Uzbekistan... Shrines and Bazaars

Uzbekistan... Shrines and Bazaars

From Bukhara to Tashkent, and from Shakhrisyabz to Samrkand, historic cities you pass through on your journey... Cities of imams and emirs and capitals of arts and architecture. They are also the home of glory and resistance and the seat of the schools of the elders and the mosques of the faithful. Every city has more than one story to tell: one relating its history, another introducing its youth, a third foretelling the future. You are now... in Uzbekistan.

What we saw was nothing but a basalt statue, which, though silent, told us a lot! At five o clock on the morning of 26 April 1966 an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale hit Tashkent. Though only 15 people were killed, 300,000 became homeless in a matter of seconds. In the heart of the city stands this statue of a man protecting his wife and son. In the background, people coming from the republics of the former Soviet Union to help the city recover. But that was not the only earthquake to hit Tashkent, as the city is being hit by other earthquakes historical, social and economic. Is it able to overcome them? A question haunting the city which celebrates the 2200th anniversary of its foundation.

It was past midnight when we arrived at Tashkent airport. My fellow photographer and I were the only Arabs on board the plane flying from Chinese territories on its way to the capital of Uzbekistan, one of the republics of the former Soviet Union which officially restored its independence on January 1, 1992. Despite all prior arrangements with the authorities concerned in Uzbekistan and the Uzbek embassy in Kuwait, we were left at the mercy of long arrival formalities which even frequent flyers are not familiar with. Most of the Uzbek plane s passengers were middle-class who travelled to Urumchi (the capital of Xinjiang in northwestern China) to buy many cheap goods: TVs, satellite dishes, toys, kitchenware, curtains, tablecloth, bedcovers, clothes and even fruit boxes- you name it, as if they were coming from a barren desert.

Days later, we discovered the reason. Our fellow passengers bought such cheap things from China to help them make both ends meet in a country where the cost of living is constantly on the rise, and its currency (the som) being a big problem, as one euro is equivalent to a thousand som. No wallets can hold such heavy, big banknotes which carry pictures of Amir Temur and Uzbek antiquities. People therefore use rubber bands to hold banknote bundles together and stuff them into their pockets. In the maze of this currency, I found a way to help me handle it upon payment: to bundle every ten thousand som together. I expect that Uzbekistan will venture to cancel the six zeros from its currency. That perhaps will be the subject of a forthcoming Exploration!

The alphabet tremor

Another tremor is shaking Tashkent and other Uzbek cities as well as many other former republics of the Soviet Union, namely the alphabet tremor. Before the Russian Revolution and annexation of these republics, which were Muslim entities successor to previous empires with no political boundaries, Uzbekistan, like many of its neighbours, used the Arabic alphabet, being the origin of their heritage and Muslim civilization.

The Arabic alphabet was not just used in writing, but it was a cultural identity as well , and many conservative Muslims and extreme nationalists alike seek to restore it backed by other countries which use it, such as Iran and Pakistan (The Arabs are absent in this formula). Later, the Cyrillic alphabet was imposed by the Soviet Union and was used for seventy years. Many generations were educated in Soviet institutions and so only read, write and think in it. They are in favour of retaining this alphabet in order to maintain academic and economic relations. However, supporters of the Latin alphabet, which is used in Turkish, have eventually won the battle, as it is universally recognized worldwide and considered by many to be the gateway to a secular society, which is supported by Turkish nationalists who promote openness, democracy, liberal economy and westernization.

The memory of Islamic civilization

The alphabet tremor was on my mind while I was browsing through Tashkent s manuscripts in many of its institutions. Most -if not all- of these manuscripts are in Arabic, and that drove me to ask Mr. Mansourov, the Uzbek Minister of Culture, how communication with memory, history and civilization can be maintained. His answer was That s not difficult. On the contrary, I find knowledge of the three alphabets a big advantage. What we don t know we can learn . He showed me a notebook with exercises in Arabic in his own handwriting and told me he was learning how to read, write and pronounce Arab letters and words.

