Sogdians and Soviets: Monumental Samarkand and the Holy City of Bukhara – Uzbekistan

Sept. 17 Tashkent • train to Samarkand (drive day trip to Urgut)

Sept. 18-20 Samarkand
Sept. 20 Samarkand • train to Bukhara
Sept. 20-22 Bukhara
Sept. 22 Bukhara
Sept. 23 Bukhara • drive to Merv, Turkmenistan

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Map from Lonely Planet, Central Asia, by Mathew, Elliott, Masters, Noble p. 140

The world is a caravanserai, with one entry and one exit…

– Omar Khayyam

Samarkand and the Holy City of Bukhara are probably the most photographed cities and probably the most name-recognizable cities in Central Asia. The waves of people who have gather to stay and marched through Samarkand and Bukhara have left overlapping chronicles of monuments, languages, and traditions while others have receded from history’s memory forever.

Sogdians are a people that once lived in modern day Uzbekistan. Their influence once reached far into China between the 4th century BCE to 7th century CE yet knowledge of them was lost until the 19th century. Afrasiyab (also spelt Afrasiab, Afrosiyab, or Afrosiyob) was the name the Sogdians gave to their city that we now call Samarkand. Afrasiyab was the city the Sogdians built a fortress built on high ground for defensive reasons. The habitation of the territories of Afrasiyab began in the 7th-6th century BCE, as the centre of the Sogdian culture. Before visiting Samarkand, I came across references to Sogdians in Turpan, China’s at the Bezeklik’s Thousand Buddha Caves where Sogdian faces are painted in the grotto of the resting Buddha. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bezeklik_Caves#/media/File%3ABezeklikSogdianMerchants.jpg 

Listen to podcast: Mystery Abound #89.

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From:en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bezeklik_Caves#/media/File%3ABezeklikSogdianMerchants.jpg

In Samarkand, I had a formal introduction to the Sogdians. Samarkand, known as Afrasiyab to the Persians, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities, along with Aleppo and Damascus, in the world.  All roads led through Afrasiyab to China, India, and Persia for trade, artisans, and armies. Goods travelled through China and Central Asia along caravan routes through middlemen based in Asia towns such as Dunhuang and Turpan, China. The Sogdians played a major role in facilitating trade between China and Central Asia as late as the 10th century CE. They established a trading network across the 1500 miles from Samarkand to China.

The Sogdians were known to the Greeks in the 4th century BCE and the city was taken from them by Alexander the Great in 329 BCE and named the city, Marakanda. Alexander the Great married a Sogdian princess, Roxanna, of Bactria (modern day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan) and encouraged his soldiers to take wives from this area.  He was impressed by the size of the fortress and strength of the city walls, which was more than 12 kilometres in circumference. Some references state that before the Greeks, the Sogdians were fierce warriors but when defeated by the Greeks, they were never war-like again. However,they became great traders and entrepreneurs with their language the lingua franca of Central Asia. Over the centuries, the Sogdians played an important role in spreading religions, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity but it seems that when the Arabs conquered Samarkand, the Sogdians either left the city or converted to Islam and lost their identity. In China, the Sogdians were persecuted under the Tang Dynasty changing their names to survive. Then the Sogdians were lost to history until the 19th century when letters were found in Dunhuang and Gansu, China, that told about the Sogdians.

For a good overview of an excellent example of people moving through China and Central Asia , read: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sogdia

Samarkand

Samarkand is located in a fertile valley between the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya. A natural site for people to live. After the Greeks, the area came under the Kushan Empire that included northern India. Then in the 7th centuryCE Samarkand was under influences from Turkic and Persian tribes and the Tang Dynasty in China. In 751CE the battle of Talas, (near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) the Arabs fought against the Chinese for claim to the area, the Chinese lost the battle and eventually the people converted to Islam. After this battle, the secret of Chinese paper-making was revealed to the West and the technology swiftly spread to the Middle East.

