Uzbekistan's literature suffered great damage during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s; during that period, nearly every talented writer in the republic was purged and executed as an enemy of the people. Prior to the purges, Uzbekistan had a generation of writers who produced a rich and diverse literature, with some using Western genres to deal with important issues of the time. With the death of that generation, Uzbek literature entered a period of decline in which the surviving writers were forced to mouth the party line and write according to the formulas of socialist realism. Uzbek writers were able to break out of this straitjacket only in the early 1980s. In the period of perestroika and glasnost , a group of Uzbek writers led the way in establishing the Birlik movement, which countered some of the disastrous policies of the Soviet government in Uzbekistan. Beginning in the 1980s, the works of these writers criticized the central government and other establishment groups for the ills of society. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

A critical issue for these writers was the preservation and purification of the Uzbek language. To reach that goal, they minimized the use of Russian lexicon in their works, and they advocated the declaration of Uzbek as the state language of Uzbekistan. These efforts were rewarded in 1992, when the new national constitution declared the Uzbek language to be the state language of the newly independent state. At the same time, however, some of these writers found themselves at odds with the Karimov regime because of their open criticism of post-Soviet policies *

The poetry of the great Moghul ruler, Babur’s poetry is a source of pride for ordinary people in Uzbekistan, many of whom can recite his lines by heart.


The “Alpamysh” is an ancient Turkic epic, or dastan, generally set in verse, that focuses on the hero Alpamysh and his exploits. It is was assembled in the 14th to 17th centuries, when the people of Central Asia waged a struggle against Jungar rulers of western China and Mongolia. The original myths and stories no doubt have a history that goes back further than that. The most extensive version of the legends of the Uzbek Alpamysh was recorded by Fazil Juldash-ogly. The “1000th anniversary” of the Uzbek epic “Alpamysh” was celebrated in 1999. [Source:]

The Alpamysh is the favorite and most widespread epic of the Uzbek people and ranks the "Knight in the Panther's Skin", "Manas", and "Kalevala" as one of the most popular epics in Central Asia. The Alpamysh is divided into two parts: 1) Alpamysh’s trip to meet his bride Barchin and their marriage; and 2) Alpamysh’s campaign against the Kalmyk ruler Taychahan, his seven-year imprisonment and his victorious return to his homeland. The main ideas of the epic are struggle of the Uzbek people for independence and the quest for a peaceful life. The first part of "Alpamysh" was published in Russian, with editing by the poet Hamid Alimjan, in 1939 in Tashkent. The plot has similarities with the mythology of the ancient Turkic and Mongolian people. In the Altai tale "Alyp-Manash" hero is endowed with shamanist features. There is also a lesser-known sequel to Alpamish, about the heroic adventures of Yadgar (Yadigar), the son of Alpamish and Barchin.

According to scholars Borovkov, Hadi Zarif and Zhirmunskiy, the dastan Alpamysh "existed probably in the foothills of the Altai as early as the sixth-eighth centuries at the time of the Turk Kaghanate." The tale of Alpamish was supplanted in ninth-tenth centuries from Altay mountains to Syr-darya river by the Oghuz Turks, where the story line continued on independently and became part of the Salor-Kazan tale. The epic acquired its final form between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. Over 1,000 versions of the epic have been recorded among the Mongolian and Turkic language families by international scholars. The reading and study of the Alpamysh, were suppressed and discouraged in the Soviet Era yet the the Great Soviet Encyclopedia heralds it as "a national saga of valour, courage and detestation of the enemies", "one of the best examples of Uzbek heroic epos", "rich in aphorisms, expressive metaphors and proof of the wealth of the Uzbek popular poetic language". [Source: Wikipedia]

