Tag Archives: Uzbekistan

The Road, and the Silk

Today was a long drive from Tashkent to Margilan. We drove over the mountains to Fergana.

When we drive over these mountains I am always amazed that caravans were crossing through these mountain passes in order to transfer goods from east to west and west to east.

In Kokand I visited the remains of the palace complex of the powerful Kokand Khanate that once dominated the valley. With the invasion of the imperial Russian army, the power of the Khanate diminished very quickly and was brought to an end.

The palace houses a history museum. The pictures of the Khan and his family from the late 19th century fascinated me. There were pictures of his descendants who live in Tashkent today.

The next stop was Rishtan which is one of the largest centers in Central Asia producing glazed ceramic. I was pleased with the tour and although there was a showroom there were no salespeople, only tea and conversation.



They took us to the site where they obtain the clay and then offered a demonstration. The business is family owned for 6 generations. They will be in Santa Fe in July 2017. They export a lot of their ceramics to southern France.

The next stop was at the silk factory at Margilan. I never tire of touring a silk factory. Margilan was a major center that connected Europe to East Asia. Once Central Asia discovered the secret of sericulture that was well guarded in China, Marglian became well known all over the world
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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.

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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.

Back to Uzbekistan


Before leaving Khujand I visited the modern mosque built during Soviet times.
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To the left of the Soviet mosque is a mosque and a mausoleum from 1394. Then there is a new mosque.
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During the Soviet era Islam was suppressed however since independence 1380 mosques have been built through private donations. My guide said it is expected wealthy people build mosques and so they have. This outpouring of construction is a sign of the rapid rebirth of Islam.

The early morning was spent in the Panchshanbe Bazaar which was by far the most animated thus far. Lots of smiles and welcome inviting me to sample food. And sample I did!





The question: where you from? was like a litany. And when I said: “America” it was meet with a thumbs up and a smile. There were no shy folks but eager to have photos taken. You are made to feel so welcomed.

On out way out of the city to the border we stopped by three monuments.

The warrior Timur Malik who battled against the Mongol invasion. This monument replaced that of Lenin which was relocated.

Then a monument that was dedicated to those Tajiks who lost their lives in the 10 year war from 1979 to 1989 when the pro-Soviet Afghan republic was threatened by the rebels. My guide pointed out that the US supported the rebel Mujahideen which after the war became the Taliban who were taught in the Saudi-backed madrassas. He said the Tajiks did not want to be involved in this Afghan civil war. Then they had to years later fight these same Islamic extremists who wanted to establish an Islamic republic.

Then we saw the statue of Lenin that was relegated from prominence.

After the border crossing, I went to Tashkent. This city was a major intersection of the caravan routes.

When imperial Russia arrived on the scene in the late 19th century they laid out a new city when they drained a swamp and established a new city they hoped would rival Saint Petersburg.

The new city is impressive. The boulevards are wide and treelined.

My guide also took me on the subway. A travel companion remarked we were on TV to which the guide remarked the security is high. I noticed there are police all around in the metro. Ever since 1999 Islamic terrorists exploded car bombs. My tour guide said that they fear Islamic extremists so security is heavy.

The day concluded with a tour of the synagogue, a Russian church, and the Catholic church.

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Walking around the city you get the feel of a modern European city. ALthough it is predominately Muslim everyone dresses in western dress. Tomorrow I will explore the old city. When people heard I was going to central Asia there was concern for my safety since I would be so close to the Afghan border. I have felt perfectly safe and have been made to feel at home by the warm welcome I received wherever I have been so far.

Buddhism and Islam in Termez

This morning began with a visit to the Termez Archaeological Museum whose collections are all artifacts excavated around Termez and thus the collection spans the Stone Age, the Bronze Age as well as the time of Alexander the Great and subsequent periods up to the modern era. The main focus of interest for me was the collection of Buddhist artifacts from the 3rd to the 4th century.

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The Buddhist presence was strong in the pre-Christian era. In fact in the museum you can see Greek influence on Buddhist art.

Right after the museum there is a stone outcropping in a field: the ruin of a Buddhist stupa

The ruins are of a third century AD Buddhist monastery. Genghis Khan leveled the Buddhist shrines and monastery. I found the ruins very fascinating in that you can understand how mission-minded Buddhism was in those days and was spread along the Silk Road as far west as Merv. The ruins give evidence of the rich cultural interchange.

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The mausoleum of Al Hakim is a sacred place of pilgrimage for Muslims who come to venerate this 9th century Sufi philosopher. In front of the sarcophagus you see a copy of the Koran wrapped in fabric.

The Muslim who comes to venerate the holy man will pick up the book and touch their forhead and kiss it three times. It reminds me of how Christians venerate icons. They touch the tomb and open their hands in prayer. Then they go to a room where the imam chants a portion of the Koran in Arabic then recites a prayer. The practice is done with such  devotion.

As I was walking away from the shrine it struck me how for almost 70 yeas Islam was brutally suppressed by the Soviets and people according to my guide forgot their religion. As she said they are rediscovering their religion and I am amazed how in less than 20 years the society is being re-Islamized for want of a better word: restoration of mosques and new mosques and pilgrimages where they can rediscover their religion the Soviets suppressed. I thought how quickly my country has become de-Christianized and yet perhaps there is the hope that there can be a revitalization of faith that could bring such joy to our secular society.

Walking through ruins of cities and fortresses give me a deep desire to learn more about the history of central Asia but also what role central Asia will play in the future. Central Asia is a vast territory rich in natural resources and wonderful people.

After a long day I had such a great time in the market. People are so friendly and are so happy when I tell them I am from America. They want to take pictures of us! When walking through the market I encounter smile after smile and hello after hello.  There is a feeling of security in the midst of the friendliness and respect that I have found among the people on the streets.

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And the food on the street is great.  And the ice cream is very good which offers some relief from the heat.

A Palace of Tamerlane

This morning was the beginning of a long drive to Termez which is about 20 miles or so from Afghanistan. On this part of the old trade routes camels were exchanged for horses because of the mountainous terrain. We began our climb and the terrain became more and more mountainous as we approached the pass that would give way to the plain on which Termez lies.


At the highest point we stopped for a local morning market. The attraction of the market gave me the incentive to try a few things: rhubarb with salt, dried yogurt, and an assortment of nuts and other local products.

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From there we continued on the road the Shakhrisabz which was the birthplace of Tamerlane. If military might is the criterion by which the greatest of a nation is judged then Tamerlane’s empire was great.  He was a a leader with military genius and was a master strategist as well. He forged the last great nomadic empire, and was feared because of his shock and awe tactics to quell rebellion and coerce loyalty. Scholars estimated he killed about 17 million people, that is 5% of the population of the world then. Up to his reign Christianity was strong in central Asia along the trade routes however Tamerlane devastated the Christian community and reduced it to a small community confined to Iraq.

We visited the Kok Gumbaz that is the blue domed mosque.


Behind the mosque is the Dorut Tilyovat which is the burial place for his family.

There is a grave marker of black stone that is said to be of a comet. Muslims come and pour water in a small indentation on the top, then drink it to get well. Our guide said the birds are not to be disturbed because locals believe they may be ghosts. Over the past few days I have learned that a lot of local superstition was assimilated into the practice of Islam in this region. She said that although Tamerlane used Islam to unify his large empire he also practiced magic.

From there we visited Ak Satay palace of Tamerlane whose empire stretched from Egypt to Kashkar which is in China today. There is little left of this enormous palace today except the remains of the monumental gates.

These gigantic gates are 40 meters high covered with mosaics. The palace was a project of 24 years with no expenses spared. The Spanish ambassador wrote a detailed description of the palace and it was of extraordinary opulence. My guide pointed out over the gates was inscribed: If you challenge our power, look at our building. My traveling companion made a remark, “Things have not changed much in that we build taller and taller buildings to demonstrate economic power.”

Tamerlane was a military genius whose very name struck fear in the hearts of the Arabs and Europeans alike yet today look at his buildings which are now in ruins. A sober reminder of the transitory nature of earthly power. All empires and nations are not given any promise that they will remain until the end of time.

We continued our journey through this mountainous region as my thoughts turned to those merchants whose caravans crossed this difficult terrain.

Samarkand, Day 2

Although the history of Samarkand stretches back 2700 years, it reached its zenith under Tamerlane and his grandson Ulugbek in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The next stop was the tomb of Saint Daniel the prophet. How did the relics of Daniel get to Central Asia? Jewish tradition and pre-Islamic Syriac tradition held that the prophet Daniel was buried in Susa Iran. The Muslims accepted this tradition and the Muslims and Christians and Jews would pilgrimage to the site. In the 15th century Tamerlane tried to conquer Syria to no avail but according to my guide he was told that Daniel was the patron giving protection. So he took either a leg or arm and interred it at Samarkand. On that day a spring of water appeared so to this day Muslims come for the holy water and to pray at the tomb.

There is another miracle. He also brought back a pistachio tree however it died 100 years ago. Several years ago the Russian Orthodox patriarch came to venerate the tomb and brought holy water from Russia and sprinkled it on the tree. The next year it was very much alive.

Shakhi Zindi is a mausoleum complex. Shakhi Zindi means living king. On the journey the guide has shared many legends about holy men in Islamic hagiography. Muslims come to tombs of holy men to pray. This legend is that Kusan ibn Abbas who was the cousin of Mohammed was buried here. He preached Islam but was beheaded however he took his head in his arms and walked into the wall that then closed behind him so he is still living there.

The Bibi Khanym mosque was named after the wife of Tamerlane who built it in the 14th century. He had conquered parts of India so he brought back precious stones on the backs of 90 elephants. He wanted this to be the largest mosque in Central Asia however it was built is such haste that it was not well constructed so it fell into disuse.

After a long morning I enjoyed the market before a final visit to the Registon


Later in the afternoon I went back to the Registan which was the heart of ancient Samakand. I stood in awe as I gazed at the three madrassahs of the Timurid dynasty. There is no way to even begin to describe this incredible Islamic architecture. Thus I will share a few photos that try in a most inadequate way to capture such beauty.

This morning I received an email with this quote: “Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” That quote keep echoing in my mind as I stood in awe in the presence of such architectural beauty. I thought of how much beauty is being destroyed by fanatics of today such as ISIS and of yesteryear such as Thomas Cromwell who at the time of the English Protestans destroyed almost 90% of England’s artistic heritage, and how much in years past; and yet when you encounter such beauty the human does not grow old rather beauty brings joy and youthfulness to the human spirit. Whenever I stand in awe in the presence of beauty it confirms my belief in human exceptionalism!

Beautiful Bukhara

The citadel is protected by impressive walls and has been occupied from the 5th century until 1920 when it was bombed by the Communists thus destroying most of the interior.

The city has preserved and restored many of the covered and domed bazaars which are filled with craftsmen and shops. They give a flavor of the trade of yesteryear although they cater to the tourists and the local population today.

In the evening during dinner there was a performance of the various ethnic dances with the dancers in traditional costume. Wandering through the streets once again and enjoying the monuments illuminated made me think once again about how vital this city was in the medieval time not only commercially but also intellectually in the development and transmission of the ideas of such men of the stature of Avicenna.





Bukhara: the Home of Avicenna

In the 9th and 10th century, Bukhara was the capital of the Samanid state as well as a leader in religious and cultural affairs. One of its famous residents that would have an impact on the development of medieval theology and philosophy was Avicenna, that is Ibn Sini. He is thought to be one of the figures in Raphael’s painting of the philosophers in the Vatican Palace.

Although the old center has developed in such a way to attract tourists, the center remains an architectural maze of madrassas, Islamic theological schools and minarets, mosques, caravanserai and covered markets and the royal palace. These remants of the old city give an impression of the vitality of the city on the silk road.

Genghis Khan in 1220 destroyed the city and in 1370 it fell under the domination of Timur Samarkand.

In the morning I set out to enjoy the Mir Arab Madrassa and mosque from the 16th century.

Although most of the madrassas today are markets and hotels, this one is a functioning school. The tile work and double domes are striking.

The minaret built in 1127 was one of the tallest structures in central Asia at a height of 47 meters. Genhgis Kahn spared it. Notice the beautiful oramental brick work with blue tiles that would soon dominate Islamic art of Central Asia. Next to the minaret is a mosque built after Genghis Khan destroyed the earlier one. The Soviets turned it into a warehouse however in 1991 it became a functioning mosque.

These are doors to a caravanserai, that is a hotel for merchants and their carsvan animals and goods for trade

Bukhara005233The Ismail Samani mausoleum is the oldest monument in the city. It was covered with dirt so it escaped the destruction of Genghis Kahn.

This is the Chashma Ayub mausoleum built over a spring. The legend is that Job struck his staff on the gtound and a spring appeared. There is so much religious folklore which creates many places of pilgrimage.


From the market:

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Caravan from Khiva to Bukhara

This morning we began our 7 hour journey through the desert.

In the days of Marco Polo this journey from Khiva to Bukhara would have taken two weeks. They would be able to journey 30 kilometers a day. Every 30 days there was a caravanserai where the merchants could find shelter and re-provision as well as barter goods. Their camels and other animals would find food and water and rest as well. They journeyed through the night to avoid the intense heat of the desert and would navigate by the stars. As we drove through the desert, I imagined caravans of 300 camels on the horizon making the journey on this commercial highway laden with carpets, spices, jewels and other precious goods in transport from east to west and west to east.

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There was a very strong and prosperous Jewish community in Bukhara; in fact there are two synagogues. After the independence from the USSR many of the Jewish people sold their private residences which then were turned into boutique hotels like the hotel where I am staying. The interior courtyard has such charm. This hotel must have been a beautiful private residence.

This building was a 16th century Madrassah that is a Muslim school of theological study. The Madrassah in the city today are museums like this one.

Prayer niche in the direction of Mecca

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The entrance of this 16th century caravanserai gives way to a courtyard that once housed the caravan animals in the center courtyard; and the hotel rooms are artisan workshops.

Most of the old markets of the 15th and 16th century are restored and are shops of many artisans selling their goods and carpets and silks and souvenirs to travelers.

The colorful tile work on the 15th and 16th century Islamic theological schools make beautiful restaurants. One of the most impressive is now a restaurant that overlooks a large plaza with a pool that reflects the evening light.

Although there are tourists the night is alive with locals and their families with many children enjoying their city.

Khiva: A Door to the East and West

Today Khiva is an open air museum. When I walked through the gate of its inner city of homes of mud brick construction the very dull clay colored walls transport me to another era when this city was a major city on the silk road whose much wealth was obtained through slave trade.

Eastern gate market, which today is a city market, was the site of such humanity. The city was noted in the medieval period for it barbaric cruelty. My guide said for minor infractions of Islamic law you could be thrown off the high minarets to your death. For adultery the woman was tied up in a sack with wild cats who clawed her to death and then body was thrown into the river. Such cruelty persisted until it came under the Imperial Russia who put an end to this rampant barbarism and brought a greater sense of a site of such inhumanity. And Russia brought education, development of industry and electricity and many other benefits according to my guide.

The morning tour began at the palace with a climb to the top of a tower which affords great views of the city.

The Bible says the city was founded by Shem, the son of Noah, who discovered a well here.

It did not play an important role on the trade route until Timer devastated Kony Urgench and then the Uzbek Shaybanidsand made Khiva their capital in 1592 and established the major industry until almost 1900 which was the slave trade.


The turquoise minaret is the unfinished work Amin Kahn who in 1851 dreamed of building the tallest minaret in the world however he died before completion hence its fat look.

Khiva091339 Juma mosque or the Friday mosque has 218 wooden columns supporting its roof. Several of the wooden columns are from the 10th century.

Khiva093512Some of the most interesting buildings are Madrassas, that is, Islamic schools of instruction. Those in the old city are hotels and restaurants today. Notice the beautiful tile work.

Allakuli built the Tosh Hovli palace in 1832-1841 with beautiful tiles, wood and stone. My guide said the Khan executed the architect because he did not meet the deadline for completion.

The mausoleum of Pahlavon exhibits beautiful tile work. He is revered by the Muslims as a holy man. So you come and pray to him so God gives you what you request.


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