From certain vantages, Bukhara does not seemed to have changed since the heyday of the Silk Road, when it was one of the most important stops between China and the Mediterranean Sea.
In the waning light, the mud-brick walls of the city glow bronze and the same Kalon Minaret that Genghis Khan called “too beautiful to burn” rises up into a pink sky. Then, out of the corner of your eye, you spot a boxy, Russian-made Lada, and are brought back to the 20th—if not the 21st—century.
One of only two doubly-landlocked countries in the world, Uzbekistan might best be described as a crossroads—a place where Ancient meets Modern and East meets West—a place, as Chris Aslan Alexander says, “marooned somewhere between Mohammed and Marx,” whose inhabitants head to the livestock market wearing traditional skullcaps as well as tracksuits.
Back in the 10th century, when the region was known as Transoxiana, Bukhara was the capital of the Persian Samanid Dynasty, under which culture and science flourished. It was during this Islamic Golden Age that the doctor Ibn Sina wrote a medical textbook so sophisticated that its Latin version was used in Europe until the 1700s, and the mathematician al-Khorezmi, whose name has since lent itself to the word “algorithm,” invented al-jabr, or “algebra.”
A little over a century later, however, the city would be conquered by Mongol armies led by Genghis Kahn, who may have spared the Kalon minaret, but didn’t spare too much else.
Uzbekistan is littered with the footprints of
strongmen, and just a century after Genghis Kahn died, a man who would conquer enough
territory to rival the empires of both Genghis and Alexander the Great was born;
his name was Timur, known to Westerners as Tamerlane.
The kind of guy who did everything on a grand scale, Timur’s ferocious appetite for conquest was matched only by his patronage of the arts, and under the Timurid dynasty painting, poetry, and especially architecture reached a soaring pinnacle.
This legacy of exquisite craft would persist even under the Russian communist rule of the 20th century, when statues of Lenin proliferated, factories producing mass quantities of inferior products were built, and traditional ways of life generally discouraged, if not outright prohibited.
Hence today, 600 years after the death of Timur and 22 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the towns of the fertile Fergana Valley, you find weavers spinning silk ikat on hand-operated looms and potters glazing some of the most intricately beautiful ceramics you’ve ever seen.
Just don’t be surprised when the handsome young guy tracing ancient patterns on a half-finished platter with a glaze whose recipe is at least 6 centuries old switches on his iPod and starts bouncing his head to the distinctly modern beat of Russian rap.