|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
5 - 11 July 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara -- the city names are evocative of a fabulous civilisation; they hold pride of place in Islamic history. Yet what of their present? On the eve of the 10th anniversary of Uzbekistan's independence, Fatemah Farag tags along for a meeting of the Egyptian-Uzbek Cooperation Committee
Lingering legendsSamarkand is not just a memory of old glory
The wife of Amir Timor wanted to build a great mosque. It was to be a surprise to welcome her husband when he returned home from battle. She recruited an architect from Iran and, when the Amir's return was imminent, she instructed her architect to complete the mosque as soon as he could. Now the Amir's wife was beautiful and intelligent, and the architect had fallen deeply in love with her. "Let me kiss you and I will finish the mosque," he said to her. She refused. Each day he begged her again. And so at last, tiring of his ardour, the Amir's wife brought the architect two eggs: one white, one brown. "Look: these two eggs appear different. But if you eat them they taste the same," she said. "So it is with women." Now the architect was a cunning one. He asked for two cups to be brought, one filled with water, the other with vodka. "You see, the liquid in these two cups looks identical. If I drink the water nothing happens to me, but if I drink the vodka it burns my heart. It is the same with you," he said. Defeated by his logic, the Amir's wife let the architect kiss her. But so passionate was his kiss that it burnt her cheek and left a mark. True to his promise, the architect finished the mosque, delighting the Amir when he returned. But coming then to his home, Amir Timor saw the mark on his wife's cheek. She told him what it was. He flew into a rage and ordered his guards to kill the brazen builder. But before they could, the architect heard of the Amir's wrath. He ran up the minaret of his mosque, strapped himself to a flying machine he had invented, and flew away from Samarkand, back to Iran.
Uzbek painters capture images of Samarkand on a hot summer afternoon; age weighs heavily on some of Samarkand's architectural heritage; ulama's corners as outlets for traditional crafts; the Registan Complex prepares for independence celebrations
(Popular legend from Samarkand)
As Egyptians and Arabs, many of us know very little of Uzbekistan. But Samarkand: now that is another matter. Its legends, historic and fantastic, have held our imaginations for generations. Ask almost anyone what thoughts the name Samarkand conjures and they will tell you of a far off land, magnificent in beauty, where Omar Al-Khayyam dwelt and Imam Al-Bukhari, author of Sahih Al-Bukhari , the famous collection of authentic hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Mohamed), lived and died. Many other scholars flourished there, too; it was a true beacon of Islamic civilisation at its mightiest.
So it was with no little excitement that I crossed two continents to reach this fabled place (from Africa to Asia via -- ironically -- Europe). As we explored the city in the heat of chellat (the hottest 40 days of the Uzbekistan summer), a local friend brought the ruins alive with the legends of time passed; legends the people of Samarkand have been handing down for centuries.
Once a leading city on the Silk Road, the physical remains of Middle Ages Samarkand have suffered painfully from the merciless march of history. First, there was Afrasiyab, a city, settled over two and a half millennia ago. For a time, Afrasiyab prospered. It was once so great that it lured Alexander the Great from his march to India in 329BC. He conquered Afrasiyab and is said to have married the daughter of a local chieftain: Roxanna. Perhaps that was the beginning of the end; for Afrasiyab then began to decline.
More conquerors came. The Arabs seized the area in 712AD and then, in 1220AD, Genghis Khan razed Afrasiyab utterly. Now a dusty plateau is all that is left of that once great city.
Wanderers moved into the empty valley and the current Samarkand flourished with the advent of Amir Timor (known in the West as Tamerlane). Timor made Samarkand his capital in 1370 and it continued to thrive until the time of Timor's grandson, Ulugh Beg, who ruled between 1409 and 1449.
Since then, the city has suffered plunder and neglect. Russian troops damaged it heavily in 1870 and, again, after 1920. There are more prosaic villains, too. Modern town planning has disrupted the scheme of the old city while the lack of a working sewage system, random razing of mohhalat (traditional housing quarters), water seepage and increased soil salinity are slowly eating into Samarkand's architectural heritage. According to a 1995 UNESCO report, random administrative buildings smother the ancient citadel.