Those involved in culture are not the only persons required to learn the Arabic alphabet, as there are over ten thousand antiquities and historic landmarks all over the country (the second greatest number after China), half of which according to the Minster, have been lost, carrying inscriptions in Arabic and Persian, Turkish and Uzbek (in the Arabic alphabet), in addition to manuscripts, as Mr. Rahmanove, Director of Culture, says, constitute the documents of the Silk Road, a project revitalized from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan through Iran, India and Pakistan and sponsored by the International Centre for the Preservation and Archiving of Cultural Heritage. Completion of a substantial part of the project is scheduled for 2015.

We met Mansourov and Rahmanov in a small building with a historical look and then we went to a literary where rare books and manuscripts are kept. To our astonishment and joy, the titles were in several languages, but the intense heat dispelled our joy because it endangered the safety of those treasures which need a certain body to promote and write about. Only one 50-page cultural magazine, Moziydan Sadok (the Echo of History), is published by the Ministry of Culture in English, Uzbek and Russian, in addition to occasional publications about a city, an antiquity or an event.

Al-Bayrouni alive

Our sorrow turned into admiration when we visited the Abulrayhan Al-Bayrouni Institute for Orientalism and met its researchers: Tashov Nouryaghdi, Ilmoradav Israel, Abdov Bakhtyar,Raiq Bahadirov and Kaseem Khanif (Hanif) The institute holds 30,000 volumes with one manuscript or more each, all put in cases in good condition in terms of temperature and ventilation. In 1945, the institute started an indexing and classification process by subject. Furthermore, there is a brief guide to the manuscripts in English classified according to period of history, as well as an annual modest book called "Sharq Shana Slik".

We know that Al-Bayrouni s legacy for mankind consisted of 181 books, treatises, translations and encyclopedic works, including 26 books about India. Only 42 books of this treasure have survived, including one in Sanskrit, which he mastered, about the effect of stars. This prominent figure deserved to have the institute named after him. In addition, his name and the names of other Uzbek scholars are inscribed on the institute walls. The institute, which is affiliated to the Academy of Sciences and was founded in 1943, attracts students from all over the world to investigate its rare manuscripts about Islamic culture and civilization in its hey day. In addition to the institute s, there are manuscripts in the Department of Uzbek Muslims library, Ali Shir Navai Museum of Literature, Tashkent Islamic University, Imam Bukhari Institute and the National Library.

Langer Ata Mosque Quran

Manuscripts are not limited to rare copies of the Holy Quran, including the Uthman Codex, but there are manuscripts about history, literature, arts and science in Arabic, Persian, Uzbek, Tajik, Azeri, Tartar, Uighur (the language of Xinjiang), Turkish, Urdu, Pashto and other languages. These were written by some renowned Muslim scholars, such as Al-Razi, Avicenna, Al-Farabi, Al-Zamakhshari, Al-Khwarezmi, Khoja Ahraz Wali, Abdul-Rahman Jami, Ali Shir Navai, Al-Ferdowsi, Amir Khisro and, of course, Al-Bayrouni.

On one of our visits to a historical school in Tashkent we met Uzbek scribe Habibullah Salih, who is proud of a well-known achievement: making two copies of the Holy Quran, known as the Langer Quran , the first of which was kept in Langer Ata Mosque. The original copy, it was said, contained 160 pages, and it has been dated at the 13th or 14th centuries AD. Only 16 pages have survived and these are kept in the Religious Department of Uzbek Muslims. One page is kept in the Al-Bayrouni Institute library and another two in Avicenna Library in Bukhara province. The other copy is kept in the Islamic University of Tashkent. These manuscripts make Tashkent the phoenix of Muslim cities because they represent its mind and secrets which never die.

This 22-century-old city never ages. It was born on Chirchik River basin as an agricultural town and a settlement for villagers beyond the Jayhoun River named Shashtiba. Those early settlers used iron and bronze to make their implements and they wove their cloth. Fortresses were built in a town that replaced Shashtiba with Kank, which is 70km from modern Tashkent, as its capital. It was referred to in Chinese historical records as "Yuni" and "Shi". From the third century AD it became the capital of the state of "Chachnab" (the Chach people) and was cited for the first time in the inscriptions of Shapur I on the Zorostrian antiquities in Iran in AD 263. It became part of central Asian empires when the Iftalitians annexed it to their state in the fifth century. In the following centuries the Turkish khanate replaced the Iftalitians, and the Chinese historians changed the local name "Chach" to Ji-Chi" or "Shi", meaning "stone" and it assumed the Turkish name :Tash Qand" (the stone city). But the city has never been like that, as its view from its highest towers confirms. Archaeological excavations in the city revealed coins of eastern and western empires from China to Byzantium which indicate that the Chach's capital was a leading centre for international trade, and a major part of the Silk Road later.

