The Fergana Valley is a large, curving strip of land with the Tien Shan mountains to the north and the Gasser-Allay Mountains, a branch of the Pamirs, to the south. Covering 22,000 square kilometers and drained by the upper Syr-Darya river, it is 320 kilometers long and occupies an area about three-quarters the size of Maryland and is so large that it doesn’t really seem like a valley at all. The entrance to valley is a narrow mouth.
The Fergana (also spelled Ferghana) Valley is like a vast oasis that lies at a convergent point of some of the great deserts and great mountains of Central Asia. It is unevenly divided among Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with most of it in Uzbekistan. It is the most populous area in Central Asia, with 11 million people, many of them relatively conservative Muslims. The Uzbekistan section is home to about 10 million people, a third of Uzbekistan’s population. It also contains the region’s richest agricultural land that have traditionally produced melons and vegetables.
The Fergana Valley is separated by mountains from the rest of Kyrgyzstan. The Fergana Valley is regarded as more Islamic and less Russified than northern Kyrgyzstan. Osh and Jalal-Abad are two of the largest oblasts in Kyrgyzstan. They account for less than 15 percent of the republic’s land but are home to 55 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population and much of its agriculture.
The Fergana Valley spreads across northern Tajikistan from Uzbekistan on the west to Kyrgyzstan on the east. This long valley reaches its lowest elevation of 320 meters at Khujand on the Syr-Darya. Rivers bring rich soil deposits into the Fergana Valley from the surrounding mountains, creating a series of fertile oases that have long been prized for agriculture. In the Soviet era, the Vakhsh River was dammed for irrigation and electric power, and factories were built along its banks. Hot summers and frigid winters characterize the climate. The high mountain ridges protect the Fergana Valley and other lowlands from Arctic air masses, but temperatures drop below freezing more than one-hundred days a year.
The Fergana Valley has been divided in unusual ways between Uzbekistan Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In some cases enclaves of one country are completely surrounded by another country. In general, Uzbekistan holds the valley floor; Tajikistan occupies in narrow mouth; and Kyrgyzstan possesses the highlands around the valley.
The Fergana Valley, for the most part, is a beautiful and charming place filled with melon fields, agricultural villages, apricot orchards, cotton irrigation canals and markets where you can buy Afghanistan opium and traditional crafts. It is also a center of cotton and silk worm production and has its share of Soviet-era polluting industries. There is some oil and gas in the valley. Walnuts are harvested in the hills.
History of the Fergana Valley
The Fergana Valley has been occupied by wealthy kingdoms and was the source of legends of lightning fast “dragon-horses” that sweated blood during the time of Alexander the Great. Ancient Chinese sources described the culture and life of Ferghana’s local population in the 2nd century B.C. . During the Silk Road era, it was regarded as a kind of resort, where caravans stopped for long periods of time for rest and relaxation, Babur, the founder of the Moghul empire in India, was born in the valley.
The Soviets utilized the Fergana Valley in its cotton production scheme and divided it among Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with a crazy quilt of arbitrary and illogical borders, including small islands of one country within another country. The borders were created under Stalin in the 1920s, before he was leader of the USSR, when he was the People’s Commissar of Nationalities. His objective was to divide the local population, to reduce their threat to the state, not unify it. The largest chunk of the Fergana Valley is in Uzbekistan and most of the inhabitants of the entire valley are Uzbeks. There are large numbers of Tajiks in Tajikistan and Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan and lots of Uzbeks in both countries. The numbers of Kyrgyz in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as are relatively small. The same is true with Tajiks in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. These groups have mostly live in harmony but sometimes ethnic tensions have flared (See Andijan massacre for a description of an event that left at least 300 dead, factsanddetails.com ).
During the Soviet era, people moved freely between the Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik republics but since the Central Asian nations became independent movement across the borders has become tightly controlled. Border posts with X-ray machines, interrogation rooms and bomb-sniffing dogs have been set up. In some paces mines have been sewn along the frontiers. The restrictions have negatively impacted economic life, isolated communities and exacerbated ethnic tensions.
