Uzbeks likely take their name from a khan. A leader of the Golden Horde
in the fourteenth century was named Uzbek, though he did not rule over the
people who would share his name.
Modern Uzbeks hail not only from the Turkic-Mongol nomads who first
claimed the name, but also from other Turkic and Persian peoples living
inside the country’s borders. The Soviets, in an effort to divide
the Turkic people into more easily governable subdivisions, labeled Turks,
Tajiks, Sarts, Qipchaqs, Khojas, and others as Uzbek, doubling the size of
the ethnicity to four million in 1924.
Today the government is strengthening the Uzbek group identity, to prevent
the splintering seen in other multiethnic states. Some people have
assimilated with seemingly little concern. Many Tajiks consider themselves
Uzbek, though they retain the Tajik language; this may be because they
have long shared an urban lifestyle, which was more of a bond than ethnic
labels. Others have been more resistant to Uzbekization. Many Qipchaqs
eschew intermarriage, live a nomadic lifestyle, and identify more closely
with the Kyrgyz who live across the border from them. The Khojas also
avoid intermarriage, and despite speaking several languages, have retained
a sense of unity.
The Karakalpaks, who live in the desert south of the Aral Sea, have a
separate language and tradition more akin to Kazakh than Uzbek. Under the
Soviet Union, theirs was a separate republic, and it remains autonomous.
Location and Geography.
Uzbekistan’s 174,330 square miles (451,515 square kilometers), an
area slightly larger than California, begin in the Karakum (Black Sand)
and Kyzlkum (Red Sand) deserts of Karakalpakistan. The arid land of this
autonomous republic supports a nomadic lifestyle. Recently, the drying up
of the Aral Sea has devastated the environment, causing more than 30
percent of the area’s population to leave, from villages in the
early 1980s and then from cities. This will continue; the area was hit by
a devastating drought in the summer of 2000.
Population increases to the east, centered around fertile oases and the
valleys of the Amu-Darya River, once known as the Oxus, and the Zeravshan
River, which supports the ancient city-states of Bokhara and Samarkand.
The Ferghana Valley in the east is the heart of Islam in Uzbekistan. Here,
where the country is squeezed between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the
mountainous terrain supports a continuing nomadic lifestyle, and in recent
years has provided a venue for fundamentalist guerrillas. Kazakhstan,
Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan also border the country. In 1867 the Russian
colonial government moved the capital from Bokhara to Tashkent. With 2.1
million people, it is the largest city in Central Asia.
The current population of Uzbekistan is 24.8 million. Seventy-five to 80
percent are Uzbek, though many of these were originally from other ethnic
groups. Russians and Tajiks are each 5 percent, Karakalpaks 2 percent, and
other nationalities the remainder. From 1989 to 1996, five hundred
thousand more people emigrated than immigrated; most of the emigrants were
educated. Of the more than one million people who have left, essentially
all were non-Uzbek. Cities like Andijan and Ferghana, whose populations
had been only half Uzbek, are now virtually entirely Uzbek. In 1990,
600,000 Germans lived in Uzbekistan; 95
percent have left. In 1990, 260,000 Jews lived in Uzbekistan; 80 percent
Uzbek is the language of about twenty million Uzbeks living in
Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. The language is Turkic
and abounds with dialects, including Qarlug (which served as the literary
language for much of Uzbek history), Kipchak, Lokhay, Oghuz, Qurama, and
Sart, some of which come from other languages. Uzbek emerged as a distinct
language in the fifteenth century. It is so close to modern Uyghur that
speakers of each language can converse easily. Prior to Russian
colonization it would often have been hard to say where one Turkic
language started and another ended. But through prescribed borders, shifts
in dialect coalesced into distinct languages. The Soviets replaced its
Arabic script briefly with a Roman script and then with Cyrillic. Since
independence there has been a shift back to Roman script, as well as a
push to eliminate words borrowed from Russian.
About 14 percent of the population—mostly non-Uzbek—speak
Russian as their first language; 5 percent speak Tajik. Most Russians do
not speak Uzbek. Under the Soviet Union, Russian was taught as the Soviet
lingua franca, but Uzbek was supported as the indigenous language of the
republic, ironically resulting in the deterioration of other native
languages and dialects. Today many people still speak Russian, but the
government is heavily promoting Uzbek.
