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The Revival of Ancient Uzbek Crafts

The history of Uzbek arts and crafts can be compared to the flow of the Central Asian rivers Syr Darya and Amu Darya. The upper reaches of these rivers lie high in the mountains, in the land of glaciers and fogs. At the mountain foot the streams meet to form rapid rivers, which rush to the plains where they finally slow down irrigating fields and feeding reservoirs. Similarly, the history of Uzbek arts and crafts began centuries ago, undergoing both rapid and slow periods of development. But the chain of those development stages has never broken - the artistic tradition has always been maintained.

For centuries caravans used to carry goods between the West and the East along the Great Silk Road which ran through the territory of the present-day Uzbekistan. Craftsmen's articles would make a substantial part of these goods. In the 7th century in his "Records of the travel to the Western regions" the Buddhist monk Xuan Zang wrote that "Samarkand craftsmen were much more skillful than the craftsmen from the other countries".

Blue ceramics

Among the large variety of Uzbek crafts ceramics is one of the oldest and most valued. The art of ceramics was born at the dawn of human civilization first of all to satisfy the need for kitchen utensils. Later it became a part of the cultural heritage of many peoples. To present day there have been preserved numerous glazed ceramic bowls and dozens of clay statuettes of the local gods and fabulous creatures made by craftsmen from legendary Sogdiana. Today in the patterns used by the ceramists from Tashkent and Samarkand one can trace ancient symbols of earth, water, sky, sun, and stars; whereas funny statuettes of dragons, horses and goats remind of the terracotta artifacts from the ancient Afrosiab site.

Uzbek ceramic dishes

Thousand years ago in the village of Rishtan in the Feghana Valley there developed ceramic home craft. The articles of Rishtan craftsmen-kuzgars, which were covered with bright blue glaze ishko, were in great demand along the whole Great Silk Road. However, with modern technologies and industrially made enamels being used by the ceramic factory which was opened in Rishtan in the 1960s, the traditional art of ceramics became almost extinct. It was only thanks to the enthusiasm of the hereditary masters I.Kamilov and Sh.Yusupov that the famous blue ceramics was revived, and traditional technology now is being kept by their apprentices.

Gold, silver, copper, iron, and tin have been mined in the mountains of Sogd from time immemorial. Sogdian craftsmen were famous for their great skills in metal working. Merchants used to export Sogdian knives, daggers, arrow-heads, spear-heads, chain armors, and stirrups for war-horses far beyond the bounds of the country…

The oldest bronze and copper artifacts found in Uzbekistan date back to the 4th millennium B.C. The skill of Sogdian armourers was highly praised in the Hellenic period. In the 10th century the Arabian geographer and explorer Al-Mukaddasi mentioned that among the goods imported from the Samanid State there were precious Bukhara-made silver containers and copper lamps, which were covered with ornamental patterns and Arabic inscriptions. The art of metal working reached its peak during the Temurid period.


In the middle of the 19th century there developed regional schools of metal chasing in Bukhara, Khiva, Kokand, Samarkand and Tashkent. They differed in technologies of making cast and forged containers and trays, in methods of decoration and in ornamental patterns. Today hereditary kandakor masters are passing down the centuries-old skills and their own experience to younger craftsmen.


From ancient times blacksmiths from the Ferghana Valley made excellent sabres, daggers, arrow-heads and spear-heads. According to the 10th century historian Ibn-Haukal, "the iron weapons from Ferghana were universally used from Horasan to Baghdad". At the beginning of the 18th century the armourers started specialize in making traditional knives. Such a knife in a leather sheath is an integral part of Uzbek national costume. Today the craft of making knives is still widely practiced in Kokand, Shakhrikhan and other towns of the Ferghana Valley. Yet the most eminent are the smiths from the town of Chust. They make over 15 different types of knives. The knife-pichok made by a Chust craftsman is always a real work of art: its elegantly curved sharp blade set in lovingly carved wooden, bone or horn handle will serve its owner for years.

