Before venturing back in the direction Akbar and I had come the previous day from the Tajikistan border with Uzbekistan, I awoke early in the Komil hotel to have some breakfast in their 19th-century dining hall, a stone-walled museum piece of a room with high windows, a tall arched ceiling, and deeply-carved etched stonework along the other wall. I ate with 4 other tourists from America, a middle-aged oil worker named Ray who was on vacation from his contract in Kazakhstan, and his three sons: Zach, Josh, and Jonathan. And no, I’m not kidding about those names, although I didn’t tell him about the wild coincidence that all four of them were named like my family. I had to eat quickly so I could check out from my beautiful hotel room and meet Akbar at the gate at about 8.
On our way out of town, I asked Akbar to take me to Emir’s summer retreat, the simply-named “Summer Palace” that he used to escape from the invading Russians when they stormed Bukhara, by using an underground passageway from the Arq, his main palace. Although I didn’t see or find this passageway (as most of the place was unfortunately closed to tourists) I did see a dozen beautiful peafowl, completely accustomed to human presence that allowed me to get within a meter or two of them before haughtily stalking off. I had first heard their loud, haunting calls while walking through the main hallway of the palace, which reminded me strikingly of my trip to Versailles over six years ago when I was in high school. A guard followed me about closely; it was early enough in the morning that I was actually the first tourist to arrive and he was curious about me. He was doubly surprised and curious when I spoke to him in my bad, heavily accented Tajik. I think the Bukharans and Samarqandis figure that most tourists would try to speak to them in Uzbek instead of their colloquial language of their ancestral homeland, but I had the advantage of my native family back in Dushanbe.
It wasn’t until we drove through the main street of Samarqand two hours later that I realized that I had been here the previous day. I stuck my head out the window into the warm morning sunlight (those precious few hours before it starts baking like apparently everywhere else in Central Asia) and stared at the round, lumpy mass of the Guir-Rukhabad, or “Grave of the Little Soul,” a brown ziggurat that held the remains of a famous Islamic scholar from the region, and supposedly a single hair from the head of the Prophet Mohammad himself. We didn’t stop here; not yet at least. Akbar wanted to get me to my hotel, another boutique which although as not as old nor fancy as the Komil was larger and even had air conditioning. Air conditioning! This is not a commonly used thing either in Jordan or Central Asia, and I spent five minutes just standing in front of it as I dropped my bag off in the room.
I went back to the lobby to meet my new guide for the city, a bespectacled, respectable, white-haired gentleman who coincidentally was also named Akbar like my driver. “Greater and greater!” I said, in reference to the Arabic translations of their name: Akbar means the biggest or the greatest. Akbar had been a tour guide for about 30 years, and before that a reporter, so he knew his way around Uzbekistan like it was written on his eyelids. The two Akbars drove me to the center of town to the most famous and picturesque location in Central Asia: the famous Registan Square which holds three famous 700-year-old madrasahi. After we left the young Akbar behind with the car and a soft drink, the elder Akbar and I toured each one of them in turn, taking pictures everywhere as always. Akbar was delighted to hear that I was from Jordan and that I could speak a little Arabic, but seemed even more excited to think that I would have friends who could read the hundreds of intricately written words set in tile on the walls of each building, and urged me to take as many pictures of them as I could for later translation.
I noticed right away that these three madrasahi had very small entryways everywhere, not just because people were shorter 700 years ago but also because the architect preferred that people would have to bow their heads in order to enter a room, a sign of respect to those already present. Inside, the recently-restored rooms were neatly whitewashed like they would have been then – any sort of decoration would have been distracting to their meditation and contemplation of the Holy Qur’an. Inside one of the buildings, I was allowed to climb one of the minarets (for a small fee of course) and poke my head and upper body out through a hole in the roof, 40 meters above the ground, to give me a bird’s eye vantage point on the other two madrasahi. I sat up their for a while, photographing the panoramic spread before me and the silver lids of the city’s houses in all directions, but the burning sun had turned the silver lid I was sitting on into a hotplate and I couldn’t sit up there too long before I had to retreat back into the cool darkness of the minaret’s rough stone walls. My best shots were of the ridged domes of the Sher-Dor (Having-Tigers) Madrasah to the right, which were so vibrantly colored and shiny that they looked like electric blue popsicle, glistening in the sunlight. Not the most respectful description, but on a day that hot I definitely meant it reverently.
