Uzbekistan: History, Culture and the Silk Road

Kieran Meeke / 12 October 2016

Discover the history and culture of Uzbekistan, a historic country at the the heart of the Great Silk Road through Central Asia.



Discover more about Central Asia, a region once very much at the heart of the ancient Silk Road. Find out more here.

History

Samarkand celebrated its 2,750th anniversary in 2007. For most of those centuries, its name has been a byword for adventure and romance, its fame spread throughout the known world due to its strategic position on the Silk Road where the route from China forks south towards India and west towards Imperial Rome.

When Alexander the Great besieged the city in 329BC (and later married the legendary beauty Roxana, daughter of a local nobleman) it was surrounded by a wall almost ten miles in length.

The conqueror brought a relative peace that allowed a vast swathe of Central Asia to prosper as a trading route between East and West.

By the eighth century, an Arab invasion had converted the region to Islam and Samarkand’s sister city of Bukhara started its growth into a major centre of Muslim learning.

Samarkand, Bukhara, Kokand and Khiva remained independent states late into the 18th century but became part of Tsarist Russia before merging into Soviet Uzbekistan only in 1929. The Soviet legacy can still be seen in the battered Lada cars and sometimes tedious bureaucracy at borders and hotels.

Tashkent was made the capital in the mid 1800s and Islam was forced underground after the Revolution in 1917. Independence has seen a resurgence of both nationalism and (much less so) Islam with the former centred on the figure of Timur the Great, better known as Tamerlane in the west.

His statue has replaced the giant figures of Stalin and Lenin that once dominated public squares. Taking Chingis (Genghis) Khan as his role model, Timur sacked Baghdad, Damascus and Delhi among many other great cities.

He has a cruel reputation but he also brought back artisans, poets and musicians in Armenian, Syrian, Turk and especially Persian communities who joined the Chinese and many other peoples of his capital.

The faces you see around you in Uzbekistan today reflect this melting pot of cultures, with blonde hair, fair complexions and blue eyes still a common if unexpected sight here in the heart of Asia.

The History of the Silk Road: discover the history of the world's most famous trade route

Culture and traditions.

Government-sponsored Imams lead Friday prayers, but there are few other signs of devotion. The turquoise domes of mosques or madrasas dominate many cities but they are more likely to be filled with tourists and the click of camera shutters than the quiet hum of worship. “Working” mosques tend to be more discreet but equally welcoming and in some ways more interesting.

A nomadic past produced a culture where women wore their treasures about them and dance and music were more important that weightier artefacts.

Fashion shows or music festivals will show how important fabrics or oral history remain in day-to-day life, particularly as the country tries to revive its past glory.

Local cuisine

Uzbekistan’s cuisine is not world famous for a reason. The country’s large sheep herds and Soviet history combine to produce fat-heavy mutton dishes fried in cottonseed oil and meals where taste is washed away with cheap vodka.

But things are changing fast and Tashkent in particular has a number of good restaurants, while tourism is raising standards everywhere. It’s even possible to find vegetables on the menu now.

A highlight is the bread, which comes in flat round loaves stamped with a decorative chiqish made from pins hammered into a wooden handle. Every region has its own style, with Tashkent’s being lighter and fluffier than the non (think “naan”) of Samarkand or Bukhara. It can be found everywhere, with hawkers carrying stacks besieging trains at every stop, and is served with every meal.

Other specialities to look out for are palov and Uygur lagman, its noodles showing the Chinese influence of the Silk Road.

Palov (pilaf) is cooked in a large wok, with carefully separated layers of mutton, vegetables and rice, then served into a large communal plate in reverse order with the mutton on top.

The local custom is to help yourself but leave the meat until last to make sure everyone has a fair share. It’s a sign of the lingering habits of the nomad people, where kindness to travellers is the real hospitality being offered.

Don’t miss a teahouse where groups of friends drink green tea and gossip. In this still-traditional society, it’s usually groups of men but that need not put off the traveller as a warm welcome is guaranteed and someone will speak at least a smattering of English.

