What is now Uzbekistan was in ancient times part of the Iranian-speaking region of Transoxiana. The first recorded settlers were Eastern Iranian nomads, known as Scythians, who founded kingdoms in Khwarezm (8th–6th centuries BC), Bactria (8th–6th centuries BC), Sogdia (8th–6th centuries BC), Fergana (3rd century BC – 6th century AD), and Margiana (3rd century BC – 6th century AD).
The area was incorporated into the Persian Empire and, after a period of Macedonian Greek rule, was ruled mostly by Persian dynasties until the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, turning the majority of the population towards Islam. During this period, cities such as Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara began to grow rich from the Silk Road. The local Khwarezmian dynasty, and Central Asia as a whole, were decimated by the Mongol invasion in the 13th century.
After the Mongol Conquests, the area became increasingly dominated by Turkic peoples. The city of Shahrisabz was the birthplace of the Turkic warlord Timur, who in the 14th century established the Timurid Empire and was proclaimed the Supreme Emir of Turan with his capital in Samarkand. The area was conquered by Uzbek Shaybanids in the 16th century, moving the center of power from Samarkand to Bukhara. The region was split into three states: Khanate of Khiva, Khanate of Kokand,and Emirate of Bukhara.
It was gradually incorporated into the Russian Empire during the 19th century, with Tashkent becoming the political center of Russian Turkestan.
In 1924, after national delimitation, the constituent republic of the Soviet Union known as the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was created. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, it declared independence as the Republic of Uzbekistan on 31 August 1991.
Uzbekistan on the Silk Road
The Scythians also known as Scyth, Saka, Sakae, Sai, Iskuzai, or Askuzai, were Eurasian nomads, probably mostly using Eastern Iranian languages, who were mentioned by the literate peoples surrounding them as inhabiting large areas in the central Eurasian steppes from about the 9th century BC up until the 4th century AD.
The “classical Scythians” known to ancient Greek historians, agreed to be mainly Iranian in origin, were located in the northern Black Sea and fore-Caucasus region. Other Scythian groups documented by Assyrian, Achaemenid and Chinese sources show that they also existed in Central Asia.
The relationships between the peoples living in these widely separated regions remains unclear, and the term is used in both a broad and narrow sense. The term “Scythian” is used by modern scholars in an archaeological context for finds perceived to display attributes of the wider “Scytho-Siberian” culture, usually without implying an ethnic or linguistic connotation.
(See our blog post Scythians)
Sogdiana or Sogdia was an ancient Iranian civilization that at different times included territory located in present-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan such as: Samarkand, Bukhara, Khujand, Panjikent and Shahrisabz. Sogdiana was also a province of the Achaemenid Empire, (550–330 BC), also called the First Persian Empire led by same Cyrus the Great and Darius who famously battled the Greeks.
Sogdiana was eighteenth in the list on the Behistun Inscription of Darius the Great . In the Avesta, Sogdiana is listed as the second best land that the supreme deity Ahura Mazda had created It comes second, after Airyanem Vaejah, “homeland of the Aryans“, in the Zoroastrian book of Vendidad, indicating the importance of this region from ancient times. Sogdiana was first conquered by Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire.
The region would then be annexed by the Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great in 328 BC. The region would continue to change hands under the Seleucid Empire, Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, Kushan Empire, Hephthalite Empire, and Sasanian Empire.
(See our blog post Sogdians)
Khwarezm (8th–6th centuries BC)
Khwarezm is a large oasis region on the Amu Darya river delta bordered on the north by the (former) Aral Sea, on the east by the Kyzylkum desert, on the south by the Karakum desert, and on the west by the Ustyurt Plateau. It was the center of the Iranian Khwarezmian civilization, and a series of kingdoms such as the Persian Empire, whose capitals were (among others) Kath, Gurganj (the modern Köneürgenç) and – from the 16th century on – Khiva. Today Khwarezm belongs partly to Uzbekistan, partly to Kazakhstan and partly to Turkmenistan.
