Archive for the ‘ Uzbekistan ’ Category

Uzbekistan: Luster of the Earth; Journey to Samarkand and Bukhara


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2005. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.





abstract: This is a report on a journey that began with a love poem. In a widely recited stanza, Hafez, the 14th century Persian bard, had immortalized Samarkand and Bukhara as the ultimate gift a lover could bestow on his beloved. I went in search of those fabled cities. I found their ruins evocative and what was restored dazzling. They made me conjure up the fantastic history of the people who established the greatest civilization of the middle ages in these desert oases. Brushing up against the veneer of modern life, I could feel the pulsating traditional culture of Central Asia. Years of Russian and Communist domination had left surprisingly limited impact. I perceived a satisfying affinity with the many who received me warmly. It was almost as if I had gone home.

            keywords: Samarkand * Bukhara* Persia* Uzbekistan* Silk Road


Entrance (Madkhal)
On a warm morning in September 2005, I walked into Uzbekistan. On the street that connected the city of Osh, in the Kyrgyz Republic, to Andijan in Uzbekistan, pedestrians moved in a narrow marked lane. In a parallel lane on my left, our luggage was being pulled in a cart by a boy of about fourteen. On my other side, under the shade of a walnut tree, a woman who had a small child in her arms, was begging. There were other, older, women in this international corridor between the two cities which, according to Western press, were the centers of on-going revolutionary unrest. Those women, however, were not agents provocateurs. They were privileged agents of commerce in import and export; in these Islamic lands, women enjoyed certain immunity from body search at the border, denied to men.  I saw no signs of “the radical Islamic” Kyrgyz Tahrir party, or Uzbek revolutionaries. Instead, the sidewalks near the border were lined with peddlers of melons and watermelons. Reality has many faces; here I have only registered my impressions.

The Silk Road and Beyond
I was on the fabled Silk Road, as the West began to call it in the 19th Century, or rather one of its tributaries, the Royal Road as the locals now called it. It did not have any specific name when it was the superhighway of globalization, connecting China to the rest of the old civilized world, for over a millennium before the Portuguese ushered in the new age of sea trade with the Orient in the 15th century. Tourists are trickling in now that these former Soviet republics of Central Asia are open as independent countries. They are enticed by the promise of a look at the splendor of the Middle Ages -and, intriguingly, a look through a tinted post-Communist window.

I had a more particular interest as well. This land was the cradle of many Persian poets and scientists. The Persian Islamic civilization reached its zenith here in the middle ages. For Hafez, the most popular of Persian poets, Samarkand and Bukhara were God’s greatest gifts. As he wrote in the 14th century, “If that Shirazi Turk captures my heart/ I would give Samarkand and Bukhara for her Indian mole (dark beauty mark).” The journey to these ancient cities would give me a unique opportunity for reflection about my Persian heritage. Indeed, it exposed a web of relationships between Persia and Uzbekistan which I shall report presently.

“Assalam aleikum,” I said to our local tour guide. Ayoob (some names and facts are changed here to protect privacy) did not merely acknowledge my greetings, he distinguished me from the rest of our group from the West which was now his charge. Having learned that I spoke Persian, he pegged me as Iranian and introduced me as such to the curator of the first monument we visited, just twenty minutes after our arrival in Uzbekistan. The lady at the Babur Memorial Library was pleased. The highlights of her collection included documents on loan from the Archives of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As I soon realized, however, she could not read those documents which were in Arabic script as they used Roman script in Uzbekistan. She did manage to link the names of Babur and Shah Ismail Safavid of Iran with an appreciative smile. The latter, a Turk himself, vanquished the Uzbek Shaybanid dynasty which had driven the Mongol Timurid Babur from this land. Babur, of course, was lucky, as he went on to establish the Mughol dynasty in India. My memory was already being challenged on the complicated history of these areas.

History, however, was a necessary context for my true appreciation of what would otherwise have appeared mere mundane. That fact would, in turn, color my observations in Uzbekistan. Reflecting on the contemporary reality I would often be drawn to the imaginary realm of the past. This shuttling characterized my experience in the journey.

At lunch near the Babur Library we were introduced to the Uzbek noodle dish, laghman, and the beef kebab, shashlik, which became our staple for the duration. Pilav (Russian for pilaf) was harder to get, although it was the true national dish. “Ash,” as pilav was called by the locals, is so fundamental a food in this country that their word for restaurant is ash-khaneh (the house of ash). The same word plays an equally significant role in the Persian cuisine where the term for cooking is ash-pazi (cooking ash).

We were eating under a canopy of grapevines. Ayoob said that the music we were hearing was from a wedding at the other side of the restaurant and asked us if we wanted to take a look. We did, and a group of young women, who were dancing separately, Persian style, invited us to join them. I said mobarak (congratulations) to the older guests. They beamed and replied with many more words which, alas, I could not comprehend. I would soon learn that here people understood my Persian more than I understood their vernacular.

Andy’s Yalla, not Eugene Onegen
We paid two dollars each to see the inside of the Tashkent Opera and Ballet Theater, a 1947 Soviet brick structure, combining classical and Central Asian styles. In the auditorium that seats 1,400, a singer accompanied by a pianist was rehearsing. The season’s program, posted at the entrance, included Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegen and Verdi’s Rigoletto operas, and Sergei Radlov’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. The ticket for a performance was 60 cents. “It is cheap because this type of entertainment is not popular,” a grimacing Ayoob explained. “What is popular,” someone asked, “Disco?” Ayoob smiled faintly and nodded. A few days later, in Bukhara, the hotel receptionist Murad asked me, ”Do you listen to Andy a lot?” He was helping me access my email on the hotel computer, patiently clicking for the modem to connect. “Who is Andy?” Murad was surprised. “He is Iranian and lives in California. He is the most popular singer in Bukhara.” Then he asked if I wanted to listen to Andy’s songs: “I have a CD of him on file in this computer.” He brought it up. The modem was now connected too. I listened to Andy sing Yalla, an Arabic tune, while I read my email.

