Turkey, China, Iran, Afghanistan and India. Crafts for which the region is known today include ceramics, copper embossing, carpet weaving, silk crafts, embroidery, wood carvings and rug making. Coppersmiths heat, mold and hammer with precise movements.

Book: “The Arts and Crafts of Turkestan” by Jahannes Kalter. Museums: The State Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow has a fine collection of Central Asian and Caucasian applied art.

Crafts in the Soviet Era and Revival Since Then

Under Soviet rule, many of these crafts were viewed as a sign of backwardness and discouraged. Craftsmen were heavily taxed and encouraged to take up "socially useful" tasks such as picking cotton by hand. Carter Malik, author of a book on Uzbek crafts, told the New York Times "During the Soviet period, a lot of artisans were forced out of their traditional roles. Many crafts came close to disappearing, and some have been entirely lost."

Guido Goldman, a Harvard professor and collector of Uzbek art, told the New York Times, "The Russians were not interested in developing anything that could be a symbol of nationalism. They encouraged stuff that could be mass produced."

Craftsmanship has been resurrected with the break up of the Soviet Union. Craft people are busy making and markets are full of velvet robes with gold thread designs, hand-dyed and hand printed silks, hand-carved wooden cases, hand-made silver belts, hand-woven carpets, wall hangings and hand-painted miniatures.

Malik told the New York Times, "A very big and very important crafts revival is going on in this country...Now we're seeing young people seeking out the one or two old masters who may still be alive, and picking up where those masters left off."

Stephen Kinzer wrote in the New York Times, "Signs of revival are hard to miss. In courtyards in the northeast Fergana region, boys watch respectful as bearded elders show them how to mold, fire and paint ceramic pottery. In Samarkand, girls compete for space in classes where they are taught how to use natural dyes to produce the kinds of silken garments their great-grandparents once made. And in Bukhara, a host of crafts have been rescued just as they seemed to be dying out."

Nomad Folk Art

The folk art of the nomads is found mostly on everyday items that the are with them: clothes, ornate silver bridles, inlaid wooden saddles adorned with semi-precious stones, stringed musical instruments, decorated and embroidered boots, koumiss bottles, quilts, decorated daggers, carpets, carved doors on their yurts. They often features designs of animals they have encountered on the steppes and in the mountains. Women carried wealth in the from of jewelry made from silver and semiprecious stones such as lapis Lazuli and carnelian. They also kept things like woven bags and rugs.

On an exhibition of nomadic folk art at the Textile Museum in Washington D.C., “Imagine you are a Turkic woman of the Central Asian steppes, scraping together a nomadic herder's life, forever packing up, loading the camels and moving on as your livestock exhausts the local pasture. You live with a crowd of relatives in a smoke-filled, felt-covered yurt [a domed, portable tent used by nomadic peoples of central Asia] 20 feet across, as your ancestors have done for a thousand years or more. Suddenly, you realise you need another belt to tie around your home, to keep the weight of the roof from pushing out its latticework walls. [Source: Blake Gopnik, Washington Post, August 23, 2007 ^\^]

“Do you pull together whatever kinds of belty things you can make or find, then get on with churning up the latest batch of fermented camel's milk? Of course not. You take out your primitive little loom — barely a few sticks lashed together with some rope — sit down outside and, surrounded by piles of home-grown, home-dyed, home-spun wool, proceed to craft 50 feet of ferociously impressive weavings, in the certain knowledge that your belting won't be done for many months or years. ^\^

“In the 10-inch span of your tent band, you design and weave an intricate pattern, as notable for its carefully planned repetitions as for its fascinating stutters and riffs and variations on its larger themes. You craft a blank background of bright, tightly woven wool and ornament it with a maze of lines, curls and dingbats worked up in an immaculately knotted pile, in rich and silky burgundies and indigos and scarlets. (Some of your threads may, in fact, be silk, bought or bartered in a local town. You are on the Silk Road, after all, so why not take advantage?) Or maybe the band is for your daughter's wedding tent and dowry and you and she decide, improbably, to lay down a pile across its entire surface: At 275 knots per square inch, that's only 1,650,000 or so tiny bits of yarn to tie and snip around your fabric's weave. ^\^

