April 15, travel and Tashkent
I definitely had adventures in traveling. The people next to me on the flight from LA to Istanbul were from northern Iran, but not ethnically Persian (perhaps Turkmen?). Her english was very limited and he spoke none at all. The man, who sat in the middle, had a huge inhaler that he sucked on all the time; it emitted huge clouds of steam/smoke. And he had two other inhalers which required shaking, and other drugs as well. I really thought he could die at any moment. And then, between inhalers, he smoked an electric cigarette! It was a tad surreal. He was very restless, more or less in constant motion, so I was regularly awakened while I was trying to sleep, and I arrived with worse than usual jet lag. The Turkish Airline food was superb, however. Easy transfer in Istanbul. I met most of the group and tour manager JD there since we were on the same flight to Tashkent, which arrived at 1:40 AM. We were met at the airport by Dilya, our local guide, and got to the hotel around 3:30 AM. I went to sleep around 4 and got up at 9 for breakfast.
There was a light rain, which became heavier, and it was cool–perfect for staying in to work on talks and check out the projector situation (and nap!). I tried to go out for a diet coke, but I was stymied by curbside puddles that required hip waders! So I just stayed in the hotel all day, napping in the early afternoon; then having a cappuccino and working on my talks later. I skipped lunch (because I had a big breakfast at 10) and had a soup and salad dinner in the hotel.
The Tashkent Palace Hotel is grand in an old world way and the rooms are very comfortable. The members of the group who arrived with us were great and I really liked JD immediately. So far, so good! The only worry was that our local guide, Dilya was very sick with an aggressive cough. Her hacking would become the sound track for the trip, but as far as I know, no one else would get sick during the trip.
April 16, Tashkent
I had the most extraordinary day. First, I slept 7 hours last night and was feeling more human. I had been reading an outstanding book on Religions of the Silk Road (by Richard Foltz) and was bursting with new information. After receiving the rest of the group who arrived at the hotel around 8 AM, and having breakfast, I set out on a rather aimless walk around Tashkent, taking in its monumental buildings and grand boulevards lined with polished granite walls and lots of trees in new leaf. I made it to Independence “square”, more of a park, with lots of fountains and colonnades and the requisite monument (actually the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) with a globe featuring Uzbekistan on top (kind of like an outsized bowling trophy!) and with a huge sculpture of a mother holding a baby at its base (looking like a Madonna and Child, and in a Muslim country!). Grand marble government (Including the Senate) and military buildings were around that you could not photograph. However, there were photographers taking pictures of Uzbeks in front of the monument. The free-standing colonnade was topped with a group of storks taking flight–a not too subtle reference to freedom and independence. They also invoke a mythical bird, like a phoenix, the khumo, which is the national symbol of Uzbekistan.
I then stumbled on the Uzbekistan National Gallery of Art, which had lots of great 20th century and contemporary art in a building organized around a domed two-story rotunda with sweeping staircases to the second floor balcony that led to galleries in the wings. I took lots of photos of art. I then wandered on toward the Amir Timur Monument and stumbled on an outdoor art market. Artists propped their paintings up with sticks on the ground, aligned along the margins of an asphalt walk. Lots of paintings of historic Islamic buildings and people and camels, all located in some timeless Romantic past of the Silk Road and without any of the modern-day realities of electric lights and cars etc.
A handsome young man started to walk along side of me, asking in English where I was from. I was immediately suspicious, but I answered “California.” He continued to talk to me, and it became clear he was studying English at college and met tourists to practice. I invited him for lunch, but he was not hungry (and may not have understood that I would pay for his lunch). We went for drinks–Coke for me and Fanta for him–in a raised pavilion in the park, and he insisted on paying. We chatted for a few hours. Nodirbek Normatov who is 19, was at Lycee, had a math exam the next day, and was hoping to go to university in auto technology (the university of Turin has a branch in Tashkent!). He pays volleyball, runs, swims and is a football (soccer) fan. His family is from the Ferghana Valley and Muslim, he is very close to his 41-year-old father (he is the eldest child and only son), and he moved to Tashkent to go to school. He would like to study abroad. Anyway, it was very pleasant to sit in the park, with the sun going in and out of clouds (it was a tad cool, but was just right in the sun). We had a desultory, low key conversation. He asked if I were married and what my wife did. I hesitated to tell him I was married to a man (homosexuality is illegal in Uzbekistan) and answered in gender-neutral ways, which is something I haven’t done in a very long time.