According to locals, no serious attention was paid to the demise of the historic city until Indonesia's former President Suharto, while visiting Moscow in 1984, expressed a desire to see Samarkand. Since then, treasures like the mausoleum and mosque of Imam Al-Bukhari, who died in Samarkand, have been rebuilt, almost from scratch. The current imam of the mosque reveals how the rebuilding fits with the new post-independence attitude to Uzbekistan's heritage. "At the time of Al-Bukhari, over a thousand of his pupils could teach the correct hadiths," he said. "When communism came," he continued, "the mosques were brought down and only three were left. Since independence, the number of registered mosques has exceeded 250. Today there is a madrasa (Qur'anic school) adjacent to Al-Bukhari mosque that teaches all fields of Islamic learning," he concluded proudly. Once more it is acceptable to take pride in Samarkand's Islamic heritage.
A doorway to heaven: the gate to the Mausoleum of the Living Dead; minarets at the Mausoleum; the Mausoleum of Imam Al-Bukhari
photos: Fatemah Farag
Shaded by a tree that locals say has stood for a thousand years, I sip from a spring in the courtyard of Al-Bukhari mosque. As I drink, I slowly absorb the shock of finding a modern structure marking the great scholar's burial place, instead of the expected old one. It takes time to realise: today, a modern city squeezes the ruins of the past in a cement embrace of wide roads, modern buildings and people bustling to make a living.
UNESCO is currently considering listing Samarkand on its World Heritage List. Prior to Al-Ahram Weekly's visit, a group of specialists were in town reviewing the documents accompanying an extensive application filed a year ago. To date, Uzbekistan has three cities on the World Heritage List: Bukhara, Khiva (the old capital) and Sherezade.
The Samarkand site that has received most attention is the Registan Complex. It includes the Ulugh Beg Madrasa (built in 1417), the Shir Dor Madrasa (built between 1619 and 1639) and the Tillya Khari Madrasa and Mosque (built between 1647 and 1660). They are a wondrous collection of buildings covered in electric blue ceramic; their tilting minarets a study in precariousness. Today the rooms that used to house the ulama and their students house bazaars selling traditional crafts. In the cobblestone courtyard, which holds the grave of a butcher who gave the students free meat in order to enjoy burial among them, an outdoor theatre is being set up in preparation for a programme of festivities beginning in August to celebrate 10 years of Uzbekistan's independence.
Climbing the flight of stone steps that leads to the Mausoleum of the Living Dead, you are overwhelmed by the beauty of the ceramics, domes and winding alley. But there is sadness, too: large sections of wall are denuded of tiles and corroded by damp. One cannot help wondering if modernity's neglect may be the final undoing of Samarkand: the last villain to complete the wreck of the beleaguered old city.
And it would be a great loss; not only because the buildings are so beautiful, but also because of the wonderous tales of which they remain a precisous physical reminder.
We visit the mausoleum where Amir Timor lies buried, a mausoleum he originally built for his grandson Guri-i-Amir, who died very young. As we sit in the underground vault of Timor's tomb, hemmed in by a low ceiling, reciting the fatiha (opening prayer) in honour of Timor's soul, and later listening to a recital of passages from the Qur'an, we ponder the respect owed the dead. I am told of an archaeological expedition that came to Samarkand in 1941 and dug the Amir up from his grave, as my local friend once again brought the dead to life. He said, "They unwrapped his shroud and, of course, he was not buried in fancy clothes. He died in battle and was brought here directly. The shroud can now be seen at the museum bearing his name in Tashkent. Anyway, the archaeologists were disappointed not to find jewels and such things, so they put him back," my informant explains.
The story takes an ominous turn. My friend goes on: "The sheikhs here in Samarkand said something very bad will happen to the world because of the disrespect visited on the dead. The body was returned to its grave on 21 June. On the 22nd, Russia was invaded and this part of the world became embroiled into the Second World War."
So despite the trampling of modernity, and the dissolution of past glory, the legends still have it that history starts, and ends, in Samarkand.
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