All three of the buildings were laid out the same way, and had been built within 100 years of each other. The insides were not nearly as interesting as the outsides – the same pretty internal courtyard with large mulberry trees and vendors setting up shop inside the rooms that had once been the student dormitories. Where were the classrooms, though, I asked. Akbar gestured around the inner courtyard and said, “this is it!” It made sense – because of the high heat, it wouldn’t have been practical to be in a roasting classroom all day when they could just teach outside and students could just sit around their scholarly masters. Each madrasah of course had its own mosque at the back of the building, in various levels of restoration completeness. By far the most beautiful one, however, was in the central madrasah, Tillya-Kori which conveniently had been more of a mosque than a school. They had used 5 kilos of gold to restore the gilding inside the dome’s roof, and it had taken them several years just to complete the relatively small 20-meter high space because it was so complex. A Russian women in the Tillya-Kori sold me some Uzbeki silks, which made sense to me since were on the Silk Road, after all.
After I picked up some postcards and ridiculously cheap postage (300 saum per stamp, the equivalent of about 21 cents), the Akbars took me a local carpet-weaving factory to see how handmade Persian rugs were assembled. Ironically, as the elder Akbar and I were entering the building, guided by a young English-speaking woman named Zaynaab, we were directly behind a group of Saudi Arabian businessmen, looking to invest in the Silk Road region. I had fun translating the limited bits of Arabic I heard to Akbar, who listened with rapt curiosity to the language which most Central Asians only experience in the written form. As always, my translation ability was nowhere near 100% or even half of that, but basic dialogue about colors, prices, and the men’s opinions on those subjects were easy for me to pick up. Zaynaab led us upstairs to a bright, sunlit space, filled with dozens of young women and their looms, who giggled and blushed at our entry, leaning to chat with their friends and giving me sidelong glances. Zaynaab explained that the carpets their factory created ranged in size from prayer rug size (about a meter by a meter and a half) to 5 meters square – or large for custom requests. I learned that it wasn’t the size that mattered, but the number of knots that went into the weave per square centimeter. Although it was a weekend, many of the young, unmarried women really love the work and come in whenever they can for socializing and the extra money. The video below shows a couple of the women at work.
As Akbar and I were leaving, we watched the Saudi delegation relaxing in the showroom, filled with long sofas covered with beautiful rugs. Akbar had never seen so many Saudis in one place before, and was astounded to see them pulling out stacks of hundred dollar bills from their pockets and handing them over in exchange for three or four rugs. Remember, dear readers, that the largest denomination of the saum note is 1000, and that equals about $.75. Exchanging a single hundred dollar bill for its equivalent in saums would be a stack 10 centimeters thick. But the Saudis, sipping tea provided by their hosts and chatting amicably about stock prices, didn’t even hesitate in their purchases. The owner, who I recognized from a picture on the wall of him with Madeline Albright, was beside himself with happiness, leaping over rugs all over the room to shake hands with all his valued customers and cracking jokes. All business was transacted in English, of course – the Samarqandis couldn’t speak Arabic, and the Saudis couldn’t speak Tajik in return. If you’ve ever wanted a handmade Persian rug by some of the best in the business (which I judged they were, based on the photographs of the boss with various world leaders, like Abdullah the potter in Bukhara), check out their website – they deliver!
That evening, I mailed my postcards from the hotel’s friendly front desk, and sampled some more Uzbeki beer. Like the postage, I couldn’t believe the prices on beer in Uzbekistan – 1000 saum for a 30 oz bottle, an unheard of price in Jordan. I never drink very much on vacation though; too much to see and I needed to get up early the next day for my final day of sightseeing in Uzbekistan. Akbar was waiting for me in the lounge when I came from breakfast, wearing his formal black suit and white dress shirt. Our first stop of the day was the Guir-Rakhabat and Guir-e-Emir, the two mausoleums in the center of town that I had seen yesterday during my entry into the city.
I had heard so much about the famous emirs Timur and his grandson, Ulug Bec, from both Bibi Khanum and Akbar over the past two days that it was actually very exciting for me to enter their tomb. These were the men that had created a vast empire that had extended over all of Central Asia between 600 and 700 years ago, descendants of the Mongols who had brought power and prosperity to thousands of people. Originally, the Guir-e-Emir had been intended by Timur for another one of his grandsons as a gift, but after Timur’s own son betrayed him and had his father ambushed and executed during a campaign, it first became his own tomb first. Over the decades, it became a group tomb for Timur’s entire family, including Timur’s favorite teacher and a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad. Timur’s tombstone was easy to pick out – it was covered with a solid block of green jade and set apart from the others in his family. Like the dome of the Tillya-Kori, the interior of the tomb was decorated lavishly with gold and carvings. I’ve been told by friends that this is the style of the Persians; one of the differences between Persian Shi’a and everyone else (Sunni) is how they treat ritual and funeral proceedings.
