Uzbekistan Country Profile
Uzbekistan evokes images of ancient caravan routes and imposing palaces amidst a myriad of colors. This Central Asian nation, whose history reaches back almost to the beginning of time itself, is also making a name in our world today as a progressive, rapidly evolving country that welcomes international relations and is actively working to become an economic and political leader in the region.
Yet Uzbekistan can’t truly be appreciated without an understanding of the historical, environmental and cultural factors that have shaped it over the years, influencing the language, religion and societal values of the country today. In the Uzbekistan Country Profile, walk through the land’s history, understand the basics of Uzbekistan’s economy, language and government, and learn what makes this country unique, a nation that celebrates and preserves its past while embracing the 21st century.
General Uzbekistan Facts
Official Name: Republic of Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan Population (2019): 33 million
Total area: 448,962 square km
Land Boundaries: Kazakhstan (north), Kyrgyzstan (east), Tajikistan (southeast), Afghanistan (southern tip), Turkmenistan (south, southwest)
Ethnic Mix: Uzbek (83.8%), Tajik (4.8%), Kazakh (2.5%), Russian (2.3%), Karakalpak (2.2%), other (4.4%)
Religions: Islam – 93% (99% Sunni, 1% Shi’a), Russian Orthodox – 5%, other – 2%
Internet Domain: .uz
Uzbekistan President: Shavkat Mirziyoyev
Administrative Divisions: 12 regions, plus 1 city (Tashkent) and 1 autonomous region (Karakalpakstan)
Independence: August 31-September 1, 1991
National currency: Uzbekistani so’m
National GDP: 55 USD Billion (2019)
Electricity: 220 volts AC, 50Hz. Round two-pin continental plugs are standard.
Flag of Uzbekistan
The basis of Uzbekistan’s flag is three large, horizontal stripes of light blue, white and green, with two thin red strips separating the three primary stripes. In the top left corner, against the blue backdrop, is a white crescent moon flanked on the right by twelve stars.
The blue stripe represents oneness with Uzbekistan’s ancestors, as Tamerlane’s flag was also blue, as well as symbolizing sky and water. White represents peace and purity, and green the Islamic faith, the verdant Uzbek landscape and new life. The red lines denote the force of energy within all life.
The moon is a reference to the birth of a new republic and to Islam, while the stars are a tribute to astronomical discoveries made in Uzbek territory, while also signifying the 12 months of the year and the 12 regions of Uzbekistan.
Brief history of Uzbekistan
Stone Age – The Bronze Age - Uzbekistan was settled as far back as the Stone Age, during which the Bactria, Sogdiana and Khorezm civilizations emerged. Ancient information on Central Asia is documented in the Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism, the prevailing religion in the land whose influence can still be seen today.
During the 4th-6th centuries BC, most of Central Asia was under the control of the Persian dynasty of the Achaemenids. Greek writers of this time also mentioned the existence of Marakanda (today's Samarkand) and Kiropol in Ferghana.
Alexander the Great - In the 3rd and 4th centuries BC, Central Asia was conquered by the Macedonians under Alexander the Great. The subsequent period saw the rapid development of architecture, painting, handicrafts, and music.
In the 2nd century BC, Silk Road caravan trade routes from Europe to China began passing through Uzbekistan territory, most notably Samarkand, Bukhara, Margilan, Shakhrisabz, and Andijan.
The Arab Invasion - Central Asia was conquered by Arab invaders in the 7th-8th centuries, whose mission was to spread the new religion of Islam, which replaced Buddhism and Zoroastrianism as the primary local faith.
Architecture, art and science declined during this period of war, to be revived again only in the middle of the 9th century with the creation of independent empires ruled by the dynasties of the local aristocracy, the Tahirids and Samanids.
In the l0th century, the Arabs were forced to withdraw their troops and the Samanids rose to power.
Genghis Khan and Tamerlane - In 1220/1221 Central Asia succumbed to Genghis Khan's army. Many cities, such as Bukhara, Khorezm and Samarkand were destroyed. Thousands of people perished (in Samarkand, only 50,000 out of a population of one million survived).
In the mid- 14th century, with the help of the warlord Tamerlane, the people were freed from the Mongols. Tamerlane began his successful campaigns to Iraq, India, Turkey, and North Africa, which led to the establishment of one of the most powerful medieval empires, with Samarkand as the capital. The restoration and development of the cities revived commerce and the arts.
