HOMES, VILLAGES, SOCIETY AND MAHALLYA IN UZBEKISTAN

SOCIETY IN UZBEKISTAN

Traditionally there have two kinds of people in Uzbekistan and Central Asia as whole: 1) the settled people, which included farmers, merchants, craftsmen and city dwellers; and 2) nomadic herdsman. The type of society individuals lived in was defined by these two ways of life.

The basic social units were the village. In the case of the nomads their village was an aul, which tended be small and was comprised of a winter time village or camp and camps at the summer pastures and intermediary spring and autumn camps. In the case of the settled people, the village was called a kishlak. It was larger and remained in one place. The structure of the aul and kishlak have both traditionally been based on kinship ties.

Uzbeks tended to be settled. Their society has traditionally revolved around clans, villages ( kishlak) neighborhoods ( mahallya), and men’s houses or tea houses ( chaykhana), all of which are clearly defined physically and socially.

Clans have traditionally been very important among Uzbeks and remain so although they are less important than among Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. Each clan had its own territory, leader and system of authority. Descent lines traveled along patrilineal lines from a common ancestor but could be amended, say because of a military or economic alliance. In these cases, the clan leaders often recognized each other as brothers.

Most Central Asian societies are hierarchally oriented and organized. People have traditionally shown total respect for local khans, emirs or chiefs, who in turn have traditionally not shared power or limited it by law. All major Soviet organizations—the Octobrists, the Young Pioneers, women’s organizations and labor unions—existed in Central Asia.

Local government is dominated by a traditional network of mahallas (urban districts), a system unique to Uzbekistan which operate a kind a local party boss system. The mahalla is usually led by an elder called a aksakal ("white beard") who provides advise and helps settle disputes. The mahallas is held together through a system of mutual obligations often manifested through weddings, holiday feasts and funerals.

Uzbek Villages and Towns

A traditional Uzbek kishlak (village) is comprised of a number of houses built close to one another. The houses have courtyards and are surrounded by walls made of clay. The clay walls are joined together and streets run between rows of joined compounds.

During the Soviet period there was an effort to move people into collective farm or state farms and into towns and cities. Many people today live in Soviet-style apartment blocks. More though lived in Uzbek-style kishlaks and neighborhoods that have been set up on cities and towns as well as villages. Most towns have several chaikhana tea stalls, where men hang out.

The desert and steppe of Central Asia is filled with forgotten, desolate towns. There are some towns and cities in remote parts of Uzbekistan that beg the question: why is anyone living here?

Describing a typical bucolic scene in rural eastern Uzbekistan, Philip Glazebrook wrote in Journey to Khiva (1994) “A wide, gravelly river flowing rapidly among sandbanks, a donkey or two on its shores of grass and reed; beyond the riverbed across a stoney plain” is “a walled-in dwelling and its reed thatched shed, a homestead within a shelter of a grove of poplars, ruffled by the wind; beyond this again rose bare hills speckled with sheep and goats, many of them black; whislst above all...rose the hinge of snow mountains.”

Mahallya

Local government is dominated by a traditional network of mahallas (urban districts), a system unique to Uzbekistan which operate a kind a local party boss system. The mahalla is usually led by an elder called a aksakal ("white beard") who provides advise and helps settle disputes. The mahallas is held together through a system of mutual obligations often manifested through weddings, holiday feasts and funerals.

A Mahallya (Uzbek quarter) is a keeper of Uzbek traditions. It is more than a place; it is an entire system of relations between inhabitants of one quarter, which has existed in Uzbekistan over centuries and which has influenced on the development of Uzbek traditions and life style. In some way, it is the form of community, united on a small area. [Source:orexca.com]

Karina wrote in discoveruzbekistan.com: “Mahallya is a city district or block. But however it is not at all like the ones we are familiar with in the other cities of the world. It is a peculiar settling of people who are linked by family bonds. It is a collective of people united by the rules and laws, traditions and joint work. It is a complex firm organism, the beginnings of which are folk wisdom, national traditions and practical activity. In order to gain an understanding of these formulations let's turn to history of town planning in Central Asia. [Source: Karina, discoveruzbekistan.com]

According to orexca.com: “ Some mahallyas were established from the union of craftsmen, who had workshops close to their houses. Such mahallyas got their names thereby. Some mahallyas were named in honor of monuments and sights, which were located on its territory. Others got names after a city or village, from which the residents of these mahallyas came. The mahallya feature is that all residents aim to live in peace and harmony with each other, respect and care for the elders, help each other, watch over the cleanness and order on the street. Also, the whole mahallya helps its residents in weddings, funerals and other events.

