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

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

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

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

Censorship and Crackdowns on Culture in Uzbekistan

According to the OSAC: “Pro-government media outlets (radio, TV, newspaper) dominate the media landscape and control all local reporting on political events. Editors and journalists who have broached politically-sensitive topics have experienced repercussions (criminal libel charges, loss of employment), leading to self-censorship rather than risk losing their jobs. [Source: “Uzbekistan 2015 Crime and Safety Report,” Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), Bureau of Diplomatic Security, U.S. Department of State]

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Journalists and senior editorial staff in state media organizations reported that some officials’ responsibilities included censorship. In many cases the government placed individuals as editors in chief with the expressed intent that they serve as the main censor for a particular media outlet. There continued to be reports that government officials and employers provided verbal directives to journalists to refrain from covering certain events sponsored by foreign embassies and in some cases threatened termination for noncompliance. As in past years, regional television outlets broadcast some moderately critical stories on local issues, such as water, electricity, and gas shortages as well as corruption and pollution. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Uzbekistan ,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

The criminal and administrative codes impose significant fines for libel and defamation. The government used charges of libel, slander, and defamation to punish journalists, human rights activists, and others who criticized the president or the government. Government security services and other offices regularly directed publishers to print articles and letters under fictitious bylines and gave explicit instructions about the types of stories permitted for publication. There was often little distinction between the editorial content of a government and a privately owned newspaper. Journalists engaged in little investigative reporting. Widely read tabloids occasionally published articles that presented mild criticism of government policies or discussed some problems that the government considered sensitive, such as trafficking in persons. *\

The government continued to limit academic freedom and cultural events. Authorities occasionally required department-head approval for university lectures, and university professors generally practiced self-censorship. Although a decree prohibits cooperation between higher educational institutions and foreign entities without the explicit approval of the government, foreign institutions often were able to obtain such approval through the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, especially for foreign-language projects. Some school and university administrations, however, continued to pressure teachers and students to refrain from participating in conferences sponsored by diplomatic missions. *\

Censorship restrictions were relaxed in the spring of 2002 but they were mostly cosmetic intended to impress Western governments. In December 2005, U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)were denied accreditation, which effectively barred then from working in Uzbekistan. A few months earlier in October, the BBC closed down its office because, it said, authorities had intimidated them. RFE/RL and the BBC were the main sources of independent news in the Uzbek language during the Andijan massacre The government continued to refuse Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and the BBC World Service permission to broadcast from within the country, although the websites of Voice of America and the BBC were periodically accessible within the country.

Crackdown on Western Culture in Uzbekistan

Johannes Dell and Shodiyor Eshaev of the BBC News wrote: “Authorities and the state media in particular have attacked what they see as damaging Western influences. In the past few weeks there have been several articles attacking foreign soap operas from Mexico and Latin America for being too explicit and for undermining local values and traditions. Similar criticism was levelled against hard rock and rap music in an extensive campaign a year ago. A Youth Channel on state TV labelled the music "Satanic", feeding on drug addiction and immorality. [Source: Johannes Dell and Shodiyor Eshaev, BBC News, February 14, 2012]

“The government set up a special censorship body to monitor rap music, register artists and hold regular meetings to encourage the use of more wholesome lyrics. But observers say that the authorities' approach to Western culture is largely inconsistent with state media attacking supposedly immoral content on TV and the internet, while not a word is said about the often raunchy music videos produced by the president's daughter, Gulnara Karimova.

There was also a book-burning campaign in some places to get rid of all Arabic-language books.

