Wednesday, 12 October 2011


Part three (of four) of Uzbekistan

At the end of the Sharq journey lay Samarkand, a Central Asian Xanadu of sorts. Its known despots and dictators; from Alexander the Great who was impressed when he passed through on his run through the region, Genghis Khan who sacked it in 1220 and Timur who revived it, propelling it on to unseen glory. The name of Samarkand has resonance that has echoed down the ages, romanticized, like in this poem by James Elroy Flecker by travelers and by poets who have never seen it

We travel not for trafficking alone
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand

Samarkand reached its zenith late during the reign of Timur (Tamerlane or Timur the Lame, his cruel but truthful English nickname) who made it the capital of his burgeoning empire. Powered by loot from his conquests (his empire extended from southeastern Turkey and the Levant, Central Asia, Iraq, Iran and northern-India and as far east as parts of China), Samarkand was made into an imperial city of renown. As a patron of the arts, Timur was known to bring the most talented artisans from the lands he conquered back to Samarkand to put them to task building his city. He styled himself as a latter day Genghis Khan, (who was a distant relative). While they are both known for their savage military conquests, (but who makes a vast empire without causing the death of a few million) the two differed in several ways. Genghis Khan was not a religious man; Timur was a pious Muslims, considered by some as a ghazi or Warrior of Islam. It’s said that he caused the death of the Christian Church throughout much of Asia. A scourge of infidels, he reportedly had 100,000 Hindi prisoners executed during an invasion of Dehli. He wasn’t always selective in those he destroyed. The region of Khiva was brutally crushed (whose modern day inhabitants must have mixed feelings about the modern-day Uzbek deifying of Timur), its Muslim citizens not spared. Again, when Isfahan, in modern day Iran fell, he ordered that the entire city be put to the sword, some 70,000 inhabitants. An eye-witness counted more than 28 towers, each constructed of about 1,500 heads, mostly Muslim. Not surprisingly, he was also seen by many as an enemy of Islam.

Statue of Timur, downtown Samarkand.
The differences don’t end there. Genghis Khan was notable for opening up trade ways whereas Timur was more interested in plunder (his soldiers, though loyal, were not paid. Plunder was the only way that they could make a living). Genghis is buried in an undetermined spot; Timur made Samarkand (and other cities) his legacy. A quote attributed to him was "If you want to know about us, examine our buildings." While many of the buildings made by Timur have been destroyed (like his palace), either intentionally or as victims of the ravages of time, enough remain from his time to see how impressive the city was (and still is). The grace and beauty of these buildings brought it world renown, “famous through the furthest continents”, as Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s contemporary and rival, recorded in his dramatic play celebrating Timur “Tamburlaine the Great”. The buildings left that date to the Timurid dynasty are immense. Tiles astound the senses-swirls of peacock green, ocean blue and teal and delicate, ribbed domes. These are sophisticated geometric patterns on a vast scale. It’s no wonder that Timur’s descendents founded the Mughal dynasty in India who took the architectural inspiration of Samarkand with them. The ultimate manifestation of Timuruid architecture can be seen in the Mughal buildings in India, epitomized by the Taj Mahal. 

Many lines have been written on Samarkand by people more poetic than me. History has been kind and cruel, allowing enough to remain to see what people have raved about for centuries. Samarkand was and still is a place of beauty, most of it old but with some new touches, like some wonderful new murals. Without doubt though, people come to Samarkand for its historical sights, the most important being the Registan, a trio of majestic medressas that form three sides of a richly decorated square. The three are fronted by ornate pishtak, elaborately designed portals covered in mosaics, with generous use of the blue tiles favoured during Timur’s time. The oldest one here dates to 1420, built by Timur's grandson Ulugbek (who also built one in Bukhara), esteemed as a leader but more esteemed as an astronomer. Now only three of its four minarets stand, the other collapsed. One is a fragment, the other 2 leaning (later we would have to fend off police asking exorbitant prices to climb up one of the minarets). Opposite Ulugbek's Medressa stands the Sher Dor Medressa, most famous for its depiction of lions (that look suspiciously like tigers) that adorn its pishtak. These flout Islamic prohibitions against the depiction of animals, meaning somewhat incongruously, that students couldn't pray here. 