Mahallya in the Old Days

Karina wrote in discoveruzbekistan.com: “In the old times the cities were fenced in by a fortress wall and some city gates were opened at particular times and certain days. When entering the city a little amount of money had to be paid (very similar to the entrance visa of our times only then this was faster and simpler). In the center of the Asian cities was a square and in many Uzbek cities it carries the name Chor-su. In the square the khan's decrees were read aloud, the kaziy's (judge's) decisions regarding the defaulters were executed, festivals were held and of course people traded. Streets leading to the city gates stemmed from the square. Between the streets there were real labyrinths of small and narrow streets with innumerous alleyways and blind alleys. [Source: Karina, discoveruzbekistan.com +++]

“This way dahas were formed between the big streets. In each daha there was a separate kaziy (judge) and one mingbashi (a thousand's). The daha was divided into blocks mahallya, guzar (in Khiva they are called ilyat). The mahallya seniors aksakals were at the head of these dahas. Thus mahallya is the smallest administrative unit. Tashkent was divided into 4 dahas: Besh-Yoghoch, Kukcha, Sebzar, and Sheyhantaur. These names can still be found on the city map. The amount of mahallyas constantly changed. Thus in the middle of 19th century there were 48 mahallyas in Sheyhantaur, 38 in Sebzar, 32 in Besh-Yoghoch, 31 in Kukcha. +++

“In this district there is the Chagatay restaurant with an interesting interior and once a beer named Chagatay was brewed there. A significant part of mahallyas in its names reflected the class stratification of society. The Bay-kucha mahallya was called so because it was inhabited by bays great landowners. A separate group is formed by mahallyas reflecting the peculiarities of architecture. Mahallya Baland-mosque stood out among others by its high mosque (baland tall), Pusht-l-hammam was located behind a sauna (hammam sauna), Pusht-l-bogh was located behind a garden (bogh garden), in the Olmazar mahallya once huge apple trees were growing (olma apple). +++

“The conquerors came and went, the rule in the city changed, but the mahallya remained unchanged in is core. It represented a secluded world with traditional activities, customs and ceremonies, a world of narrow streets and blind-alleys, in which two donkeys barely passed.” +++ Mahallya Organization

According to orexca.com: “ A mosque or chaykhana is considered the center of mahallya. Once the area of mahallya was determined by the voice of muezzin, who called people to pray from the top of a minaret: those houses, where his voice could be heard, were deemed to be a part of that mahallya. Chaykhana is the place where men gather to discuss news and inner life of the quarter (gap). Also they discuss many issues in everyday life, because mahallya is a self-governing administrative unit.

Karina wrote in discoveruzbekistan.com: Each mahallya has its center guzar, where the mosque and school attached to it, choyhona, hauz a small quadrangular pond planted around with trees were located. The hauz served as the only source of drinking water for the entire population of the mahallya. The water in it was changed once a month and even more rarely. It was cleaned also rarely 1-2 times a year the water was let out and silt and loam was scooped out which of course meant sometimes epidemics arouse in mahallyas. Apart from this grocers were located here so one could buy lepyoshkas (flat cakes), kurt (balls from dry cottage cheese), nasvay (powder mixture of tobacco and limej, which oriental men put under the tongue (very rarely women). Here there were also the barber shops and small workshops for repairing shoes and copper crockery. [Source: Karina, discoveruzbekistan.com +++]

“The mosque stood out from other buildings with its walls from baked brick. All the other houses, with the exception of the rich people's houses were made from self-made clay bricks. Clay was mixed with chopped straw and water; bricks were formed and dried in the sun. Each spring green sprouts came out amicably and some roofs were completely overgrown. You will not be able to see these buildings in Tashkent anymore as well as in other cities. They remained only in kishlaks (villages).For building a new house men used to gather on hasher where everyone came for 2-3 hours to the neighbor and helped to lay bricks, hammer in bars and bring out garbage. +++

