By Amir Abbas Turi
A splendid call from ‘The Diplomatic Insight’ that I had made it for a five-day cultural tour to Uzbekistan, was really something extremely fabulous which beggars description. However, I will try to give shape of words to the marvelous feelings I had had. ‘Evacuate the plane immediately,’ was the call from an air hostess upon reaching to Tashkent as I was gone in the world of imaginations – during the flight. The first panorama of the city took me to a different world. The way from airport to hotel was a view worth watching: breath-taking scenery, criterion buildings and foliage standing lofty in full blossom.
Our host from the tourist department was really a humble and humorous lady – with a cheerful smile. While detailing us about our schedule and Tashkent in general, she would start laughing and had got impressive English linguistic skills.
The purpose of this trip was to broaden our knowledge over the culture and history of the friendly Muslim state ‘Koh-i-Kaaf’ (Uzbekistan), which includes learning centers in Tashkent to the great Islamic civilization, ancient spots and Silk Road of Bukhara and historical places of Samarkand. Independent since 1991, the country seeks to gradually lessen its dependence on agriculture while developing its mineral and petroleum reserves. The literacy rate in Uzbekistan is 99.3% with a rank of 25 out of 193 countries. Conversely, in Pakistan the literacy rate is 54.9%.
Uzbekistan is unique compared to the other Central Asian republics, because, it is the only republic whose ancestors settled and build grand cities instead of living a purely nomadic life. The lineage of those in Uzbekistan is as ancient as the Silk Road. Out of all the grand journeys one can take in a lifetime, the Silk Road is supposed to be one of the greatest. Travelling in the footsteps of caravans, religious clerics and hording Mongols is a task left to the greatest of adventures. Though this route went through a great number of countries, regions and cultures, I think most people associate Silk Road travel to the region of the Central Asian republics. With this said, no other country represents the great bazaars and caravans of the Silk Road life as Uzbekistan. The great Silk Road played a great role in the development of Uzbekistan culture.
Moving forward, a lot of Sufi monuments and mansions have preserved in Uzbekistan up to day. There are the Khoja Akhrar Mosque and Tomb, Gur Emir Mausoleum, Ruhabad Mausoleum and others in Samarkand. Moreover, several female Sufi mansions where women could only join were established in the territory of Central Asia. The Kiz Bibi complex was the most prominent among them. All these places are holy for Sufis and possess healthfulness. People from far off countries are coming there to find healing and wisdom, well, as a Sufi sentence runs, “Seek for wisdom while you have strength, otherwise you can lose strength while having found no wisdom”.
Customs and traditions of Uzbek people have been forming for centuries. They are very distinctive, impressive and different, dating back to different epochs and religions. Territory of today Uzbekistan, a land between two rivers, being a part of early states, became the basis for formation of cultures, which subsequently became the basis of Uzbek culture. Over centuries, traditions and customs of Uzbek people had remained almost unchanged despite the desire of many invaders to impose alien culture on. Islamic traditions were closely intertwined with local culture, and firmly settled in the mode and minds of Uzbek people.long forgotten, gives the great Silk Road cities a serenity you do not often experience. As well, despite the desert climate, Uzbeks are expert gardeners and you will comprehend that hidden behind every gate, wall and courtyard is sanctuary. With its roots as a meeting place of peoples from all over Asia, the local culinary traditions are well established.
Centuries-old customs and traditions of Uzbek people are carefully maintained and passed on from generation to generation. Like many Asian nations, most festive Uzbek customs are related with major family celebrations: births and weddings. These events include many rites and rituals involving parents, children, brothers, sisters, immediate and remote relatives as well as neighbors and guests. Each one has its own role. Uzbek traditions are based on hospitality, respect for elders, and observance of rules of the holy Koran.
The Uzbek language is the only official state language. Though, the major part of population can speak Russian language too. In some regions such as in Samarkand and Bukhara local people also speak Tajik language. About 60% of Uzbek population lives in rural places.
Uzbek food is probably one of the main sights of Uzbekistan, which will become the discovery for all gourmets. The delicious Rice Pelov, pickled salads from a lineage of Korean expatriates, and the best Samasa or meat pies make food in Uzbekistan a treat in the region. Uzbeks generally eat with hand and sit at the floor or at the low table – dastarkhawan. At the beginning, the table is served with sweets and fruits. Later, it is served with vegetables and salads. Then it is the turn of soups – savory Shurpa, thick Mastava, etc. Repast is finished with main dishes – Manti, Lagman, Shashlik and Plov.
