Inside an Elaborate Circumcision Ceremony

When young boys are circumcised in Uzbekistan, a party follows.

John Stanmeyer hadn’t planned to watch a young man in Uzbekistan be ceremonially circumcised. But when he was invited to watch what is usually a private ceremony, he took his camera.

Stanmeyer was in the country last winter to document the latest chapter of Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden walk, a lengthy journey charting the path of human migration. In Khiva, Uzbekistan, he was at a mosque as families arrived with their young boys on the day of their ceremonial circumcision.

“We said to one family, ‘Can we come to your event with your child?’ and they said, ‘Oh yes, please come along!’ The cutting of a young man’s foreskin seemed to lack any stigma. The family wanted to share what they saw as a beautiful celebration.”

Beknur Bakhtiarov in his special clothing at the spiritual Itchan Kala, the old city of Khiva, Uzbekistan.
Beknur Bakhtiarov in his special clothing at the spiritual Itchan Kala, the old city of Khiva, Uzbekistan.
Photograph by John Stanmeyer, National Geographic

Among many of Uzbekistan’s Muslim communities, the circumcision, known as khatna-kilish or sunnat-toi, is a celebration almost as important as a wedding. Boys, generally aged three, five, or seven, are dressed in fine clothes made by the women in their families. The boy Stanmeyer followed was five. He carried a staff and wore a crown with feathers on his head.

The actual circumcision is often performed at home in bed by a local medicine man. After the procedure, family members are said to present the boy with gifts. In prior generations, boys could expect to receive gifts to signal their ascent to adulthood, such as their own horse. The gifts are now generally more modest: a combination of candy and money, followed by a party with food and dancing.

Stanmeyer says his series of images is the result of being open to changes in plans, and relying on a little luck to create new opportunities. “You’re always trying to turn over stones and put something together and hope for serendipity to play out.”

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