Category Archives: Islamic art

Uzbekistan: some history, thoughts and photos from a two-week visit

Uzbekistan was an important stage of the silk road between China and the Mediterranean, a route that carried much more than silk. It served as conduit for not only the technologies, which created amongst other things gunpowder, glass and paper, but also the slaves that fuelled the route’s economies and the ideas that shrank the globe. Its importance declined only after the great European voyages of discovery opened up sea routes for worldwide trade. DSC_8537For years Central Asia was a cauldron of terror. Nomadic tribes swept through its deserts and steppes striking fear. The legendary Alexander the Great took Samarkand in 329 BCE. The Arabs arrived to impose Islam in the eighth century. Ghengis Khan’s Mongol hoards and their Turkic auxiliaries rampaged through in the thirteenth century to establish an empire that stretched from Poland to the China Sea. In their heartland of Central Asia, they established peace and commercial recovery.

Tamerlaine (as he is known in the West) was the last of the great conquerors. Born 50 miles from Samarkand in 1336, he became known as Timur-i-Leng or Timur the lame after his right arm and leg were maimed by arrows. By his mid 30s he had established his capital at Samarkand from where he planned his campaigns to conquer the world. His butchery surpassed even the Mongols who are estimated to have killed 3 million people in their campaigns. For Timur the figure is 15 million. He overran Persia and the Caucasus and laid waste Bagdhad, killing 90,000 there. He reached as far west as Ankara, having conquered Damascus and Aleppo and left 5 million dead in his wake on his march east to Delhi. He brought back to his beloved Samarkand priceless gold and jewels along with the best mathematicians, musicians and scholars. The world’s finest craftsmen and artists built the largest and most beautifully adorned monuments, mosques, mausolea, and madrasas.

After Timur’s death on a campaign to conquer China in 1405, the Timurid state began to fragment. His grandson, Ulug Beg, who became governor of Samarkand at the age of 16, was a weak ruler, but one of the world’s great astronomers. He built mosques covered in star designs, created a madrasa on Registan Square and an observatory with the largest quadrant in the world. Here he compiled a famous star catalogue, plotting the coordinates of over 1000 stars. He was murdered by his son on his way to Mecca. DSC_9241By 1510 the Shaybanid (Uzbek) overlords of Central Asia had established Khanates in Bukhara and Khiva, though their wealth, like the silk road was in decline.

The most recent invaders were the Russians, though throughout the nineteenth century, the British, worrying about threats to India, competed for influence in what became known as the Great Game. By 1917 Russian interests dominated and following the revolution were ruthlessly imposed by the new Communist government. The current national borders were drawn up by Stalin.

In 1991 Uzbekistan became independent following the attempted coup against the Gorbachev government in Moscow. The country’s new president, former communist leader Karimov, dissolved the Communist party, and created the People’s Democratic Party. To help forge a national identity, he reinvented Timur as the father of the nation. A tightly-controlled form of Islam was revived.  Imams were carefully chosen and no one is allowed to study in the two state-controlled madrasas until they are over 20.  Afghanistan borders the country, Iran is nearby and there were bombs in Tashkent in 1999 and Bukhara in 2004.

The economy was tied to Russia but could not depend on it for subsidies. Cotton had lost its assured market and university students were compelled to help get the harvest in or lose their degrees (this continues today see HRW report: Cotton had already caused what some think is the world’s worst environmental disaster. The Aral Sea has almost dried up since the USSR channelled so much water from the two main rivers feeding it to produce cotton.

Karimov and his successor promoted private enterprise, but the state still  dominated the economy. Why was Timur promoted as national hero and not  Ulug Beg? Autocracy remains. Timur had intellectual curiosity despite being more savage than Ghengis Khan and barbarism remains a political tactic today (see Amnesty and Human Rights Watch reports), but judging from the number of new brides having their photos taken in front of the many huge statues of Timur, it appears to work. The new president, Shavkat Merziyoyev  succeeded on Karimov’s death. He is keen to promote tourism and you can now get an e-visa within 48 hours. The currency floats freely and there is no black market. The infrastructure is in place with high-speed trains from Tashkent to Samarkand. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a weekly budget flight there from the UK in the next year or two. DSC_9398

My impressions of our tour. 

