The earliest people known to have inhabited Central Asia were Iranian nomads who arrived in the first millennium BC from the northern plains of what is now Uzbekistan; when these nomads established in the area, they constructed an extensive irrigation system along the rivers. Cities such as Bukhoro (Bukhara) and Samarqand (Samarkand) developed as centers of administration and fine culture during this period. The Bactrian, Soghdian, and Tokharian kingdoms controlled the area by the fifth century BC.
As China started to expand its silk trade with the West, Iranian towns capitalized on this trade by becoming trading hubs. The Soghdian intermediaries became the wealthiest of these Iranian merchants by utilizing an extensive network of cities and rural settlements in the province of Mouwaurannahr (a name given to the region after the Arab conquest) in Uzbekistan and further east in what is now China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Bukhoro and Samarqand ultimately became very rich cities as a consequence of this commerce on what became known as the Silk Route, and Transoxiana (Mawarannahr) was at times one of the most important and powerful Persian provinces of antiquity.
In 327 BC, Macedonian king Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire regions of Sogdiana and Bactria, which included modern-day Uzbekistan. A conquest was allegedly of little use to Alexander since public opposition was strong, leading Alexander’s army to get bogged down in the area that became the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian Kingdom’s northern portion. In the first century BC, the kingdom was supplanted by the Yuezhi-dominated Kushan Empire. For many centuries, the area of Uzbekistan was controlled by Persian empires such as the Parthian and Sassanid Empires, as well as other empires such as those established by Turko-Persian Hephthalite and Turkic Gokturk peoples.
Transoxiana, the area between the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers, was captured by the Arabs (Ali ibn Sattor) in the 8th century, who endowed the region with the Early Renaissance. During the Islamic Golden Age, several famous scientists resided there and contributed to its growth. Among the accomplishments of the scholars during this period were the modernization of trigonometry (simplifying its practical application to calculate the phases of the moon), advances in optics and astronomy, as well as poetry, philosophy, art, calligraphy, and many others, which laid the groundwork for the Muslim Renaissance.
Transoxiana was included into the Samanid State in the ninth and tenth century. Later, the Turkic-ruled Karakhanids, as well as the Seljuks (Sultan Sanjar) and Kara-Khitans, invaded Transoxiana.
The Mongol invasion led by Genghis Khan in the 13th century would alter the area. The Mongol invasion of Central Asia resulted in the expulsion of some of the region’s Iranian-speaking inhabitants, whose culture and legacy were supplanted by those of the Mongolian-Turkic peoples who arrived later. The invasions of Bukhara, Samarkand, Urgench, and others resulted in mass deaths and enormous devastation, such as the total razing of Khwarezmia.
Following Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, his kingdom was split among his four sons and family members. Despite the risk of severe disintegration, the Mongol Empire’s Mongol rule ensured orderly succession for many more generations, and authority of much of Transoxiana remained in the hands of Chagatai Khan, Genghis Khan’s second son. In the Chaghatai territories, orderly succession, wealth, and internal peace reigned supreme, and the Mongol Empire as a whole remained a powerful and unified monarchy (Ulus Batiy, Sattarkhan).
During this time, most of modern-day Uzbekistan was part of the Chagatai Khanate, with the exception of Khwarezm, which was part of the Golden Horde. After the fall of the Golden Horde, Khwarezm was temporarily governed by the Sufi Dynasty until Timur’s invasion in 1388. Sufids ruled Khwarezm as vassals of the Timurids, Golden Horde, and Uzbek Khanate until the Persian invasion in 1510.
However, in the early 14th century, the empire started to disintegrate into its component pieces. The Chaghatai realm was shattered as rulers from different tribal groupings vied for power. Timur (Tamerlane), a tribal leader, emerged as the dominating power in Transoxiana in the 1380s as a result of these conflicts. Timur, despite not being a descendent of Genghis Khan, became the de facto ruler of Transoxiana and went on to conquer all of western Central Asia, Iran, the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and the southern steppe area north of the Aral Sea. He also attacked Russia before dying in 1405, during an invasion of China.
Timur was notorious for his ruthlessness, and his victories were followed by horrific murders in the towns he conquered.
Timur began the last blossoming of Transoxiana by collecting many craftsmen and intellectuals from the vast regions he had conquered into his capital, Samarqand. He infused his kingdom with a rich Perso-Islamic culture by sponsoring such individuals. During his reign and the reigns of his direct successors, many religious and palace building marvels were completed in Samarqand and other population centers. Amir Timur promoted medical discoveries and supported doctors, scientists, and painters from neighboring nations such as India; his grandson Ulugh Beg was one of the world’s first great astronomers. Although the Timurids were Persianate in character, it was under the Timurid dynasty that Turkic, in the shape of the Chaghatai dialect, established a literary language in its own right in Transoxiana. Ali-Shir Nava’i, the finest Chaghataid writer, lived in the city of Herat (now in northern Afghanistan) in the second part of the 15th century.
After Timur’s death, the Timurid empire was soon divided in two. The Timurids’ constant internal strife drew the attention of the Uzbek nomadic tribes residing north of the Aral Sea. In 1501, Uzbek troops launched an all-out invasion of Transoxiana. The slave trade grew popular and well-established in the Khanate of Bukhara. In 1821, there were between 25,000 and 60,000 Tajik slaves in Bukhara alone. Before the Russians arrived, present-day Uzbekistan was split between the Emirate of Bukhara and the Khanates of Khiva and Kokand.
The Russian Empire started to grow and extend throughout Central Asia in the nineteenth century. In 1912, there were 210,306 Russians in Uzbekistan. The “Great Game” period is usually thought to have lasted from about 1813 until the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, a second, less intense period began. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the distance between British India and the outer areas of Tsarist Russia was about 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles). Much of the area in between was uncharted territory.
By the beginning of 1920, Russia had firmly seized control of Central Asia, and despite some early opposition to the Bolsheviks, Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia became a member of the Soviet Union. The Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was established on October 27, 1924. During World War II, 1,433,230 Uzbeks served in the Red Army against Nazi Germany from 1941 until 1945. A handful of people fought on the German side as well. There were 263,005 Uzbek troops killed in the Eastern Front, while 32,670 went missing in combat.
Uzbekistan proclaimed independence on August 31, 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 1st of September was declared National Independence Day.
Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s dictator since independence, died on September 2, 2016.