Mahallya Names

Karina wrote in discoveruzbekistan.com: “The names of mahallyas. The youth celebrate weddings, build houses but there was not enough space so the young families left for the freer lands and built their homes there. Thus numerous mahallyas appeared with the names of which included the word yangi new. The other reason for the splitting up of mahallyas is economical. All the holidays (ethnical, religious, family and others) are celebrated conjointly in mahallyas. For this reason in each mahallya (in our times as well) a big choyhona was built (now it sometimes resembles a banquet hall) but it became unprofitable to invite the population of the entire mahallya, for example, to a wedding. [Source: Karina, discoveruzbekistan.com +++]

“One can see such names of mahallyas which reflect the remarkable events in of the city life. The mahallya Jangap Battle is called so because of the events of the 18th century. At that time there were 4 khakims (stewards) in Tashkent of which one of them from Sheyhantaur fought with the adherents of others. By the way, the governing of khakims of Tashkent was ended with this battle and the system of khakimiyats renewed noticeably later but only in the 90s of the 20th century. +++

“Another big group of mahallyas contains in its appellations the names of historical personalities, for example, Chagatay. Chagatay was one of the sons of Chingiz-han who apart from the territory of the modern Tashkent province also possessed the lands in east of Uzbekistan. His ruling differed by relative calmness in political as well as in the economic relation. In Tashkent the Chagatay mahallya is famous for its shashliks. It is located in the Old city district (reference point metro station Tinchlik). In many yards you will be deliciously fed by soups, salads and shashliks you just have to know in which. +++

Mahallya Way of Life

Life in mahallya has traditionally been based on unwritten rules. The law of “shafat” protected residents from “strangers” who broke adopted norms and mores. If any resident of the mahallya wanted to sell his house, first he offered it to his relatives, then to his neighbors and then to other residents of the mahallya. No-one could break this rule. Today many Makhall rules and laws have been softened. [Source:orexca.com]

Karina wrote in discoveruzbekistan.com: Aged men aksakals in the morning after the prayers took their places in choyhonas, young men left for work, boys under 5-6 years jumped on sticks on streets, played ahichkas (Ashichkas articular bones of a sheep, the cavities of which were filled with lead. It was required to knock them down from a specific distance. The one who gains the most wins) and lyangas (Lyanga a piece of sheep wool with a coin or a piece of any metal stitched to it. It was required to hit the lyanga with a twisted foot or the toe of the foot the largest amount of time).[Source: Karina, discoveruzbekistan.com +++]

“Twenty years ago ashichkas and lyangas were in use in the cities but now one can meet them very rarely. The girls with mothers stayed at home to keep house to sweep and water the floor, stitch quilts, embroider skullcaps, cook, bring water, make jams from fruits, clean the crockery, etc. On festive and not so festive occasions men went to one of the houses for morning plov (at 5-6 o'clock) and in the evening women gathered for festal toy. They brought baking in big basins (toghara) covered with clean table-cloths dastarhans for the festive table. Even now one can meet a dressed up woman with appetizingly smelling dish. +++

“Strict customs prevailed and prevail till now. A girl to be married or a young bride came out to sweep the yard or the area in front of the gates with the first rays of sunshine. The not removed leaves in front of the gates mean one thing: either the mistress of the house is ill, or a lazy woman leaves here. Life in urban apartments relieved many women from this necessity but however sometimes one can still see a young woman near a many-storied house. This means that in this family a wedding was celebrated not long ago and the bride is probably from a small city where this way of life remained. If you go along a mahallya, all the kiddies and oncoming people will certainly greet you. It is required to answer these greetings and you will feel the necessity of it yourself, without my advice. One wants to say something pleasant to the smudgy half-dressed children with smiles. With houses people inherit the corresponding status and respect and importantly those customs and norms of human relations which were formed through centuries.

Mahallya Changes

Karina wrote in discoveruzbekistan.com: “In 1909 in Tashkent the first bus appeared and the first bus route started working. Ten eight-placed buses plied between Nikolskiy village (ex- Lunacharskiy highway, now Buyuk Ipak Yuli) and Kuylyuk. The buses were from Benz Gagenau. [Source: Karina, discoveruzbekistan.com +++]

“Mahallyas differed also by their sizes and amount of houses and grounds. For example, mahallya Ak-mechet (white mosque) in Shehantaur counted over 400 houses, mahallya Chuvachi in Sebzar over 100 houses, mahallya Samarkand-Darbaza in Besh-Yoghoch 50 houses. As time goes by each mahallya expands and divides into two or more small mahallyas. During this constant process it was not always possible to preserve the industrial character. Even if rarely, the youth choose their spouses from mahallyas the inhabitants of which were engaged in other handicraft. Historically one more type of mahallya formed the settling of people on the nationality basis. Starting from 2-3 families they grew into quite large ones. In the course of time in many cities of Uzbekistan the Tajik, Iranian, Jewish and many other mahallyas appeared. +++