The Fergana Valley is perceived as a stronghold of Islamic extremism. You see more veiled women and bearded men with skullcaps here than in other parts of Central Asia but many people believe that valley's reputation as a center of Muslim extremism is exaggerated. Clubs play Western music, People drink openly. Only a few old men have beards. Even so many of the Islamic movement in Central Asia have their roots and most enthusiastic followers in the valley. The unemployment rate is high. There are a lot of idle young men around. Since the 1991 break up of the Soviet Union it has been the site of tensions and conflict.
In A.D. 629, early in the Tang Dynasty period, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) left the Chinese dynasty capital for India to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He traveled west — on foot, on horseback and by camel and elephant — to Central Asia and then south and east to India and returned in A.D. 645 with 700 Buddhist texts from which Chinese deepened their understanding of Buddhism. Xuanzang is remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited — the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. His trip inspired the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West” by Wu Ch'eng-en, a 16th century story about a wandering Buddhist monk accompanied by a pig, an immortal that poses as a monkey and a feminine spirit. It is widely regarded as one of the great novels of Chinese literature. [Book: "Ultimate Journey, Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf); See Separate Article on Xuanzang]
Xuanzang was as philosopher, educator and translator as well as being a monk and traveler. Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “ Xuanzang was a leading Indophile of ancient China. The Chinese monk not only promoted Buddhist doctrines and the perception of India as a holy land through his writings, he also tried to foster diplomatic exchanges between India and China by lobbying his leading patrons, the Tang rulers Taizong (reigned 626–49) and Gaozong (reigned 649–683). In fact, the narrative of his pilgrimage to India, The Records of the Western Regions Visited During the Great Tang Dynasty, was meant for his royal patrons as much as it addressed the contemporary Chinese clergy. Thus, Xuanzang's work is significant both as an account of religious pilgrimage and as a historical record of foreign states and societies neighboring Tang China. In fact, in the work Xuanzang comes across both as a pious pilgrim and as a diplomat for Tang China." [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006]
According to Silk Road Seattle: Xuanzang was a Chinese Buddhist monk and translator who traveled across the Tarim basin via the northern route, Turfan, Kucha, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bactria, then over the Hindu Kush to India. He departed the Tang capitol (Chang'an) in 629 and returned via the southern route in 645. The remainder of his life was spent translating into Chinese the sutras which he had collected in India. At the request of the Tang Emperor Taizong (r.626-649) he composed a description of the lands through which he traveled. After his death, his travels and story became fantastic legends which were used in plays and novels."Source: Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad ]
Xuanzang in the Fergana Valley
Xuanzang reported: ““Fei-han [Ferghânah, the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan]: This kingdom is about 4000 li in circuit. It is enclosed by mountains on every side. The soil is rich and fertile, it produces many harvests, and abundance of flowers and fruits. It is favourable for breeding sheep and horses. The climate is windy and cold. The character of the people is one of firmness and courage. Their language differs from that of the neighbouring countries. Their form is rather poor and mean. For ten years or so the country has had no supreme ruler. The strongest rule by force, and are independent one of another. They divide their separate possessions according to the run of the valleys and mountain barriers. Going from this country westward for 1000 li or so, we come to the kingdom of Su-tu-li-sse-na. |[Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|]
“Su-tu-li-sse-na [Sutrishna]: The country of Su-tu-li-sse-na " is some 1400 or 1500 li in circuit. - On the east it borders on the Y e h river (Jaxartes). This river has its source in the northern plateau of the Tsung-ling range, and flows 'to the northwest ; sometimes it rolls its muddy waters along in quiet, at other times with turbulence. The products and customs [p.32] of the people are like those of Che-shi. Since it has had a king, it has been under the rule of the Turks. |:|
“North-west 100 from this we enter on a great sandy desert, where there is neither water nor grass. The road is lost in the waste, which appears boundless, and only by looking in the direction of some great mountain, and following the guidance of the bones which lie scattered about, can we know the way in which we ought to go." |:|
Tourism in the Fergana Valley
The Fergana Valley was once a good jumping off point for hikes in the surrounding mountains but insurgent activities, the presence of drug smugglers and the kidnaping of foreigners in the same mountains have brought the taking industry to a halt. There isn’t that much to see in the villages and towns in terms of old buildings and museums. .