I said I had to leave to work on my talks, I asked to take his photo, and we shook hands warmly, touching each other’s shoulders (typical for physically affectionate Uzbek men). He put his name and e-mail address in my phone, so I guess I have an Uzbek pen pal! As I would continue to discover, Uzbeks are very friendly and have ready smiles. They like taking pictures of foreigners and of themselves with foreigners, and they are happy to have their pictures taken. This was a great mode social interaction throughout the trip. We met as a group at 6:30 in the hotel lobby, and went to the welcome dinner at the studio of local ceramicists (Rakhimov Ceramic Studio; www.ceramic.uz). The dinner was wonderful (a series of dishes like tapas), accompanied by a musician playing traditional instruments. The appetizer was a special brown, vaguely sweet, pudding made of sprouted wheat. They have a beautiful space organized around a central courtyard with the three trees of paradise: pistachio, pomegranate and fig, as well as water features. Their pottery is also beautiful, but I resisted!
April 17, Tashkent
I got up early, since the data projector for my first talk was only being delivered to the hotel that morning. I got the projector and room set up around 8. We met the group at 9. JD and Dilya gave some introductory remarks, and I gave a introduction to the Silk Road–geography, ethnography, history, significance, spread of religion along, and the way the name “Silk Road” came into being in the late 19th c. at a time when Europe was looking to the “exotic Orient” as a locus of adventure, and what that had to do with modern-day tourism.
We set out a 10:30 and went first to see the oldest surviving Qur’an (Uthman Qur’an, 655 AD) in a complex of religious buildings that includes the headquarters for the mufti of Uzbekistan, the 16th c. Muyie Mubarak Library (where the Qur’an is housed), the 16th c. Barak Khan Madrassa, the 15th c. Yunus Khan Mausoleum, a new mosque (Tillya Sheik Mosque) and a religious school. The third Caliph (or leader of the community) after the death of Muhammad, Uthman, was murdered in 656, so Muhammed’s son-in-law, Ali, could be installed as Caliph (although Ali was then murdered as well). Likely apocryphal, Uthman was supposedly reading this Qur’an when he was slain, and pages of the Uthman Qur’an have his splattered blood! This Qur’an is quite significant, and a great way to start the trip, since the murders of Uthman and Ali are the origin of the Sunni/Shi’ite (from “partisans of Ali”) split. Further, the Uthman Qur’an was taken from Bagdad by Timur after his conquest in 1401 and placed on the large Qur’an stand in the center of the Bibi Khanum Mosque in Samarkand (which we also see on this tour).
Then we went to see the Kukeldash Madrassa from the 16th c. and on to the Chorsu (“Cross-roads” from the Persian word for “four”) Bazaar, which was a hive of activity. Lots of produce, including green apricots! We had lunch at Karavan, with a wonderful multi-course meal. Its Uzbek manager has studied in Moscow (masters), Abu Dhabi, and at Brooklyn College! His English was fluent, and like most Uzbeks, he was very gracious. After that, we saw local crafts in the Museum of Applied and Decorative arts, which is in the 1895 house of the former Russian ambassador, which was built in the traditional style (think Khiva). There were incredibly beautiful embroideries.
April 18, travel to Samarkand
We awoke to sun, and the drive from Tashkent to Samarkand (broadly following the Silk Road) was wonderful. Rural Uzbekistan is agricultural, relying on many open canals to bring water from the rivers to the fields. They plant trees with extremely close spacing, both in the ubiquitous parks of Tashkent and along fields; in the latter case, they are poplars, which are grown for wood. Millenia of sustainable agriculture in Transoxania (the land between the Oxus River–Amu Darya–to the west and the Jaxartes River–Syr Darya–to the east)–basically present-day Uzbekistan–was replaced under the Soviets with collective farms growing a monoculture of cotton. Cotton requires enormous amounts of water, which has created the great ecological disaster of the shrinking Aral Sea, further exacerbated by the nitrate fertilizer run-off as ever-increasing amounts of fertilizer are used to compensate for the depletion of the land from monoculture. It is really a tragedy, since Transoxania, like Mesopotamia, or the Nile Valley or the Indus Valley or the Yangtze River Valley were all places where larger urban centers based on irrigation and sustainable agriculture emerged around 2,500 BC. We crossed the mighty Jaxartes River, which has its origin in the Parmirs of Kyrgyzstan, between Tashkent and Samarkand.
Under independence, Uzbekistan has basically maintained the Soviet structure. The government owns all of the land, and individuals/families can rent it for 99 years at a time. They farm their “own” land, paying the government a part of their crop in lieu of rent. We stopped as Zizzach (!) for a “technical stop” at fairly primitive bathrooms with asian toilets that some of the group chose not to use! (Compared to what we encountered later, they were deluxe, and our group gradually got over their qualms as the tour progressed). We had to take a detour around a piece of Kazakhstan (through which the direct route travels), since a “tiff” between the Uzbek and Kazakh presidents has closed the free-trading zone there!
Coming into Samarkand, we passed through ‘The Gates of Timur”– a narrow defile between rock outcrops made by the Sangzor River. Timur passed through here on his way to conquer Samarkand. We then had a lovely buffet lunch in the 7-story central atrium of the Registan Plaza Hotel in Samarkand. I devoured lamb patties, mashed potatoes, beef goulash, and delicious cold cauliflower. After lunch, we headed to the Registan at 3, and had a great tour with not too many people. The skies were a bit overcast, so overall the buildings didn’t “pop” as usual, but I took lots of beautiful tile details. The Tillya Kari Mosque was as magnificent as ever– just dazzling.
I was approached by a policeman and asked if I wanted to go up a minaret of the Uleg Beg Madrassa (1420), which is exactly what I wanted to do! Lots of climbing on twisting narrow uneven stairs, with a stop to go out on the upper level of the Uleg Beg Madrassa. On the way up, there were slit windows framing great views of the Sher Dor Madrassa (1619-36) and of the Tillya Kari Madrassa and Mosque (1646-60). At the top, I poked my head up through the metal roof like a ground squirrel, and had commanding views of the Registan and of the Bibi Khanum Mosque, which is quite close by. I ended up paying $10–worth every penny! We got back around 5:45, and had to leave at 6:45 for dinner at another craftsman’s house (Zarif, the silk paper maker), but I chose to stay behind, because I was tired and not at all hungry.
April 19, Samarkand
Today was a tad difficult. The weather was biting cold with a strong wind. Everyone had to get everything warm they had to share around (I wore my purple fleece and gave my green fleece to someone else). It made Dilya’s long explanations outside a bit challenging. First stop was the Gur-i-Mir Mausoleum, which was mobbed with Uzbek pilgrims because it was Friday. Timur built this for his favorite grandson, Muhammed Sultan (1374-1403), but Timur was buried here as well when he died in 1405 (rather than in Shakhrisabz, as he had intended), along with his spiritual teacher, Mir Said Baraka, another grandson, Uleg Beg, and other relatives. There are many sites of pilgrimage for Uzbeks associated with Timur and his descendants (the Gur-i-Mir Mausoleum and Timurid tombs at Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand and the Timurid tombs in Shakhrisabz). There are also lots of monuments to Timur in Uzbekistan, which has embraced him as a national hero. Every country in Central Asia and the Middle East is looking back nostalgically to a glorious past they would like to revive. For Uzbekistan it is the Timurid Empire of the 14th and 15 centuries; for Turkmenistan, it is the national saga invented by Turkmenbashi (their first president) and laid out in his book, Ruhnama, which is required reading in Turkmenistan. According to the Ruhnama, it was the Turk, Oguz Khan, and his six sons who were the progenitors of the Turkmen people in the 3rd c. BC (never mind that this was the time of the Persian Empire and that Turks did not start coming into Central Asia until the 10th century!). For Arabs, it is the Abbasid Dynasty that ruled a huge Shi’ite empire from Baghdad between 751 and 1258. For Iranians, it is the various Persian Empires from c. 500 BC to c. 400 AD or the Abbasid Empire, which was controlled by Persians. For Turks, it is the Ottoman Empire that arose beginning in 1380 and which was only dismembered in 1922. The US, since its creation, has more or less been top dog, so I do not think we understand this longing for former glory. If we can imagine a time in the future when some other empire is dominant, say China, we might also imagine longing nostalgically for the time in the past when we were numero uno.
