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 professional historian):
- Around 300 B.C.: Alexander the Great conquers Central Asia and marries the Sogdian princess Roxane in Samarkand
- 8th-12th century: The Islam expands to Central Asia conquering Samarkand in 712; the Islam is adopted by local leaders
- Beginning 13th to mid 15th century: The Mongols invade Central Asia and the Timurids are their successors
- Mid 15th to mid 18th century: Uzbek Khanates – the name “Uzbekistan” takes shape
- 19th century to 1925: The Russians conquer Central Asia and install the colony Turkestan
- 1925-today: Uzbekistan becomes a Soviet Republic in 1925, and it has been an independent nation since 1991
After 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 colony and (6) Uzbekistan as a Soviet republic and a nation up to today.
4. Mid 15th to mid 18th century: Uzbek Khanates – the name “Uzbekistan” takes shape
Muhammad Shaybani (1451-1510) is originally a subaltern leader in the army of the Timurids. He is of Uzbek origin (a tribe that belongs to the Golden Horde). He fights his way to power unifying the Uzbek Khanates and establishing the dynasty of the Shaybanids. To justify his authority, he claims to descend from Uzbek Khan (1282-1341), a grand-son of Batu Khan who was a grand-son of Genghis Khan. With the Shaybanids from the Uzbek Khanate, the name Uzbekistan takes shape. First Samarkand remains the capital of the Shaybanid empire, and in 1533 the capital is moved to Bukhara. The Shaybanid dynasty lasts until about 1600.
Source: “Der grosse Plötz”
After 1600, the Uzbek Khanates disintegrate into various principalities. Until 1750, the principality of Bukhara is ruled by the Janids, also tracing their origin back to Genghis Khan.
In the early 18th century and after various wars with the Ottoman empire and the Russians, Persia rises again under Nadir Schah. Persia then loses their eastern regions to Afghanistan that now is taking form.
With the discovery of the world by the Europeans, trade moves from the Silk Road to the oceans and the silk road of Central Asia loses importance.
In Bukhara, the capital of the 16th century Shaybanid empire, we find mosques and madrasas from that time. Three examples are the Kalon Mosque with the Miri-Arab Madrasa, and the Kukeldash Madrasa.
This is the Kalon Mosque with its blue tiled entry gate or pishtak (built in 1514).
Just across is the blue tiled pishtak portal of the Miri-Arab Madrasa (built in 1536). The principle of mirroring architectural structures is common in Central Asia and is called “kosh” or “kash” (which means “mirror” or “across” in Persian). The mirroring of similar buildings conveys a monumental impression and harmony.
In 1568/69, the Kukeldash Madrasa, is built by the foster brother(=kukeldash) of Khan Abdullah II. It is the largest madrasa of Bukhara. Khan Abdullah II (1583-98) was one of the best Shaybanid Khans giving Bukhara years of cultural and economic heyday.
After 1600, the Uzbek Khanates disintegrate into various principalities, and the governor of the Samarkand principality, Yalangthush Bakhodur, completes the Registan. He adds two more madrasas: The Tylia Kori Madrasa in the middle and the Sher-Dor Madrasa to the right. The two new madrasas join the Ulugh Bek Madrasa from the 15th century, and, 200 years later, the Registan becomes this magnificent example of the kash/kosh mirroring architectural structures.
5. 19th century to 1925: The Russians conquer Central Asia and install the colony Turkestan
In the 19th century, the Russians and the Britains fight the “Great Game” for predominance in Central Asia. In 1895, they define the Amudarya (ancient Oxus river) as the border between their areas of influence – the Russians will stay north of the river Amudarya, the Britains south of it.
While the Britains focus on India and Myanmar, the Russian troops conquer Central Asia or what is now Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. In 1867 they install the governorate Turkestan with the capital Tashkent. Today’s Uzbekistan is part of Turkestan.
Source: “Der grosse Plötz”
“Russian new towns” arise around the old towns. The Russian colonists plant cotton in the steppes of Turkestan. That requires irrigation, as this view of the dry steppes around Samarkand illustrates (taken from the Hazrat Daud Cave, the Cave of David, an important Usbek pilgrimage site).
6. 1925-today: Uzbekistan becomes a Soviet Republic in 1925, and it has been an independent nation since 1991
In 1924/25 Uzbekistan becomes the Uzbek Socialist Soviet Republic, the borders of which are finalized in 1963. Since 1930, Tashkent has been the capital. More Russians move into Uzbekistan, some not voluntarily. Education and industrialization are promoted. The irrigation of the cotton plantations leads to the drying out of the Aral Sea. Buildings are made with Soviet style precast concrete slabs; they are decorated which gives them a somewhat Asian charm. Tashkent is destroyed by an earthquake in 1966 (7 to 8 on the Richter scale) and the Soviets rebuild it with large open spaces – it should be the showcase for a modern Soviet city.
In September 1st 1991, Uzbekistan becomes independent. Islom Karimov, already president of the Soviet Republic since 1990, remains until 2016, strict and distrustful. Then Shavkat Mirziyoev takes over. He brings a fresh wind, including currency liberalization and abolishing tourist visas. We benefited from that, when traveling to Uzbekistan and we wish the country all the best to successfully progress with the reforms.
Source: “Der grosse Plötz”
Uzbekistan is a multicultural nation. 70% of the population are Uzbeks of Turkish origin and 5% (perhaps more) are Tadjiks of Persian origin. The coat of arms, though, is a bird that belongs to the Persian mythology: Xumo/Humo or Simorgh. The share of the Russian population diminishes (in 2019 about 5%), but Russian is still widely spoken. The alphabet used is a mix of Latin and Cyrillic and what you see, is a mix of languages between local, Russian and English.
The primary religion is sunnite, not only among the Uzbeks and the representatives of the other Turkish peoples, but also for the Tajiks that are of Persian origin. Sufism has a long tradition here; for them, the relation of individuals with God is central. One of the most important ordens are the Naqshband the founder of which is Bahauddin Naqshband of Bukhara (14th century, Dumont, p. 334).
A good example for Soviet style precast concrete slab buildings is the Hotel Usbekistan in Tashkent. The square with Timur illustrates the open spaces that should make Tashkent a Soviet showcase, in particular after the earthquake of 1966.
In 1976, the earthquake memorial is unveiled directly above the epicentre which was in the very city centre.
The business centre Poytakht (Бизнес центр Пойтахт) is a good example for the “Asian touch” of modern buildings in Tashkent.
Let us next look at the blue oasis cities Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand in more detail.
Sources: “Der grosse Plötz – Atlas zur Weltgeschichte”, Komet Verlag, Köln 2008; 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; Markus Ackeret: “Usbekistans Ambitionen in Zentralasien”, NZZ, 5. März 2020 and various wiki entries.