Tag Archives: Silk Road

Little Hagia Sophia

Istanbul-025425Little Hagia Sophia. This church was formerly the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.

The church of Saints Sergius and Baccchus marks the first of the city’s harbors on the Marmara Sea.

Istanbul-025750No interior decoration remains. Notice how the orentation of worship changed. When it was a church the priest and people faced the east, that is, ad orientem when they prayed; the altar is the center of the apse. However Muslims pray facing Mecca so the prayer niche faces Mecca and is to the right.


Wonderful byzantine capitals.




The Sistine of the Balkans

The Church of the Nativity in Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria, was built in the 15th century and repainted in the 17th century. It is also called the Sistine Chapel of the Balkans due to its many frescoes.

The icon screen.

The Pantocrator.

The Pantocrator.

All the doors would be low in order to make sure the Muslims would not ride their horses in the church as they did in Constantinople.

The church has a two hall configuration.

In 1538, the sultan approved the construction of a church only on the condition that is be low and not look like a church to demonstrate the superiority of Islam.

The church is dedicated to the Nativity so notice how the Pantocrator looks like a child: Emmanuel.

The Dormition, on the west wall.

The Virgin Mother in the apse dominates the nave.

The Annunciation.

When you approach the church, it does not appear to be a church at all. It has a low roof and looks like a barn. This is a 17th century church that blends into the agricultural landscape and for a reason.


This is the church of the Assumption that was established in 1600 however the current church was built in 1830, hence it does not look like a church on the outside.

While the exterior does not look like a church, the interior does!

The church houses the three-handed miraculous icon of the Holy Mother however pictures are not allowed.

What a blessing that I witnessed the baptism of Victoria! And after the sacrament she came forward to venerate the icons. This was so moving.

Followed by a celebration to which I was invited.

Mosques, Minarets, Madrassahs and Islamic Piety

The pictures here are from Central Asia along the Silk Road, from this April and May.

Over the past few weeks the blog has had many photos of mosques, minarets, madrassahs, and mausoleums. First a word about a mosque. The mosque is a place where Muslims gather for prayers led by an imam who is a Muslim cleric. The building is devoid of any pictorial art which is forbidden by Islam hence the decorative art of tile in which beautiful geometric designs and floral motifs abound. The building is not as important as the direction of prayer.

The tower is the minaret from which the imam calls the faithful to prayer five times a day. In the medieval period since the Muslims, Jews and Christians marked the day by prayer, when the imam chanted the call to prayer everyone prayed and marked their confession of faith by direction: Muslims pray facing Mecca in Saudi Arabia where Mohammed was born, Jews pray facing Jerusalem and Christians pray facing east, that is ad orientem.

What’s Inside a Mosque? Article from livescience.com .

The mihrab indicates the direction of Mecca.

The minbar is the pulpit on which the imam sits and expounds the Koran, the scriptures of Islam. After he finishes expounding the text he then goes to the mihrab where the imam and all the worshippers face Mecca and he leads them in prayer.

The mihrab is the prayer niche facing Mecca.

Even the hotels rooms have the direction of Mecca marked so a Muslim knows which direction he should pray.

The Madrassah is a theological school where students live and study the Koran and it exposition. It is like what we would call a seminary. The word was borrowed by the Muslims from the Christians who in pre-Islamic times call their institutions for the study of the Scripture, Madrassah. The word is derived from the triliteral root DRS which in Aramaic means to interpret. The M makes the verbal form a noun hence the word MaDRaSSah, a place where texts are studied and expounded.

A mausoleum is where people are interred. Many Muslims make a pilgrimage to the mausoleum of a “holy man,” a “saint” and pray to the holy man that God grant their wish.

Outside you will sometimes find ribbons that they tie around a piece of wood as they make their wish.

The tomb of “a holy man”


You often see the tail of a yak on a tall pole. My guide said that Muslims believe this keeps evil spirits away.

They often walk around the tomb three times as they pray and as the guide says: make a wish.

Such things as holy water are important to these Muslims. They come to various tombs of holy men where sometimes there are miraculous springs like here at the tomb of Saint Daniel and people take water home to drink so, as my guide said, they would have good luck.

