Cities of the Silk Roads: Uzbekistan#2

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We got to Samarkand by Very Fast Train. That surprises some people. It needn’t. In some regards Uzbekistan is a very modernised country with an intriguing mix of the very old and the very new.

Temur is buried in Samarkand. He is to be left alone. A team of Russian busybodies exhumed his body on 20 June 1941. curse-of-tamerlane_10.jpgThree days later Hitler invaded Russia. He lies now in this unassuming black coffin (in the centre below) — not even the most ostentatious in the room — in accordance with Islamic practice which discourages lavish display.8234e0372f3e07f129eb162be4e12828.jpegBut in fact there was lavish display. Just look at this.IMG_1087.jpgLochin telling us the story, Tony taking pics, Torquil looking on. Temur’s mausoleum and a very serious encounter with muqarnas ‘created by the geometric subdivision of a vaulting structure into miniature, superimposed pointed-arch substructures, also known as “honeycomb”, or “stalactite” vaults. Made from different materials like stone, brick, wood or stucco, its use in architecture spread over the entire Islamic world’. They are simply amazing.IMG_1084.jpgIMG_1090.jpgAnd once you started looking, they were everywhere. This is the pishtaq, the formal entry, to the mausoleum of Temur.IMG_1078.jpg


The iwan is the recessed area. Look at its roof.

But there are so many things to admire here, starting with the range of colourings in the tiles, the multiplicity of the patterns, their arrangement, the cunning of the use of the calligraphy in the third top layer. The minarets too are covered in a stylised version of Allahu Akbar, ‘God is great’. 

This visit was to begin a flood of encounters with remarkable pieces of architecture.IMG_1172.jpgPeople come to Samarkand to see the Registan (literally ‘sandy place’), the heart of Temurid architecture. This is two-thirds of it.  You can see the bend, rather spooky in the flesh, in the right hand minaret of the Ulugh Beg madrassa, the oldest which significantly influenced the design of the others. Madrassas throughout the USSR were closed in 1925 by order of Stalin and most fell into acute disrepair. You are looking at wonderful and incomplete restorations.

This is the other third.IMG_1103.jpgThere are many reasons for its significance but at least one is the primary decoration of this element of the Registan, the Sher-Dor Madrassa, the ‘lion-bearing school’.IMG_1115.jpgFor fear of idolatry, Islamic decoration is meant to be non-figurative and yet here on one of Islam’s great monuments we have lions (masquerading as tigers), deer and faces set into rising suns. After a week of patterns, flora and calligraphy this comes as a surprise, and a cause for some wonderment.

What was going on? No one can be sure. It’s a madrassa not a mosque; that lets the reins off a bit. It would also make sense to assume that there was some Zoroastrian influence in play, and also that Governor Yalangtush who commissioned the building in 1619 might have wanted some form of facial recognition. Regardless, it makes this building special, a standout in a heavily congested field of architectural delights.

We went back to the Registan two nights later for a light show projected on the face of the middle madrassa accompanied by a very racey soundtrack which you needed headphones to hear.IMG_1169.jpgThe paying customers sat on those seats. The unpaying customers, and there were hundreds and hundreds of them, were just behind me staring through a chain-link fence.IMG_1174.jpgIt was a spectacle. Formidable. We learnt that Love makes the world go round, and that Uzbekistan and Samarkand in particular are pretty much at the centre of the universe as indicated above by Temur hosting not just Ulugh Beg, his grandson, but the Mona Lisa and I think Shakespeare just out of shot on the far left. Remember you are looking at the face of a complex building, a fact which was forgotten a few minutes into the 20 minute show. Made in Germany, it was brilliant, and nothing the security could do to shoo away the freeloaders had any impact.

And then there was this day which just unrolled one remarkable thing after another. My journal is reduced to headings.