According to the Chinese chronicles of the 1st century B.C., the residents of Bactria and Sogdiana were highly skilled in carving, building activities, weaving and silk embroidery. Indeed, within several millennia Uzbek craftsmen acquired complete mastery in the art of building decoration. There still remain fascinating samples of stone, wood and ganch-stucco carving once decorating the palaces and temples from ancient Termez (Surkhandarya) and from palace in Varakhsha near Bukhara. Muslim aesthetic principles gave fresh impetus to the art of ornamental decoration. Among the ruins of the Samanid Palace at the ancient site of Afrosiab in the outskirts of Samarkand there was found almost intact ancient panel of patterned ganch-stucco carving. The pylons of Termez ruler's palace are decorated with highly artistic ganch-stucco carvings made by unknown masters of the 12th century. Many monuments of the medieval architecture in Uzbekistan are also decorated with sharafa - skillfully made through precise mathematical calculations artificial stalactites. However, during the last decades of the 20th century some carvers, though keeping to the traditional patterns, began to use factory-made plaster or alabaster instead of ganch. Unlike the old ganch-stucco carving, the panels of plaster carvings need restoration after 10-20 years. The reestablishment of the traditional technology of making ganch along with continued use of the ancient patterns and techniques are essential for the revival of the ancient craft.

Stone carving - Koran Osman

Stone carving is as ancient a craft as ganch-stucco. In the distant past stone was used for making moulds for bronze castings, for making statuettes and amulets. In the Middle Ages stone carving was applied for decoration of Gur-Emir mausoleum with marble panels. Temur's tombstone itself was carved from dark-green nephrite block. The unique book-holder for Osman's Koran was also made of stone. It still stands in the inner courtyard of Bibi-Khanum Mosque in Samarkand. In some dwelling houses of Bukhara, built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there still can be found carved panels and water sinks made of Gazgan and Nurata marble. The fascinating art of contemporary stone carvers can be seen on the facade of the Alisher Navoiy Theatre of Opera and Ballet in Tashkent.

The patterns used in wood carving are stylistically similar to those of ganch-stucco and stone carving. One of the oldest remaining carvings on wood dates back to the 11th century. This is an epigraphic frieze in frame ornament decorating Kusam-ibn-Abbas mausoleum - the oldest part of Shakhi-Zinda architectural ensemble. The facades of many buildings in Uzbekistan have been for centuries decorated with wooden fretted columns, panels and doors. The wood carvers of the Temurid period left us unique monuments of the medieval cultural heritage. Among them are first of all the famous fretted doors to Temur's mausoleum and to Kusam-ibn-Abbas mausoleum in Samarkand, and the Seifiddin Bokharzi cenotaph in Bukhara. In the 18th century Khiva became the centre of wood carving craft. The evidence of this is Juma Mosque in Khiva which is decorated with 212 carved wooden columns. Wood carving was also widely used for decoration of smaller articles such as low khan-takhta tables, jewelry boxes and various cases. Today's wood carvers carefully keep the traditional techniques and have successfully restored the unique practices of wood carving such as laukh - a folding holder for Koran, which is made out of a single piece of wood with no joints and hinges, and open trellis panjara made with neither glue nor nails.

Among the most common Uzbek crafts since the 7th century has been gold embroidery. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the famous Bukhara caftans embroidered with golden and silver threads, smart horsecloths, joynamaz (praying rugs) and other embroidered things were exported to many countries, including European ones. For centuries there coexisted two gold embroidery schools, each with its own techniques and patterns: Bukhara's ziminduzlik and Samarkand's gulduzlik. While Bukhara's gold embroideresses managed to preserve their art in spite of all the social and political cataclysms, the traditions of Samarkand's school had been almost lost by the mid-20th century, and it was only by now that the ancient Samarkand craft of gold embroidery has been revived.

Silk embroidery

Silk embroidery had almost the same fate. For centuries Uzbek homes had been decorated with thin silk embroidered tapis suzane. Its elaborate patterns had ancient magic meanings and they were believed to keep peace and income in the family. For weddings the Uzbeks used to prepare a certain number of silk embroideries, each having its own purpose. The suzane designs told where the bride came from: Tashkent, Jizak, Samarkand, or Surkhandarya. However, in the 20th century the traditions of silk embroidery craft seemed to have been lost for ever. Only a few years ago, thanks to the Majidovs family head who was passionately fond of the history of his home Bukhara province, Shafirkan silk embroidery style was restored. Note that for the traditional suzane only handmade fabric is used, and silk threads are dyed with natural dye-stuffs.

