Centuries of tradition as settled people left the Uzbeks in a better position than their nomadic neighbours to fend off Soviet attempts to modify their culture. Traditions of the Silk Road still linger as Uzbeks consider themselves good traders, hospitable hosts and tied to the land.
By far the most populous country in Central Asia, Uzbekistan boasts almost 30 million people, creating an ethnically and linguistically diverse jigsaw puzzle. Uzbeks make up around 80% of the population, while Tajiks make up 5%, as do ethnic Russians. Kazakhs, Koreans, Tatars, Karakalpaks and Ukrainians make up the other major ethnic minorities. There is still a minuscule Jewish population in Bukhara and an even smaller one in Samarkand.
Tashkent is Uzbekistan’s biggest city and the Fergana Valley is home to Uzbekistan’s largest concentration of people, a quarter of the population. About three-quarters of people there are ethnic Uzbek. Samarkand, the second city, is Tajik-speaking, as are many of the communities surrounding it, including Bukhara and Karshi. The further west you travel the more sparsely populated the land becomes. Karakalpakstan – home to Kazakhs, Karakalpaks and Khorezmians – has seen its population dwindle as a result of the Aral Sea disaster.
Close to 90% of Uzbeks claim to be Muslim, although the vast majority are not practising. Most are the moderate Hanafi Sunni variety, and there are strong strains of Sufism. About 9% of the population (mostly Russians) are Christian (mostly Eastern Orthodox).
Since the 1999 bomb attacks in Tashkent, mosques have been banned from broadcasting the azan (call to prayer) and mullahs have been pressured to praise the government in their sermons. Attendance at mosques, already on the decline, fell drastically in the wake of the 2005 Andijon incident but is again on the rise under the government's watchful eye.
Traditional art, music and architecture – evolving over centuries – were placed in a neat little box for preservation following the Soviet creation of the Uzbek SSR. But somehow, in the years to follow, two major centres of progressive art were still allowed to develop: Igor Savitsky’s collection of lost art from the 1930s, stashed away in Nukus’ Savitsky Museum, and the life stories told inside the late Mark Weil’s legendary Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent.
Contemporary art is, like the media, tightly controlled by the state. Renegade artists who push buttons, such as Weil and photographer Umida Ahmedova, find themselves in trouble. Ahmedova, whose work captures the lives and traditions of ordinary Uzbeks, drew international attention in 2009 when she was arrested and convicted of ‘slandering the Uzbek nation’ for a series that eventually ran on the BBC website.
While Karimov pardoned her, a glance at the seemingly harmless photos reveals much about the president’s artistic ideal: Uzbekistan should be portrayed as clean, orderly, prosperous and modern. This ideal has also had an impact on urban planning – witness the makeover of Samarkand, where planners have cordoned off the old town from tourists’ view, and the demolition of Amir Timur maydoni in Tashkent.
Uzbekistan spans several ecosystems, and topographic and geographic shifts. Its eastern fringes tilt upwards in a knot of rugged mountains – Tashkent’s Chatkal and Pskem Mountains run into the western Tian Shan range, and Samarkand’s Zarafshon Mountains and a mass of ranges in the southeast flow into the Pamir Alay range. This isolated, rocky and forested terrain makes up an important habitat for the bear, lynx, bustard, mountain goat and even the elusive snow leopard.
To the west of the well-watered mountains are vast plains of desert or steppe. The Amu-Darya (Oxus River) drops out of Tajikistan and winds its way westward along the Turkmen border for more than 2000km before petering out short of Moynaq, cleaving the landscape into two: the Karakum (White Sands) desert and the Ustyurt Plateau to the west; and the Kyzylkum (Red Sands) desert to the east. Despite its bleakness, this land is far from dead; the desert is home to the gazelle, various raptors and other critters you’d expect to find – monitors, scorpions and venomous snakes.
There are some 15 nature reserves in Uzbekistan, the largest of which is the Hissar Nature Reserve (750 sq km), due east of Shakhrisabz.
Much of this protected territory is threatened by Uzbekistan’s lacklustre environmental protection laws and the deterioration of its national park system, which lacks the funds to prevent illegal logging and poaching. The faltering of the reserves, however, pales in comparison to the Aral Sea disaster, which has been dubbed by some experts as the 'greatest man made environmental disaster in history'.