Symbols of Uzbekistan’s independence and past glories are most
common. The flag and national colors—green for nature, white for
peace, red for life, and blue for water—adorn murals and walls. The
twelve stars on the flag symbolize the twelve regions of the country. The
crescent moon, a symbol of Islam, is common, though its appearance on the
national flag is meant not as a
religious symbol but as a metaphor for rebirth. The mythical bird Semurg
on the state seal also symbolizes a national renaissance. Cotton, the
country’s main source of wealth, is displayed on items from the
state seal to murals to teacups. The architectures of Samara and Bukhara
also symbolize past achievements.
Amir Timur, who conquered a vast area of Asia from his seat in Samarkand
in the fourteenth century, has become a major symbol of Uzbek pride and
potential and of the firm but just and wise ruler—a useful image
for the present government, which made 1996 the Year of Amir Timur. Timur
lived more than a century before the Uzbeks reached Uzbekistan.
Independence Day, 1 September, is heavily promoted by the government, as
is Navruz, 21 March, which highlights the country’s folk culture.
History and Ethnic Relations
Emergence of the Nation.
The Uzbeks coalesced by the fourteenth century in southern Siberia,
starting as a loose coalition of Turkic-Mongol nomad tribes who converted
to Islam. In the first half of the fifteenth century Abu al-Khayr Khan, a
descendant of Genghis Khan, led them south, first to the steppe and
semidesert north of the Syr-Daria River. At this time a large segment of
Uzbeks split off and headed east to become the Kazakhs. In 1468
Abu’l Khayr was killed by a competing faction, but by 1500 the
Uzbeks had regrouped under Muhammad Shaybani Khan, and invaded the fertile
land of modern Uzbekistan. They expelled Amir Timur’s heirs from
Samarkand and Herat and took over the city-states of Khiva, Khojand, and
Bokhara, which would become the Uzbek capital. Settling down, the Uzbeks
traded their nomadism for urban living and agriculture.
The first century of Uzbek rule saw a flourishing of learning and the
arts, but the dynasty then slid into decline, helped by the end of the
Silk Route trade. In 1749 invaders from Iran defeated Bokhara and Khiva,
breaking up the Uzbek Empire and replacing any group identity with the
division between Sarts, or city dwellers, and nomads. What followed was
the Uzbek emirate of Bokhara and Samarkand, and the khanates of Khiva and
Kokand, who ruled until the Russian takeover.
Russia became interested in Central Asia in the eighteenth century,
concerned that the British might break through from colonial India to
press its southern flank. Following more than a century of indecisive
action, Russia in 1868 invaded Bokhara, then brutally subjugated Khiva in
1873. Both were made Russian protectorates. In 1876, Khokand was annexed.
All were subsumed into the Russian province of Turkistan, which soon saw
the arrival of Russian settlers.
The 1910s produced the Jadid reform movement, which, though short-lived,
sought to establish a community beholden neither to Islamic dogma nor to
Russian colonists, marking the first glimmer of national identity in many
years. With the Russian Revolution in 1917 grew hopes of independence, but
by 1921 the Bolsheviks had reasserted control. In 1924 Soviet planners
drew the borders for the soviet socialist republics of Uzbekistan and
Karakalpakistan, based around the dominant ethnic groups. In 1929
Tajikstan was split off from the south of Uzbekistan, causing lasting
tension between the two; many Uzbeks regard Tajiks as Persianized Uzbeks,
while Tajikstan resented Uzbekistan’s retention of the Tajik cities
of Bokhara and Samarkand. Karakalpakistan was transferred to the
Uzbekistan SSR in 1936, as an autonomous region. Over the ensuing decades,
Soviet leaders solidified loose alliances and other nationalities into
what would become Uzbek culture.
In August 1991 Uzbek Communists supported the reactionary coup against
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. After the coup failed, Uzbekistan
declared its independence on 1 September. Though shifting away from
communism, President Islom Kharimov, who had been the Communist
Party’s first secretary in Uzbekistan, has maintained absolute
control over the independent state. He has continued to define a single
Uzbek culture, while obscuring its Soviet creation.
The Soviet government, and to a lesser extent the Russian colonial
government that preceded it, folded several less prominent nationalities
into the Uzbeks. The government then institutionalized a national Uzbek
culture based on trappings such as language, art, dress, and food, while
imbuing them with meanings more closely aligned with Communist ideology.
