In Uzbekistan, Coming to Terms With the Country’s Dazzling History
In Uzbekistan, Coming to Terms With the Country’s Dazzling History
Central Asia was once home to several bustling trade cities. Today, traveling through them reawakens a distant, though not forgotten, past.
IT WAS OCTOBER in Tashkent. The broad Soviet-style avenues of Uzbekistan’s capital were lined with chestnut and Oriental plane, their leaves turning russet in the crisp autumn air. This city of 2.5 million had, in Soviet days, which lasted from the 1920s until the country’s independence in 1991, been the premier capital of Central Asia. It is home to more than half of Uzbekistan’s 116 universities, and on that first golden morning in Tashkent, there was something of the glazed perfection of a Soviet propaganda poster in the sight of students in twos and threes strolling down the runway-size avenues. They were dwarfed by the giant buildings that lined the roads — banks, museums and ministries — “Babylonian blocks,” as the English writer Philip Glazebrook, who had been in Tashkent at the end of Soviet rule, described them in “Journey to Khiva” in the early ’90s: “Since the days of Nineveh this has been the architecture of dictatorship and persecution.” And so it was, but after my late arrival on the Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul, I found myself oddly in sympathy with the ideal, if not the reality, of Soviet life.
Four great creeds — Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Islam and Communism — had come via the trans-Asian caravan routes, or the Silk Road, to the land encapsulated by what is modern Uzbekistan. Each had made the people of this doubly landlocked country — one of only two, the other being Liechtenstein — of 34 million part of a greater world, a cosmopolis, a comity of nations. This was a land whose culture had been created on the frontier of contact with China, India, Iran and Russia, each of which fertilized the culture of the steppe. Communism was the last ideology to come to Uzbekistan along these routes, and I could not help but admire the scale and ambition of its artifacts. There was the Tashkent metro, 22 miles long, with majestic stations — several hung with three-tiered chandeliers — including one tiled in futuristic blue faience, dedicated exclusively to space exploration. There were the vast apartment blocks, with cramped windows and lace curtains. Their facades were crawling with satellite dishes, and on their broad flanks, there were crumbling murals and mosaics, which had been made as if out of a desultory spirit of concession to the need for people to have ornamentation in their lives at all.
For me, as someone who grew up in Delhi, the names of this region’s fabled caravan towns — Samarkand and Bukhara — were the most evocative of the Silk Road. Each estimated to be founded no later than the first century A.D., these cities were imbued with the terror and wonder of the Turkic conqueror Timur — known as Tamerlane in the West — who came like a fury over the mountains that lay between India and Uzbekistan and laid waste to my hometown in 1398, killing, by his own count, 100,000 and erecting his famous minaret of skulls. Some 120 years after Timur, his descendant Babur — a banished prince of the Timurid dynasty — came back over those same mountains to found the Mughal dynasty in northern India, which lasted until the 19th century and was responsible for such marvels as the Taj Mahal. Delhi and Tashkent were just a three-hour flight apart from each other, but the girdle of mountains — the Hindu Kush, literally “Hindu Killer” in Persian — that separated this land from the Indian plain was a boundary between worlds. To arrive here was to find myself in the uncanniest of all valleys — a place where shared references related to food, language and architecture were swiftly replaced by what was alien and unexpected.
My guide, Aziz, 32, appeared magically out of the gloom of a cold and smoky night, dressed, like the hero in a Bollywood film, in a black-and-white gingham shirt, a Panama hat and a scarf around his neck. Aziz was born in the twilight years of the Soviet Union and, as he later pointed out to me, was among the last generation to grow up reading Soviet textbooks. Hearing him address a Vietnamese woman in Russian or seeing him point out Kazakhs, Koreans, Ukrainians and Russians on Hazrati Imam — a square of mosques and madrassas at the heart of old Tashkent — I was easily reminded of what is easy to forget: Russia, no less than France or Britain or Spain, had been a colonial enterprise, and her children were myriad and many. But before I could take in my new surroundings that first morning, Aziz sprung a surprise on me. Ten months before, his longtime girlfriend, Madina, had left him and gone away to Dubai. He had suffered excruciating heartbreak, he told me. He couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t eat, he begged her to return. He then cast a sidelong glance at a shy young woman, sulky and watchful, with pink nails, who now also appeared out of the murk to join him. Madina was back. She had arrived unexpectedly the day before Aziz and I were to embark on a weeklong trip through Uzbekistan, covering a distance of over a thousand miles in close quarters. Moreover, Aziz informed me, she was coming with us. Had the hour not been 3 a.m., had I not been so shattered from the 20-hour odyssey from my home in New York City and had I not been totally at Aziz’s mercy in this former Soviet town, I would never have agreed to be the third wheel on my own trip. But the odds were not in my favor. Aziz, I sensed, was restless enough to cancel if I did not comply. I rolled a cigarette, nodded my consent and from thereon I vanished into the set of a modern-day Uzbek romance — Aziz and Madina, a love story.