Claiming the Luminaries
Alisher Navoi is a big name in Uzbekistan. The country’s most prestigious performing arts center is named after Navoi, which suits him, for he was a major 15th century patron of artists -poets, writers, and painters. He could do this because he was the trusted advisor of the Sultan of Herat (Afghanistan).  Navoi’s most famous beneficiary was Abdolrahman Jami, who is the last major figure in classical Persian poetry. The lobby of Tashkent’s Alisher Navoi Literary Museum was dominated by a sculpture of these two in precisely that relationship, Navoi looking very much the benefactor. A sign said that the sculpture depicted the “unity” of the Uzbeks and the Tajiks, the two main ethnic groups in Uzbekistan. Alisher Navoi, who was himself an accomplished poet in Persian, is considered to be the father of Uzbek literature for his poems in the Chagatai (Old Uzbek) language. Calling Jami a Tajik, however, is a stretch. He was born in Torbat-e Jam, Khorasan (Iran).

In search of further explanation, I went to the small gift shop of the Museum. They had no books or pamphlets to sell except, incongruously, at the price of a dollar, a free poster issued by the United States Embassy, entitled: “Rodeo in American West”. I had noticed another aspect of this free enterprise system in the corridors of the Museum: its employees were peddling necklaces, earrings, and other trinkets for their personal accounts. “It is not legal, but the Director closes his eyes,” Ayoob explained. I was left to discuss the Jami-Tajik question with Ayoob. I told him that I had thought the term Uzbek, which originally referred to the Arab invaders, by the 11th century had come to mean the Islamicized, Persian-speaking people, as contrasted with the Turkic population of this area. Ayoob did not disagree.

Persian poetry, like that of Jami, has always been enjoyed by the Tajiks and all others who could understand it. Indeed, from the 10th century Persian was the literary language of not only the Tajiks but also the Turks and Mongols in Central Asia. It was the language of the court in Uzbekistan until the Russian domination in the 20th century. In the Ulug Beg Observatory, I saw the New Guragan Tables (Ziji Kuragoni), which is a most cherished part of Uzbekistan’s heritage. It was in Persian. However, to claim Ulug Beg, the Mongol astronomer king of Samarkand, as Persian would also be a stretch.

To reach his lofty height, Ulug Beg had stood on the shoulders of such past Central Asian giants of mathematics and astronomy as al-Khorezmi, al-Beruni, Avicenna, and al-Fergani (mentioned here just by their last names). As our tour bus whizzed by, I made out al-Fergani’s name on the monument to him in his birthplace of Kuva in Ferghana Valley. Uzbekistan also honors Avicenna by a modest museum in his birthplace of Afshona near Bukhara. I saw big statues of al-Khorezmi in Bukhara and near his birthplace, Urgench. Al-Beruni’s face and name are marked prominently on the portal of Samarkand’s Afrosiob History Museum, along with all of the other aforementioned luminaries, and more: Farabi and Rudaki.

As I read aloud all these names for my fellow travelers from the West, they looked baffled. I sympathized with them; to me this resembled my being in a Greek church looking at some gothic script that purported to list the names of ancient saints. The faces of the notables on the Afrosiob Museum did not help much either; they were all bearded and had turbans.  My conversationalists were not unsophisticated or disinterested -for then they would not be on this trip. “Al-Khorezmi,” however, was a mouthful even if you knew that he invented algorithm, which is his namesake. “Avicenna” was the “Europeanized” version of the original, ibn-Sina, but still it was hardly a household name in the West, even though his Qanun had been the standard medical textbook there for half a millennium until the 19th century. As for “Farabi,” how many Westerners could recall the name of this greatest of all Muslim philosophers who was the channel for transmitting the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle to the modern world?

In the East, on the other hand, these luminaries are remembered only too well; they are the sources of conflicting claims of heritage. Competing with Uzbekistan, Iran considers them the products of the Persian renaissance in the 10th century, when Bukhara blossomed into “the focus of splendor, the Ka’ba of empire, the meeting place of the stars of the literary men of the world, the forum for the outstanding personage of the time” -in the language of the contemporary anthologist Ta’alebi.  I saw some of that splendor manifest in Ismael Samani’s Mausoleum which is Bukhara’s oldest, yet best preserved monument. Built early in the 10th century, the Mausoleum is decorated by the sheer beauty of it brickwork, breathtakingly elegant in complex patterns. This monument to aesthetics is a masterpiece also in combining the early Persian Sogdian and Sassanid architectural elements with contemporary advances in geometry. It became a magnificent template of a building that was emulated for centuries.

Ismael Samani was the founder of the Samanid dynasty that ruled in Bukhara for a hundred years. Both they and the luminaries who made that period Iran’s “Golden Century” were from Persian families and spoke Persian. Rudaki is considered to be “the founding father” of Persian poetry. However, the scientists Farabi, Avicenna, and Beruni mostly wrote in Arabic -because it was the official language of the realm, and the creation of Persian as a technical language was still taking shape. That fact has given the Arabs a reason to also claim these luminaries. How does one resolve the dispute that follows when several nations assert an exclusive right to the legacy of these men? The only solution may be to describe them as the heritage of (all) humanity, to paraphrase UNESCO’s appellation given to so many monuments in Uzbekistan.

Monumental Samarkand
We came to Samarkand by bus and entered into the shapelessly cavernous lobby of the Hotel Afrosiob Palace. The labyrinthine corridor to my room was so long that the bellboy who was carrying my bags had ample opportunity to make his pitch. “I could bring two young girls to you to choose from. I would knock on your door at eleven. It would be only forty dollars.”

