Mysterious rock carvings in the heavenly Tian Shan mountains tell the story of how Stone Age man-made this his home, while the fertile lands in the vast valley stretching between the mighty Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers were a welcome respite for early farmers who grazed their sheep and goats on the lush pastures and laced the landscape with a network of irrigation channels. These ancient settlements later formed part of great empires such as the Kushan Empire, Sogdiana, and Bactria that ruled vast swathes of Central Asia and beyond. Alexander the Great arrived here with his warriors in 328 BC and the rich Ferghana Valley joined the Greco-Bactrian Empire. Alexander prized the area for its strategic location, though legends tell of a more romantic reason – it’s rumoured that a local beauty, the Princess Roxane, captured the mighty leader’s heart.
The fates of these ancient empires were intertwined, and here, at the crossroads of civilisations, peoples from the Steppe, India, Iran, China and even Greece met to share goods, ideas and skills. Mysterious ruins and relics show Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Buddhism, even Christianity were all practised side by side by the diverse peoples of these lands.
The Silk Road
The legendary Silk Road with its caravans, camels and precious commodities was soon thriving here, bringing a ceaseless stream of merchants keen to trade exotic spices, leather, livestock and much more. But the Silk Road was always far more than a convenient route for traders; travellers from East and West passed this way, stopping in the rich oases of Samarkand and Bukhara to rest, and it was these open, eclectic centres that soon developed as vibrant cultural hubs which saw the birth of many features typical of modern Uzbek arts and crafts today.
A Golden Age
New inspiration came with the Arabs and the advent of Islam in the seventh century. The next few hundred years proved to be a time of intense artistic and intellectual development, and from the 9th to 15th centuries, the territory of modern-day Uzbekistan prospered. This was a Golden Age for the region, a time of immense cultural and scientific achievement when great scholars such as outstanding mathematician Al-Khwarizmi (c. 780 – c. 850), the father of early modern medicine, Avicenna (980-1037), and of course the original polymath Al-Biruni (973–1050) rose to prominence. These bright minds shaped not only Central Asian thought but also influenced European science and philosophy for centuries to come.
One of the mightiest rulers of the Muslim world, Timur (or Tamerlane, 1336-1405), founded the Timurid empire here. Timur himself invited the best artisans and thinkers from Central Asia and beyond to live and work in his new capital, Samarkand, and they brought many techniques and materials with them. Stunning cities, masterpieces of Islamic architecture, rose out of the sands. Mosques, madrasahs and mausoleums were designed and decorated by the greatest craftsmen, and even today visitors are awed by the intricacy of the turquoise and blue tilework in the magnificent cities of Bukhara and Khiva – now recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It was Timur’s grandson, enlightened sultan and brilliant mathematician Ulugh Beg, who established Samarkand as a leading centre of learning and even charted the stars from his astounding observatory in the nearby hills. Today, the Ulugh Beg Observatory Museum houses some of the original medieval instruments used by this inspired early scientist. Knowledge spread from here along the Silk Road to Byzantium/Constantinople and eventually to Europe, where Ulugh Beg’s star catalogue was studied in acclaimed universities, including Oxford, UK. Another Timurid ruler, Babur, went on to found the Moghul Empire, renowned for its cultural syncretism of Islamic and Hindu influences culminating in the breath-taking Taj Mahal, built by one of Timur’s descendants.
From the mighty to the miniature – schools of miniature painting flourished under the Timurids, too, and the dramatic, intense style that evolved here was unequalled in Asian manuscript illustration.
But the Golden Age could not last forever. By the seventeenth century, the lands of present-day Uzbekistan had fallen to disintegrated, warring khanates and were easy prey for the expanding Russian empire which annexed the region in 1874.
The Soviet Era
The Soviet Union brought major changes to Uzbekistan’s economy, which now centred on providing cotton as well as fruit and vegetables for the large Soviet market. Many traditional skills, including silk-weaving and embroidery, were side-lined in favour of more commercial techniques and the political climate meant many artisans were forced to go underground, concealing their workshops and teaching apprenticeships in secret. Family lineages ensured these ancient crafts were not lost but continue to this day, proudly passed from generation to generation.
Archaeologists began uncovering and restoring many lost treasures, including some of Uzbekistan’s most famous architectural wonders – the Ulugh Beg Observatory, for instance, and Tamerlane’s mausoleum in Samarkand, now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thanks to their work, we too can now marvel at these majestic buildings.
Today, Uzbekistan is an independent Republic with a young, upwardly-mobile population.
Since the country gained independence, much has been done to restore national pride along with national heritage, establishing museums, cultural hubs and workshops where modern artisans create works of outstanding beauty. Although many traditional crafts such as silk weaving, ceramics and miniaturist paintings have survived intact, others have not, and some artisans are now striving to revive or re-establish techniques that disappeared into the mists of time, devotedly studying manuscripts and artefacts to unlock the secret skills of ancient masters while experimenting with modern materials to create stunning pieces of art true to their ancient heritage.
The legacy of the Silk Road is still very much alive in modern Uzbekistan, a fascinating country where diverse cultures have blended and enriched one another for millennia.