Date: Sun, 9 Nov 1997 20:25:41 -0800
Islamic Intrigue: Exotic charms of a holy city in an outpost on the old Silk Road
By Christopher Kenneally, Los Angeles Times, n.d., [9 November 1997]
BUKHARA, Uzbekistan--A potholed highway has replaced the fabled Silk Road. Riding on a portion of the overland trade route that once linked East and West, my traveling companion and I were crowded into a Lada, a Soviet-era subcompact car, with four Uzbeks, part of a family we had been staying with in Samarkand. Now, 200 miles later, we were approaching the outskirts of Central Asia's legendary oasis city.
Tumbledown villages and ancient, mud-brick caravansaries eaten by time and the elements had been all there was to punctuate the dullness of the desert landscape when suddenly my keen-eyed companion, a photographer, spotted what he thought was a huge shaggy dog on a leash. We stopped to take a closer look, and the "dog" turned out to be a golden-coated bear tethered to his master by a chain. This remarkable pair of Gypsies seemed to be plucked from an era when those crumbled caravansaries had served as inns for passing traders.
On a cue from its master, the bear obediently stood up on its hind legs. Sharp-clawed and red-eyed, it growled fearsomely behind a leather muzzle. Pedestrians paused to gape, not only at the impromptu performance but also at my friend's camera equipment. On the Silk Road at the end of the 20th century, Western travelers are about as rare as trained bears.
Pursuing an interest in Islamic culture that we had developed over several visits to the Mideast, my colleague Derek Szabo and I had come to Uzbekistan last fall to explore a fascinating corner of the Muslim world that was all but forbidden to outsiders for much of this century. Our itinerary had already taken us to Tashkent, Uzbekistan's bustling capital, as well as to Samarkand, another legendary Silk Route city.
But we had found those places disappointingly congested, polluted and, with the exception of Samarkand's stunning Registran square, even drab. We hoped Bukhara, a name redolent of silk merchants and intrigue, would live up to its reputation as a city benignly neglected by the Soviets. Historically one of the holiest cities in Islam, it was said to be filled with unique and colorful religious architecture. Before 1991, when Uzbekistan became independent after seven decades of Soviet rule, travel to this remote nation was severely restricted. The current Uzbek regime is stable, if fairly autocratic, and has welcomed Western investment and the hard currency foreigners bring with them. At the same time, Uzbekistan lies at the heart of a region torn by unrest. Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which border Uzbekistan to the south and east, have both been racked by civil war throughout the 1990s. From Bukhara, Iran lies just 300 miles away to the southwest across the desert of Turkmenistan.
We left home prepared to forego the usual Western demands for comfort, knowing Uzbekistan has only the most rudimentary tourism infrastructure. Still, it was a shock to discover how ramshackle living conditions were in Uzbekistan. Although it's the wealthiest and most populous (14 million) country in central Asia, the country has a long way to go before it reaches even the relatively low level of development in Eastern European states.
Sanitation and refrigeration are nonexistent. State tourism agency sanctioned hotels, built in the Soviet era, charge exorbitant rates for substandard accommodations; we heard complaints from Western travelers about such places wherever we went.
Fortunately, I had booked our arrangements through the Colorado-based American International Homestays, which places travelers in private homes where an English-speaking family member doubles as a translator and guide. I relished the chance to soak up Uzbek culture at ground-level, and eventually grew fond of hearty Uzbek home-cooking, such as the ubiquitous plov, a tasty dish of roasted lamb and rice mixed with chickpeas and strips of carrot and parsnip. Endless rounds of vodka toasts helped keep the conversation going; we also attributed our good health during the trip to the alcohol, which we assured ourselves was responsible for killing any germs we might have ingested.
In Bukhara, our "home" for four days, was a late 19th century merchant's mansion located in the traditional Jewish quarter. For breakfast one morning, we sat cross-legged in the open-air courtyard and ate homemade yogurt with honey and chewy fresh bread called naan. Our guide-translator was a high school senior named Delia Rakhmonova who spoke perfect idiomatic English (not to mention Russian, Tajik and Persian, in addition to Uzbek).
Our tour through Bukhara began with a pilgrimage to a mosque and madrasa (essentially, a seminary for students of the Koran) on the edge of town that is sacred to followers of Bahaudin Nakhshbandi, a 14th century Sufi teacher (in Islam, Sufism offers a mystical path to divine love and knowledge).
According to tradition, I entered the mosque's main courtyard with my right foot first, just as I would have to leave later leading with my left. A bearded mullah sat beneath a tree to one side of Nakhshbandi's simple crypt. Our guide Delia informed us that attempts to construct a more grand mausoleum had met with disaster, until it was decided that the only adequate roof for Nakhshbandi's holy remains was the open sky.
Joining a small group of Uzbeks, I sat at the feet of the mullah as he chanted Koranic verses. Arranged around him were the pilgrims' offerings of melon, bread and jars of honey. In exchange, the mullah distributed to us all a chewy pastry called bui, which is supposed to attract good spirits by its sweet smell. "Babies for the baby-less, luck for the luckless, peace for all the world" was the gentle holy man's parting wish.
Back in the heart of the city's old quarter, where most of Bukhara's most ancient and architecturally significant buildings stand, I joined with locals for a cup of tea at Lyab-i-Khauz, a small plaza built around a rectangular pool in 1620. The madrasas that the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane and his successors built in Samarkand are huge and covered with colorful tile work. But Bukhara's religious institutions are built almost entirely in mud brick. The effect is more subtle, and it's also on a more human scale.