THE TERM “SILK ROAD,” or Seidenstrasse, is thought to have been first popularized in 1877 by the German geographer Ferdinand Paul Wilhelm, Baron von Richthofen. It is misleading in many ways, not merely because much more than silk was conveyed along this 4,000-mile ancient route — there was also lapis, turquoise, gold and ivory — but because it was richer still in the traffic of abstractions, ideas and religions. It came about a century before Christ, as a result of the mercantile interests of two great empires — imperial Rome and imperial China — gradually aligning, even as they were too far apart to trade directly with one another. As a natural consequence, the places that lay between the two shouldered the responsibility (and accrued the profits) of bringing them into contact with each other. “Chinese merchants were never seen in Rome,” writes the British historian Peter Hopkirk in 1980 in “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road,” “nor Roman traders in Ch’ang-an,” referring to present-day Xi’an. It was in the time of the Han dynasty’s Emperor Wudi (156-87 B.C.) that a great pioneering traveler named Zhang Qian, whom Hopkirk describes as “the father of the Silk Road,” forged a path westward into modern-day Uzbekistan. Zhang went west in search of allies, in order to fight an enemy of nomadic stock — the Xiongnu — who some believe were the very same people who arrived a few centuries later at the gates of Rome (by then they would have been known as the Huns). In the Fergana Valley, which sprawls across eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan, Zhang found something better than an ally — he found Ferghana horses, an essential machine of war in his emperor’s fight against the Huns.
Meanwhile, imperial Rome, stretching its fingers east, had encountered a “revolutionary new material.” In 53 B.C., at Carrhae, seven Roman legions led by Marcus Licinius Crassus stared in disbelief as their habitual and, in this instance, victorious enemy, the Parthians, from modern-day Iran, “unfurled great banners” of a shimmering, gossamer-like material: Chinese silk. “The Romans, who had never seen anything like it before,” Hopkirk tells us, “turned and fled, leaving some twenty thousand dead behind.” The Romans knew that while the Parthians were a martial people, they were too “unsophisticated” to have invented “this astonishing material, which was “as light as a cloud” and “translucent as ice.” By the first century A.D., Romans were dripping in silk, which they still believed grew on trees. “Seneca, for one,” writes Peter Frankopan in his 2015 history “The Silk Roads,” about the Roman philosopher, “was horrified by the popularity of the thin flowing material, declaring that silk garments could barely be called clothing given they hid neither the curves nor the decency of the ladies of Rome.” The foundations of marriage itself were being compromised, Frankopan adds, by this fabric that “left little to the imagination.”
The Silk Road is our supreme metaphor for the interplay between commodities and ideas — and, as an extension, the interplay between the intangible and the concrete. On my first day in Tashkent, I encountered an object that remade my idea of the history of the place. I had not, until then, thought of Tashkent as a great Islamic capital — not like Istanbul, Cairo or Baghdad, say — but in the small Muyi Mubarak Library at Hazrati Imam, at the heart of old Tashkent, surrounded by ribbed azure domes swimming up against a pale sky, I saw what had to be among the wonders of the Islamic world: the oldest Quran in existence (best estimates date it to the eighth century). There it was, its swollen pages of gazelle skin inscribed with the bold black letters of the Kufic script. It had been the private Quran of the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, and it was Timur — the “scourge of God” in Christopher Marlowe’s play “Tamburlaine the Great” — who, having laid siege to the civilized world in the 14th century, brought it from what is now Iraq to his capital at Samarkand. Its presence in Tashkent was a reminder that if one was to do justice to the history of Uzbekistan, one would have to make a mental separation between the modern state — an unremarkable Central Asian republic with an autocrat at its helm — and the many worlds this land had been part of. The state was new, the land was eons old. It had once comprised Sogdiana and parts of Transoxania; it had been a point of confluence between Iran and Turan, the line between Persianate and Turkic cultures; the famous regions of Khorasan and Khwarezm were all part of what the land had known. It had produced a roll call of polymaths, from the scholar and scientist Al-Biruni to Ibn Sina, known to the West as Avicenna (980-1037), one of the fathers of early medicine. The creator of the algorithm — al-Khwarizmi (circa 780-circa 850) — had been part of the same flowering of genius that had made this land one of the centers of thought and discovery, as had the philosopher Alpharabius, or al-Farabi (circa 878-circa 950). This was the kingdom of the astronomer-king Ulugh Beg, whose 15th-century work was being translated into English and Latin in the years following the Renaissance.
