LOCATION: Uzbekistan; Afghanistan; China
POPULATION: Over 16.7 million
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)
The Uzbeks were the third largest ethnic group of the former Soviet Union when it collapsed in 1991. Although they were originally nomads, most Uzbeks have been settled for more than three hundred years.
The Uzbek homeland is situated on the site of the ancient Bactrian and Sogdian civilizations. Ancient invaders who laid claim to the territory included the Persian Empire of Darius the Great and the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great. The region was invaded by Arabs in the eighth century AD and Islam was introduced. In the thirteenth century, the Mongol Empire controlled the area. It was followed, in the fourteenth century, by the empire of the Mongol chieftain Tamerlane (Timur).
Around the fifteenth century, the Uzbeks began to emerge as an organized group of tribes. Their region was eventually divided into three separate khanates (territories ruled by a khan, or chieftain). Uzbeks made up more than 50 percent of the people of the Khiva khanate and almost 35 percent of the Bukhara khanate.
All three khanates fell to the Russians between 1865 and 1873. The Imperial Russian government renamed the annexed area Russian Turkistan. Uzbekistan was formed as a separate Soviet Socialist Republic in 1925. The Soviet era brought tremendous cultural changes to Uzbek society. Informal herding and subsistence (basic-level) agriculture gave way to enormous state-operated farms.
Since it gained independence in 1991, the government of Uzbekistan has been slow to make democratic or free-market (economic) reforms. However, business development has grown since the mid-1990s.
Much of Uzbekistan's landscape consists of deserts, dry steppes (plains), and fertile oases near rivers. The Aral Sea, which once was larger than Lake Michigan, used to be an important water resource. In the last thirty to forty years, however, the sea has lost about 60 percent of its water due to irrigation methods.
The Uzbeks are the world's second-largest group of Turkic people (after the Turks of Turkey). They number almost 17 million. Eight-five percent (or 14.5 million) live in what is now Uzbekistan.
The capital of Uzbekistan is Tashkent.
The Uzbek language belongs to the Turkic family of languages. It is related to Kazakh and Karakalpak. The Uzbek language borrowed many words of Russian or European origin during the early Soviet years. However, it has borrowed more heavily from Turkic and Arabic since the 1960s.
Everyday terms in the Uzbek language include salaam aleikhem (hello), shundei (yes), yok (no), markhamat (please), and rakhmat (thank you). Examples of Uzbek sayings include Äytkän gäp atqan oq (A word said is a shot fired); Kob oylä, az soylä (Think much, say little); and Yamandän yäkhshilik kutmä (Don't expect good from evil).
Two ancient heroes play an important role in Uzbek folklore. One is Tamerlane (1336–1405), a Mongol who conquered parts of present-day India, Syria, and southern Russia. His grandson, Ulughbek (1394–1449), has become another legendary, almost sacred personality. He made great contributions to the sciences, especially astronomy.
Religion has an important place in traditional Uzbek culture. Most Uzbeks are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi sect. During the Soviet era (1918–91), the government discouraged religious practices. The Muslim clergy was persecuted. Since the end of Soviet rule, many new mosques have been built. Tashkent is one of central Asia's leading Islamic spiritual centers. Sufism (another branch of Islam) is also practiced by some Uzbeks.
No holiday is enjoyed by Uzbeks more than Novruz (the traditional Persian new year). It is rapidly replacing New Year's Eve as the number-one holiday. It coincides with the first day of spring (March 21 or 22). At this time, there are speeches, skits in the schools, and celebrations in the town squares. At home, people prepare sumalak , a sweet pudding. People cook young wheat plants in huge cauldrons overnight to prepare the dish. The Islamic month of fasting (Ramadan) and various forms of Haiit (days to remember relatives who have died) are now officially recognized.
Uzbekistani Independence Day is September 1. On Victory Day (May 9), Uzbekistani citizens mark the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. This holiday has both solemn and joyous aspects.
Birth, male circumcision, a girl's first menstrual period, marriage, and death are the primary events around which Uzbeki rites of passage occur. The sunnat toi (circumcision party) and the kelin toi (wedding) are events for which people spend the most money and celebrate the most enthusiastically.
Uzbeks practice elaborate greetings. Simply saying, "Hi," or "What's up?" as one passes by is not acceptable. First, Uzbeks approach each other and shake hands. Then they rapidly fire off a number of questions about each other's health, family situation, and work. Uzbeks love to invite strangers into their homes. They will signal a passerby in with gestures indicating the offer of a cup of tea or something to eat.
The Uzbeks have a strong sense of duty to the elderly and to the community. Children are typically taught that it is wrong to openly confront an adult.
Woven rugs often cover the floors of Uzbek houses. Traditional folk art is a common wall decoration. It often includes subjects from the natural world, such as mountains, deer, or peacocks. Most homes have two or three rooms. Men and women have separate quarters. Outside the home stands a large platform known as the sura . It is used for eating and resting. A great deal of time is spent there during hot weather. In most homes, the kitchen is in a separate building.
The average Uzbek family has five children. Households may include two, three, or four generations. The kelin toi , or wedding, is the most important and joyous celebration in Uzbek social life. A new Uzbek wife usually moves in with her husband's family. She will do most of the housework until she has a few children and the next son is ready to marry. It is customary for the youngest son and his wife to live permanently in his father's home.
The Soviet era (1918–91) introduced women to the work force, but their responsibilities at home never lessened.