From this period Samarkand was ruled by various groups including the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad but in 1220 it was totally destroyed by the Mongol conqueror, Genghis Khan. After 150 years, Timur ( r. 1369-1405), built Samarkand to its glory we see today, though depending on what side of history one is on, Tamerlane (as the European named him) was another brutal conquerer or a brilliant leader ; Timur built Central Asia’s wealth and culture. His astronomer grandson, Ulugbek, ruled until 1449 and made Samarkand into an intellectual centre and built more magnificent monuments that we see today in Samarkand.

Overtime Samarkand decayed and in 1897, there was a devastating earthquake. During Soviet rule and to their credit, major restoration took place to restore the crumbling buildings to magnificent monuments. Here, The Registan, meaning sandy place in Persian, is the centrepiece of the city. DSC_0441The grand plaza is surrounded on three sides by enormous madrasahs built after Timurs death in 1405. The first to be built was Ulugbek Madrassa in 1420, followed by Shar-Dor Madrassa in 1636, and Tilly’s-Kori in 1660. The architecture, each has high vaulted archways at their entrance, with the Ulugbek and Shar-Dor flanked on either side of their archways by 35 meter decorated minarets. The exterior of the three structures are covered with intricate Islamic patterns and calligraphy of millions of ceramic tiles.

The ancient necropolis of the Shah-i-Zinda (meaning Tomb of the Living King) mausoleum, survived Genghis Khan’s troops. This mausoleum was built for the family of Timur and his grandson, Ulugbek and also the resting place of Qasam bin-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed.

Shah-i-Zinda is an important place of pilgrimage. In the 19th century Shah-i-Zinda was in ruins with collapsed domes and minarets and the Soviet restorers again came to the rescue and painstakingly restored and rebuilt these treasures.

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Stairs to Shah-i-Zinda: A superstition that some people believe is that if you count the same number of step ascending as descending, then your prayers will be answered.

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Shah-i-Zindi

My guide, Abdu, and I stopped at a bench to talk about the history and saw an elderly lady  descending the steep stairway. He commented that because of her head scarf she was from the south of Uzbekistan. Soon she sat on a bench opposite from us and I asked Abdu to inquire if she was from Samarkand. We soon met a feisty 80-year-old woman who had come with her two sons, their wives and children from a village next to the Afghanistan border for a pilgrimage to Shah-i-Zindi. They asked where was I from… and were quite surprised with my answer.  Everyone with smart phone in hand, taking pictures was the first task and then with smiles and congratulations on our delight to have met. The chance encounter ended in Abdu getting his ears pulled by the grandmother for which he said  was a blessing from her area. Poor Abdu had red, sore ears the rest of the day!

Then we took a little detour to visit Lena Latik, a Ukrainian textile artist who opened the Happy Bird Art Gallery in 2005 in a portion of an old caravanserai.  Her gallery is filled with original handmade Uzbek clothing, textiles, ceramics, and artwork, it is a combination of upscale shop, museum, and antique store. The director, Lena Ladik, is committed to supporting traditional Uzbek arts and handicrafts that incorporate natural materials, fair trade, and eclectic tastes.  Lena made Turkish coffee and we sat around a small table getting to know one another. She showed me a Russian-language edition of Vogue Magazine that recently wrote about her work and the caravanserai.  Then our conversation veered off to quite another subject. Lena showed me a picture of her mother and father. It was taken right after WWII, he was in a Soviet uniform and her mother had a 1940s waves and curl hairstyle. Both, in early 20s, they were smiling sweetly. On the other side of the world, I have a picture of my mother and father, in the same pose taken right after WWII. My father in a US uniform; my mother with a 1940s hairstyle; they had just gotten married and they, too, smiled sweetly.  Lena and I, close in age, marvelled how our parents and our lives were lived on opposite sides of the world in vastly different situation yet we both retained photographs taken probably in the same year of our parents and here in Samarkand, our paths cross. (Happy Bird Art Gallery and Craft’s Center. Facebook: gallery bird. Leg_igp@list.ru/ tel: +998937204215. Trip Advisor)IMG_4444

