Uzbekistan has a population of about 30 million people, making it the third most populous former Soviet republic (after Russia and the Ukraine) and the most populous country in Central Asia, which has about 67 million people. Kazakhstan is six times larger than Uzbekistan area-wise but has only has about two thirds the number of people. Most of Uzbekistan’s population is concentrated around the Syr Darya, Amu Darya and Zervashan rivers, the oases of Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand and the Fergana Valley.

Adjective: Uzbekistani. Ethnic groups: Uzbek 80 percent, Russian 5.5 percent, Tajik 5 percent, Kazakh 3 percent, Karakalpak 2.5 percent, Tatar 1.5 percent, other 2.5 percent (1996 est.). Languages: Uzbek (official) 74.3 percent, Russian 14.2 percent, Tajik 4.4 percent, other 7.1 percent. Religions: Muslim 88 percent (mostly Sunni), Eastern Orthodox 9 percent, other 3 percent. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

People in Uzbekistan are refereed are to as Uzbeks and Uzbekistanis. Uzbek refers to the ethnic group. Uzbekistani refers to Uzbekistan citizens. Uzbek is sometimes used to refer to Uzbekistan citizens. The word Uzbek probably comes from two Turkic words: vz, which means "Genuine" and bek which means "man." Thus Uzbek means "genuine man."

Uzbekistan is the most ethnically diverse country in Central Asia. The population is made of Uzbeks (80 percent), Russians (6 percent), Tajiks (5 percent), Kazakhs (3 percent) Tatars (2 percent), Karakalpaks (2 percent) and other groups (2 percent), such as Kyrgyz, Koreans, Ukrainians, Germans, Jews, Armenians, Arabs and other ethnic groups from the former Soviet Union. Many of the non-Central Asian groups are the remnants of populations of entire ethnic groups that were shipped to Central Asia during World War II as suspected traitors.

The main ethnic groups of Central Asia are the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Uyghurs of western China—which all speak Turkic languages—and Tajiks, who speak a Persian language. All of these groups are Muslims and all but the Uyghurs have their own country. Many were once nomads who lived in yurts. Some still do. The Uzbeks and Tajiks have a history of being more settled people while Kyrgyz and Kazakhs were nomadic horsemen and herdsmen. Large numbers of Uzbeks and Tajiks live in Afghanistan.

There is some degree of ethnic tension between Uzbeks and the minority ethnic groups of Uzbekistan. Many ethnic Russians, who live mostly live in Tashkent and the cities, have resenting being relegated to second-class citizens since Uzbekistan achieved independence in 1991. Violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the Fergana Valley has left hundreds dead. Most of the Jews that lived in Bukhara and other places have gone.


Uzbeks are the largest Turkic group outside Turkey and were the third largest ethnic group in the Soviet Union. Uzbeks are of Mongolian, Turkish and mixed Asian origin. They are descendants of Turkic tribes of the Mongol Golden Horde who settled in Central Asia in the 15th and 16th century. In the 16th century Uzbek khans conquered much of what is now Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and southern Kazakhstan.

According to an Uzbek is “any member of a Central Asian people found chiefly in Uzbekistan, but also in other parts of Central Asia and in Afghanistan. The Uzbeks speak either of two dialects of Uzbek, a Turkic language of the Altaic family of languages. More than 16 million Uzbeks live in Uzbekistan, 2,000,000 in Afghanistan, 1,380,000 in Tajikistan, 570,000 in Kyrgyzstan, and smaller numbers in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Sinkiang in China. [ /*/]

“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./*/

“The great majority of Uzbeks are Sunnite Muslims of the Hanafi rite, a group noted for the acceptance of personal opinion (ra’y) in the absence of Muslim precedent. The Uzbeks, especially the urban Uzbeks, are considered to be the most religious Muslims of Central Asia; early marriages for young girls, bride-price, and religious marriages and burials are among the traditions still practiced. The Uzbeks are the least Russified of those Turkic peoples formerly ruled by the Soviet Union, and virtually all still claim Uzbek as their first language. /*/

Early History of the Uzbeks

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.”