“Because of the development of Tashkent many mahallyas were demolished or rebuilt again (after the earthquake in Tashkent in 1966). The new many-storied buildings kept their names, for example, block Kara-tash (Black stone) not far from the metro station Drujba Narodov (friendship of nations) and block Besh-Yoghoch. The mahallyas Kor-yoghdi and Hadra have disappeared from the map of Tashkent. The Pahtakor stadium and Circus building is now on their place.” +++

Mahallya Today

About 12,000 mahallas existed in 2004 in Uzbekistan. Some of them are not limited to a quarter of cottages and private houses, now a mahallya can be a group of multistory houses. As before, mahallya helps people to live in peace and harmony, playing an important role in culture and life style of its residents. [Source:orexca.com]

Local government is dominated by the traditional network of mahallas, which operate a kind a local party boss system. The mahalla is now a formal, government- controlled political entity all over Uzbekistan but formerly was a powerful, family-based social institution in the cities. In the post-Soviet era, the national government and law enforcement agencies have used the ruling committees of the mahallas to monitor potential dissident activity in the Muslim community. [Source: Library of Congress February 2007 **]

The mahalla is usually led by an elder called a aksakal ("white beard") who provides advise and helps settle disputes. The mahallas is held together through a system of mutual obligations often manifested through weddings, holiday feasts and funerals. The Karimov government maintains control of the entire country by controlling the mahalla system through the use of informant and loyalists.

Karina wrote in discoveruzbekistan.com: At present times mahallyan committees of respected citizens are created which decide the questions of allocation of welfare among the poor and families having many children, help holding family holidays (apportion tables, chairs, crockery, covers). Many committees have created clubs of interest for teenagers repair shops, workshops and ateliers. [Source: Karina, discoveruzbekistan.com +++]

“Many mahallyas have their own sport grounds and as decades ago in mahallyas there are clean streets with aryks (small irrigation ditches), fruit trees, which in spring abundantly cover the streets with white and pink petals and in summer with small fruits of cherries, apricots, apples. The fruits are usually not gathered from trees but are left to children. Among foreign specialists who live and work in Uzbekistan it is accepted to settle in mahallyas since this is pleasant, interesting and good for health.” +++

Villages and Towns in Uzbekistan

A traditional Uzbek kishlak (village) is comprised of a number of houses built close to one another. The houses have courtyards and are surrounded by walls made of clay. The clay walls are joined together and streets run between rows of joined compounds.

During the Soviet period there was an effort to move people into collective farm or state farms and into towns and cities. Many people today live in Soviet-style apartment blocks. More though live in Uzbek-style kishlaks and neighborhoods that have been set up in cities and towns as well as villages. Most towns have several chaikhana tea stalls, where men hang out.

The desert and steppe of Central Asia is filled with forgotten, desolate towns. There are some towns and cities in remote parts of Uzbekistan, that beg the question: why is anyone living here?

Describing a typical bucolic scene in rural eastern Uzbekistan, Philip Glazebrook wrote in Journey to Khiva (1994) “A wide, gravelly river flowing rapidly among sandbanks, a donkey or two on its shores of grass and reed; beyond the riverbed across a stoney plain” is “a walled-in dwelling and its reed thatched shed, a homestead within a shelter of a grove of poplars, ruffled by the wind; beyond this again rose bare hills speckled with sheep and goats, many of them black; whislst above all...rose the hinge of snow mountains.”

Homes in Uzbekistan

In the 1990s, a typical family of eight in rural Uzbekistan (with a per capita income close to the national average of $978) lived in a compound with a 1,000-square-foot four-room summer house, a 600-square-foot two room winter house and a separate kitchen building with a bread oven and stove. A typical bathroom in rural Uzbekistan is an outhouse in the back of the house with cinder blocks walls and a metal roof. The toilet is sometimes a Western-style toilet but usually it is a hole in the ground surrounded by concrete. People squat instead of sit. Most guesthouses and hotels used by foreigners have Western style toilets.