IMG_1122.jpgIt began at Shohizinda, ‘the Living King’, so called because it is believed that Mohammed’s cousin Kusam-ibn-Abbas is ‘buried’ here. Inverted commas because popular legend has it that he was beheaded for his faith. But he took his head and climbed into the deep well (named ‘Garden of Paradise’) up the back of the buildings where he’s still living now. There are certainly mausoleums for members of Temur’s extended family, Rumi the scientist and astronomer, as well as other dignitaries and aristocrats. And it just goes on and on. I haven’t got a photo which does it justice as a whole. But I do have this photo of the main element of Kusam-ibn-Abbas’s mausoleum, which I think was also where we listened to an imam sing an extended prayer. Glorious.IMG_1131.jpg

This area is quite close to Old Samarkand, a series of holes in banks of clay, legible to an archeologist no doubt but not so much myself. The Afrasiyab Museum is nearby and it had a collection of stuff to look at. I say, well … educative. Its heart is the remnants of a substantial fresco important for the historical record of which this is but a very small part.Foto13-1920x1080.jpg

And then Ulugh Beg’s observatory. It was 39 degrees and largely shade-free, which limited its impact for me. But what was going on at both Shohizinda and the observatory — everywhere — was this: a mutual admiration society in the fashion stakes. There were these wonderful vibrantly coloured clothes wherever we looked.IMG_1132.jpg

IMG_2935.jpgIt was a Saturday I note, so probably a day out, a day for wearing your finery, and speaking the universal language of lifting a fold of clothing and making noises and gestures of deep approval.

Then — we did everything this day — then we went out of town to a small scale Uzbek version of Sovereign Hill where we saw paper being made and polished by hand,IMG_1145.jpga new building being built,IMG_1147.jpgdances being danced,IMG_1153.jpgand a feast being eaten.

It looked like a wonderful meal, a really fine version of standard fare, but I still wasn’t eating. Underpinning this enterprise is Lochin and his mate, the owner of the establishment, trying to keep old Uzbek culture alive. More power to their arms. Then that night we went to see the light show at the Registan. Then, later: tired, very tired.

What we were looking at out the bus window.

The suburbs (Note the long walls behind which there was often a large garden)

A car boot saleIMG_1185.jpg

The countryside. The further west the more desert-like.IMG_1186.jpg

A farm. This appealed to me because it shows just how committed these people are, in the most precarious of circumstances, to trees.IMG_1193.jpg

Government housing. We saw thousands of these, literally. If you are prepared to wait 18 months one of these could be yours for $US3000. If you don’t want to wait, $US8000. US dollars were quite normal currency, not for small things, but for any bigger purchase.IMG_1241.jpg


There is a perfectly serviceable, well maintained and direct road from Samarkand to Bukhara (in case of puzzlement, ‘Buxoro’ in Uzbek). My heart drifted sideways as we turned south-ish onto something considerably inferior in the road stakes. Where were off to? Mystery Tour.

IMG_1201.jpgAn hour or so later we arrived at Shahrisabz (Shar-ree-sarbz) at some sort of fete, like a tentative service club offering, a collection of minor Sunday surprises. Either children or very small people being married, several dozen in fact

IMG_1197.jpgvery junior boxers laying into each other (one kid would have a turn, biff biff biff, and then the other, biff biff biff),IMG_1202.jpgmartial arts troupes, a smattering of food and craft stalls, a sort of information-y booth where the primary concern was taking selfies with non-Uzbek visitors, and a group of recalcitrant (as far as the Russian cameraman was concerned anyway) Uzbek dancers, singers and musicians. He could not get them to do what he wanted; they just kept launching off into enthusiastic private performances.IMG_1216 (1).jpg

Temur was born near Shahrisabz and built a mighty fortress/palace here, the Ak-Saray (‘white palace’), purportedly with 1000 rooms. Certainly the remains of the pishtaq (in the distance below, and in the first photo of this sequence, 75m high originally. Could that be true?) suggest a mighty building.