Registan, where in medieval times caravans arrived from six directions was behind our hotel. We faced the boulevards that the Russians had built and their Lenin Square, on the site of Tamerlane’s fabled Blue Palace. Since Independence in 1991, the Uzbeks had reclaimed the right to name this turf: it was now Ko’ksaroy Maydoni (Blue Palace Circle). Nearby, a new monumental statute of this 14th century Mongol ruler was just one sign that he was back with vengeance. Limited to the title of Amir (Commander, not Khan) in life- as he was not a direct descendant of Genghis Khan-, seven centuries later Tamerlane was being referred to in Uzbekistan by his quaint moniker Sahibkiran (one born at the conjunction of two lucky stars).

Indeed, this was one lucky person -shrewd, illiterate but highly intelligent- who went from rustling sheep and raiding caravans to conquering more land than any single ruler in history. For thirty five years Tamerlane personally led his troops in non-stop campaigns in foreign lands. His ruthless cruelty became legendary even at a time and place where drinking your enemy’s blood was not uncommon. “Stalin hated Temur,” our guide said -pronouncing Tamerlane’s name in his native language, where it meant “iron”. I searched in vain for irony in the guide’s voice. The Soviet “man of steel” was in a pivotal position as early as 1924 when he was the Commissar of Nationalities. “Our history book only had one line about Temur,” the guide summed up.

The fabulous wealth and the captive craftsmen that Tamerlane brought back made Samarkand the world’s most magnificent city of his time -which was also Hafez’s time. The magnitude of this accomplishment could be measured by the observation of the famous Arab traveler, Ebn Batuta, who had found Samarkand mostly in ruins, just a few years before Tamerlane. “One-half of the booty from Temur’s Indian campaign went to build the Bibi Khanum Mosque,” Ayoob told us. The architect was from Persia. In another rare Tamerlane building which has survived, the Shirin Bika Aks Mausoleum, we saw the earliest true mosaic timeworks in Samarkand which was introduced by artisans from Iran’s Azerbaijan.

It is not surprising that the most illustrious booster of Tamerlane and his city is Uzbekistan’s current President who says: “I was lucky to be born and (sic) grown up in the city of Samarkand. I was surrounded by its heritage, reflecting the great Amir Temur’s genius…. I lived in the shadow of historical monuments that made a valuable contribution to global civilization.” The President’s campaign to glorify Temur is, unabashedly, an effort toward nation-building. “When our country became independent, the personality of Amir Temur again became the symbol of Motherland and the nation.”

People in Samarkand apparently believe in another myth. The holiest site in the city is the gourkhanah (grave chamber) of Kusam-ibn-Abbas in the ensemble of Shah-i-Zinda. The worshipers believe that this cousin of the Prophet Mohammad came to Samarkand in the 7th century to convert the native Zoroastrians to Islam. Beheaded by resentful locals, “he took his head and went into a well and has continued to live there as shah-i zinda, or the living king,” our guide said.  “People here believe that he is the second prophet of Islam,” the guide went on “I had some clients from Tripoli who upon hearing this said to me ‘this is not Islam.’”

Indeed, Kusam probably never visited Samarkand. The Muslims appear to have adapted an existing Zoroastrian myth. “Kusam went down the same place in Shah-i-Zinda that was Siavash’s cave,” our guide said, referring to a mythical figure from pre-Islamic Persia. As related in the great Persian epic poem, Ferdusi’s Shahnameh, Siavash was an Iranian prince who married the daughter of Samarkand’s ruler. Their son, Kaykhosrow, became Iran’s king but abdicated to go and meditate in a cave. By Zoroastrian tradition, he will emerge on resurrection day to cleanse the world of evil. Zoroastrians believe that a cave near Arak, Iran, by the same name, Shah-e Zendah, is Kaykhosrow’s cave. It is regularly visited by Zoroastrians pilgrims.

Further undermining Uzbekistan’s current glorification of Tamerlane is the fact that the glamorous buildings of Samarkand which are still standing were all built after Tamerlane. His grandson contributed one of the Registan monuments, the Ulug Beg Madrassah, as well as the Ulug Beg Observatory. Registan’s two other monuments were commissioned by the Uzbeks after they ended the Timurids’ rule.

Aside from the Koranic verses which had to be in Arabic, all writings on Samarkand’s monuments were in Persian. Tamerlane himself spoke fluent Persian, as did his Timurid successors and the Shaybanid who followed them. The center of power shifted to Bukhara, and Samarkand was then ruled from there. The 1912 issue of the newspaper Bukhara Sharif, which I saw in the Bukhara museum, was virtually in today’s Persian vernacular. The very names of Registan’s two Uzbek Madrassahs are Persian: Tila-kary (Gilded) and Shir-dor (Having Lions). Our guide pointed out that these 17th century monuments had the same design patterns as the early ones, playing on the three elements permissible in Islam: epigraphic, geometric, and floral. Additionally, however, they had pre-Islamic Zoroastrian solar symbols. In the Shir-dor this was dramatic. From the back of the lions on its portal rose the emblematic Persian fringed suns with human faces.

The Sogdians
I stood on the ruins of the ancient city of Afrosiob, squinting. In the glare of the sun, the sprawling structures dating from the 6th century B.C. -which would become Samarkand- were now mostly acres of dry loess with patches of green scrubs, some turned brown in this autumn season. There were huge cuts caused by ravines and archeologists. Only the outline of the citadel’s walls, settled into the earth, was visible. It was history that beckoned me, for Afrosiob, the namesake of this site was the ruler of Turan (outer Iran), made legendary in the Shahnameh.  The people who then lived here were the Sogdians, whose abode was honored in the Zoroastrian sacred book Avesta as “the second among the best localities and countries” created by the supreme deity, Ahura Mazda. Sogdiana was, in fact, a satrapy established here by the Persian Achaemenids after the campaign that began by their great king, Cyrus, against the marauding Sakas (Sycthians)in 530 B.C.. In this land, in that pursuit, Cyrus gave his life.