This land of many natures — Turkic and Persian, upon which Russian had been grafted — expressed itself in Aziz, too. One moment he was talking of Lenin and Stalin and quoting Aleksandr Pushkin’s 1833 novel in verse, “Eugene Onegin,” the next he was discussing the history of Islam and recalling whole quatrains of the 11th-century Persian poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam’s “Rubaiyat.” This was the place where one needed to come to understand how distinct cultures graded into one another. It was not so much a melting pot as a hologram, and this felt true of religious values, too: This was an Islamic country where everyone drank vodka and where the Soviet government, in the Communist years, had closed some 26,000 mosques; there were just 80 open in 1989. But Islam had had its revenge, too. In a bookshop on the main square, Aziz pointed to a pamphlet that showed pictures of Lenin’s statue being torn down as it warned against idolatry.
Aziz himself had undergone something of a Damascene un-conversion. Madina remembered him as being very religious, praying five times a day and talking endlessly about the Quran. “But then,” Aziz said, “I turned on my logic.” He was now positively scornful of religious people, arguing with them about contentious subjects such as why, if Islam was a religion of peace, had it gone everywhere “by sword and fire.”
“I am shocked,” Madina said.
“It’s a new life, baby,” Aziz answered jauntily. He was a Bukhara boy to his bones, raised in, and still devoted to, his birthplace. It was his passion for the history of his hometown that had connected him with other Silk Road cities in Central Asia, forming the nucleus of a self-education, here from other guides, there from books in Farsi, English and Russian. But regardless of where his travels took him, he always came back to Bukhara, and he could not fathom Madina’s restlessness, her wish to get away.
On our first full evening together in Tashkent, a still older and deeper aspect of the character of this land asserted itself as the sun sank — the nomadic life of the steppe. Chorsu Bazaar was in central Tashkent, a short drive away from Hazrati Imam. It was a vast carapace of turquoise and cyan, which sought to bring order to the chaos of one of the main institutions of Central Asian life: the market. Handsome Tajik boys with thick unibrows — a mark of beauty in the Persianate world — sold turmeric, cumin, red chile and star anise. There was horse meat and tongue, trotters and brain. We passed smooth, dark offerings of liver, reddish-black in the fluorescent light, and the round marbled heads of bovine cannons. There were whole alleys devoted to salads and cheeses, and sour-milk balls called qurut, which I was told quenched thirst on long journeys across the steppe. Outside, women with gold teeth in bright aprons and waistcoats sold norin, noodles with horse meat. One plump-fingered lady cut me off a bit of khasib, a sausage made of rice and intestine, basting in a thick viscous liquid like a wounded snake. Chorsu, literally meaning “four streams” or “crossroads” in Persian, was visceral in the most literal sense of the word, and I felt it was impossible to come into contact with food like this without also being given an intimation of the brutality and rigors of the steppe. To never settle was to never be softened by the idea of home. It was easy to see how the decision to stay and build community, with all its implications for civilization, versus the decision to forge on and to live the life of the frontier, was among the earliest and most important choices that men had had to make.
THE NEXT MORNING, we crossed the Jaxartes — also known as the Syr Darya, one of two great Central Asian rivers — and sped on through pale sunshine, yellowing screens of poplar and mulberry and a pointillist field of cotton, a scorched brown crop bedaubed white, on our way to Samarkand. There were vineyards and orchards. Melon season was ending and the pomegranates were ripening; women sold the dark juice in plastic bottles on the side of the highway. There were Tolstoyan scenes of soldiers picking cotton. I had expected desert and steppe. Instead, I found a dark, fertile soil, as rich as Andalusia, where everything from apples to apricots grew. Babur, the first Mughal, had been homesick in India for the sweetness of the fruits of his native land. In the beginning sections of his early 16th-century memoirs, “Baburnama,” there are endless descriptions of the fruit markets of Central Asia. I now began to see why. Autumn here was truly, as John Keats wrote, a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”
Aziz and Madina were asleep in the back seat. Our driver, Doniyor, a man in his 50s, spoke only one word of English — “good” — which he sometimes used as an exclamation, and other times as a question.
