Uzbekistan - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


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. Mongol forces marched on the Kara-Khitan Khanate, and by 1218 controlled territory as far west as Lake Balkhash in the southeast 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 200,000 troops under his command, he marched across the Tian Shan Mountains and into the heart of Uzbekistan.

The Mongols first seized Otrar, murdered many of its inhabitants and enslaved the rest. Inalchuq, the governor responsible for the previous envoy’s demise, had molten silver poured into his eyes and ears as punishment. In quick succession Mongol forces seized and decimated Samarkand and Bukhara, leaving them as virtual ghost towns. 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 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 being harassed.

Natural history

Charvak Resevoir Uzbekistan by Alet 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 plants, 20% of which are endemic, it’s unsurprising they’ve been unable to select a single national flower. Rosa eglanteria, Juno irises, hollyhock, filipendula, forget-me-not, patchouli, Salvia sclarea, safflower, helianthus and petunia violacea all grow in large numbers, creating a riot of colour in spring and summertime. Flowers native to Uzbekistan include Tulipa batalinii and Tulipa clusiana. There are a significant number of vascular plants unique to Uzbekistan, of which the most notable are Iris hippolyti, Iris capnoides, Tulipa butkovii, Tulipa uzbekistanica, Allium haneltii and Dianthus uzbekistanicus. Endemic genera include Calispepla, Kuramosciadium, Vvedenskya and Sphaerosciadium.

(Photo: Charvak Resevoir © Alet, Shutterstock)


Uzbekistan’s diverse natural habitats host all manner of wildlife, from cuckoos and pheasant to jackals and toads. Many of these species are indigenous to the country, and a significant number are endemic.

The central Asian steppe supports the endangered saiga antelope as well as roe deer, wolves, foxes, marmots and badgers. In the western deserts are monitor lizards 1.6m (5ft) in length, gazelle and a number of species of rodent. The river deltas are home to wild boars, jackals and deer, and the eastern mountains bordering Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are prime habitat for the Alpine ibex, lynx, wild boars, wolves, brown bears and a few particularly camera-shy snow leopards.

Insects found only in Uzbekistan include the butterflies Hyponephele murzini and Melitaea permuta, the grasshopper Conophyma turkestanicum, a long-horned beetle Psilotarsus turkestanicus and a chalcidoid wasp Entedon tobiasi. Other endemic invertebrates include the jumping spiders Yllenus tamdybulak and Yllenus bucharensis, the tree-trunk spider Hersiliola esyunini and the 4cm-long scorpion  Orthochirus feti.

Almost as diverse are the species of fish.There are more than 60 types of river fish in Uzbekistan, including the European perch, northern Pike, Turkestan sculpin and the unfortunate Aral trout. The freshwater Dzihunia ilan, a species of loach, is only found in Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan has several species of venomous snake, of which the central Asian cobra, found in desert regions, is most dangerous. You should also steer well clear of the poisonous saygak and the four-striped runner.

People and culture

Young Uzbeks Shir Dor Madrassa in Samarkand Uzbekistan  by Sophie and Max Lovell-HoareYoung Uzbeks dressed in traditional garb in front of Shir Dor Madrassa in Samarkand. © Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare

With a population over 30 million, Uzbekistan is by far the most populous country in central Asia. As much as 35% of the population is under 18, and though it has grown rapidly in recent decades, growth is now slowing due to economic outward migration and much smaller family sizes. The average number of children per woman is now 1.89, as opposed to 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 significant Uzbek populations in Afghanistan (2.7 million), Kyrgyzstan (800,000) and Tajikistan (1.6 million) as well as in Uzbekistan. The majority of Uzbeks follow the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, though atheism is also widespread amongst those who grew up under the Soviet Union.

Uzbekistan also 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. Tajiks are essentially central Asian Persians, the division between the two groups being the result of Stalin’s border creation in the 1920s. They consider themselves to be the oldest ethnic group in central Asia and trace 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 they should have been given the opportunity to join Tajikistan rather than being part of Uzbekistan.


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 late 16th century. 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 interspersed with devotional Sufi poetry. 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. Nowadays Uzbek television and radio stations regularly play 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. Pop music has flourished in Uzbekistan since the early 1990s, with Uzbek, Russian and Turkish artists dominating the charts. Several Uzbek singers, most notably Shahzoda and Sogdiana Fedorinskaya, have achieved commercial success in Russia, though Uzbek artists are not really known outside the former USSR. The exception to this rule is Googoosha (aka: Gulnara Karimov).

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 Bolalarand 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 censors 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 critically acclaimed theatre company of Uzbekistan is the Ilkhom Theatre of Mark Weil.

Arts and crafts

For centuries Uzbekistan has been known for its artistic output: from glazed tiles to the finest silks, finely worked jewellery set with precious and semi-precious stones, to handwoven and knotted carpets. Uzbekistan 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. The lack of stone and timber available locally pushed forward advances in brick and tile making and there was significant medieval innovation in the design and engineering of domes (including ribbed domes and double domes). Many say Islam prohibits the depiction of living things in art, but this is scarcely evident in Uzbekistan. Though ornate calligraphy, colourful geometric patterns and nature-inspired motifs (the usual alternatives) are all in evidence, so too are tiles painted with animals, flowers and human faces and beautifully illustrated manuscripts depicting men, beasts and even the occasional prophet or angel.

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