Across this region, for some two thousand years, the Silk Road had nourished caravan-towns - Samarkand, Bukhara, Margilan -whose populace had spoken an Iranian tongue. The Uzbeks were latecomers, migrating south at the end of the fifteenth century. They took their name from a khan of the Golden Horde, for their origins were Turkic, but already their blood was mixed with Iranians', and they added only the last layer to a palimpsest of peoples identifying themselves less by nation than by clan.
The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron
From gold-toothed Turkmen in shaggy, dreadlocked hats to high-cheekboned Kyrgyz herders whose eyes still carry the glint of a nomadic past, Central Asia presents a fascinating collection of faces and peoples. The total population of the former Soviet Central Asia is about 57 million, with another 28 million in Afghanistan. Few areas of its size are home to such tangled demographics and daunting transitions.
Each republic inherited an ethnic grab bag from the Soviet system. Thus you’ll find Uzbek towns in Kyrgyzstan, legions of Tajiks in the cities of Uzbekistan, Kazakhs grazing their cattle in Kyrgyzstan, Turkmen in Uzbekistan – and Russians and Ukrainians everywhere. Given the complicated mix of nationalities across national boundaries, Central Asia’s ethnic situation is surprisingly tranquil. The most noticeable divide (and a largely amicable one) is between the traditionally sedentary peoples, the Uzbeks and Tajiks, and their formerly nomadic neighbours, the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen.
Nomadic migrations through the centuries make precise ethnic definition almost impossible. The ancient tribes of the Scythians, Sogdians, Khorezmians and myriad Turkic peoples formed the foundation for the later Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and even Tajiks. History is also complicated by Soviet 'divide and rule' tactics, whereby common heritage was distorted into artificial 'nationalist' identities. Uzbek authorities claim some 130 different nationalities reside within the republic.
Today Uzbekistan is Central Asia's most populous country. Its 30 million population comprise nearly half the region's total population. The population of Uzbekistan is very young: 34.1% of its people are younger than 14 (2008 estimate), and though it has grown rapidly in recent decades, growth is now slowing due to economic outward migration and much smaller family sizes. The average number of children per woman is now 1.89, as opposed to 2.92 in 2002.
Uzbeks comprise a majority (80%) of the total population. The Uzbeks are a Turkic people who originated in southern Siberia and the Altai Mountains and came south with the Mongols in the early medieval period. There are significant Uzbek populations in Afghanistan (2.7 million), Kyrgyzstan (800,000) and Tajikistan (1.6 million) as well as in Uzbekistan. The majority of Uzbeks follow the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, though atheism is also widespread amongst those who grew up under the Soviet Union.
Other ethnic groups include Russians 5.5%, Tajiks 5% (official estimate and disputed), Kazakhs 3%, Karakalpaks 2.5% and Tatars 1.5% (1996 estimates).
There is some controversy about the percentage of the Tajik population. While official state numbers from Uzbekistan put the number at 5%, the number is said to be an understatement and some Western scholars put the number up to 20%-30%, as they believe there is a tendency for some Tajiks to declare themselves as Uzbek on official paperwork. Tajiks are essentially central Asian Persians, the division between the two groups being the result of Stalin's border creation in the 1920s. They consider themselves to be the oldest ethnic group in central Asia and trace their ancestry right back to the Bactrians and Sogdians. The Tajiks are not a homogeneous group, however, and are deeply divided along clan-based lines with strong regional affiliations and blood ties. The cities of Bukhara and Samarkand both have large Tajik populations, and many feel they should have been given the opportunity to join Tajikistan rather than being part of Uzbekistan.
Around 5% of the population are ethnic Russians. This figure was significantly higher during the Soviet period, peaking at just under 15% in the late 1950s, but many Russians chose to leave Uzbekistan for Russia following independence, regardless of whether or not they had been born in the country. Significant numbers of Russians came to Uzbekistan from the 19th century onwards to take advantage of the economic opportunities the country offered. Others were intellectuals, petty bourgeoisie and political opponents forcibly exiled here during the purges. The Russian community tends to follow the Eastern Orthodox faith and large numbers of them reside in Tashkent.
The Uzbeks absorbed, among others, the Sarts, a Turko-Persian population of Central Asian peasants and merchants. According to recent genetic genealogy testing from a University of Oxford study, the genetic admixture of the Uzbeks clusters somewhere between the Mongols and the Iranian peoples.
Uzbekistan has an ethnic Korean population that was forcibly relocated to the region by Stalin from the Soviet Far East in 1937-1938.
The nation is 88% Muslim (mostly Sunni, with a 5% Shi'a minority), 9% Eastern Orthodox and 3% other faiths. The Bukharan Jews have lived in Central Asia, mostly in Uzbekistan, for thousands of years. There were 94,900 Jews in Uzbekistan in 1989 (about 0.5% of the population according to the 1989 census), but now, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most Central Asian Jews left the region for the United States or Israel. Fewer than 5,000 Jews remained in Uzbekistan in 2007.