Uzbek Nomadic Tribes In the 16th century, Turkic-Mongol nomadic tribes from northwest Siberia invaded from the north. They called themselves “Uzbek” after Oz Beg, a descendant of Genghis Khan and the Muslim leader of the Golden Horde. The term "Uzbek" means "master" or "lord" of oneself. The Uzbeks conquered the Timurids and formed their own state, later to be called Uzbekistan.
Russian Empire - In the 19th century the area was annexed by the Russian Empire. During this period agriculture became highly developed in Uzbekistan, as it was more economical to grow cotton in Central Asia than to import it from the US. Cotton became the most important crop, and remains so to this day. The construction of railroads made an impact on the development of trade and cultural relations between Asia and Europe, and the country gradually began to overcome its earlier period of stagnation.
The Russian Revolution - In 1917 Uzbekistan became one of the republics of the USSR. Guerilla warfare ensued for the next four years as Uzbeks fought Russian rule, eventually succumbing in 1921. In the coming decades traditional Uzbek culture was suppressed, many cultural leaders were killed, and the country was industrialized. A 1966 earthquake devasted Tashkent and led to massive rebuilding efforts in the city.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan gained independence from Russia on August 31, 1991.
Uzbekistan Independence - Upon gaining its statehood, Uzbekistan began to work out its own way of becoming a developed, sovereign republic.
Uzbekistan’s constitution was drafted in 1992. It’s officially a presidential republic, meaning the president serves as both head of state and head of government and wields considerable power.
The country has had two presidents since independence – Islam Karimov, who served as leader from 1991 until his death in 2016, and Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was elected in December 2016.
The government of Uzbekistan is divided into the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The legislative branch, known as the Oliy Majlis, consists of the Legislative Chamber and the Senate. The Executive branch involves the Cabinet of Ministers and the President. The judicial branch, consisting of the Supreme Court and several lesser courts, officially acts independently of the other branches of government.
Uzbekistan is divided into 12 administrative provinces, plus the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan and Tashkent city, which stands as an independent district.
Climate and Geography of Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world, and its lack of ocean access has an impact on the extremely dry, continental climate.
Although the northern half of the country is cooler than the south, winters in every region are generally mild. Winter begins in mid-November or December and lasts through the end of February or March. January is the coldest month, with temps dropping as low as -40°. While most regions have occasional, light snowfall, bouts of freezing weather are interspersed with days that are well above freezing. Daylight averages 9 hours.
Summers last from mid-May until August or September and are marked by hot, dry, sunny days. The country may go for months without seeing any significant rainfall. Temperatures can easily soar to above 40-45° C (104-113°F), particularly in July. Summers see approximately 15 hours of daylight.
Spring arrives around March. The weather is most unpredictable this time of year, with more frequent rainfall and regular fluctuations in temperature, yet it’s also the greenest and most gorgeous time of year. This is also the ideal time for Uzbekistan tourism.
Fall is generally pleasant and cool, with occasional showers and autumn colors in the northern and eastern regions. Along with spring, it’s the preferred time of year for tourism in Uzbekistan. The autumn season typically lasts from the end of September through mid-November.
Uzbekistan has three primary landscapes: desert in the west, plains in the north and southwest, and mountainous terrain in the east and southeast.
Plains and deserts comprise more than two-thirds of the country, most notably the Amu-Darya Delta, Ustyurt Plateau, Arallkum Desert and the Kyzyl-Kum Desert, the latter being one of the largest deserts in the world.
The remaining territory, the outlying mountains and hills of the Tian Shan, provide a breathtaking reprieve from the dry desert plains. The highest point is Hazrat Sultan, reaching to 4,643m in the Hissar Range on the border with Tajikistan. Other notable locations within Uzbekistan’s ranges include the Nurata and Zaamin Mountains, Boysun mountain village and Chatkal Ridge.
In both the Kyzylkum Desert and the Tian Shan Mountains thrive a surprising variety of flora and fauna. These are protected, in part, by numerous nature preserves.
The Fergana Valley of far eastern Uzbekistan is nestled within these mountains and has some of the best land and climate in all of Central Asia. Uzbekistan’s longest rivers are the Amu Darya, Syr Darya and Zarafshon. Lake Aidarkul, the largest body of water, is a manmade lake in the Kyzyl Kum Desert.
