Uzbekistan - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Tilla Kari Madrasa Registan Samarkand Uzbekistan by Evgeniy Agarkov Dreamstime  The Tilla Kari Madrasa is the centrepiece of Samarkand's Registan Square and is visually stunning both inside and out © Evgeniy Agarkov, Shutterstock

Abridged from the History section in Uzbekistan: the Bradt Travel Guide

Genghis and the Mongols

The Mongol invasion was a turning point for central Asia in numerous ways: 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.

Having seized two-thirds of China, the Mongol forces marched west, and by 1218 controlled the southeastern part of what is now Kazakhstan. Genghis Khan initially looked towards the Khwarezmid Empire as a trading partner, but when his mercantile caravan was slaughtered and a subsequent envoy killed, battle lines were drawn. With perhaps 150,000 troops under his command, he marched across the Tian Shan Mountains in 1219 and seized Otrar (now in Kazakhstan), murdering many of its inhabitants and enslaving the rest. Inalchuq, the governor responsible for the previous envoy’s demise, had molten silver poured into his eyes and ears as punishment. Marching into the heart of Uzbekistan, Mongol forces devastated Samarkand and Bukhara, leaving them as virtual ghost towns.Thousands perished – in Samarkand only 50,000 out of around a million people survived. Pyramids of severed heads were raised as a sign of victory. In Termez, the entire population was killed, and perhaps a million people were slaughtered in a similar bloodbath in Urgench.

Genghis Khan died in 1227 and 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 in which merchants and travellers could journey the length of the Mongol Empire without harassment.

Natural history


Charvak Water ResevoirLake Charvak glimmers like a turquoise jewel in the Tian Shan Mountains © Eveginy Agarkov, Shutterstock

It is said that the green of Uzbekistan’s flag represents nature, and the state emblem depicts the bright sun shining above a valley in bloom, with wheat and cotton crops clearly visible.

Given that Uzbekistan has more than 3,700 species of plant, 20% of which are endemic, it’s unsurprising they’ve been unable to select a single national flower. Sweetbriar, Juno iris, hollyhock, filipendula, forget-me-not, patchouli, clary sage, safflower, helianthus and petunia all grow in large numbers, creating a riot of colour in spring and summertime. There are a significant number of vascular plants unique to Uzbekistan, of which the most notable are Iris hippolyti, Iris capnoides, Allium haneltii, Dianthus uzbekistanicus and various members of the tulip family such as Tulipa butkovii, T. uzbekistanica, T. batalinii and T. clusiana.


Uzbekistan’s diverse natural habitats host all manner of wildlife, many species of which are indigenous or endemic. The most iconic of these is surely the rare snow leopard.

In desert areas, common mammals include wolf, jackal and fox. Here, animals need to be quick to survive, and have therefore evolved with longer legs than their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere. This is particularly true of the deer. In the mountains bordering Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan you’ll see wild goat and boar, mountain sheep, lynx, Bukhara red deer, Alpine ibex, and maybe even the endangered saiga antelope or elusive snow leopard. The western Tian Shan is one of the most ecologically clean regions in the world, and its fauna remains as abundant as it was thousands of years ago with up to 44 species of mammal, including the white-claw bear, in the Pskem Valley.

Reptiles are also abundant in deserts, where species include the roundhead lizard, steppe agama and the 1.6m-long monitor lizard. The threatened central Asian cobra is still found in the Karshi Desert, and the saygak and four-striped runner (an eastern rat snake) can be seen across the Ustyurt Plateau.

People and culture

National Sport ShutterstockKupkari, Uzbekistan's national sport, is a wild, primitive form of polo © Shutterstock

With a population of 32.59 million, Uzbekistan is by far the most populous country in central Asia. Although growth is now slowing owing to migration and much smaller family sizes, over half the population is under 30. The average number of children per woman is now 2.46 (2016), as opposed to 3.7 in 1996 and 2.92 in 2002.