Alpamysh Story

The first part of The Alpamys tells about Alpamys and his bride Barchin, whom he has been engaged to since childhood. Their fathers, Bayburi and Baysari, were from the Konirat tribe and were childless for a very long time, until their pleas were heard by God, and Baysari had one daughter, whilst Bayburi had a daughter and a son. After an argument, Baysari and his family moved to the Kalmyk country. There Barchin, by then a very pretty young lady, attracted the attention of the pehlivans (strongmen) of Kalmyk shah, Taycha-khan. In order to avoid an involuntary marriage to any of the hated by her pehlivan, Barchin declares that she will marry anyone, who wins all four contests: horse race ("bayga"), archery skills, target shooting from a bow, and wrestling. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Baychin is secretly hoping that the winner will be her beloved Alpamys, after whom she sends several people (ambassadors). One of the Kalmyk pehlivans, Karajan, turns from an opponent and enemy to a friend of the hero. Karajan outruns all the competitors on Alpamysh's horse, Baychibare, despite all the tricks by Kalmyks, who initially tie him in ropes and maim his horse by inserting nails into the horse's hooves. Karajan enters the wrestling competition with Kalmyk pehlivans, after which Alpamysh emerges victorious by beating the strongest of pehlivans, Kokaldash. Together with Barchin, who is now his wife, they return to Konirat. The only person to stay in Kalmyk country is Baysari, who is still angry at Bayburi. +

In the second part, Alpamysh, finding out about the hardships caused to Baysari by the Taycha-khan, once again travels to the Kalmyk country, and falls captive to his tricky enemies. He then spends seven years in zindan (underground prison) of the Kalmyk khan. He is being fed by a choban (shepherd) Kaykubat, who accidentally discovered his location. The daughter of the Kalmyk khan visits Alpamysh in his cell, falls in love with him and helps to free him from captivity. The freed Alpamysh then confronts Taycha-khan, kills him, and puts shepherd Kaykubat on the throne. +

During his seven-year absence, the leader of the Kongrat tribe becomes his youngest brother Ultantaz. The new ruler is persecuting his people, dishonors the old father of Alpamysh, and harasses the young son Yadgar, whilst forcing Barchin to marry him. Alpamysh, by switching clothes with his old shepherd servant Kultay, undetected, comes to the marriage celebration of Ultantaz, frees his wife Barchin and kills Ultantaz. The epic ends with Barchin's father, Baysari, returning from voluntary exile and re-unification of the previously divided Kongrat tribe under the leadership of heroic Alpamysh. +

The Siberian Turkic nations' version of the epic can be summarized as follows: "Alpamis, recounts the story of its hero’s life and the events before his birth with rich description and intriguing stories. Its basic plot, however, can be classified into four parts. First, Alpamis’ parents pray for a son, make a pilgrimage, and experience the miraculous pregnancy of Alpamis’ mother. Alpamis is eventually born and grows up. Second, Alpamis marries the beauty Gulibairsen after a heroic battle. Third, after returning home with his wife, Alpamis fights his enemy Taishik Khan, who has ransacked his herds and property; Alpamis kills him and recovers everything that was lost. Fourth, after returning home again, Alpamis conquers Urtan—a very destructive demon and son of the charwoman of Alpamis’ family—who attempted to possess his wife Gulibairsen." [Source: Rinchindorji. "Mongolian-Turkic Epics: Typological Formation and Development", Institute of Ethnic Literature, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Trans. by Naran Bilik, Oral Tradition, 16/2, 2001, p. 387]

Bakhshi of Khorasan

A Bakshi is a singer-storyteller similar to an akyn in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The France-based musicologist Ameneh Youssefzadeh wrote: “In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as well as in Khorasan, the word bakhshi means instrumentalist, singer, and storyteller. The origin of the word bakhshi comes from Turkish which in turn comes from the Chinese word "po-shih" meaning erudite. It was through the Turkic Uigurs that certain elements of Chinese language infiltrated 13th and 14th century Mongol literature. The word bakhshi appeared in Iranian and Turkish literature with the advent of the Mongols. At the time, the role of the bakhshi seems to have been sometimes that of a healing shaman, and at other times that of a Buddhist priest. [Source: Ameneh Youssefzadeh, August 1995, +++]

