Discovering Uzbek history mirrored in world history (Alexander the Great, Islam and the Mongols)

End of September/beginning of October 2019, I  am in Uzbekistan. I want to find out about the roots of the Uzbeks and identify the following six highlights in their history mirrored in world history (note that I am not a historian by profession):

  1. Around 300 B.C.: Alexander the Great conquers Central Asia and marries the Sogdian princess Roxane in Samarkand
  2. 8th-12th century: The Islam expands to Central Asia conquering Samarkand in 712; the Islam is adopted by local leaders
  3. Beginning 13th to mid 15th century: The Mongols invade Central Asia, and the Timurids are their successors
  4. Mid 15th to mid 18th century: Uzbek Khanates – the name “Uzbekistan” takes shape
  5. 19th century to 1925: The Russians conquer Central Asia and install the colony Turkestan
  6. 1925-today: Uzbekistan becomes a Soviet Republic in 1925, and it has been an independent nation since 1991

Let us start with the first three highlights, Alexander the Great, Islamic expansion and the Mongols.


1. Around 300 B.C.: Alexander the Great conquers Central Asia and marries the Sogdian princess Roxane in Samarkand

After having defeated the king of Persia, Dareios III, in Issos (333 B.C.), Alexander the Great invades the Persian empire of the Archaemenids which comprised the Middle East (including Egypt) and Central Asia up to the river Indus and to the Hindu Kush. What is Uszbekistan today belonged to Sogdia (mainly located beyond the river Oxus (now Amudarya), the area was called Transoxiana). In Marakanda (today: Samarkand), Alexander marries Roxane in 327 B.C.. She is the daughter of the local chieftain. When Alexander dies in 323 B.C., his empire is divided into four parts, whereby the eastern part becomes the empire of the Seleucids. Roxane and her son are murdered in the successor fights.

Source: Der grosse Plötz

Today, no monuments are left from this time, though Greek culture and art made a long-lasting impact here.

About the marriage of Alexander and Roxane, Händel has composed an opera called “Alessandro” that was premiered in 1725.


2. 8th-12th century: The Islam expands to Central Asia conquering Samarkand in 712; the Islam is adopted by local leaders

Muhammed, based on his monotheistic religion, unifies the (formerly competing) Arab tribes. Muhammed dies In 632.The Arabs rapidly expand not only to the west (invading Spain in 711 and being pushed back in France at Poitiers in 732), but also at the same time, they expand to the east. In 712 they definitively conquer Marakanda (later: Samarkand) which becomes a cultural and intellectual centre of the Islam.

Around 800, the Samanids take over power in the area of Transoxiana (or where Uzbekistan is today). They are of Persian origin and claim to be the successors of the Sasanians who had ruled over Persia from 224 to 651 AD. The Samanids report into the caliphate of the Abbasids in Baghdad. In the 12th century the Kara-Khanids succeed the Samanids. The Kara-Khanids are of Turkish origin. Until today Persian and Turkish heritage have cohabitated in what is Uzbekistan now.

Source: Der grosse Plötz

The capital of the Samanids is Bukhara. Trade and culture at Buchara thrive. Under Mansur I (961-976) and Nuh II (976-997) Buchara is the centre of Persian culture and contributes to the rise of the new Persian language. Rudaki (858/59-941) was an important Persian poet (his master piece was “Kalila wa Dimna”, a collection of fables; note that Persian/Farsi is an Indo-Germanic language).

We find monuments from the area of the Samanids and the Kara-Khanids in Bukhara.

This is the Samanid mausoleum where Ismail I is buried. It is the oldest Islamic building in Central Asia that still exists. Raw terracotta bricks make the magnificent patterns – just charming.

The elegant Kalon Minaret (12th century, also a pattern created by raw bricks, adorned with one narrow band of blue tiles)… and

… the Magoki Attari Mosque are from the times, when Bukhara was the capital of the empire of the (Turkish) Kara Khanids.

This is cultural heritage from pre Mongolian times.