Before the galloping Russian conquest of the 19th century — the Russian Empire for over four centuries expanded at a rate of roughly 20,000 square miles a year — the land of this country had been divided into two khanates: Kokand in the east and Khiva in the west. Sandwiched in the middle, and famous for cruelty, decay and isolation, was the emirate of Bukhara, which included Samarkand. By the end of the 19th century, the khans and emirs had been reduced to puppet rulers, pensioners of the czar in Moscow. While the Silk Road, which increasingly became less relevant by the first quarter of the 20th century, fed them with trinkets from an industrializing Europe — here a mechanical calendar, there a clock and a camera — a new creed was ascendant in Europe. In 1917, the Bolsheviks smashed the power of the czar. Two years later, the Communists, under the leadership of Mikhail Vasilyevich Frunze, were at the doors of these vassal kingdoms, driving their khans and emirs into exile.
It is hard to exaggerate the violence of the social and economic upheaval that Soviet rule brought to this country. The Uzbeks witnessed massive collectivization and industrialization; religion was proscribed; in 1927, Hujum, which means “assault” in Uzbek, was enacted under Stalin. These were social reforms that saw women give up the veil, participate in veil-burning ceremonies and join the work force. This pious feudal society was frog-marched at gunpoint out of the early Middle Ages and into the 20th century.
Driving into Samarkand, 191 miles southwest from Tashkent, observing giant Timurid pylons and ribbed turquoise domes rising out of the low sprawl, one felt as if the change this society had seen in the last century was inscribed in stone. Timur had breathed fire into the veins of the old Silk Road. He was born when the memory of the destruction that Genghis Khan had wrought was still fresh, and Timur, as if assimilating the fury of the great Mongol, had weaponized the ancient trade linkages. The map of his campaigns looks like an explosion out of Samarkand in every direction through the civilized world. He lashed out in the direction of Istanbul, taking the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I captive at the Battle of Ankara, south to Delhi, and died on the warpath east to China. It was not quite violence for violence’s sake. “There was another equally, if not more, compelling reason to pick a fight,” writes Justin Marozzi in “Tamerlane,” his humanizing 2004 history of the tyrant. “Khorezm straddled the caravan routes linking China to the Mediterranean, and therefore enjoyed great prosperity.” Timur turned the Silk Road into his personal exchequer, using its revenues, as well as plunder and taxes levied on conquered people, to fund campaign after terrifying campaign.
“If you doubt our power,” Aziz said as we stood at the foot of Timur’s statue in Samarkand, “look upon our buildings.” It was the Timurid creed, and the evidence of its gigantomania was everywhere in this city. “In the one field in which he took a real interest,” writes S. Frederick Starr in 2013, in “Lost Enlightenment,” of Timur, “and on which he showered money — architecture — his enthusiasm stemmed precisely from its ability to dramatize a very specific idea: that of his own power and greatness.” The statue of this conqueror sat in the middle of a roundabout, surrounded by broad avenues, lined with the pale mottled trunks of Oriental planes. The man whose name was still uttered with horror and disgust in India gazed loftily upon his own mausoleum, Gur-e-Amir, a building that had been intended as a tomb for Timur’s beloved grandson but became the Timurid crypt after the conqueror’s death on the warpath to China in 1405. The entrancing blue of its exterior caught the afternoon sun. There were honeycombed stalactites, or muqarnas, in its portal. The squarish Kufic script, its hard angles a counterpoint to the floral excesses of the rest of the design, snaked its way up in bright blue over the two minarets. There was nothing in the world that spoke more definitely of Central Asia — a dream of moisture in an arid land — than that tiled blue. I had seen shreds of it in India, but now I felt as if I had come to its source. Timur did not invent the turquoise tile — it came, like all great things Islamic, from Persia — but he made it sing. His artisans cut and carved it; they dressed slim pillars in it and giant domes; they shoved it in squinches and let it unfurl over the spandrels of arches. As Aziz said, “Timur wanted to build in a color that would challenge the sky with its own beauty.”
