Favorites from the Fergana Valley: Uzbekistan’s Hub of Crafts & Culture
Born and raised in Samarkand, Abdu Samadov is full of inside information about Uzbekistan. He has studied in England and the U.S. and is fluent in English, Farsi, and Russian. Abdu guides MIR travelers throughout Central Asia and enjoys sharing his knowledge with other travelers.
Here, Abdu offers his tips for how to explore the creative and cultural traditions of the Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan’s heartland of agriculture and the arts.
Surrounded by the Tien Shan Mountain Range and watered by tributaries of the Syr Darya River, the Fergana Valley was one of the most historically important places during the height of the ancient Silk Road.
This fertile valley, blessed with the finest soil and climate in all of Central Asia, has been a major agricultural center for well over two millennia, as well as the heart of Central Asian silk and handicrafts production. Trade activities here generated enormous wealth for oasis towns and fortresses on the ancient Silk Road, which in turn attracted the ambitions of many of the world’s greatest empires, from the Persians to the Mongols to the Russian Empire.
Over time, the many layers of dynasties that settled in the Fergana Valley played a significant role in shaping the region’s political, economic, and cultural reach, and imbued it with an ethnic and artistic diversity that can still be seen today. While it lacks much of the architectural brilliance of Samarkand, Bukhara, or Khiva, Fergana fascinates modern-day travelers with its lively bazaars, hospitable locals, and exceptional handmade arts and crafts — still produced much the same way as they were centuries ago.
Here are just some of my favorite places to experience the crafts, culture, and history of the Fergana Valley.
Margilan was a major Silk Road stop by the 9th century, but local legends proclaim its history dates back to the time of Alexander the Great. Like much of the valley, the city is also known as a traditional stronghold of Islam. In the 19th century, Margilan had a dozen madrassahs and over 200 mosques, most of which were destroyed by the Russians in the late 19th century.
Modern-day Margilan has roads and avenues lined with lush mulberries, and is famous for its beautiful silk textiles, still crafted by hand using traditional techniques.
Highlights of Margilan:
Yodgorlik Silk Factory
One of the best silk workshops in the city is the Yodgorlik Silk Factory, which became operational in 1972 and is one of the few places in Central Asia where you can witness the entire process of making silk from A to Z.
Yodgorlik uses natural dyes to produce stunning pieces using traditional Uzbek ikat designs. Silkworms are raised here on mulberry leaves and the cocoons are unraveled to yield the raw material. Several different classes of fabric are produced, from the pure silk khan atlas to cotton/silk blends called adras.
A mere one-hour excursion will take you through the traditional methods of silk production, from the unwinding and steaming of the cocoons to the dyeing and weaving process. After the tour, you can shop for some of their products right at the workshop where local women hand-weave colorful scarves and textiles.
Another must for any traveler would be Margilan’s Kumtepa Bazaar, one of the largest and most authentic markets in the Fergana Valley, where on Thursdays and Sundays people come from miles around to buy and sell piles of fresh produce, textiles, crafts, and animals. Make sure to sample the local fresh bread sold at the entrance to the market, as well as a special red rice, called devizira, that’s grown here.
Said Ahmad Khoja Madrassah
This charming madrassah in the center of town was a school for Islamic learning in pre-Soviet days, and has now been converted into a series of studios for local craftsmen. You’ll find several smaller craft producers here, from embroiderers, to copper craftsmen, to textile printers.
While here, be sure to tour the workshop of silk master Turgunbay Mirzaakhmedov, head of one of the most renowned silk weaving dynasties in Margilan. In his workshop, silk is prepared from silkworm cocoons in the ancient way, and woven in the traditional patterns of the Fergana Valley.
The village of Rishtan is famous for its ceramics. Pottery became prominent in this region due to the unusual amount and excellent quality of locally accessible raw materials — red clay and pigments made of minerals and mountain grasses. There is evidence of earthenware in the nearby foothills of the Alai Range dating back a thousand years.
Modern Rishtan ceramics are characterized by elaborate floral and geometric designs in bright blue and green hues painted on a creamy white background. The skills used to produce Uzbek ceramics have been passed down father-to-son for countless generations.
Many of Rishtan’s ceramics masters can trace their lineage from the famous medieval tile-makers employed by Tamerlane, who took their inspiration from Chinese porcelain goods that came through here on the ancient Silk Road. Descendants of these artisans used the borrowed techniques and patterns to decorate the madrassahs, mosques, and mausoleums of Samarkand and other well-known oasis cities.
