Kyrgyzstan & Uzbekistan, May/June 2008
We camped in a yurt opposite Tash Rabat an isolated ‘caravanserai’ 15 kilometers off the main Silk Road and what is still a main national road. The function of this building which dates back to the 10th century, has never been fully explained. It could not have been a straightforward caravanserai because it lies so far off the road in a remote, cul-de-sac of a valley, and there is no courtyard for pack animals which was obviously a central feature of a caravanserai. One of the meanings of the verb ‘rabata’ in Arabic is “to be garrisoned”, and Tash Rabat has two large halls each with a raised platform, ostensibly where the soldiers slept. Garrisoned caravanserais in Central Asia were relatively common due to banditry but this still does not satisfactorily explain the lack of space for animals or why it was built so far from the road. North African ‘ribats’ on the coast were built as defensive structures, (see Girl Solo in Arabia/Tunisia/Pearl of the Sahel) but also came to have the additional meaning of being retreats where pious men lived on charity usually extended by the local ruler. This desolate place is much more likely to have been some kind of a religious retreat but why was it built in the middle of nowhere especially if soldiers were needed to protect it?
In the 10th century, Islam had already arrived in this area principally via the ruling Turkic Karakhanids who held sway until another Turkic tribe, the Seljuks, gained ascendancy in the 11th century. But by the 15th century after the Uzbeks had ousted the Ferghana-born Babur, great-great-great grandson of Tamerlaine and founder of the Moghul dynasty in India, the Kyrgyz were in decline, and Buddhism re-appeared with the Dzungarians, ethnic Tibetan Mongolians, who briefly ruled this area as well as Kashgar. (See previous post, the Silk Road II.) There have been oft-repeated assertions that Tash Rabat was a Buddhist temple and this interpretation may stem from the Dzungarian era, however the high iwan portal and dome over a covered hall with examples of squinches, is a classic early example of Seljuk 11th century architecture albeit more crudely constructed than one finds further west along the Silk Road. The present structure is said to date back only to the 15th century which is even more surprising, unless it was built by the occupants themselves who were not trained masons. Given this area’s history of constant incursion, perhaps it was an outpost from which early warning of impending invasion could be relayed, or were the soldiers protecting Sufi adepts in the time of the Buddhist Dzungarians? Tash Rabat remains shrouded in mystery.
Our circular yurts – the structure is constructed of lightweight latticed birch, hazel or juniper wood covered in felt which is attached to the frame by thin leather strips - were decorated inside with traditional applique felt rugs called shyrdak, on the walls and the floor. Felt wool-making is an ancient nomadic tradition throughout Central Asia.
Not only is it warm and waterproof, necessary for the harsh Central Asian winters, but it is disliked by insects and spiders who upon coming across it will flee, so shyrdak-covered floors ensured the yurts stayed free of pests.
In summer the sides of the yurt are rolled up allowing air to pass through. The ‘door’ is made of felt over a heavy rushed matting which keeps it warm at night or in winter, while in summer the whole thing is rolled up and attached to the top of the doorway. The top of the ‘roof’ of the yurt is a circle made of willow called tunduk, which allows smoke from cooking fires inside to escape. It can be easily covered at night using a long pole. The form of a yurt is simple but effective – its circular shape protection against prevailing winds thudding across flat plateaus and whistling down alpine valleys. It is environmentally friendly causing no long-term damage to the landscape, and perhaps most impressive of all, it can be dismantled or erected by one person in half an hour.
The yurt is of such cultural importance to the Kyrgyz people that it forms the country’s flag; a red tunduk on a yellow sun with 40 rays, on a red background – each ray representing the mythological 40 maidens from whom the Kyrgyz people are descended. The very word ‘kyrgyz’ loosely means forty tribes, and the Kyrgyz, one of the oldest of the Central Asian tribes are mentioned in ancient Chinese texts dating back more than two millennia. They are said to have migrated south from the Yenisei in Siberia sometime after the 9th century, and although they at first lived as part of existing local tribal alliances, they became dominant enough to evict the Uighurs who were forced further south. They remained in power until the arrival of the Mongols.
