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’.

Uzbeks after the Timurids

After the Timurids (the Samarkand-based dynasty founded by Tamerlane) declined, the Uzbeks rose up in their place under the leadership of Shibaqan (Shayban), a Mongol khan from southern Siberia and a grandson of Genghis Khan. One group of Uzbeks with links to the Mongols, converted to Islam under the leader Ozbeg, or Öz Beg or Uzbek (ruled 1313 to 1340), the source of the Uzbek name.

Under the leader Abylqayyr (Abu al-Khayr) Khan the Uzbeks gathered strength and began moving into Timurid territory. As Abylqayyr was preparing to cross the Syr-Darya he was murdered by a member of his own family, who later went on to found a proto-Kazakh dynasty. Abylqayyr's grandson Mohammed Sharybani revived the Uzbeks and conquered the land between the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya, which more or less corresponds with modern Uzbekistan. Uzbek links to the Mongols appear in the names of their clans: Kipchak, Mangit and Karluk.

Some Uzbeks live in China. According to the Chinese government: “The ancestors of the Uzbeks moved to Xinjiang from Central Asia in ancient times. In the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Uzbek merchants often traveled along "the Silk Road" through Xinjiang to do business in inland areas. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Uzbek trading caravans from Bukhara and Samarkand used Yarkand in Xinjiang as an entrepot for business deals in silk, tea, chinaware, fur, rhubarb and other such products. Some Uzbek merchants moved goods to inland areas via Aksu, Turfan and Suzhou (present-day Jiuquan of Ganzu Province). During this period, Uzbeks from Central Asia began to settle in certain cities in Xinjiang, and the number grew with each passing year. Later on Uzbeks also settled in Kashi, Aksu, Yarkand and other cities in southern Xinjiang and a number of places in northern Xinjiang.” In reality most Uzbeks in China are thought to be descendants of merchants and settlers who arrived in western China in 1850s when Qing Dynasty unified Xinjiang. [Source: |]

Uzbeks Settle in Uzbekistan

The Uzbeks occupied the Timurid cities and settled in agricultural area in the Fergana Valley and along the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya Rivers. The 16th-century Uzbek Shaybanid is credited with settling the nomadic Uzbeks. His dynasty patronized the arts and were devout Muslims.

The Uzbeks had fewer sources of income than their predecessors. The Silk Road had closed down by the time arrived on the scene and they did not conquer and plunder other places like the Mongols. Central Asia became a bit of backwater and the Shaybanids became vassal states of the Astrakhanid khans and the Iranian Safavids. At its height the Safavid empire (1502-1736) embraced the modern states of Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Afghanistan and parts of Syria, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. See Central Asia.

By 1510 the Uzbeks had completed their conquest of Central Asia, including the territory of the present-day Uzbekistan. In the sixteenth century, the Uzbeks established two strong rival khanates, Bukhara and Khorazm. In this period, the Silk Road cities began to decline as ocean trade flourished. The khanates were isolated by wars with Iran and weakened by attacks from northern nomads. [Source: Library of Congress February 2007 **]

Of the states they established, the most powerful, the Khanate of Bukhara, centered on the city of Bukhara. The khanate controlled Mawarannahr, especially the region of Tashkent, the Fergana Valley in the east, and northern Afghanistan. Khorazm was established in the oasis of at the mouth of the Amu Darya. The Khanate of Bukhara was initially led by the energetic Shaybanid Dynasty. The Shaybanids competed against Iran, which was led by the Safavid Dynasty, for the rich far-eastern territory of present-day Iran. The struggle with Iran also had a religious aspect because the Uzbeks were Sunni Muslims, and Iran was Shia . [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]


Although Bukhara is near Samarkand it's history is different. It was governed by a different set of rulers, the Samanids, who were at the peak of the power in the 10th century and was revived by the Uzbek Saybanids and emirs of Bukhara from the 16th to 19th centuries. Some 80 nationalities have made their homes in Bukhara. There have traditionally been more Tajiks than Uzbeks. Both Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are close to Bukhara. The famous Bukhara Jews arrived from Persia in the 12th or 13th century. They didn’t speak Hebrew and prospered despite discrimination against them.

Until a hundred years ago the city was laced with canals and more than 200 stone pools, known as “hauz, “that brought in water for drinking, bathing and washing as well as host diseases—such as the Bukhara boil, which has been compared guinea worm disease—that lowered the average lifespan of the city to 32. The frogs, insects and other critters that lived in the waterways provided food for storks, regarded as auspicious symbols, that nested on roofs of the city. The emirs that ruled Bukhara were notorious for their cruelty and Bukhara was regarded as a dangerous place. One British traveler wrote: “When the day is closed and the drum is beaten, none dare venture to walk in the streets of Bukhara the Holy.” Infidels were not allowed to ride horses and Jews were discriminated against.

