Uzbekistan: Good-Bye Marx, Hello Timur
Uzbekistan is an ironic place – it both remote but also always finds itself in the middle of things. People got an early start in Central Asia. The oldest known human remains in the region date back to Neanderthal times 100,000 years ago. Since then, Central Asia has been quite the place for different peoples to fight, trade and build things. One early group was the Indo-Iranians who were the same Aryans who later conquered India. These Aryans also became the Persians of modern day Iran and the Tajiks, who live in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and in their own country, Tajikistan. Back then these places were called Bactria, Khorezm and Sogdiana where people mostly practiced settled agriculture -- unlike their wilder nomad neighbors. Alexander the Great came and left this Persian world when he beat the Persians in the 4th Century BC. Alexander entered the renowned Silk Road city of Samarkand, got married nearby to a local girl -- and went as far as Kabul. His advance ended after his troops refused to go further into modern day Afghanistan, giving them credit for being the first army to realize this was a lousy place to fight. Alexander left Central Asia with a distinctive Greek flavoring influences art, science and architecture to this day.
Next came the Mongolian Xiongnu who ruled a huge chunk of Asia from Manchuria to the Volga from 200 BC to 50 BC. Think of it as “The Mongol Empire, The Prequel”. These Turkic speaking nomads had fun picking on the divided Chinese until the latter got their act together and clobbered them. Under their first powerful emperor Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese tried building the Great Wall to keep them out. This only partially worked until the Han Dynasty crushed them. After dealing with the Xiongnu, the Han Chinese got increasingly interested in trading with the west - and the Silk Road was born. Actually, there was no one Silk Road - it just referred to the various routes people took from east to west. All sorts of stuff was traded including gold and other precious metals, ivory, precious stones, glass, furs, ceramics, jade, bronze objects, lacquer, and iron. Although silk was a big hit with the Romans, they did not come up with the "Silk Road" name. This was the idea of a German scholar named Ferdinand Freiherr Von Richthofen in the 1800’s.
As trade picked up, the Silk Road region became a crossroads of Greek, Roman, Han Chinese, Tibetan, Persian, and Indian cultures. The eclecticism reached some odd heights: People made Buddhas that looked like Greek Gods. The ethnic salad bowl also made the place seem eastern to westerners and western to easterners – something also true to this day. The Silk Road also served as a conduit for the spread of religions, especially Buddhism from India to China. China would never be the same again. Some of the most important routes went through Samarkand and Bukhara - while another went through Tashkent. This is how most of these cities got their starts. Even a thousand years ago real estate was about “location, location and location”.
The crazy march of history continued and other peoples got into the scene - and the Silk Road had good times (100 BC to 200 AD) and bad ones (200 - 400) when the Xiongnu’s Hun descendents were mauling both the Road and the declining Roman Empire. These guys really knew how to get around. Things picked up again when the Turks came down from southern Siberia in the 6th Century and got a foothold in Central Asia. These are the partial ancestors of the Turkmen, Turks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks. The Silk Road’s most active period was during the Tang Dynasty when the Chinese were in a rare spurt of actually liking foreigners. The explosive spread of Islam in the 8th century by enthusiastic Arab armies didn’t slow things down much. Bukhara did particularly well during these times. The region was ruled by a series of dynasties that usually fell apart because of succession problems.
All of this came to a
crashing end in 1219 when Genghis Khan rounded up 200,000 of his best friends
and laid waste to most of the world. His Mongol hoards crushed Russia, China,
Central Asia and a good chunk of Europe. After Genghis’ death, his empire broke
up into a Chinese part (the Yuan Dynasty), the Golden Horde (Russia and Ukraine
- where the Tartars come from), a Mongolian part and then another in Central
Asia. When the Central Asian part split again, one leader stepped in to fill the
gap: Timur, otherwise known as Tamerlane.
Timur was a good fighter who followed Mongolian tradition by crushing everyone around him. In just nine years, he clobbered Persia, Iraq, Syria and much of Turkey and the Caucasus. His descendents even started the Mogul Dynasty in India (the people built the Taj Mahal). Timur’s guys grabbed people and treasure from everywhere and brought it back to his capital, Samarkand. All of these riches resulted in Samarkand becoming home to an incredible array of buildings, most of which stand today and still boggle the imagination. Timur also killed an astronomical number of people in his adventures but what the hell; it was for a good cause. Because of his can-do spirit, modern Uzbekistan has made him their national hero. This was one Uzbek who was not going to get pushed around.