This was my first guided tour group holiday and despite its limitations I really enjoyed it. We were with a good group of people. Our guide, Ilhom, was excellent. He spoke great English and was very knowledgeable. We covered innumerable historic sites which we later dubbed the 4Ms – mosques, mausoleums, madrasas and museums which he explained and patiently answered our questions. I could not have covered as much ground and learnt as much about the history in 2 weeks doing it independently.

After a day in Tashkent we flew to Urgench, about 700 miles west and started our tour in Khiva, an ancient desert Silk Road town. Urgench was strange. The road from the airport was full of new buildings, but it was unclear what they were for and they didn’t appear to be used. I wondered what was behind them. This seemed to repeat itself on the main road into Bukhara too and also in parts of Tashkent – large new buildings with very little happening in them. There is an element of over-employment in Uzbekistan, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. In 14 days there I came across only 3 beggars and saw no signs of homelessness. It may be that I would have seen more obvious poverty had I been traveling independently or gone into some of the villages where we had seen cotton being picked by hand in fields along the roadside. DSC_8524We only had a day in Khiva. Had I not been on a tour I would like to have stayed longer and explored the outer area of this town more. As it is, the inner city, Ichan Kala, wrapped in a mud wall since the 5th century, has the status of a museum city and only about 2000 Khivans live inside it. Some of it is restored, mainly by the Soviets (this is also the case in Bukhara and Samarkand). I really enjoyed wandering around here. We saw the emir’s palace and the Friday mosque and I really liked the ceramic work decorating these buildings, all on a very human scale. DSC_8661.jpgThe drive to Bukhara is about 330 miles and some of the road is very poor. We traveled by coach through the Kara Kum desert, north of the Oxus river (Amu Darya). It forms the boundary with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. A large area of the desert around Urgench is irrigated and cotton grown. The Oxus has a very wide channel, but very little water. This is partly explained by the time of year (November) but also because so much water has been chanelled out of it for the irrigation of cotton, a particularly thirsty crop. In April with snow melt from the Pamirs it apparently looks much fuller.  DSC_8705

Ilhom also pointed out some new housing which he said was to be given to families who adopted children. It would come with a small amount of land.

Bukhara has been occupied for two and a half millennia. Its height was arguably in the tenth century when the Samanids ruled and it was a centre of the Persian renaissance and Islamic science. It had a population of 300,000 and the most famous library of the Islamic world. The intellectual stars of the age gathered there. In 1220 the Mongols razed the city sparing only the Kalon minaret, constructed in 1127 and 48 metres tall. This Islamic exclamation mark provided a view of the desert and a look out point in times of war. During the nineteenth century the decadent emirs used the minaret as a place of execution. On market days crowds gathered to see criminals tied in sacks and thrown from the top.DSC_8847The Kalon minaret and mosque front

Bukhara’s second golden age started in the sixteenth century under the Shaybanids who built most of the 200 mosques and madrasas. Their turquoise domes punctuate the sky. Despite Bukhara’s many mosques, I only heard one call to prayer in 14 days. I never discovered why. Ilhon explained it, telling us of the influence of the Naqshbandi Sufi sect whose prayer is silent. We visited their shrine a few miles out of the city. Here women who wanted children until recently crawled under the trunk of a fallen mulberry tree – it is now fenced off, but many pilgrims were here dressed in their Sunday best. Again, I could have done with more time in Bukhara to do a bit of aimless wandering around the old medieval backstreets. DSC_8888The mausoleum of Ismael Samani (10th century, Bukhara)

Samarkand – Mirror of the World, Garden of the Soul, Jewel of Islam etc…. where the Timurid buildings are truly monumental. It is probably most famous for the Registan Square, described by George Curzon as ‘even in its ruin, the noblest public square in the world’. It has now all been thoroughly restored.DSC_9182Registan Square

On the west side is the Ulug Beg madrasa (15th century) adorned with stars on its 35 metre portal and mosaic and majolica tiles all over its façade. Opposite is the Shor Dir madrasa built a century later matching Ulug Beg’s in its dimensions, and enclosing the square is the Tillya Kari madrasa forming a huge, harmonious public space. The Soviets revived the decaying square by using it for political rallies, veil burnings and trials of counter revolutionaries. They also restored its crumbling tiles, rebuilt its domes and straightened its minarets (though to ill-effect as many still lean outwards). And yet it is all a façade – inside these former madrasas are small shops geared to tourism.