Tashkent's transformations made it Arabic when its predecessor Shash joined the caliphate under caliph Ma'amun ( AD 813-823), and Arabic sources in he ninth and tenth centuries called it "Benkat". Al-Astakhri said: "Most mercury, gold and other metals come from Transoxania/Maverannahr". Other metals include silver, copper, iron and tin. The city then became Turkish in a new political union with the Qarkhanian Khanate, and its Turkish name is mentioned for the first time in Abdulrayhan Al-Bayrouni's writings when it, like all other cities in Turkestan, joined the state of Khoresm Shah. Later it was conqured by the Mongols under Chagatai, Genghis Khan's son, until it become during the region of Amir Temur, who became ruler of Maverannahr, a center of culture and home of civilization. The city has grown over the ages and become famous for its markets, the largest of which, Rajistan, was connected to all its streets.

The American traveller Eugene Skyler, who visited Tashkent in 1873, described it as an unrivalled city in terms of variety, with winding streets which go up and down ending at a high wall or minaret. But that was 13 centuries ago and has changed; the Soviet Union planned modern Tashkent according to the style of its own cities: wide streets, buildings with grey facades, gardens, statues. Will it continue like that after 17 years of independence? Is it preparing for a further architectural upsurge? Questions that crossed my mind as we were leaving this city on our way to Samarkand: Questions about the new architectural style which has replaced one-and two-storey buildings with high-rise towers, as if the April 1966 quake had been forgotten. Questions about the rising cost of living which is strongly felt in a cosmopolitan city and makes us wonder how to cope with it by working in causal jobs or in agriculture (as our driver Bakhtiar said). Thoughts continued to occur to me on the road with its green, beautiful scenes we reached the outskirts of Samarkand.

The Gardens of Samarkand

Everywhere you go in Samarkand, art is around you: impressive buildings, the great art of miniature painting. In the book entitled History of Amir Temur (an account of major events during the age of Temur), the writer Ibn Arabshakh said: "By order of Temur many beautiful gardens, and magnificent palaces were built. Everything was impressive, extremely beautiful, exquisite and fascinating. The gardens' supports were decorated with beautiful fruits and ornamental plants. They were called "the Garden of Eden" , "Ornament of the World", "Paradise", "the Northern Garden" and "the Heavenly Paradise".

An important art which makes us look carefully at Samarkand's edifices are the drawings which today's artists try to emulate from the manuscripts of Shahname and "Taher and Zahra". The formations are uniquely portrayed; they are decorated with the "Zarafshan" style: Golden particles are sprayed, and the pattern is repeated and the painting is completed in its core. This technique has developed over the ages and was used in creative works in the schools of the art of miniature painting in Tabriz, Herat and Samarkand in particular and in the works of Muzafar Ali and Mahmud Mazhab. This technique easily shows the underlying contradiction with the main theme of the painting. Following the development of the old Zarafshan style, decorations were sometimes used in the margins of the paintings with symbolic and abstract features. Miniature paintings are not confined to books, but Uzbek artists put their paintings on nearly everything.

On a rectangular box called "the Oriental Theatre" painted by Bolatov in the background of Rajistan complex in Samrkand, the artist illustrates the performance of four marionette artists who ably move the puppets by strings. At the same time the artist skillfully shifts the symbolic views of the theatre curtain which he uses to contrast the expressive and the inexpressive, the material and the spiritual, the ostensible and the sublime, as well as an agent among the many forms of reality. The curtain is shown as a sacred symbol representing the whole world and at the same time hides something more important, which is difficult to express or reach.

Artist Shah Mahmud Muhammadinov is an important model of the contemporary art of miniature painting. He has developed this art, which he started practicing since he was 13 at the Ali Shir Navai Museum of Art. As a young pupil he used themes from old Uzbek literature, particularly the works of the encyclopedic scholar Mahmud Qashjari, the author of "The Languages of Turkmen Nationalities", which appeared in the eleventh century AD and contained legends, songs, lyrics and epics. The young artist wanted to do a series of miniature paintings portraying events in the past up to the present.

