The rich history of Uzbekistan is one of the country’s greatest draws for tourists. This area has been continually inhabited for more than 10,000 years, and the land has witnessed the rise and fall of some of the greatest empires that the world has ever known. Famous leaders from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, Emperor Timur to General Kaufmann all played a role in shaping Uzbekistan as you see it today. Whether you are awed by ancient archeology, mad about medieval monuments, or curious about the legacy of Communism, a visit to Uzbekistan has something to thrill every kind of history lover.
ANCIENT HISTORY OF UZBEKISTAN Uzbekistan’s human history began more than 10,000 years ago. Stone-Age hunters carved their artworks onto rocks in Sarmishsoy and Sentob in Navoi Region, depicting not only the animals they saw, but also the religious rituals they performed. By the Bronze-Age, nomads began to settle the northern grasslands. They lived mostly along river valleys and hunted and farmed the fertile land, building irrigation channels to bring water to drought-prone areas. Their descendants, the Scythians (also known as Sakas) established an empire stretching from Khorezm in the west to the Fergana Valley in the east. The Scythians were skilled raiders, bred and rode strong horses, and forged sophisticated iron weapons. They dominated neighbouring tribes.
Cyrus the Great, the Achemenid king of Persia, finally defeated the Scythians near the Aral Sea in 530 BC, and his successors divided their territory into three states: Bactria, Sogdia, and Tokharia. Merchants, goods, and ideas began travelling along what we now know as the Silk Road in ever greater numbers, and settlements along the way became rich with the profits of trade. One of the richest and most powerful Silk Road cities of all was Marakanda, the capital of the Sogdians. Today, we know Marakanda as Samarkand.
Alexander the Great conquered Samarkand in 329 BC. He married Roxana, the daughter of a Bactrian chief, and in doing so laid the foundations for the Graeco-Bactrian Empire. Alexander established the city of Kampir Tepe (known to Ptolemy as Alexandria on the Oxus) near Termez, and also built the Nurata Fortress in Navoi Region.
The Silk Road continued to thrive, and Uzbekistan was a melting pot of cultures and ideas from as far away as India and China, Turkey and Europe. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion, but there were also strong communities of Buddhists and Manicheans, Christians and Jews.
ARAB INVASION OF CENTRAL ASIA The Arab’s first entered Central Asia in 649 AD during their conquest of Persia. General Qutaybah ibn Muslim seized what is now Uzbekistan, introducing Islam, and he took control of Khorezm, Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent. The general got as far east as Fergana, but there his troops mutinied and killed him. Power in the area shifted from the Sogdians to the Arabs, and Arab dominance was confirmed once they drove out the Chinese at the Battle of Talas in 751. There was a cultural shift, too. Gradually Islam replaced Zoroastrianism as the main religion, and Arabic replaced Sogdian as the language at court.
Being part of the Islamic World brought a new era of commerce and scholarship to Uzbekistan, and the 8th and 9th centuries are generally considered to be a golden age for culture. The wealth of Bukhara, and the fame of its scholars, rivalled that of Baghdad and Cairo. Men such as Abu Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Rudaki pushed the boundaries of knowledge, and we still study their texts today.
Regional empires developed, too. Ismail Ibn Ahmad, the ruler of Bukhara, united a series of independent provinces under his Samanid Empire. The Karakhanids (Turkic nomads from the Central Asian steppe) joined forces with Turkic slave soldiers from the Samanid army in 999 and briefly formed their own state. The Ghaznavids from Afghanistan, Seljuks from Turkmenistan, and Mongol Karakhitai rose and fell.
GENGHIS KHAN AND THE MONGOL INVASION Muhammad II of Khorezm saw himself as the second Alexander. He stormed Samarkand in 1212 and thought that he was invincible. He wasn’t. Genghis Khan had already conquered two-thirds of China and large swathes of what is now Kazakhstan. He thought that Khorezm would be a suitable trading partner and sent emissaries and a caravan of merchants. Muhammad II slaughtered them on the road, and consequently the entire military might of the Mongols turned on Uzbekistan. The entire population of Termez was killed. It’s estimated that 1 million people died in Urgench. And in Samarkand, only 50,000 inhabitants — out of a total population of 1 million — lived.
The Mongol invasion was a turning point for Central Asia. It broke Islamic hegemony, replacing it with a Turkic identity; it razed cities to the ground, destroying any pre-13th-century architecture; and it gave the region’s population much of the genetic make-up it has today. When Genghis Khan died in 1227, his empire was divided among his four sons. From the ashes of Central Asia came the Pax Mongolica, a century or so of relative peace.
THE TIMURID EMPIRE Amir Timur, Uzbekistan’s national hero and one of the most accomplished warriors, rulers and patrons the world has ever seen, was born in Shakhrisabz in 1336. He became chief of the Barlas clan in 1360 and steadily increased his influence from the Amu Darya to the Syr Darya. In the process he incurred various injuries including one to his leg, which earned him his nickname: Timur-i Leng (Timur the lame, or Tamerlane in English).
