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The roots of the Uzbek people stretch back for many millennia, while the identity of modern Uzbeks was shaped by events during the early 2nd millennium CE. Different tribes and peoples have inhabited Central Asia and have made contributions to the modern Uzbek population.
Many of the ancient peoples who lived in Central Asia were Iranian peoples including Sogdians, Bactrians, Ferganians and the Saka - Messagetae tribes. It is believed that these populations were either absorbed into larger invading Turkic tribes and/or were pushed into smaller pockets, as in Tajikistan, or retreated further south into Iran and Afghanistan.
In ancient times, various Turkic - speaking tribes began to move to the area between the Amu Darya (Oxus in Greek) and Syr Darya (Jaxartes in Greek) rivers. Some of these early tribes included the Huns who eventually occupied this region around the 3rd century BCE and continued their conquests further south and west.
Following Arab incursions into the region, Islam supplanted Buddhism and other religions in Central Asia (such as Nestorian Christianity), while local Iranian languages survived into the next 2nd millennium. What drastically changed the demographics of Central Asia was the invasion of the Mongols led by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Numerous native populations were wiped out by the Mongols and a process of population replacement began in earnest. During this period numerous Turkic tribes began to migrate and ultimately replace many of the Iranian peoples who were largely killed, absorbed by larger Turkic - Mongol groups, and/or pushed further south and Central Asia came to be known as Turkestan. Much of modern Uzbekistan took shape during the reign of Tamerlane, a prominent Turkic - Mongol conqueror who reigned over a vast empire from his capital at Samarkand. Later, between the 15th and 16th centuries, various nomadic tribes arrived from the steppes including the Kipchaks, Naymans, Kanglis, Kungrats, Mangits and others and these tribes were led by Muhammad Shaybani who was the Khan of the Uzbeks. This period marked the beginnings of the modern Uzbek nationality and formation of an Uzbek state in what is today Uzbekistan. So powerful was this early Uzbek state that it challenged much larger empires, the Safavids and Mughals, for control over Khorasan and Afghanistan. The origin of the very name "Uzbek" is in dispute. One view holds that the name derives from Uzbek Khan (1282 - 1342), the last powerful ruler of the Golden Horde and responsible for its conversion to Islam, though the nomadic Uzbeks were never subject to him. On the other hand, entomological argument states that the name "Uzbek" means Independent, "Uz" – the man himself, "Bek" a noble title of leadership. Their language Changatai or Uzbek, evolved in the 14th century.
Following Shaybani, the Uzbek state broke up into three major khanates based in Bukhara, Khiva, and Kokand until the early 19th century. The Russian Empire eventually infiltrated Central Asia and the khanates were annexed to the empire during the mid to late 19th century. Uzbekistan, under Russian and then later Soviet administration, became multi - ethnic as populations from throughout the former Soviet Union moved (or were exiled) to Central Asia.