Sher Don Medressa, complete with its lions
Instead, another medressa was built, known as the Tilla-Kari Medressa for prayer. This medressa is only a single storey (the other two are double storied) but its pishtak was made the same height as the other two. The highlight of this medressa was its mosque, or to be more exact, its brightly decorated, dazzling, gold leaf embossed ceiling. The artwork here is exquisite; it’s actually a flat ceiling that has been painted so cleverly that it seems as if it is a dome. Even when you know it's flat, your eyes keep playing tricks on you

Wonderfully ornate and deceitful "dome" in Tilla-Kari medressa.
Given the Soviet insistence that the medressas and mosques were closed, it’s interesting to note that the Russians were also deeply concerned by the maintenance of history and heritage and worked hard to try and preserve the medressas. That they are in such breathtaking shape is largely a credit to the Soviets (although they were on occasion over-zealous, like the addition of a large dome on the Tilla-Kora medressa, which was originally left unadorned. The dome's weight is now causing the mosque walls to crack). To the untrained eye, the dome belongs. Inside the Tilla-Kari medressa is a small museum that shows black and white photos of the Registan during the early Soviet era, buildings in disarray and disrepair. Our guide (she approached us at the entrance and wanted 15,000 som, about $6, for the pleasure of showing us around the three medressas for an hour) acknowledged the errors made by the Soviets but said at the same time, the dome can't be removed for fear it would irreparably damage the medressa. At the same time, she was thankful of the work done by the Soviets. Without their efforts and money, the medressas of Samarkand's Registan would be in a much poorer state.

The Registan is one of those places that it is hard to pull your eyes away from, let alone leave. Yet, leave we had to with the next stop being Gur-E-Amir, Timur’s unintended Mausoleum (he had built a simple crypt for himself in his city of birth but he died during the winter and the passes were snowed under, facilitating his burial here). Ulugbek, his astronomer grandson, also lies here, decapitated by an unappreciative and megalomaniac son. The roof of the Mausoleum is topped by a fluted azure dome, especially impressive at night. The exterior walls are furnished in blue, light blue and white tiles. Inside sits Timur’s crypt, marked by a block of solid jade, the walls decorated with ornate plaster, some painted, some gilded. Against the wishes of local Uzbek elders, the crypt was opened in 1941 by Soviet archaeologists, revealing much but also unleashing the curse of Timur. The anthropologist Mikhail Mikhaylovivh Gerasimov was able to reconstruct Timur's facial features from his skull, (he resembled Genghis Khan, a distant forebear), and it was also confirmed that he was 172 cm in height, a giant for his day, and that would have walked with a pronounced limp (giving credence to his nickname of Timur the Lame). The curse has its origins in writings found above his crypt that read something like "When I arise from the grave, the world will tremble". The day after his skull was removed, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. After millions of deaths, the Russians returned Timur to his tomb in 1942, and the Nazis launched their final, futile attack on Stalingrad. Timur is now at rest but he still has a big presence here. Statues of him are commonplace; there are streets, hotels and restaurants named after him. Just goes to show some peoples heroes are others genocidal maniacs.

Gur-E-Amir at night
Our B and B was right beside his mausoleum. It was a quiet spot, down a quiet road where photo-shy kids played in the mud. It had a large, shady courtyard with pomegranate, persimmon and fig trees. In the morning, they served us freshly baked breads and dumplings with spreads including mulberry jam, previously untasted but highly recommended. Sitting in the courtyard, enjoying a cold beverage, we heard the call to prayer for the first time since arriving five days earlier. At dusk, we admired Timur’s mausoleum, its pishtak a bright gold, its dome almost a luminescent turquoise. We had dinner in an old Samarkand house, similar in design to the dining room of our Bukhara hotel. We ate with a couple from America, who had taken a train from Moscow to Tashkent, a 30 hour, $500 ride. They had an interesting time. The first story they told us was of an old Russian man who had died in their cabin. Apparently, he had collapsed at a station but the stationmaster and conductor dragged him off the platform back onto the train when he had momentarily come around. Instead of receiving medical treatment, he revived enough to die in their cabin some 30 minutes into the next leg, which meant that the couple had to share a carriage with his corpse for a while. As well as worrying about mortality, they had to have concerns about contraband. At the start of the journey, the conductors put up boxes into the hold above them. “Don’t worry’, the conductors said, “they’re only crackers”. I guess that if they were crackers, they were probably cocaine crackers as the couple described how the conductors skillfully manipulated custom searches and drug dogs away from their cabin. At the Russian-Uzbek border, people came and asked them to hold onto stacks of rubles, coming to collect it once they had crossed the border. A much more interesting train trip than any we have ever been on.

