The land along the upper Amu-Darya (Oxus River), Syr-Darya (Jaxartes River) and their tributaries has always been different from the rest of Central Asia – more settled than nomadic, with a sophisticated oasis and trading culture that has dominated the region from the time of the Achaemenids (6th century BC) to the present day. An attitude of permanence and proprietorship still sets the people of this region apart.

Ancient Empires

The region was known to the Persians as Bactria, Khorezm and Sogdiana and loosely formed part of the Persian empire. In the 4th century BC Alexander the Great entered Cyrus the Great’s Achaemenid empire. He stopped near Marakanda (Samarkand) and then, having conquered the Sogdians in their mountain fortresses, married Roxana, the daughter of a local chieftain.

Out of the northern steppes in the 6th century AD came the Western Turks – the western branch of the empire of the so-called Kök (Blue) Turks. They soon grew attached to life here and abandoned their wandering ways, eventually taking on a significant role in maintaining the existence of the Silk Road. The Arabs brought Islam and a written alphabet to Central Asia in the 8th century, but found the region too big and restless to govern.

A return to the Persian fold came with the Samanid dynasty in the 9th and 10th centuries. Its capital, Bukhara, became the centre of an intellectual, religious and commercial renaissance. In the 11th century the Ghaznavids moved into the southern regions. For some time the Turkic Khorezmshahs dominated Central Asia from present-day Konye-Urgench in Turkmenistan, but their reign was cut short by Chinggis (Genghis) Khan in the early 13th century.

Central Asia again became truly ‘central’ with the rise of Timur (also known as Tamerlane), the ruthless warrior and patron of the arts who fashioned a glittering Islamic capital at Samarkand.

The Uzbeks

Little is known of early Uzbek history. At the time the Golden Horde was founded, Shibaqan (Shayban), a grandson of Chinggis Khan, inherited what is today northern Kazakhstan and adjacent parts of Russia. The greatest khan of these Mongol Shaybani tribes (and probably the one under whom they swapped paganism for Islam) was Özbeg (Uzbek; 1313–40). By the end of the 14th century these tribes had begun to name themselves after him.

The Uzbeks began to move southeast, mixing with sedentary Turkic tribes and adopting the Turkic language; they reached the Syr-Darya in the mid-15th century. Following an internal schism (which gave birth to the proto-Kazakhs), the Uzbeks rallied under Mohammed Shaybani and thundered down on the remnants of Timur’s empire. By the early 1500s, all of Transoxiana (‘the land beyond the Oxus’) from the Amu-Darya to the Syr-Darya belonged to the Uzbeks, as it has since.

The greatest (and indeed last) of the Shaybanid khans, responsible for some of Bukhara’s finest architecture, was Abdullah II, who ruled from 1538 until his death in 1598. After this, as the Silk Road fell into disuse, the empire unravelled under the Shaybanids’ distant cousins, the Astrakhanids. By the start of the 19th century the entire region was dominated by three weak, feuding Uzbek city-states – Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand.

The Russians Arrive

In the early 18th century the khan of Khiva made an offer to Peter the Great of Russia to become his vassal in return for help against marauding Turkmen and Kazakh tribes, stirring the first Russian interest in Central Asia. But by the time the Russians got around to marching on Khiva in 1717, the khan no longer wanted Russian protection, and after a show of hospitality he had almost the entire 4000-strong force slaughtered.

The slave market in Bukhara and Khiva was an excuse for further Russian visits to free a few Russian settlers and travellers. In 1801 the mentally unstable Tsar Paul sent 22,000 Cossacks on a madcap mission to drive the British out of India, along with orders to free the slaves en route. Fortunately for all but the slaves, the tsar was assassinated and the army recalled while struggling across the Kazakh steppes.

The next attempt, by Tsar Nicholas I in 1839, was really a bid to pre-empt expansion into Central Asia by Britain, which had just taken Afghanistan, although Khiva’s Russian slaves were the pretext on which General Perovsky’s 5200 men and 10,000 camels set out from Orenburg. In January 1840, a British officer, Captain James Abbott, arrived in Khiva (having travelled from Herat in Afghan disguise) offering to negotiate the slaves’ release on the khan’s behalf, thus nullifying the Russians’ excuse for coming.

Unknown to the khan, the Russian force had already turned back, in the face of a devastating winter on the steppes. He agreed to send Abbott to the tsar with an offer to release the slaves in return for an end to Russian military expeditions against Khiva. Incredibly, Abbott made it to St Petersburg.