For our knowledge about the Sogdians we owe much to the Russian archeologists. I saw their finds in the Afrosiob History Museum a few steps away. There, statutes of Anahita introduced her as the water goddess of the nearby Amu Darya (Oxus River). Greek style knives and swords showed the legacy of Alexander’s conquest in 329 B.C.. The Sogdians left their own impact. Their armed resistance halted the Greeks. To pacify them, Alexander married the Sogdian Roxana from Tashkent. She gave birth to his only son.

The Sogdians thrived in peaceful times. They were a vital link in the exchange of goods and ideas along the Silk Road. They remained Zoroastrian but received in their midst the followers of other religions: Manichaeism, Judaism, Christianity, Nestorian, and Buddhism. The Sogdians were pivotal as the channel for the transmission of Buddhism to China from the Kushans in India.

Thus it was with awe that I walked before a series of magnificent 7th century Sogdian murals, more than six feet high, that covered a circular room in the Museum. A bridal procession depicted a princess astride a white elephant who led several maids, camel-riders, horsemen, and swans. The ruler of Samarkand was in another panel, accepting offerings from foreigners: Chinese with gifts of silk, Turks with long hair, Koreans with pigtails, and villagers from the mountain of Pamir. In the next frame was a Chinese beauty sailing in a boat and, on the banks of the water, several horsemen hunting a leopard.

The Sogdians would soon face the crusading Arabs. They fought these invaders valiantly for nearly a century, with the help of the Turks and the Chinese, before the battle of Talas in 751 sealed the domination of Islam in this region. Their cause, however, would not die; it was rekindled some twenty-five years later in one of the world’s earliest partisan warfare, the rebellion of the colorful sapid-jamagan (wearers of white) which lasted three years.

Alta-noi and Promises
It was dawn in Bukhara. The sun had not yet risen but the moon of the 14th night of the month was shining full, unveiled and unclouded. The old town was empty. I noticed a dog. Near it, two men were slaughtering a sheep in the shadow of ancient domes; I could see the blood running from the beast’s throat. A hundred yards away the stores were opening. Outside a grocery store there were sacks of carrots and onions as well as the ubiquitous watermelons and yellow melons. Next, on a raised step, jars of yogurt and milk were on display; two women and a man were picking up some. A boy had just brought loaves of fresh round bread. On the other side, I noticed a girl spreading her goods on the sidewalk. They were mostly ceramics. I walked up to her.

I smiled and asked her name. “Alta-noi,” she said. We talked a bit. I asked how old she was. “What do you think?,” she asked. “Twenty?” I said hesitantly; she had sounded mature. “No, thirteen,” she protested. Alta-noi told me that she had started selling postcards when she was 5, and now owned this business. “Do you go to school?” I asked.  “Second shift,” she said, “and when I am at school, my mother watches over my business.” I asked what her father did. “He sells water.” Alta-noi told me that she spoke Uzbek, Tajik, English, Russian, French, Spanish, and German. “Not Iranian,” she said. I said “I want you to make a promise: stay in school and go to university because you are so smart.”  Her response was matter of fact: “of course”. She asked me what other languages I spoke. “Some French,” I said.  “Comment vous-applez vous?” Alta-noi asked. I told her my name. She complained about tour groups.  “Tour guide brings them to favorite shops for a percentage.” She gave me a small ceramic bowl as a gift. It was blue. “This is washable, the red is not.” I declined. She insisted, looking hurt. I took the bowl, and presented her with some dollar bills. Alta-noi frowned and did not take them. I said “my gift.” She still refused. Then she said “bring your group.”

I left the bowl with Alta-noi, saying that I would pick it up after my walk. When I came back, she picked the bowl up and handed it to me and again said “Bring your group.” I promised to do that. Later that day, we all came back this way. Alta-noi called out my name, followed by four other girls about her age who also shouted my name. They were all selling souvenirs and they made me promise that I would stop by their spaces on the sidewalk, each establishing her priority: “I am 2nd, Keyvan,” “I am 3rd, Keyvan,” “I am 4th, Keyvan,” all after Alta-noi.

Dinner at Abdolrahman’s
Two tourists whom I had met earlier that day were sitting at a store and talking to a young man. They told me that they were going to dinner at his mother’s house where they were promised pilov. “You can come too and the price is four dollars.” Abdlorahman, the young man, agreed to come later and fetch me from my hotel.

That evening I bought a bottle of the local red wine, Omar Khayyam, and walked with Abdolrahman through the streets of old Bukhara. We talked in English and Persian. We saw a man in front of a hotel. “Khasteh nabashid, (may you not be tired),” he said.  I said “you must be Iranian; that is surely a Persian expression, not Tajik.” He was indeed, and he owned the hotel and invited me to come back for tea after dinner.

Resuming my conversation with Abdolrahman, I learned that he was studying international commerce and wanted to become a tour guide because he would make much more money than in other jobs. I asked about his family. He said his sister had just “sabok kardeh ast” (lightened her burden) which I understood to mean she delivered her baby as Abdolrahman was pointing to an imaginary bulging stomach.  I said “in Persian we say zaeed” (delivered). We were now passing through Bukhara’s old hat bazaar, full of karakul fur hats and gold embroidered skull-caps. A shopkeeper, hearing our conversation, interjected to say that zaeed was used for animals and sabok kardeh ast for humans.

We went into Abdolrahman’s house which was in a narrow alley and I met his mother. Several other members of the family arrived later but did not join us. The table was set for the three guests in a brick-floor courtyard surrounded by one story buildings. Abdolrahman served us. We had ash (pilov), tomato and cucumber salad, eggplant salad, and cabbage salad. For desert there was fruit: green and red grapes and kharbozeh (a crunchy melon).

After we finished dinner, Abdolrahman’s brother-in-law, Umid, came up to me. He spoke nearly fluent Persian. He said he was a tarjoman (interpreter). Both his in-laws expressed great pride in his ability to speak several languages which included Spanish and Russian as well as English and Persian. He said Persian was zaban madari (the mother tongue) of all present. He explained that until the end of the last “Amir’s” rule, in Bukhara many could speak much better Persian.