Islam was removed from its central place, veiling of women was banned, and
major and minor regional and ethnic differences were smoothed over in
favor of an ideologically acceptable uniformity.
Since 1991 the government has kept the Soviet definition of their
nationhood, simply because prior to this there was no sense or definition
of a single Uzbek nation. But it is literally excising the Soviet
formation of the culture from its history books; one
university history test had just 1 question of 850 dealing with the years
1924 to 1991.
The Soviet-defined borders left Uzbeks, Kyrgiz, Tajiks, and others on
both sides of Uzbekistan. Since independence, tightening border controls
and competition for jobs and resources have caused difficulties for some
of these communities, despite warm relations among the states of the
In June 1989, rioting in the Ferghana Valley killed thousands of
Meskhetian Turks, who had been deported there in 1944. Across the border
in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbek majority rioted in 1990 over denial of land.
There is official support of minority groups such as Russians, Koreans,
and Tatars. These groups have cultural centers, and in 1998 a law that was
to have made Uzbek the only language of official communication was
relaxed. Nevertheless, non-Uzbek-speakers have complained that they face
difficulties finding jobs and entering a university. As a result of this
and of poor economic conditions, many Russians and others have left
Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space
In ancient times the cities of Samarkand and Bokhara were regarded as
jewels of Islamic architecture, thriving under Amir Timur and his
descendants the Timurids. They remain major tourist attractions.
During the Soviet period, cities became filled with concrete-slab
apartment blocks of four to nine stories, similar to those found across
the USSR. In villages and suburbs, residents were able to live in more
traditional one-story houses built around a courtyard. These houses,
regardless of whether they belong to rich or poor, present a drab
exterior, with the family’s wealth and taste displayed only for
guests. Khivan houses have a second-story room for entertaining guests.
Since independence, separate houses have become much more popular,
supporting something of a building boom in suburbs of major cities. One
estimate puts two-thirds of the population now living in detached houses.
The main room of the house is centered around the
or tablecloth, whether it is spread on the floor or on a table. Although
there are not separate areas for women and children, women tend to gather
in the kitchen when male guests are present.
Each town has a large square, where festivals and public events are held.
Parks are used for promenading; if a boy and a girl are dating, they are
referred to as walking together. Benches are in clusters, to allow
neighbors to chat.
Food and Economy
Food in Daily Life.
Bread holds a special place in Uzbek culture. At mealtime, bread will be
spread to cover the entire dusterhon. Traditional Uzbek bread,
is flat and round. It is always torn by hand, never placed upside down,
and never thrown out.
Meals begin with small dishes of nuts and raisins, progressing through
soups, salads, and meat dishes and ending with
a rice-and-meat dish synonymous with Uzbek cuisine throughout the former
Soviet Union; it is the only dish often cooked by men. Other common
dishes, though not strictly Uzbek, include
steamed dumplings of lamb meat and fat, onions, and pumpkin, and kabob,
grilled ground meat. Uzbeks favor mutton; even the nonreligious eschew pig
Because of their climate, Uzbeks enjoy many types of fruits, eaten fresh
in summer and dried in winter, and vegetables. Dairy products such as
a liquid yogurt, and
similar to cottage cheese, are eaten plain or used as ingredients.
Tea, usually green, is drunk throughout the day, accompanied by snacks,
and is always offered to guests.
Meals are usually served either on the floor, or on a low table, though
high tables also are used. The table is always covered by a dusterhon.
Guests sit on carpets, padded quilts, chairs, or beds, but never on
pillows. Men usually sit cross-legged, women with their legs to one side.
The most respected guests sit away from the entrance. Objects such as
shopping bags, which are considered unclean, never should be placed on the
dusterhon, nor should anyone ever step on or pass dirty items over it.
or teahouse, is the focal point of the neighborhood’s men. It is
always shaded, and if possible located near a stream.
The Soviets introduced restaurants where meals center around alcohol and
can last through the night.
The Karakalpaks’ national dish is
boiled mutton, beef, or horse served over a plate of broad noodles and
accompanied by the reduced broth. Russians have brought many of their
foods, such as
boiled meat dumplings, borscht,
A vendor sells round loaves of bread called tandirnon to a customer
at the Bibi Bazaar in Samarkand. Bread is especially important in
cabbage and meat soup, and a variety of fried or baked savory pastries.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions.
