written and photographer by Hoda Hamed
Even though ninety percent of Uzbeks are Moslems, the government has separated religion from politics. Minority religions are respected as much as the main religion of the country
I was very excited to join a trip to Uzbekistan and visit this area of Central Asia which we long heard of in legends and tales and studied certain parts of it in history lessons. I had an idea about the Silk Road, but to visit actual towns that were on the crossroad of the caravans from East to West is something different. You can still see these caravans, where the traders used to take a rest.
The Great Silk Road is a unique phenomenon of the history of development of a civilization and its aspiration towards the exchange of cultural values. It was not only the trade path to the Caravans, but had also been the route for the spread of cultural achievements of various nations, their intellectual values and religious beliefs.
Another aspect is the famous figures and military leaders that we came across in our history lessons, like Amir Timur the great military leader who extended his empire from the Volga River and Caucasian Mountain ranges in the West to India in the South West. We could feel how the Uzbeks still maintain high esteem and appreciation for Amir Timur. Others like Al Imam al Bukhary, born in Uzbekistan, a highly revered figure in Islam, who endeavored to collect authentic oral traditions relating to the Prophet Mohamed’s statements and deeds (Hadithes).
Another important figure is Bakhouddin Nakshbandi, one of the most famous founders of Sufism and the famous poet Omar Khayyam who lived in Bukhara. Also outstanding scientists, philosophers and poets such as Abu Ali Ibn Sino, Rudaki and Firdousi. As a country with multiple civilizations and home to so many famous historical figures, we found that they are well recognized and glorified through the construction of Complexes, Mausoleums and Madrassahs, along the years and at different eras.
Our visits included the cities of Bukhara, Tashkent, Khiva and Samarkand, the main routes of the Silk Road.
Although Uzbekistan was occupied by the Soviet Union from the 19th Century, when it was still an empire, then became part of the Soviet Union in 1924 until its independence in 1991, the Uzbek people maintained their identity, religion, customs and traditions, the Uzbek language, one of the family of Turkic languages and still wear their national costume.
A general observation throughout our visit is that it is a peaceful country, full of greenery that gives you the feeling of serenity and tranquility. It is also a clean country, the streets, markets, train stations and parks are all very well kept.
The main product of Uzbekistan is cotton cultivation that came from India. Sixty percent of the population is farmers. All cultivated land is owned by the government and farmers only rent the land. However, there is control on what the farmer can cultivate depending on the location of the field and the availability of water in the area. Along with the land they can own cattle or sheep. When the father dies, the son can inherit the land just to cultivate it but not for ownership. Farmers sell 20% of the crop to the government for a fixed price and the rest of the crop can be sold by the farmer in the free market.
We visited Khiva at the time of cotton picking, a strategic crop for Uzbekistan, therefore, university students help farmers during the cotton picking season, just before the season of rain.
They also grow rice in two provinces where there is a river. When Russia occupied these central Asian countries, they had an agricultural plan whereby each country would cultivate a certain crop; e.g. Uzbekistan would cultivate cotton, Kazakhstan wheat, and so on. After independence, they started to export to other countries. Korea is investing in car production and Uzbekistan exports cotton to it. They make alcohol from cotton, and use wooden columns for making furniture. Corn is grown only to feed cows, it is not the sweet yellow corn that we know.
During the Soviet occupation, they built many canals for the irrigation of the cotton plantation, this pulled the water from the Aral sea which caused the precipitation of salt in the area.
Mulberry trees are used to produce silk, and the stems are used to produce paper. Desert plants are mainly salty, their roots are five times bigger than the stem, most of these plants are used in producing medicine and feeding the camels.
Not all roads between cities are in good condition. It took us 10 hours to cover 450Km by bus from Tashkent to Bukhara. Most trains run only once a week from one city to the other. Yet one of the upgraded transports is the Tashkent–Samarkand high-speed rail line. We took this train from Samarkand back to Tashkent and were very much impressed by the service by the hostesses, the punctuality and cleanliness of the stations.
The population of Uzbekistan is 29 million inhabitants. It is a secular country, where religion is separate from the government. Most of the population is Muslims, however, there are Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. With its long history of different civilizations as a result of being occupied by many ethnic groups; Greeks, Persians, Turks, Mongols, Khasaks, & Arabs, a great mixture of blood resulted in different features in the Uzbek people. Yet, the majority look like the Central Asians with straight black hair and slightly slanted eyes.
Most of the buildings in Tashkent and Samarkand are Russian style, not too many high risers except in Samarkand, which is more of a modern city. In Tashkent most of the houses are one or two floors, as the city was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1966. The buildings are partly Russian style and partly Timurid. Bukhara on the other hand is an open museum with its many complexes, mosques, Mausoleums and Madrassahs. All the monuments are well maintained and people pay tribute to the Russians who started the restoration of monuments since early 1930s. Bukhara is also very much a touristic city with its historical monuments, bazaars and modern buildings.