While the walls of a traditional Uzbek house were decorated with embroideries, the floor had to be covered with carpets. Woolen, silk and gold-embroidered carpets from the royal workshops in Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand were very much valued at the Silk Road bazaars. Thus, having visited Central Asia, Marco Polo pointed out: "You should know that the finest and most beautiful carpets in the world are made here". In the course of time the production of labour-intensive and rather expensive carpets declined and early in the 19th century it was discontinued. The unique craft has been only recently revived in the workshop organised by Muhammad Avazov. In this workshop the yarn is dyed in strict conformity with the ancient recipes and with the use of no other dyes but natural ones; only classical Oriental patterns are applied in the carpet design and silk pile of such carpets never exceeds 2 millimeters in height.

Since the early Middle Ages in Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent and the Ferghana Valley of great popularity have been printed fabrics or simply prints. Craftsmen-chitgars used to make dasturkhon (table-cloths), parda (drapery), choishab (bed-sheets), belbog (caftan sashes), horsecloths and many other things. The techniques for the manufacture of print fabrics were as follows: on a length of cloth, previously dipped in tannin, there were made patterns with the help of a printing stamp-kolyb covered with alizarin dyes. Kolyb stamps were carved out of the wood of a pear or apricot tree.

In the second half of the 19th century factory-made prints began to replace handmade ones. Only several craftsmen kept the old kolybs and recipes of the dyes. Ten years ago Abdurashid Rakhimov, a tenth-generation descendant of Bukhara masters, restored the art of multicolored fabric printing. A little later the traditional printing technologies were resumed in Samarkand and Andijan.

After factory-made fabrics started to break in the Central Asian markets the ancient traditional weaving crafts became endangered… Sogdian weavers are known to have been famous all over the world. The cotton fabric made in the village Vedar near Samarkand was once extremely popular. The Sogdian silk zandanachi with intricate lappets was exported to France, Belgium, and Italy. In the 16th century Samarkand was famous for production of crimson velvet, whereas Bukhara had a high reputation for its velvet with peculiar abr patterns. The pattern abr ('cloud') seems to be one of the most ancient and favourite patterns in Uzbekistan. The high-priced khan-atlas silk with bright iridescent colors, the semi-silk adras and shoyi are made of the threads that are dyed in a complex and elaborate way when before being put into colouring agent solution the fabric is tied up in a certain manner. Today the craftsmen use the traditional hand-weaving technologies to make not only abr fabrics, but also those of the smart striped bekasam and cotton alocha.

The "second" life of one of the most remarkable folk arts of the Uzbeks - the miniature, is another important part of Uzbek cultural renaissance. The oldest remaining miniatures date back to the times of the Temurids. At the end of the 15th century the great artist Kamaliddin Bekhzad from Herat probably lived in Samarkand for some time. Anyway, one of his miniatures is a portrait of Sheibani-khan, the founder of Uzbek dynasty. The art of miniature flourished in the 16th century, when many artists of Herat school moved to Bukhara and Samarkand. The outstanding artists of the time Muhammad Murad Samarkandi and Mahmud Muzahib inscribed their names in the annals of the world cultural heritage. But in the 19th century the art of calligraphy and miniature fell into decay, and with book-printing being wide spread in Central Asia, it almost vanished. Only in the 1980s, thanks to the enthusiasm of Uzbek arts historian Sh.Shaayakubov and the outstanding Uzbek painter Ch.Akhmarov who used the traditions of miniature in his paintings and frescos, there was set up a studio where young artists began studying the philosophy, style and techniques of the ancient art. Now, fifteen years later, the miniaturists from Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Ferghana paint fantastic superfine patterned and figure miniatures on papier-mache articles and embossed leather. The ancient paper-making technology, which once Samarkand craftsmen were so famous for, has also been restored by today. This handmade paper is what miniatures are also painted on.

The revival of ancient Uzbek crafts is now of great significance. In order to support the craftsmen and create favorable working conditions for them there have been established craftsmen's associations and the craftsmen's union "Khunarmand". A number of nongovernmental organisations and funds actively promote teaching arts and crafts to the youth through the system "Usto va shogird" ('Master and Apprentice'). Not without reason the author of the treatise "Kabus-Name" Unsur al-Maaliy of the 11th century taught his contemporaries the following: "Let no noble man be ashamed of teaching his son a craft".

The revival of ancient Uzbek crafts is a connecting link between the culture of the past civilisations and modern society, and folk arts remain the treasury of century-old customs and traditions of the Uzbek people.

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