In 1968, on the occasion of the anniversary of the death of writer Ali Shir Navai in Uzbekistan, Muhammadinov made fifty basic drawings in water colours emulating miniature paintings. His tutor Sulaimanov praised his work and called him "Bahzad of the Twentieth Century" and invited him to work in the museum and produce free creative works and afforded him the opportunity for technical education at the Benkov School of Art in Tashkent.

The artist uses five or six basic colours: red, gold, white, dark blue and green, and sometimes makes them more brilliant by mixing them with denser colours of the same degree and material, which makes his works more decorative. His colouring is based on one shaded colour for each painting. From the clever addition of the colour and the painting frame and theme it can safely be said that Muhammadinov belongs to the school of old masters; however, he is a contemporary creative artist. "Kalila and Dimna", the collection of classical Indian tales, follows the principles of this "technique".

The art of miniature painting depicts the real world and is not confined to the lives of kings or literature. In his miniature painting called "Uluk", painter Shamsuddin portrays "Nowruz" (new year), spring celebrations: funny and brave games, blue spring sky, green trees, horse trotting and imminent danger, all of which takes place a long way from the tent of the great commander Amir Temur, who watches the events with his intimate friends. The painting reflects a festive, cheerful mood through the use of a brilliant colour shade. The clear blue spring sky is washed in a spring light decorated with thick clouds, while the onlookers are awaiting the result of the game.

Shakhrisyabz: Marriage the Timurid way

The road to Shakhrisyabz, the birthplace of Amir Temur or Timur Lenk, as he is recorded in the annals of history is a reflection of the present in Uzbekistan. How? You may think you are in East Europe as you are stopped by grim-faced policemen carrying a baton which lights at night at a checkpoint every few kilometres. Or you may feel you are passing through an Arab village on the banks of the Nile or in Iraq with smiling women selling their goods on the road.

You may imagine you were in South Korea, as all cars are of a single Korean model (Daewoo) and in various colours, except red, made in a factory in Uzbekistan! Green-eyed, blonde -haired girls make you imagine you were in the heart of Moscow. Having lunch in certain restaurants makes you feel as if you were in Istanbul or Tehran, and the sight of flocks of sheep with their shepherd makes you imagine you were living a nomadic life!

Finally, you may think you are in Cairo or Beirut when you have a meal in some restaurants and hear oriental music and Arab singers, such as Ahmed Adawiya, Ihab Tawfiq, Nancy Ajram and Elissa. Some Uzbek youth dance to such music!

However, the youth are not stirred by music or preoccupied with languages alone, but are also inspired by history. On a hot summer morning, newly weds go to the statue of Amir Temur, the symbol of their nation, in front of his ancient palace Ak-Saray to take memorial photos at the start of their married life and lay a wreath there.

Timur... the warrior Amir

Shakhrisyabz (meaning the green city in Persian), which lies south of Samarkand, was formerly named Kesh when Timur was born there in 1336. He spent his childhood with the Birlass tribe, the home of his forefathers, where he mastered warfare. When Kazghan, the last of Turkestan's Il-Khanids died in AH 758 (AD 1357) Tugluck Temur, the ruler of Qashghar in Xinjiang (see Al-Arabi, September 2008) invaded. Mavernnahr and made his son Ilyas Khoja commander of the campaign and sent Timur with him as a minister. But the relation between them broke off and Timur ran away and joined his brother-in-law Prince Hussain, Kazghan's grandson and mobilized an army to fight Khoja, but they both failed and fled to Khorasan and entered the service of King Muezzudin Hussain Kart. When Tugluck learnt about that he asked Muezzudin to extradite them, but Timur and his companion fled to Kandahar, then to Sistan whose wali attacked them. During the attack Timur was seriously wounded and his right foot disabled. That's why he was called "Timur Lenk" (Timur the Lame)!

Disputes then arose between Timur and his brother-in-law in which the former was the winner. He entered Samakand on 12 Ramadan 771 (14 April 1370) and declared himself ruler and claimed to be a descendant of Genghis Khan, wanting to restore the glory of the Mongols. He established a consultative council consisting of senior princes and scholars.

