Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan
Day 10 - Monday, 1 May 2000

Bukhara

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 their beliefs.

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 called Khudjum.

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 conquest?

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 identity.

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 clothing.

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 took pictures.

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 there.

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 -