Uzbek Identity

The people of Uzbekistan are struggling to find a unified identity as the people argue how each person should be identified. Many of the ethnic Uzbeks identify as "Uzbeks," which they tend to define in political, cultural, and ethnic terms. This is usually defined by being a Muslim, having a settled lifestyle, speaking Uzbek, and being an ethnic Uzbek. [Source:]

Before the Soviet era, Uzbeks identified themselves by clan and by khanate rather than by nationality, which became an ethnic identifier only in 1924 with the union of the khanates in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Despite their different languages, official differentiation of Tajiks and Uzbeks occurred only when the Republic of Tajikistan was established five years later. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Other social factors also define the identities and loyalties of individuals in Uzbekistan and influence their behavior. Often regional and clan identities play an important role that supersedes specifically ethnic identification. In the struggle for political control or access to economic resources, for example, regional alliances often prevail over ethnic identities. A United States expert has identified five regions--the Tashkent region, the Fergana Valley, Samarkand and Bukhara, the northwest territories, and the southern region--that have played the role of a power base for individuals who rose to the position of first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan. Often clan-based, these regional allegiances remain important in both the politics and the social structure of post-Soviet Uzbekistan.

Uzbek Character

Uzbeks are known for being very hospitable. Many travelers have filed reports of constantly being invited to homes, offered heaps of food and given a place to sleep. If there was wedding they were invited.

Uzbeks are known for being long-suffering and putting up with great hardships for long periods of time. Their character has also been influenced by repressive rule: first under the Soviets and then under the current Karimov regime. Photographer Carolyn Drake wrote in National Geographic: “Uzbek’s don’t speak freely, especially to outsiders, and with good reason: the current regime has a record of intimidating and torturing those who have strayed beyond its control.

Uzbek culture has been described as a mix of Iranian and Turkish culture. According to “To a degree the people also maintain the Soviet mentality as they rarely get involved in other people's personal affairs and tend to keep to themselves when in public. Due to this attitude, the people take offense at few things. Although everyone will notice odd behaviors and cultural abnormalities, rarely will anyone point out your cultural mistakes. [Source:]

Settled, Rural Uzbeks

The people of Central Asia are basically divided into two types: the traditional nomads and semi-nomads (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongols and Turkmen) and the settled people (the Uzbeks and Tajiks). According the DNA studies, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen have retained their "ethnic purity."

According to “Unlike many people in Central Asia, the Uzbeks have always been settled so their way of life and culture has always been quite different from that of their neighbors. However, the Uzbeks fell under Soviet rule when major changes were made to the way of life. Religion slowly died, regular working hours were introduced, and school became the norm for Uzbek children. [Source: <+>]

“Despite the changes, one thing that didn't change was that the Uzbeks remained very rural; today almost two thirds of the people live in rural areas. For many of these people life now and in the past is based on the land and agriculture. Farming has been the primary occupation for centuries and today a quarter of the people still work in agriculture to some degree. For these people life is based on long summer days and short winter days, making their daily lives very dependent on the weather and seasons. It also created a reliance on family, friends, and neighbors as small communities often needed each other. <+>

“The Soviets introduced a great amount of industrial jobs and also increased the number of positions in the services sectors. Today many Uzbeks still work in these fields as they have more regular working hours. The standard work day in Uzbekistan today runs from about 9:00 am to about 6:00 pm. This schedule dictates much of life in Uzbekistan today as does school, which generally runs from early September to June. For farm families this school schedule is ideal since during the summers off of school these children can help on the family farm. <+>

“Despite the changes to culture, work, and even the variety of occupations in Uzbekistan, in general the people's lives are centered on the lands and family. Free time is more common during the short winter days, but few people have the discretionary income to go out and enjoy the money they make. More commonly, life is focused in the home and free time is spent with family and friends.” <+>

Uzbeks Versus Tajiks

Modern Tajiks are very similar to modern Uzbeks. They have similar customs and lifestyles. Up until the 20th century they were regarded as essentially the same people except that Uzbeks spoke a Turkish language and the Tajiks spoke a Persian language. In some ways the Tajik ethnic group was invented by the Soviets as a way to divide the local population and make them less of a threat to the state. Two of Uzbekistan’s most famous cities, Samarkand and Bukhara, have a longer association with Persian-Tajik cultures than with Turkic-Uzbek cultures and have traditionally been home to more Tajiks than Uzbeks.