After they pray at the tomb, the imam chants a portion of the Koran then recites a prayer in Arabic to which they respond Amen.

After a wish is granted the whole community is invited to a Zadikkat that is meal prepared for everyone to come and share in thanks that God granted them their wish through a holy man.

And then you see a bird. My guide said they believe the soul is a bird for 40 days after death so the birds at the tombs are sacred.

At shrines they used to burn candles but imams forbid that now.

During these few weeks as I have visited ancient sites I have witnessed Islamic piety. They are very devout. As an outsider it is hard to comprehend what sometimes appeared to me as magic and superstition. When I saw this woman at prayer my heart was touched. May she find the one her soul longs for.

Traces of Christianity along the Silk Road

Burana Tower is an 11th century minaret that was restored by the Soviets in 1950s.

I climbed up

And then down.

Kyrgy001736There is very little remaining of the ancient citadel founded by the Sogdians. However the site yielded a treasure of Scythian artifacts. What caught my attention were 11th century Christian carvings and crosses. Most people are unaware of the vigorous Christian missionary expansion along the Silk Road.

On the grounds of the tower the Scythians installed 6th- to 10th-century balbals that is Turkic totem-like stone markers.

This balbal is holding a teacup.

The Krygyz migrated in the 10th to 15th century from Siberia and arrived by way of Lake Issyk Kul. It was also the center of the Scythian civilisation.

The lake was also used by the Soviets for the testing of high-precision torpedoes. This military complex was shut down in 1991 and the lake was converted into a resort area.

Near the town is a large field of glacier boulders with pictures scratched into them.

Some of these petroglyphs date from the later Bronze age, about 1500 BC.

But most are from 8th century BC to 1st century AD therefore predate the arrival of the Kyrgyz people.

The local museum houses a small collection of archeological finds of local Scythian gold jewelry

And gravestones.

Kyrgy005300 The next day was devoted to hiking in the Grigorevskoe Gorge with its beautiful landscape.

In the valley were trees with small ribbons tied around the branches. Muslims tie small ribbons and make wishes as they do so with the hope that their wish comes true.

The shepherds bring their animals to graze in the summer months to graze then return to the villages with their flocks in the winter

The valley is well travelled.

This long hike was very quiet and restful and gave me time to reflect on all that I have experienced in Central Asia.

Along the road were many Muslim cemeteries. My guide said they were places where travellers and pilgrims often took refuge.

Since the graves offered shelter the Muslim pilgrim would prayer for the soul of the deceased and as the guide said the prayers would help purify the soul of the deceased.

Bishkek, Kyrgystan

Bishkek is located where the steppe meets the foothills of the snow-capped Tien Shan mountains.

Bishkek was founded in the 19th century after the Kokand conquerors established a citadel in order to protect the caravans that would pass through to Kashgar in China. The city has many public parks and is truly a green city. In the game between the Russian and British empires in the 19th century for hegemony over Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan came under the hegemony of imperial Russia so then at the time of the Bolshevik revolution it came under Soviet influence. The tour of the city is a tour of Soviet architecture. For example this monument to the victims of World War Two.

The Opera House

The Opera House

This is a monument to those slain in the first World War.


The first soviet movie theater

235557 This monument is dedicated to the victims of the revolution several years ago against government corruption. The guide pointed out that the white stone symbolizes good and the people pushing away the evil symbolized by the black stone.

Those who were slain in the square are memorialized on these plaques.

Kyrgy010807We then proceeded to drive to Ala Archa which is an accessible gorge south of Bishkek. The views are spectacular.

The guide pointed this plant out which is popular with the locals who dry it then burn it around their cars and houses to ward off evil spirits.


There is a small museum of stuffed animals and this is called the Marco Polo mountain goat.

I have included a few photos so you can appreciate the beauty of the area.
Kyrgy013451Kyrgy021159And of course the fields of poppies and red tulips are beginning to blossom.

In the evening we were given a concert of local music.

Crossing into Kyrgystan

This morning we drove through the valley to cross the border into Kyrgystan whose landscape is soaring snow-covered peaks and lush green valleys. The nomadic people who settled here were from Siberia. And much earlier the Scythians inhabited the territory from 6th century BC to 5th century AD.