In Umid’s vernacular, the pre-Russian “Amir” sounded avuncular, in contrast to the name “Khan,” preferred in Western texts for the past rulers of this region which conveyed an almost prurient image of an Oriental despot. In fact, Umid’s history was correct. The Magits who were the actual rulers of Bukhara kept the Jamids as the nominal Khans, while choosing for themselves the title of amir al-mo’menin (the leader of the community of faithful).

Umid was a Tajik. He said the language of people in Samarkand was similar to the language spoken in Tajikistan, while the language people spoke in Bukhara was closer to that of Mashad in Iran. “Tajikistan was called Bukara-e Shargi (Eastern Bukhara) under the Amir,” Umid said. “Since then many words, especially Russian words, have entered the Tajik language,” he continued. Nevertheless, Abdolrahman’s family told me, they could all understand my Persian even though they could not speak it well.

They spoke with warmth when talking about their sense of connection to Iran, and with a bit of nostalgia. I said we were baradar (brothers). They said yes, baradar. Umid told me that “many Iranians came here with Nader Shah Afshar in the 18th century when he took Bukhara. They settled in Afshar Mahalleh, still a thriving district of this city.” Nader was the last ruler of Iran to control Bukhara. Two centuries later, in the early days of Uzbekistan’s independence in the 1990s, Umid said, “many Iranian students came to Bukhara. They helped us with our Persian. But now the government does not allow in students from Iran.” The Uzbek rulers fear the spread of Iranian Islamic militancy.

Ayoob had also told me about Iranians “who moved to Samarkand during the Nader Shah period. There were 20,000 of them. They are all professionals now. Their ‘passport’ (identity card that all Uzbek citizens carry) says ‘Iranian.’ They don’t intermarry with others because of their religion.” Elsewhere, I had heard of a still different settling of Iranians in Uzbekistan: a group of Shiites who were moved from Marv to Bukhara some 50 years after Nader Shah. What all these conflicting narratives had in common was, of course, the element of religion.

Abdolrahman’s family referred to Bukhara as Bukhara Sharif (Holy Bukhara). Umid helped correct his in-laws’ recitation of the following in accented Persian:

“Bukhara ghovvat-e isalm-e deen ast
Bukhara is the strength of the Islamic religion

Samarkand seyqal roy-e zamin-e ast.
Samarkand is the luster of the earth.”

Their chanting resonated with me, stressing that religion was the key to understanding Bukhara, and Bukhara’s relationship with Persia. Until the Soviet suppression of religion, Bukhara had been the stronghold of Sunni Islam in Central Asia for more than six centuries. Religion furnished the rationalization for violent confrontation with the Shiite-dominated Persia. The Uzbek campaigns of plunder into Iran’s Khorasan were sanctioned by the Sunni jurists of Bukhara in the guise of religious duty against the infidel Shiites, as was the Uzbek practice of taking Persian civilians captive and selling them in slavery in Bukhara -where the majority was still comprised of their ethnic brothers, the Tajiks. What appears as an internecine problem of many centuries in Central Asia was in reality a fight between alien Turkic rulers of its inhabitants, in the name of an equally alien religion from Arabia.

Sense and Sensibility
Liam had been working in Saudi Arabia for more than two years and when I pointed out the beauty of Uzbek women -Muslims who did not cover their faces- Liam’s eyes widened in wonderment. “You know,” he said “not to see a woman’s face is one of the worst aspects of living in Dhahran.” This was a comment on esthetics; Liam, a married man from the United Kingdom, was very correct and restrained in his manners. No one had ever before communicated to me, so effectively, this particular sense of deprivation inflicted by the Islamic veil. The old Uzbek version of the hejab had been removed by the Soviets and it had not returned to the places we visited. Indeed, what made Uzbek women attractive was their free interaction with men. Far from being shy, they were outgoing. The ones I encountered often laughed easily. Theirs was an open laughter; it almost made their eyes laugh too.

In Khiva, a street vendor had a gallery of little dolls, all pinned on a board. It occurred to me that, together, they depicted the female ideal in the Uzbek culture. In most the hair was black, the eyes were light and large, the lips small, and the cheekbones high. They were all dressed in traditional costumes. Although Russians have long lived and intermarried here, there were no blonde or Eurasian dolls. I imagined that I had met and talked to various ethnic types presented on that tableau: Tayyareh, the street peddler in Margilan who was tall, with a long face, dark eyebrows and sensuous lips (a Kyrgyz?);  the fortune teller Zarnegar, with almond-shaped eyes, olive skin, and a penetrating expression when she told me about the recent death of her young husband in an accident (a Tajik?); Madana, the ambitious travel executive from Tashkent, with a round face and round eyes (an Uzbek?); and the playful fruit seller in Khiva with narrow eyes and a mischievous smile (a Turkmen?).

Firuzeh, an Uzbek girl of 19, and her two friends came up to me when we were at the top of Tamerlane’s Ak Serai (White Palace) in Shakhrisabz. “Mister, how old are you,” she asked; she was practicing her English. She was a student and wore Western clothes. Below us, in the park around a huge statue of Tamerlane, there were about forty wedding parties, strolling as if being presented to the community. I asked Firuzeh if she belonged to any of them. “Yes,” she said, and she took me to her cousin the bride. The bride wore white and the groom black. They looked so serious, as did the other young newlyweds there. Their slow procession was led by three young men in casual outfits, two playing the drums and one a long horn. “As the wedding gift,” Ayoob had told me, “the groom gives the bride forty dresses, several quilts, and two sandoog storage boxes.”

The Russians I met in Uzbekistan were not striking n appearance except for one, a haughty statuesque hostess on a domestic flight who ignored Ayoob’s complaint about his broken seat belt. Then there was Julie Christy. That was not her real name and she was not from Uzbekistan. The name was given to her by the border guards in Turkmenistan as she looked like the famous actress, even though in reality she was a tourist from Manitoba. My group preferred to call her “the Cleavage at the Pond.” For it was her cleavage in her black dress -in contrast to the modest style of the local women- which caught our attention when we first saw her at the Bolo Hauz (Near the Pond) Mosque in Bukhara.