Uzbeks and Tajiks have traditionally had very similar customs and settled lifestyles except the Uzbeks spoke a Turkish language and the Tajiks spoke a Persian language. Tajiks are also distinguished from other Central Asian by their traditional Islamic-Iranian culture. The widespread use of “Tajik” as term of identification did not come into common usage until the Soviets started using it. The term “Tajik” is also used to describe the speakers of non-Persian Iranian languages in the mountain valleys in the Pamir mountain area such as Sarikolis, Wakhis and Shugnis.

There has traditionally been a lot of intermarriage between the ethnic groups of Central Asia. Uzbeks and Tajiks have traditionally been difficult to distinguish from one another. The same is true with Kyrgyz and Kazakhs. Clan and regional ties have historically been more important than ethnic identity.

Central Asia is a meeting point of Turkic, Persian and Mongol cultures. Uzbeks and Tajiks have traditionally had very similar customs and lifestyles except the Uzbeks spoke a Turkish language and the Tajiks spoke a Persian language. Most ethnic Tajiks in Uzbekistan identify as Tajiks, but citizens of Uzbekistan.

Uzbeks consider themselves the dominate people of Central Asia by virtue of their numbers and their historic links to Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. Other ethnic groups in Central Asia dispute this claim.

Into the 20th century people referred to Uzbeks and Tajiks as Turks and Persians. The Uzbek and Tajik designations only really became widespread with the arrival of the Soviets and their desire to mold ethnic identities to suit their purposes.

Ethnic Groups in Uzbekistan

Ethnic groups: Uzbek 80 percent, Russian 5.5 percent, Tajik 5 percent, Kazakh 3 percent, Karakalpak 2.5 percent, Tatar 1.5 percent, other 2.5 percent (1996 est.). According to another estimate: ethnic Groups in 1995: Uzbek 71 percent, Russian 8 percent, Tajik 5 percent, Kazakh 4 percent, Tatar 2 percent, and Karakalpak 2 percent. According to the 1998 census, 76 percent of the population was Uzbek, 6 percent Russian, 4.8 percent Tajik, 4 percent Kazakh, 1.6 percent Tatar, and 1 percent Kyrgyz. Languages: Uzbek (official) 74.3 percent, Russian 14.2 percent, Tajik 4.4 percent, other 7.1 percent. Religions: Muslim 88 percent (mostly Sunni), Eastern Orthodox 9 percent, other 3 percent. [Source: CIA World Factbook =, Library of Congress]

Despite their different languages, official differentiation of Tajiks and Uzbeks occurred only when the Republic of Tajikistan was established in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. However, a substantial portion of the officially Uzbek population, estimated as high as 40 percent, is of Tajik ancestry, and Tajiks predominate in the urban centers of Bukhara and Samarkand. Substantial numbers of Germans and Ukrainians left in a mass emigration during the 1990s. The Karakalpaks, about 475,000 of whom inhabit western Uzbekistan, are a Turkic people of unclear ethnic origin who now are included with the Uzbeks in official ethnic statistics. [Source: Library of Congress February 2007 **]

Many other minority groups refuse to be identified as Uzbek, even under political terms; this is in part because the Uzbeks have tied the culture, language, and ethnicity to the Uzbek identity, implying the identity requires more than just citizenship, hence excluding these ethnic minorities. Because of this, most ethnic minorities generally identify by their ethnicity, which tends to be tied to a distinct language and culture. [Source:]

Ethnic Relations in Uzbekistan in the Soviet Era

Before the Bolshevik Revolution, there was little sense of an Uzbek nationhood as such; instead, life was organized around the tribe or clan. Until the twentieth century, the population of what is today Uzbekistan was ruled by the various khans who had conquered the region in the sixteenth century.

