Migrations & Cultural Encounters: Uzbekistan

March 05, 2019

History of Silk Road cities in modern Uzbekistan

The Silk Road was a vast network of land and sea routes connecting great civilizations of the classical and medieval worlds. Traversed by traders and merchants for centuries, these trails operated from 130 BCE, when the Han Dynasty officially opened trade with the West, to 1453 CE when the Ottoman Empire seized Constantinople. The loss of this strategic region was a blow to Christendom, as it effectively blocked European trade to the East. The expansion of the Ottoman Empire launched the Age of Exploration, as Europeans sought alternative sea routes to Asia.

   Like Constantinople, the ancient Central Asian cities of Samarkand, Bukara, and Tashkent were situated along the most traveled routes and became very prosperous. Merchants, monks, artisans, philosophers, adventurers, and artists from the East and the West converged, sharing their knowledge and creating an efflorescence of new ideas. The peoples traveling through cosmopolitan Middle Asia traded goods, art, religion, philosophy, science, and technology. During this time, libraries and sophisticated learning schools were established by the wealthy city-states, who worked on translating ancient texts into different languages. With its influx of peoples from as far away as Arabia, India, and China, the exposure to other ideas and cultures created an atmosphere of tolerance.

Samarkand, one of the oldest cities in Central Asia and the center of the ancient Iranian Sogdian (pronounced suhg-dee-an) culture, became the center of political, scientific, and cultural life in the 14th century. During his reign from 1337-1405, Tamburlaine (Timur the Great) gathered architects, artisans, builders, musicians, singers, dancers from all the neighboring countries, and musical life flourished crossroad of various cultures and stylistic traditions.

This period was a Golden Age in Central Asia, where Samarkand hosted huge celebrations for thousands of people, replete with circus acts, music, and dance. “Music, song and dance,” says Carol Whitfield in her book Life Along the Silk Road, “were Silk Road commodities, bought and sold like silver and jade. Itinerant dance troops from India, Burma, Cambodia, and Sogdiana, performed at both the royal court and the public marketplace in every Silk Road town. Dancers and musicians from Sogdiana were renowned for their skill and traveled as far as the Tang Dynasty, where their whirling dance became all the rage.

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī, known as Rumi in the West and the founder of the Mevlevi Sufi order of whirling dervishes in Turkey, spent his childhood in and near Samarkand and may have seen these whirling dancers perform in town.

 Uzbek Dance

Uzbek dance highlights intricate arm and hand movements, shoulder isolations, turns and spins, back-bends, and animated facial expressions. Footwork is simple, and there are no hip isolations or leaps. There are three regional styles: Ferghana, Bukharan, and Khorezm.

Atlas (called ikat elsewhere) is a pattern dyeing technique that employs resist dyeing on the yarns before dyeing and weaving the fabric. Uzbekistan, especially the Ferghana Valley region, is famous for its atlas.

Ferghana Style

Ferghana dance is soft and lyrical and the most feminine of the Uzbek styles. Qualities include gentle wrist rotations, fluid arm undulations, and supple use of the spine. The carriage suggests shyness or modesty, and the torso is bent slightly forward. Musical phrases punctuate shoulder isolations and head-slides. Facial expressions are animated and playful, while simple sprightly footwork carries the dancer quickly around the stage. Often the performer kneels on the floor for sections of the dance. Dancers performing this style may wear coats made of Atlas silk.



Bukharan Style

The tilya-kosh (“golden eyebrows”) is an elegant bridal crown often worn for classical dances from Bukhara and Samarkand

The classical style of Bukharan dance is the most physically demanding of the three schools of Uzbek dance. Deep back-bends, running on the knees, sudden drops to the floor, and other acrobatic movements require many specialized training years. Spins and turns are a significant feature of this style and require special skills.

Many celebrated singers, dancers, and musicians were Bukharan Jews, who were famed for their dance knowledge. They historically served as entertainers and female ritual leaders in the women’s quarters during the Islamic period when Muslim women were not permitted to dance publicly.

Zebigardon is an elaborate piece of jewelry that fastens at the shoulders and drapes across the dancer’s chest. It was initially set in silver and encrusted with precious pearls, turquoise, and glass stones. In modern times dancers wear a lighter costume jewelry piece.  

Carriage is regal and self-confident. Movement qualities range from soft and undulating to quick and staccato, providing unexpected contrasts. As typified by the sozanda (female wedding performers), the folkloric style remains almost stationary at times, focusing instead on facial expressions and intricate movements of the hands and upper body. Traditionally heavy, elegant robes and headdresses were worn, though lighter fabrics have replaced them in contemporary times. Sometimes the dance is performed only to the accompaniment of a solo doira, the Uzbek drum. Here the dancer must also become a percussionist, with her every movement making the wrist bells match the drumbeat. 










The Khorezm school of dance possesses a unique quality. While not as acrobatic as Bukharan dance, nor as lyrical as Ferghana style, the playful, even mischievousness of Khorezm dance lends it joyful energy. The dance features bouncy traveling steps, which do not occur in the other types of Uzbek dance. While the head movement is used only to accent a phrase or focus on a specific movement in Ferghana and Bukhara dance, Khorezm dancers often use head isolations simultaneously with other arms and feet actions.

Uzbekistan dancer Dilaf Ruz during the ‘International Sufi Festival-2012’  PHOTO/NARINDER NANU (Photo credit should read NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

Most famous of all Khorezm dances is lyazgi, not to be confused with the Lezgi of the Caucasus (although some musicians have suggested a relationship). Highly individualized, the dance uses various isolations of the shoulders and head along with quick and intricate arm and hand movements. Traditionally, the dance is performed virtually in one place, on a lagan or platter, though dancers move around the stage in contemporary performances. Traditional performers insist the ability to correctly perform the isolations and movements interestingly while remaining in place serves as a mark of expertise.

The dance presents a zany, frenzied, and often comedic feeling. Some of the trembling freezes and the animal-like movements suggest a link with Central Asian shamanism and healing practices.




Artist Spotlight – Tamara Khanum

Tamara Khanum was the first woman in Central Asia to dance on stage without the paranja (veil) in the 1920s. In Tashkent, she established a ballet school with an impressive collection of world traditional ethnic costumes (on display at the Tamara Khanum Museum in Tashkent). She was awarded the State Prize of the USSR in 1941 and the title of People’s Artist of the USSR in 1958. She was the first Central Asian artist to appear on the world stage at the Paris World Expo.

Tamara Khanum with musicians on Tar (lute), Nay (flute), Chang (zither), Doira (frame drum)











References and Further Reading

Life Along the Silk Road by Susan Whitfield

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr

Dance scholar and artist Laurel Victoria Gray ~ www.laurelvictoriagray.com 

The Splendor of Uzbek Dance part 1 – The Best of Habibi

The Splendor of Uzbek Dance part 3 ~ The Best of Habibi