“As for the bakhshi of Khorasan, they claim that the origin of their name can be found in the word bakhshande (donor, bestower of gifts) because of the musical gift that God has bestowed upon them. This is a title of respect in northern Khorasan and among the Turkmen of Torkaman-Sahra. The bakhshi can also be found in almost all of Central Asia, among the Kazakh, Kirghiz, Uzbek, and Turkmen people as well as in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and in Xinjiang. Among other ethnicities, on the other hand, the term bakhshi, throughout centuries has designated a bard, a story-teller, and singer of legends and epics. +++

“As a singer, the bakhshi is more precisely a narrator of dastan (stories) and an instrumentalist who plays the dotar (long-necked two-stringed instrument) and who, in most cases, produces his own musical instrument. The majority of the great bards of Khorasan, regardless of their ethnic origin, sing in three languages (Turkish, Persian, and Kurdish). Whether professional or semi-professional, these days the bard doesn't usually earn his living solely through playing music. Most often, he is also, for example, a farmer, a barber, or a teacher. With his instrument, the dotar, he usually sings and plays by himself. However, Turkmen bards prefer to play in groups of two or three. In this case, the bard is accompanied by another dotar player and a person playing the kamanche. +++

“The right to assume the title of bakhshi is subject to specific conditions. A bakhshi should not only be a good musician and have a good voice, he also needs excellent diction for telling stories. Ideally, he learns his art from his father or his uncle while living under the family roof. Some acquire their apprenticeship under the tutelage of a master (ostad). The learning process evolves in three stages: 1) Learning the dotar technique; 2) Learning vocal techniques; and 3) Memorizing the stories. In the last stage, the master teaches his student a fragment of a dastan on a daily basis, so that he can memorize and recite it the next day. The bakhshi is renowned for his prodigious memory. +++

“Traditionally, the bakhshi plays at village ceremonies such as weddings and circumcisions, but he also performs at private gatherings and in the ghave-khanas (coffee houses) of the bazars. Unfortunately, today, television has taken the place of the traditional bard in the Ghave-khana. Fortunately, at present we can also hear the bakhshi being performed in concerts, often within the context of festivals.” +++

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.

Uzbek Folk Stories and Legends

On the eastern hill of Mizdakhan, there is a small hill named Djumarat Kassab, (“Djumarat” is a name, “Kassab” means “butcher”) which some say was a tomb. There are many local legends about this hill. One of them says a mausoleum of a butcher named Djumarat is hidden under it. Djumarat was known for distributing meat to poor people in times of poor harvest and famine. For his kindness and compassion he was deemed a holy person. [Source: Dr. Oktyabr Dospanov, |~|]

Behind Chimgan is Pulathan peak, 3000 meters above sea level. It looks as if it has been sliced off the mountain range, leaving a hole in its place. Over time, many caves have been formed by the water which accumulates there. According to legend, in one of these caves the treasures of Alexander the Great was hidden. The story goes that a beloved concubine of Alexander general fell in love with one of her guardians. Alexander the Great noticed the love. But instead of killing them he banished the lovers to a cave together with their retinue and treasures. To this day, treasure seekers clamber of Pulathan, peeking in its many caves, hoping to find this treasure. |~|

A sort of Uzbek version of Romeo and Juliet: “Once upon a time a beauty, named Mazlumhan, a daughter of the governor of the city, lived in Mizdahkan. Many rich and notable grooms were striving for her love, but she loved a poor young man. Mazlumhan was a princess, he was a builder, and there was no opportunity to connect their hearts. Mazlumhan rejected all the grooms, and the annoyed governor declared that he'd marry off his daughter to the one who would construct a minaret as high as the sky in one night. The poor young man in love built such a minaret and came for his beloved one to the palace in the morning. But the governor refused to give his daughter to the poor builder. Dejected, the young man jumped from the minaret. After him also jumped Mazlumhan-sulu. And only having died could they unite their souls. They were buried together. A mausoleum was erected over the grave. According to the legend, it was made of the bricks of the minaret destroyed on the governor's order. |~|

