Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan
Day 10 -
Monday, 1 May 2000
In Bukhara, we had an excellent guide named Gulya - Russian for
Julia. A beautiful woman with a sad personal story, she has a great deal of
knowledge. I could hardly keep up with her as I jotted notes.
Bukhara was captured in the 4th century by Alexander the Great and
in the 8th century the Arabs captured it and destroyed the Zorastrian fire
temples, building mosques on the same foundations. Later, Gulya said we would
see a mosque which had been built this way, but the people still offer fire at
that location. By the same token, lighting of candles in Christian churches or
Jewish temples is also considered to be a surviving element of fire worship.
Zorastrianism is believed to predate both religions and to have influenced
It was in Bukhara in 1927 that a movement led by Russian women,
inspired many women to uncover their faces and burn their veils, considered to
be a "symbol of slavery." They were called Khudjum which means "attack the
veil." Husbands and fathers were so humiliated, that many of these women were
killed by those same men who should have been their protectors. If this were a
"Melitour" lecture, we might have heard Meli say, "Remember these women, we
will hear about them again." There is an embroidery factory in Shakrisabz
I don't know how clearly we can hear history speak to us through
the veils not only of time, but of the disinformation of the Soviet era. We are
in a country where great strides had been made in understanding of astronomy,
medicine, and philosophy, but where that enlightened culture had been destroyed
and replaced more than once. What did the city of Bukhara actually look like
when the Russians annexed it in 1868? What was the health of the occupants?
We are told that by 1920, doctors came with the Bolsheviks to
treat smallpox, cholera typhoid, and elephantiasis. The Russians had disrupted
a functioning society, and changed it, so did they also bring those diseases
into the picture by altering the water supply? A professor Isiah is credited
with the creation of a water tower that provided the city with clean water. Was
it a new thing, or did he restore what had been there before the Russian
In any case, the Bolsheviks abolished slavery, burned mosques and
repressed religion in all the forms they recognized. The intelligentsia were
considered the most dangerous, and they were arrested and carried off to prison
where most of them were deliberately killed, or died in some other way. Central
Asia was clearly altered forever by this movement, and the people who live here
now are like people who have been kept in the dark and are just now being
brought out into the light. They are searching for roots to understand their
own identity, and are trying to forge a future. Gulya said more than once, "I
think there is hope," or "we can have hope." At one time she compared the new
country to the U.S., where a conglomeration of peoples had to forge a new
We met a man who asked, through Utkir's interpretation, what
nationality we were. When we said "American" he replied that "American is not a
nationality." I tried to explain to him, still through Utkir, that in me are
all the nationalities of English, German, Celtic, and Native American. I don't
know if he understood. The people here identify themselves by nationality, not
by country. They are Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen.... not because of the arbitrarily
drawn country borders, but because of the tribal ancestry of their fathers.
As Albena had told us, Gulya now confirmed and elaborated about
the talismans that are worn "by everyone - even newly born babies." A small
Koran, or a writing from the Koran, covered in silk and tied on a silk ribbon,
is often worn over the shoulder and under the arm, underneath their
There are over 900 monuments in Bukhara, and so it is impossible
that we could see even a small fraction of them. But inside the city gates,
past the courtyard, we were led past a window that looked into the prison cells
of pre-Russian times. Above, Gulya told us, were the stables for the horses,
and their waste would have fallen through the wooden flooring onto the
prisoners. Truly the unfortunates who ended up behind these walls suffered
much. But it was in the interest of the rulers to keep these men alive, and
working. They made articles that would be sold in the bazaar.
The prisoners, in chains, would be taken to the bazaar to sell
what they had made, and forced to beg there. Of course they did not profit from
either, but the money was taken from them by their captors. These captors did
not execute the men per se, but if they no longer wanted a certain man "they
would put some extra spiders on him" said Gulya.
Somewhere in the depths of this city is an even worse prison,
called the pit. Two Englishmen, Stoddart and Conolly, during "The Great Game"
were kept captive here until Nasrullah decided it was time for them to die.
They were forced to dig their own graves in the courtyard before the city, then
beheaded. Unmarked, there is no evidence of either the pit or the graves of
these men, except in the pages of history.