Cultural Space of Boysun District

In 2008, the Cultural Space of Boysun District was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. According to UNESCO: “The Boysun District located in south-eastern Uzbekistan on the route from Asia Minor to India, is one of the oldest inhabited areas of Central Asia. With the diminishing importance of the Silk Road and the political changes in Central Asia, the region became quite isolated, which favoured the preservation of ancient traditions that show traces of several religions, including shamanistic beliefs, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Islam. Today the district is home to about 82,000 inhabitants.[Source: UNESCO, Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity ~]

“Numerous traditional rituals are still alive: on the eve of the spring festival of Navruz, for instance, a sowing ritual is held with offerings of food. Family rites also persist: 40 days after a birth, the evil spirits are chased away with fire and ashes; the circumcision of boys is accompanied by goat fights and various games, such as wrestling and horse races. Ancient practices are still often used to conduct wedding ceremonies, funeral rites and shamanistic rituals to cure the sick. Among other popular traditions are ritual chants linked to annual festivals, epic legends and dances. Wind or string instruments accompany the lyrical chants. The Shalola folk music ensemble has collected popular songs and made an inventory of traditional instruments and costumes. The members of the group have also documented legends, epics and old melodies in the villages.

Ravsan Rahmoni of Tajikistan State University wrote: “The Boysun district lies on the road from Dushanbe to Bukhara, about 200 kilometers west of Dushanbe, in the territory of Uzbekistan. Looked at in another way, the Hisor mountain range stretches between Dushanbe at one end and Boysun at the other. The southern reaches of Boysun are within 170 kilometers of the border with Afghanistan, and the district lies athwart the intersection of roads leading to Dushanbe, Tirmiz, Samarkand, and Bukhara. Boysun is mentioned in the tenth-century Persian geography Hodud al~ (alam as one of the towns of Caganian: “Basand [or Basvand]: a borough with a numerous population, on the road of Bukhara—— Samarqand. It is a strong place; the inhabitants are warlike”. [Source: “Traces of Ancient Iranian Culture in Boysun District, Uzbekistan” by Ravsan Rahmoni, Tajikistan State University, translated by J. R. Perry. This article was originally published in Mardumgiyoh 5(1-2): 154-63 (1997/1376), in Perso-Arabic and Cyrillic scripts. Mardumgiyoh (“mandrake”) is a journal of folklore published in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, founded and edited by Dr. Rahmoni ]

“According to official statistics for 1996, Boysun has 77,000 inhabitants, of which some 40,000 are Tajiks. Some of the villages on the mountain slopes of present-day Boysun were formerly small towns. Distances between them vary from twenty to sixty kilometers...The Boysun district comprises many villages inhabited solely by Tajiks, some solely by Uzbeks, and others in which both Tajiks and Uzbeks live together. Though most of the villages bear Tajik (Persian) names, others have Uzbek or Arabic names.

Archeological Work in Boysun District

Ravsan Rahmoni of Tajikistan State University wrote: “In the late 1930s archeologists commenced examining the ancient relics in Boysun, with valuable results. Among these were the finds of A. R Okladnikov, of which the great Tajik historian Bobojon Gafurov wrote: “The cave of located near the city of Tirmiz, in the Turgondaryo oasis of the Boysun hills. In this cave, five successive levels of intermittent habitation by Neanderthals have come to light. Some 3,000 stone artifacts were excavated, of which 339 are complete. They include two very common types of stone implements, the knife blade and the hand ax. The knife was used both as a cutting tool and a hunting weapon, the hand ax for felling and trimming timber and scraping hides. Numerous bows were also found. The principal quarry of Tesiktos hunters was the Siberian mountain goat (Capra sibirica), which used to be plentiful in the mountains of Central Asia; in addition they hunted deer, bear, leopard, and smaller animals. The chance discovery here of a skeleton from the Mousterian period—— that of an eight- or nine-year-old boy—— was of worldwide significance.” [Source: “Traces of Ancient Iranian Culture in Boysun District, Uzbekistan” by Ravsan Rahmoni, Tajikistan State University, translated by J. R. Perry ]