Before leaving Samarkand, we met with a block print master. It was another  serendipitous meeting that started in the town of Margilian and continued to Bukhara.   I met Vladimir Akhatbekov, a Russian Uzbek, at the Atlas Birham Festival put on by UNESCO in Margilian. His workshop was closed but he unlocked the door to show us his work. The meeting led to another chance meeting in Samarkand. Vladimir recognised me at the caravanserai that I met Lena and invited us to his workshops and he spent many hours explaining his trade. To honour his craft, once back in Cairo, I will write a separate post. (Meeting Vladimir prepared me to appreciate the Sufi complex of Muslim orders, the Naqshbandi. (Naqshbandi is the name of his father meaning block printer).DSC_0818

Before saying good-bye to Samarkand, I attend a fashion show put on by Russian fashion designer Valentina Romanenko’s.  Moscow-trained Romanenko has transformed her traditional Uzbek home into a workshop and display area. (Www.alesha-art.com)

 

Bukhara

Arriving by fast train, Bukhara is less than two hours from Samarkand. Ibn Battutu’s words rang in my ears: ‘the mosques, colleges, and bazaars are in ruins …’ He reported this in 1333 one hundred years after Genghis Khan had destroyed the city. The only structure that Genghis Khan’s army spared was the Kalon Minaret and the Ismael Samani Mausoleum.

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Kalon Minaret built in 1127 was the tallest building in Central Asia, 47 metres tall.

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Ismail Samani Mausoleum was the first mausoleum built in 940 after the Arab conquest. The architects were Muslim but their skills reflect the early symbols of the Zoastrianism.

Before 1220, Bukhara was a city of pious scholars. It was ruled by the Smanids in the tenth CE true you and was the centre of Islamic learning attracting students from Arabia and Spain.One such scholar Ismail al-Bukhary, born in 810 in Bukhara, is renowned in Muslim world for 1000 years as the author of the hadiths, “AI-Djami as-salih”, or literally in English Book “Trustworthy”, which is the second most important Muslim text after the Quran.

Bukhara only started to come back to its former life some fifty years after Ibu Battuta visited the city when Tamerlane started to rebuilt the city, from about 1390. In time Timur and his descendents in the succeeding centuries were once again to turn the city into one of the most magnificent in all of Central Asia. The next time Bukhara was damaged was during the Russian Civil War when Bolshevik commander, Mikhail Vasilievich Frunze (born in Bishkek,Kyrgyzstan), sent planes to bomb Bukhara and Khiva in 1920.

In the evening of my first day in Bukhara, I headed for the Lyabi Hauz,( a Tajik name for ‘around the pool’) a pond in a central square surrounded by mulberry trees. Until the Soviet era , the ponds or hauz, were abundant throughout the city but because of pollution and disease all but a few were filled in, The central area of Bukhara is the old town is made up of small alleyways opening into small plaza with impressive ancient buildings along the way.

One of the most historically important architectural landmarks in Bukhara is The Ark or Arg. The Ark is a massive fortress surrounded by 20 meter high mud walls almost a kilometer in length. From the earliest days the Ark was the fortress of the rulers, the Emirs of Bukhara. It was destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly over the centuries. Inside its walls were military barracks, arsenal, administrative offices, a mint, workshops, stables, water tanks, prison, and of course, the harem. Archaeologist, Maksuma Niyazova, who delivered a lecture and provide private access to expositions in the Ark, which gave an instructive information of the history of the area of Bukhara as well as The Ark.