Uzbeks celebrate whenever possible, and parties usually consist of a
large meal ending with palov. The food is accompanied by copious amounts
of vodka, cognac, wine, and beer. Elaborate toasts, given by guests in
order of their status, precede each round of shots. After, glasses are
diligently refilled by a man assigned the task. A special soup of milk and
seven grains is eaten on Navruz. During the month of Ramadan, observant
Muslims fast from sunrise until sunset.
The majority of goods other than food come from China, Turkey, Pakistan,
and Russia. It is very common for families in detached homes to have
gardens in which they grow food or raise a few animals for themselves, and
if possible, for sale. Even families living in apartments will try to grow
food on nearby plots of land, or at dachas.
Land Tenure and Property.
Beginning in 1992, Uzbekistanis have been able to buy their apartments or
houses, which had been state property, for the equivalent of three
months’ salary. Thus most homes have become private property.
Agricultural land had been mainly owned by state or collective farms
during the Soviet period. In many cases the same families or communities
that farmed the land have assumed ownership, though they are still subject
to government quotas and government guidelines, usually aimed at
About two-thirds of small businesses and services are in private hands.
Many that had been state-owned were auctioned off. While the former
(government and Communist Party officials) often won the bidding, many
businesses also have been bought by entrepreneurs. Large factories,
however, largely remain state-owned.
Uzbekistan’s industry is closely tied to its natural resources.
Cotton, the white gold of Central Asia, forms the backbone of the economy,
with 85 percent exported in exchange for convertible currency.
Agricultural machinery, especially for cotton, is produced in the Tashkent
region. Oil refineries produce about 173,000 barrels a day.
The Korean car maker Daewoo invested $650 million in a joint venture,
UzDaewoo, at a plant in Andijan, which has a capacity of 200,000 cars.
However, in 1999 the plant produced just 58,000 cars, and it produced far
less in 2000, chiefly for the
domestic market. With Daewoo’s bankruptcy in November 2000, the
future of the plant is uncertain at best.
Uzbekistan’s main trading partners are Russia, South Korea,
Germany, the United States, Turkey, and Kazakhstan. Before independence,
imports were mainly equipment, consumer goods, and foods. Since
independence, Uzbekistan has managed to stop imports of oil from
Kazakhstan and has also lowered food imports by reseeding some cotton
fields with grain.
Uzbekistan is the world’s third-largest cotton exporter.
Uzbekistan exported about $3 billion (U.S.), primarily in cotton, gold,
textiles, metals, oil, and natural gas, in 1999. Its main markets are
Russia, Switzerland, Britain, Belgium, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan.
Division of Labor.
According to government statistics, 44 percent of workers are in
agriculture and forestry; 20 percent in industry; 36 percent in the
service sector. Five percent unemployed, and 10 percent are underemployed.
Many rural jobless, however, may be considered agricultural workers.
A particular feature of the Uzbekistan labor system is the requirement of
school and university students, soldiers, and workers to help in the
cotton harvest. They go en masse to the fields for several days to
Many Uzbeks, particularly men, work in other parts of the former Soviet
Union. Bazaars from Kazakhstan to Russia are full of Uzbek vendors, who
command higher prices for their produce the farther north they travel.
Others work in construction or other seasonal labor to send hard currency
About 2 percent of the workforce is of pension age and 1 percent is under
Classes and Castes.
During the Soviet Union, Uzbekistani society was stratified not by wealth
but by access to products, housing, and services. The
could find high-quality consumer goods, cars, and homes that simply were
unattainable by others. Since independence, many of these people have kept
jobs that put them in positions to earn many times the $1,020 (U.S.)
average annual salary reported by the United Nations. It is impossible to
quantify the number of wealthy, however, as the vast majority of their
income is unreported, particularly if they are government officials.
Children walking home after school. As children grow older, school
Many members of the former Soviet intelligentsia—teachers, artists,
doctors, and other skilled service providers—have been forced to
move into relatively unskilled jobs, such as bazaar vendors and
construction workers, where they could earn more money. Urban residents
tend to earn twice the salaries of rural people.
Symbols of Social Stratification.
As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the new rich tend to buy and
show off expensive cars and limousines, apartments, and clothes and to go
to nightclubs. Foreign foods and goods also are signs of wealth, as is a
disdain for shopping in bazaars.