The main attractions are it pleasant climate, pretty countryside and traditional atmosphere, which unfortunately has been compromised by years of Soviet rule. Few foreigners visit the Fergana valley. Some of those that have complained, not about Muslim extremists, but about empty hotels that refused to take people unless they prior arrangements and the proper paperwork. Uzbekturizm retains a control of the tourism industry in the area. Accommodation is mostly on the form of Soviet-era hotels and home stays. The restaurants are mostly awful.
Visitors are advised to dress modestly so as not invite trouble. Periodically the government clamps down on perceived Muslim extremist activity in the area. This means there are roadblocks set up and people are asked to show their papers.
Getting to the Fergana Valley
Many people enter or leave the Fergana Valley from Osh, a fairly large city in Kyrgyzstan. The journey between Osh and Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is done in a shared taxi and takes about 24 hours. Some travelers have had visas trouble on this route due to the fact that the route passes in and out of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The route is also popular with drug smugglers with Afghanistan opium and heroin and road blocks are sometimes set up.
The Fergana Valley can be reached by flights to Osh from Bishkek and Tashkent and other cities in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In Uzbekistan, the Fergana Valley can be reached by flights to the cities of Kokand and Fergana in the valley. The main overland route is from Tashkent. It crosses 2267-meter-high Kamachik Pass on winding road that is best traversed in a shared taxi rather than a bus. A new more bus friendly road opened in the early 2000s.
Khujand is the main city in the Tajikistan part of the Fergan Valley. Shared taxis and marshrutkas run to Khujand from Dushanbe, Penjikent, Istaravshan and other southern Tajikistan destinations. In Khujand, shared taxis and marshrutkas going the other direction depart from the central bus station (avtovokzal). The ride to Dushanbe costs around US$15. Marshrutkas and taxis to the Uzbekistan border depart from the northern bus station.
From Osh ro Khujand: According to Wikivoyage: “it's a bit of a trek but not too difficult. Go to the new bus station (not the Stariy Avtovokzal by the bazaar), officially Oshskiy Avtovokzal. About 45 minutes walk from the bazaar, north. Take a marshrutka for 307 som (yes, 307 exactly) to Batken (the drive is stunning, get a window seat if you can). From there get a shared taxi to the border (50 som, haggle) and then another to Isfara (5 somoni), and then another to Khujand (20-25 somoni, haggle hard. Some of them will try to fleece you for 20 USD).”
Osh (50 kilometers northwest of Andijan in Uzbekistan) is Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city and is the largest city in the Fergana Valley. Home to 350,000 people, it lies in the middle of the most densely populated area of the Fergana Valley and near the Uzbekistan border. Agriculture and mining are the most important enterprises. Silk, cotton textiles, and food processing are the main industries.
Osh in ancient city. Solomon is said to be buried here and Alexander the Great made a visit. It was the most important Silk Road trading center in the Fergana Valley — and the Fergana Valley was an important Silk Road stop because of its plentiful water supplies and food in an area of deserts and dry mountains — and was the kind of place where the caravans stopped for some rest and relaxation. It was attacked by the Mongols and claimed the Russians in 1876.
Osh is strange place. It is a Soviet city in Kyrgyzstan with a majority Uzbek population. Traditionally, Uzbeks controlled the businesses and Kyrgyz controlled the local government. In recent years a large number of Kyrgyz migrants have moved in and Uzbeks have been reduced to second class citizens, which it can be assumed they resent. Kyrgyz merchants have been given the choice location in the main bazaar and Uzbeks don’t get much help when they complain to the all-Kyrgyz police force. It also regarded as Kyrgyzstan’s most Islamic area.
Osh lies near a major oil production area. It is a major distribution center along the Afghanistan-to-Europe opium and heroin route. The main draw is the main bazaar, which colorful and is busiest on Sunday and Thursday mornings. There are few reminders of its long history and not many tourist sights. Many Muslims make a pilgrimage to Osh to visit Takht-i-Sulaiman, a hill mentioned in Islamic lore.
Sights in and Around Osh
Tourist Sights in Osh include Babur’s House, a huge Muslim cemetery, the Historical-Cultural Museum, blasted into the side of a sacred mountain; the Rabat Abdulah Khan Mosque, and the Mausoleum of Asaf ibn Burchiya, and a riverside park.