To her credit, Julie had avoided the other current fashion statement from the West, the exposed mid-riff. She was smart. She was a scientist traveling with another young woman. The two of them were traversing the whole length of the old Silk Road by themselves. She loved to travel, needless to say, but I probed for the reason. She deflected my question with a laugh, “I will continue to travel until I find a husband.”  Julie’s dress merely matched her bold joie vivre. The Uzbeks seemed pleased with her presence; she mingled freely among them. No place was off limits or too dangerous for her. She was disrobing Bukhara!

Exoticism of Underdevelopment
While tour groups were told about the highlights of Uzbekistan, the more adventurous solo travelers came to discover its quirks themselves. Tim had just journeyed by land from Afghanistan when I met him at the Lab-i Hauz (By the Pond) café where Bukhara relaxed. The water was lined with old mulberry trees and, in the crimson of the dusk, it reflected the ornate portal of  of a nearby 17th century Sufi khanegah. Some men were sitting cross-legged on the carpeted takht (wooden platforms), drinking tea, and playing nard (backgammon). We chose the plastic chairs and table and ordered the good local beer, Setareh. Hovering over us was a statute of Khodja Nasradin, the fool-savant of the Turco-Persian world, seemingly smirking at the neighboring gaudy sculpture of camels which was erected for the benefit of the European tourists.

“The biggest groups are French and German who come to see the Silk Road, or Seidenstrasse, a name which was coined by the German explorer Richthofen in 1877,” Ayoob had told us. It was the replacement of those caravan roads by the sea routes to the Orient in the 16th century which had disconnected the landlocked Uzbekistan from the new vital centers of civilization. The oases of Bukhara and Samarkand then succumbed to stagnation and regression as Europe prospered and developed.

The emergence of the “underdeveloped world” in this region is a story of profound significance for our times. It remains to be told. After the Spanish Ambassador R.G. Clavijo reported on his visit to Tamerlane’s Samarkand in 1404, and Anthony Jenkinson reported on his trip to Bukhara in 1558 as the envoy for Russia, no European came this way until the “Great Game” era in the late 18th century. The object of that “Game” for Russia – one “player”- was imperial expansion southward, while for the other “player” -Britain- it was resisting Russian expansion as it threatened British India. The spies these Great Powers sent to this long-forgotten area brought back fantastic tales of local khans and their fabled cities, generating sensational interest in Europe. Tim, an Englishman, was reading the classic book on the subject, Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game. We both had just visited Bukhara’s old zindan (prison) where some of characters in that book had been held. Two days later, I saw Tim in Khiva, another major forum of the Great Game.

The Good Guide Ayoob
Ayoob was an ideal guide: knowledgeable, experienced, diligent, and articulate in English. His Soviet era education showed in the lexicon of his speech. Thus, he would say that Tamerlane’s military campaigns were “predatory,” while the Arab invasion was “ideological”, or that the Uzbeks played a significant role in the “Second Patriotic War”. He would tell us the “etymology” of the unfamiliar words in this “polyglot” country. I did not have to agree with him to accept that Ayoob -indeed even his shortcomings- reflected contemporary life in Uzbekistan. We spent eight days with him going to many sites in that vast country. I engaged him in private conversation innumerable times, especially on long bus rides through deserts when I sat close to him and asked questions.

Once, he let me know that I was asking too many questions, but he grew to accept my inquisitiveness. In fact, we became friends. He asked me to offer the toast at our group’s last dinner when he provided the wine. Later, while we were waiting for our last flight, Ayoob asked me to have a beer with him and told me about his personal plans for the future.

Our first encounter, however, was all business. Upon my arrival in Uzbekistan, he probed to see if I was interested in hiring him for an extended tour afterward. His reaction to my Persian heritage was ambiguous at first. He would introduce me to the museum guides, vendors, and ordinary people: in kas  as iron (this person is from Iran).  On one such occasion, in Samarkand, he then turned to me and said “you should be proud to be from Iran.” The next day, however, he was telling me about the Iranian Jews in a tour group from Israel. “The others in the group did not have high regards for them,” he said. “They were exceptional bargainers. The Jews are good anyway, but these Iranian also knew the language.” He pretended that this was a compliment but his smile betrayed otherwise. When he came to respect my interest in the history and culture of his country, he allowed himself to ask my help in confirming some of the things he was telling us. This was especially true when there was a Persian text on a monument in Arabic script. He was cut off from his heritage when the Cyrillic script replaced Arabic in Uzbekistan.

“My grandfather was Tajik and he lived in Samarkand,” Ayoob told us. “When the Soviets divided the old Turkistan on the basis of nationalities in the 1920s, he was told that if he wanted to continue living in Samarkand he had to declare Uzbek as his nationality. Otherwise, as a Tajik he had to move to Tajikistan. He chose to stay in Samarkand. There are many such Uzbeks in Samarkand who are really Tajiks.” Ayoob’s father married a Russian. “The Soviet time was my golden years,” Ayoob told me. As a young communist he went to a summer camp in Estonia where he met his wife who was attending from Lithuania. “She is Catholic,” he said. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, religion became important. Ayoob had a crisis of identity. “I went to protestant churches and I was encouraged by them to study,” Ayoob said. He attended a seminary for two years, but he did not become a cleric. Ayoob called himself a Protestant, but now he was more interested in improving his career.

“There are too many interpreters in Samarkand,” Ayoob said. He gave this as a reason for wanting to move to Tashkent, where “there are fewer.” Also, his daughter found Samarkand too provincial. “She could not meet boys here,” he said. “It is different in Tashkent.” Getting the necessary permits to live in Tashkent was not easy, Ayoob said. “It would cost me $10,000 to get the permits.”  The documents would be forged but they would do. Ayoob earned $1,000 a “season”. He first had to buy a place in Tashkent. He was not daunted.