It was odd to think of the sanguinary conqueror at rest under a slab of black jade. His martial spirit had stalked the ages so much so that it was said that if Timur’s sleep was ever disturbed, the dogs of war would be loosed upon the earth again. The godless Soviets paid no heed to these superstitions and had him dug up in June 1941. No sooner was he awake, his skeleton being prodded and poked in Moscow, than Stalin learned that Nazi Germany had invaded the U.S.S.R.
IN SAMARKAND, I felt melancholy, which followed me west to Bukhara and deepened in Khiva. It had a specific cause: At Samarkand’s Registan square, I learned of the extent to which the city’s buildings, first under the Soviets and later under the Uzbeks, had been unsparingly restored. It was so comprehensive that it utterly obliterated the action of time. Philip Glazebrook, in the 1990s, on seeing something similar in Khiva, asked himself: “But what has renovation, matched colors, taste and tidiness, to do with an Asiatic city? The deadly aim of those weapons has killed Khiva stone dead.”
They were words that could not be unread. I had researched old 1960s photographs of tented shops, horse-drawn carriages and men in white turbans on the main enclosure of the Registan. The tile work crumbled from the Brobdingnagian pylons, but the square was alive. It had all since been swept away. The assiduous spirit of restoration contained an invisible agent, sanitizing and astringent, that hollowed “the East” out of Samarkand’s buildings, turning them into mere facades. I began to feel the Soviets had performed an operation in which the culture of the land had been dismembered from its every physical expression.
Glimmers of an older life were still visible in Samarkand. Not in the heavily restored buildings but in more surprising places. One night, as we — Aziz, Madina, Doniyor and I — were coming home from dinner, we encountered a wedding procession for two couples. The silence of a deserted street in Samarkand was interrupted by drumbeats and cars honking in tune. Young men in dark suits danced in front, carrying a metal pole with a heart-shaped standard that had been wrapped in sackcloth, doused in kerosene and set alight. One of the grooms was in a long black-and-gold tunic, the other in white picked out in cerise. The groomsmen would lower the heart of fire and dance around it — half, it seemed, in reverence, half in rapture — while all the time singing in praise of the newlyweds: “Yur, yur, yure.” That word — yaar in Urdu — meant “lover,” “friend” and, ultimately, “God,” too. It indicated a spiritual union, and these young men, with their ancestral veneration of fire, felt part of an extremely old ritual — an atavism in the true sense of forefather, with its origins in the Zoroastrian worship of fire.
This land of many faiths produced an unstable system of values. Aziz and Madina seemed so much a modern couple, living together, traveling together, sleeping unmarried in the same hotel room. But I realized that under the veneer of modernity, more conservative values prevailed. At the Samarkand Restaurant, with its baroque interiors and loud music, now Turkish and Uzbek, now Persian, Afghan and Russian, Aziz offered Madina wine. Her natural sulkiness fell away and she began to tap her manicured fingers to the tune of Glukoza’s “Tantsui, Rossiya!”: “Dance, Russia! And cry, Europe / For I have the most beautiful ass in the world.” When she got up to dance, Aziz grew confidential. “Bukhara society is very conservative,” he said. As he spoke to me about the way his relationship with Madina would be judged by his society, I realized that these cities — Samarkand and Bukhara, in particular — had been the equivalent of what places like Singapore and Dubai are today. They had been deeply cosmopolitan, places whose values, aesthetics and religious beliefs were fluid, defined by the different people who passed through. Earlier, when examining a Central Asian mosque with its stone terrace, wooden pillars and painted canopy, I asked Aziz if the mosque was quintessentially Central Asian. He seemed puzzled by my question. “Three thousand years ago,” he said, “we were invaded by the Persians, so we have something from Persia; 1,500 years ago, we were invaded by the Arabs, so we have something from the Arabs; 1,000 years ago, we were invaded by the Mongols, so we have something from them. There is no such thing as ‘our style.’” Without a trace of the need for historical purity that had spread through so much of the world and was feeding a new populism in places like India and Turkey, Aziz said, “These are cities that would not have existed were it not for the Silk Road.”