An inscription on one of the towers boasts: ‘If you feel like challenging our power, look at our buildings’, reminiscent of Shelley’s Ozymandias: ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ But instead of nothing beside remaining, with lone and level sands stretching far away, there is another cause for despair: something intended by the government to be ‘a theme park tourist attraction’. It was built in 2017, a product of bulldozing two ancient ‘mahallas’, housing areas. This destruction caused the area’s delisting from the UN’s World Heritage collection.

IMG_1220.jpgShahrisabz, a fairly nondescript city with a big history and a population of 100,000, extends over a large area, but this strange affair, about 500m long and 200m wide is somewhere near its middle. At one end are the remnant towers of the Palace entrance. At the other is a tomb Temur built for himself. But he is entombed in Samarkand and instead his son’s body lies here. In between there is a weird expanse of concrete paving, lamps, water features, young trees and turf (Shahrisabz = ‘city of green’) surrounded by two- and three-storey apparently empty buildings, some commercial and some intended for housing. It is to be a tourist attraction. It’s hard to see just how.

On reflection what we might have been looking at was a particularly strong example of contemporary Central Asian public space design. See e.g., these pictures from Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan (at left) and Astana, capital of Kazahkstan.images.jpeg5760.jpg




Shahrisabz also has a Polish War memorial. I wondered why. The story. In 1939 when Poland was partitioned by the Nazis and Russians, somewhere between 600,000 and a million Poles were shipped off to Central Asia by the Russians, primarily to Uzbekistan where they were initially put to work on cotton production. They were unsure who to fight for in the War but an army of 60,000 displaced Poles from Central Asia fought for Russia before transferring their allegiance to Britain and becoming the Second Polish Corps of the British Armed Forces. There are 22 Polish War Memorials in Uzbekistan. Another odd footnote: Regiments of (non-Polish Uzbek soldiers were dominant among the Soviet troops which took Berlin ending WW II.

We had an excellent late lunch on the roof of the Cafe Fez with just enough breeze to be comfortable and moved on.

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IMG_1232.jpgWestwards was into more flattened, arid country. We had left the comparatively fecund country around Shahrisabz and its Keshka Darya (‘beautiful/ pleasant river’). It seemed a long drive as such things often do — early start, big deviation (worth it) to Shahrisabz, unknown and fairly featureless country, no landmarks to judge progress, not a great deal of speed over rough roads. The photo below features a natural gas plant scarcely visible in the far distance.IMG_1235.jpgIMG_1248.jpg

It was 38C as usual when we woke next morning for breakfast in our excellent hotel, the precursor to another packed day. Bukhara is described as a ‘city-museum’ with more than 140 historical monuments, and it did feel like that. Not that it was awash with tourists, but it did have a great many tourist facilities — that sort of restaurant, that sort of hotel, that sort of market, those sorts of galleries. I don’t know what the signs on the building at right say in Russian (except ‘cafe’ and ‘restaurant’), but the sign in English says ‘The One BURGER Open 24 hours’.

Samanid_Shrine.jpgWe walked through an amusement park to find ‘one of the most highly esteemed works of Central Asian architecture’, the Samanid mausoleum built between 892 and 943 AD. I remember it mostly for the fact that it is built entirely out of mud, and that all that decoration is the product of cunning placement of bricks of essentially the same shape and size.

But it has other significance. Orthodox Sunni Islam strictly prohibits the construction of mausoleums over burial places, and yet …  The Samanid mausoleum is one of the earliest of the very few departures from that restriction in the history of Sunni Islamic architecture.

IMG_1253.jpgIt is one of the oldest monuments in the Bukhara region. When Chinggis Khan invaded (1220AD, most of its population at the time being Indian/ Pakistani traders and their families!), the shrine had already been buried in mud from flooding, thus saving it from destruction. The site was only rediscovered in 1934 by Soviet archeologist V.A. Shishkin, and required two years for excavation and, I can only presume, a great deal of restoration.