“A few years later the journalist Nurali Rajab (1994) recalled an episode from this excavation, which took place near the villages of Darband and Macay, and in which some of the inhabitants of Darband (all of whom are Tajiks) took part.…the archeologists unearthed the bones of an ancient man in the [Boysun] mountain slopes. The [Darband] villager Mahmadquli Ikromboy,an eye-witness of the event, reported it as follows. The first archeologist to come to Darband for a dig was Parfionov. He explored the mountains and valleys for a few years, digging test pits. He lodged at our house. After he left, Oklaanikov came with his family and also stayed with us, for three years. I always helped with their work. Okladnikov asked me to get a few donkeys for a trip to the village of Macay. There were twenty-five of us in all. We took food and water to the archeologists, hunted on the way, and when necessary helped them to dig. Once when Okladnikov was digging, I was the one who carried out the dirt and debris and disposed or it outside the cave. Suddenly my spade struck a human skull. “I called Okladnikov, and he himself took over digging it out. He spent four days with trowel and brush, extracting and cleaning the skull and bones, which turned out to be those of an eight- or nine-year-old boy. Then we packed the remains into crates, loaded them onto six donkeys, and reached Boysun town by way of the Katmancovdl road.

“This discovery was made in 1938, and the results were published by Okladnikov, in Russian, in Moscow in 1949,after World War II. It is noteworthy that these modest archeological excavations and incomplete anthropological expeditions in Boysun and neighboring districts provided evidence that early Iranians lived in this region.

“A few years ago, Jumaboy Ocilov, a neighbor of the present writer’s brother, unearthed a large clay urn while digging on his land. In trying to clear the earth away he was over-hasty; the point of his spade struck the urn and broke it. Out fell a human skeleton. Ocilov was frightened, and took ill for several days. He buried it again and told nobody for some years. Now, a number of religious believers make regular pilgrimages to the site, as if to a shrine, and pray to the divinity for help with their troubles. As the villagers of Pasurxl told me, on several later occasions people digging wells have turned up urns containing bones. Burying the dead in clay urns was typical of ancient Iranian peoples, a custom going back to the cult of Mithra.”

Veneration of Fire and Water in Boysun District

Ravsan Rahmoni of Tajikistan State University wrote: “The veneration of earth, water and—— especially—— fire is very apparent throughout the region of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the other Central Asian republics. These ancestral spiritualities, which up until today inform the beliefs and taboos of the peoples of these lands, share common aspects but also exhibit differences in detail. The veneration of water and fire can be seen among the old of both sexes in all areas of Boysun: they insist, for instance, that (running) water is not to be dirtied, a bride and groom are to walk around a fire, and votive candles are to be lighted. The young, however, influenced by everyday modern culture, are gradually consigning these rituals to oblivion. [Source: “Traces of Ancient Iranian Culture in Boysun District, Uzbekistan” by Ravsan Rahmoni, Tajikistan State University, translated by J. R. Perry ]

“In any case, we will give a few examples of behavior associated with the veneration of water and fire. In the village of Pasurxl, a young man suffered for months from depression and listlessness. His mother went to consult a soothsayer (fol-bin),who told her that her son might have urinated in running water. She and the other wise women deduced that the water fairies and sprites (jin~u pan) had afflicted him with this state. Accordingly they took the youth to the bank of the supposed stream, set alight some twisted cotton wicks, recited some prayers, and “burned” the evil spell, thus breaking it. I have actually witnessed several cases where the relatives of a sick (especially a mentally sick) person consulted the folk physicians, who immediately prescribed some medicinal use ot hre or water, as being sacred entities.”

Solomon’s Lamp

Ravsan Rahmoni of Tajikistan State University wrote: “One ancient custom in which the sacred nature of water is paramount is known as “Solomon’s lamp” (“carogi Sulaymon”). A brief description of this procedure is merited here. “Solomon’s lamp is applied to someone whose behavior has become erratic or who is in mental distress. In the form in which I observed and recorded it in Pasurxl village,an old woman (Noreul Qosimova by name, born 1922, illiterate) came to see the patient and asked the head of the household to bring a napkin and a water-jug, a branch of a fruit-tree bearing fruit, some [raw] cotton, seven strands [of straw or twigs] from a broom, three lengths of yarn colored yellow, red, and blue, three old rags colored white, blue and black, some flour, some rice, some sweets, a cup of water and a bowl of grease. [Source: “Traces of Ancient Iranian Culture in Boysun District, Uzbekistan” by Ravsan Rahmoni, Tajikistan State University, translated by J. R. Perry ]

