A brief history of Uzbekistan

This blog post is written to give context to my blog post on the recent trip to Uzbekistan – Once Again along the Silk Route…

Uzbekistan is a potpourri of civilizations across Asia. While the original inhabitants were of Indo-Iranian origins, they were raided, destroyed and ruled repeatedly by a number of rulers. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion in Central Asia, with parts of Uzbekistan being mentioned as the second (holiest) land that Ahura Mazda created. The first major intruders were the Arabs in the 7th/8th century, who brought Islam replacing Zoroastrianism and the co-prevalent Buddhism.  This brought in an era of great learning and culture, as also architecture to Uzbekistan. Genghis Khan from Mongolia, invaded in the 13th century causing great destruction and leaving behind a legacy that would go on to rule Central Asia in the form of the Timurids, and much closer to us, to rule South Asia in the form of Mughals (from Mongols). Amir Temur, the great celebrated ruler established Samarkand as his capital and went on to conquer the rest of Central Asia, Iran, Asia Minor and almost India. He died during an invasion of China, after which the kingdom fell into pieces to local Uzbek tribes.

Babur (very famous in our history textbooks as the first Mughal Emperor of India) was a direct descendant of Timur, and born in Uzbekistan. He became the ruler of Ferghana province. Though of Mongol origin, his tribe had embraced Turkic and Persian culture and converted to Islam. Samarkand was his lifelong obsession. He laid siege on Samarkand almost twice around the 1500s but eventually lost it. In his efforts to build up a strong army, he crossed over the snowy Himalayas/Hindukush into Kabul. By then he had lost complete control of Ferghana. Giving up hopes on Ferghana and Samarkand, he diverted his attention towards Delhi. The First Battle of Panipat in 1526 marked the beginning of the Mughal Empire in India!

Growing marine trade, in the meanwhile, reduced the usage of the original Silk Route over land. This, and their endless internal wars, weakened the Uzbek tribes. Continuous struggles with the Persians from Iran left them isolated from the Islamic world. Kazakh and Mongol tribal invasions left the Uzbek tribes weaker. The Russians smelt sweetness in the air and moved towards Central Asia not just for territorial enhancements, but to gain control over the trade, and more importantly secure a permanent source of cotton. To this day, cotton and textiles are one of the largest industries in Uzbekistan. The Russian conquest was completed in the 19th century. In all of these invasions, the Jewish community was the most affected (read about the Bukharan Jews). Repeated conversions and severe discrimination lead them to migrate to other places in the world. Today, Nowroz is celebrated in Uzbekistan as a national holiday!

Post the Russian conquest, the Soviet era brought different kinds of hardships for the people. However, the World War II brought a lot of industries to Uzbekistan and other nearby SSRs. In came the Russians who not only mixed with the locals, but also Russified the country and created large cities, especially Tashkent! Resentment, uprisings and coups followed. The Cold War further weakened USSR and the Soviet Socialist Republics broke out into independent countries in 1991.

Independent Uzbekistan under Islam Karimov (who has been the President ever since) has been classified as a hard authoritarian regime with little or no civil society promotion. The administration has been criticized internationally on grounds of human rights and press freedom. Though more than 90% of the population is Muslim, Islam continues in a very unusually subdued manner. There are no Muezzin calls to be heard, Hijab has been banned, and the people drink alcohol freely.

Phew, that got a little longer that I expected, but this is necessary to relate to what you’d see in the following photos. I am not sure I’ve done equal amount of research on any other country, not even India! But this is the beginning and very interesting!

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