Osogbo Revisited

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 3.35.04 PMIn a fortunate stroke of serendipity, Robin and Hugh Campbell, caretakers of the Osun Osogbo Sacred Groves and board member of The Susanne Wenger Adunni Orishia Trust, sent me a message inquiring if I was in Lagos. “Yes,” I answered and soon another message arrived asking if I would like to join them on a two-day trip to Osogbo (Osun State, northwest Nigeria). The drive was my first thought…the Lagos-Ibadan expressway is notorious for excruciating delays. After talking with a friend who drives the road frequently, I was assured that most of the road, indeed, lived up to the name: “expressway,” and baring any accidents, the traffic flows fairly smoothly. My friend believed the drive from Lagos to Osogbo would be within a normal 4 to 5-hour range. So with that assurance, I accepted their kind invitation.

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After a few days with an early start, we headed for Osogbo. This would be my third visit to the area. The first was in 1977. Then, I met Susanne Wenger. In Lagos, there had been word of a white woman making sculptures that represented Yoruba traditional religion in an “enchanted” garden. A friend, Pam Fields, and I decided to make explore these claims. In those days, driving to Osogbo was by way of a two-lane road. Armed robbery was non-existent. The worse fear was to have a problem with the car and no way to communicate with Lagos except from a hotel phone. Then, the trip could not be completed in one day. Our trip would take us through Abeokuta to stop at the indigo dye pits and juju market, spend the night Ibadan and attend the theatre at University of Ibadan (at the time, well-known for its drama department). Then to Osogbo, Ile-Efe and spend another night in Ibadan. Needless to say, in those days, there was much advanced preparation for a Nigerian road-trip.

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Once Pam and I found the Groves in Osogbo, we were pointed in a particular direction toward the forest where we came across Susanne Wenger. We chatted for a short while and she directed us to the Osun River to follow a path that included several of her sculptures. Making our way back to the road, we did not meet Wenger again. I remember that we were unimpressed and disappointed but thirty-seven years later on my next trip to Osogbo, that was not the case.

P1010712In 2014, I set out following the Campbell’s car; we had mobile phones, bottled water, air-conditioned 4-wheel drive vehicles and a paved four-lane road with a possibility to arrive in Osogbo within four hours! I fully documented that trip on February 2014 See: Òşun Sacred Grove and Forest, February 2014 and  Osun Osogbo Grove , Obelisque Magazine, January, 2015.

So it was on an impulse that I commenced on the third visit to Osogbo, forty years after my first visit:IMG_2161

Nike’s Guesthouse is a hub for visitors to Osogbo:

Asking for blessings….shrines of Osogbo

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IMG_2131P1010604P1010610P1010634P1010636Susanne Wenger mentorship in the 1960’s encouraged local artist such as Rabiu Abesu and Kasali Akangbe-Ogun.

Wood carvings, art from ancestors, the prolific wood-carver Rabiu Abesu (b. 1940) expresses vividness of beauty and power through inner revelations that finds it way from thought to reality on wood.

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Mask and sculpture above by Rabiu. Kiki in silhouette

Kasali Akangbe-Ogun (b. 1945) comes from a line of professional wood-carver. Internationally known,  his  sculptures reflect the intrinsic culture and emphasize symbols and figures of Yoruba gods. Akangbe Ogun’s  uses omo wood (similar to mahogany). The wood is cured for seven years.Deborah Bell explains in Mask Makers and Their Crafts that Akangbe Ogun, “cuts the trunk vertically in half. He began his carving by paying homage to his ancestors and other divinities. The completed carving would eventually take an oil polish that darkens the color and makes it termite-proof.”

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some wood carvings at Kasali’s workshop

 

Kasali Akangbe-Ogun’s workshop:

Fields of art – the Groves. Susanne Wenger’s work survives due to a host of hands that over sixty years have committed one thing or another to protect and promote sculpture in honor of Yoruba traditional religion. Robin and Hugh Campbell have been warriors in keeping this UNESCO Heritage site viable. They do the heavy lifting of promotion, protection, rehabilitation, organization, and fundraising. See their recent fundraiser, Save Our Art, November 2016.