Uzbekistan is ethnically diverse, though ethnic Uzbeks may make up as much as 80% of the population. The Uzbeks are a Turkic people who originated in southern Siberia and the Altai Mountains and came south with the Mongols in the early medieval period. There are also significant Uzbek populations in Afghanistan (2.7 million), Tajikistan (1.6 million) and Kyrgyzstan (800,000). The majority of Uzbeks follow the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, though atheism is also widespread among those who grew up under the Soviet Union.

Uzbekistan has a large Tajik population. Although census data suggest they make up only around 5% of the population, some observers believe the real figure to be far larger as there is a tendency for some Tajiks to declare themselves as Uzbek on official paperwork in order to assimilate with the majority population. Tajiks are essentially central Asian Persians who consider themselves to be the oldest ethnic group in central Asia, tracing their ancestry right back to the Bactrians and Sogdians. The Tajiks are not a homogeneous group, however, and are deeply divided along clan-based lines with strong regional affiliations and blood ties. The cities of Bukhara and Samarkand both have large Tajik populations, and many feel, in Stalin’s project to divide and rule one of the world’s most complex ethnic mixtures in 1924, they should have been allocated to Tajikistan rather than Uzbekistan.


Uzbek Man Plays DutarThe dutor is a two-stringed lute used in traditional music across central Asia © MehmetO, Shutterstock

Uzbekistan is widely considered to have the most diverse range of musical styles in central Asia. The classical style of shashmaqam, now widespread across the region, is believed to have developed in the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand in the pre-Islamic era. The term refers to the structure of music with six sections in different musical modes. This style is similar to classical Persian music and is often in terspersed with devotional Sufi poetry. This lyrical, deeply spiritual music is usually accompanied by stringed instruments like the dutor, tanbur, sato and ghizhzhak. Shashmaqam music was placed on UNESCO’s list of the world’s intangible heritage in 2008, and there’s a good supply of fine young musicians from the State Conservatory in Tashkent.

Ethnomusicologists first began recording Uzbek folk music in the late 19th century, and as a means of recording songs and tunes for posterity they also introduced written notation. Though banned from radio station playlists during the Soviet period, folk music continued to be enjoyed at weddings and other festivals, surviving long enough to be revived on the back of Uzbek nationalism. Uzbek television and radio stations regularly play both classical and folk music, and singers of traditional music, such as Sherali Jo’rayev, Yulduz Usmonova and Sevara Nazarkhan, have gained a wide following both in Uzbekistan and on the world music circuit. You’ll probably also hear the braying of untuned long horns or karnay at weddings.

The following of other contemporary music styles is harder to judge, as much of it is underground. A few pop–rock bands have emerged (specifically Bolalar and Sahar), but the lifestyles stereotypically associated with heavy rock music are generally disapproved of, and Tashkent’s tiny population of goths has reported being harassed by both the state and the community at large for their musical and fashion tastes. The Uzbek government has been known to censor rap music because it believes it is not complementary to Uzbek culture.


An appreciation of theatre and formalised performance arrived in Uzbekistan with the Russians in the late 19th century. For the first time, designated performance spaces were built, the most attractive of which is surely the Alisher Navoi Opera and Ballet Theatre in Tashkent, though several other companies have played more active roles in promoting and developing drama in Uzbekistan. The most critically acclaimed theatre company of Uzbekistan is Mark Weil’s Ilkhom Theatre.

Arts and crafts

Textile Market Uzbekistan Laurent NillesUzbekistan's textile markets are ablaze with colour and life © Laurent Nilles, @societyofexploration

For centuries Uzbekistan has been known for its artistic output: from glazed tiles to the finest silks and finely worked jewellery set with precious and semi-precious stones to handwoven and knotted carpets. The country is home to some of the most spectacular architecture not only in the Islamic world but worldwide, and several sites are justifiably recognised by UNESCO as being of international cultural importance. Monuments to both God and man incorporate influences from ancient Greece to the Buddhist temples of the Indian subcontinent, a riotous fusion of ideologies, tastes and techniques. A lack of stone and timber pushed forward advances in brick- and tile-making and in the design and engineering of domes (including ribbed and double domes).

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