3. Beginning 13th to mid 15th century: The Mongols invade Central Asia, and the Timurids are their successors

Genghis Khan (1206-1227) unifies the peoples of the steppe of Central Asia and conquers a large part of Asia and Northern China. His son Ögedei (1229-1241) takes over and his grand-son Batu invades Asia Minor and conquers most Russian principalities, except Novgorod. In 1241 Batu wins battles in Hungary and Poland, but then Ögedei dies and struggling for a successor halts the advance of the Mongols in Europe. In 1259, Möngke, the last Khan of the united Mongolian empire, dies. Now, the Mongolian empire disintegrates into four khanates:

  • China: Kublai Khan, a grand-son of Genghis Khan, founds the Yuan dynasty that last until 1380. It is the Mongolian emperors from the Yuan dynasty that Marco Polo (1254-1324) tells us about, when visiting in China.
  • Khanate of the Ilkhanes: Founded by Hülegü, a grand-son of Genghis Khan, it includes Persia, and the rulers adopt the Islam.
  • Khanate of the Golden Horde: Founded by grand-son Batu, the Golden Horde governs the Russian principalities until 1505. The Golden Horde converts to the Islam in the 14th century.
  •  Khanate Chagatai: Founded by Chagatai, a son of Genghis Khan, it includes, what is Uzbekistan today.

Source: Der grosse Plötz

However, borders of the Khanates change in the late 14th century. The green line on the map shows the empire of Timur (1360-1405). Timur was a lower level noble man from Transoxania (from today’s Uzbekistan). He gains control over the western Chagatai Khanate and the Empire of the Ilkhanes. Timur is a successful warlord. He weakens the Golden Horde (which marks the beginning the liberation of Russia that will be completed in 1505). In addition Timur defeats the Ottomans near Ankara in 1402 which gives Europe and Byzantium a break from the Ottoman attacks. Timur’s empire thrives economically due to internal peace, free trade routes and the post system based on messengers.

Timur believes that he needs Mongolian heritage to justify his authority, and he marries Bibi Khanym who is a descendent of Genghis Khan. Timur makes Samarkand (formerly Marakanda) the capital of his empire.

His grand-son, Ulugh Bek (1394-1445), is not only the ruler, but also an excellent mathematician and astronomer. His astronomic maps were used for centuries to navigate the world oceans. He is murdered by his own son.

It is interesting to note that Babur (1504-1530) was another descendent of Timur. In 1525, Babur conquers Delhi and founds the Mogul Dynasty in Northern India.

We meet Timur all over the country. He is venerated for being the founder of Uzbekistan, for instance riding his horse at Taschkent…

… or sitting on his throne, surrounded by traffic in Samarkand.

Timur is buried in Samarkand, in the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum. This is Persian for “Tomb of the King”.

Inside are the sarcophagi of some Timurids and some close companions.

For his main wife, Timur builds the Bibi Khanym Mosque (he has to get permission from the Imams to devote a mosque to a woman).

Ulugh Bekh establishes his center of mathematical and astronomical research in Samarkand from which the sextant of his observatory remains.

In addition Ulugh Bekh promotes education in his empire; the Madrasa of Bukhara tells about that.

Also Samarkand has its Ulugh Bek madrasa at the Registan Square – it is the building to the left of this beautiful place.

The two other buildings at the Registan will  be added in the 17th century.

Sources: “Der grosse Plötz – Atlas zur Weltgeschichte”, Komet Verlag, Köln 2008; Burchard Brentjes: “Die Araber”, Ex Libris Zürich 1977; Isa Ducke and Natascha Thoma, “Usbekistan”, Dumont Reisehandbuch, Ostfildern 2017; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag, Berlin 2019; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Reise durch Usbekistan”, Stürtz, Verlagshaus Würzburg 2018; Sanjeev Mehan, “Ein vergessenes Land holt auf”, Tagesanzeiger 21. September 2019 and various wiki entries.

2 thoughts on “Discovering Uzbek history mirrored in world history (Alexander the Great, Islam and the Mongols)

  1. […] having discussed the first three highlights in my former blog, I now intend to look at the second three highlights, (4) the Uzbek Khanates, (5) the Russian […]

  2. […] (1336-1405) made Samarkand the capital of the large empire that he had conquered (see my history blog). His statue stands at the border between the old city centre and the Russian new city that emerged […]

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