Osh Bazaar is regarded as one of the best markets in Central Asia. It is open every day and is especially active on Sunday mornings. Sprawling out for about a kilometer along the river, it is dominated by Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik merchants selling sheep, horses, meat, homemade cheeses, horsemeat sausages, honey, dried apricots, apples, tools, household items, clothes, carpets, local handicrafts, Kyrgyz hats, cheap Chinese goods and other stuff. The atmosphere is friendly and exotic. Old men sell traditional crafts while chatting and exchanging greetings over cups of tea and old women dressed in local silk garments dominate the fruits and vegetable area. In the latter summer and early autumn the bazaar is filled with locally-grown melons and vegetables.
Solomon's Throne is a rock formation and pilgrimage site. The Prophet Mohammed is said to have prayed here. In 1496, Babur, the founder of the Indian Moghul dynasty, built a small private mosque on the rock’s eastern promontory. It was destroyed in 1853 in an earthquake, then rebuilt and then destroyed in a mysterious explosions in the 1960s blamed on the Soviets, who wanted to deter people from visiting it.
Uzgen Minaret is located in the town of Uzgen, which was the capital of the Karakhanid Khanate in the 12th century. The minaret is part of The Uzgen Historical and Architectural Complex dating back to 11th-12th centuries. Due to strong earthquakes, the top of the minaret has been destroyed and now sits at a height of 27.5 meters, however the structure of the minaret suggests that it originally stood about 45 meters tall. The walls of the building are made of fired brick and are decorated with patterns. The purpose of the minaret was to call the people to commit the namaz (obligatory prayer of muslims) as well as serve as a watchtower.
Kyrgyz Ata National Park (40 kilometers from the city of Osh) is on the northern slope of the Alai Range. Its territory is located at medium altitudes. Juniper forests are well-preserved in the park. Covering an area of 111.72 square kilometers, it was created to preserve the flora and fauna of the Pamir-Alai mountain system. The territory of the park is suitable for outdoor activities.
Abshyr Ata Waterfall (70 kilometers from Osh) is located in the Abshyr Sai valley at an elevation of 1500-2500 meters above sea level. One has to walk about 3 kilometers along the river and through the gorge to see it. A powerful blast of water flows out of a two-meter-wide hole on 15-meter-high cliff. The low-mineralized water is believed to have healing properties.
Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain
The Sulaiman Too mountain (within Osh) is arguably the most important religious and historical site in Kyrgyzstan. A variety of Muslim sources — including historical and theological works, written sources, and ancient manuscripts — mention that 366 of the 124,000 prophets sent down by God in human history had visited this mountain. The mountain has been considered a sacred place for a long period of time as evidenced by the petroglyphs and paintings in the caves on the slopes of the mountain. Among the main building at the top and on the slopes of the mountain, from different periods of time, are the Takht-i Suleiman Mosque, Ravat Abdulla Mosque and the Asaf ibn Burhiya Mausoleum. All these places served a ritual function, object, surrounded by a veil of mystery and legend. The historical museum contains a rich collection of archaeological, ethnographic, and zoological exhibits.
The Sulaiman Too mountain According to UNESCO: “Sulaiman-Too Mountain dominates the surrounding landscape of the Fergana Valley and forms the backdrop to the city of Osh. In mediaeval times Osh was one of the largest cities of the fertile Fergana valley at the crossroads of important routes on the Central Asian Silk Roads system, and Sulaiman-Too was a beacon for travellers. For at least a millennium and a half Sulaiman-Too has been revered as a sacred mountain. Its five peaks and slopes contain a large assembly of ancient cult places and caves with petroglyphs, all interconnected with a network of ancient paths, as two largely reconstructed 16th century mosques. [Source: UNESCO, World Heritage Site, 2009]
“The mountain is an exceptional spiritual landscape reflecting both Islamic and pre-Islamic beliefs and particularly the cult of the horse. Sulaiman-Too corresponds closely to iconic images in the Universe of Avesta and Vedic traditions: a single mountain with a peak dominating four others, standing in the virtual centre of a vast river valley, and surrounded by and related to other mountains in the landscape system.
“One hundred and one sites with petroglyphs representing humans and animals as well as geometrical forms have been indexed in the property so far. The site numbers 17 places of worship, which are still in use, and many that are not. Dispersed around the mountain peaks they are connected by footpaths. The cult sites are believed to provide cures for barrenness, headaches, and back pain and give the blessing of longevity. Veneration for the mountain blends pre-Islamic and Islamic beliefs. The site is believed to represent the most complete example of a sacred mountain anywhere in Central Asia, worshipped over several millennia.