 

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Toyin and I at entrance of the Groves

See Nigeria Magazine article by Susanne Wenger and meaning of her sculpture:

Susanne Wenger at 100  (1915-2009) Nigeria Magazine ,Gods and Myths in Susanne Wenger’s Art: The Example of Batik Cloth by Stanley P. Bohrer and Susanne Wenger Alarape Nigeria Magazine, 1976, Issue 120

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

 

Roman Glass in Britain (and Bida)

Bangels poster v2Tatiana Ivleva (see Global Glass website)contacted me out of the blue! She came across my journey in Bida, Nigeria. I had traveled to Bida in 2015 specifically to see the glass and brass handmade crafts and techniques, read about:  Bida: Bangles and Beads. Somehow Tatiana came across my post and contacted me through my website, nomad4now.com. Tatiana explained that her research involved the ancient craft of glass bangles particularly seamless Romano-British bangles.  She was most interested in Nigeria’s glass making tradition as it was similar to the Roman techniques. Titiana inquired if she might use a part of my video in her research and in this exhibition.  A video released for the exhibition: Fashion Frontiers Glass Bangles of Roman North will at some point be linked to this site. but until then enjoy the ancient and traditional craft of bead and bangle production in Bida:

Glass making can be traced to the Ancient Egyptians about 3,500 years ago. In the last century BC, glass blowing (see Egyptian glass makers here) was invented in Syria, which gave rise to a variety of glass objects during Roman times. The technique spread throughout the centuries to modern time. The Bida glass makers say their ancestors came from Egypt via Chad, the Bornu Empire and migrating from Kano to finally settle with the Nupe.

Camel caravans from Kano and Timbuktu carried goods —indigo, salt, ivory, gold to name a few—for thousands of years that interconnected the world by the great trade routes. These historic caravans, particularly in the Sahara, Eurasia, and the Arabian peninsula were as much about trading as about communication. One of techniques communicated along the way was glass making.

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bracelets made in Bida, Nigeria using ancient glass making technique

Roman Finds Group (provides a forum in Roman artifacts.) Read about the exhibition at: http://www.romanfindsgroup.org.uk/exhibitions

During my journey along the Silk Road, I searched for evidence of glass making. Other than a reference in literature that ‘Arabs’ carried glass in caravans, I did not see evidence of ancient glass. Pottery shards and ceramic bowls were seen in museums as well as at archeological sites.  Glass would be difficult to transport, however,  why did the technique not travel into Central Asia? Or if it did why are there no surviving remnants of glass, glass making, or glass blowers?

Tribute to Neil Hewison: 31 years at AUC Press

How to describe a friend of nearly twenty years?  Actually, I first met Neil in a professional capacity when the former director of AUC Press, Marc Linz, accepted to publish Cairo The Family Guide, in 1998. During that project, I got to know Neil as a person who was unsparingly generous with his expertise. Over the years, we became friends and I discovered things such as his love for gingerbread and the Egyptian dessert, Om Ali. As years passed, I knew Neil as an avid nature and wildlife photographer, Fayoum farmer, intrepid birdwatcher, Arab literature translator, elephant enthusiast, fellow adventurer, meticulous editor, desert explorer and generous friend. My favorite book that Neil translated (which I have read four times and has all the qualities of a riveting opera) , is The Wedding Night by Yusef Abu Rayya.

Neil’s life spans from England to Egypt to New Zealand brings together many adventures, friends and colleagues. This post and short video is to add to those voices in saying thank you to Neil for his years at American University in Cairo Press.  A sincere and deep wish to Neil that retirement is all and more than his thirty-one years at The Press .

For more about Neil’s career read: Here’s to you Neil! (October 2017 e-Newsletter)

Read:  Celebrating Neil Hewison: An Excerpt from His Translation of ‘City of Love and Ashes’ by Marcia Lynx Qualey, freelance cultural journalist at Arabic Literature in English

Read:  5 Books: Neil Hewison’s Most Memorable Books from 31 Years at AUC by Marcia Lynx Qualey, freelance cultural journalist at Arabic Literature in EnglishPress