DRIVING TO BUKHARA, we went through bare sunlit hills, their deep furrows full of shadow. Below was the thin slip of a silver stream, which created islands of dark soil, supporting orchards, vineyards and reddening mulberries, whose leaves are the food of the silkworm. “We have an expression,” Aziz said. “Only mountains can be more beautiful than mountains.” For seven centuries, the secret of how silk was made remained firmly in China. Hopkirk writes that it was supposedly Nestorian monks who smuggled silkworm eggs out of China in their staffs. Aziz now told a story of a Chinese princess who married an Uzbek chieftain and carried the worms out, concealing them in her elaborate hairdo.
The hills grew steeper and were covered in a burnt-blond grass. We were in what I can only imagine were the foothills of the Pamirs, the mountain range beyond which lay Persian-speaking Tajikistan. The winding road was lined with signs that said “Tandir” — clay ovens known as tandoor in India — and which, like comca (pronounced “somsa”), cousin of the Indian samosa, were only more proof of the many fruits of the Silk Road. At a clearing in the mountains, a market had sprung up. Women in black visors, with brightly colored scarves, velveteen jackets and baggy trousers, had brought the riches of the hills to be sold. They had sacks of licorice and dried yellow immortal flowers — Helichrysum arenarium — which aided digestion. There were sunflower seeds, rhubarb and ginseng — beige, husky and loofah-like. There were dried figs and red-berried dog rose. Looking out over those crevassed hills, with outcroppings of dark rock showing through the yellow grass, I felt that this spontaneous spirit of mercantilism was at the heart of the Silk Road. The opening up of sea routes in the 15th century, both between Europe and Asia, as well as Europe and the Americas, had starved this region of the magic ingredient that had been its making: its centrality. For the first time in 15 centuries, Central Asia was no longer on the way to everywhere.
We reached Bukhara at night. Of all the cities I had been to, and was going to, only Bukhara had the right to call itself Bukhara Sharif — “Bukhara, the noble.” This was the emirate where the 19th-century explorer Alexander Burnes dismounted his horse and changed his clothes before entering its holy precincts that owed their sanctity to the hundreds of mosques, madrassas and mausoleums they contained, for “these are the emblems of distinction in the holy city of Bokhara [sic] between an infidel and a true believer,” he wrote in 1835. Bukhara, which had given Islam some of its foremost thinkers — the ninth century’s al-Bukhari, a compiler of Muhammad’s sayings and acts, or Hadith, and the 14th century’s Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari, the founder of the Sufi order Naqshbandi — had, as the Silk Road dried up around it, leaving it stranded, become a byword in the 19th century for insularity and zealotry.
We drove through modern streets, lined with emporiums and hotels. The buildings seemed to creep out of one malaise — blockish and socialist — into another, the faux modernity of pasting blue-and-brown glass squares onto the facades of crumbling buildings. This was Aziz, Madina and Doniyor’s hometown. I was dropped on the edge of a depopulated old city of a few thousand and allowed to wander alone through the desolate streets. The town of hundreds of madrassas and caravansaries, and 100 or so mosques, had been subjected to the only fate worse than Genghis Khan’s, that fifth horseman of the apocalypse: tourism. There were hardly any people, save visitors who came in droves to see the storied Silk Road town for themselves. The buildings were mostly hotels, restaurants or boutiques. I stood at the foot of the 12th-century Kalyan minaret, which even the Great Mongol had spared from destruction, watching red-colored light play on its varied sand-colored surface. I had grown up in India and known many forms of cultural decay, ruin and vandalism in my life, but I had never known this willful, state-engineered cleaving of a living culture from its physical embodiment, and the establishment of what Glazebrook calls “the museum-city.” Bukhara had decayed organically until the 1960s and ’70s, when its people were put in modern apartment blocks by the Soviets, who turned the city’s buildings into a heavily restored Potemkin village for tourists to visit.
ON MY LAST full day in Uzbekistan, racing through the red desert on the road to Khiva, some 280 miles northwest, I was given a glimpse of those vast blank spaces that lay between the caravan towns of the Silk Road; without them, it was impossible to understand these towns’ importance. The Kyzylkum (Red Sand) Desert floated above a sea of natural gas. The earth was covered in a faded green-and-pink shrub called saxaul. An immense pale blue Texas-size sky rose above us. The Oxus River, or Amu Darya, lay in a band of silver to our left, forming the border with the hermit kingdom of Turkmenistan, where the dictator Saparmurat Niyazov (also called Turkmenbashi) renamed the days of the week in honor of himself and his family members. My spirits rose at the sight of this desolation, for it was only with this nullity in mind that one could imagine what it was to see the minarets of Khiva, their blue tiles canceling out the despair of the desert, as light from a lighthouse cancels out the darkness of the sea.
