While Margilan is part of modern-day Uzbekistan, most westerners do not realize that the Fergana Valley where it is located is a multi-ethnic region which for most of its history was administered as a single unit. Today, the Fergana Valley extends across three countries (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) and continues to host major populations from each ethnic group. The artistic traditions arising out of this region thus share a common history, rather than being distinctively Uzbek, Tajik or Kygyz.
The Fergana Valley, located in the southeast corner of Central Asia, is enclosed by the Tian Shan Mountains to the north and the Gissar-Alai range to the south. Almost 8,500 square miles in size, the valley of flat plains is easily distinguished from the surrounding terrain of mountains, deserts and treeless steppes. The Fergana Valley is also the most fertile agricultural area in the region, due to the Syr Darya River and its numerous tributaries, water resources that are the subject of controversy in the region. With principal crops of wheat, cotton, rice, vegetables and fruit, the Fergana Valley is also a major source of food for Central Asia. This agricultural productivity has also made the Fergana Valley the most densely populated area of Central Asia.
The current division of the Fergana Valley among three countries is the result of Soviet political policy. For most of its history, the Fergana Valley was part of a unified political entity. In ancient times, it was part of Transoxiana, a province of the Persian Empire, where it played an important role in the Silk Road trade from China to the Middle East and Europe. Modern Khujand, Tajikistan (home of Munira Akilova, the designer for Armugon Handicrafts and Ozara, the handicraft arm of the National Association of Business Women of Tajikistan, and itself a major stop on the Silk Road) has long been known as the “gateway” to Fergana. The Mongols conquered the area in the 13th Century and incorporated it into the Chagatai Khanate. While political boundaries shifted as Turkic groups and Islam spread into the area, Fergana was always administered as a single unit. The 18th Century saw the area as the Kokand Khanate, which included eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kazakhstan and most of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. When Imperial Russia moved into the area in the 19th Century, political control shifted again but the Fergana Valley remained intact, moving from the Kokand Khanate to the Fergana province of Russian Turkestan in 1876.
The collapse of Imperial Russia and the rise of the Soviet Union, however, led to profound changes in Central Asia in general, and Fergana in particular. The Soviets created provincial boundaries that grouped the Central Asian population into distinct nationalities, when previously identities were largely based on clan, region or religion. The ethno-linguistic labels of Uzbek, Kygyz or Tajik were thus not used until the early 20th century, and clan ties and regionalism are still a major factor today.
Furthermore, boundaries in the modern sense did not exist in the region before the Soviets, since most of the population (particularly Kazakhs, Turkmen and Kygryz) were nomadic, while the Tajiks and Uzbeks were more settled. The Soviets forcibly settled the populations of Central Asia and created new, artificial boundaries defining the Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. These borders, designed by Josef Stalin mostly for administrative purposes, were also intended to prevent the rise of a political entity that might challenge Moscow’s authority–another example of the age-old “divide and conquer” principle. The new boundaries, however, did not reflect either the natural geographic features of the Fergana Valley or the new national/ethnic identities of the peoples in these republics.
The complex, almost serpentine boundaries within the Fergana Valley did not have much practical impact during Soviet times, since the entire region was under centralized Moscow control. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, a new wave of nationalism swept throughout the former Soviet Republics. That nationalism continues to affect relations between the nations of the Fergana Valley, despite the multi-ethnic population in each and the remaining family ties that ignore borders.
The situation was further complicated by the 5 year Civil War in Tajikistan following independence, which destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and considerably delayed Tajikistan’s entry into the international market, including the handicraft sector. As a consequence, while handicrafts from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have developed a reputation in the US and Europe, Tajik handicrafts (which reflect the same cultural history and artistic traditions) have only a tiny footprint in the US. In late 2014, I formed HoonArts, the only US business importing Tajik handicrafts on a systematic basis, specifically to help the artisans of Tajikistan create a sustainable US market for their products. Our entire reason for being is to build community and empower the artisans of Tajikistan (and other Central Asian countries) through their own craftsmanship.
This history in the Fergana Valley has led to some strange modern consequences, from the Western point of view. For example, artistic cooperation between artisans in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is common. The Union of Craftsmen of Tajikistan is part of a major Central Asian handicraft initiative under the framework of the EU and Cesvi-funded project “Handicraft and Business through Regional Integration and Fair Trade Market”, which is focused on combining resources and expertise to enhance integration between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the handicraft sector. On the other hand, cross-border relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are fragile. The border crossing between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan between Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and Panjakent (Tajikistan) was closed by Uzbekistan in 2010, and remains closed today, even though Samarkand and Panjakent were adjacent stops on the Silk Road for hundreds of years and the ethnic majority in Samarkand is Tajik, not Uzbek. Other border crossings between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are unreliable, and subject to arbitrary closure or restriction and there is a widely acknowledged concern about corruption among border guards. (The absence of a reliable land route for shipping from Tajikistan, which is land-locked, is one of the key reasons that all our Tajik products are shipped to the US by air.) When I asked my ikat supplier in Margilan, Uzbekistan if she could perhaps export ikat fabrics direct to Armugon Handicrafts in Tajikistan and avoid the middlemen, she reported that it was simply too complicated because of political issues, and that it was much easier to export to the US than Tajikistan.
I hope that this history gives you a taste for the complexity of both the ikat fabrics and the cultural and political history from which they come. It also means that now, when you hear someone talk about “Uzbek ikats,” you will know that it reflects the arbitrary divisions imposed during Soviet times, rather than any intrinsic ethnic or cultural distinction (or superiority) between the artisans of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. You should also be able to distinguish a mass-produced commercial “ikat” product from the genuine hand-woven fabric that is the product of centuries of artistic tradition in Central Asia.