The Historic Centre of Bukhara, situated on the Silk Roads, is more than two thousand years old. It is one of the best examples of well preserved Islamic cities of Central Asia of the 10th to 17th centuries, with an urban fabric that has remained largely intact. Bukhara was long an important economic and cultural center in Central Asia. The ancient Persian city served as a major center of Islamic culture for many centuries and became a major cultural center of the Caliphate in the 8th century. [Source: UNESCO -]

With the exception of a few important vestiges from before the Mongol invasions of Genghis Khan in 1220 and Temur in 1370, the old town bears witness to the urbanism and architecture of the Sheibani period of Uzbek rule, from the early 16th century onwards. The citadel, rebuilt in the 16th century, has marked the civic center of the town since its earliest days to the present.

Important monuments that survive from early times include the famous Ismail Samanai tomb, impressive in its sober elegance and the best surviving example of 10th century architecture in the whole Muslim world. From the 11th century Karakhanid period comes the outstanding Poi-Kalyan minaret, a masterpiece of decoration in brick, along with most of the Magoki Attori mosque and the Chashma Ayub shrine. The Ulugbek medresseh is a surviving contribution from Temurid. With the advent of the Sheibanids came some of the most celebrated buildings of Bukhara: the Poi-Kalyan group, the Lyabi-Khauz ensemble, the Kosh Medresseh and the Gaukushon medresseh in the Hodja-Kalon ensemble. Later buildings from this phase of Bukharás history include monumental medressehs at important crossroads: Taki Sarafon (Dome of the Moneychangers), Taki-Tilpak-Furushan (Dome of the Headguard Sellers), Tim-Bazzazan, and Tiro-Abdullah-Khan. In the early 17th century fine buildings were added, including a new great mosque, Magoki Kurns (1637), and the imposing Abdullaziz-Khan medresseh (1652). -

History of Bukhara

When the Arabs arrived in A.D. 709, Bukhara was already a bustling Silk Road trading center. They managed to convert most of the local population to Islam but were replaced after a few decades by the Samanids, Sunni Muslims loyal the caliph in Baghdad and admirers of Persian Shiite culture. Under the Samanids Bukhara became a great city of trade and leaning in the 9th and 10th centuries. Described as a "Pillar of Islam” and a place where light “radiates upward to illuminate heaven," it was home to 240 mosques and 113 madrasahs (Islamic schools) and produced great scholars and intellectuals such as the mathematician Beruni, the poets Firdausi and Rudaki, and the physician Abu Ali ibn-Sina (Avicenna).

After two centuries under the Karakhan and Karakitay dynasties, Bukhara was attacked by the Mongols. When Genghis Khan arrived in Bukhara he reportedly entered mosque and emptied cases that contained the Koran, the Muslim's holiest book, and had them filled with grain for his horses. Upon leaving the mosque he declared, "I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me on you." Genghis Khan then ordered the rulers of the city to bring musicians, wine and fermented mare's milk and told the nobility to bring their riches. After gold and precious stones were laid at his feet, he set his troops loose. They took everything they could carry and burned what they couldn't. One witness who escaped wrote, "They came, they raped, they burnt, the slew, they plundered and they departed."

Bukhara was a minor city under Tamerlane. It was reborn under the Uzbek Saybanids and the cruel emirs of Bukhara beginning in the 16th century. During this era, Bukhara was the center of a empire that embraced much of Central Asia and was famous for its caravanserais, bazaars, Jews, carpets, fountains and 100 madrasahs (with 10,000 students). Many of the building you see today in the Old Town of Bukhara are places where the emirs and nobles from this period lived, worshiped and were buried.

Decline of the Uzbek States in the 16th and 17th Centuries

Near the end of the sixteenth century, the Uzbek states of Bukhara and Khorazm began to weaken because of their endless wars against each other and the Persians and because of strong competition for the throne among the khans in power and their heirs. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Shaybanid Dynasty was replaced by the Janid Dynasty. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Another factor contributing to the weakness of the Uzbek khanates in this period was the general decline of trade moving through the region. This change had begun in the previous century when ocean trade routes were established from Europe to India and China, circumventing the Silk Route. As European-dominated ocean transport expanded and some trading centers were destroyed, cities such as Bukhara, Merv, and Samarkand in the Khanate of Bukhara and Khiva and Urganch (Urgench) in Khorazm began to steadily decline. *

The Uzbeks' struggle with Iran also led to the cultural isolation of Central Asia from the rest of the Islamic world. In addition to these problems, the struggle with the nomads from the northern steppe continued. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Kazakh nomads and Mongols continually raided the Uzbek khanates, causing widespread damage and disruption. In the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Khanate of Bukhara lost the fertile Fergana region, and a new Uzbek khanate was formed in Quqon. *

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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