Bukhara lay behind me, distilled into a memory of one sublime building, a Samanid mausoleum, which seemed to tie together all the different strands of Silk Road religion and history. It had been built by the Samanid dynasty around the 10th century at the pinnacle of this region’s glory — when men like Avicenna and Al-Biruni walked the earth — and it was a miracle, having been buried in sand, that it survived the 13th-century onslaught of Genghis Khan. An understated cube, with four sleeping pillars, it stood in isolation in northwestern Bukhara. After the renovated excesses of blue and cyan, and the overworked turquoise tile, the austerity of the Samanid tomb, utterly innocent of the use of color, was as refreshing as an unpainted beam of wood. What it did have, worked over every inch, from entablature to pediment to inset pillar, were raptures of baked brick, creating a varied and intricate surface laden with symbolism.
“Let’s start to read it,” Aziz said. “It reads like a book.” Bukhara was once home to a Buddhist community, part of that two-way traffic of monks and scholars, which would cease after the coming of Islam in the eighth and ninth centuries — its name was drawn from the Sanskrit word for monastery, vihara. Aziz pointed at the circles, or chakras, that ran along its pediment. The Uzbek scholar Shamsiddin Kamoliddin saw direct Buddhist references in the mandalas in the two spandrels of the central doorway. I saw them, too. Aziz saw crosses, and fleurs-de-lis, as well as the inverted Zoroastrian triangles indicating good thoughts, good words, good deeds. This was among the oldest Islamic tombs in Central Asia, and it was difficult to think of a more indispensable building. It stood like proof of the many natures of this land of confluence.
In my last hours in Uzbekistan, before catching a flight back to New York, I walked along the ramparts of Khiva’s Ichan-Kala, or walled inner town, with Madina. The light faded from the clear desert sky, and though the green domes and blue minarets of Khiva were beautiful, I was beginning to tire of these museum cities. I was glad I had managed to see Aziz’s apartment in Bukhara. It was part of a mikrorayon, or residential complex, set among acres upon acres of identical communist buildings, where dismal yellow lights came on in cramped windows and little bits of corrugated board held together the gray facades. This was how the great majority of the population of these romantic towns actually lived. No cupolas and courts for them, or shadows in the sand. The apartment, with its furry chocolate-colored rug and its unwashed dishes and a small window in the kitchen, was oppressive. I could see why Madina had done a runner nearly a year before. Moreover, when Aziz confided to me that he was prone to jealous rages, I thought she should run again.
“What is the weather like in London?” she asked.
“Rainy,” I replied, and asked her what she had done in Dubai for 10 months.
“I work as a hostess in an Italian restaurant,” she said. “They specialize in truffles.”
Truffles in Dubai, I thought. Here was a fruit of the Silk Road, if ever there was one!
It was the ingenuity and industry of men who brought rare and precious things to far-flung places that had blazed a network of roads across the spine of Asia. That energy was alive and well. All that had happened was that its course, like the shape-shifting Oxus, had changed. The spirit of the Silk Road, I could now see, was all movement, mercantile and unsentimental. It had no time to pay homage to the relics of what had merely been the easy exchange of goods and ideas. The unforgiving logic of trade had reduced the fabled cities of the old Silk Road — Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva — to backwaters. Their outstanding monuments, shells to the glory of past relevance, remained, as did the romance of their names, but the caravans had long since moved on.
Aatish Taseer’s latest book, “The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges” (2019), was recently released in paperback. His documentary, “In Search of India’s Soul,” produced by Al Jazeera, is streaming now. He is based in New York City. Richard Mosse’s video installation “Incoming” was recently exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He lives in New York City. Production: Timur Karpov.
If You Go (When It’s Safe to Travel) …
For many travelers, Uzbekistan is one of the ultimate Silk Road destinations. The guides at Silk Road Adventures can tailor a journey to your specifications and needs — whether that means seeing magnificent architectural sights, such as Samarkand’s Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis or the Ark of Bukhara, or bartering for silk or other goods at the Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent.