Memoir of a land

January 5, 2020

If there is a place today where one can literally touch and feel what once was the Silk Route, it is Uzbekistan

Charminar Bukhara.

Imagine a traveller, a trader, on the Silk Route around 800 years ago. Weary from the travails of his journey from China, crossing the inhospitable steppes of Central Asia. Along the route, he would have braved searing heat, vicious cold and constant harassment from nomadic highwaymen. Then as his journey ends, he would lay his eyes first time on the splendours of Samarkand and Bukhara — the centre of the world. Teeming bazaars with goods from all over the world. Scholars debating theology, philosophy and science. To top it all, an architecture with no parallel in those times. It must have felt like an out-of-the-world experience.

As a history buff, I could not fight the allure of Khorasan and Khwarazm (the ancient names of the region) and their yarns I read while growing up. So when the opportunity came, I just had to go.

Friendly: The people of Samarkand. — Photos by the author

The Silk Road evokes images of a past where history and myths co-mingle to web tales that have captivated generations. A route, that for centuries, was an umbilical cord linking orient with the occident. Fortunes were made and lost along these fabled paths. Empires were built and decimated with tales of unimaginable barbarism and brutality. Wonderful names of Khiva, Tashkent, Merv, Balkh, Samarkand and Bukhara conjure images of grand arches, tall spires and elegant domes, adorned with azure tiles. These were cities that had been built, destroyed and rebuilt.

If there is a place today where one can literally touch and feel what the Silk Route was then it is Uzbekistan.

Bazaar in Khiva.

All these thoughts swirled around in my head until I saw the sombre memorial in the courtyard of the Kalyan Mosque in Bukhara. There is a darker side to its glamourous history. This small structure, just before the entrance in the prayer hall, was built at the exact spot where Ghengis/Chengiz Khan (around c.1220 AD) slaughtered hundreds of Islamic scholars of the city. It was hard not to try and imagine the terror ancient Bukharans felt as the mighty Khan’s army rolled into town.

The influence of this culture and history on the subcontinent is palpable. The ancestors of the Mughal Empire hailed from Tashkent. The two main languages, Tajik and Turkic, have many words that have transferred to modern-day Urdu.

It is said that after slaughtering tens of thousands (an act he repeated at Samarkand, Urgench and all that came before him), he razed all the structures of the city to the ground. All except one, the Kalyan Minaret. At the time, it was thought to be one of the tallest structures of its kind in the world. Chengiz Khan was so taken by the grandeur of the minar that he ordered it to be spared, which now makes it the oldest building in Bukhara.

Standing at its foot, I sensed the weight of history that this place carries. It stood as a silent witness to scholars who walked past it to pray, to famed conquerors who ruled Central Asia and must have set eyes upon it and also to the carnage that ensued at its footsteps.

Despite the ravages of the Mongols, Central Asia remained the centre of the world, connecting the east to the west. There was a resurgence in these cities, particularly during the Timurid Dynasty (14th century onwards). From the ruins rose many of the magnificent buildings that I now saw. The arts, culture, literature, science and trade flourished again under the sponsorship of Chengiz’s now-Muslim descendant, Amir Timur or Tamerlane. All this happened while he retained the family’s penchant for unbridled brutality in conquest.

Speaking to my Uzbek friends, I sensed that this was the history they related to. The earlier Mongol invasion is often a passing reference. The shadow of Amir Timur looms large on the Uzbek psyche. Gur-e-Amir is Timur’s mausoleum in Samarkand with a beautiful ribbed dome. Bibi Khanum Mosque with its grand facade was built by his favourite wife. Between Bukhara and Samarkand lies Shakhrisabz, the hometown of Timur, where the ruins of nearly 70-metres-high gates point to its grand history.

I admired how tourist-friendly Uzbekistan was. Tourist Police were present in all popular spots and at no point, I felt unsafe. The government had made a smart decision to have just one exchange rate across the country to put a stop to tourist scams. The city centres were almost always pedestrians only, immaculately clean and full of decently priced restaurants. The airports and train stations were efficient with high-quality services.

Walking around these cities, particularly Bukhara and Khiva, I could see that for centuries this region was a seat of learning. Innumerable madrassas that lie inside the walls of Khiva are a testament to that. It was much like the systems of colleges today at Oxford and Cambridge. These schools were also built in the ‘quad’ style one now finds at Oxbridge and Ivy League universities in the USA. Who copied whom I wondered? I was rather sad to note that all these schools were now museums or hotels (except one) — just another monument to the glory of the past, perhaps never to return.

These Central Asian cities (and some parts of Iran) were where many of the fundamentals of Islamic theology were developed, not the traditional Arab world. In fact compilers of five of the six books of Hadith were scholars of non-Arab origin.

Given this legacy, the region’s contribution to Islamic scholarship is immense. At least four of the six scribes of Hadith came from Khwarazm and Khorasan. Many of the Sufi orders either originated or have strong links here. I paid a visit to the tomb of the great hadith scholar Imam Bukhari which lies just outside Samarkand (the local ruler had exiled him from his hometown of Bukhara). The simplicity and grace of the complex were striking. The presence of a large number of local visitors pointed to the survival of the conservative core of Uzbek society which co-exists with a more secular outlook, an influence of the decades of Soviet rule.

Outside Samarkand lie the remains of Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg’s observatory. He was a noted astronomer/mathematician and has one of the craters of the moon named after him. Ironically, he was assassinated by his son and his observatory destroyed at the behest of theologians who considered his study of stars a heresy. Somethings, it seems, never change.

The museums in Uzbekistan are rather simple but house invaluable objects. I would particularly point out the manuscript of the Holy Quran which was being read by Hazrat Osman (RA) when he was assassinated and is said to have stains of his blood (in Tashkent).

The influence of this culture and history on the subcontinent is palpable. The ancestors of the Mughal Empire hailed from Tashkent. The two main languages, Tajik and Turkic, have many words that have found their way into modern-day Urdu. The cuisine is meat-oriented (including horse meat!) and includes the popular palov (pulao as we call it) and samsa (precursor to samosas it seems). One only has to look at the spellbinding Registan complex in Samarkand to see its reflections on the architecture across the subcontinent. Many of the home decoration items too seemed familiar. I had a hard time convincing the vendors that much of what they offered, carpets and other handicrafts, was available in my country - cheaper and, arguably, of better quality.

As I wrapped up my rather hectic trip to Uzbekistan I felt hungry for more. How I wish the geopolitics would not restrict the exploration of the ancient Khorasan. Historical cities of Merv (Turkmenistan), Balkh, Ghazni (Afghanistan) and Nishapur (Iran) were tantalisingly close yet inaccessible. Maybe soon.

The writer is a finance professional based in Dubai

Uzbekistan: The land where history comes alive