We then went to Uleg Beg’s Observatory, which only has the below-ground track for the
sextant remaining. An inscription at the observatory by Uleg Beg (1394-1449): “The
religions disperse, kingdoms fall apart, but the work of science remains eternal.” He
was a true secularist, which bothered religious leaders of his time, who conspired with
his son to behead him. So much for secularism!
From there we went to the Bibi Khanum Mosque, where the wind continued to blow.
This mosque is a huge courtyard mosque with four iwans, accommodating over 10,000
people. It was built in haste by Timur for his favorite wife between 1398 (when Timur
returned from India) and 1404, and it started to collapse almost as soon as it was
finished. The four iwans have been restored, but the interior of the principal iwan with
the mihrab has not; it is by far the most evocative part of the ruin. The Uzbeks have
planted pine trees in the courtyard, which make seeing the extent of the Bibi Khanum
Mosque difficult; I do not know what they were thinking! We saw the Qur’an stand that
held the Uthman Qur’an (which Timur brought back after his conquest of Baghdad in
1401) and made the connection with Tashkent, where we had seen this Qur’an, and
with the Sunni-Shi’ite schism.
Afterwards, we were turned loose for lunch. Both Dilya and JD took a few of the group
to the rest room in the neighboring Bazaar, while the rest of us headed up the street to
find a restaurant. We were completely clueless as to where to go, and all the shops
looked pretty closed. We finally found a “Samarkand Sweet Shop”, which we
determined served a full menu (but without a menu). Despite the low key appearance
of the place, a promising sign was that they had a room set up with tables for a French
group that was coming, and they also had very nice toilets. After much confusion over
ordering (no one at the restaurant spoke much English), we ordered soup and plov (a
kind of national dish). We got the soup and then were told the plov would be 30
Then it got really interesting. The group of French folks had arrived, and the restaurant
was making the plov in the courtyard over a wood fire. A big wok-like dish was filled with
meat and garbanzo beans and vegetables in a thick stock. Soaked rice was added on
top, which then took 20 minutes to steam and additional spices were added. It was fun
to see, but we only got plov at 1:30. It was really delicious, however!
Our tour manager, JD, bought a large quantity of walnut-stuffed dried apricots in the
bazaar, which would sustain us as snacks throughout the trip. They were exceptionally
yummy! We continued on to the 7th BC-13th AD site of Afrosiab. It is a complete ruin,
but the museum was very interesting with a great Sogdian mural from c. 670 AD. It
represents from L to R: 1) a Sogdian royal procession with King Varkhuman going to an
ancestral tomb for a Zoroastrian New Year’s celebration (supporting a dynasty cult for
King Varkhuman); 2) foreign ambassadors, including from China, presenting gifts to
King Varkhuman (celebrating Varkhuman’s brilliant diplomacy); and 3) the Chinese
Emperor hunting lions with the Empress in a river boat (announcing the Sogdian union
with China). It reflects an alliance made in 665 between Sogdiana and the Chinese
Tang Empire for opposing the Arab Islamic expansion.
Our last stop was Shah-i-Zinda (1372-1460), a Timurid tomb complex, which was
magnificent. The entry iwan was built by Uleg Beg in 1425, and several of Timur’s wives
and female relatives have mausolea here. The central focus of pilgrimage is the tomb of
Kussam bin Abbas, a cousin of Muhammed. This time we made it to the contemporary
cemetery at the top, and got great shots from that cemetery to the Shah-i-Zinda. The
modern gravestones have incredibly detailed portraits of the deceased chiseled directly
into the stone. Really impressive. Wow!
April 20, Shakhrisabz and travel to Bukhara
Today was a very long day; it took 4 hours to drive to Shakhrisabz. There is a direct
route over the mountains, but busses are not allowed on it, even though it looks like a
more major road. So we took the long route around the mountains, which went through
some beautiful, but very rural, areas. We travelled just north of the Parmir Mountains,
where the foothills meet the plains. The countryside, with lots of small farms, was so
green, since it was Spring! They were just plowing and sowing (by hand).
It was Saturday, and we went through a Saturday market and were caught in a rural
traffic jam on the only road! People were quite curious about us on the bus. There was
much heartfelt communication by hand gestures via the bus windows. As we drove
along (and this has been true for the whole trip), people waved at us, and we waved
back. I finally realized what a warm cultural interaction that was. Uzbeks often place
their hand over their heart as a gesture of caring/respect, which I started doing
instinctively. We made a “technical stop” in the middle of nowhere at a small
establishment that barely looked open. The guy put a bucket of water in the upper
reservoir for the outside wash stand, so we could wash our hands, and the toilets were
earthen pits. He refused to take any money, even though I think our group would have
felt better giving him some.
We finally arrived in Shakhrisabz (Timur’s birthplace and intended burial place), and did
two hours of touring before a late lunch. We saw all that was left of Timur’s grand, huge
and magnificent Ak-Serai (White Palace)–the 40 meter tall entrance gate (or at least the
lower part of it). The scale was enormous. The inscription reads: “Those who doubt our
power should look to our buildings”! He wasn’t the first ruler, nor the last, to make this
point (just look at Turkmenbashi’s Ashgabat!). Some crazy local Khan in the mid-19th
century did not want any palace to be more grand than his, and he tore the Ak-Serai
down, hence the tiny portion left!
We saw Timur’s eldest son’s tomb (Jenoghir) from about 1400, and the subterranean
crypt and sarcophagus that Timur had intended as his final resting place. We saw the
Kok Gumbaz (“Blue Dome” mosque) and some mausolea all built by Uleg Beg on his
return from India c. 1425. The mosque has the biggest blue dome in Uzbekistan, and its
interior is painted with Indian themes. There are also two mausolea built by Uleg Beg,
including one for Timur’s father and his spiritual teacher. All of these Timurid tombs are
sites of pilgrimage for modern Uzbeks.
It was starting to get really hot, quite a contrast from the wintery weather of the day
before! We had lunch on an outside terrace in the shade at the Kishmish (“Raisin”)
restaurant, where a cold beer was welcomed. As at most (but not all) meals, JD
provided drinks for everyone on behalf of AMNH. An animal haunch hanging on a tree
as we arrived made me glad I was going for the veggie option!
We then had another 4.5 hour drive on to Bukhara through increasingly bleak terrain as
we moved north away from the mountain front. There were gas wells and refineries with
gas flares, and there was a ton of white alkaline salt deposits on the soil. Apparently,
farmers have to dig trenches and then flood the land and let the water leach the salt into
the trenches before they can farm. We finally got to Bukhara as it was getting dark. The
Emir Guest House is very close to the Labi-Hauz pool and in an old private residence
organized around three central interior courtyards. The owner of the Emir Travel
agency and the hotel, Mila, lives here. The rooms have traditional furniture, beam
ceilings, and very modern bathrooms, and each looks out onto an interior courtyard. It is
very charming and quiet. I went to bed and left my double doors and windows wide
open all night to let the cool breezes in.
April 21, Bukhara
The breakfast at the Hotel Emir is served downstairs and is fine, except for the instant
coffee! The hotel does not have internet; however, there is an inexpensive internet cafe
around the corner on the Labi-Hauz. JD decided there was time to add another lecture
after our first day of sight-seeing in Bukhara (in addition to the planned talk the second
day in Bukhara, after a free afternoon). So, after a great night’s sleep, I got up at dawn
to work on my added talk.
After breakfast at Hotel Emir, we headed out sight-seeing on foot at 9 AM. Around the
Labi-Hauz Uzbeks wanted photos taken with us, as usual. We walked to the Divanbegi
Madrassa on Labi-Hauz (built by Grand Vizier Divanbegi, who was Persian, in 1620).
