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‘Stone Fortress’: Uzbekistan’s modern capital

Uzbekistan day one


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Tashkent

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Khast Imam Square, Tashkent

There has been a city here for over 2,000 years, its position on a junction of the Silk Road, advantageous geographical location and favourable climate making it a centre for trade from ancient times. Tashkent (the name means ‘stone fortress’) became a Muslim city in the 8th century AD, was part of Ghenghis Khan’s empire in the 13th century, an important commercial centre during the Middle Ages and from the mid 19th century part of the Russian empire.

Today it is a largely modern city, thanks mainly to the devastation caused by a huge earthquake in 1966. It is often overlooked for this reason, and certainly doesn’t have the wealth of attractions of the Silk Road cities, but there are some monuments and other sights worth visiting.

Flying to Tashkent

Tashkent’s airport is located only 7 km from the city centre, and handles both international and domestic flights. We arrived here at 3.30 AM after a long journey, having had to change from a direct Uzbekistan Airlines flight to an Aeroflot one via Moscow only a few weeks before our holiday. This was apparently because the European Union refused to renew Uzbekistan Airlines’ license on safety grounds – a decision which after our domestic flight with them to Khiva I fully understood!

The flight was fine – new planes for both legs, punctual, but with unappetising catering and a too-long wait at Moscow Airport. But landing at that time of day after a long flight is never fun, and we found the customs and security procedures particularly tiresome as well as tiring. I decided that the quality you need most in dealing with these is patience, followed closely by sharp elbows! Once through passport control (which we found slow but not unreasonably so), we had to collect our bags from the conveyer belt, and even though we had arrived in the middle of the night on what appeared to be the only flight, we had to wait some time.

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Tashkent Airport
~ photos were strictly forbidden, but I only found that out
after taking this one while we waited
for our fellow passengers in the transfer bus!

Our next task was to fill in the customs declaration form in duplicate. A number of small tables were provided for this purpose at the airport, with racks of the forms on each. Most of the forms were in Russian but were a few in English and grabbing these made our task much easier.

When we’d completed the forms, we could proceed to the customs queue. I say ‘queue’ but in practice we found a crowd of people all pushing forwards to get through a narrow gap! Many of these were evidently locals who’d been shopping for electrical and other goods in Moscow (where we’d had to change planes) and therefore had a large number of bags and boxes. All baggage was scanned at this point, so progress was slow. I’m afraid at five in the morning after a long journey we weren’t feeling too charitable, but we eventually got to the front by dint of joining up with our fellow tourist passengers to form a wider barrier to prevent queue-jumping!

We eventually made it through and outside almost an hour and a half after landing. Luckily the airport is very close to the city centre and as we were travelling with a group we were met by our local guide Marat, who was to prove an excellent host, and were whisked to our hotel where we finally made it to bed at 5.45 AM.

That late arrival meant that we didn’t really get the best out of our visit to Tashkent. We only had one day here, and not getting to bed the previous day until 5.45 AM was not the best preparation for a day’s sightseeing! Add to that our first taste of the hot Uzbek summer sun, and you can see why I managed not to take so many pictures as usual nor visit as many sights as I would have liked.

One consolation is that Tashkent was certainly the least interesting of our four stops on the Silk Road, although it had its charms, including the best meal we had on this trip (also as it happens our first, so it set high expectations that were sadly never fulfilled!)

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Traditional teapot and bowl on display at our Tashkent hotel

But I am getting ahead of myself. First, a bit about our hotel (not that we saw that much of it!) We stayed in the Grand Raddus, which was fine for our needs but which I see these days gets very poor reviews. On VT I wrote:

‘This is a comfortable small three star hotel in a good location to the south of the city centre. It’s particularly convenient for the airport – a big plus when your flight arrives at 3.30 in the morning, and you need to check in for the departure to Urgench at 6.00 AM the next day! The staff speak some English and are friendly and helpful. There is a pleasant courtyard with a small pool (which we didn’t find the time to try).

