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The Paradise of Islamic Art

Article & Photo by Scott S. Smith and Sandra Wells


“Where the heck is Uzbekistan and why would you want to go there?” asked more than one friend. The first question was easy to answer: it is a country bigger than California with 28 million people, next to Afghanistan. Its location was why we were headed there: it was the center of the 7000-mile-long Silk Road of the Middle Ages, where goods were exchanged between east and west, causing the area to flourish for many centuries. Its rulers left behind impressive art and architecture, preserved at four UNESCO World Heritage sites, which tourists are just starting to discover. Uzbekistan reached its height as the center of the empire of Timur the Lame, or Tamarlane, in the 14th century, which stretched from northern India to southern Russia, and from western China to western Turkey. He was to have a profound effect on subsequent history. His defeat of a sultan delayed the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople by 50 years, allowing time for books about ancient Greeks and Romans to reach Europe and spark the Renaissance. Tamarlane’s great-great-great grandson, Babur, would found the Mogul dynasty of India. It’s always wise to do some homework in advance, rather than expecting the tour guide to give you the complete background in world history you will need to fully appreciate a destination. We read the best book on the subject, Uzbekistan: The Golden Road to Samarkand by Calum Macleod and Bradley Mayhew (also helpful was the DVD “The Silk Road: Music, Art, and Poetry” www.silkroadmusicandart.com. But no matter how much we thought we knew, we did not know this would turn out to be the trip of a lifetime. We signed up for a Bestway Tours and Safaris’ 10-day “The Splendours of Uzbekistan” See: bestway.com. We were joined by three adventurous and jovial Canadians, who had just come from Iran: Rob (a retired engineer), Kathy (a mental health administrator), and Sue (in passport control; she had been to 57 countries). One of the joys of travel is being able to share over meals everything from tales from the road to favorite movies. The biggest surprise, for anyone who might have gotten the wrong impression from Borat’s movie about neighboring Khazakhstan, is that Uzbekistan isn’t third world. Its sparklingly-clean capital, Tashkent, has 2.3 million people and a modern subway. Provided you stick with the tour’s hotels and restaurants, there is no reason to be concerned about food (although bottled water is always smart). There is little crime and the Islamic extremists would have a hard time getting a foothold: we never heard a call to prayer the entire time we were there and the security forces are everywhere. Not that this country is entirely ready for prime time: roads outside Tashkent can sometimes be bad and passport control at the entry and exit is understaffed and confusing. Fortunately, Bestway provided a driver, Shafkat, who was a genius at avoiding potholes, and our guide, Zamira, not only knew everything of interest about her country, but was an excellent negotiator.

Our first destination was the most remote city of the Silk Road, Khiva, where the inner city, Ichan Kala, has been preserved largely as it was in the Middle Ages, with walls dating from the 5th century A.D. and fortified in the 17th. The homes are adobe and the people on the street in colorful robes and scarves aren’t dressing up for tourists: traditional clothing is worn widely, especially in rural areas (the flash of gold when they smile is due to its preference for fixing decayed teeth). At the entry to Ichan Kala is a statue of Al-Khorezmi, a mathematician who was born here in 780 and whose name lives on in our words algebra and algorithm. He established the use of the zero and decimal notation and was among many great Arab scientists of the time. What stands out immediately in Khiva is Islam Khoja Minaret, built in 1910, the last of the great monuments built by Central Asia’s khans, before the region fell under Russian control. It is 146 feet tall, designed for the call to prayer to be heard throughout the city, and this was our first close-up look at the gorgeous tile work Uzbekistan is world famous for (it gets 1.5 million visitors a year, but virtually no Americans). Khiva is filled with little museums on specialty subjects, ranging from Zorastrianism (the important “fire worshipping” religion was believed to have begun in the area) to traditional musical instruments. The inner city has numerous sites of historic, religious, and cultural importance, including the Juma Mosque (with has 213 elaborately-carved wooden pillars) and the Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum (12th century poet, wrestler, and saint), where wedding parties gather to drink from a well for good luck. UNESCO runs a few handicraft workshops, including one for beautiful handmade silk carpets and another for hand-carved furniture. The highlight of Khiva was the 163-room Tash Hauli Palace of the khan, commissioned in 1830. We were already dizzy from going past tiles with geometric and floral art, perfected over 1400 centuries since the Koran forbade using figures of people or animals except for symbolic purposes, as well as mandating that nothing be a precise duplication of anything else. Every inch of the palace was covered with different designs and colors and we felt like we had walked into a kaleidoscope.
We drove south to Holy Bukhara, which once had a mosque for every day of the year. Paradoxically, it was infamous for the slave trade and exotic executions, like throwing prisoners from the top of a minaret in a bag. It also became a center for science. During the 10th century, its state library rivaled the one in Baghdad as the greatest in the Islamic world, attracting Ali ibn-Sina, or Avicenna, who cured the sultan and wrote a remarkably accurate medical handbook, used in the West until the 19th century (a museum devoted to him is in the suburbs). Bukhara’s bazaars were primary destinations for caravans and it still has hawkers of everything from cute puppets to handmade ceramics who are eager to bargain. Lord Curzon, the viceroy of British India, called Bukhara “the most interesting city in the world.” In the Ark citadel, which has its origins 3000 years ago, there is a museum devoted to the city’s history as regional power, with historic photos and artifacts, such as gorgeous robes which were used by the mystical Sufis known as whirling dervishes. There are lots of interesting buildings in the Old City, such as the 1000-year-old Ismael Samani Mausoleum, with intricate brickwork, and the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah, or religious school, whose front is covered by 11 million handmade tiles.