Like Soghdiana, Khwarezm was an expansion of the BMAC culture during the Bronze Age which later fused with Indo-Iranians during their migrations around 1000 BC. The Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (short BMAC), also known as the Oxus civilization, is the modern archaeological designation for a Bronze Age civilization of Central Asia, dated to c. 2300–1700 BC, located in present-day northern Afghanistan, eastern Turkmenistan, southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan, centred on the upper Amu Darya (Oxus River) Early Iron Age states arose from this cultural exchange. Successive cultures in Khwarezm region 3000–500 BC include:
- Keltiminar Culture c. 3000 BC
- Suyargan Culture c 2000 BC
- Tazabag’yab Culture c. 1500 BC
- Amirabad Culture c 1000 BC
- Saka c. 500 BC
During the final Saka phase, there were about 400 settlements in Khwarezm. Ruled by the native Afrighid Dynasty. It was at this point that Khwarezm entered the historical record with the Achamenid expansion
Bactria (8th–6th centuries BC),
Bactria was the area north of the Hindu Kush, west of the Pamirs and south of the Tian Shan with the Amu Darya flowing west through the center.
Before its annexation to the Achaemenid Empire by Cyrus the Great in sixth century BCE, Bactria belonged to the Medes and together with Margiana, formed the twelfth satrapy of Persia. After Darius III had been defeated by Alexander the Great, the satrap of Bactria, Bessus, attempted to organise a national resistance but was captured by other warlords and delivered to Alexander. He was then tortured and killed
Sogdia (8th–6th centuries BC),
The Sogdian states, although never politically united, were centered on the main city of Samarkand. Sogdiana lay north of Bactria, east of Khwarezm, and southeast of Kangju between the Oxus (Amu Darya) and the Jaxartes (Syr Darya), embracing the fertile valley of the Zeravshan (ancient Polytimetus).
Sogdian territory corresponds to the modern provinces of Samarkand and Bokhara in modern Uzbekistan as well as the Sughd province of modern Tajikistan. During the High Middle Ages, Sogdian cities included sites stretching towards Issyk Kul including the archeological site of Suyab.
Fergana (3rd century BC – 6th century AD),
The Kingdom of Fergana describes a former state which existed probably between the 3rd century BC and 6th century AD in what is now the Ferghana Valley of eastern Uzbekistan. It was probably the area known in classical Chinese sources as Dayuan.
In 329 BCE, Alexander the Great founded Alexandria Eschate (Farthest Alexandria) to the southwest of the Jaxartes river valley, site of the modern Khokand . The city probably remained in contact with the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. It is believed that the Greeks of Alexandria Escate arrived in Urumqi and Kashgar in Xinjiang and had their first contacts with the Chinese towards 220 BC.
Statues of Greek soldiers have been found in China, and Strabo indicated a belief that the Greeks extended their territory to the country of the Seres (Chinese) and the Phryni.
Chinese sources state that before the Muslim conquest, a Chinese embassy led by Zhang Qian visited the land of the dayuan or ta-yuan in 128 BC. An Indian dynasty, perhaps of Greek origin, ruled the country; the Chinese called it the country of the Celestial Horses, and by 104 BC they were at war with Fergana.
In the 6th century AD, the Turks established a khanate in Fergana. Following that, various khanates reigned over the area:
- 11th-13th centuries: the Karakhanids (12th century under the Kara-Kitai, 13th century under Mongol sovereignty of the Chagatai khan)
- 1469-1504: the Timurid khanate (ending with Babur)
- 1504-1709: the Uzbek khanate of Andijan, after Bukhara
- 1709-1876: the Uzbek khanate of Khokand
Margiana (3rd century BC – 6th century AD).
Seleucid Empire (312 BC – 63 BC)
A Hellenistic state ruled by the Seleucid dynasty, which existed from 312 BC to 63 BC; Seleucus I Nicator founded it following the division of the Macedonian empire vastly expanded by Alexander the Great. Seleucus received Babylonia (321 BC), and from there, expanded his dominions to include much of Alexander’s near-eastern territories. At the height of its power, the Empire included central Anatolia, Persia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and what is now Kuwait, Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan and Turkmenistan.
The Seleucid Empire became a major center of Hellenistic culture – it maintained the preeminence of Greek customs where a Greek political elite dominated, mostly in the urban areas. The Greek population of the cities who formed the dominant elite were reinforced by immigration from Greece.
Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (250 BC – 125 BC)
The easternmost part of the Hellenistic world, covering Bactria and Sogdiana in Central Asia from 250 to 125 BC. It was centered on the north of present-day Afghanistan. The expansion of the Greco-Bactrians into present-day eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan from 180 BC established the Indo-Greek Kingdom, which was to last until around 10 AD
Kushan Empire (100 CE)
The Kushan Empire was a syncretic empire, formed by the Yuezhi, in the Bactrian territories in the early 1st century. It spread to encompass much of Afghanistan, present-day Pakistan and then the northern parts of India at least as far as Saketa and Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares), where inscriptions have been found dating to the era of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka the Great. Kanishka was a great patron of Buddhism. The Kushans possibly used the Greek language initially for administrative purposes, but soon began to use Bactrian language.
The Kushans were one of five branches of the Yuezhi confederation a possibly Iranic or Tocharian, Indo-European nomadic people who migrated from Gansu , and settled in ancient Bactria. Gansu is a northwest province of China. The State of Qin originated in what is now southeastern Gansu, and went on to form the first dynasty of Imperial China. The Northern Silk Road ran through the Hexi Corridor, which passes through Gansu.
Kanishka sent his armies north of the Karakoram mountains, capturing territories as far as Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkant, in the Tarim Basin of modern-day Xinjiang, China. A direct road from Gandhara to China remained under Kushan control for more than a century, encouraging travel across the Karakoram and facilitating the spread of Mahayana Buddhism to China.
The Kushan dynasty had diplomatic contacts with the Roman Empire, Sasanian Persia, the Aksumite Empire and Han Dynasty of China. While much philosophy, art, and science was created within its borders, the only textual record of the empire’s history today comes from inscriptions and accounts in other languages, particularly Chinese.
The Kushan empire fragmented into semi-independent kingdoms in the 3rd century AD, which fell to the Sasanians invading from the west, establishing the Kushano-Sasanian Kingdom in the areas of Sogdiana, Bactria and Gandhara. In the 4th century, the Guptas, an Indian dynasty also pressed from the east. The last of the Kushan and Kushano-Sasanian kingdoms were eventually overwhelmed by invaders from the north, known as the Kidarites, and then the Hepthalites.
Hephthalite Empire (450 – 560 CE)
The Hephthalites (or Ephthalites) were a people of Central Asia who were militarily important circa 450–560. They were based in Bactria and expanded east to the Tarim Basin, west to Sogdia and south through Afghanistan to northern India.
They were a tribal confederation and included both nomadic and settled urban communities. They were part of the four major states known collectively as Xyon (Xionites) or Huna, being preceded by the Kidarites, and succeeded by the Alkhon and lastly the Nezak. All of these peoples have often been linked to the Huns who invaded Eastern Europe during the same period, and/or have been referred to as “Huns”, but there is no consensus among scholars about such a connections, if they actually existed.
The Sveta Huna who invaded northern India are probably the Hephthalites, but the exact relation is not clear.
The stronghold of the Hephthalites was Tokharistan on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush, in what is present-day northeastern Afghanistan. By 479, the Hephthalites had conquered Sogdia and driven the Kidarites westwards, and by 493 they had captured parts of present-day Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin in what is now Northwest China. They expanded into northwestern India as well.
The sources for Hepthalite history are poor and historians’ opinions differ. There is no king-list and historians are not sure how they arose or what language they spoke.
Khwararmian Dynasty (1077 – 1231 CE)
A Persianate Sunni Muslim dynasty of Turkic mamluk origin. The dynasty ruled large parts of Central Asia and Iran during the High Middle Ages, , first as vassals of the Seljuqs and Qara-Khitan, and later as independent rulers, up until the Mongol invasion of Khwarezmia in the 13th century.
The dynasty was founded by commander Anush Tigin Gharchai, a former Turkish slave of the Seljuq sultans, who was appointed as governor of Khwarezm. His son, Qutb ad-Din Muhammad I, became the first hereditary Shah of Khwarezm.
Things to See in Uzbekistan
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