Later, Timur mobilized a huge army manily of Turks to fulfil his expansionist ambitions. He invaded and annexed Khoresm having destroyed it in relentless attacks. He also captured Gafjaq desert which stretches from Sayhoun to Khoresm Sea and the Caspian Sea. He sent his 14-year-old son Miranshah to control the whole Khorasan region and Afghanistan.

In 1385 he marched into Mazandaran, which surrendered without resistance, then conquered Azerbaijan and the Persian region. He raided Isfahan, which had revolted against his viceroys, where there were 70,000 dead. In 1388 Tokhtamysh, king of Qafjaq attacked Mavernnahr. The people of Azerbaijan rebelled against Timur and changed allegiance to Tokhtamysh. Timur stopped his expansion plans and turned to Azerbaijan to quell the rebellion. Tokhtamysh fled, and Timur entered Khoresm, which was said to be so completely destroyed that there was no wall left to rest in its shade. It was deserted for three years after which Timur ordered that it be rebuilt.

When Tokhtamysh repeated his assault against Maverannahr in 1389 Timur chased him to the Mongol land and Qafjaq desert and defeated him and appointed his son Miranshah ruler of Khorasan and his grandson Beer Muhammad ruler of Ghazna and Kabul.

Next, the expansionist warrior proceeded to Iran in Ramadan 794 (August 1392) in a campaign designed to crush the revolts, which lasted for five years. These are called the "Five-Year Wars", during which he first conquered Gorgan and Mazindan, then marched to Iraq, where he occupied Wasit and Basra and other towns. He later conquered Armenia and Georgia. Then he marched to Moscow with a 100, 000 strong army and occupied it for one year! Though he turned sixty then, he continued his conquests. He proceeded to India on the pretext that the Tuglucks were lenient with the Hindus as far as Islamic issues were concerned. His large army attacked Mahmud Tugluck's forces in December 1397 and occupied the Tugluks' capital Delhi. Timur then went back to Samarkand with a lot of spoils and seventy elephants carrying stone and marble from Delhi which he used to build a mosque in Samarkand.

He did not stay long in Samakand after his triumphant return from India and planned to continue his conquests. He launched the "Seven-year Campaign " (AH 802-803/ AD 1399-1405) to punish the Mameluke sultan Faraj Berquq for assisting Ahmed AL-Jalairi, Baghdad's Khan in his war against Timur and to punish the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid I who ruled eastern Asia Minor. He sacked Georgia (in the Caucasus) in AH 802/ AD 1399, then marched into Intab and proceeded to Aleppo which fell after a four-day battle which left 20,000 dead and more than 300,000 prisoners. In the following year he marched to Baghdad, destroyed its walls and burnt its houses until it fell. He then continued his march towards Asia Minor where he invaded Sivas and Anatolia, after which he returned to Samarkand. Finally, he invaded China in the autumn of 1404, but he and his army suffered bitter cold weather, and he died of fever on 18 February 1405. At the time of his death his empire stretched from Delhi to Damascus, and from Aral Sea to the Arabian Gulf. Following his death his body was carried to Samarkand, where he was buried in his mausoleum known as "Gur-e Amir", the Amir's Tomb.

Ak-Saray: the palace and its generous hands

We arrived at Ak-Saray, the literal translation of which is the white palace , but the word Ak may also mean generous or majestic . The palace was founded during the happy hours predicted by astrologists. It is said that when Amir Temur conquered the capital of Khoresm (in Turkmenistan now), he sent many master craftsmen and artists to build imposing edifices, including this palace, in his birthplace. Work on the palace began in the spring of 1380 and was completed in 1396. According to the ambassador of Castile, decoration works continued for eight years following the completion of the palace.

The palace's relics show extravagance unknown at the time. Only the great gate, on which a swimming pool was built, survived. Timur ordered that palaces be built surrounded by orchards. The palace contained many paintings depicting the meetings held by Timur, portraying him from different angles end in different moods: laughing, extremely angry. The works of art also depicted the battles he shared in and the meetings and negotiations he held with princes, scholars, notables and senior officials, as well as the meetings with sultans and their envoys and foreign ambassadors. The paintings also showed the natural and secret locations he used to go to, the battles ranged in India, Kipshak, steppes and Persia and his victories and retreating enemies. There were also portraits of relatives, grandchildren, princes and generals. The painting also portrayed entertainment and wine sessions, notables' parties, Timur's singers and single and married mistresses, as well as different poets, in addition to intervening and connected events in different places.