One could spend many days in Bukhara, but we were eager to move on to Samarkand. It was a fabled oasis of innumerable trees and prospered as a trade center soon after its founding in 6th century B.C. When Alexander the Great conquered it in 329 B.C., he remarked, “Everything I have heard about the beauty of the city is indeed true, except that it is much more beautiful than I imagined.” Marco Polo and ibn-Batutta, the greatest of pre-modern travelers, reported that even in ruins in the 13th century it remained one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Tamarlane made it his capital, bringing in artisans from across the empire to turn it into what was called the Jewel of Islam and the Pearl of the East. We started out visiting a colorful Sunday market and also went through some excellent museums devoted to the culture and history of the city. Another highlight was the observatory of Ulug Beg, Tamarlane’s grandson, who spent his reign making breakthrough astronomical discoveries and sponsoring science and art. The first great monumental architecture we saw was the Bibi Khanum Mosque, named for one of Tamarlane’s wives. The largest in the world at the time, its portals were 115 feet high, with 165-foot minarets and 400 cupolas and a courtyard that could accommodate 10,000. Gates were made of seven metals and the mosque was built with marble and terracotta, decorated with glazed multi-hued mosaics and blue-gold frescoes. But it began to fall apart almost immediately because it exceeded the building capabilities of the age and is only partially restored. The Gur Emir is where Tamarlane and some of his family are entombed. When we walked inside, the lights were dim, but then Zamira turned on full lighting and it was like the heavens opened up. No set of even wide-angled photos could convey the 360-degree scope of what our eyes beheld — every inch covered with stars and trees carved into copper and gold, with Koranic phrases in calligraphic Arabic script. One of the world’s largest pieces of jade rests over Tamarlane’s tomb. In our opinion, Gur Emir is more beautiful than the Taj Mahal. The next morning we went through the Shah-i-Zinda mausoleums, which are of a small scale which allows an intimate appreciation. For centuries, Samarkand’s ceramic masters experimented with colors, designs, and materials inside and out and they provided staggering variety. Genghis Kahn’s troops were so moved, they refused to destroy it. The highlight of any visit to Samarkand is the Registan, that Lord Curzon called “the noblest public square in the world.” On three sides are madrassahs, each with a unique outer design (on the right side, the Shir Dor shows lion-tigers, deer, and human faces as symbols of power, allowed under the influence of Persian Shiite interpretation of the Koran). The combination of grand portal, turquoise domes, and elaborately-decorated pillars is awesome and the whole thing is impossible to truly capture with photos. We walked into the center madrassah, the Tillya Kari, which means “decorated in gold,” and we caught our breath. The far wall is covered in gold leaf up to the ceiling, which has what appears to be a vibrating sun surrounded by circles of leaves and flowers. Not to commit artistic heresy, but we found it more awe-inspiring than the Sistine Chapel. In the moments of ecstasy as we looked up, everything else in our lives was put into proper perspective.

Scott Smith is the author of “The Soul of Your Pet: Evidence for the Survival of Animals After Death.” Sandra Wells writes on travel and is a painter of magical art.