Legend of Khan Atlas

There is an old story about a weaver named Atlas who tried to win the heart of princess with his work. After working so hard his hands were bloodied, and repeatedly being rejected, he decided to drown himself in a river, As he put his bloodied hands into the river a beautiful pattern emerged, with gold from the setting sun, green from the trees, blue from the reflected sky and red from the blood on his hands. Atlas decided to make this patten in his cloth. The princess saw the work and realized how much he loved her and married him.

Another version of this story caled the Silk of Kings goes: Once upon a time, the Khan of Margilan, who already had four wives, decided he wanted a fifth. He fell in love with the beautiful young daughter of a local artisan. The artisan did not want to marry off his daughter, and asked the Khan to change his mind. The Khan respected the artisan and his skill, and said he would consent to the man's wishes if he created something more beautiful and wonderful than his daughter in the course of one night. The artisan struggled with this throughout the night, and as morning broke, had not succeeded. |~|

At dawn, he sat by a stream, lamenting the loss of his daughter, when suddenly, reflected in the blue water he saw all the colors of sunrise, clouds, and a rainbow, and knew what he had to do. From this incredible vision, he created a silk that was unsurpassed in beauty and originality. He brought a piece of the fabric to the Khan. And the Khan could not help but agree that the fabric was more wonderful than the artisan's daughter, and agreed to rescind his marriage proposal. From this legend, the silk of the Fergana Valley received its name, "Khan-Atlas", or "Silk of Kings". |~|

Bukhara Legends and Folk Stories

Bukhara is the home of Minaret Kalon, which means "Great Tower". It is is also known as the "Tower of Death" as the Emir of Bukhara famously had prisoners thrown to their death from the top.. There are many legends about the tower. According to one: Long ago there was a Shah who had a wife. He was a very cruel man and decided to have her killed by having her pushed from the top of the tower. But she was a very clever woman, and begged of him that he grant her one last wish. He agreed and when the day of her death arrived, she put on all her gowns and petticoats. She climbed to the top of the tower while all the people waited on the square below and watched. When she jumped, it was like a miracle. She didn't die, her dresses parachuted her gently to the earth below. |~|

According to the legend Fountain of Aiyub: A long time ago in the Central Asian desert, where the city of Bukhara is situated, the people were dying of thirst. There was not even a single drop of water to be found. One day, the people were so thirsty, that they all sat down and prayed. They looked to the heavens and asked God for rain. It wasn't long before He sent a messenger to rescue them. The messenger's name was Aiyub. He had a stick and with it he struck the earth. At the place where he struck the earth, a hole suddenly appeared and a fountain gushed forth. It wasn't long before they discovered the great cures that could be achieved by drinking this water. The people were so happy that they built a beautiful shrine there. To this day, many people visit the well to partake of the refreshing clear, clean, healing waters, and to pray in thankfulness to God. |~|

How Samarkand Got its Name

The story on how Samarkand got its name goes: A long time ago, in a region of Central Asia, there was a great and wicked king who lived in a beautiful castle. One day his wife gave birth to a beautiful daughter and they named her Kant, which means sugar in the Uzbek language. About the same time, there was a baby boy born to a very poor family. They named him Samar, because he was handsome and strong. As he grew up, he became very famous for his bravery, and he competed in all the athletic events. [Source: Dr. Oktyabr Dospanov, |~|]

One day the princess met the young man in the garden of the castle. They were so attracted to each other that they agreed to meet every day in the garden. As they got to know each other, their love grew stronger and stronger. One day Kant's father learned of their secret meetings and became very angry. He did not like Samar because he was very poor, and considered him beneath his daughter. |~|