Uzbeks are one of the largest Turkic people groups in the world, and they comprise close to 85% of Uzbekistan’s population. Uzbeks are known throughout Central Asia as being a hardworking, resourceful, artistic and tactful people.
Other sizable minority groups include the Tajiks, concentrated heavily in Samarkand, Bukhara and along the Uzbek-Tajik border; the Karakalpaks in western Uzbekistan and the Kazakhs, found largely in Karakalpakstan, Nurata and the Tashkent region. Russian, Korean and Tatar communities are also present.
Most of Uzbekistan’s people reside in the fertile Fergana Valley, where land is arable and the climate ideal. Tashkent is the most populous city, with an unofficial population of 4 million and growing. The southern provinces also have a high concentration of people, while the central and western desert regions are much more sparsely populated.
Uzbekistan is a relatively young nation, with over 40% of the population under age 25. The backbone of society is the extended family and the mahalla, or neighborhood community. These two units provide guidance, counsel and a sense of belonging, and serve to uphold principles of tradition and collectivism.
About half of the Uzbekistan population resides in urban centers, and half in rural areas. While long-held customs of interpersonal interactions, dress and way of life are slowly succumbing to Western and Russian influence in the capital, these aspects of society are still very prevalent elsewhere. Traditional dress for women includes a colorful, loose dress with trousers worn underneath and some form of head covering for married women. For men, a black-and-white skullcap (doppi) and long thick robe was customary, yet today most men, save the elderly or on special occasions, dress in European style.
Uzbekistan Economy and Industry
Since 2017, Uzbekistan has been applying impressive and large-scale economic reforms while gradually shifting to a market-based economy. The country has already seen fiscal growth and aims to meet requirements for joining the World Trade Organization in the near future.
These reforms have included such major changes as cutting taxes for businesses and individuals, providing opportunity and impetus for small businesses, efforts to increase local employment opportunities, strengthening the private sector and eliminating the need for black market money exchange.
In addition, Uzbekistan is opening the doors for international business and trade through increasing foreign investment and simplifying trade restrictions and visa rules for businessmen and investors. And their efforts are paying off – real GDP growth has already been measured and international companies and investors are taking note of Uzbekistan as a promising new field.
While Uzbekistan’s economy is strongly dependent upon agriculture, service, machinery and mining, the construction and trade sectors are steadily on the rise.
Uzbekistan’s crowning crop is cotton, which accounts for 20% of the world’s supply. Wheat, fruits, vegetables and potatoes are also widely grown.
Mineral resources include gold, silver, uranium, petroleum, natural gas, gold, coal, copper, lead and zinc.
The country’s major exports are gold, cotton, natural gas and produce, the latter of which is almost exclusively exported to Russia and Kazakhstan.
The national language of Uzbekistan is Uzbek, an Eastern Turkic language closely related to the Uighur language of northwest China. While Turkic forms the foundation for the Uzbek language, numerous words have also been borrowed from Arabic, Persian and Russian. Latin has been the official script for Uzbek since the 1990s, although both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets are still widely used.
There are two dialects of the Uzbek language – Northern Uzbek, spoken in Uzbekistan, and Southern Uzbek, spoken by Uzbeks living in Afghanistan. They are mutually intelligible to a degree, but southern Uzbek uses a different script and includes many more borrowed words from Persian.
Tajik and Russian are also widely spoken in Uzbekistan – Tajik, in the central and southern provinces that have a high population of native Tajiks, and Russian, in the capital city and as the de facto language for government, business and interethnic communications. Ongoing debate on whether Russian should be named the second official language of Uzbekistan continues, with proponents citing its status as a world language and widespread use in the region and detractors arguing that the elevation of Russian could undermine the use of Uzbek while putting non-Russian village speakers at a disadvantage.
Karakalpak is spoken by the people group of the same name in the Karakalpak autonomous region of western Uzbekistan. Although also a Turkic language, it’s much closer to Kazakh and Kyrgyz than to Uzbek. Other minority languages are spoken by small pockets of people, and respect for all languages is upheld by the law.