Uzbekistan is in name republican but in practice authoritarian, with
Kharimov’s Halq Tarakiati Partiiasi, or People’s Democratic
Party, controlling all aspects of governance. On 9 January 2000 he was
reelected for a five-year term, with a 92 percent turnout and a 92 percent
yes vote. Earlier, a March 1995 referendum to extend his term to 2000
resulted in a 99 percent turnout and a 99 percent yes vote. The
legislature, Oliy Majlis, was inaugurated in 1994. At that time the ruling
party captured 193 seats, though many of these candidates
ran as independents. The opposition political movement Birlik, or Unity,
and the party Erk, or Will, lack the freedom to directly challenge the
or neighborhood councils of elders, provide the most direct governance.
Some opinion polls have ranked makhallas just after the president in terms
of political power. Makhallahs address social needs ranging from taking
care of orphans, loaning items, and maintaining orderly public spaces, to
sponsoring holiday celebrations. In Soviet times these were
institutionalized, with makhalla heads and committees appointed by the
local Communist Party. Then and now, however, makhallas have operated less
smoothly in neighborhoods of mixed ethnicities.
Leadership and Political Officials.
The president appoints the head, or
of each of Uzbekistan’s 12 regions, called
and of Karakalpakistan and Tashkent, who in turn appoint the khokims of
the 216 regional and city governments. This top-down approach ensures a
unity of government policies and leads to a diminishing sense of
empowerment the farther one is removed from Kharimov.
Khokims and other officials were chiefly drawn from the Communist Party
following independence—many simply kept their jobs—and many
remain. Nevertheless, Kharimov has challenged local leaders to take more
initiative, and in 1997 he replaced half of them, usually with public
administration and financial experts, many of whom are reform-minded.
Corruption is institutionalized at all levels of government, despite
occasional prosecution of officials. Students, for example, can expect to
pay bribes to enter a university, receive high grades, or be exempted from
the cotton harvest.
Social Problems and Control.
The government has vigorously enforced laws related to drug trafficking
and terrorism, and reports of police abuse and torture are widespread. The
constitution calls for independent judges and open access to proceedings
and justice. In practice, defendants are seldom acquitted, and when they
are, the government has the right to appeal.
Petty crime such as theft is becoming more common; violent crime is much
rarer. Anecdotal evidence points to an increase in heroin use; Uzbekistan
is a transshipment point from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Europe, and
access is relatively easy despite tough antidrug laws.
People are often reluctant to call the police, as they are not trusted.
Instead, it is the responsibility of families to see that their members
act appropriately. Local communities also exert pressure to conform.
Uzbekistan’s military in 2000 was skirmishing with the Islamic
Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant group opposed to the secular regime,
and numbering in the hundreds or thousands. Besides clashes in the
mountains near the Tajikistani border, the group has been blamed for six
car bombings in Tashkent in February 2000.
Uzbekistan spends about $200 million (U.S.) a year on its military and has
150,000 soldiers, making it the strongest in the region.
Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations
Most domestic nongovernmental organizations are funded and supported by
the government, and all must be registered. Kamolot, registered in 1996,
is the major youth organization, and is modeled on the Soviet Komsomol.
Ekosan is an environmental group. The Uzbek Muslim Board has been active
in building mosques and financing religious education. The Women’s
Committee of Uzbekistan, a government organization, is tasked with
ensuring women’s access to education as well as employment and
legal rights, and claims three million members.
The government also has set up quasi nongovernmental organizations, at
times to deflect attention from controversial organizations. The Human
Rights Society of Uzbekistan, for example, was denied registration from
1992 to 1997, before the government set up its own human rights monitor.
The leaders of these groups may receive privileges once granted to the
such as official cars and well-equipped offices.
There are no independent trade unions, though government-sponsored unions
are common. The Employment Service and Employment Fund was set up in 1992
to address issues of social welfare, employment insurance, and health
benefits for workers.
Ironically, some truly independent organizations from the Soviet period,
such as the Committee to Save the Aral Sea, were declared illegal in 1994.
Social groups associated with Birlik also have been denied registration.
As a result of the government’s lack of reforms, in particular
making the national currency convertible, major international donors are
Weddings are very important in Uzbek culture, as the family is the
center of society.
to assist Uzbekistan. The International Monetary Fund is pushing hard for
convertibility before it gives further assistance. The U.S. Agency for
International Development in 2000 said it was hesitant to assist the
government in any sectors other than health, as the government was
smothering economic reform.
