Capital and Major Cities:
Tashkent, population 2.5 million.
Samarkand, population 375,000
Andijan, population 355,000.
Uzbekistan is a republic, but elections are rare and usually rigged. The president, Islam Karimov, has held power since 1990, before the fall of the Soviet Union. The current prime minister is Shavkat Mirziyoyev; he wields no real power.
The official language of Uzbekistan is Uzbek, a Turkic language. Uzbek is closely related to other Central Asian languages, including Turkmen, Kazakh, and Uigher (which is spoken in western China). Prior to 1922, Uzbek was written in the Latin script, but Joseph Stalin required that all the Central Asian languages switch to the Cyrillic script. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbek is officially written in Latin again. However, many people still use Cyrillic, and the deadline for a complete change-over continues to be pushed back.
Uzbekistan is home to 26.8 million people, the largest population in Central Asia. Eighty percent of the people are ethnic Uzbeks. The Uzbeks are a Turkic people, closely related to the neighboring Turkmen and Kazakhs.
Other ethnic groups represented in Uzbekistan include Russians (5.5%), Tajiks (5%), Kazakhs (3%), Karakalpaks (2.5%), and Tatars (1.5%).
The vast majority of Uzbekistan's citizens are Sunni Muslims, at 88% of the population. An additional 9% are Orthodox Christians, primarily of the Russian Orthodox faith. There are tiny minorities of Buddhists and Jews, as well.
The area of Uzbekistan is 172,700 square miles (447,400 square kilometers). Uzbekistan is bordered by Kazakhstan to the west and north, the Aral Sea to the north, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to the south and east, and Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to the south.
Uzbekistan is blessed with two large rivers: the Amu Darya (Oxus), and the Syr Darya. About 40% of the country is within the Kyzyl Kum Desert, an expanse of virtually uninhabitable sand; only 10% of the land is arable, in the heavily-cultivated river valleys.
The highest point is Adelunga Toghi in the Tian Shan mountains, at 14,111 feet (4,301 meters).
Uzbekistan has a desert climate, with searing hot, dry summers and cold, somewhat wetter winters.
The highest temperature ever recorded in Uzbekistan was 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius). The all-time low was -31 Fahrenheit (-35 Celsius).
As a result of these extreme temperature conditions, almost 40% of the country is uninhabitable. An additional 48% is suitable only for grazing sheep, goats, and camels.
The Uzbek economy is based primarily on raw materials export. Uzbekistan is a major cotton-producing country, and also exports large amounts of gold, uranium, and natural gas.
About 44% of the work force is employed in agriculture, with an additional 30% in industry (primarily extraction industries). The remaining 36% are in the services industry.
Approximately 25% of the Uzbek population live below the poverty line. The estimated annual per capita income is about $1950 US, but accurate numbers are difficult to obtain. The Uzbek government often inflates earnings reports.
The defining catastrophe of Soviet-era environmental mismanagement is the shrinking of the Aral Sea, on the northern border of Uzbekistan.
Huge quantities of water have been diverted from the Aral's sources, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, to irrigate such thirsty crops like cotton. As a result, the Aral Sea has lost more than 1/2 its surface area and 1/3 of its volume since 1960.
The sea-bed soil is full of agricultural chemicals, heavy metals from industry, bacteria, and even radioactivity from Kazakhstan's nuclear facilities. As the sea dries out, strong winds spread this contaminated soil across the region.
History of Uzbekistan:
Genetic evidence suggests that Central Asia may have been the radiation point for modern humans after they left Africa around 100,000 years ago. Whether that's true or not, human history in the area stretches back at least 6,000 years. Tools and monuments dating back to the Stone Age have been discovered across Uzbekistan, near Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, and in the Ferghana Valley.
The first known civilizations in the area were Sogdiana, Bactria, and Khwarezm. The Sogdian Empire was conquered by Alexander the Great in 327 B.C., who combined his prize with the previously-captured kingdom of Bactria. This large swath of present-day Uzbekistan was then overrun by Scythian and Yuezhi nomads circa 150 B.C.; these nomadic tribes ended the Hellenistic control of Central Asia.
In the 8th century A.D., central Asia was conquered by the Arabs, who brought Islam to the region. The Persian Samanid dynasty overran the area about 100 years later, only to be pushed out by the Turkic Kara-Khanid Khanate after about 40 years in power.
In 1220, Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes invaded Central Asia, conquering the entire area and destroying major cities. The Mongols were thrown out in turn in 1363 by Timur, known in Europe as Tamerlane. Timur built his capital at Samarkand, and adorned the city with works of art and architecture from the artists of all the lands he conquered. One of his descendants, Babur, conquered India and founded the Mughal Empire there in 1526. The original Timurid Empire, though, had fallen in 1506.
After the fall of the Timurids, Central Asia was divided into city-states under Muslim rulers known as "khans." In what is now Uzbekistan, the most powerful were the Khanate of Khiva, the Bukhara Khanate, and the Khanate of Kokand. The khans ruled Central Asia for about 400 years, until one by one they fell to the Russians between 1850 and 1920.
The Russians occupied Tashkent in 1865, and ruled all of Central Asia by 1920. Across Central Asia, the Red Army was kept busy quelling uprisings through 1924. Then, Stalin divided "Soviet Turkestan," creating the borders of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and the other "-Stans." In the Soviet era, the Central Asian republics were useful primarily for growing cotton and testing nuclear devices; Moscow didn't invest much in their development.
Uzbekistan declared its independence from the Soviet Union on August 31, 1991. The Soviet premiere, Islam Karimov, became the President of Uzbekistan.