But Soviet rule, and the creation of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in October 1924, ultimately created and solidified a new kind of Uzbek identity. At the same time, the Soviet policy of cutting across existing ethnic and linguistic lines in the region to create Uzbekistan and the other new republics also sowed tension and strife among the Central Asian groups that inhabited the region. In particular, the territory of Uzbekistan was drawn to include the two main Tajik cultural centers, Bukhara and Samarkand, as well as parts of the Fergana Valley to which other ethnic groups could lay claim. This readjustment of ethnic politics caused animosity and territorial claims among Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and others through much of the Soviet era, but conflicts grew especially sharp after the collapse of central Soviet rule.

The stresses of the Soviet period were present among Uzbekistan's ethnic groups in economic, political, and social spheres. An outbreak of violence in the Fergana Valley between Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks in June 1989 claimed about 100 lives. That conflict was followed by similar outbreaks of violence in other parts of the Fergana Valley and elsewhere. The civil conflict in neighboring Tajikistan, which also involves ethnic hostilities, has been perceived in Uzbekistan (and presented by the Uzbekistani government) as an external threat that could provoke further ethnic conflict within Uzbekistan. Thousands of Uzbeks living in Tajikistan have fled the civil war there and migrated back to Uzbekistan, for example, just as tens of thousands of Russians and other Slavs have left Uzbekistan for northern Kazakhstan or Russia. Crimean Tatars, deported to Uzbekistan at the end of World War II, are migrating out of Uzbekistan to return to the Crimea.

Uzbek Numbers Increase and Russian and Minority Numbers Decrease In Post-Soviet Era

Population pressures have exacerbated ethnic tensions. In 1995, the chief minority groups were Russians (slightly more than 8 percent), Tajiks (officially almost 5 percent, but believed to be much higher), Kazakhs (about 4 percent), Tatars (about 2.5 percent), and Karakalpaks (slightly more than 2 percent). In the mid-1990s, Uzbekistan was becoming increasingly homogeneous, as the outflow of Russians and other minorities continued to increase and as Uzbeks returned from other parts of the former Soviet Union. According to unofficial data, between 1985 and 1991 the number of nonindigenous individuals in Uzbekistan declined from 2.4 to 1.6 million. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The increase in the indigenous population and the emigration of Europeans have increased the self-confidence and often the self-assertiveness of indigenous Uzbeks, as well as the sense of vulnerability among the Russians in Uzbekistan. The Russian population, as former "colonizers," was reluctant to learn the local language or to adapt to local control in the post-Soviet era. In early 1992, public opinion surveys suggested that most Russians in Uzbekistan felt more insecure and fearful than they had before Uzbek independence. The irony of this ethnic situation is that many of these Central Asian ethnic groups in Uzbekistan were artificially created and delineated by Soviet fiat in the first place. *

Two ethnic schisms may play an important role in the future of Uzbekistan. The first is the potential interaction of the remaining Russians with the Uzbek majority. Historically, this relationship has been based on fear, colonial dominance, and a vast difference in values and norms between the two populations. The second schism is among the Central Asians themselves. The results of a 1993 public opinion survey suggest that even at a personal level, the various Central Asian and Muslim communities often display as much wariness and animosity toward each other as they do toward the Russians in their midst. When asked, for example, whom they would not like to have as a son- or daughter-in-law, the proportion of Uzbek respondents naming Kyrgyz and Kazakhs as undesirable was about the same as the proportion that named Russians. (About 10 percent of the Uzbeks said they would like to have a Russian son- or daughter-in-law.) And the same patterns were evident when respondents were asked about preferred nationalities among their neighbors and colleagues at work. Reports described an official Uzbekistani government policy of discrimination against the Tajik minority. *

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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