The territory of Uzbekistan has served as a regional center for Islam for hundreds of years. Today, while over 90% of the country is Muslim, the government is officially secular. There is also a minority Russian Orthodox population, comprised mainly of the local Russian community, in addition to small group of Jews, Shi’a Muslims, Protestant Christians and other faiths.
In Uzbekistan, religion and the everyday affairs of the religious communities, such as maintaining prayer rooms and allocating money, are dealt with by an elected body comprised of members of the congregation. The Mir-Arab Madrasseh in Bukhara, where students are trained to become Muslim clergy, also has a school where Shiite clergy students are taught. There are currently 10 working madrassahs (religious schools) in Uzbekistan, and the Imam Al-Bukhari Islamic Institute in Tashkent.
Traces of Zoroastrianism, believed by many scholars to have originated in Uzbekistan, can still be found in cultural and religious practices of some Uzbeks today. For example, in many regions of the country a new bride and groom will walk around or jump over a small fire at their wedding in order to rid themselves of evil spirts. Superstitions and fear of the evil eye are also common beliefs that have been intermingled with Islam through the centuries.
Religious tourism for Muslims from all over the world is developing as a new trend – Uzbekistan is centrally located in the wider Islamic world and has many ancient sites to attract religious pilgrims. Buddhists also come to see the 1st century remains of Buddhist temples near Termez, and the tomb of the prophet Daniel in Samarkand attracts curious visitors of many faiths.
Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, celebrated its 2200-year anniversary back in 2009, having evolved from a small ancient settlement into the most populous city in Central Asia, and one of its main business and transportation hubs.
Tashkent is famous for its valuable architectural heritage, having largely been rebuilt since the powerful earthquake of 1966, whose epicenter was centered under the city. Thus, the city design is truly unique, a blend of Soviet Central Asian architecture and 21st century buildings, with ancient remains sprinkled throughout. The Tashkent Metro is the oldest subway in Central Asia and fantastically designed in a unique Uzbek-Soviet style. The oldest Quran in the world is on display near ancient Chorsu Bazaar, now housed in famous teal domes that were built under Soviet rule. Nearby are newly built shopping malls, while new construction sites pop up almost daily.
Since independence, great effort has been taken to reclaim Tashkent’s ancient heritage – street names have been changed from Russian to Uzbek names, Soviet monuments replaced with those of Uzbek historical figures and greater emphasis is placed upon the country’s pre-Soviet history and post-independence achievements than on the 70-year period that elapsed in between.
Uzbekistan’s capital attracts people from all over the country, who come for work, education or more optimal living conditions, and often relocate permanently. As the capital it’s also the natural locale for international schools and universities, dozens of embassies and consulates and greater ethnic diversity than any other city in Uzbekistan.
January 1-3 – New Year Holiday
February 14 – Homeland Defenders Day (workday)
March 8 – International Women’s Day
March 21-22 – Navruz
May 9 – Victory Day
September 1 – Independence Day
October 1 – Teacher’s Day
December 8 – Constitution Day
Date varies - Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan celebration)
Date varies - Eid ul-Adha (70 days after Ramadan ends)
Notable Historical Figures
Abu Raihan al-Beruni (973-1048) – A brilliant scholar and polyglot, Al-Beruni accurately determined the earth’s circumference and surmised the existence of the Americas based on his studies. He wrote extensively on Indian culture, although his most famous book was a thorough compilation on pharmacology.
Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037) – Hailed as the Father of Modern Medicine, Ibn Sina was a brilliant mind who also contributed to the fields of geometry, poetry, philosophy and astronomy.
Amir Timur (Tamerlane) (1336-1405) – A fierce warrior who conquered most of Asia during his lifetime, Tamerlane was born in modern-day Uzbekistan and built up Samarkand as the capital of his empire.
Mirzo Ulugbek (1394-1449) – Ulugbek was Tamerlane’s grandson, a ruler, mathematician and astronomer who built the largest observatory in Central Asia and is considered one of the greatest scholars of his time.
Alisher Navoi (1441-1501) – Uzbekistan’s most beloved author and ancestor, Navoi was a gifted poet and linguist who upheld the richness of the Uzbek language for literary purposes and is now esteemed as the founder of Uzbek Literature.
Zakhriddin Muhammad Bobur (1483-1530) – A descendent of Tamerlane who was forcibly relocated to India, he later founded the Moghul Empire in India and brought positive changes to the region. Bobur was also a talented author and intellectual.