Nine years of elementary school is compulsory. The schools are unisex and religious subjects are only taught in religious schools. Universities grant scholarship to students with a good average, the remaining students will have to pay fees. Students have to pass a general exam before they enroll at the university. We visited a Madrassah that was built in the 16th Century, and restored in the 18th Century, it is also a boarding school for boys.
What to visit
Tashkent: Independence Square in Tashkent is the largest of all of Central Asia. In the middle of the square is a huge monument with a golden globe where the map of the country is engraved in the middle. Below, there is the symbol of Zoroastrians and then a statue of a lady carrying a child to symbolize that this is a young country.
Another interesting visit was to the oldest Synagogue, built in the 13th century. There they kept the Torah that has the name of all the ancestors and family tree, and a registration of all the Jewish families.
The Old Town has retained much of its old charm. Here, you will find low adobe houses with shaded courtyards, narrow winding streets and many ancient mosques and Madrassahs.
Another delightful place to visit is Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent’s farmers market located under a huge cupola. There you will find spices, grains, dairy products and fruits of the season. You can also encounter the hustle and bustle of everyday life in Central Asia and you will have a good chance to see people in their colorful local dress.
The Museum of Applied Art, one of the largest in Central Asia shows works of the Russian and the West-European art such as paintings, sculptures, decorative furniture, porcelain and bronze. The most valuable exhibits of the early-medieval art of Uzbekistan are also presented there; architectural decor, embroideries, rugs, fabrics, copper-stamping manufactures, golden needlework, jewelry art and others.
Khiva: The city was famous as a major trading center on the Silk Road in the 10th Century. Most of the city is similar to an open-air museum.
The Itchan Kala castle that is inside a fortress, fortress will see marvelous minarets and stone-paved alleys, leading to a Madrassah with lacy rough mosaics on the ancient walls. In 1990 the city was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Bukhara: The city is more than 2,000 years old and is the most complete example of a medieval city with an urban style. Monuments of particular interest include the famous tomb of Ismail Samani, a masterpiece of 10th-century Muslim architecture, and a large number of 17th-century madrassahs. The historic center of Bukhara has been listed by UNESCO as one of the World Heritage Sites.
Samarkand: Is the second largest city in Uzbekistan. Some of the attractions to see there is the Mausoleum of Imam Al Bukhari, Sher Dor Madrassah and Guri Emir (Grave of Emir) Mausoleum, built for Timur’s grandson, Muhamed Sultan who had become heir apparent of the throne after Timur.
Shopping and Handicrafts
Do you know that the Puppet show originated in Uzbekistan? They developed this art and have great performances in different parts of the world and you can buy puppet dolls made at the original factory there.
The Uzbek people are famous for carpet manufacturing; there are different designs each indicating the style of one part of the country. The most beautiful piece that I saw was a double faced carpet!!
They are also famous for woodcarving and what was most appealing to ladies on the trip, was the Suzanneh, their famous embroidery or needlework for which Bukhara is famous.
They make tablecloths, runners, cushion covers and bed covers in beautiful designs. Suzanneh’s designs include flowers and birds that symbolize love; red pepper for the evil eye, pomegranates for fertility and butterflies to symbolize that life is short. They are also famous for the Ikat design in fabrics.
Pillaff is the main dish in the Uzbek cuisine, it is mainly made from fried meat, onions, carrots, and rice. They place special importance on hot soups (Shurpa) that are usually spicy and rich with vegetables along with boiled or fried meat. Vegetables are cut into large pieces in order to preserve their flavor. They also serve tea with any meal but with no sugar. As a side plate, they offer different kinds of sweets.
Uzbekistan is famous with its ”Chaykhanas” where people meet, drink tea and eat sweets; It is also a place where they can discuss their problems and drink Vodka or one of their local wines.
An interesting night was a dinner at a middle class home. The architecture of the house is typical Arabic, where there is a middle court or patio with fruit trees and surrounded by all the rooms of the house. They still maintain the tradition of having all the family living in the same house; children when married, along with their family live with their parents. A nice spacious dining room is where dinner was served to us. Each family member has a role in the house, from cooking to serving and clearing the table.
They offered us one of their famous “Shurpa” and Pillaff, but we started with several kinds of Uzbek starters.
Before leaving Uzbekistan, we attended a typical Uzbek dance show. The choreography is simple, but graceful; basically dancing with the hands. There is very little influence of Russian dance, however, the influence of Indian and Phaoronic choreography was very clear. The music is very much like Turkish music and in one of the dances the music was of Laila Mourad’s famous song “Raidak we El Nabi Raidak”.