Highlights of Rishtan:
Visit a Ceramics Master’s Workshop
Visit the home and studio of Rustam Usmanov, who, with his family, designs and hand-paints the traditional Uzbek plates (lyagon) and bowls (shakosa) with the trademark blues and greens of Rishtan. While here, enjoy Uzbek delicacies at a lunch with the master’s family.
If you have more time, you can join in on a hands-on ceramics masterclass. The master will lead you through each step of the process from shaping and decorating to glazing. Take home your own work of art as a souvenir at the end of the class.
Kokand was first mentioned by Arab travelers in the 10th century as an oasis town on the trade route between India and China. It was known throughout history as a prosperous trading and religious center, and during the 19th century was the centerpiece of a powerful khanate stretching from the Fergana Valley to the southern Kazakh steppes. It also played a key role during the “Great Game” between the Russian and British monarchies.
Kokand is renowned for several artistic traditions, most notably its woodcarvings, tile-work, and intricate carved and painted plaster decorations known as ganche.
Highlights of Kokand:
Palace of Khudayar Khan
The Palace of Khudayar Khan was built between 1863-1873. At the time of its construction it was one of the most luxurious palaces in Central Asia. Only 27 of the original 113 rooms have survived around six beautifully restored courtyards. Today the former palace is the Kokand Regional Studies Museum. It houses numerous fine examples of the traditional ganche plasterwork that the city is famed for.
Jami Mosque & Minaret
Kokand’s outstanding Jami Mosque, now a museum, was built in the early 19th century. Highlights are its portico, or aivan, supported by 98 carved wooden columns, and the painted ceiling of the living quarters. The blue-tipped minaret stands 72 feet above Chorsu Square.
Visit a Woodcarving Master’s Workshop
Visit the home and studio of Kadirov Haydar, a master of Uzbek woodcarving. Kadirov comes from a long line of master woodcarvers renowned for their artistry and skill — in fact, his ancestors decorated the Palace of Khudayar Khan, the Jami Mosque, and other notable madrassahs in Kokand. Enjoy conversations with the master as he demonstrates how to shape and carve his wonderfully detailed designs.
One of the first settlements that appeared in the valley, Chust’s history dates back as far as the late Bronze Age; Soviet archaeologists have found burial sites from at least 1000 BC. Given its ideal location along a tributary of the Syr Darya River, the city grew into an important agricultural center in medieval Central Asia, and eventually became a significant waypoint on several trade routes.
Chust is home to some of Fergana’s greatest blacksmiths and knife-makers. High-quality hand-forged goods have been produced here since the days of the Stone Age, and traditional apprenticeship programs have allowed master artisans to preserve and pass down the craft to younger generations.
Highlights of Chust:
Visit a Master Blacksmith
Tour the home and studio of one of Chust’s master blacksmiths, Umarov Hasan, who produces traditional Uzbek knives known as pichoq. Originally, pichoq had a more practical military purpose, but their display of fine craftsmanship and materials eventually turned them into a coveted status symbol in medieval Central Asia.
In the old days, these knives were often used as protective amulets to repel misfortune and illnesses, and shield the bearer and his family from evil spirits. Today, many older men can be seen carrying pichoq like a pocket knife to use for slicing melons and fruits while traveling. When properly kept and sharpened, these knives can last a lifetime.
The blades are made of stainless steel with the ends characteristically curled into a tip, and are typically carved or stamped with an embossed star pattern and the name “Chust” to indicate their place of origin. The handles are often made from wood, bone, or deer horn, and engraved and inlaid with stone or mother-of-pearl. Sometimes the knives come in a decorative leather sheath or hand-carved wooden box.
Shop for Tubeteika in the Chust Craftsmen Quarters
Chust is also famous for its beautifully embroidered skullcaps known as tubeteika, doppi, or kalpak. Tubeteika are believed to have originated in Chust, and are fashioned from black fabric into a classic pin-tucked square shape. Traditionally, they feature patterned white embroidery meant to resemble burning chilies, protection for the wearer against the evil eye.
If You Have More Time…
In addition to its major sites and arts and crafts traditions, the Fergana Valley is also home to several hidden historic gems. Here are a few of our favorites to see if you have more time:
Travel to the Fergana Valley & Uzbekistan with MIR
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(Top Photo: Inside a pottery workshop in Rishtan, Uzbekistan. Photo credit: Abdu Samadov.)
PUBLISHED: December 14, 2017