Its facade has two big birds (khumo) flanking a sun–a hold-over from Zoroastrianism
and a reflection of Persian influence, as are the lions and suns on the Sher Dor
Madrassa in Samarkand. We then walked to a 17th c. synagogue in the adjacent
Jewish Quarter, which was quite powerful.
We then stopped by the 12th c. Magoki Attari Mosque, close to the Labi-Hauz. It is
made of blond brick, with minimal blue glazing on the arch over the door. This is typical
of early buildings; extensive use of blue-glazed tiles did not happen until the 14th c.
There are many patterns in the blond brick of the facade, including a vertical bow-tie
with a horizontal line across the center; this is a Zoroastrian motif, being a reduced form
of the faravahar, which is the central symbol of Zoroastrianism. The mosque was open
this time, and I got great photos of its absolutely spectacular interior, including the
domes, which were rebuilt in the 16th c. There is an excavation in the corner that
exposed the remains of a Buddhist temple beneath!
We then continued on through the trading domes, with a stop at the Uleg Beg Madrassa
(1417) and the facing Abdul Aziz Madrassa (1652). On the lintel above the door of the
Uleg Beg Madrassa is a quote from Uleg Beg: “It is the duty of every Muslim man and
woman to seek after knowledge.” The restoration of the Abdul Aziz Madrassa is
finished, and you can go inside, including into the mosque to the right of the entrance
(which has a veiled image of Abdul Aziz in the mihrab!). There is the very same stork’s
nest on top that we saw in 2006!!
After another trading dome, we stopped at the Silk Road Spice and Tea shop for a
relaxing interlude in a lovely courtyard sampling various teas (ginger, spice and saffron)
and sweets. There was a sweet young Austrian couple there that I visited with and gave
suggestions to. There is a 16th c. bathhouse (hamman) near the entrance to the
second trading dome that is still in operation. You can get a massage and scrub and
use the steam room for 60,000 sum. Unfortunately, I will have to wait for another trip to
try this out!
After the third trading dome, we made a stop at the silk carpet shop right by the Kaylon
complex, where we got a fast, but very thorough, introduction to carpets by Sabina.
Lunch was in Chasma-i-Mirob restaurant, on the second floor balcony, which overlooks
the Kaylon mosque complex. A great view–Wow!
After lunch, we saw the Kaylon Mosque (1514) and Minaret (1127), and the facing Mir-i-
Arab Madrassa (1535). The Kaylon Mosque is a large, magnificent and awe-inspiring
four-iwan courtyard mosque. It is an amazing space. There were several Uzbek kids
taking photos of each other in the mihrab.
We went into the facing active Mir-i-Arab Madrassa (just the entrance to look into the
courtyard through a screen–we could see madrassa students’ clothes drying on the
We walked on to the Ark with its ancient foundations going back 2000 years. It originally
was 26 hectares, but it was bombed by the communists during the revolution in the
1920s, and only 4 hectares remains! It was both a fort and the home of the emirs/khans
of Bukhara, whose 16th c. mosque and outdoor reception hall are most impressive.
After a brief rest for everyone after our day of sightseeing, I gave my second lecture on
the origin and tenets of Islam. After the following afternoon, which is free for shopping, I
will continue with the spread of Islam along the silk road and Islamic architecture.
After my talk, the group went to the fashion show/performance in the Divanbegi
Madrassa, but I stayed behind to work on talks. I met the group in front of the Divanbegi
Madrassa to go to dinner at 7. It was a great stroke of luck, because I got amazing
photos of the madrassa facade glowing in the setting sun!!! Dinner was in the nearby
Minfiza Cafe, upstairs on a terrace overlooking the city. Only half the group went, but it
was the best meal yet. Among the salads they always serve first (which is what I have
really been living on) was a bean salad. I practically kissed the plate, since these were
the first legumes I had seen!! We had the same waiter as at lunch (he works two jobs)
who reassured me that the veggie option here was much better than at lunch, because
this was a much better restaurant! He was very sweet, and it was a lovely meal.
When I got home, I worked on photos and my daily summary and went to bed at 10:30.
April 22, Bukhara