When Kant told her father that she wanted to wed Samar, the king decided to kill him. When the broken hearted Kant learned of his death, she threw herself from the top of the castle. All of the people of the city were grief-stricken, and they renamed their city Samarkand after the two lovers. |~|

Legends of Khiva

Abulgazi-Khan, one of the most respected Khiva rulers (1643-1663), had only sons. At first he was very glad, but when his ninth son was born he confessed that he would like to have a daughter as well. A world from the ruler had the power of law. When the tenth baby was born the khan was told it was a girl. Abulgazi ordered that the girl be named after his favorite concubine Anousha. Many years later Abulgazi-Khan, a talented military leader nicknamed Bakhadur (strong man) for his heroic deeds, was taken prisoner by the Emir of Bukhara in one of the numerous battles he waged to strenghten Khiva's position. [Source: Dr. Oktyabr Dospanov, |~|]

His senior sons were in no hurry to help their father, and only Anousha set out for Bukhara. "Abulgazi-Khan has nine sons, why is it his daughter who came to help him?" asked the Emir of Bukhara. "And how are you going to liberate him?" "Promise that you will set him free if I surprise you," said Anousha. "If you surprise me I will set him free," said the ruler of Bukhara skeptically. Than Anousha took off her clothes and... turned out to be a boy. The khan was dumbfounded and set Abulgazi-Khan free. On returning home, the ruler of Khiva said, "It turns out that I have only one son - Anousha, and not nine." In gratitude for his rescue he built a mosque and therapeutic baths and named them after his son. |~|

On How Khiva got its name: Many years ago, between the Central Asian deserts of the Kizyl-kum and Kaza-kum, on the spot where Khiva now stands, there was a very small settlement, which had no name. Very kind and friendly people lived there, and because of their fresh clean water, hundreds of caravans carrying silk, cloth, gold and spices from the Orient passed through. One day three strangers came to the settlement from Arabia, one whose name was Mohammed. They were very tired, hungry, and thirsty, and they wanted to drink the water from the well. When they tried the water, Mohammed exclaimed, "Khiva!", which in Arabic means, "Oh, how tasty is the water!" Afterwards, many settlers camped around this well. Soon it became a great city. The people of the city decided to name it Khiva, after the traveler's exclamation. |~|

Legend of Kalta Minaret

The Kalta Minaret is a famous landmark in Khiva. One old story related to it goes: Many years ago in Khiva lived a great Khan. He often fought with neighboring khanates, so he decided to build the biggest minaret in the world. Then, when he would climb to the top, he would be able to see approaching armies, as well as everything else that went on in the land. [Source: Dr. Oktyabr Dospanov, |~|]

One day he called a master builder, who was very famous. He told the builder that he wanted to have the tallest minaret in the world so he would be able to see approaching enemies, and prepare his defense. After the master builder began his work, the Khan thought to himself, "After he finishes the minaret, I will kill him. If the other Khans see how great it is, they will want one like it." So he made his plans, and ordered his soldiers to guard the builder.|~|

One day a student of the builder heard about the plans of the Khan. He wrote everything he heard on a brick, and sent the brick to the builder. When the builder read about the plot, he wanted to escape from the city, but was unable to because he was heavily guarded. But then an idea came to him. He wrote his idea on a brick, and sent it to his student. The builder asked the student to make wings so he could fly away. The student did as he was asked, and when he finished making the wings, he glued them together with wax, and sent them to the builder. Before the minaret was finished, the builder tied the wings on his back and jumped from the minaret. He flew higher and higher until he reached the sun. But suddenly the heat of the sun melted the wax, and the wings fell apart. The poor unlucky builder fell to the earth and to his death. The minaret was never finished, and is known to this day in all of Central Asia as Kalta, the short minaret. |~|

