The Karakalpak people are a Turkic-speaking minority living in the Republic of Karakalpakstan – an independent administrative division within Uzbekistan.

Occupying the entire northwestern area, this classical land, once known as Khwarazm (or “Kat” in Persian literature), was an ancient kingdom famous for Zoroastrian beliefs and desert castles. Despite autonomous status, Karakalpakstan today is little more than just another province of Uzbekistan.

A population of approximately 1.7 million Karakalpaks, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs live mostly in arid conditions surrounded by the Kyzyl Kum (red sand) desert to the east, the Ustyurt Plateau to the west, the Kara Kum (black sand) desert to the south, and Kazakhstan to the north.

The Karakalpak people, first mentioned in the 15th century, were prosperous nomadic herders and fishermen who lived in yurts year-round along the Aral Sea and the Amu Darya River.

It is believed that the name Karakalpak (kara – black and kalpak, meaning hat) was laid claim to because of the black sheep they raised, and the shaggy sheepskin hats traditionally worn by the men. This and other customs were mostly lost through Sovietization.

Regrettably, Soviet communism transformed their rich life into a cotton monoculture. Gradual climate change, accelerated by human-induced vanishing of the Aral Sea, presents a desolate environment from what was once an oasis of rivers, marshes, forests and farms. Poisoned by wind-borne salt and fertilizer residues from the dried seabed, 95% of its water has been lost over the last 50 years. In addition, the inhospitable desert was used as a secret testing place for chemical and biological weapons.

The majority of Karakalpak people are Sunni Muslims who maintain a tolerant attitude toward their Islamic faith. These people are overwhelmingly generous, welcoming, colourful and animated. They are renowned for creating art out of almost anything – goat hair, cotton, rushes, fur pelts and calf skin. Many of their traditions have ancient origins predating Islam under the Golden Horde.

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