We visited Visited Amir Temur Park, Independence Square, Broadway Street, Hast Imam Complex, Chor Su Bazar. Moreover, I believe the best way to experience the country is to get off the beaten path and find some people to share the adventure with. In Samarkand, some German tourists and I accidently snuck into the Registan and were invited over to have dinner with a Persian family. In Bukhara, I spoke with young Uzbeks about the economy and learned a lot about the world they live. Bukhara is among those historical places which has had very ancient civilization. The historic center of Bukhara, which contains numerous mosques and madrassas (Islamic seminaries), has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Persian-speaking Tajiks constitute the largest element of the city’s population. Interestingly, the people of Bukhara, especially Tajiks, speak Persian which made an ease for me to communicate with them. Upon asking them about conversation in English, their reply was, ‘So-so.’
The hotel in which we stayed in Bukhara, was giving a view of village’s hotel like Quetta’s Serena. All around the city, you would find modern spots with traditional touch. The Nuratau Mountains are located in between Samarkand and Bukhara. A series of guesthouses, folklore performances and donkey treks are waiting for any traveler who makes the journey. Though it is tempting to rush through the country seeing all the famous sights and not wondering out of the designated tourist areas, I had my best adventures wondering into bazaars and areas not meant for tourists. The old town in Samarkand and new town in Bukhara should not be missed because this is where people live there day-to-day lives and where getting connected to that Central Asian hospitality can be found.
We visited Amir Timur Park, monuments and others at ‘Shahi Zinda’ in Samarkand. Besides, we visited the place where unique manuscript of the holy Qur’an was positioned. This inimitable script of the holy Qur’an by Hazrat Usman, 7th A.D., was brought to Samarkand by Amir Timur in 14th century. Now it’s placed in a beautiful monument at Tashkent. Usman r.a. was martyred while reciting this.
Legends and myths of Uzbekistan are a unique and mysterious world of folk tales and stories, which were carefully collected and passed on from generation to generation by the people of Uzbekistan. The ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva are shrouded with mysteries and superstitions, which were eventually embodied in myths and legends. Ancient Samarkand and the secret of the tomb of Tamerlane, hidden in its heart, still fascinate people.
Bukhara where even the air is saturated with the spirit of antiquity and narrow streets of the old city seems like living in the world of folk tales and legends. Khiva is the center of Khorezm where remains of thousand ancient fortresses as myriad scattered stars maintain many ancient mysteries.
Legends of prophets are a part of Muslim traditions and myths, related with the worship of saints who were able to resurrect from the dead, to assume various aspects, instantly transport from one place to remote one, to prevent dangers, to treat illnesses. During Amir Timur’s reign and the reigns of his immediate descendants, a wide range of religious and palatial construction masterpieces were undertaken in Samarkand and other population centers. Timur also initiated an exchange of medical discoveries and patronized physicians, scientists and artists from the neighboring countries like India. His grandson Ulugh Beg was one of the world’s first great astronomers.
Furthermore, we visited Mausoleum of Imam Bukhari, located near Samarkand. The great Islamic scholar, Bukhari, who authored the Hadith collection known as Sahih al-Bukhari, is regarded by Muslims as one of the most authentic of all hadith compilations. We prayed Namaz-e-Maghrib bajamaat (evening prayer held in assembly shortly after sunset) in the iqtida (followed by) of Imam-e-Masjid (prayer leader). Upon our request, we were shown the graveyard – under the monument.
‘Koh-i-Kaaf’ has very rich history full of folk stories and legends. Stories about wonderful cities, great rulers, immortal love were maintained and passed on from generation to generation by our ancestors. Uzbekistan was not what I expected, as the road less travelled is not an easy way to find. Kind locals eager to share bread and stories balanced crazy taxi drivers, and I have to admit, I fell in love with this ‘Koh-i-Kaaf’. Bukhara culture shall be promoted in Pakistan as well. It would be helpful in curtailing the chauvinistic mentality. I would strongly suggest travelers to visit this country.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com and he tweets @EngrTuri