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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 Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkomans and even Tajiks. History is also complicated by Soviet 'divide and rule' tactics, where by common heritage was distorted into artificial 'nationalist' identities.

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The origin of the word 'Uzbek'

The Uzbeks are a predominantly Turkic people and are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school. One view holds that the name derives from Uzbek Khan (1282-1342), the last powerful ruler of the Golden Horde and responsible for its conversation to Islam. Etymological argument states that the name means 'independent' or 'the man himself', from Uz - self, and Bek or 'Beg' - a noble title of leadership.

Uzbeks as a nation

The process of the formulation of the Uzbeks began in the 11th century and solidified in the 14th as a conglomeration of Turic tribes. The language, Chagatai or Old Uzbek, evolved at the same time. This Shaybanid Uzbek dynasty promoted the transition of sedentary life by merging with earlier inhabitants in the 16th and 17th centuries, until the name Uzbek came to be used for the whole population.

First and foremost an Uzbek was (and remains) a Muslim, while his next point of reference was his home town. Uzbeks comprised three major ethnic layers. The first was urban population, oasis-dwelling Uzbeks intermingled with the original Persian (Tajik) inhabitants of Central Asia. The second and third layers were the seminomadic descendants of the pre-Shaybind Turco-Mongol tribes and the Shaybanid Uzbek tribes. The latter two groups still preserve some tribal identity, such as the Kipchaks, Karluks, Mangit and Kungrat, ethnic groups shared by other Turkic nations.

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Uzbeks in Central Asia

Soviet Union delimitation gave the nation the heart of Central Asia, less than the original Uzbek domains, but encompassing the historic power centers. At that time, Uzbeks were the third-largest nationality in the former Soviet Union. Uzbeks in Uzbekistan number almost 17 million, with substantial minorities in Tajikistan (23%), Kyrgyzstan (12.9%) and Turkmenistan (13%). Up to two million Uzbeks inhabit in northern Afghanistan, with another 25,000 in northwest China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region.