In our “Exploring Countries” series, our next stop is Uzbekistan. The land of colossal historical structures, blue domes, and turquoise tiles. Let’s explore this magical country together.
A Muslim Turk State in Central Asia
Uzbekistan is a Muslim Turkic state located in Central Asia. It shares borders with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan to the south, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the east, and Kazakhstan to the north and west.
The Meaning and Story of the Name Uzbekistan
The word Uzbekistan means “Land of the Uzbeks.” So, what does the word “Uzbek” mean? It’s believed to have derived from Turkic languages and signifies “brave and courageous.” The name Uzbek is believed to have come from Uzbek Khan, the 9th Khan of the Golden Horde.
The Capital of Uzbekistan
Tashkent, located in the east of Uzbekistan, is the country’s capital and largest city. With a rich history as a prominent city, it boasts numerous magnificent structures such as mosques, madrasas, mausoleums, and caravanserais. One of these buildings, Kukeldash Madrasa, is a 460-year-old masterpiece that continues to serve as the Islamic College to train imams today. Tashkent hosts many other historical madrasas with its five-century-old Hoca Ahrar Madrasa and Muyi Mubarak Madrasa, which houses 30,000 original works.
The Ancient City of Uzbekistan: Samarkand
Let’s first clarify why we refer to Samarkand not as an “old city” but as an “ancient city.” “Old” implies having a long history but can also signify that something has lost its value. On the other hand, “ancient” implies having a long and valuable history. Samarkand falls into the latter category.
Founded by the Persians around 700 BC, Samarkand is known mainly for its historical identity. This is partly because it is one of the world’s most ancient cities and partly due to its role as a host to architectural marvels from different cultures, such as the Persians and the Timurid Empire. The most significant historical part of Samarkand is Registan Square, home to Ulugh Beg’s Madrasah and Ulugh Beg Observatory, built by Ulugh Beg, Timur’s grandson. Ali Qushji, a prominent scholar, worked at the observatory during his time in Samarkand, making the city a center of knowledge and culture.
Center of Learning and Culture: Bukhara
Bukhara, one of Uzbekistan’s major cities, is one of the important cultural centers in the historical region known as Transoxiana. Imam Bukhari, the compiler of Sahih al-Bukhari, which contains authentic Hadiths, was a scholar from Bukhara. Another famous figure from Bukhara is Ibn Sina, known as Avicenna in the West, who was not only a philosopher but also a physician, astronomer, poet, mathematician, and jurist.
The History of Islam in Uzbekistan
Many of Uzbekistan’s historical cities, like Samarkand and Bukhara, were founded by Persians in ancient times. Islam arrived in these ancient cities through the efforts of Muslim Arabs during the late 600s during the Umayyad Caliphate’s expansion. Muslim Arabs worked to convert the local population to Islam, and by the early 700s, Islam had become the dominant religion in these lands, thanks to their efforts. Therefore, it can be said that Uzbekistan has had over 1300 years of Islamic influence.
Symbolic Structure of Uzbekistan: Gur-e Amir Mausoleum
Samarkand, once the capital of the Timurid Empire, still retains its importance as one of Uzbekistan’s historical cities. Emir Timur, the founder of the Timurid Empire, is a highly respected historical figure in Uzbekistan. Therefore, the symbol of Uzbekistan is considered to be Emir Timur’s Mausoleum, known as Gur-e Amir.
Gur-e Amir means “Tomb of the King.” Construction began in 1399, and it originally consisted of sections like a madrasa and a khanqah. However, it began to serve as a tomb in 1404 after the death of Emir Timur, who was later buried there. The mausoleum later became the resting place for other rulers and members of his family. Today, only the mausoleum part of the complex remains, but archaeological excavations have revealed the presence of other sections like the madrasa and khanqah.
Bibi Khanym Mosque
The mosque was begun by Timur (or Emir Timur) in 1399 and completed in only five years. It was intended to be the crowning glory of his capital. However, due to his 1400-1404 campaign in Western Persia, the mosque was completed in his absence, most likely under the supervision of his wife, Saray Mulk Khanum, a wife of the ruler of the Golden Horde Khan Tokhtamysh, who was a captive in his harem after her marriage to Tokhtamysh was dissolved on account of his defeat by Timur.
Therefore, it is just one of many buildings in Timur’s capital of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, whose design takes into consideration the half-mythical notion that Timur had conquered China in 1398. Scholars doubt that such an event ever occurred, and that Timur would have been aware of Chinese state-sponsored porcelains of the preceding Ming dynasty of the 1360s and 1370s if he had conquered China.
The Minor Mosque is one of Uzbekistan’s modern mosques. Unlike traditional mosques, it is made of marble and was opened for worship in 2014. It can accommodate up to 2,400 people and features two minarets and a blue-domed roof. Compared to the intricately decorated Timurid architecture of other Uzbek mosques, the interior of the Minor Mosque has a simpler design, with the exception of the mihrab (prayer niche).
Tilla-Kari Madrasa and Mosque
The name Tilla-Kari means “covered with gold” in Persian, and it refers to the gilded decoration inside the mosque. The Tilla-Kari Madrasa and Mosque were built between 1647 and 1659 in Samarkand’s Registan Square. It served as a theological school for students and a central mosque for the public. The interior of the Tilla-Kari Mosque is lavishly decorated with gold leaf, and it features the signature blue tilework of Timurid architecture.
In Uzbekistan, it’s considered offensive for men to shake hands with their left hands. Additionally, shaking hands between men and women is not commonly practiced. Instead, men greet women by placing their hand over their heart. When guests come to a Uzbek home, it’s the male head of the household who prepares the pilaf, a traditional Uzbek dish. Guests are typically seated farthest from the entrance. In Uzbek culture, when someone passes away, they don’t say “died”; instead, they use the expression “delivered the trust to God.” The traditional headwear called “Doppi” is a significant part of their culture, with each city having its own unique style.
Pilaf is an essential part of Uzbek cuisine. With each region having its own unique ingredients and preparation methods, there are more than 100 varieties of pilaf in Uzbekistan. Unlike typical rice and bulgur pilafs, Uzbek pilaf uses various grains. Pilafs are usually meat-based, and the type of meat used gives the dish its name. Besides pilaf, Uzbekistan has traditional dishes like Ma’sh Horda and Semelek.
Languages Spoken in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan’s only official language is Uzbek. Alongside Uzbek, another language spoken is Karakalpak, which is used regionally in some areas. Russian is also widely spoken and used for communication in the country.
Economy of Uzbekistan
Agriculture, livestock farming, and underground mineral resources play a vital role in Uzbekistan’s economy. Uzbekistan boasts the world’s largest open-pit gold mine, Muruntau. It’s also the fourth-largest producer of gold globally. The country holds the seventh-largest uranium deposit globally. Cotton production ranks third globally, with other agricultural products including rice, corn, grains, tobacco, and various fruits and vegetables. Other underground resources include natural gas, oil, zinc, copper, and coal.
Population, Ethnic, and Religious Composition of Uzbekistan
According to 2018 population data, Uzbekistan has a population of 32.2 million. In terms of religious composition, approximately 88% of the population is Muslim, 9% is Christian, and the remaining 3% adheres to other religions.