The photo credits and link to the events and photograph in the video are listed below. The e-newsletter and event photographs used in this video are credited to Ingrid Wassmann,

http://www.aucpress.com/t-newsarchiveitem.aspx?NewsID=238

http://www.aucpress.com/t-newsarchiveitem.aspx?NewsID=283

http://www.aucpress.com/t-enewsletter-MonaPrince-February2015.aspx?

http://www.aucpress.com/t-eNewsletter-NeilHewison-October2017.aspx?

http://www.aucpress.com/t-eNewsletter-MargoVeillonGallery.aspx?template=template_enewsletter

http://www.aucpress.com/t-eNewsletter-BookFestivalZaghloul-June2012.aspx?template=template_enewsletter

http://www.aucpress.com/t-eNewsletter-GrandHotelsEvent-March2012.aspx?template=template_enewsletter

http://www.aucpress.com/t-eNewsletter-MuseumStorePhotoGallery-January2011.aspx?template=template_enewsletter

http://www.aucpress.com/t-eNewsletter-BookFairAuthorsGallery.aspx?template=template_enewsletter

http://www.aucpress.com/t-enewsletter-djd-may2012.aspx

The Final Stretch – Karakalpakstan

 

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“Karavan” – 1926 by Alexander Volkov (1888-1957) , style: Uzbekistan avant-guard. At Savitskiy Karakalpakstan Art Museum

Karakalpakstan is in the western region of Uzbekistan

Sep 29 Darvaza • drive to Kunya Urgench • Nukus, Uzbekistan
Sep 30 Nukus
Oct 1-2 drive to Urgench • Khiva• Tashkent
Oct 3 Depart Tashkent for Cairo

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Map from Central Asia, Lonely Planet p. 140

Crossing the border from Turkmenistan was the easiest of the bureaucratic borders yet. The autonomous region of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan was created partially from the ancient lands of Khorezm and ceded to Russia Empire in 1873 by Khanate of Khiva. Karakalpakstan people are ethnically diverse Turkic speaking group who, though originally nomadic hunters and fishers, in the recent past did migrate seasonally with their cattle. All that came to an end with the Soviet imposed widespread cotton farming fed based on irrigation from rivers mainly the Amu Darya which fed into the Aral Sea, which eventually turned into an environmental disaster for the region.

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“Cotton Picking” 1935 by A.A. Shpadi, Contemporary Kalakalpastan at Sarvitskiy Kalakalpastan Art Museum,

At the end of September, the cotton fields during harvest.

The ancient region of Khorezm or Khorasmia, as it was known to the ancient Greeks, covers the region of Karakalpakstan and the border region of Turkmenistan. Khorezm was a kingdom of the Achaemenids in the fifth and fourth century BCE. Zoroastrianism religion, originated in the region of present-day Iran, spread through Central Asia. Situated on the banks of the Amu Darya river in Karakalpakstan is the Chilpik, an ancient Zoroastrian Tower of Silence thought to be the earliest example of the traditional funerary ritual, constructed somewhere between the first century BCE and 1st century CE.

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Ancient Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, Chilpak

The only reason to visit Nukus was to visit the Savitsky Karakalpakstan Art Museum. Actually,  this journey had two must see destinations: the crossing over Torugart Pass from China to Kyrgyzstan to see Tash Rabat caravanserai and the Savitskiy Collection. The first one was not accomplished due to the Chinese closing the border so I was determined that I would not miss arriving in Nukus. It is not an easy place to visit and coming from Turkmenistan, I began to worry that something would happen to detain me. But my worrying was unfounded and I had the entire day reserved only for the museum visit.

Opened in 1966, the museum houses a collection of over 82,000 items, ranging from antiquities from Khorezm to Karakalpak folk art, Uzbek realism and avant-guard collection and, uniquely, the second largest number of Russian avant-guard paintings in the world, the largest being in St. Petersburg. All of these artworks are by Soviet dissidents, literally saved by the fearless imagination and tireless energy of one man, Igor Savitskiy.

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Igor Savitskiy (1915-1984) buried in the Russian Cemetery in Nukus. Bronze statue presented by local Karakalpastan artist, D. S. Razebaev. Epitaph reads: Everything fades only a star does not perish.