Our room wasn’t large but was clean and nicely decorated, although I smiled to see the painting of the sea above the bed in this double land-locked country. We had a TV (didn’t try that either!), safe and should apparently have had a minibar, but unfortunately ours seemed have been removed for repair, which was a shame as it meant we also didn’t get the promised complimentary bottled water. The bathroom was also nice, and well-provided with large (for a 3* hotel) towels, but less so with toiletries, and the shower cubicle would have given anyone larger than us some difficulties as the entrance was very narrow.

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Breakfast room

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Pool

The included buffet breakfast is served in a dining room with plasma screen TV showing Uzbek MUTV (thankfully with no sound!) or if you’re lucky a news channel. We had bread, cheese, cold meats, sausage, eggs, porridge, refreshing apple juice (had to ask for this on the second day as none had been put out), watermelon, dried fruits and nuts, plus instant coffee.

The hotel is just off the main road in a quiet and very safe-feeling residential neighbourhood. We went for a short walk to explore and were greeted with friendly smiles. It was good to get a sense of the styles of housing and way of life here. We also felt very safe walking back from the Caravan Restaurant in the evening, even after dark.’

So that’s all good – but it must have gone seriously downhill since then from all I read, as recent reviews are poor.

After breakfast we set off on our included tour of the city, which took us to several of the main sights, and despite my tiredness from the previous day’s journey I managed to enjoy the tour a lot.

Earthquake Memorial: the Monument of Courage

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The Earthquake Memorial

As I mentioned above, Tashkent was struck by a huge earthquake (7.5 on the Richter scale) on 26th April 1966. Casualties were relatively low for such a catastrophe – the weather was already hot and many people were sleeping in their gardens rather than inside the old houses which were easily destroyed by the force of the quake. But the city itself was devastated – 300,000 were left homeless, and many traditional old buildings, both humble and grand, were destroyed. A massive re-building programme was initiated by the Soviet government, which explains the heavy use of concrete and grandiose style of architecture in much of the city (some old houses do though still remain in the western part).

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The Earthquake Memorial
~ you can see the crack on the left, while Chris, on the right, provides a sense of the scale

This memorial commemorates the bravery of the ordinary people of the city. A granite cube displays the exact time of the first tremor, 5.22 AM, and a dramatic crack runs across the paving to illustrate its effect. Above the crack a man, considerably larger than life, holds up a hand as if to protect his wife and child cowering behind him. Around the area of the monument names commemorating those who died are carved on the wall.

This is a popular place for wedding photos – we arrived just too late to include a wedding party in our pictures (we spotted them leaving), but the bouquet had been left, rather poignantly, on the granite cube.

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The granite cube with the bride's bouquet

Khast Imam Square

On the edge of the old town lies a group of religious buildings, several of them dating originally from the 16th century, though much restored. The complex acts as the religious headquarters for Islam in Uzbekistan and the on-going restoration work when we were here symbolised the country’s revival of interest in and commitment to its faith, though the number of actively practising Muslims was (and I believe still is) quite low.

On the western side is the Barak Khan Madrassah, founded by a descendent of Tamerlaine and decorated with blue mosaic and inscriptions from the Koran. This was our first introduction to the style of architecture that was to dominate our journey along the Silk Road, and although not as impressive as the sights of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, it is still a striking building. It is the administrative centre for the mufti of Uzbekistan, the head of Islam, and as such cannot usually be visited by tourists (although our city guide did ask, and told us that occasionally she is granted permission).

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Curious children in Khast Imam Square
~ the Barak Khan Madrassah is in the background

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Reconstruction work at the Barak Khan Madrassah

Facing the madrassah across the large open space is the Tellya Sheikh Mosque, from the same period, which now acts as the city’s Juma (Friday) mosque. The mosque itself is also out of bounds to tourists.

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The Tellya Sheikh Mosque

The remaining buildings are the Abu Bakr Mohammed Kaffal Shashi Mausoleum, which was built over the grave of a local doctor, philosopher and poet, and on the southern side of the square the former Namazgokh Mosque, a more recent 19th century addition to the complex which now houses the Imam Ismail al-Bukhari Islamic Institute.

