OTRWJ Istanbul-Uzbekistan Part4 – Stories from the Silk Road


Off toward Afghanistan. Stories from the Silk Road, 3rd Century to Today.

I am definitely getting a crash course in Central Asian history, current Central Asian border issues, Islamic and Persian architecture and Islamic practices. And no, this wasn’t something I’d studied. I basically knew zilch before this trip. Had read a few books and articles. More than once when the guide has referenced a city or a leader I’ve had to swallow my pride and, looking confused, say “Excuse me?” Initially, he would pause, look surprised, and then answer. Now I think he has gotten used to the vast vacuum that is my brain! But I am going to try to not bore you with mosque-overload or the innumerable Islamic kings, khans and emirs.

The Silk Road is a misnomer created in the 1800s. Actually, it was a network of routes (plural) crisscrossing from China to Europe, as far north as the Vikings and south to Iraq. Most of these routes went through the Uzbekistan cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, all which I’m visiting.

Today, in Samarkand, I traveled the historic road that led then, as it does today, from Samarkand to Afghanistan, and was originally traveled by Alexander the Great. A rugged 4-hour drive over over that hill in the picture is Afghanistan. A bridge, “The Bridge of Friendship,” built and so named by Russia, connects the two countries.

Interestingly, cars northbound from Afghanistan are randomly stopped at a provincial border and papers checked. Apparently, this road is one route taken by opium smugglers headed to Russia, which I was told has a bad drug problem. Interesting was the “wanted poster” at the check point. Lots of faces there!

But not to worry! The site I was off to see (the 14th century palace of Timur, the greatest warrior and leader of Central Asia) was still 125 miles from the border. (I can see my family shaking their heads)

Yes, the Silk Routes began with Chinese silk. The Romans were obsessed with it…so much so they eventually tried to ban it due to a trade imbalance. But over centuries, and into the 20th century, the Silk Routes resulted in the trading of far more than silk and spices and merchandise. The Silk Routes enabled the exchange of ideas, cultures, religion, art and people…slaves.

Back in the Middle Ages, travelers from the Silk Routes were responsible for the spread of the plague – the Black Death which killed 30% of Europe. DNA/gene testing has proven it originated in Central Asia.

Paper making, invented in China around 100 CE, spread westward. Story has it there was a major battle in Central Asia around 700 when a prisoner was brought back to Samarkand and there he taught the locals how to make paper from mulberry trees. Of course, mulberry trees are what silk worms eat, and they are everywhere in Uzbekistan.

Language! Even today the languages of Central Asia are intermixed. The country’s language is Uzbek. People near the southeastern border with Tajikistan, in Bukhara and Samarkand, primarily speak Tajik. But all menus everywhere are written in Russian even though many young people can’t speak it. When I asked the guide why, he was clearly mystified and had never considered the question. Of course, during the Soviet era people were encouraged to speak Russian, which continues to be described as the language of the “aristocracy.” It’s what you speak when you want to impress someone. My guide speaks Russian when, in the capital, he doesn’t want to get ripped off by a cabbie and wants to mask his Tajik-accented Uzbek!

The Silk Route was integral to the Great Bullion Famine in the 15th century. Europe had little that China wanted to trade so they had to pay for goods with silver. When they began to run out of coinage, silver came up the Silk Route from Iran.

There was a very large slave trade along the Silk Routes. The East Gate in the wall around Khiva was the largest slave bazaar in all of Central Asia. Descriptions of captures, separation of families, physical abuse, torture of escapees, assessing value of human beings and selling are all uncomfortably familiar. Reportedly, up to one million slaves, mostly from Persia, were captured during various raids and battles. To them is attributed much of the architectural design in Uzbekistan, tile work and carpet-making skills. As recently as the early 1800s, as many as 5000 Russians were also captured prompting the invasion of Uzbekistan in the late 1800s by Russian troops seeking to liberate the slaves as well as control the cotton trade.

The caravans of traders, criss-crossing the mountains and the deserts, avoiding bandits, stayed at caravanserais in towns. Owners of caravanserais would send out scouts to find out who was enroute, how many in their caravan and what goods they had to trade. With this advance knowledge, the caravanserai owner would negotiate on the traders’ behalf with local merchants, giving them an opportunity to get in early on a good price. Of course, the caravanserai’s owner would charge the caravan for lodging. They would also take a cut of the deals they had made on the trader’s behalf!

With all the bandits around, traders did not want to travel with all their cash on them. A system of banks and lenders was set up. Muslims are not allowed to charge interest. So, in Bukhara – which had a sizable Jewish population with, at its peak, eight synagogues – the Jews set up “exchanges.” When a trader left on his journey, his local “bank” gave him a piece of leather with his balance recorded. When he reached Bukhara and needed cash, his withdrawal was recorded on the leather by the money changer. There is still one synagogue in Bukhara today.

In the 16th century, in an effort to organize the chaos of so many traders from so many places with different goods, Bukhara built “trading domes” which specialized in certain merchandise: hats, fabric and carpets, jewelry, and one for the money changers where they would exchange currency. Today, many of the old brick alcoves are still filled with carpet, suvani and fabric merchants. One of these niches is where I purchased my suzani: silk on silk (instead of silk thread on a cotton/silk cloth), hooked (which requires more time and skill than stitched), featuring intricate patterns of color in the traditional UZB design. Had a great “conversation” with this wonderful merchant about his family in Orlando! With how much I overpaid, he can probably fly to see them now!