“When I asked her, she told me the symbolic significance of each of these objects, as follows. The napkin represents a veil, personal honor, a full belly, well-being and fortune; the ewer represents King Solomon’s water, lest the patient has polluted any water; the branch bearing fruit symbolized progeny; the cotton is to make a wick with which to light the sacred fire, called the “lamp ; the seven strands from a broom symbolize pollution and disaster, around which is bound the cotton wick, so as to drive away with its flame the Ahrimanic powers [jin, pari, and dev). The three yellow, red, and blue threads represent the maleficent demons and sprites of those same colors; these threads are tied to the broom strands with the cotton. The three white, blue, and black rags are to arive away fear; flour symbolizes whiteness, i.e., purity; rice symbolizes infinity, i.e., eternal life; sweets represent a sweet life; the cup of water is to be poured over the ashes of the sacred fire, and the bowl of grease is to be rubbed on the seven tapers made from the strands of the broom.

“Next the old woman (known as bibi-mullo,or in some villages qusnoc) prepared seven tapers. To three of these she tied a string twisted from the yellow, red, and blue threads. Two tapers were left white, and the remaining two she smeared with soot from the kettle. Next she covered the patient’s head with a white cloth. She passed the tapers three times over the patient’s head, his shoulders, the small of his back, and his knees, pronouncing forms of exorcism such as “O villain, o evil one, begone! Come forth! Depart!” to banish the evil powers. Then she greased the white, blue, and black rags that had been plaited together, picked them up with the tip of the fruit-bearing branch and set light to them; she waved them in a circle around the patient’s head and body, so as to burn and thus drive away the noxious powers that plagued him. When the rags had almost burned out, she poked the fruit- bearing branch into the spout of the ewer, picked up the smoldering rags with it, and placed beneath them the cup of water, so that the ashes of the sacred fire would fall into the water. With that, the ceremony ended.

“The most important thing is not to let the remains of the “lamp” spill onto anywhere unclean, but rather to toss them into running water. Noteworthy, too, is that although these rites have nothing to do with Islam, the old women who perform them always recite a few verses of the Koran for good measure. I asked the old woman why they called this “Solomon’s lamp.” I was told, “Because these rites have come down to us from our forefathers; we use fire; fire is a powerful thing, it cleanses a person’s surroundings of calamities.I often heard people swearing by fire, as for instance “May the fire prove that I am innocent,” or “If I am lying, may I burn up in this fireplace”.

Fire Rituals in Boysun District

Ravsan Rahmoni of Tajikistan State University wrote: “The rites of Bibi Sesanbe (Lady Tuesday) and Bibi Muskilkuso (Lady Problem-solver) are still practiced today with faith and devotion in Bukhara, Samarkand, Dushanbe, Khujand, Tirmiz, Hisor, and many other places. These rituals, which are more closely related to Islam, will not be discussed here; but a common feature of their performance is the use of wicks or tapers (pilta, in some places called nuke a) ^ or candles, for the sacred fire. In the villages of Boysun district, the burning taper is placed upon the qayroqsang (a long, polished stone of about 20—30 centimeters, used as a whetstone) and care is taken not to let it go out before the end of the ceremony. [Source: “Traces of Ancient Iranian Culture in Boysun District, Uzbekistan” by Ravsan Rahmoni, Tajikistan State University, translated by J. R. Perry ]

“Twenty or twenty-five years ago, the villagers of Boysun district used to live in two seasonally specialized locations, one of which (called qisloq) was appropriate to late autumn, winter, and early spring, and the other (called bog) to late spring, summer, and early fall. At bog they would plow and sow and gather the harvest. At the end of fall they would load their essential possessions on donkeys and migrate to qisloq. Whenever they set off from one location to the other they would always light a handful of straw or a few sticks of firewood and drive the loaded donkeys over it. The transhumants would follow the animals across the fire, so that it would burn up harm and ill fortune and they would not be carrying it with them to their new home. Nowadays, with the increasing population, people live in one place. I have been told by people over fifty that fifty or sixty years ago fire was something holy that accompanied people at every significant juncture of their lives.