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The Ark or Arg or Arq

One of the sites that was off the beaten path was a 19th century house built by a wealthy Bukhara merchant built by Ubaidullah Khojaev in 1891. Faizullah Khojaev, the son, conspired with the Bolsheviks to over throw the Emir of Bukhara, Emir Alim Khan. He succeeded but soon he ran afoul with Joseph Stalin and was sent to the Gulag and died in 1937. The Emir fared better as he made a deal with the Bolchivicks and got safe passage to Afghanistan. (Uzbekistan was colonized from Bochivicks era, 1917, to  Independence in 1991. Everyone speaks Uzbek and Russian.)

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House of Faizullah Khojaev

On every corner, in every shop, at the doors and in the windows are pieces of needlework called Suzani. Whether in Samarkand or Bukhara, women sell all shapes and sizes of hand-embroidered and machine-made material.  At the Suzani Workshop in Shafrikan Village, Oysara Ruziyeva , master suzani, has worked 20 at a community cooperative where local women take part in the stitching process of pieces of Suzani. At this workshop they start with silk cocoons, dying, design, drawing and embroidery in the centre. I meet Oysafa at the Madrassa as she is participating in the Bukhara Craft Fair where her daughter has just won first place for her suzani piece. Suzani simply means ‘needlework’. There are different types of stitches, different materials and threads, and hand or machine-made suzani pieces. (Can be reached at +998942472735)DSC_0890

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Oysara’s daughter, Nigora Hamdamova,  wins first place in the Suzani category at Bukhara Craft fair. This is the piece that takes first place.

“Your hands should be busy with your job, your heart busy with God.”

This is the saying that Abdu, my guide, related to me that sums up Naqshband’s Sufism.

Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari Sufi Complex.DSC_0092
Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari (1318-1389) was the founder of what would become one of the largest and most influential Sufi Muslim orders, the Naqshbandi. (Naqshbandi is the name of his father meaning block printer). Baha-ud-Din was buried in his native village, Qasr-i Arifan, in 1389. In 1544 Khan Abd al-Aziz built over his grave a tomb and surrounding buildings. The Memorial complex is located 12 kilometers from Bukhara and is today a place of pilgrimage-Read: 11 principles of Naqshbandi  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baha-ud-Din_Naqshband_Bukhari

Just not enough time to write about all the people I have met, so in Cairo:

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In Urgut, Numon, a  6th generation potter

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Mustakam family , a story of persistence

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Bazaars Here candy seller in Samarkand

Meet Abdu Samadov, my guide throughout Uzbekistan with famous Samarkand bread. DSC_0843

My last afternoon in Uzbekistan was spent in a courtyard of a traditional Bukhara house. At the house of the famous miniature artist, Daviat Toshev, we at the national dish, plov (this time with quince and quail eggs).FullSizeRender Daviat invited musicians from the Drama school and here is a sample of their music. Shakir on the tanbur, Mustafo on the doira (percussion) and his student, Mirshod,  on the doira.  Here they play 16th century Persian poetry in the extinct language of Chagatai. (See https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chagatai_language

(all rights reserved, copyright 2017 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

4 thoughts on “Sogdians and Soviets: Monumental Samarkand and the Holy City of Bukhara – Uzbekistan

  1. Once again you have amazed me. All the places you have been and everything you have done and shared. I am mostly amazed by the cleanliness and the architecture – the stone work is unbelievable . I read right through this part and now I will go back and read it slower and study closer. You have covered so much – thank you for sharing. I am looking forward to your next installment.
    Joyce

    • Just arrived in Merv, Turkmenistan…another completely different country! There are 4 major caravan routes that went through this country. I hope to follow one of them. Thank you so much for your comments and thoughts. L.

  2. I read your posts with all my senses. Lesi you are serving a ‘heavy’ dish well cooked, hard to digest immediately…. I need to re-read posts again and again to ENJOY! Wow.

    • Thank you so much…all this information , I hope I got it right, is just a tip of an incredible history of people and civilisations. I am trying to sort it all out in my mind too as well as meet as many people as possible that will give me a feeling of the countries. Thanks so much for reading. L.

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