Inside the walls are things more pleasant, as well. A Friday
mosque (djouma) from 1712 was restored in 1910-1920 and is shown as a museum.
Someone wants to put a tea shop inside it, but the Muslims leaders object.
First you start with tea, they say, then you will offer cold drinks, and then
alcohol. It is not allowed.
Gulya's husband has recently become much more fundamentalist in
his religious observance. He prays 5 times a day at the mosque, which creates a
problem in his job. The boss prefers that he stay at work, apparently. He also
brought home several framed pieces to be hung on the walls of their home. (I
think they were sayings from the Koran, meant to be used as talismans.) Gulya
resisted. "You can have one," she told him. "Take the rest away."
After a somewhat overwhelming tour of the city inside the walls,
we went outside to a mosque across the street. The man responsible for the
mosque was most welcoming, and wanted us to come inside. Some of us did, and
From there, we walked through a beautiful park, marred only by the
presence of loudspeakers. Perhaps we would have appreciated the speakers more
if the words being spoken had been English, but someone mentioned prefering to
hear the sound of the many birds in the tall trees. Al said something quite
profound, which bears repeating. "I seek to find joy in even the things that
bother me." It was typical of Al, a determination to rise above any
discomforts. His attitude was encouraging, even inspiring.
The path through the garden led us to the mosque Gulya had
promised to show us, with elements of fire worship and Zoroastrian symbols
built into it when it was built on top of the remnants of a fire temple.
Designs in the building include triangles, and "s" shaped marks, which are
Zoroastrian symbols, Gulya told us. There is also a small fire pit in front of
the mosque, blackened by smoke, and with small bills representing prayers
tucked into one side. During excavation of this site, ossuaries were found
underneath the building. Depictions of phoenix birds from the 17th century are
another element of Zoroastrianism.
The Kalon Minaret also known as the Tower of Death was ordered
built in 1127. The foundation was dug 45 feet deep while the base measures 30
feet in diameter. It was mortared with a mix of camel's milk, egg yoke and
bull's blood. Tihs was allowed to harden for two years before raising the
tallest free-standing tower in the world at that time. It is called the tower
of death because particularly outrageous criminals were executed by being
hurled from the top in a sack. This was done on market day, so that the people
could hear a recitation of the crimes and praises for the omniscient justice of
the emir. Perhaps it was considered a deterrent to crime.
We had shopping opportunities inside the city, and visited a silk
weaving center. I could not resist buying a beautiful section of blue silk, to
be used as a shawl. I had to resist a beautiful small pink silk carpet, because
I didn't have $1000 or $500 in cash to pay for it. So sad, to leave it behind.
At 6:30, we went to an outdoor restaurant in a courtyard where a
folk show is scheduled. Included is a fashion show. Although the cut of the
garments is simple, the designs on the lovely silk fabrics is anything but. The
dances are stately, an art of the hands more than the feet or bodies, and the
entire experience feels thoroughly local. It was beautiful and soothing to see
the victory of everyday people over the negative elements of history, with art
of their own.
At 6:30, we went to an outdoor resturant in a courtyard where a
folk and fashion show was scheduled. We would watch the show here before going
somewhere else for dinner. Although the cut of the garments is simple, the
designs on the lovely silk fabrics is anything but. The dances are stately, an
art of the hands more than the feet or body, and the entire experience feels
thoroughly local. It was beautiful and soothing to see the victory of everyday
people over the negative elements of history, with art of their own.
We left quickly for dinner in a little hideaway home behind some
shops, and somehow we left two members of the tour behind. Nancy and Mary were
distracted for a moment by the jewelry salesmen, and when they looked for us we
were not to be found. It was some time before we connected with them again,
after Utkir and Larry (Nancy's husband) had gone out several times to look for
them. At last we found them, they had gone to our bus and were waiting
Mary has a piece of jewelery unrivaled by anything you can buy in
American jewelry stores. It consists of a ring for each finger, with chains
leading from the rings to a medallion on the back of the hand, and from there
to a braclet.
- Continues with Day 11 -