In 1370 Timur conquered the last surviving Mongol khanate. For the next 35 years he ruthlessly expanded his territories across central Asia, Iran, Turkey and northern India. Timur made Samarkand his capital, and he rebuilt and expanded it with the finest artisans and materials his empire could offer. He patronised scientists and other scholars, and Samarkand became a centre for intellectuals and religion. Its architecture was the envy of the Islamic world, and it is the finest of these Timurid buildings that we all marvel upon today.
The Timurid Empire did not survive long after Timur’s death: his sons and grandsons had been appointed to governorships in different parts of the empire, but they lacked the diplomatic and military skills of Timur. Timur’s grandson, Ulugbeg, clung on to Samarkand, but prioritised scholarship and, in particular, his personal pursuit of astronomy over matters of state. Uzbek tribes, led by Muhammad Shaybani, were therefore able to seize much of Central Asia, and Uzbekistan entered into a new era of khanates.
THE KHANATES The khanates were regional kingdoms controlled by a khan, self-proclaimed successors to Genghis Khan. The most powerful of these was the Khanate of Bukhara, ruled by the Shaybanid dynasty. Muhammad Shaybani (r.1500-10) took advantage of the disintegration of the Timurid Empire to seize Balkh, Bukhara, Herat, and Samarkand, and his descendants went on to found and rule not only the Khanate of Bukhara, but also the Khanate of Khiva. The third khanate, the Khanate of Kokand, was in the Fergana Valley.
Under Shaybanid rule, Bukhara was a major centre of the arts and Islamic learning. Many of the finest surviving buildings date from this period of wealth and patronage. The city was packed with poets and calligraphers, dervishes and physicians, theologians and mathematicians. The library of Abd al-Aziz Khan was said to have no equal anywhere in the world.
The 17th and 18th centuries were a difficult period for Uzbekistan: Silk Road trade was in decline, and the strength of the Shi’ite Safavids in Iran had isolated Central Asia from other Sunni territories in the Middle East. Bandits and slave traders plagued those caravans that did brave the steppe; the Persian Nadir Shah marched through almost unopposed in 1740, medieval weaponry no match for his modern artillery; and Russian generals were starting to take a serious interest in the lands beyond their southern border.
Central Asia’s khanates had become emirates: this was not out of respect for Amir Timur, however, but rather to show that their allegiances and culture lay with the Islamic world, the dominant power block at the time, rather than with their Mongol past. The Emirate of Bukhara (1785-1920) remained the most powerful of the three, and was ruled by a succession of colourful emirs. Though some of them were undoubtedly competent, others lived up to the European stereotype of the eastern despots, and tales of their excesses and cruelty spread to Russia and beyond.
When the Russian ruler Peter the Great sent an expedition to Khiva in 1717, it was the first time tsarist forces had officially set foot on Uzbek soil. They were slaughtered, but would be back, first invited in as allies and protectors against rival khanates, and later as invading forces. Russian forces entered Tashkent (1865), Bukhara (1867), Samarkand (1868), Khiva (1873), and finally Kokand (1875); they all became Russian protectorates. The expansion of Russia into Central Asia caused great concern for the British, who saw it as a stepping stone en route to British India, the jewel in the imperial crown. The Great Game ensued, each side vying for influence and territory.
THE SOVIET UNION The Bolshevik Revolution took place in 1917, and communism emerged as the dominant ideology from the melting pot of socialism, pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism, all of which were poised to guide the next generation of Central Asia’s rulers. It was not a smooth transition, however, as White Russians, the Basmachi, British agents and a host of other resistance fighters opposed the Red Army.
An independent Jadist state, led by reformist Muslims, was briefly established in Kokand, but the matter was settled in 1920 when General Mikhail Frunze stormed through and established the Soviet Republic of Turkestan. The People’s Republic of Khorezm was set up in parallel in Khiva. These gave way to the Uzbek SSR in 1924. Controversially, Stalin created these new states on the basis of perceived ethnicity (thus reducing the likelihood of a united Islamic opposition), but included the Tajik-majority cities of Bukhara and Samarkand in the Uzbek state. Uzbek-majority Khujand was given to the Tajik SSR, and a large number of Uzbeks were cut off inside the new Kyrgyz SSR.
The 1930s brought Stalinist purges to Uzbekistan. Religion, tolerated for the first few years of Soviet rule, was seen as a threat that must be eradicated. Imams were killed, going on hajj was banned, and those determined to keep their faith had to do so in the strictest secrecy. Madrassas (Islamic schools) and mosques were closed, many of them converted into warehouses or social clubs.
It was not all negative, however. Uzbekistan’s economy modernised and grew rapidly as part of the USSR. For the first time the entire population had access to a secular education, and men and women studied and worked together. Uzbekistan’s cities became increasingly cosmopolitan, with immigrants from across the Soviet Union coming to live and work. Though many of these were originally exiled to Central Asia, they became well integrated, bound together by a shared Soviet identity and by the Russian language.