Gender Roles and Statuses
Division of Labor by Gender.
Before the Soviet period, men worked outside the house while women did
basic domestic work, or supplemented the family income by spinning,
weaving, and embroidering with silk or cotton. From the 1920s on, women
entered the workforce, at textile factories and in the cotton fields, but
also in professional jobs opened to them by the Soviet education system.
They came to make up the great majority of teachers, nurses, and doctors.
Family pressure, however, sometimes kept women from attaining higher
education, or working outside the home. With independence, some women have
held on to positions of power, though they still may be expected to
comport themselves with modesty. Men in modern Uzbekistan, though, hold
the vast majority of managerial positions, as well as the most
labor-intensive jobs. It is common now for men to travel north to other
former Soviet republics to work in temporary jobs. Both sexes work in
The Relative Status of Women and Men.
Uzbekistan is a male-dominated society, particularly in the Ferghana
Valley. Nevertheless, women make up nearly half the workforce. They hold
just under 10 percent of parliamentary seats, and 18 percent of
administrative and management positions, according to U.N. figures.
Women run the households and traditionally control the family budgets.
When guests are present they are expected to cloister themselves from
In public women are expected to cover their bodies completely. Full
veiling is uncommon, though it is occasionally practiced in the Ferghana
Valley. Women often view this as an expression of their faith and culture
rather than as an oppressive measure.
Marriage, Family, and Kinship
Uzbek women usually marry by twenty-one; men not much later. Marriage is
an imperative for all, as families are the basic structure in society. A
family’s honor depends on their daughters’ virginity; this
often leads families to encourage early marriage.
In traditional Uzbek families, marriages are often still arranged between
families; in more cosmopolitan ones it is the bride and groom’s
choice. Either way, the match is subject to parental approval, with the
mother in practice having the final word. Preference is given to members
of the kin group. There is particular family say in the youngest
son’s choice, as he and his bride will take care of his parents.
People tend to marry in their late teens or early twenties. Weddings often
last for days, with the expense borne by the bride’s family. The
husband’s family may pay a bride price. Polygamy is illegal and
rare, but it is not unknown.
Following independence, divorce has become more common, though it is still
rare outside of major cities. It is easier for a man to initiate divorce.
Uzbek families are patriarchal, though the mother runs the household. The
average family size is five or six members, but families of ten or more
are not uncommon.
Children are the primary claimants to the deceased’s property. The
youngest son receives the family house, along with the obligation to care
A woman places flat bread dough in an oven, while another woman
folds dough in a large bowl, Old Town, Khiva. Families are
patriarchal, but mothers run the households.
for his parents. Sons typically receive twice as large a share as
daughters, though this can vary.
Close relations extends to cousins, who have the rights and
responsibilities of the nuclear family and often are called on for favors.
If the family lives in a detached house and there is space, the sons may
build their homes adjacent to or around the courtyard of the
Uzbek babies are hidden from view for their first forty days. They are
tightly swaddled when in their cribs and carried by their mothers. Men
generally do not take care of or clean babies.
Child Rearing and Education.
Children are cherished as the reason for life. The mother is the primary
caretaker, and in case of divorce, she will virtually always take the
children. The extended family and the community at large, however, also
take an interest in the child’s upbringing.
When children are young, they have great freedom to play and act out. But
as they get older, particularly in school, discipline increases. A good
child becomes one who is quiet and attentive, and all must help in the
All children go to school for nine years, with some going on to eleventh
grade; the government is increasing mandatory education to twelve years.
Enrollment in higher-education institutions is about 20 percent, down
from more than 30 percent during the Soviet period. A major reason for the
decline is that students do not feel a higher education will help them get
a good job; also contributing is the emigration of Russians, and declining
standards related to budget cutbacks. Nevertheless, Uzbeks, particularly
in cities, still value higher education, and the government gives full
scholarships to students who perform well.
Elders are respected in Uzbek culture. At the dusterhon, younger guests
will not make themselves more comfortable than their elders. The younger
person should always greet the older first.