The Russian painter, archeologist and collector, Igor Savitskiy (1915-1984), was a student from 1941-1946 at the Surikov Institute, Moscow. During  WWII the Institute was evacuated to Samarkand, thus starting Savitskiy’s discovery of Central Asia. He first visited Karakalpakstan in 1950-1957 to participate in the Archeological & Ethnographic Expedition headed by the world renown scientist Professor Sergei Pavlovian Tolstov that uncovered the ancient civilisation in Khorezm. Savitskiy explored Karakalpakstan collecting the history and folk arts of this unknown population living in the desert. During this period he literally walked across vast areas of northern Karakalpakstan and started a collection of dying folk arts, jewellery, embroidery, woven textiles, stamped leather and carved wood and clothing as well as coins and carpets eventually number at least 7000 pieces. He trained Karakalpak artists and convinced the authorities that Karakalpakstan needed an art museum and he was appointed director in 1966. He gave up painting claiming that one should not combine the two and dedicated himself to expansion of the museum. In the meantime, Savitskiy managed to fall foul of Stalin’s rules about what was and was not acceptable art. Somehow he avoided exile or imprisonment; he achieved it by self-banishment to a far edge of Soviet empire, Karakalpakstan. Savitskiy could not stand by and watch Russian art of the early 20th century perish, he began to conceive of the idea to rescue tens of thousands of works by forgotten or forbidden artists banned as formalist to the safety of Nukus. through friends and contacts in the art world, he made dangerous visits to view works which had been painted in the 1920-30s and then, when they dropped out of political favour, had been hidden from public view. With no money of his own he depended on persuading the artists to have them sent to a safe house in faraway, unknown Nukus. He amassed an incredible 90,000 paintings by artists.

See Website: Savitskiy Collection, Karakalpakstan Museum.

Watch the Movie, can buy it on ITUNES or find it on You-Tube: The Desert of Forbidden Art https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pGX7kKrutpY

Read: New York Times: Desert of Forbidden art.

A few examples of art from the Savitskiy Collection:

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“An Uzbek man”-1926 by V.V. Rojdestvenskiy (1884-1963) Russian avant-guard

 

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“Provincial Actors in Bukhara” -1932 by Mikhail Kurzin, Uzbekistan avant-guard.

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” Laying water Pipes in Bukhara” by N.G. Karaxan (1900-1970)

Leaving Nukus we drive next along a rail line connecting Tashkent to Nukus; on the opposite side of the road are ruins of an ancient castle perched atop a dramatic mesa like mountain. The remains of this ancient fortress, the walls were standing when Alexander the Great and his armies passed by en route to India the drive to Ugrench crosses the Amu Darya River (Oxus River in biblical times ) The river is at the centre of the scandal over excessive water use for cotton irrigation that has virtually dried up the Aral Sea.

Arriving Khiva was not as picturesque as Savitskiy had painted it in

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“Outskirts of Khiva” by Igor Savitskiy (1915-1984)

Sherizod, the driver, pulled the car up to the hotel that was across the road from the Khiva  fortress walls,  dusted in a rosy light. IMG_4809Khiva has an inner and outer city. Those living in the inner walls are not so many these days but if a person from the inner city of Khiva dies outside the walls, they cannot be buried inside the fortress. Thus, people from the inner city were buried on the walls of the fortress, as close as possible to their homes. Another advantage for the people in the fortress was the perception that invading armies did not advance through graveyards as it was a sign of misfortune.

Khiva, the first site in Uzbekistan to be included in theWorld Heritage List is said to be founded by Noah’s son, Sham, who discovered a water well but archaeologist put the origins of the well  in the 6th century CE. In Khiva’s heyday , which did not come until the 16th century, it was the capital of Khanate of Khiva that feuded with Bukhara and Kokhand. For three centuries , Khiva was the most lucrative slave market of Central Asia. Today, it is more like walking through a movie set or a Middle Ages theme park with restaurants, camel photos and touristic trinkets sold along the main thoroughfare.