There is almost too much to mention in Samarkand, from the beautiful Sogdian wall paintings in the museum, dating to the 7th century CE to the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis complex, beautiful, still a holy site and more intimate than the rest of Samarkand’s buildings.  Timur’s mausoleum, the Gur Emir, is another impressive site – he lies buried under an inner dome dripping with gold, with what used to be the biggest carved slab of jade on top of him. Outside below the huge blue outer dome we are informed that ‘God is Great’ in 3 metre high Kufic script. DSC_9174.jpgThe dome of Timur’s tomb

Finally, we reached the Bibi Khanum mosque which soared 35 metres around an 18 metre arch, flanked by 50 metre minarets with magnificent ornamentation. When he returned from one of his campaigns Timur ordered the portal to be rebuilt – it wasn’t big enough. Unfortunately, the rebuild was hurried and soon after its opening cracks appeared and worshipers dodged falling masonry. Earthquakes hastened its decline. In 1974 the Soviets rebuilt it and its three enormous domes have been tiled – turquoise-blue on yellow brick – the contrast between earth and sky. It lies next to a noisy and exhilarating bazaar. I think I was mosqued out by this point, magnificent though it is.DSC_9299 Bibi Khamun

In Shakrisabz, Timur’s birthplace we saw several brides posing by a huge statue of the man. We reached Tashkent by high speed train and travelled on its famed metro, rather let down by its poor lighting. Here we met a man, keen that we should find what we were looking for. He was a law student with a poor grasp of English (though better than our three or four words of Uzbek). We ended up in a canteen and ate food with him. I was astonished when he paid for 3 of us, utterly insistent that we should pay nothing. I had travelled a lot in Morocco (a country I really like) and had suspected that he might be after a tip for guiding us. It was one of a few encounters with ‘ordinary’ Uzbeks where people tried to help or were simply curious and friendly expecting nothing in return. If mass tourism arrives let’s hope it won’t change. DSC_9623Tashkent is very much a Soviet city, rebuilt after the 1966 earthquake with wide three lane dual carriage way roads, large parks and huge government buildings. Inevitably, a large statue of Timur had replaced Lenin. I never felt that I got my orientation  here but enjoyed our trip through the lively Chorsu bazaar and a long morning walk searching for a photography museum which we eventually found. DSC_9581The last part of our tour took us to the Fergana valley, through the Kamchik pass  (2,268 metres), from Tashkent, surrounded by mountains lightly sprinkled with the first snows of the winter. The most direct route would have been through Tajikistan, such is the strangeness of Stalin’s borders. We visited a silk factory in Margilon, and visited the amazing Sunday bazaar at Kumtepa which sold everything from hats and coats to animals. DSC_9968

It was a really enjoyable, interesting trip to a remote country of legendary cities. Some argue that their ancient buildings have been over-restored.  Early in the trip I was asking myself what is original here? That thought went away after about three days, perhaps because I was seeing so much, so quickly. I did wonder about the fact that so many of these buildings are no longer used for their original purpose (like many of Norwich’s medieval churches) and are now essentially museums with tourist stalls inside them – mere shells awaiting an invasion of tourists, but nonetheless amazing structures where local arts and crafts had been revived to refurbish them. They are an important part world history and heritage. The Silk Road is being revived too. Goods trains now cross from China to Europe and there are further plans to build new railway lines from Kashgar in China across the Karakoram into Pakistan, with additional links to Uzbekistan through the Pamirs.