“Yol boisin.” It’s an Uzbek saying that may well date back to the days of the Silk Road, when traders departed along crude desert and mountain byways carting spices, perfumes, jewels and textiles to far-off lands. “May your travels be free of obstacles” is a loose translation. Today, this blessing for a safe journey embodies the warmth of the Uzbekistan people and the open arms with which they welcome travelers.
If you’ve dreamed of walking in the footsteps of ancient merchants … of uncovering the secrets of Central Asia’s cultural and historic heart … casting your gaze on the turquoise domes and towering minarets of some of the world’s most magnificent and historically significant Islamic architecture … rubbing elbows in bustling bazaars with white-bearded elders adorned in flowing robes and distinctive skullcaps … then Uzbekistan should be on your travel to-do list. Mysterious, remote, and seldom seen by Westerners, it is one of the most rewarding travel experiences you will ever have.
Before you go, it’s worthwhile to know a little more about this enigmatic nation’s remarkable history and rich culture.
Region at a Crossroads: From Transoxiana to Uzbekistan
During the first millennium BC, Scythians settled along the rivers of today’s Uzbekistan. Bukhara and Samarkand emerged as cultural and governmental centers. As China established its silk trade with the West, these cities of Transoxiana (as the region was called) boomed and enjoyed many periods of prosperity. They became known for their wealth, making them the target of conquerors and kingdom-builders.
Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great is said to have fallen in love with Samarkand, saying it was “more beautiful than I ever imagined.” He moved in on the territory in 327 BC but met ferocious resistance. Nonetheless, it became the easternmost province of his Hellenistic world. In the first century BC, Persian empires began a long rule, but were ousted by Arabs in the eighth century AD. This was the beginning of the Islamic Golden Age, a prolific period of scholarly and artistic achievement. Trigonometry was developed, aiding in the study of the stars, and poets and artists graced the culture with their works.
Cultures and empires continued to evolve and prosper until the arrival of Genghis Khan in the 13th century. His Mongol invasion brought utter destruction and displacement. But peace and stability eventually settled in as Transoxiana was divided among the Mongol leader’s sons. Some 100 years later in the 1380s, the princes of various provinces started competing with each other for more extensive power. The chieftain Tamerlane (also known as Timur) won out and proceeded to conquer the western reaches of Central Asia, Iran, the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and beyond. He was a brutal leader but in his short reign (he died in 1405), he ushered in a new era of Perso-Islamic culture. Palatial religious buildings were erected. Advances in medicine, science and the arts bloomed. Even a new literary language, Turkic, took hold.
The Timurid state could not survive the death of its leader. Internal fighting and the resulting power vacuum opened a window to nomadic Uzbek forces from the north. During the early 16th century, they moved in and created three different states: Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand. Some 300 years later, the Russian Empire called Uzbekistan its own and by 1924 it was part of the Soviet Union. By the time the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Uzbekistan had already declared its sovereignty.
A Rich Cultural Legacy
Uzbekistan’s culture is steeped in its varied history. The country’s many mosques, mausoleums and madrasas (Islamic educational centers) embody a centuries-long Islamic heritage that started with the arrival of Arabs in the eighth century. Today, Uzbeks remain rightly proud of their spectacular structures and monuments to Islam—and of the oldest copy of the Koran in the world, housed in Tashkent’s Muyi Muborak Madrasa. But many approach daily living with a secular view. Citizens seem to be more interested in sharing the latest news and gossip over kok choy, or green tea, at a traditional teahouse, than in trading views about religion.
That’s not to say that religious-based virtues are not celebrated in Uzbekistan. We’ve already mentioned that the world’s oldest Koran is housed in Tashkent. Tales of morality are also woven into the Uzbek psyche in the same way many fairy tales form the basis of Western ideas of right and wrong. The 11th century, especially, saw poets extolling virtuous ideas, from Yusuf Balasagun’s Kugadau Bilig (Knowledge of Grace) to Akhmad Yugnaki’s Hibat al-Haqa’iq (The Gift of Truth). And during the Timurid era, the great poet and philosopher Alisher Navoi founded the Uzbek literary language with works such as Chordevon and Khamsa.
You can soak in much of Uzbek’s culture in its many bazaars, colorful repositories where modern-day commerce and a centuries-old history converge. A kaleidoscope of culture is for the taking in these dizzying marketplaces. Richly colored suzani carpets, created with skillful needlework depicting flowers, vines, or leaves, recall the days when brides crafted textiles for their grooms. Carefully etched glazed tiles will remind you of the breathtaking artistry of mausoleums and mosques long after you return home. Freshly baked non, or bread, will give you an energetic boost as you explore.
No matter where you are, your wanderings might be accompanied by a distinctive Uzbek soundtrack. The country’s music reaches back as far as its original founding and consists of numerous styles and instruments. Shashmaqam music is thought to have originated in Bukhara in the late 1500s. This hypnotic form comprises six sections, each of which builds to a climax before returning to its original soft tones. Sufi poetry and long-necked string instruments (the tanbur, dutar, and sato) feature prominently. The karnay, a long-necked trumpet, is the Uzbek national instrument, while the nay (a flute blown from its end) and surnay (a loud wooden oboe) are also common.
All of Uzbekistan is music to our ears. We hope you’ll agree when you explore with a small group during our Discover Uzbekistan adventure!