by Said Gaziev, PhD candidate at Humboldt University in Berlin

Sex in Central Asia is almost exclusively understood as a straight affair. The region’s alternative sexual cultures and histories are glossed over, marginalised, or censured and ignored altogether. Conservative attitudes continue to this day reign supreme in local societies throughout the region and ostracize homosexuality and its expressions as if these are something uncalled for and alien. Yet, even a cursory glance at the history of the region demonstrates the opposite.

One of the prominent persons in Central Asian history, Zahir al-Din Muhammad, also known as Babur, is mostly famous for his two notable accomplishments: conquering Delhi and Northern India and writing a book about his life.[1] In his memoirs, along with the whole array of valuable information about peoples and lands, he shares some intimate details of his private life. Thus, describing the events of the year 905 Hijri (1499-1500 CE) he suddenly begins to regale his readers about his first marriage. It appears he married a woman at the age of sixteen but did not feel much desire for her. Coupled with bashfulness, his reluctance resulted in very rare, barely once in a fortnight or even in a month visits to perform his marital duties. At the same time, he chanced upon a boy with the amazingly appropriate name ‘Baburi’ and fell in love with him. He wrote desperate verses, raved, and felt fittingly miserable as is the wont of heartbroken lovers. Later in his life, Babur would marry almost a dozen women and sire nearly a score of children, who would establish a long-lasting dynasty. All these achievements of his are widely celebrated, while the instance of his first love is utterly ignored.[2]

When the Russians conquered Central Asia in the nineteenth century, they encountered what to them was the highly bizarre custom of bachabozi, a practice of boys dancing dressed as girls. Perplexed and scandalised by these cross-dressing habits and related activities, the conquerors left a detailed account of this practice[3] and its implications for the social and sexual life of local people[4]. The shenanigans with these twirling boys did not end with dancing. Often these boys performed sexual services for their admirers and patrons. Abdulla Qodiriy, hailed as the first modern Uzbek novelist, left a semi-biographical account of a tragic story about two madrasa students in amorous relations.[5] He was not alone among the Uzbek literati in describing same-sex relations among the students of Islamic colleges.[6] The story written by Qodiriy later was adapted as a play by Mark Weil and staged at Ilkhom,[7] the first independent theatre in USSR and the only self-supporting cultural institution so far in Uzbekistan[8].


So, how did the colonisers and the locals perceive and react to this supposedly unmanly and allegedly non-Muslim custom and practice?

A report received on the 18th of November 1884 by the head of Tashkent administration in the local Turki language and loosely translated into Russian, by an interpreter called Iaushev sheds some light on the seedy aspects of local life.

The situation, wrote the author of the report, was as follows. A bacha, aptly nick-named Rashchut (from the Russian raschiot – payment) kept his quarters behind the place called Tufroq Qo’rg’on. Catamites[9] Sadullah and Usman rented property of certain Makarif (Russian surname Makarov). Zakir, Ikram and Hamra, also referred to as catamites, were impertinent enough to settle in a garden right next to the bureau of the head of Qurama district. The Russian islovot[10] was the place of residence for another member of this exalted company Abris or Iris. (Interestingly, the Russian ‘translation’ which was presented to the Russian mayor did not mention this mysterious Abris whose name could have been an aberration of the Russian name Boris.) Ming O’rik area, to the southwest of the Russian part of Tashkent, hosted Gul khan, another young man described similarly.

All these men visited certain unnamed messieurs[11] to solicit their services and possibly stay overnight with them. But even more worryingly for the author of the report, these young men plaited their hair and in general, spent their days trying to look like girls. During the nights they kept visiting those mysterious messieurs. According to the informant’s opinion, the city watchmen were aware of these affairs but kept quiet being bribed through and through.

One of the places where these young men were most numerous was a market entrance. It is not specified which market it was but it is possible to surmise from the response of the city’s head to this report this place was located in the Russian part of Tashkent. The wording of the report “Toshken ichida” indicates Voskresenskii Bazar, located in the heart of the Russian section of Tashkent which was also known among the Tatars and the locals as Pyan-Bazar, or drunken market, because it was surrounded by numerous pubs. The opera house stands there today.

All these lads, the report went, sat hidden in their dress-making shops working their sewing machines and sodomising clandestinely. The watchmen knew of these happenings but took the bribes and kept their silence. This anonymous informer specifically remarked on the unmanly habits of the young men in question. Their feminine nicknames, their plaited hair, womanly occupation reported as if they were even graver offences than the actual same-sex acts.

The report continued with information about a certain Musa Oqsaqol[12] who lived in O’rda, the area next to the Russian part in the past and the Independence square in modern Tashkent. This man had a bacha who performed and danced at the weddings and yielded the earnings to his master. Closer to the end of the report the informant also dwelt on dens of thieves and the drug trade in the town.

The city governor Petr Putintsev[13], after reading the ‘translation’ of this report, commanded the city police inspector to stop this outrage and expel izialiaks from the Russian part of the town. He also instructed his officials to pay special attention to Musa’s conduct. The archives are yet to yield information on whether these orders were carried out successfully or not.

Certainly, these instances of male commercial sex and sexual exploitation of minors were not limited to Tashkent. Kushelevskii in his work referred to Bronislav Grombchevsky (Bronisław Grąbczewski), a Polish explorer of Central Asia in the Russian service who discovered a brothel between Novyi Margelan, modern-day Fergana and a place called Khodzha-Magiz[14] which “was very dirty but housed six boys aged between 15 to 17, cleanly dressed, wearing make-ups like prostitutes who catered to sexual needs of the working-class people of Novyi Margelan”[15].