Full of eastern promise, Uzbekistan is a delight for travellers seeking age-old monuments, mosques and mausoleums Find out more here.

Shopping

Close your eyes in an Uzbek market and you can imagine yourself back into the romance of the Silk Road. The cries of hawkers and the many languages around you must be little changed from when traders met here from East and West.

Maybe the smells are better now that luxury tour buses have replaced epic camel caravans, but the haggling for bargains remains. Handmade carpets, hammered brass and shiny silver jewellery, colourful spices, shaggy sheep-fur hats and richly embroidered clothes also conjure up the past.

It’s hard to escape cheap Chinese plastics and mass-produced clothes as well but perhaps that’s a healthy sign that the markets are also still relevant to everyday life in a country where incomes remain low.

The carpets you see will seldom be made in Uzbekistan. “Bukhara” carpets are actually from Turkmenistan, while many others will be from Afghanistan (or even machine-made in China). But don’t let that put you off if you see one you like.

For a more authentic local product, look for an embroidered cotton suzani. These were traditionally made by a bride as a part of her dowry and used as a bedspread or pillow cover. Pomegranates are one common design but each is unique and they make a lovely souvenir that is easy to pack.

Places you should visit

The cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva remain the main attractions but the capital, Tashkent, should not overlooked. 

Tashkent

Part of Tashkent's appeal is that the capital is not over-run with tourists and you can experience a more authentic side to Uzbekistan.

The soaring Soviet architecture of its grand museums and art galleries conceals few gems but their displays give an interesting overview of the country’s long history and rich culture. Its Navoi Opera House is one of the best in Asia, with great acoustics and a romantic faded grandeur, while the Telyashayakh Mosque holds the world’s oldest Qur’an, dating to 655 and written on gazelle skins.

The ancient rolling stock in the Railway Museum also makes for a quirky attraction, while the Metro will remind you of the wonders of the more famous Moscow one. The country’s modern and efficient train network is the best way to move on to the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. 

Samarkand

Samarkand’s heart is the Registan, where three great domed madrasas offer a view that will fill your camera’s memory card.

The oldest dates to 1420 and the newest to 1660 but they have been restored in recent decades to show off their full glory. The madrasas were a centre of learning, producing philosophers, doctors, lawyers, scientists and clergymen, not to mention poets such as Omar Khayyam, who moved here in 1070 after a time spent in Bukhara.

“Registan” means “sandy place” but this vast square where Silk Road traders once met is now thronged with visitors from even more diverse corners of the globe.

The nearby Observatory of Ulugh Beg is another wonder of Islamic learning. In the mid-1400s, its 70 astronomers calculated the stellar year to an accuracy that modern electronic calculations place at only about 60 seconds out.

Bukhara

Bukhara is more intimate, with brick buildings on a more human scale. Its symbol is the Kalyan Minaret, a beautiful tapering tower once supposedly used to execute criminals by throwing them off the top.

That is probably a myth but the 1,500-year-old Ark – a towering, deliberately intimidating, mud-brick fortress – is genuinely infamous for the beheading of two British soldiers in 1842. That may have been a welcome release after months in the Ark’s “Bug Pit” – where the guards emptied a fresh bucket of scorpions and other insects every day. 

The tenth-century Samanid Mausoleum is one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, made of exquisitely patterned mud bricks that change in appearance during the day as the shadows move from sunrise and sunset.

This tiny dome stands in a lovely garden whose greenery is a stark contrast to its earth-coloured walls. It is a gem of early Islamic architecture and a direct influence on the Taj Mahal.

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Khiva

Ancient Khiva – said to have been named by one of the sons of Noah – is off the main tourist trail and therefore all the more appealing. The Unesco-listed inner town dates to the tenth century and is still encircled by a 17th-century wall.

Many visitors also experience a home-stay in the lovely Nuratau Mountains, whose fertile valleys offer a welcome contrast to the dusty plains that dominate much of the rest of the landscape.

You’ll also find some of the best food in Uzbekistan and the chance to enjoy mountain walks and evenings really getting to know the life of local people.

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