Men typically greet each other with a handshake, the left hand held over
the heart. Women place their right hand on the other’s elbow. If
they are close friends or relatives, they may kiss each other on the
If two acquaintances meet on the street, they will usually ask each other
how their affairs are. If the two don’t know each other well, the
greeting will be shorter, or could involve just a nod.
Women are expected to be modest in dress and demeanor, with clothing
covering their entire body. In public they may walk with their head tilted
down to avoid unwanted attention. In traditional households, women will
not enter the room if male guests are present. Likewise, it is considered
forward to ask how a man’s wife is doing. Women generally sit with
legs together, their hands in their laps. When men aren’t present,
however, women act much more casually.
People try to carry themselves with dignity and patience, traits
associated with royalty, though young men can be boisterous in public.
People tend to dress up when going out of the house. Once home they
change, thus extending the life of their street clothes.
Uzbeks are Sunni Muslims. The territory of Uzbekistan has been a center
of Islam in the region for a thousand years, but under the Soviet Union
the religion was heavily controlled: mosques were closed and Muslim
education was banned. Beginning in 1988, Uzbeks have revived Islam,
particularly in the Ferghana Valley, where mosques have been renovated.
The call to prayer was everywhere heard five times a day before the
government ordered the removal of the mosques’ loudspeakers in
The state encourages a moderate form of Islam, but Kharimov fears the
creation of an Islamic state. Since the beginning of the Islamic Movement
of Uzbekistan’s terror campaign in February 1999, he has cracked
down even further on what he perceives as extremists, raising claims of
human rights abuses. The government is particularly concerned about what
it labels Wahhabism, a fundamentalist Sunni sect that took hold in the
Ferghana Valley following independence.
Nine percent of the population is Russian Orthodox. Jews, Baptists, Roman
Catholics, Lutherans, Seventh-Day Adventists, evangelical and Pentecostal
Christians, Buddhists, Baha’is, and Hare Krishnas also are present.
Most Sunni Uzbeks are led by a state-appointed mufti. Independent imams
are sometimes repressed, and in May 1998, a law requiring all religious
groups to register with the government was enacted. In addition to leading
worship, the Muslim clergy has led mosque restoration efforts and is
playing an increasing role in religious education.
Death and the Afterlife.
Uzbeks bury their deceased within twenty-four hours of death, in
above-ground tombs. At the funeral, women wail loudly and at specific
times. The mourning period lasts forty days. The first anniversary of the
death is marked with a gathering of the person’s friends and
Muslims believe that on Judgment Day, each soul’s deeds will be
weighed. They will then walk across a hair-thin bridge spanning Hell,
which leads to Paradise. The bridge will broaden under the feet of the
righteous, but the damned will lose their balance and fall.
Medicine and Health Care
Current health practices derive from the Soviet system. Health care is
considered a basic right of the entire population, with clinics, though
ill-equipped, in most villages, and larger facilities in regional centers.
Emphasis is on treatment over prevention. Yet the state health care
budget—80 million dollars in 1994—falls far short of meeting
basic needs; vaccinations, for example, fell off sharply following
independence. Exacerbating the situation is a lack of potable water,
industrial pollution, and a rise in infectious diseases such as
Perhaps the most common traditional health practices are shunning cold
drinks and cold surfaces, which are believed to cause colds and damage to
internal organs, and avoiding drafts, or bad winds. Folk remedies and
herbal treatments also are common. An example is to press bread to the
ailing part of the body. The sick person then gives a small donation to a
homeless person who will agree to take on his or her illness.
The major secular holidays are New Year’s Day (1 January);
Women’s Day (8 March), a still popular holdover from the Soviet
Union, when women receive gifts; Navrus (21 March), originally a
Zoroastrian holiday, which has lost its religious significance but is
still celebrated with
soup, made from milk and seven grains; Victory Day (9 May), marking the
defeat of Nazi Germany; and Independence Day (1 September), celebrating
separation from the Soviet Union.
A man cuts bread in a choyhana, or tea house. The tea house is the
central gathering place for Uzbek men.
Uzbeks typically visit friends and relatives on holidays to eat large
meals and drink large amounts of vodka. Holidays also may be marked by
concerts or parades centered on city or town squares or factories. The
government marks Independence Day and Navrus with massive outdoor
jamborees in Tashkent, which are then broadcast throughout the country,
and places of work or neighborhoods often host huge celebrations.
The Arts and Humanities
Support for the Arts.