Next, we saw the Bibi Khanum Mosque Complex – a group of restored buildings that had been named after the mausoleum of Timur’s favorite wife, Bibi Khanum. After Akbar explained who she was, I understood my tour guide Bibi’s joke from two days earlier – apparently, Bibi Khanum is a common name for Uzbeki women, like Ahmad or Mohammad are common in the Arab world. The mosque next to the mausoleum originally had no name beside “Grand” or “Central” mosque, but when it was being excavated it gradually just came to be known as the “mosque near Bibi’s tomb” and eventually just the Bibi Khanum mosque. Its claim to fame is that it is the tallest in Asia, its main facade standing 55 meters tall. However, it’s a complete reconstruction – a combination of earthquakes, sloppy construction and materials, and Russian invasions essentially demolished it in the 19th and 20th centuries. I joked to Akbar that it seemed like the greatest enemies of Uzbekistan’s history were earthquakes and Communists.
The tomb itself is a small dome, sitting unassumingly across the street from the massive structure that bears its name, and is simply ornate with white walls, stalactite carvings, and a deep uncovered pit in its center which exposes the underground gravestones of Bibi and her female relatives. We didn’t spend too long at the complex, as Akbar wanted to make sure that I had time to see one of his favorite sites, the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis.
The Shah-i-Zinda means “Living King,” in reference to a legend about Kusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of Prophet Mohammad whose tomb occupies a position of honor in the necropolis. Apparently, legends say that after he was beheaded in the 7th century, he rose up and continued preaching Islam to the people of Samarkand – a living, undying caller for Islam. His tombstone is very important to the Muslims of the region, so much that the necropolis and a still-used local cemetery sprang up around him: everyone wants to be buried next to the cousin of the Prophet himself. The blue-walled crypts looked down us solemnly as we climbed the 63 stairs representing the years of Mohammad’s life. People were leaving small gifts, 500 to 1000 saum, on the tombstones, and in the final resting place of Kusam, many donations were given to the young turbaned man who sang/hummed an Arabic chant every few minutes. I didn’t go into the actual room with the tombstone itself (only Muslims allowed, like in Mecca) but I stood on the other side of the stone lattice from it and watched the Muslim visitors enter and stand respectfully nearby, some laying a single hand on its cold stone surface.
One thing that I had been anxious to try before leaving Uzbekistan was Plov, which is where we get the word “Pilaf” from. In thanks for the service from my two Akbars, I took the two of them out to lunch: all they had to do was pick the restaurant. Since they were both from the city, this wasn’t a problem, and the younger Akbar selected one of his favorite haunts for some authentic Samarqandi plov. The regulars looked at our group curiously as we entered, but after that delicious plov was set in front of me, all else was forgotten and I dug in. The spices were great, and the meat was just tender enough without being ribbed in fat. Between mouthfuls, I exclaimed to Akbar “This is a lot like the osh I had in Tajikistan!” He replied with a smile that they were very similar dishes (and Farahnush told me later that they were actually the same thing, just different names in Uzbeki and Tajiki).
The younger Akbar dropped off my tour guide in the downtown before heading back to the border, less than an hour away. The younger Akbar handed me my bags at the checkpoint station and rolled away in a cloud of dust, leaving me desperately hoping that I would be able to get back into Tajikistan. There had been some problems because I only had a single entry/exit visa for the country; a mistake that we had made back at the airport the previous week without realizing it. Of course I should have realized that Malik would have me taken care of – he skillfully and shrewdly bribed the guards at the border for my entry, and met me at the gate with an embrace and huge smile. He had been staying with Raouf at the archeological site in Panjakent for the past two days, and was overjoyed to see that I had made it without any problems. I assured him that if I didn’t have any problems, it was all because of his excellent care, and together he, Raouf’s quiet driver, and I walked to the car that was waiting in the tall grass by the side of the road.
So ended my trip of Uzbekistan’s Silk Road territory, the beautiful blue land of huge mosques and madrasah. It makes me wish that Jordan and the Arab world had more buildings like that still surviving and in that sort of shape, but on the other hand the uniqueness of the ancient architecture makes me appreciate it all the more.
P.S. – in case you’ve got sharp eyes and noticed why I added these past two entries to the “Tajikistan” category instead of creating an “Uzbekistan” entry, it’s because like any good Son of Tajikistan, I consider those two cities to be part of Tajikistan’s original boundaries and wrongfully taken by Uzbekistan after the Soviet dissolution. Take that, Tashkent!