When I arrived in Osh, Kyrgystan, I climbed the steps up a high mountain called Solomon’s Throne. This is a pilgrimage place for Muslims because according to tradition Mohammed prayed here.

Muslim pilgrims

In the late 14th century, Babur, king of Fergana built a little mosque there. This was a steep 40-minute climb which is well worth it for the views.

Russian Orthodox Church


We then went to the bazaar which is very Asian. My guide joked and called it China Market because all the goods with the exception of food and local textiles are manufactured in China. A long time was spent not so much to survey the merchandise but rather to enjoy the faces of some of the many vendors who seemed so happy we were there.Kyrgy040846

Marco Polo Moment

When the plane landed in Ashgabat, I was a bit apprehensive about my journey to central Asia because many people had concerns about my safety. However this was my Marco Polo moment in that a childhood fantasy about traveling the Silk Road was soon to be fulfilled.

And then because of my extensive travel in countries where Islam is the religious majority and have lived in the Holy Land for almost a year, I had a preconceived notion of what i would encounter.
I expected to hear the imam chant and broadcast the call to prayer five times a day from the minaret however the governments do not allow this Islamic public manifestation of faith. Not hearing the call disappointed me because when the imam would broadcast the call I would pray my Christian prayers.

There is such a pervasive military presence in the streets, on the metros and multiple internal border checks for both foreigners and nationals that you know that all activity is being monitored to insure everyone’s safety. All of this has given me a sense of freedom and security so my initial concern was quickly overcome. I feel as safe as, maybe even safer, here than I do at home.

Within a few days I remarked to my guide that i did not feel I was in a Muslim country. No call to prayer from the mosque, people dressed in a western fashion. I see more Muslim women veiled at Kroger and on the VCU campus in Richmond than I have seen in central asia.

So this has been a Macro Polo moment within a western context devoid of any public manifestation of the Islamic faith in countries where over 90% are Muslims. I expected to hear the imam’s call to prayer throughout the day and people dressed in the markets as they are dressed in other Islamic countries but neither heard the call to prayer nor enjoyed the exotic visuals. Yet I encountered wonderful people who have extended such a welcome. When they ask: Where are you from? And I answer America there is a wide smile and the response: I like your country or Good country. Although I was disappointed that my Marco Polo experience was devoid of the trappings I expected, I received an even greater gift I did not expect: a warm welcome that radiated the joy of our shared humanity.


Friday in Tashkent

Tashkent001003Today was a relaxed but full day in Tashkent. First stop was the mausoleum of Abu Bakr who was an Islamic scholar and poet.

The Barak Khan Madrassa is from the 16th century. This one no longer functions as a madrassa but is a souvenir shop and has artisans as well. There are only ten madrassas in the country: two for women and eight for men who from age 16 to 20 study all subjects but with a concentration in Koran. From there they can then continue to study and become an imam. Women are not allowed to be imams however can teach Arabic and assist the imam.

Tashkent003123       Tashkent003153

My guide demonstrates the traditional street dress until the time of the arrival of the Russians.

Tashkent005048The Moyle Mubarek Museum houses the 7th century Uthman Quran. Tamerlame brought it to Samarkand and then the Russians took it to Saint Peterburg, then the Soviets returned it in 1924.

Tashkent005803This mosque was built in the 20th century. I asked my guide why I have not heard the imam calling people to prayer 5 times a day. Although the country is at least 85% muslim, the government forbids this practice because they are a secular democracy not an Islamic country. I asked about the bells at the Orthodox church and she said the government allows the ringing of Christian bells.

Tashkent011632I then went to wander around in the old town which is a maze of dirt streets with mud brick houses. We stopped by a bread baker.

Great bread

On the way to market

Old town

Chorsu bazaar

Tashkent015631I have yet to try to the markets which are full of life and energy.


On the horizon is a new mosque built in 1990 on the site of a mosque that the Russian Czar built for the city but then the mosque was destroyed by the Soviets.

The Kulkedash madrassa is a functioning school for Islamic studies.

The courtyard of the madrassa.

Tashkent031258This museum is housed in the residence of a diplomat from Russia in the early 20th century prior to the revolution.

The ceiling is very beautiful and colorful.