Maybe Khiva needs a respite from its bloody history…in the 1700s Tsarist Russia sent 4000 troups to Khiva where they were massacred and for the revenge in 1873, Russia sent 13000 troops to descend on Khiva and massacred the city. In 1740 the ancient fortress of Khiva was destroyed by the Persians. In 1920 the Bolsheviks absorbed Khiva as they did with all the Khanates into the Soviet Union.
In an environment of such of harsh history it is perhaps surprising that Khiva should produce a world renowned scientist, Al Khorezmi who developed the theory of algorithms and algebra in his seminal work Al Jebr.DSC_0848

One thing is for sure, Khiva can boast about the sweetest melons:

Captain Frederick Burnaby, in his 1876 book A Ride to Khiva, made similar observations:Melon traders would shovel up snow and ice during winter and store it in deep underground cellars. Then in summer the most succulent melons were packed with ice and placed in large lead containers. These were then heaved onto camels to journey across the deserts to the banqueting tables of the Tsar of Russia, the Emperor of Peking and the Mogul rulers of Northern India.
Burnaby had the good fortune of tasting an aged Khorezm melon in the middle of a Khiva winter. “Anyone accustomed to this fruit in Europe,” he wrote, “would scarcely recognize its relationship with the delicate and highly perfumed melons of Khiva.” He added that “throughout the winter, melons are preserved according to an old method where they are put into straw or net bags and then hung from the ceiling of a special warehouse called a kaunkhana [qovunxona, or melon house].”- Excerpt from “In Search of Ibn Battuta’s Melon”, AramcoWorld, Nove/Dec 2015

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“Old man with a Melon” -1935 by G. Jeglou (1935-2010)Contemporary Karakalpakstan

An impressive view of the town is from the open air pavilion at the top of the Khulna Ark. The Ark, like the one in Bukhara, was a fortress within a fortress; the Khan of Khiva’s palace., his harem, a mosque, reception, and guest rooms, throne room, mint, horse and camel stables, barracks for guards and a jail. The whole complex is now a museum where particularly on the verandah of the Summer Mosque , the mosaic ceramic tiling, carved wooden columns and painted ceilings are some of the most beautiful in Central Asia.

See Then and Now photographs of Khiva at “The Journey to Khiva”.

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“Domes of Khiva” , Igor Savitskiy

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Same view of “Domes of Khiva”

On the last night of this great journey, I was invited for dinner to the home of a family from Khiva. Dinner was served in a traditional setting, sitting around a low table on the floor. My hosts  were retired historians, I was honoured to learn about their work in education, their traditional life of customs and their growing concern for the youth. My last meal in Central Asia…plov and samosa…delicious!

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“Still Life, Pilaff (plov)” by M. I Kurzin (1888-1957) Uzbekistan avant-guard

On October 3rd, I boarded Turkish Airline and headed to Cairo…arriving at Ithaka:

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

-C.P. Cavafy

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

4000 years in 7 days-Turkmenistan

 

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Darvaza Gas Crater, Karakum Desert

Sep 23 Bukhara • drive to Mary, Turkmenistan
Sep 24-26, Mary and surrounding area
Sep 27-28, Ashgabat
Sep 28 drive to Darvaza
Sep 29 • drive to Kunya Urgench • Nukus, Uzbekistan

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Map from National Geographic, “Caspian Sea”, 1999. Black line is the route through Turkmenistan and the green circle is the are of ancient Merv and the Gonur-Depe.

An early morning departure from Bukhara and on the road to the Turkmenistan border, the most important stop before the border was to find a toilet, for there was no way of knowing if facilities would be available at the crossing. Abdu, my guide, directed Sherizod, our driver, to stop as what looked like a restaurant/hotel. As soon as the car stopped, we heard loud music coming from the building. Since the time was 9am, I assumed a wedding party was just coming to a close…but I was wrong, it was a breakfast party to celebrate the 60th birthday of a well-known local man. In true Uzbek hospitality, the group of men standing outside insisted we join the celebrations. We were ushered to a table filled with delicacies of plov and samosa, meats, salads and fruits; music played to welcome us and we soon met the honoree. After many pictures and congratulations were had, we set off with handfuls of sweets for the border crossing. After several hours of typical border red tape, I was in Turkmenistan!

After crossing the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, I was met by my guide, Elias, a native of Merv. Elias’s first comment was to reassure me that he and his ancestors were quite harmless and sincerely friendly. He insisted that he should not be judged by the local proverb: “If on the road you meet a viper and a Mervi, kill the Mervi first, and the viper afterwards.”