Nor was he fazed by his nettlesome “clients.” He told me that he had learned to ignore unhappy tourists. Not everybody in our group was satisfied with Ayoob. I gave him a fanny bag which I had bought in China. He was thankful and wore it all the time. It broke after a few days.  “These Chinese products!” Ayoob said in disgust. I felt embarrassed. I decided to tip him more at the end of the trip. For me he had been a valuable window to this land.

Emerging Capitalism
“We don’t have any political problems in Uzbekistan,” Ayoob said when prodded by us about the unrest reported in the West. “We have economic problems. We need foreign investment.” A few minutes later, seemingly intending no connection, he announced that our driver had sum, the Uzbek currency, if we wished to exchange our U.S. dollars -which was the only foreign currency the Uzbeks would take. The rate that the driver offered was less favorable than the guidebooks advised these foreigner investors. We had just spent about 3 dollars each for a fairly substantial lunch and our already bulging luggage allowed no splurging on the equally cheap souvenirs.

These facts, however, did not overcome that particular frugality that seizes Western tourists when they contemplate exchanging their convertible currencies into local money. Some of us insisted on going to a bank. The branch of the government bank in Kokan which we finally found was protected like a medieval fort. We had to register our passports with the two guards who defended the entrance. Our business was unusual enough to cause a minor turmoil. Three clerks attended to our request and as their halting explanation of the required forms, the rate of exchange, and the limits on the amount of local currency available led to our utter confusion, a bank officer who could speak better English was requisitioned from the loan department.

We now understood that the bank could exchange no more than 400 dollars which we had to divide among the 12 of us. As we proceeded, each person’s name and the specific, varied, amount desired were entered by long hand in the bank’s ledger. Each dollar bill was carefully checked by the clerks, and any that was not crisp was rejected as potential counterfeit. The bundle of sums given to us was then counted by a volunteer group from among us and allocated appropriately.

In the midst of all this, our driver decided to discount his rate by 10% to match the bank’s rate. There was still another offer from a man who was identified as the teacher of English at the local high school. He would exchange our dollars at a value 5% more than the bank. “Why is he doing this, how could this make economic sense?” I asked Golbahar, the loan officer. She answered that he was “hedging on the much greater inflation rate in sum, which was 40% last year.” Unlike the teacher, she explained, the driver did not have the staying power to eventually reap this advantage over the much lower inflation rate in the US dollar. Golbahar told me that the bank loans which she approved for business customers bore the same different interests, 40% if in the sum, and 5% if in dollars. These loans required government guarantees or collateral, and averaged about $100,000.

Correspondingly, I did not see big private enterprises in Uzbekistan. In Richtan we visited what was perhaps typical of businesses that could succeed. Adelya who was painting a small ceramic cup which I then bought for 4 dollars, told me that her father, the famous artist Rustam Osmanov, established the shop in 1998 when he quit the big government-run ceramic store. This was still a family affair. Rustam was away exhibiting in his hometown of Gazan, Russia and his wife Nazirah was running the shop. “Working for hokoomat (government) pays very little,” I was told by a man who had left a job with the Bukhara airport authority to open a guest house. Another low-paid employee who stayed with the state-run Uzbekistan Airline, demanded and received a bribe of $30 at the Tashkent airport before checking my “overweight” luggage on the flight out of the country.

I saw cotton plantations that made the Ferghana Valley countryside lush, and pipelines of oil and gas that accentuated the monotony of the Kyzyl Kum desert. These and various minerals -gold, silver, uranium, copper, zinc and lead- are the sources of potentially fabulous wealth. They are also temptations for corruption. I asked Ayoob who was the richest person in Uzbekistan? He chuckled and said “the mafia.”

In the alleys of Bukhara’s Zargoran (Gold Jewelers) and Tilpak Furushan (Hat Sellers) bazaars, the traditional bourgeoisie that survived 70 years of communist rule stared me in the eyes.  [[Shopkeepers]]  reclined on carpeted benches behind their merchandise in small stores, arranged in rows of guilds selling the same products. This was the marketplace of the medieval urban population, the sarts. Looking less established were the covered stalls of the otherwise open market of perishable foods. In this bazaar individual vendors specialized but there was no guilds  separation: the fruit seller stood next to the produce seller whose neighbor, in turn, was the dairy peddler. The food markets were less organized in smaller cities. The Margilan bazaar was like a general market, where clothes were sold next to melons, and instead of stalls, the merchandise was spread on the ground.

Our regression toward the nomadic Uzbekistan was complete in Uyshun’s Dehqon Bazori (Farmers Bazaar) which we came upon on the road from Samarkand to Shakhrisabz. Here chaos ruled.Goods of all sorts and vintage useful for the simple life were traded by the locals who had parked their horses, donkey-driven arbas (carts), tractors, and occasional cars wherever they pleased. You could see how “bizarre” found its root in “bazaar”.

Back in the bus, we drove by the fences that marked the American air base, outside Khanabad. The planes were hidden behind the hills and we could only imagine guards in the distant observation towers. I saw no American in uniform. If fact, I noticed no American in Uzbekistan, other than the few in our group. The local communist leaders of this nation upon becoming the rulers of the newly independent Uzbekistan, in the early 1990s, had found it expedient to denounce the Russian “colonialists”. Capitalism was now their creed.

September 11, 2001 opened a new chapter in their relations with the United States. That was when the airbase was established. The warm embrace, however, did not last long. It was now the season of mutual suspicion and acrimony. The U.S. was castigating its host as undemocratic. Uzbekistan asked that the rent for the base be increased. “The dispute is about money: the U.S. did not pay for water and gas, “ Ayoob told us. An Afghani diplomat had given me another explanation, in an appropriately conspiratorial hush: “The Uzbeks are worried that the Americans might engineer another toppling of the president, as happened in the Kyrgyz Republic earlier this year.”  On the day that I left Uzbekistan, my taxi had to stop far from the airport terminal as the security demanded: the Russian Defense Minister was arriving for an official visit.