After died, the kingdom got smaller but Samarkand was later ruled by his intelligent and civilized grandson Ulughbek. Despite his odd sounding name, he was one of the great astronomers of the Middle Ages and generally very enlightened. He said that, "It is the duty of every Muslim man and woman to acquire knowledge." His star catalogue was widely used for the next two hundred years. Alas, Ulughbek didn't last long. Things got back to form when he was beheaded on October 27, 1449 by the orders of his own son – at the urging of fundamentalists. They didn’t like Ulughbek’s poking around the stars. That was God's turf. Then again maybe they didn’t like another one of Ulughbek’s quotes, “Religion disperses like a fog, kingdoms perish, but the works of scholars remain for an eternity." Ouch. A little under two hundred years later, in 1633, Galileo was found guilty of heresy by the Inquisition. Some things never change.
Despite the nasty murder of Ulughbek, the Timurids, descendents of Timur, generally liked art and culture. The Uzbeks got their official start from another Genghis Khan descendant named Uzbek who ruled from 1313 to 1340 although they are really a Turkic-Mongol mix. Unlike the nomadic Kazakhs, the Uzbeks settled down to an agricultural way of life and built upon the urban civilization started by Timur. The region was populated by Turkic or Persian groups, a distinction lasted until Soviet times. The good times ended when the Silk Road was supplanted by a sea route and strangled by increasing Chinese isolationism. Central Asia turned into a backwater and the Russians started creeping into Kazakhstan in the 18th Century. The cities of Uzbekistan were ruled by myopic tyrants in Bukhara, Kokand and Khiva who spent most of time fighting each other, keeping people ignorant and coming up with amazingly creative ways of torturing people. People who lived in or stumbled into these places found themselves beheaded, impaled on stakes or got their eyes gouged out (with the knife wiped on their beards).
Eventually, the Russians made it to the Khanates and crushed them all between 1865 and 1877. Like in the USA during the 19th century, Russians came to settle these new lands but unlike Americans, they mostly left the locals alone. The generally tolerable relationship between the “Asian” Persians and Turks and the Russians blew up badly during WW I when the Tsarist government tried to seize supplies of food, cotton, cattle -- and people. The Tsars thought of the locals as a kind of supply, like a cow. The Bolsheviks were worse. The Reds tried to stamp out growing pan-Turkic feelings by helping themselves to even more stuff than the Tsar did - and a million people died of famine. To make matters worse, the Communists collectivized agriculture, slaughtered the intelligentsia and generally made pests of themselves.
One of the most lasting of the Soviet machinations was the creation of new nationalities and new subject nations out of different Turkic and Persian groups. Until this process started in 1924, nationality was shaded and poorly defined thing. There were Persians and Turks but sometimes Turks spoke Persian better then Turkic -- and vice versa. Tribes had different traditions that varied gradually as you moved across the region. There was little sense of nationhood. Everything was blurred as people tended to identify more with their clan or region than with anything else.
Picture of Timur,
Worried about nascent
Pan-Turkic or ant-Soviet feelings, the Soviets took these tribal graduations and
draw them in black and white. For example, the guys who wore black and white
skullcaps became Uzbeks while the furry hatted guys were to be Turkmen. When in
doubt the Soviets simply assigned people different nationalities. "Hey you!
You're an Uzbek." For those who argued, there was always the Gulag. By using
divide and conquer, the Soviets hoped to undermine replace threatening
pan-Turkic sentiment. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Borders were
created and changed depending on Moscow's whims ("Hey let's play with the Hungry
Steppe!") but things were stable especially after the Second World War when
living standards went up. People lived well by the standards of Central Asia --
which admittedly was not saying much. This relative prosperity partially made up
for the fact that Uzbeks had little control of their destiny until the 1991
breakup of the USSR.
Glasnost was a short-lived affair that lasted from 1990 until Uzbekistan reluctantly became independent. After independence, it kept its one party secular government and leader. The old Communist Party of Uzbekistan became the “Popular Democratic Party of Uzbekistan” and its Communist First Secretary, Islam Karimov became President. That was a neat trick. Like his predecessor, he rules the country with an iron fist even on mellow days. At the same time, Uzbekistan’s 25 million people are rediscovering their traditional cultures. Despite Russification, the Uzbeks only partially assimilated and remain proud of their long and turbulent history.