**EDITOR’S NOTE: Janice left her camera in the exchange and didn’t discover this fact until later. When she retraced her steps and returned here to look for it, this merchant was trying to locate her to make sure she got her camera back. Now she thinks she actually got a bargain! **

Religions spread along the Silk Roads too, spreading beliefs and traditions. Buddhism moved up out of India into UZB and across the steppe into China during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Of the 60-odd remaining Zoroastrian monuments left in the world, half are in UZB.

This one was a mosque after the 12th century. But inside, archeologist have clearly exposed the distinct levels of an earlier mosque, and going deeper underground, a 7th century Zoroastrian temple. It gave me goosebumps to stand where people stood 1400 years ago!

I learned to identify Zoroastrian markings in Khiva and Bukhara by the triangular butterfly-like shape (see detailed photo below) representing good thoughts, good words, good deeds.

And then Islam spread up from Iraq to Central Asia. With it came stunning architecture and brick and tile work. The best display of this Central Asia talent is on madrassas, schools for the study of Islam as well as history and literature. Whereas in western civilization our most decorated structures tend to be churches built to the glory of God, the most elaborate and intricate decoration in Medieval Islamic architecture is often saved for the madrassas, emphasizing the Islamic emphasis on the importance of learning and education. Most madrassas were closed during the Soviet era when religious study was discouraged and eventually were turned into the shops they are today.

Two of the most famous madrassas that show designs, mosaics, and architectural features of their time are:

this one in Bukhara …a center for learning in early 1400s that attracted students from across all Central Asia. It is the oldest remaining in Central Asia.

The second is the enormous madrassa built by Timor’s grandson, Uleg, in 1420 on Registan square. Reflecting his interest in science, this beautiful building taught science, mathematics and astronomy.

My stop in Bukhara include a visit with local business leaders, exchanging challenges/learnings of working in the post-pandemic era as well as a discussion of women’s issues. As I raised the topic of work/home life balance and time constraints, all the women professed to be in control and not have any issues. When I mentioned this to the guide later, he pointed up and said “the sky is blue.” A Uzbek phrase meaning: “That’s the way it is; why bother discussing?!” 

A surprising moment was when a woman with above average English asked: “Will you give us money and invest in Uzbek business?” I deferred, saying something to the effect of “As Americans become more familiar with your country and as your country continues its progress toward a more open economy, it will become more and more attractive to foreign investors.” Not put off, she persisted: “I was just meeting with the mayor,” (who is appointed by the administration, not elected) “and he told me to ask you if you’d invest.” AAGH!

Later, the guide explained that the government announced “a plan” to increase foreign investment. This plan trickles down and ends up placing pressure and expectation on citizens. He said when he was working toward his PhD in Germany, he received numerous and increasingly frequent notices asking when he was going to get investment money. Finally, he gave a German friend $50 and told him to donate it to his UZB university. With that, the problem went away. He had secured foreign investment and the university could report it as such.

I was lucky to have a second visit to a private home, this time in Bukhara. Clearly a wealthier family than the home visit in Khiva but still that amazing Uzbek hospitality. This was the home of a couple, each 84 and married 62 years. The lady was this sweet tiny thing who instantly gave me a hug. Like many couples married this long, the husband sat quietly throughout the meal while she chattered away, occasionally stopping to let the guide translate a bit. They have 12 children, 27 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren. They have been to America (NJ, DC, FL) a couple times to visit their daughter. The shopping malls and stores like Walmart seemed to have left a big impression on “mom!” This lovely home had the traditional Turkish bed outside in the courtyard, which you see at restaurants, hotel lobbies, homes. Shoes were removed at the door. The meal was fairly similar to the one in Khiva and, like most meals in UBK, bland and a touch on the salty side.

After we chatted, the daughters turned on music and began to dance! I had seen a performance of UZB dancers the prior evening and Uzbek dancing is all about the hands and arms. And men and women don’t dance together!

I’ll save examples of the incredible 12-17th century mosaic work for my final blog. As well as, perhaps more compelling: a revealing conversation with my guide—a conversation he seemed to save to have as we walked a deserted stretch of medieval palace grounds, far from any other people or building—about the day-to-day realities of living in an authoritarian state, post Soviets.

But a bit about Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Given Putin’s announcement today to call up more troops, this was the topic over dinner with my guide. As a former Soviet republic, I think the Uzbek perspective worth hearing. What I was told: Uzbekistan tries to strike a balance. They do not support the invasion of Ukraine or efforts to take back the Donbas region. (Although I never heard anyone call it a “war.” Always “conflict” or “situation.”) However, when there are votes in the UN against Russia’s human rights record, UZB abstains. Uzbeks are concerned that they or any former Soviet republic may be vulnerable in the future. Social media is playing a huge role in much of UZB today, but especially people’s understanding of what is happening in the Ukraine. Younger people tend to be more opposed to the action; older people more accepting. My 60ish driver was clearly pro-Putin. Russian is encouraging the many Uzbeks in Russia to enlist, offering them sizable sign-on bonuses and citizenship. It is unknown how this will play out. However UZB says they will “fine” any citizens who do this.

Stay tuned….

OTRWJ Istanbul-Uzbekistan Part4 - Stories from the Silk Road originally posted on by Elegant Island Living magazine.

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