Buildings with the word "Tarix" written on image


In this module, we present a long-term history of the territory that is Uzbekistan today. Much of what we cover is general Central Asian history and does not conform to the modern boundaries of today’s Uzbekistan, which were established in 1991. Nonetheless, this quick glance at the county’s deep past shows how closely connected this region was with major world historical processes, such as the spread of world religions across the Silk Road, the blossoming of medieval Islamic science and the development of early modern trade.

Accordingly, the module divides this complicated history into three parts. Similar to how Western civilization history courses are usually divided into the antiquity of the Greeks and Romans, a medieval period and a modern period, we have divided Uzbekistan’s past into three major periods as well. In the first selection, we cover the ancient period with a focus on non-Western religions and cross-cultural interaction along the Silk Roads. During this period, the land that is Uzbekistan today was called Sogdiana, named after the famous Sogdian merchants. In the second part, we will learn about the Islamic history of the land that is today Uzbekistan. During this period, the region was called Mā warā’ an-nahr, an Arabic word meaning “the land beyond [the Oxus] river.” Although this term was first used by Islamic historians, it was also used by local writers as well. Earlier this region was called Transoxiana, “beyond the Oxus river,” by the Greeks, which has a similar meaning to Mā warā’ an-nahr. In this section, we focus on cultural and intellectual achievements. In the third section, we focus on the integration of Mā warā’ an-nahr into processes of early-modern globalization as we move towards the Uzbekistan of today.

The three sections each emphasize different themes and can be used separately or together. In addition to the three historical sections, resources pertaining to the modern history of Uzbekistan and current events are listed at the bottom of this page after the further reading and resources section.

map of the world with borders of the country of Uzbekistan outlined in redUzbekistan and the World

map of Uzbekistan that shows surrounding countriesUzbekistan and Surrounding Countries

Part One: Antiquity: Silk Roads and World Religions 

Part Two: Islamic Culture in the Medieval Period 

Part Three: Globalization and Modernity

List of Key Terms

Amu Darya River — one of Central Asia’s main rivers, originating in the high mountains of Tajikistan, it runs along the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, through northeastern Turkmenistan and then along the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and eventually flowing into the deltas leading to the Aral Sea to the north of Nukus in the Karakalpakstan province.

map of Amu Darya riverThe Amu Darya river (the highlighted area is the river’s watershed)

Syr Darya River — Central Asia’s second major river, originating in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and eastern Uzbekistan, it flows west and then northwest, crossing through southern Kazakhstan, eventually reaching the northern part of the Aral sea.

map of Syr Darya riverThe Syr Darya river (watershed highlighted)

Sogdiana — also called Sogdia, originally a province of the Achaemenid empire (559-334 BCE), the homeland of the Sogdian merchants. Although scholars are still debating exactly how they would have referred to themselves, the word Sogdian comes from the Avestan sugda or the Old Persian suguda.

Sogdian merchants — the original Silk Road traders and key cultural intermediaries, connecting many different cultural zones in Eurasia during antiquity.

Mā warā’ an-nahr“the land beyond [the Oxus] river” in Arabic, roughly the land between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers, sometimes called Transoxiana, which is Latin for “the land beyond the Oxus River.” The Oxus is what the Greeks called the Amu Darya River. For a map see Part Two: Islamic Culture in the Medieval Period.

Khan — sometimes spelled qaghan, or khaqan, the leader of a confederation of mobile pastoralist tribes in Central Eurasia.

Khanate — the Central Asian equivalent of a kingdom, except with a Khan as its highest ruler.

Nisba — an additional name indicating a tribe, area, or profession to which an individual belonged usually ending in ī.  For example, al-Bīrūnī, the famous scientist, was from the bīrūn (a region kind of like a pre-modern suburb) of Kath.

Sufi (sufism) — a form of mystical Islam, which became popular in Central Asia starting in the eleventh century CE.

Syncretism — when two religions coexist within the same community, or when two religions fuse together into a new hybrid religion. Examples of syncretism in this module include Chistian-shamanism, shamanistic Islam and the convergence of Buddhism with Near Eastern religions in Manichaeism.

Turkic — as an ethnic group, this word means descendent from the first Türk empire in Mongolia (553-682 CE); as a linguistic term it means belonging to the Turkic languages, which include modern Turkish, Uzbek and many other languages from across Eurasia, for more on language see the Language (Til) section.

Mobile pastoralism — sometimes called “nomadic pastoralism” or “nomadism,” refers to economies that are dominated by products produced by pasture or grasslands, such as horses, sheep, camels, or other animals, as well as trans-regional trade. Although the mobile pastoralist economy is often diverse and sometimes includes aspects of agricultural production, mobile pastoralist societies are characterized by a high-level of mobility.

The Silk Roads — a complex network of trade routes stretching across Eurasia connecting Europe, China, the Middle East and India.

Suggested Learning Activities

Map Game (1-2 class periods)

Fill in this blank map with the four most important features of Central Asian/Uzbek history. Features can include cities, rivers, mountains, archaeological monuments, or other locations. This activity can be paired with the Nature (Tabiat) section of this module. Let the students decide which ones are the most important and have them reflect on their choices.

blank map of Asia

Religions on the Silk Road (1-2 class periods)

 Divide the students into seven different groups and assign each group one of the following religions:

  • Zoroastrianism
  • Judaism
  • Buddhism
  • Nestorian Christianity
  • Manichaeism
  • Shamanism
  • Islam

Have each group work together to form a short group report answering the following three questions:

  • Where does this religion come from and how did it get to Central Asia/Uzbekistan?
  • Where are its main beliefs?
  • What role did it play in Central Asian/Uzbek history?

Students can use the texts on the religions given above as well as their own internet explorations. (Instructors: keep in mind that not all information on the internet is true or reliable). When each group is ready, have them present what they have learned to the whole class.

Picture/Object Game

Put any of the pictures in this module in front of your students and have them guess about what they think it could be and what it could mean. Have them imagine that they are anthropologists, and they need to reconstruct the society that created the image/object. Slowly work through their assumptions and guesses directing then towards a full contextualization of the object or image. After entertaining some of their ideas and possibilities explain in detail what the object, building or painting is and what it tells us about the past.

Further Reading and Resources

General Surveys

Historical Architecture

Historical Pictures

Murals from Afrosiob

More about Afrosiob

Ancient History

Medieval History

Uzbekistan Today!

After working through this module you may be wondering about what is going in Uzbekistan today. Although we didn’t cover much about the modern history of Uzbekistan, here are some useful resources and links that cover contemporary history and current events:



 Websites for News About Uzbekistan