So, what do all these bits and pieces of information tell us about same-sex relationships in Central Asia at the turn of the century? Not much would be an honest answer. To begin with, not every instance of sexual liaison referred to in this essay could be ascribed to same-sex relations as we understand them today.[16] Nor does the picture of some instances of social life in the above-mentioned places seem to fit Islamic scriptures. Instead, the sources suggest the plurality of sexual cultures and practices, albeit based on a minimal amount of information. Even this limited data indicates the hierarchical nature of the interactions mentioned in these sources. These interactions seem to span across ethnic, religious, and cultural divisions retaining, however, their unequal aspect. The authorities viewed them as transgressions and violations of moral codes and attempted to suppress this kind of activity. The report paid special attention to the seemingly feminine habits of the young men and to their attempts at traversing gender lines. Although, homosexual relations between males were liable to punishment in the empire[17], the Russian officials treated these affairs more as a moral breach preferring to expel some of the culprits elsewhere from the Russian part of Tashkent. As we see from the above-cited story, however, the Russian authorities were less concerned if these affairs took place only among ‘Muslims’. Apparently, on some occasions, the officials regarded the lands inhabited by the locals beyond the purview of Russian law. Even these limited persecutions targeted mostly the providers of the sexual services and not their clients thus retaining a strong class bias.

But the social interaction in these circles, details of this business conducted surreptitiously, the origin and the social standing of the clientele, life trajectories of the many people involved, implications of this underworld and its economy for social norms still elude us. The topic is feasible to research and to study but apparently, it has not been deemed worth doing so.[18]

For what it is worth, the document discussed in this essay should not surprise students of the history of Central Asia. Would they find it shocking to learn there were (and still are) gays, and related commercial sex in a ‘Muslim’ community? Would it be so scandalous to admit that ‘Muslims’ and their societies are not fundamentally different from ‘Christian’ or any other human societies? It is more astonishing to realise this riveting subject is almost completely ignored by those who study the history of the region.

Note on transliteration: all Russian names and words or words written in the Russian sources are transliterated according to the simplified Library of Congress system without diacritics apart from ‘to indicate soft sign (ь). Turki/Turkic words and place names are transliterated following modern Uzbek Latin script. Personal names or aliases do not fall in the same category, however.

The photographs in this book are all taken either from the Prokudin-Gorskii collection or from Turkestanskii Al’bom, both these were made freely available online by the Library of Congress.

[1] Not only he performed feats worth writing about but also wrote something which is still worth reading. With reference to Pliny the Younger, Letters. LXV. To Tacitus, any available edition.

[2] In 2011 Baku edition of Baburname’s translation into Russian by Mikhail Salye this ‘embarrassing’ passage was excised all together thus censoring the emperor himself. Zahiriddin Babur, Baburname. Baku, Nagyl Evi, 2011 p.113

[3] Perhaps one of the best descriptions of this dance in Russian is provided in semi-fictional novel: N. Il’in, V novom kraiu. Roman-khronika is vremion zavoevaniia Turkestanskogo kraia. Vol.1, Tashkent, 1913, pp.94-98 [My thanks to A.M. for informing me about this novel]

[4] V.I. Kushelevskii, Materialy dlia meditsinskoi geografii i sanitarnogo opisaniia Ferganskoi oblasti. Vol.2, Novyi Margelan, 1891, pp.451-458

[5] Abdulla Qodiriy, Juvonboz. First published in 1915 in Tashkent, from Abdulla Qodiriy, To’liq asarlar to’plami. 6 jildlik, 1-jild. Tashkent, 1996, pp.19-26

[6] Mo’minjon Muhammajon o’g’li, Turmush urinishlari. Tashkent, O’zbekiston davlat nashriyoti, 1926 [My thanks to I.B. for pointing out this rare publication]


[8]Ilkhom’s Wikipedia page in Russian

[9] The document used the Persian word حیز and the Russian ‘translation’ employed the word izialiak (изяляк) a corrupt form of the Uzbek/Turki derogatory word hezalak – effeminate. O’zbekcha-ruscha lug’at. Borovkov A.K. (chief ed.), Moscow, 1959, p.657

[10] The Turki word islovot comes from the Russian slobodka (слободка) – a sub-urban settlement. Presently dated word in Turki/Uzbek islovotxona – brothel comes from this Russian word. Ibid. p.183

[11] The word used in the report is توره لار

[12]Aksakal was a local administrator of a village in rural areas and a city quarter in urban setting. The term could also be used onomastically as part of a name, in which case it does not mean that individual in question was necessarily a local official.


[14] This place still bears the same name (Xo’ja Mag’iz in Uzbek) to these days but that brothel is nowhere to be found.

[15] V.I. Kushelevkii, op. cit. p.458

[16] Lutz Rzehak, “Ungleichheit in der Gleichheit: Materialien zu männlich-männlicher Erotik in iranischsprachigen Kulturen Mittelasiens.” in Michaela Ofitsch (ed.), Liebe, Eros und Zuneigung in der Indogermania, Graz, 1997, pp.37-64

[17]Ulozhenie o nakazaniiakh ugolovnykh i ispravitel’nykh. St. Petersburg, 1845, part VIII, chapter IV, art.1293, pp.524-525

[18] One of the few notable exceptions is Ingeborg Baldauf, Die Knabenliebe in Mittelasien: Bačabozlik. Berlin. Verlag Das Arabische Buch, 1988