The site is important because: 1) The rich concentration of material evidence for cult practices preserved on Sulaiman-Too mountain from pre- and post-Islamic times, together with its ‘ideal’ form present the most complete picture of a sacred mountain anywhere in Central Asia. 2) Sulaiman-Too presents exceptionally vivid evidence for strong traditions of mountain worship which have spanned several millennia and been absorbed successfully by Islam. It has had a profound effect over a wide part of Central Asia.
Silk Road Uzgen and Shorobashat Sites
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Ancient settlement of Uzgen is the centre of the oasis rich of monuments of settled and nomadic people, dated in a wide chronological range. It belongs to a zone of early contacts on the Silk Road, being the most eastern city centre of Davan, as the city of Ju-chen known on Chinese sources is traditionally localised here in a context of military expeditions of 104-99 B.C.. Another hypothesis is that ancient Ju-chen is Shorobashat, the largest site in eastern Fergana located along Zhazy (Yassy) river, which has four-part structure with fortifications, covering the area of more than 70 hectares. Main period of development is 4th-1st centuries B.C., at the turn of the era nuclear part of the city migrated to the area where now ruins of Uzgen site are located. Medieval written sources say that the city of Uzgen was on the border of Muslim and nomadic (not yet adopted Islam) worlds. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
“Kosh-Bulak settlement is located on high cape of the right bank of Zhazy (Yassy) river, trapezium-shaped; the sizes 150 x 200 meters, walls are traced along the perimeter. The settlement is protected by deep ditches from the north and the east. Neighborhood has traces of habitation, too. This settlement had strategic value to control entrance and exit of Zhazy valley, approaches to Shorobashat and Uzgen, and exits from various gorges. One of the branches of Fergana line of the Silk Road went from here, upwards by the river Zhazy, through mountain passes, to the areas of Inner Tien-Shan and southern shore of Issyk-Kul, and further to China.
“During the expansion of the Karahanid state at the end of the10th century,, Uzgen became capital of the western part of the empire for a short time, and then for a long time remained as a center of Fergana. It is considered that Kara-Kidans kept their treasury here. Uzgen had endured Mongolian invasion, continued to function at the time of Timur and Timurids. Uzgen site is situated on four hills stretching along the Kara-Darya river. The third hills, having solid defensive structures, carried out citadel functions, the others were Shakhristans. Rabad was lower, occupying considerable territory between two rivers.
“Three mausoleums and minaret, known as the Uzgen architectural complex, are located in the east of the fourth Shakhristan, on a necropolis. Mausoleum complex consist of three fired-brick buildings, closely attached to each other along one line. The earliest mausoleum was built at the turn of 11th-12th centuries AD. Facades are decorated with architectural terracotta and carved plaster. Wide belts of inscriptions written in Kufi, Naskh, Suls and vegetative ornament cover them. Inscriptions testify that the representatives of Uzgen branches of Karahanid dynasty and their military leaders are buried in the Northern and Southern chambers. They lived in a period from the middle till the end of 12th centuries AD (three dates have remained - 1152, 1186, 1187). The minaret is located to the northwest from the mausoleums, is dated back to middle of 6th centuries AD, and consists of stylobate, octahedral base and the conic body with figured bricklaying. Uzgen architectural complex demonstrates development of domical and portal architecture in a time span, and its decor is considered as "encyclopedia of ornament" of Karahanid epoch.
“Excavations in 1988-1989, between minaret and tombs, revealed a monumental fired brick construction, possibly, ruins of the medrese, mentioned by Dzhamal -Karshi in the end of 8th centuries AD. In 0, 4 kilometers to the north, remains of a potter's workshop, of the end of 12th centuries AD, with four rectangular furnaces are found in the middle of modern city. Uzgen was a connecting point on the Silk Road with intensive political, economic, trading and cultural contacts from antiquity and the Middle Ages till modern age. The architectural complex is a model of evolution of architecture in premongolian period.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Kyrgyzstan Tourism website, Kyrgyzstan government websites, Wikitravel, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020