The timeless ritual of sipping green chai contrasted with a thumping soundtrack of Iranian pop music. Many here speak Tajik, a Persian dialect, and the region around Bukhara retains more of Uzbekistan's ancient Iranian heritage than the rest of the country, though there has been an immense amount of cultural interchange between the Tajiks and the Uzbek nomads who gave the country its name and language.
According to legend, Bukhara in its heyday transcended the laws of nature: rather than coming from the sky, light was said to rise from the holy city. Nature, however, no longer exempts Bukhara from its dictates. Across the Lyab-i-Khauz pool, an abandoned stork's nest atop the 17th century Nadir Divanbegi Madrasa testified to environmental damage inflicted by the vast overproduction of the country's chief crop, cotton, which began under the Soviets. Uzbekistan is the world's fourth largest grower of what's locally known as "white gold," but the price of success has been steep. Intensive crop irrigation has wasted a fragile environment of semi-arid plains and fertile river valleys, so that Bukhara's storks no longer have any feeding grounds (locals said it's been at least 10 years since any of the giant birds were seen in the city).
Birds can fly away, but buildings stay to suffer the consequences of environmental neglect. A rising water table and mineral salts has begun eating the mud bricks and majolica tiles like destructive pets nibbling on precious furniture. Preservation efforts currently amount to architectural triage.
In the meantime, historic buildings survive through creative reuse. Near the central market area, for example, we came across a "Nintendo Club" installed in a centuries-old madrasa and wildly popular with the city's youths. In another former madrasa that had been given over to shops, I entered a small cell for a consultation with a fortuneteller, or tabib. She was an attractive woman in her 30s, with black hair and copper skin, and was originally from Kokand in the Fergana Valley, in Uzbekistan's northeast corner.
She welcomed Derek, me and our guide, and motioned that we should sit cross-legged around a low table. The fortuneteller began her prognosticating session by covering her hair with a white cotton scarf. Suddenly, she burped loudly three times. Perhaps it was a sign that the spirits had entered her body, I thought.
Next, the tabib rolled prayer beads through her fingers and instructed me to cup my hands together. She took my hands in hers and immediately remarked how mine were warm--a good sign, she said, that indicated the spirits were with me. In fact, she informed us, the tiny cell where we sat was full of spirits; hundreds of them surrounded us, and they declared that my journey would be a great success.
Official Islam rejects the sort of supernatural mumbo jumbo that the tabib trafficked in, yet superstition seemed particularly powerful forces in present-day Bukhara. When I inquired about a haircut, for example, our guide told me that I should only have it done on a Wednesday or a Saturday (those were also good days for cutting my nails). At the remarkable Samani Mausoleum, a handsome, 1,000-year-old tomb of intricately patterned mud bricks with a simple dome, I was instructed to walk around it three times or else risk bringing bad luck.
Nevertheless, independence in Uzbekistan, which brought an end to the Soviet suppression of religion, has sparked a revival of Islam. Adhan, the traditional call to prayer, once more rings from Bukhara's minarets. At the huge Kalyan Mosque in Bukhara's center, the all-male faithful (mostly elderly) filed proudly inside on a Friday afternoon. They were joined by teenage boys who surged in waves from the neighboring Mir-i-Arab Madrasa, a religious school. The youths crowded under the mosque's spectacular blue-tiled arches, where vendors hawked cassettes of Koranic chants, pamphlets covered with Arabic calligraphy, and portraits of the late Ayatollah Khomeini ready for framing.
The 150-foot-high Kalyan Minaret towers over the mosque and Mir-i-Arab. To get to the top, you have to walk up lots of steps in a dark, claustrophobic space, but from the lookout, Bukhara's well-preserved old town spreads out in fabulous relief below. Built in 1127, the minaret is not so charmingly known as the "Tower of Death." In the 19th century, the ruling emir had criminals and political opponents executed in spectacular fashion when they were thrown from the tower.
As the sun set, Kalyan's shadow stretched over the recumbent rooftops. The tiled walls of the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa became tinted in ruby, amber and other jeweled hues. Traders' domes--all that remains of a once-thriving covered bazaar--appeared like hibernating beehives at the intersections of cobblestone streets. Bukhara succumbed to the spreading darkness, and by the time we finally descended the minaret, a crescent moon hung picturesquely above the ancient town.
GUIDEBOOK To Bukhara and Back Getting there: Reaching Central Asia from Los Angeles requires a lot of time. In most cases, three airplane connections are needed to get to Bukhara from Los Angeles. The shortest and cheapest route is on Kras Air, via Moscow, which then connects with Uzbekistan Airways to Tashkent and Bukhara; the trip takes at least 19 hours of flying time and costs a minimum $1,534 round trip. Lufthansa also has regular service to Tashkent via Frankfurt, but travel takes almost two days and the air fare is $3,275 round trip. Entry requirements: Visas are required and may be obtained at the Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan (see below). Visas are also issued at the airport in Tashkent for $50. Two passport photographs are required. Before leaving Tashkent, we paid $10 each for what "officials" in plain clothes told us was a mandatory health insurance certificate. Where to stay: Private travel to Uzbekistan must be arranged through the state-owned Uzbektourism, 60 E. 42nd St., New York City, NY 10165; telephone (212) 983-0382, fax (212) 983-0390. However, "official" hotels are rather expensive by local standards. Lodging for the independent-minded traveler is limited, but visitors may arrange comfortable bed and board through the Colorado-based American International Homestays, P.O. Box 1754, Nederland, CO 80466; tel. (800) 876-2048 or (303) 642-3088, fax (303) 642-3365. For more information: Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan, 1511 K St., NW, Suite 619, Washington, DC 20005; tel. (202) 887-5300, fax (202) 293-6804. - - -
Kenneally Is a Boston-based Writer Who Has Traveled Throughout the Islamic World
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