Uzbekistan, a much coveted and contested land, has been successively subjected to Turco-Mongol, Arab, Persian and Soviet rule. This culminated in the extremely authoritarian leadership of Islam Karimov who led this former central Asian Soviet republic for 26 years, from 1990 to his death in 2016. The subsequently elected Shavkat Mirziyoyev, former Prime minister, is implementing reforms and focusing on tourism, abolishing visas for forty or so countries and lifting the ban on taking photographs in metro stations in the capital Tashkent.
At first glance, the country is extremely picturesque dotted with picture perfect settings such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. These legendary ancient towns along the Silk Route boast architectural gems and masterpieces of Islamic art. Its wealth is in part owed to the mighty conqueror Tamerlane (1336-1405), a national hero since Uzbekistan became independent in 1991 with the collapse of the USSR. Despite his notorious ferocity, Tamerlane took pleasure in building or rather rebuilding Samarkand. These showcase towns are reminiscent of central Asian theme parks. A sterile cultural heritage, detached from reality, is on show and marketed in the form of tickets, silk scarves and Muslim prayer beads.
Behind this façade a less rosy Uzbekistan is concealed, where forced labour continues to be systematic in the cotton fields, one of the country’s most important economic resources. In the Fergana Valley, to the east, religious freedom is under threat reflecting the regional aspect of the Islamic world, a subtle blend of traditions and popular piety, today monitored and stigmatised. At the other end of the country, in the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, the Aral Sea is disappearing unnoticed. The Moynaq ship cemetery is the most glaring example of this environmental disaster. The rusty wrecks lined up on the burning sand are an irrefutable proof of the severity of the situation. It is a far cry from the idyllic image that the authorities are striving to sell to the outside world.