Muyi Muborak Library and the Osman Koran

This library, part of the Khast Imam Square complex, houses an important collection of Islamic texts. Muyi Muborak means sacred hair', a reference to a holy relic held here: a hair which is said to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad himself.

According to the Lonely Planet guidebook at the time, only male tourists were allowed in to the collection, but to my delight we found that information to be out of date, at least in respect of the star attraction. A room has recently been specially restored to display this, the Osman Koran, which is considered to be the oldest extant Koran in the world, written on deerskin.

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The replica of the Osman Koran
in Bukhara Ark

Said to date from 655 (although this has been challenged by experts who put it as more likely from the 8th or 9th century) and stained with the blood of murdered caliph Osman, it was brought by Tamerlaine to Samarkand and displayed on the huge stone lectern in the Bibi Khanum Mosque there (which we were to visit later in the trip). It was seized by the Russians and taken to Saint Petersburg but returned to Uzbekistan after the Russian Revolution and since 1989 has been housed in this library. It now takes centre stage in this small room, displayed in a glass cabinet on a raised platform. To view it you must remove your shoes, and photography is strictly forbidden. But there is a replica in the Ark in Bukhara, which we also saw later in the trip.

The imam/librarian told us (through our guide as translator) that the Koran had been restored with assistance from experts at the British Library, and that his daughter is now in London studying these techniques. The photography ban supposedly extends to the whole room, so when Chris asked for, and was given, permission to take a picture of the imam he gestured to the door, planning to photograph him in the entrance. However the man was adamant that the picture should be taken inside and with the Koran in its case in the background, as you can see.

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The imam and our guide Natasha in front of the Koran
[taken by Chris]

The imam asked if we could get in touch with his daughter to give her a copy of the photo; I later made email contact with her, hoping to meet up with her in London, but unfortunately she never responded. However, the experience of seeing this wonderful old document was really enhanced for me by meeting and talking to this man so committed to the collection in his care.

Abdul Khasim Madrassah

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Young Koran stand carver at the Abdul Khasim Madrassah

This 19th century madrassah, greatly restored, was founded by a man famous for his ability to recite all of the Koran by heart, Abulkasym Eshon. He was a significant figure in Tashkent’s history, one of a group of prominent people of the city who gathered here in his madrassah to sign a Tashkent-Russian peace agreement in 1865. He funded the education of 150 pupils here every year, was respected as a wise and enlightened man to whom many came for advice.

I’m not sure what such a religious man would make of his seminary’s conversion to a crafts centre and souvenir-shopping destination. But if it’s any consolation to him, many of the objects on sale here are beautiful and the peaceful atmosphere of the courtyard has been retained.

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Painted box

As we were to see later in the trip at the Registan in Samarkand, each of the hajira (students’ cells) houses a different shop, but here the shops mostly double as workshops, so we could enjoy watching the craftsmen at work and could see the skill and techniques that went into creating the objects on sale.

We particularly admired the detailed miniature painting on the small papier maché boxes and bought a couple as gifts for family. They cost $11 for the pair, after haggling (starting price $7 each) – we may have got them even cheaper with more effort but we were very tired from our long journey, and in any case less than £6 for two beautifully hand-painted was enough of a bargain.

Other possibilities here are the traditional carved wooden Koran stands, walking sticks, wooden boxes, embroideries and rugs, musical instruments and silver knives.

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Artist's work-space

Applied Arts Museum

This is a lovely small museum, both for its collections and perhaps even more so for the building that houses it. This was built for a Russian diplomat, Alexandrovich Polovtsev, who so admired the architecture of the region that he had the best craftsmen from all over the country to build his residence.

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Main room and ceramics display at the Applied Arts Museum

The main hall has a decorative mihrab which points in the opposite direction to Mecca as Polovtsev was aiming for decorative, not functioning, Islam. Quotes from Omar Khayyam frame two doorways:
‘The world is a great caravanserai with two doors: one entrance and one exit. Every day new guests come to the caravanserai.’

