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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Read: New York Times: Desert of Forbidden art.
A few examples of art from the Savitskiy Collection:
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
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. Khiva 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.
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
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”.
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!
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.