Being sufficiently reassured that I was in safe hands,  I turned my thoughts to Turkmenistan, a flat, dry country dominated by the Karakum Desert with ancient civilisations buried beneath the moving sands. IMG_4594

Turkmenistan consists of five major Turkmen tribes and is also a country to delight any anthropologist or archaeologist.

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Five tribes:are Teke (Tekke), Yomut (Yomud), Ersari (Ärsary), Chowdur (Choudur) and Saryk (Saryq), on Turkmenistan flag

In Turkmenistan, I would visit civilisations spanning from 2300 BCE at Gonur-depe to the 11th to the 16th century CE monuments of Kunya-Urgench. Turkmenistan went the same route as Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan first colonized by Russian tsarist in 1881 and Sovietised from 1917, with Stalin drawing the countries borders in 1934. Watch this 1972 movie, “The Daughter in Law”, about life in Turkmenistan after WWII.  The photographs that follow are things that are still present in village everyday life:  felt rug, yurt,the vessel for tea, saksaul branches (Haloxylon, See http://webdoc.sub.gwdg.de/ebook/dissts/Koeln/Annaklycheva2002.pdf, page 68), reed mats, dowry chest.(run cursor over pictures for information.) The abundance of saksaul branches demonstrates the wealth of a family.

 

 

The first town after the border crossing is Turkmenabat, the area in which caravans crisscrossed from the Karakum desert and agricultural land of Uzbekistan. The river Amu-Darya (River Oxus), provided a natural resource to sustain travellers making their way to and from the Caspian Sea (see map). The Silk Road was in its decline when Genghis Khan’s army invaded the area in 1221 and levelled the city, Turkmenabat, which was known, then, as Amul.  Then from the north, more invasions from Timur and his armies. During this time, the Song Dynasty (960-1279CE) was vying with the Arabs trading by sea routes diverting goods from overland trading, another reason that destabilised the caravan routes. But still today, there are remnants of the many caravanserai that rise above cotton fields along the road to Mary (Mari) and the ancient city of Merv; the direction, south, that we are headed.

Remains of caravanserai in the area of Merv:

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Merv was a crossroads of the world religions. Christians (see photo of Nestorian church below), lived side by side with Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Manicheans.

Merv stood on the crossroads of the main routes of the Great Silk Road. Routes through Merv went in a number of directions: north to Khorezm (through the Karakum Desert or to Bukhara); east to Termez (near Afghanistan); southwest to present day Iran; and west to Nisa (ancient Parthian city near Ashgabat). The Merv channel from the north imports of such products as wax, honey, and furs came. From the southern route connected land and sea routes enabling the intensification of trade with Arabia.

 

During the Russian tsar era, a fortress was built around 1881 and  Turkmenabat became known as Charjou. For me, Turkmenabat is a rest stop to recover at a restaurant straight from the 1970 world of disco equipped with dance floor and 360degree revolving mirror. After some Lagman soup, another two-hours drive and we enter Mary (Mari), a former settlement for the Tekke Turkmen tribe that surrendered to the Russian tsar in 1884.

The significance of Mary is the proximity to the earliest history in the Merv Oasis: the 4000 year old complex of the Gonur-depe, medieval Merv, and the intersection of four caravan roads in the Silk Road. Gonur-depe was the capital of one of the great but little known ancient civilisations. The earliest history of the Merv Oasis in former delta of the River Murghab can be traced to the Bronze Age culture, 2300-1700 BCE. Over 4000 years of its history the cities at this site have borne different names in different periods – Mouru, Margush, Mariana, Merv, Mary – and these made an impact on the development of Central Asia.

Uncovered by Soviet archaeologists in the mid-20th century, the fortress town of Gonur-Depe was once a thriving center of a Zoroastrian civilization populated by thousands. The Bronze Age site dating back to around 2000 BC was surrounded by strong fortress walls, and made up of adobe homes and buildings, the remnants of which are still subsiding in this rural corner of Turkmenistan located about 45 miles north of Merv.