Traditional national costumes are still often worn by the Uzbeks. Men wear the doppilar, a small, square black skullcap. Doppilar are embroidered with elaborate patterns. These indicate the wearer's family ties, place of birth, or other personal information. Many men wear Western-style clothes or outfits that combine Western and traditional Uzbek styles. These are often brightly colored. Some men wear the traditional chopan , a long quilted robe originally used by shepherds.
Many women wear Western clothes. However, some still wear traditional tie-dyed brightly-colored dresses. In summer, women wear white head coverings or brightly colored kerchiefs. During winter, they wear large woolen shawls.
Uzbek cuisine makes frequent use of Eastern spices such as cumin, coriander, and dried hot red pepper. The all-time favorite Uzbek dish is plov . It consists of rice with beef (or mutton or chicken), cottonseed oil or dumba (sheep tail fat), vegetables, spices, garlic, and quinces. Other traditional Uzbek dishes include lagman (homemade noodles with mutton, garlic, and vegetables), d'ighman (meat with pastry in a rich broth), and dymlama (a layered vegetable and beef stew). Breakfast consists of bread, some fruits or nuts, and tea, sometimes with a serving of qattiq (yogurt).
Education in Uzbekistan is universal (provided for all) and mandatory (required) until the age of sixteen. City schools are often much better than rural ones. Turkish lycees (European-style high schools) and medresses (Muslim schools) have opened in all the major cities. Almost all Uzbek parents want an advanced education for their children. Many hope their children will be accepted to Tashkent State University or be able to study outside Uzbekistan.
Classical Uzbek singing is plaintive (sounding sad) and drawn out—a kind of wailing. The hand-held doira is a tambourine-drum with a deep sound. It adds rich beats and rhythms to the songs. Some folksinging is accompanied only by the doira. Popular Uzbek music is a mixture of traditional styles with rock and pop.
A famous example of classic Uzbek literature is Baburname (The Memoirs of Babur) . It tells the story of the sixteenth-century military leader who founded the Mogul Empire and became its first emperor. There is a puppet theater in Tashkent that was founded in 1939. Puppet shows using glove and hand puppets, shadow puppets, and marionettes are performed there, depicting stories from Uzbek history.
Famous Uzbek plays of the 1960s express protest against Soviet policies. They include Izzat Sultan's Iman ( Faith , 1960) and Rahmatullah A. Uyghun's Dostlär ( Friends , 1961).
Over 60 percent of the Uzbek population is rural, and most work is agricultural. Uzbeks grow wheat, cotton, and fruits. Many also raise silkworms. Some labor on small household garden plots, raising fruits and vegetables. Spring, summer, and fall are periods of hard work. Winter is a time to rest and relax.
Industrial work ranges from aircraft manufacturing to gold mining and oil drilling. Today, retail business is growing, in the form of an increasing number of privately owned shops.
Soccer is the number-one team and spectator sport. Table tennis first became popular during the Soviet era (1918–91). Since the mid-1980s, softball has been a popular women's sport. Basketball and volleyball are favorites in the schools.
Kurash is a unique form of wrestling enjoyed by Uzbek men and boys.
The martial arts have become especially popular in recent years. Many children train in local clubs.
Another sport is a form of polo in which hundreds, or even thousands, of horsemen participate. The two huge teams attempt to capture the carcass of a goat or sheep and get it to the opponents' goal.
An ancient form of entertainment still enjoyed by the Uzbeks is payr , an unrehearsed public debate. Two competitors exchange witty comments about each other related to a specific topic chosen ahead of time. The first competitor who fails to respond quickly enough is the loser. The crowd decides the outcome. Sometimes a good payr match will draw thousands of spectators.
Bakka (tightrope walking) draws large crowds during celebrations or parties. It is one of the most popular forms of entertainment.
Children love to play games such as top tosh and askiia . Top tosh is like jacks, except that Uzbek children play it with rocks or pebbles. Askiia is a riddle game. One player makes up questions about a given thing. The other's answers must show that he or she knows what the object is.
Movies and television are very popular. Favorite programs include martial arts and other action movies, comedies, and films from India, also known as "Bombay cinema."
Gap is a time-honored Uzbek custom that continues today. Men get together with friends and former classmates. They eat, play games of cards or bingo, and discuss social and intellectual issues. They also discuss their personal problems.
Pottery is the oldest craft practiced among the Uzbeks. Other crafts include silk weaving, quilt making, and suzama (embroidery). Hunarmandlik (craftsmanship) shines through in Uzbek naqsh (wood carving) and mosaic tile work. Intricate carving can be seen on the doors of family homes and on the columns that support buildings. Ceramics include fine porcelain tea sets. Metal-working (especially urns and pitchers) and bootmaking are other traditional crafts.
Stamp collecting and writing to pen pals are favorite hobbies for young people.
The Uzbeks' two greatest problems are a troubled economy and environmental problems. The water needed for irrigation to grow cotton in Uzbekistan diverted most of the water from the two main rivers that feed the Aral Sea. The sea has decreased in area since 1960. Much of the soil around it is now too salty for growing crops. Pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers have also polluted much of the remaining water supply.
Growing poverty since the late 1980s has contributed to increased alcoholism, drug addiction, and violent crime in present-day Uzbekistan.
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Critchlow, James. Nationalism in Uzbekistan: A Soviet Republic's Road to Sovereignty. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991.
Gippenreiter, Vadim Evgenevich. Fabled Cities of Central Asia: Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989.
Nazarov, Bakhtiyar A., and Denis Sinor, eds. Essays on Uzbek History, Culture, and Language. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University, Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, 1993.
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