In search of news of Abbott, Lieutenant Richmond Shakespear reached Khiva the following June and convinced the khan to unilaterally release all Russian slaves in Khiva and even give them an armed escort to the nearest Russian outpost, located on the eastern Caspian Sea. Russian gratitude was doubtlessly mingled with fury over one of the Great Game’s boldest propaganda coups.

When the Russians finally rallied 25 years later, the khanates’ towns fell like dominoes – Tashkent in 1865 to General Mikhail Chernyaev, Samarkand and Bukhara in 1868, Khiva in 1873, and Kokand in 1875 to General Konstantin Kaufman.

Soviet Daze

Even into the 20th century, most Central Asians identified themselves ethnically as Uzbek-speaking Turks or Tajik-speaking Persians. The connection between ‘Uzbek’ and ‘Uzbekistan’ is very much a Soviet definition. Following the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the infamous sacking of Kokand in 1918, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Turkestan. Temporarily forced out by counter-revolutionary troops and basmachi (Muslim guerrilla fighters), they returned two years later and the Khiva and Bukhara khanates were forcibly replaced with ‘People’s Republics’.

Then in October 1924 the whole map was redrawn on ethnic grounds, and the Uzbeks suddenly had a ‘homeland’, an official identity and a literary language. The Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) changed shape and composition over the years as it suited Moscow, losing Tajikistan in 1929, acquiring Karakalpakstan from Russia in 1936, taking parts of the steppe from Kazakhstan in 1956 and 1963, then losing some in 1971.

For rural Uzbeks, the main impacts of Soviet rule were the forced and often bloody collectivisation of the republic’s mainstay (agriculture) and the massive shift to cotton cultivation. The Uzbek intelligentsia and much of the republic’s political leadership was decimated by Stalin’s purges. This and the traditional Central Asian respect for authority meant that by the 1980s glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) would hardly trickle down here and few significant reforms took place.

Independence

Uzbekistan’s first serious noncommunist popular movement, Birlik (Unity), was formed by Tashkent intellectuals in 1989 over issues that included having Uzbek as an official language and the effects of the cotton monoculture. Despite popular support, it was barred from contesting the election in February 1990 for the Uzbek Supreme Soviet (legislature) by the Communist Party. The resulting communist-dominated body elected Islam Karimov, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan (CPUz), to the new post of executive president.

Following the abortive coup in Moscow in August 1991, Karimov declared Uzbekistan independent. Soon afterwards the CPUz reinvented itself as the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, inheriting all of its predecessor’s property and control apparatus, most of its ideology, and its leader, Karimov.

In December 1991, Uzbekistan held its first direct presidential elections, which Karimov won with 86% of the vote. His only rival was a poet named Muhammad Solih, running for the small, figurehead opposition party Erk (Will or Freedom), who got 12% and was soon driven into exile (where he remains to this day). The real opposition groups, Birlik and the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), and all other parties with a religious platform, had been forbidden to take part.

A new constitution unveiled in 1992 declared Uzbekistan ‘a secular, democratic presidential republic’. Under Karimov, Uzbekistan would remain secular almost to a fault. But it would remain far from democratic.

Onward to Andijon

The years after independence saw Karimov consolidate his grip on power. Dissent shrivelled thanks to control of the media, police harassment and imprisonment of activists. Through it all, the economy stagnated and the devastating cotton monoculture continued.

A new threat emerged in February 1999 when a series of bomb attacks hit Tashkent. This led to a crackdown on radical Islamic fundamentalists – wahabis in the local parlance – that extended to a broad spectrum of opponents. Hundreds of alleged Islamic extremists were arrested. The IRP, with support in the Fergana Valley, was forced underground and Erk was declared illegal.

After extending his first term by referendum, Karimov won a second term as president in January 2000, garnering 92% of the votes. Foreign observers deemed the election a farce and international condemnation was widespread. But the 9/11 attacks on the USA gave Karimov a reprieve. The Uzbek president opened up bases in Termiz and Karshi to the USA and NATO for use in the war in Afghanistan, then sat back and watched the US aid money – US$500 million in 2002 alone – start flowing in.

As an added bonus for Karimov, solidarity with the USA in the ‘War on Terror’ effectively gave him a licence to ratchet up his campaign against the wahabis. According to human rights groups, Karimov used this licence to brand anyone he wanted to silence a ‘terrorist’. Another rigged election in 2004, this one parliamentary, drew only modest international criticism.

Such was the situation on 13 May 2005 when events in the eastern city of Andijon rocked the country and instantly demolished Uzbekistan’s cosy relationship with the USA.