All these paintings were designed to depict events as if they were real without exaggeration, to make viewers imagine as if they were witnessing them. Timur also created two gardens: One farther than the other, named "Boji Boldi" and Boji Delkosh", respectively. He ordered that the path from the latter garden to Fairuz Gates be lined with poplar trees. The big building "Ulug Koshk" was also erected in the same garden with paintings on its walls portraying Timur's battle in Hindustan.

The cotton incident and other things

As far as the eye can see, cotton fields stretch between each two cities in Uzbekistan's 13 provinces which are represented on its flag, rekindling the memory of a major incident which happened in 1984 and involved the "white gold" which grows on the green fields.

That year, the Soviet Public Prosecutor sent interrogators to Uzbekistan who arrested many civil servants on charges of mismanagement of the growing and manufacturing of cotton. That aroused Uzbeks' anger, particularly as Brezhnev singled out Uzbekistan in this respect. For the first time Uzbek authorities allowed the Uzbek press to criticize Moscow for imposing a single-product culture on Uzbekistan, which damaged its environment and made it rely only on selling it to the Soviet Union. The Uzbeks were forced to grow cotton at the expense of other products. The cotton mania made the Soviet Union even divert half of the water of Aral Sea on Uzbekistan's northern border for irrigation of cotton fields. That is why all Uzbeks welcomed independence from Moscow.

But the serious consequences were not limited to the world's fourth largest lake. Diverting Syr Daria and Amo Daria Rivers which used to flow into Aral Sea for irrigation of cotton fields made water reach the outskirts of Bukhara and Samarkand and threaten their historic buildings. That may explain why many minarets collapsed and others leaned (as in Samarkand where they look like the Leaning Tower of Piza, but without supports to prevent a disaster). The diversion also made the water reaching the huge lake so polluted that 30,000 km2 of its land is covered with chemicals. In 1991, Uzbekistan announced that it would sell the cotton to Russia in hard currency, and when Moscow refused, Uzbekistan had a problem about selling it. It signed a friendship treaty with Russia under which cotton was sold at international prices. However, that threatened cotton factories in Uzbekistan itself, and the two countries agreed to swap Uzbek cotton for Russian oil at international prices.

Following independence from the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan and its neighbours attempted to regulate their relations. They farmed the Commonwealth of Central Asian Nations in late 1991. The member states were Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan (which left shortly afterwards). The organization was renamed the Economic Union of Central Asia in 1994 and was renamed further the Economic Cooperation of Central Asia in 1998 when Tajikistan joined it. It was finally renamed Organization of Central Asian Cooperation in 2002which Russia joined in 2004. In 2005 there was talk about combining this group with the Euro-Asian Cooperation, which was formed in May 2001 by Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and which Uzbekistan joined and in August 2006. In addition, these countries are members of other regional associations, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (which was formed in 1991) from eleven former Soviet republics, including the republics of Central Asia, but Turkmenistan left in 2005 and maintained a cooperative, observer status only).

Mention should also be made of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as the main organization which regulates the relations between central Asian countries and the neighbouring region, and the group which combines China, Russia and central Asian countries except Turkmenistan, as well as the Summit of Turkik States (established in 1992), another framework for inter-central Asian countries' relations. Among the other organizations which combine these countries are Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), the Organization of Islamic Conference and the Organization of European Security and Cooperation, which barely succeed in the stated objectives of resolving the problems of these countries with their neighbours.

Bukhara: imams and emirs

Architecture and miniature paintings were not the only things that accompanied us on our tour of Uzbek shrines and bazaars. Music, as well, caught our attention and interest to a great extent as we were approaching Bukhara.

By the end of the sixteenth century Bukhara had become the capital city of an independent emirate with the same name and a cosmopolitan world with booming markets and a busy transit trading center. The "chash" key began in the emir's court in Bukhara as a distinctive feature of both Tajik and Uzbek music and culture. The scene is illustrated in miniature paintings which portray musicians sitting on the ground with their musical instruments, such as double-string lyres, in front of princesses. The literal translation of "chash" is "key", and the six keys are the same as those of oriental music and its derivatives.

