The fascinating detail we see in all Uzbek woodcarving traces back to patterns etched into the beams and pillars in many of Uzbekistan’s historic buildings. The Juma Mosque in Khiva is a marvellous example. The magnificently carved columns in the large courtyard show designs from the 12th to the 19th century, telling the story of how wood carving developed here through the ages.
The same techniques were soon applied to a wide range of wooden articles, from ornate doors to tiny amulets for children, and, like other applied arts in Central Asia, woodcarving was a way to personalise everyday items or add beauty and power to special pieces. Carved jewellery boxes, low tea tables and lattice book cupboards have long been a feature of traditional Oriental interior décor.
Uzbek woodcarving is unique in many ways, not least because the pieces are typically hewn from a single block of wood, without the use of nails. Uzbek masters pride themselves on their ability to intuit and preserve a tree’s inner essence; carved patterns should reveal the tree’s distinctive texture and colour, not disturb its natural beauty.
A labour of love
Even before the master carver picks up his chisel, there have been months of preparation. Robust trunks from trees such as elm, walnut, sycamore, juniper, mulberry, pear or apricot are carefully soaked in special reservoirs, then thoroughly dried while the carving pattern is designed to highlight the features of each piece. The craftsman has a range of techniques to choose from: will he emphasise his motif by carefully whittling out the background around it, or embed the pattern itself into the wood? A technique known as ‘high-relief’ gives depth and dramatic 3D effect, or for a more delicate piece – a jewellery box, perhaps – he might prefer the light, spacious resolution of the clear ‘lattice’ or ‘window’ method.
A skilled, creative carver uses a range of approaches to showcase the wood’s unique expressiveness, and, over time, local traditions and schools emerged.
Khiva masters are renowned for the scaly texture of their carving. The result is dynamic contrast, tremendous tonality and a sense of movement throughout the carved patterns.
Tashkent woodwork is characterised by a layering effect that adds depth in the piece. The preferred technique here is the so-called flat-relief carving, often combined with colours and varnish.
Samarkand woodcarvers developed a particularly elegant, rich and organic blend of floral and geometric themes. Beautiful examples include Samarkand carved doors made in the early 20th century. An interesting feature here is the countless metal details such as nail heads, brackets, and handles, which, despite their functional significance, are in fact just part of the decoration.
Classical Uzbek carvings from Bukhara show a striking blend of floral and geometric patterns etched deep into the wood while long, decorative tables and stools from the early 20th century often feature a six- to eight-pointed star.
Although this intricate, time-consuming craft declined in the early 20th century, some dedicated master carvers worked hard to preserve their profession and today woodcarving is experiencing a revival. Smaller items such as carved boxes or plates are very popular with tourists visiting the historic cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
Carved doors and pillars have once again become an integral feature of public and cultural structures.
While continuing the centuries-old traditions, modern artisans are bringing new innovations to their work. Majolica panels, miniature paintings and metal work have all been widely adopted.
But above all, it is the natural texture of the wood, the charm of ancient tradition, and the warmth of skilled hands that make Uzbek woodcarving so attractive in our modern high-tech world.