As Khiva Awakes
The oasis of Khiva has been the western gateway to Samarkand and Bukhara, the settlement closest to Iran. On the day that I visited it, in the pre-dawn light, the plaza before Ichon Qala (Inner Fort), Khiva’s gated old town, was serene. The main street of the Fort was impeccably clean even as an old man was sweeping the dust with an broom; it was lined sublime in the light of the moon by the magnificently cohesive architectural ensemble of Katla minaret, Amin Khan Madrassah, Jummi and Ak mosques, and Anusha Khan Bath. There was no life here yet. I went out of the old quarters through the east Darvoza (Gate) and saw Khiva awaking. The faithful were entering the Shalikar Mosque. This was built in 1835, as its portal announced in Arabic script. The vintage was almost the same as the more grand buildings I had just seen. I imagined that the rhythm of life had not changed much either.

On the side streets, however, a television satellite dish and a parked small car were incongruously superimposed on the medieval dried mud walls and dirt roads. From the front yard of a house, a bed with a mosquito net jotted out onto the sidewalk. Two young boys ran by. A sign in Cyrillic over a white door read Sartarashkhaneh (The House of Cutting Head), with a logo of scissors and a comb confirming that it was a barbershop. I saw small taxis arriving, burdened with sacks of goods, in the square before me. The sunlight was golden on an aged truck nearby and on the produce stands of a bazaar which I now entered.

I saw other colors: the red of tomatoes, the darker red of peppers, the royal red of pomegranates, the aubergine of eggplants, the yellow of apples, the white of onions, and the green of cabbage. Butchers were hanging their red carcasses on the periphery which enclosed the market. The fruit and produce vendors were all women and the fabrics of their dresses were glorious. So were their hospitable smiles; I saw many gold-capped teeth, standard in Soviet era dentistry. They posed for me and with me. I was given two apples and a pomegranate as a gift which I could not refuse.

A Museum City
The old Ichon Qala in Khiva was disemboweled when it was restored by the Russians. Its new content feels plastic as it aims to please the tourists. I saw two school boys on bicycles traversing it, and a wedding party strolling its streets which at one point broke into a spontaneous dance. There was a silk workshop where the men threw the yarns up the brick walls to dry, and the women wove at the spindles self-consciously. There was a woodworking studio where the master marketed his art to the visitors. Every other corner of the place was filled with peasant women turned shrewd peddlers of hats, scarves, and plain pieces of colorful fabrics.

For a fee, a man invited us to see a “circus” in the ornate courtyard of a madrassah. To the live music of a surnai (Persian Oboe) and a drum, three young boys executed a feat of balancing on wires. Underneath them only a thin kilim covered the brick ground. Later, a performance of folkloric music, singing, and dancing by a group of eight men and women was arranged for us in the Throne Room of the Old Citadel. At the end, we were asked to join the dance. Then I had a conversation with the leader of the group. Upon learning that I was Persian, he beamed and said: “Sa’di Shirazi! (Sa’di from Shiraz!)” I was surprised; it was Hafez, the other Persian poet from Shiraz, that I more expected him to know. Not only did he know Hafez too, but prompted by my reciting Hafez’s famous poem about Samarkand and Bukhara, he broke into a recitation of its translation in Uzbek. I felt content at the serendipitous way that my journey was coming to an end.

The most celebrated monument in Khiva is the Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum. Mahmoud is the “patron saint” of Khiva and his tomb is the holiest shrine in the city. Born in Khiva in 1247, Mahmoud was a furrier by profession, and this mausoleum was built on his original furrier shop. Mahmoud is famous, however, as the greatest wrestler of all time, and a beloved Sufi leader who wrote poetry in Persian. In Iran where he is called Puriya-y Valy, he symbolizes sportsmanship; he gets a special mention in gul-e koshti, the presentation of poetry at the beginning of a wrestling match in zoorkhaneh (the traditional gymnasium). I saw this ruba’i (quatrain) by Mahmoud adorning his tomb:

Sad kuh-e qaf ra be havan sudan
Crushing one hundred Caucasian mountains in a pestle

Noh taq-e falak be khoon andoodan
Sealing nine skies with blood

Sad sal asir-e zendan boodan
Being in prison for a hundred years

Beh zankeh dami hamdam-e nadan boodan
Is better than passing one moment with a fool

The vehemence of the Sufi sage’s exhortation not to suffer fools was striking. Metaphorically, this could well have been the mystic’s call to ejtehad (striving) toward enlightenment from jaheliyat (the state of ignorance), perceived as the true promise of Islam. Historically, however, this was an epithet better suiting his compatriot of some 250 years past, Avicenna. That genius was known for his disdain of even the most reputable scholars -including, famously, Beruni- when they failed his nearly unattainable standards. Avicenna was living in Urgench near Khiva when Mahmoud Ghaznavi, who had just been appointed the Sultan of this region by Baghdad’s Muslim Khalif, invited him to join his court. Recognizing that the new ruler’s rigid religiosity did not allow for free thinking, despite his desire to surround himself with scientists and writers as ornaments, Avicenna refused the Ghaznavi’s entreaties and fled central Asia. Chased by the irate Sultan, Avicenna suffered much hardship in travels through harsh deserts to ever further distant points in Iran and even spent some time in jail.

Avicenna’s companion in that flight from the obscurantist Islamists of Central Asia was the learned Bu Sahl-e Masihi, a Christian. Older, he fared even worse than Avicenna, perishing early on in the desert. My imaginary Samarkand and Bukhara that attracted and nourished so much talent, could also repel its best sons. This theme of exile would now follow me to the situs; it was, coincidentally, the eve of my own departure from Uzbekistan.


The article entitled Luster of the earth; Journey to Samarkand and Bukhara was published on the Website of on December 28, 2005, which has the related pictures.