Legend of Bibi Khanum; Tamerlane’s Wife

It is well known that Emir Timur was a great conqueror. His savage hordes conquered many lands and killed many people. Emir Timur had many wives, but his favorite wife was a very beautiful woman named Bibi Khanum. One time, when he was away at war, she decided to surprise him with a great gift. She was eager to honor him by building a great building of stone, which would be decorated with sapphires and turquoise. Thousands of skillful designers, architects, and builders worked to create this marvelous masterpiece. [Source: Dr. Oktyabr Dospanov, |~|]

But after they had been working for many days, suddenly all work stopped. The main architect had fallen madly in love with Bibi Khanum, and announced that he would only begin working again if she would allow him to kiss her. It so happened that the Emir was a very jealous man, and Bibi Khanum was very much afraid of him, but she was so eager to have her magnificent gift completed before her husband returned, that she consented to the kiss. However, she would grant his wish only on the condition that he kisses her through her veil. Unfortunately his kiss was so passionate, that he left a tiny trace of it on her cheek. |~|

In a few days the palace was ready. When Emir Timur returned he was very proud of the fine gift that his wife had presented to him, but all at once he noticed the trace of the kiss on Bibi Khanum's cheek. He didn't say anything about it to her, but asked her to climb with him to the top of the palace so that they could enjoy the lovely view together. He said many loving words to her, and then pushed her to her death. He grieved many days for his beloved wife, and named the palace Bibi Khanum. |~|

There are various legends on Shamun Nabi. One of them declares: Shamun Nabi was one of the religious preachers in Khorezm before the adoption of Islam. The inhabitants of these places were not Muslims before his arrival. He appeared in these towns and concealed his real intentions. Yakhiya and Zakariya, the missionaries, arrived before him at these locations and started working openly, for which they were seized and thrown into zindan (prison). [Source: Dr. Oktyabr Dospanov, |~|]

Navoi and the Builder

Once there was a young man who earned his living as a builder. He was a very kind young man, and each day on his way to work he would settle arguments between people in the street, and if someone had some kind of difficulty he would always help them. Alisher Navoi, the great distinguished poet, seeing that the young man had such a character, would always try to greet him first, which is a sign of great respect and honor in this land. The young man was surprised that Navoi had such a kind attitude toward him. [Source: Dr. Oktyabr Dospanov, |~|]

One day the builder thought, "I always help people to settle their arguments, and I always help them pull their wagons out of the mud, but I've never prayed five times each day, and I have never kept the fast, why is it that such a fine citizen as Alisher Navoi always shows me so much respect? There is no reason for it by the way I spend my life." Then, in order to be worthy of so great an honor, he said to himself, "I have no family, why do I need the world?" So he raised his hands to God, and became a believer. Every day, he would sit in the mosque and pray, never speaking to anyone as they passed.|~|

One day, as the young builder was holding the prayer beads, Navoi was passing by the mosque with a young follower, and the builder thought, "Oh, Navoi can see the future. He knew that one day I would become a religious man". And, thinking of this, he stood up, bowed, and greeted Navoi, but Navoi didn't look at him, and, indeed seemed not even to notice him. The young man excused this. He thought, perhaps, it was because the poet was talking to his young companion, that he paid no attention. After several days, Navoi passed by the mosque again. The young man again stood up and greeted him with a low bow, but again the poet paid no attention. After several days, Navoi passed by the mosque again. The young man again stood up and greeted him with a low bow, but again the poet paid no attention. |~|

The young man was surprised and asked, "Oh, my Lord, you always greeted me before, when I was not praying - when I was always among the people. But now when I am praying from morning to night, and I greet you, you simply ignore me. What is the reason?" "Oh, my son," said Navoi, "when you were among the people, you helped them, but now from morning to night you are only living from the alms of the people. This is the reason I pay no attention to you." His words went to the heart of the young builder, who again took up his former life. |~|

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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