In the summer families often eat outside, next to the garden, sitting among vine arbors, melon patches and fruit orchards. The family moves into a smaller two-room house in the winter because a smaller space is easier to heat. The men sleep in one room and the women sleep in another.

Uzbek building patterns and arrangement of their houses and furnishings are typical of Central Asia. The Uzbeks build their houses in different designs. Some have round attics, and most are rectangular adobe houses with flat roofs arranged around a courtyard. These wood and mud structures have thick walls with beautifully patterned niches, in which odd things can be placed. Patterns are also carved on wooden pillars. In summer, spring and autumn, some Uzbeks live in yurts and in the winter live in a solid earthen or wooden houses. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

Yurts are not seen as often in Uzbekistan as they are in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. They are not really an Uzbek thing as the Uzbek have traditionally been a settled people, whereas Kyrgyz, Kazakhs and Mongolians have traditionally been nomadic, and yurts were useful for people on the move. In the old days Uzbek houses were separated into men’s and women’s halves. These days many traditional mud-wall dwellings have been replaced by low-slung concrete houses.

Uzbek Houses

Traditional Uzbek homes are like miniature compounds. They have walls, large courtyards and often several buildings. The courtyards are often filled with gardens and fruit trees. The buildings and walls have traditionally been made from mud-brick or clay. Each compound is home to a man, his wife (or wives), his sons with their families, and unmarried children. A separate building houses guests. Courtyard gardens irrigated by canals that enters holes underneath the walls nourish apples, pears, apricots, grapes, melons, almonds, chickpeas and vegetables grown in courtyard gardens and orchards.

Uzbek houses are mainly built of adobe and wood. They are usually tall and spacious with thick loam walls. The four sides of the houses are covered or bottomed by bricks. The rooftops of the houses are a little slanted. Some Uzbek families cover their rooftop with a layer of iron sheet to make it water-proof. In some places, Uzbek houses contain extended eaves above the verandas. In summer, people eat their meals or entertain guests under the eave. They can also store stuff there. The pillars inside the house are carved with patterns. In winter, a fire is lit in a fireplace, kang or stove to keep warm. Many of the Uzbek families set up some grape trellises in their yards. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Uzbek houses are divided into two types: buildings and bungalows. A traditional building is called an "Awa". It has a characteristic dome attic built of wood boards, straw mats and adobe bricks with glass windows, sometimes covered with sheet metal for rain protection. Houses gates are generally arched, sometimes with an arcade. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

Bungalows are rectangle adobe brick houses or cake house with slanted roofs and thick walls that keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. On the roofs are some open area that help to light the rooms. In the house, log beams and wooden poles are decorated with all sorts of patterns. Arched closets and cabinets are arrayed in the walls, around which are inlaid elegant patterned tiles. Common patterns include plant lines and geometry shapes. Some are depicted with realism and strong colors; some are made of carved plaster, brick or wood. Many are produced by skilled craftsmen. The closets and cabinets are used to store various utensils and ornaments. Wall fireplaces keeps room warm in the winter. Kangs (heatable brick beds) are very large, and with felt, carpets, blankets and sitting cushions. Quilts are placed along the walls with embroidered pillars to serve as decorations. Some families use kangs to keep warm. Uzbek kangs are different from those of other ethnic groups. A little pit is dug in the room and a stove is put into it with chimney to the outside. Wood boards cover over the pit, and pelts are laid on the boards. Walls are adorned with tapestries.

Possessions in Uzbekistan

The mother and father in a family interviewed in the 1990s by Peter Menzel for his book "Material World” said they don't have most prized possessions. The children's most treasured possession were their bicycles. In the future, the family said it hoped to have enough money to afford a new TV, radio, VCR and car. [Source: Peter Menzel, "Material World," Sierra Club Books, 1994]

The family spent 70 percent of its income on food. They had one broken TV but owned no telephone, radio, motorbike, VCR or car. The family's possessions include three dogs, three cows, a broken mirror, an Arnold Swarzenegger poster, four chests for quilts and rugs, 33 quilts and rugs, a china cabinet, an armoire, a dining room table, dining room chairs, four other chairs, a butter churn, a barn, a cow, a bicycle, bed, pillow, built-in wood burning stove, and eight stools.

Families sleep on carpets with quilts over their bodies for warmth. In the morning the quilts are folded up and stored in chests. The possessions of many Uzbeks consist primarily of carpets.

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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