“The custom of venerating fire can be seen today in the rituals of weddings, circumcisions, navruz [the Iranian New Year’s holiday at the vernal equinox, 21st March] and similar rites of passage. As in other parts of Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan, it is still alive among the Tajiks of Uzbekistan, including those of Boysun. In general there is no ceremony in Boysun at which traces of ancient culture are not evident. Even funerals, if examined carefully, exhibit some non-Islamic elements. For instance, in Pasurxl village, on the death of a close relative, the women of the bereaved household let down their hair, tie a kerchief around their waists, raise their arms high and clap their hands, lacerate their heads, faces, and bodies, and jump up and down singing a lament. Usually the mourning period (for women) lasts for one year, during which time they wear turquoise blue {kabud) clothing. At Pasurxl, the women’s mourning costume is actually sky-blue, or at least a blue floral print on a white field.

“In Boysun district, wrestling, likewise an ancient custom, is still very popular. Even today, at a wrestling meet, they will sometimes light a small campfire and dance or play around it before the formal bouts. The wrestlers (pahlavon) after limbering up will stretch out their hands toward the fire and then rub its warmth over their faces, as if praying to the fire for victory.

“In Ferdawsi,s immortal Sohnoma (Shahnama) we read the following verses, which show parallels to the above: “Down from the throne he came, lamenting/ Rending his body to pieces with his nails” Or again: “They dressed all in turquoise blue,/ Their eyes full of blood, their faces ashen.” According to Ferdawsi,our ancestors stayed in mourning for the departed for one year (a custom still observed among Tajiks everywhere, including those of Boysun): “They sat thus grieving for one year; The behest came from the Judge, the Creator.” Otherwise, a lamp is kept burning for forty days after a death in the house where the body lay (or if a lamp is not available, a candle or taper), as can also be seen in all parts of Central Asia.

Epic Storytelling Kept Alive in Boysun District

Ravsan Rahmoni of Tajikistan State University wrote: “Other interesting elements of ancient tradition still alive are songs, dances, storytelling, and arts and crafts. In the villages of Boysun district, the wellsprings of these arts, as of people’s daily work, go back to their ancient roots. We will not mention all of them, but will note that during evening get- togethers a prominent feature is the telling of stories from Ferdawsi’s Shahnama. From this it is clear that the people still love and enjoy their ancestral epic. Not only do they recount these tales, but they have such an affection for their favorite hero, Rustam, that they even make later heroes and kings pay their respects at his tomb. In one of the tales about Rustam, which I recorded from Rahim Sarif (Pasurxl village, born 1925), Iskandar [Alexander the Great] expresses a desire to see Rustam’s tomb, which is at the daxma~i sohon (ossuary of the kings). [Source: “Traces of Ancient Iranian Culture in Boysun District, Uzbekistan” by Ravsan Rahmoni, Tajikistan State University, translated by J. R. Perry ]

“According to the narrator, Zol[Zal, Rustam’s father] lived a very long life, up until the time of Alexander; he supposedly drew a circle around the daxma-i sohon that no one could breach save with his help. Iskandar, with Zol’s help, enters the daxma-i sohon and reads Rustam’s testament. According to our narrator, the tomb of Jamsed [Jamshid] is also there. There is supposed to be a great treasure buried beneath the tombs of Rustam and Jamsed, which even financed the building of the Great Wall of China. Although based on materials in the Shahnama, the folktale version has been vernacularized and its conceptual context changed in interesting ways.

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

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.