In Gonor-Depe the remains of a variety of Zoroastrian sites were discovered, including a palace, a Zoroastrian fire temple, and a necropolis. Zoroastrianism is the religion founded by Zoroaster, who lived in Persia sometime between 1000 and 600 BCE.  Fire is seen by Zoroastrians as pure and sacred, and is the central element in their temples.DSC_0185

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Elias, myguide, at Gonur -Depe

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Chariot wheels and bronze pot and camel skeleton

The Murghab river oasis was occupied at least as far back as the beginning of the first millennium BCE although the earliest structures at Merv date to the early Achaemenid period (sixth to fight century BCE). Merv known as Margiana or Margushe in Alexander the Great’s time by the end of the second century BCE Margiana fell under Parthian control. It was considered religiously liberal with populations of Nestorian Christians,

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Nestorian Christian church, Nestorianism is the Christian doctrine identified with Nestorius (386–451), patriarch of Constantinople.

Buddhists and Zoroastrian. Merv reached its peck of trade between 11th and 12th century when the Seljuk Turks made it their capital.

People I met at the ancient monuments of Merv on pilgrimage from different parts of Turkmenistan. (Move cursor over picture for information about the various monuments.)

 

Zuleyha is from the Beluch tribe that moved to southern Turkmenistan from their ancestral  community in Iran about four generations ago. The Baluch in this region have retained many aspects of their material and social culture. I asked Zuleyha about the embroidery on her robe and she said that it was store bought. She said that the women use to embroider their robes but no one has the time or interest to do so now.

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Some monuments at ancient Merv site:

 

Ashgabat, the ‘city of love’ and monumental marble buildings and capital of Turkmenistan is not far from the Iranian border.  One of the visa requirements was to purchase a ticket to the Asian Games being held during my journey there, so off I went to the ballroom dancing competition and to my surprise (or maybe not so surprising), Lebanon was the only Middle Eastern country competing!

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20170926_121734Before leaving Ashgabat, a visit to Nisa,  the first seat of central government of the Parthians.(reigned c. 250 BC–211 BC):

 

 

 

And a visit to a centre for horse breeding of the Akhalteke race horse, Turkmenistan’s prize breed, that has application to the UNESCO for inclusion of the breed in the World Heritage list:

 

 

 

Ring of fire in the Karakum desert: human error creates mesmerizing nights in the desert…

DSC_0496From Ashgabat to Konya-Urgrench to cross the border back into Uzbekistan takes us through the Davaza Gas Craters.  Elias describes the road as the worst road in the world. Definitely, the drive was difficult not only because of the pot holes but the camels walking down the middle and across the road. We are headed to a camp grounds provided by the government. The yurt or tent accommodations are on a first come/first serve. The jeep turned off-road and on a sandy piste to the crater, which takes experienced driver as the way is not marked. Roman, our driver, is superior at his skill and luckily,  a first-class mechanic and barbecue expert! First stop, however, is the village of Yerbint, which gives a glimpse of rural life in the desert.

Elias asks around to find if felt rugs are for sale though not for tourist consumption, he finds a lady willing to sell her rugs. The patterns in the felt rugs (see Kyrgyzstan to watch how felt is made) are handed down from generation to generation. When bargaining is finished, one young boy reminded his mother that he had helped her roll the rug and slyly asked if there would be any profit for him. Little did I know that Elias’s insistence on this purchase would save be from a bitter cold night in the desert, not only an authentic piece of work but also I pulled the rug over me against the raw desert night air.

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Felt rug , pattern handed down for generations, centre is the Zoroastrian ring of fire surround the four seasons, the rams on either side signify wealth and the borders are the moving sand.

The Darvaz gas craters are a human mistake during the Soviet era gas exploration  but nonetheless, it draws tourists from Ashgabat. Roman explains that most tourists make the 3 hour drive to watch night fall at the crater only to return the same night through the ‘worst road in the world!’ This crater had been set alight in 1971 since the collapse of an underground cavern of natural gas. Engineers set it alight to prevent the spread of methane gas but it has never stopped burning. The diameter of the crater is 69 metres, and its depth is 30 metres.

 

 

 

In the morning we break camp early to cover another rough road to the Uzbekistan border with enough time to explore the monuments at Konye-Urgench, which was once  the centre of the Islamic world. P1030064P1030061

Meet Elias Djumyev, my guide (on left) in Turkmenistan and Roman, expert driver.IMG_0786 (1)

 

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

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)