The shrine has been considered sacred by local residents, and pilgrims would pose dilemmas and questions to a mullah who would reply from behind a wall in order to preserve anonymity for petitioners. The shrine was once the centerpiece of a vast cemetery where, among others, the former Emirs of Bukhara were buried.

IMG_1254.jpgAnother short walk got us to this working (‘Friday’) mosque where a very friendly and considerate imam gave us instruction in the meaning and practice of Islam. I thought again how generous Lochin had been with his efforts to introduce us to his religion, and also how likely it was that the Russians, having made every effort to do so, had succeeded in knocking some of the sharper edges off Islam in Central Asia. We were directed to the mihrab, the niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca, next to which was, as customary, the minbar, the pulpit from which the sermon is given. He also told us about the nature of prayer and showed us how to participate. Some of us did.IMG_3105.jpgAs we left, Myrna held out her hand for him to shake before realising that this was not quite the done thing. He smiled and laughed, took her hand and shook it warmly. 

We moved on to the Ark Fort.IMG_1263.jpgThis was the fortress home of the Emirs of Bukhara, the last of whom was driven out by the Russians in 1920. (As it happens the Russian forces were led by Mikhail Frunze who as hugely retentive readers may remember lent his name to his native town Bishkek from 1926 until independence in 1991.) These walls were extraordinary to see as were the bits and pieces collected to interest visitors up the top. This, I think, is where the people who looked after the stables lived. IMG_1261.jpgI like the colours and the forms in this photo just per se. Maybe the shadow play on the imperfections in the rendering. But there is something else about what we saw here. I think perhaps expressions of grandeur which are intriguing but not very grand, qualified with something more local, individual and ‘imperfect’. Something that is wrestling with an introduced culture without completely understanding it, modifying it according to local precepts producing something which is often desirably unusual. This is an observation about civic architecture and art. Those sorts of ‘mistakes’ don’t interrupt the purity and precision of most of the religious building.

This is the last Emir, Khan Sayyid Alim. He fled (hmm examine photo and insert suitable verb meaning ‘ran away from’) before the Russians came.IMG_1258.jpg 

We’re still walking. We are in the forecourt of several mosques near this wonderful minaret, IMG_1264.jpgand, below, this working madrassa for students aged over 18, four levels of study offering both religious and secular subjects. Not all students join religious orders. The quality of the education received at many major madrassas like this one is believed to be very high.IMG_1265.jpgAnd a required photo apparently.IMG_1268.jpgThere is something very satisfying about these forms and colours in this environment.

We hadn’t even had lunch yet. (Outstanding dumplings and plov, a bit like risotto. We were coming close to exhausting the range of Uzbek cuisine. Again the meal was made more pleasant by being up on a shaded roof in the breeze. )

There was so much more but let us throw ourselves on a pile of rugs. Trample them. Smell them. Rub your hands on them.IMG_1269.jpgI am a sucker for rugs, a complete sucker. Check out the one at the front under the red and orange one. An ancient design with a family of deer wandering round what might be the Tree of Life populated by birds. (We found the identical design on a rug of the same size in Israel’s National Museum. ‘Song of Songs’, Bezalel Workshop 1820.) So striking. So intense. I saw it as soon as we walked in. (I wonder why it had been placed just there … strange.) Silk. Amazing to the touch. Shimmering with light. I look at it every day and am grateful. Cost? Formidable. There were no bargains here. These are real ones.

These rugs were being made by 60 youngish women who tire — after couple of years, no longer; their eyes go — of tieing 400 knots to the inch. As the salespersons are keen to point out, the work involved! Months in even a small rug.IMG_1294.jpg

IMG_1296.jpgAnd how do you sell rugs? 

Simple. Seduction.

Meet Sabira. She knew all the ways to sell rugs and probably anything else that might have taken her fancy. The knots she ties circumscribe first your will and then your wallet. She had honed her skills and her English accent working in London for several years. 