The Kyrgyz were originally a tall, fair, light-eyed people, and today Kyrgyzstan is a charming hodge-podge of ethnic groups partially as a result of Stalin’s practices during the Soviet era; Russian-Germans from the area around the Crimea were forced to move to Kyrgyzstan during WWII as Stalin believed they would join with the Nazi forces against the Soviet Union. Likewise Koreans were moved from the easternmost reaches of the Soviet Union to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to prevent them joining forces with the Japanese. Many Caucasians and Tatars were also forcibly moved here in the same ‘divide and conquer’ technique that has been used for centuries. Later many Russians later came voluntarily to work as bureaucrats and technicians, part of the massive Soviet agricultural and industrial programs. With the demise of the Soviet Union most of the non-native Kyrgyz have either gone back to Russia or, in the case of the Russian-Germans, back to Germany where with the advent of reunification all people of German descent were welcomed back.
Plov, an oily rice dish eaten daily and always on special occasions, is the national dish of Central Asia. It is said to have been ‘invented’ in the Ferghana valley when Alexander the Great’s cook told him there were only five things left in the commissary – lamb, carrot, onion, rice and herbs. He demanded they be mixed together and thus was plov born. At rural weddings, only men cook plov which is prepared in a huge cauldron and eaten early on the morning of the wedding day. Great respect is also paid to bread which is associated with many traditions. Each region has its own kind of bread but wherever you are bread is always passed with the pricked side face up, and old bread is never, ever thrown away. In olden days when men went off to war a piece of bread was broken which they would take a bite of, the rest was then buried in the garden of their house in order to ensure a safe return.
Driving northward to Bishkek skirting the lovely Issyk-kul (lake), we flew very un-Silk Road like, to Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. Resolutely modern, having been rebuilt since 1966 when an earthquake virtually leveled the entire city, it showcases broad, tree-lined boulevards providing welcome summer shade, pleasant laid-out parks replete with shrubs and multi-colored flowerbeds, attractive modern and neo-classical architecture, and an opera house designed by Shushchev, the man who designed the cube of Lenin’s tomb in Moscow’s Red Square. Here we visited the studios of master potter Akbar Rakhimov, a must-see in Tashkent. Alisher, son and grandson of the founders, took us around. He is not only talented, producing some of the most exceptional work I have yet seen, but his apprentice school trains young potters. Explaining the colors; quartz and kaolin produce white, copper is added to give green, manganese produces brown tones, yellow glaze is obtained by adding iron and persimmon, pomegranate and walnut shells give orange, red and brown stains, he told us that until glazing arrived in Central Asia from Persia in the 8th century, traditional local ‘Kushan’ ceramics were rendered shiny by polishing with wool.
Typical Samarkand-style tiling from the 17th century.
He also explained that their clay, which comes from near Tashkent, is mixed with bulrushes to ‘stabilize’ it, the bulrushes ‘disappear’ during the firing process, apparently a traditional Central Asian technique. I noted that birds and animals were all painted with two lines across their throat signifying they were ‘dead’ and thus removed from the Islamic injunction against portraying the human or animal form – something which if I have seen before I had not remarked upon.
Leaving Tashkent we drove to Samarkand, capital of the post-Soviet rehabilitated Uzbek ‘hero’ Tamerlane, which has been described in this blog already, and then along the King’s Road to Bukhara where the sides of the road bloomed pink with the blossom of the saxual tree.
This caravanserai, Rabat i-Malik, although now mostly in ruins, is one of the most important Seljuk buildings in Central Asia.
This very useful desert shrub was seeded by helicopter during the Soviet period as its root system kept the desert sands from shifting on to the road network. Nowadays it is scatter-sown by hand after the first snow-melt. Its leaves provide fodder for camels and goats and its wood when burned does not emit smoke so it is often used in cooking, and formerly in religious rites. Even today near some rural Muslim shrines throughout Iran and Central Asia, a saxual tree will be covered with small rags of cloth tied to its branches left by imploring pilgrims – left-over ritual from the region’s Buddhist days, perhaps?