“Now that new son-in-law owes you, big time. In his groundbreaking catalogue — the first major study of these bands — curator Richard Isaacson speaks of them as "music for the eyes", unfolding over time as well as space. An honoured wedding guest does not so much take the pattern in at once as follow each band's course around the inside of the yurt, as it runs in and out of the supporting struts. ^\^

“Isaacson describes the person who makes one of these bands as a nomadic "Bach, Mozart, Brahms ... inscribing her composition onto the 50-foot staff of her weaving". Isaacson hints at other kinds of meaning, too, beyond the abstract: pomegranates and flowering trees woven in to invoke fertility, or branching limbs to evoke the branching of the Turkic tribes. ^\^

“But maybe the central meaning of these pieces lies in the act of making them: Each one utters a denial of the hardships of nomadic life and an assertion that its maker can afford the luxury of spending time and resources on something that is nothing more than very beautiful. It is said peacocks have evolved their tails to prove to a mate that they have survived despite the waste of energy it takes to grow and carry one around — the bigger the handicap, the more impressive your ability to overcome it. Maybe complex works of art, from the Sistine Chapel ceiling to the yurt bands of the Asian nomads, are the handicaps that humans have evolved to help assert their worth.” ^\^

Music of Central Asia

Central Asia has a rich tradition of music in the form of chants, epics and poems sung by bards and as classical music enjoyed in the courts of the great Central Asia kingdoms and khanates. Music is often an element of celebrations held for important life cycle events such as births, circumcisions, marriages and funerals.

Central Asian music is somewhat similar to the music of Middle East, Turkey, Iran, India and South Asia. It falls into basic two groups: 1) the Turkic style of the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen and the Persian style of the Tajiks. Uzbeks and Tajiks share a closely related musical tradition, just the language is different. Local versions of Turkish pop music is popular. Bollywood has also made inroads into Central Asia. [Sources: Rough Guide to World Music]

The Russians and Soviets dismissed traditional forms of Central Asian music as feudal and primitives. An effort was made to push Western classical music, especially by Russian composers, on the people of Central Asia. Concert halls and opera and ballet houses were set up in most of the cities.

World Music CDs: Stern's Music in New York. Smithsonian Folkways has released a recording of music from Bukhara. Seattle-based Imagina Production releases CDs of Uzbek and Central Asian music.

Central Asian Musical Instruments

The musical instruments used in Central Asia are similar to those used in Turkic countries, South Asia and the Middle East. The most common instruments are lutes. The Uzbek dutar has a long neck, two strings and frets and is associated with classical, mystical and court music. The Kazak dombra is a shorter, two-string lute with no frets and has traditionally been used an accompanying instrument for bards. The Kyrgyz komuz is a long-necked lute with three strings and without frets also traditionally used by bards. It has a carved wood soundbox made of apricot wood.

Among the other kinds of lutes are the rubab, a long-neck lute with a skin covered sound box, played with a plectrum; the tanbur, a long-neck, three-string lute used throughout Central Asia, with a top string used to pluck out a melody and bottom strings used as drones; the sato, a bowed version of a tanbur played upright on the lap; the setar, a Persan or Tajik version of a tandur with a very long neck and movable sitar-like frets.

Other common instruments include the “doira” (tambourine/drum), “dambura” (traditional hand drum), “chang” (plucked zither), “nay” (transverse reed flute) and “surnay” (a conical oboe). The “gidjak” is a banjo-like instrument with cylindrical neck and a round, parchment-covered body. Instruments similar to the “gidjak” include the “samisen” (Japan) “kohyu” (mainland Japan), Okinawan “kohyu” (Okinawa), “erhu” (China) and “haegum” (South Korea).

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.

Last updated April 2016

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