We had dived in fully clothed and made our purchase. Marty and Rikie took a more measured approach and spent a night deciding to go back and have another look. Rikie put a dint in Marty’s bargaining position by calling out across the room, ‘This one Marty. Buy it for me for my birthday’, but we believe it has already been a great success in its new home.

We saw a photo gallery, we saw pottery being made, we saw a miniaturist, and we saw a collection of suzanis (‘by needle’) which attracted a great deal of comment when Myrna posted her photos of a dozen or so on her Facebook page. They exemplify what might be imported from Uzbekistan to influence Russian/Western European artistic influences. No special interest in precise symmetry, although it could occur when desired, skilfully but not industrially made, a real pleasure in modest eccentricity.  They were vibrant and deeply engaging.Kermina_Suzani.jpg

And then on the outskirts of town — sited by hanging a sheep in each of the four quarters round Bukhara and being guided by the one where the sheep rotted most slowly — we came to the Summer Palace now in some decline, another strange amalgam of Russia and Central Asia. Here too is this ‘style’ that I am trying to describe.IMG_1279.jpgThe Grand-ish Hall. Note the muqarnas in the alcoves.IMG_1282.jpgPots full of flowers which will never die. (and Muqarnas)IMG_1283.jpgA sitting room, and these colours are all true — a fury of decorative art.

These are the reasons why you might go to Bukhara.

IMG_1299.jpgFinally, a small mosque built by a businessman to assuage his god. Tiny inside, and infected with a rash of some sort of commerce, what I’m really looking at is the stork nest — part of the building, lovely — and what I’m really doing is standing next to and chatting with a delightful 10 year-old girl who is trying out her English to sell me some beans and nuts. My one regret, from weeks in Central Asia — my sole regret, it had been more than wonderful — is that I didn’t buy any.

The Very Fast Train took us back to Tashkent for a 2.30am flight to Istanbul. We were driven to the airport by a 6 foot 4 Kazakh who spoke perfect English and whose son, by dint of the new Silk Roads, was studying Japanese in America. We got to the deserted airport 3 hours early with only the football for company. Uruguay 3: Russia 0. Not a popular result here, but I was secretly just as pleased. 

And then, a destination the Silk Roads often tried to dodge, somewhere I was looking forward very much to visiting — JERUSALEM …



4 thoughts on “Cities of the Silk Roads: Uzbekistan#2

  1. Pingback: Cities of the Silk Roads: Uzbekistan #1 | mcraeblog

  2. Wonderful writing as usual David. We did all the things you and Myrna did during our trip in 2013 and this is where your opening comment about Uzbekistan only opening for tourists in 2016 isn’t quite correct. We flew in from Istanbul and Kitty (once known as Katherine or Kat) and Alex (now Alee) rode in on their tandem bicycle from Iran. Did you hear the gory bits about Bukhara? I liked the description of the people (women adulterers mainly who were the guilty ones in the relationship) who were tossed off the top of the very tall minaret). I also liked the story of the two Englishmen who were captured and found guilty of spying and who were then exected in the big square in front of the Ark fort before the assembled crowd. When I innocently asked our brilliant guide how this was done, she replied as though it was a stupid question, ‘Impaled of course’. Not wishing to show my ignorance I replied non-committally. I googled impaling later in the day and it made for very gory reading. Read it some time. All four of us really liked the Samanid and we later purchased a drawing of it by John Nicholson who travelled the route doing his marvellous drawings along the way. We had it on the wall in Hodgkinson street but it’s still in storage at present. I really enjoyed the high-speed trains with their beautiful new (in 2013) Chinese locomotives.

  3. Exquisite architecture and decoration David. How did they get the colours to last so long over the centuries – is it largely tiling/glazed?

    • Hi ra100. Absolutely. The colour comes almost entirely from tiling. As I mentioned in the blog, by no means all of this is original. There has been massive restoration effort (now I think well advanced) going on over decades. Thanks for your interest.

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