During the Soviet period, the government gave extensive support to the
arts, building cultural centers in every city and paying the salaries of
professional artists. With independence, state funding has shrunk, though
it still makes up the bulk of arts funding. Many dance, theater, and music
groups continue to rely on the state, which gives emphasis to large
productions and extravaganzas, controls major venues, and often has an
agenda for the artists to follow.
Other artists have joined private companies who perform for audiences of
wealthy business-people and tourists. Some money comes in from corporate
sponsorship and international charitable organizations—for example
UNESCO and the Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute. Yet many
artists have simply been forced to find other work.
The territory of Uzbekistan has a long tradition of writers, though not
all were Uzbek. The fifteenth-century poet Alisher Navoi,
1441–1501, is most revered; among his works is a treatise comparing
the Persian and Turkish languages. Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, 973–1048,
born in Karakalpakistan, wrote a massive study of India. Ibn Sina, also
known as Avicenna, 980–1037, wrote
The Cannon of Medicine.
Omar Khayyam, 1048–1131, came to Samarkand to pursue mathematics
and astronomy. Babur, 1483–1530, born in the Ferghana Valley, was
the first Moghul leader of India, and wrote a famous autobiography.
Until the twentieth century, Uzbek literary tradition was largely borne by
elder minstrels who recited myths and history through epic songs, and
female singers who sang of birth, marriage and death.
The Jadids produced many poets, writers, and playwrights. These writers
suffered greatly in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. Later the Soviet
Union asked of its writers that they be internationalists and further
socialist goals. Abdullah Qahhar, 1907–1968, for example, satirized
Muslim clerics. But with the loosening of state control in the 1980s, a
new generation of writers renewed the Uzbek language and Uzbek themes.
Many writers also were active in Birlik, which started as a cultural
movement but is now suppressed.
Uzbekistan has begun a revival of traditional crafts, which suffered from
the Soviet view that factory-produced goods were superior to handicrafts.
Now master craftsmen are reappearing in cities such as Samarkand and
Bukhara, supported largely by foreign tourists. Miniature painting is
narrative in character, using a wide palette of symbols to tell their
stories. They can be read from right to left as a book, and often
accompany works of literature. Wood carving, of architectural features
such as doors and pillars and of items such as the
a box given to a bride by her parents, also is regaining a place in Uzbek
is a method of cloth dying, now centered in the Yordgorlik Silk Factory
in Margilan. Silk threads are tie-dyed, then woven on a loom to create
soft-edged designs for curtains, clothing, and other uses.
Uzbek music is characterized by reedy, haunting instruments and throaty,
nasal singing. It is played on long-necked lutes called
flutes, tambourines, and small drums. It developed over the past several
hundred years in the khanates on the territory of modern Uzbekistan, where
musicians were a central feature of festivals and weddings. The most
highly regarded compositions are cycles called
sung by women accompanied by percussion instruments, also are popular. In
the 1920s, Uzbek composers were encouraged, leading to a classical music
tradition that continues today. Modern Uzbek pop often combines elements
of folk music with electric instruments to create dance music.
Uzbek dance is marked by fluid arm and upper-body movement. Today
women’s dance groups perform for festivals and for entertainment, a
practice started during the Soviet period. Earlier, women danced only for
other women; boys dressed as women performed for male audiences. One dance
for Navruz asks for rain; others depict chores, other work, or events.
Uzbek dance can be divided into three traditions: Bokhara and Samarkand;
Khiva; and Khokand. The Sufi dance,
danced in a circle accompanied by chanting and percussion to reach a
trance state, also is still practiced.
Uzbekistan’s theater in the twentieth century addressed moral and
social issues. The Jadidists presented moral situations that would be
resolved by a solution consistent with Islamic law. During the Soviet
period dramatists were sometimes censored. The Ilkhom Theater, founded in
1976, was the first independent theater in the Soviet Union.
Admission to cultural events is kept low by government and corporate
sponsorship. It also has become common for dancers to perform for groups
of wealthy patrons.
The State of the Physical and Social Sciences
Uzbekistan has several higher-education institutions, with departments
aimed at conducting significant research. Funding, however, has lagged
since independence. The goal of the Academy of Sciences in Tashkent is
practical application of science. It has physical and mathematical,
chemicalbiological, and social sciences departments, with more than fifty
research institutions and organizations under them.
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Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan: Country