The next morning, we headed back out to see more of the sights of Samarkand. The girls were too tired to walk so we flagged down a taxi, which turned out to be a private car. Here, as in Mongolia, anybody is a taxi driver. Randoms can pull over and see if they are headed in the same direction as you.  If they are, you can hop in for a nominal fee. The driver, after a small fee negotiation and some spatial difficulty (apparently no-body had heard of the huge mosque that we wanted to go to), we arrived at Bibi-Khanym Mosque, supposedly built by one of Timur’s wives (Bibi-Khanym, the mosque’s namesake) as a surprise gift on his return from yet another all-conquering Indian campaign. 
Car in the back-alley to the mosque
It’s said that 90 elephants were required to carry back enough plundered gemstones to pay for its construction. Once it stood as one of the Islamic world’s biggest cupolas but it stretched the limits of the engineers involved and was erected too quickly (in a space of only five years). Cracks from stress appeared in it almost straight away and it partially collapsed during one of the periodic episodes of seismic activity that the region suffers from. Like other religious buildings, the Soviets took an interest in restoring it, a process only half-finished, the mosque a mix of partially restored and partially crumbling, its inside neglected and unused for what appears to be centuries. Instead of a congregation, pigeons rule, roosting high up in the niches and architectural decay. A large concrete Koran stood in the courtyard, legend has it that those who crawl beneath it are blessed with many children. I issued a firm and decisive ban on any crawling.

Damaged goods, Bibi Khanym Mosque
We continued from here, looking through the busy market. Brightly clad women, some with nicely cultivated monobrows, conducted their business, selling bread, melons and onions, using old push-chairs to transport goods around. Men seemed to have the spice and dried fruit market covered, yelling to attract attention, getting us to sample their goods. Apart from the spice-sellers, we were largely ignored, invisible in a foreign country. We walked on and away from the market, bugged by the first real beggars we had seen in the country who bothered us until an old man told them to leave us alone. Our destination was Shah-I Zinda, an avenue of stunning mausoleums, each resplendent in Timurid turquoise tiles, festooned with colours that would put a peacock to shame. First, we tried a short cut through the cemetery, admiring the tombstones and their realistic portraits, old men in their best Uzbek caps and women with prodigious monobrows. The short cut became a long cut and we had to trace our tracks back to get back to where we were supposed to be going.

Colours of the market

Shah-I-Zinda is a collection of mausoleums for the rich and famous of Samarkand. Initially, it was centered around the shrine of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of Mohammed who was said to have brought Islam to the region in the 7th Century. Later, Timur used it as a place to bury his near and dear, a tradition continued by his sons and grandsons, including Ulugbek. It contains some of the richest tile work in all of Uzbekistan. A lot of it was aggressively retouched in 2005 but some is original, like the tile work of Shodi Mulk Oko Mausoleum, the final resting place of a sister and niece of Timur. 
Beautiful tiles
The tile work here was considered to be of such exceptional quality that no restoration was deemed necessary, even though it has been hit by over 600 years of whatever Mother Nature could throw at it. Shah-I-Zinda was more popular with locals than any other site we had been to. A small functional mosque was at the base of the complex and school-children wandered through the complex, looking troublesome but causing none. Older groups of men walked through, some going to the shrine of Qusam ibn-Abbas. Some people, despite warnings not to, had left money at his tomb, hoping to secure good fortune from their charity. It was both a solemn and a joyful place, bedecked in such beauty that it would be impossible to stay somber for any length of time.

Biggest crowd in all Uzbekistan
From here, we went to explore Ishratkhana Mausoleum, a run-down near ruined 15th Century mausoleum. You could still see the splendour it once had but this had been long in disrepair and had mostly disappeared. We were the only visitors here, the old man collecting money reclining in a deck chair. Two fat-tailed sheep grazed here, sheep derived from stock that had been bred to maximize the harvest of the tail fat preferred in many Arab and Persian dishes (and no doubt as filler in shaslik). Of the four internal stairwells, three were blocked off but I climbed the other, reaching the decayed looking loft, enclosed under a tin-roof, its own pretence of modernity. Below was an eerie looking crypt, thankfully closed off from prying eyes such as myself.

Fat tailed sheep in front of Ishratkhana Mausoleum
My Tomb-Raider done, it was time to hit up the railway station. We had tickets to Tashkent, a 3 hour or so push. We experienced some anxiety when one guy come and left his bags above us and then left, thoughts turning to our dinner conversation, but it turned out he was just letting the three of us sit together and had moved to another carriage. This was no contraband. An older mono-browed lady tried hard to talk to us, although whether it was Russian, Uzbeki or Darsi (the language spoken in Samarkand) I wouldn’t know. Knowing what language wouldn’t have increased my comprehension (I know about 30 words in Russians, 5 in Uzbeki and none in Darsi). The land here was hillier, almost mountainous but still dry. Even here, you could see pipelines and cotton pickers.  Again, it was with a heavy heart that we left Samarkand. Listening to my ipod, I remembered the words that Edgar Allen Poe had written about Samarkand and started to reminisce

“Look ‘round thee now on Samarcand,
Is she not queen of earth?”