Before the chash is played we listen to introductory Sufi songs by a single performer who passionately expresses love, hope and sorrow, with his voice rising and falling. The best performer of the shash key in the classical tradition is singer Munajat Yulshiva, who sings love pomes of prominent Uzbek poets to the music of her master Shawkat, who always accompanies her. Yulshiva has a high, sonorous, impressive voice. She was born in Fergana Valley (south of Tashkent) in 1960. She started singing as a child and her talent led many to advise her to give up classical singing and take up the opera as a career, but she insisted on being the voice of her culture and people, and a quarter of a century of singing made her the symbol of Uzbek music and culture. Life rejoincing and rituals are the main feature of Central Asian music. The Uzbeks hold a forty-day celebration of the birth of a boy during which the baby is circumcised and is pronounced Muslim. There are similar celebrations of weddings at which Muslim families' traditions are observed: Women do not sit beside men, and the young sit behind the old.

Each city has its own special singers and musicians who perform at weddings, and people attend these weddings to see these artists, one of whom is Shir Ali Gorayev. Intersetingly, some bless the bride and the bridegroom, which is a tradition in Uzbekistan and has different names in Bukhara, Samarkand, Khoresm, Tashkent and Fergana.

The Uzbeks' Sayyid Darwish!

Today's music in Uzbekistan is not restricted to that of Yulshiva or satellite TVs or at restaurants from Russia, the Arab East and elsewhere, but it also includes the music of the street. By that we refer to one of the pioneers of Uzbek music: Abdul-Aziz Rasulov (1852-1936), the icon of Uzbek and Tajik music.

Rasulov's music and keys were inspired by street signers and musicians. What surprised him was the talent of musicians who performed the keys on lutes. He was a frequent traveller to the Arab East, and in Baghdad he admired a blind musician who played the saz. He remembered that piece and composed it to be played on the double-string lyre, calling it "Gadoiy".

He was also inspired by another piece he heard in Egypt about eighty years ago, and in 1930 and 1931, the Uzbek composer Mironov wrote these two pieces on sheet music and published them later. They became an object of study played on the lyre and other instruments by Rasulov's pupils. In addition, Doni Zakirov made "Gadoiy" a model for traditional Uzbek musical instruments. Rasulov has another well-known song called "Qurban Olum", which he composed influenced by Iranian and Azeri music. His love of popular music made his performance a source of rejoining.

The traveller s dictionary

After days of stay and travel around Uzbekistan your ear will pick up many words of foreign origin, mainly Arabic, Turkish and Persian. Uzbek, which was written in the Arabic alphabet until 1920, is a descendant of Turkish. New literary Uzbek, which combines urban and rural dialects, replaced the old language in 1923. The new language developed, thanks to the entry of Arabic, Persian, Russian of course, besides Turkish words and terms. Interestingly, we notice that all signs at historic sites were new, whereas the walls carried traces of the old signs put by the Soviets who had carried out the main digging and restoration work. This replacement meant sovereignty, which changed the language of the signs to Uzbek and its alphabet to Latin.

Light from the sky

In our visit to an ancient mdrassah (school) in Bukhara to attend a traditional music performance, we expected to see something different from what we saw everywhere namely shrines turning into bazaars, but in vain! The performance began with traditional music and popular dances in folkloric dress worn by Uzbek girls as well as girls with Russian features. Dinner plates were served with each tune, but a paper with the menu confirmed the shrine and bazaar duality. The paper said that the clothes worn by the dancers were for sale at the shops around us. We sat at one of the fifty plus tables in the lobby of the school (or what used to be a school). The classrooms were turned into handicraft workshops and shops for goods and traditional products. There were chess pieces featuring Amir Temur, his ministers, soldiers and regions, traditional hats, scarves and clothes, cosmetic boxes, wooden stands for the Holy Quran and tens of other goods. At the school gate there was a small bank where two girls were exchanging dollars and euros into the local currency. Strangely enough, there was no tourist infrastructure at such historic sites.