The Silk Road was not a single road traveled by merchants from one end to the other, rather it was a network of principal and secondary trade routes across the vast continent of Asia, punctuated by ‘trade and transfer centers’ where merchants bought and sold goods which then continued their journey east or west in the hands of different merchants and caravans. Cities like Samarkand in Uzbekistan, Balkh in Afghanistan, Kashgar in Western China, and Merv in Turkmenistan, were trading centers, while the Sogdians and Bactrians of what is present-day Uzbekistan and Afghanistan were the middlemen. The history of the Silk Road, the term Seidenstrasse was not even coined until 1877 by the German Baron Von Richthofen, begins in 138 BC when the Han Emperor Wu Di sent an emissary to what is now northern Afghanistan to find allies against the nomadic incursions from what is now Mongolia. The mission was militarily a failure but a far more important trade route was born instead.
Dyes made from metal
China, while always the eastern pole, was never the single entity we know it as today, but a power whose borders fluctuated wildly, whose sphere of influence enlarged or diminished depending on the strength of the ruling dynasty, the internal and external challenges, and the prevailing power of the nations and peoples by whom it was surrounded. In the west, the land portion of the Silk Road ended at the Eastern Mediterranean ports of Gaza and Antioch, whence goods were trans-shipped to Venice, Rome and the Westen Mediterranean. Perhaps it seems strange that Gaza, a name nowadays associated with deprivation and violence, should have held such a lofty position, but it was long a preeminent Eastern Mediterranean entrepot not only for the Silk Road, but for the earlier Frankincense Route from southern Arabia. The middleman was always Persia. Being located in the middle of the trans-continental route, the Persians had a geographical ‘edge’ and realizing the strategic importance of this, they had no intention of allowing either the Romans or the Byzantines direct access to silk, the most precious Silk Road commodity, but they did allow controlled access, and trade flowed to and from Europe and the Christian world. And it was not only trade, but religions, information and technology, which flowed in both directions.
One of the elaborate shrines in Shah-i-Zinda in Samrakand where many of Tamerlane's relatives were buried.
Buddhism spread to China from India, and by the 2nd century AD was already widespread throughout the country. It then spread back westwards via monks and merchants reaching as far as Merv. In the 4th and 5th centuries Christianity was already suffering internal divisions and at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, Nestorianism was declared heretical. Many of its practitioners fled to Iran and later to Central Asia and China, where stele have been found written in Syriac (Aramaic) as far east as Xi’an. Manicheism, a religion founded by Mani, a Persian, in 240AD and outlawed there by the Zoroastrian Sassanians, was also declared heretical by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Nonetheless it too would spread deep into Europe, North Africa, Central Asia and China, even becoming the official religion of the Uihgur Empire in 832 AD.
Beautifully restored mosque of Bolo-Hauz in Bukhara.
Islam began its spread out of the Arabian peninsula in the early 7th century, by 651 the Sassanian empire in Iran had been defeated and by the middle of the 8th century in a combination of trade and war, Islam dominated as far as western China and Kyrgyzstan. In 751AD the combined Arab armies defeated the Tang dynasty at Talas in north-western Kyrgyzstan which culminated in the capture of prisoners all of whom were taken to Baghdad, including silk weavers, metalworkers and papermakers. Thus were Chinese arts and craftsmanship passed to the Arab and Muslim world and thence to Europe, through trade and later by the Crusaders. Silk, cotton, wool, hemp, weaponry, gunpowder, horses, slaves, leather, dyestuffs from minerals and woods, jade, rubies, sapphires, pearls, turquoise, glass, porcelain, incense, camphor, cinnamon, saffron, ginger, sandalwood, cloves, pepper, essence of rose and jasmine and tea were just some of the goods that were traded.