It used to be said light usually descends from the sky , but in Bukhara it rises into the sky . This saying may be attributed to the fact that it is the seat of learning and knowledge, with its hundreds of schools, tens of mosques with their minarets, and the imams and emirs who lived in it. But that was in the heyday of its prosperity and glory, when it was the melting point of different ethnic communities before its lakes were filled up with earth, and its Islamic civilization scholars deserted it. Bukhara will not regain its status unless it regains its place, and it will then have its own light which rises again into the sky.


Ashraf Abul-Yazid


A green oasis in the heart of Tashkent as seen from the city’s tower surrounding impressive buildings of business and official institutions in the Uzbek capital. Houses are rather low, for fear of a new earthquake recalling the memory of the 1966 one

Singer Munajat Yulishiva singing to the music of her master Shawkat love poem of prominent Sufi Uzbek poets. She has a high, sonorous, immersive voice. She started singing as a child. She was born in the Fergana Valley (south of Tashkent) in 1960

A statue of a man protecting his wife and son. In the background, people coming from he republics of the former Soviet Union to help Tashkent recover following the massive earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale which hit the city on the morning

A statue of poet Ali Shir Navai who wrote epic poems, the most famous of which is "Ferhad and Shireen”, in the middle of Uzbek National Park in Tashkent which is named after him. The statue is erected on an elevated shady pole to which many visitors

Hadhrat Al-Imam Complex in the centre of Tashkent, whose reconstruction work was completed in 2007 to celebrate the choice of the city as the capital of Muslim culture. Inside the ground mosque

Domes of the famous Sufi Khoja Ahrar in Tashkent which was built in 1990

At the Religious Department of Uzbek Muslims, in front of a copy of the Uthman Codex

Uzbek scribe Habibullah Salih who made two copies of the Holy Quran known as "Langer Quran”

There are markets for Uzbek products of all materials everywhere. This pottery in traditional clothes is smaller than the little finger

Rajistan complex in Samarkand, where minarets were reconstructed or rebuilt. But a close look shows that they are in danger, as they are clearly learning. This square is used for big celebrations and is a popular destination

The art of miniature painting was associated with the art of book drawing and was influenced by classical oriental poetry. An artist working on a new painting that may take a week to complete, inspired by classical oriental literature

One of the scenes that astonished us in Samarkand was the dense smoke (left) near the antiquities which our guide said were coming out of a faraway factory

The dome of Bibi Khatun in Samarkand. But for the car, the dome would be thought to be centuries old

Samarkand University’s mural painting commemorating prominent figures in science, arts and history

The facade of Samarkand University, which maintains the flow of science and arts for the coming generations

Two cleaners cleaning a colossal statue of Amir Temur, or Timur Lenk, as he is known in Arab history, the ruler of Maverannahr and the most famous conqueror

Marriage the Uzbek way. A bride and a bridegroom on their way to lay a wreath at the statue of the warrior Amir in his birthplace, Shakhrisyabz, the green city and take memorial photos at the start of their married life

Decorations on the walls of Ak-Saray which Temur built in Shakhrisyabz in the fourteenth century AD

Ak-Saray, the literal translation of which is "the white palace”, but the work "Ak” may also meen "generous” or "majestic”. The palace was founded during "the happy hours” predicted by astrologists. It is said that when Amir Temur conquered

The facade of the grand mosque in Bukhara. Only a handful of worshippers say their prayers there on weekdays, but many do so on Fridays and Muslims holidays

Nadir Divon Begi Honako in Bukhara founded in AD 1620

A young girl sewing with gold threads

A young man engraving Uzbek antiquities on copper

A woman displaying a bedcover. At every shrine you find a bazaar and skilled craftsmen and carpenters… this is the common sight at historical sites

A fashion model in Uzbekistan showing clothes to music in Abdulaziz Khan Madrassah. After the show you will be told that the clothes are for sale

At the gate of the Ark-Ancient Citadel in Bukhara from which the whole city can be seen. From its balcony the emir of Bukhara watched parades. To shoot this photo, Al-Arabi’s photographer had to climb a water tank in a manual lift opposite the citadel

The Samanids’ Mausoleum, built by Ismail, the powerful ruler of Maverannahr in his capital city Bukhara in the ninth and tenth centuries AD. Its four facades are identical with arches in the middle, with its internal and external

In the streets of Bukhara and all the streets in Uzbekistan there are bazaars where miniature paintings, pottery, clothes, even records and traditional weapons are sold

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