The hall also has a central pool, while the courtyard has traditional verandas complete with colourful painted and carved columns.

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Courtyard, Applied Arts Museum

The highlights of the collection for me were the beautifully embroidered suzanni which we saw in the first room we entered.

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Suzanni

There is also an extensive collection of ceramics from different parts of the country; this is a good place to appreciate the varied styles and use of colours from each town, though you’ll need a guide to interpret this for you unless you speak sufficient Russian to read the various labels. I also liked the pottery water vessels – many of these get around the Islamic prohibition on living animal images by depicting evidently mythical beasts, or indicating that the animal is dead through slashes to its throat etc.

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Dragon water bottle

I had paid extra to take photos inside, which I found worthwhile. Other people in our group hadn’t bothered to pay and I think a few regretted it.

There were a couple of very good shops here, selling superior local crafts. I bought a beautiful purple silk scarf – dearer than those sold on the street stalls but of superior quality I felt. I am still wearing it regularly twelve years later!

After this it was back to the hotel for a short and much-needed rest.

Caravan Arts Café

This restaurant had been recommended to me by a friend, so I was pleased to discover that it was only about 15 minutes walk away from our hotel. The recommendation turned out to be spot-on (thanks Tom!) and we were very pleased with our evening out, despite being very tired after our long flight the day/night before and our first day’s sightseeing in the Uzbek heat.

We were joined by two others from our group, Sue and Georgina, having got friendly already during the long journey from London (it is these two group members with whom I am still in touch). On arrival we had a choice of sitting inside or out and chose a table in the pretty courtyard. We’d come early, about 6.00 PM (because we were planning on a much-needed early night) – later arrivals who hadn’t reserved a table had to sit inside as the courtyard ones were all taken. The first requirement was for cold beers all round, and we were quickly supplied with glasses of Shimkent, a pleasant-tasting beer from Kazakhstan. Our friendly waiter was very patient as we tried to decide what to eat – this was our first encounter with Uzbek food and despite some research before we went we weren’t at all sure what to order. Eventually we settled on sharing some samsas to start with (small pasties filled with meat or vegetables). Chris then chose a plate of manty (soft pasta-style dumplings filled with mutton and onions, often likened to ravioli but to me more like Chinese dim sum). I went for the stuffed peppers, Sue a Greek salad and Georgina a vegetable curry.

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With Georgina at the Caravan Arts Cafe [taken by Sue]

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Manty

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Vegetable curry

Just one small thing marred our otherwise very pleasant evening, albeit only slightly: our waiter had perhaps been too busy trying to please us with his helpfulness, and had forgotten to write down my order for the peppers, so I ended up eating my main course after the others had finished. Not to worry though – another beer helped pass the time, and when I’d caught up we ordered some desserts. My ‘Eastern sweets’ turned out to be a selection of dried fruits and nuts; we ate a few then packed up the rest to take out (they proved to be just what we needed a few days later on a long drive through the desert).

We walked back through the quiet streets to the hotel, ready for that early night. Tomorrow’s alarm was set for 5.00 AM as we had another plane to catch!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:01 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged food architecture mosque restaurant monument history hotel flight airport shopping city museum crafts uzbekistan tashkent silk_road Comments (13)

A city frozen in time

Uzbekistan day two


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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View of Khiva from the Ark

‘Think, in this battered Caravanserai
Whose doorways are alternate night and day,
How sultan after sultan with his pomp
Abode his hour or two, and went his way.’

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The old town of Khiva, Ichan Kala, is a city frozen in time. The sun-baked clay of its walls encircles a wealth of ancient buildings which, more than any other destination in Uzbekistan, preserve intact the images of the Silk Road.

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Khiva street scene

The city is truly ancient; an historic resting point for caravans since biblical times – there are stories of visits by Shem, son of Noah, and by Mohammed. One legend tells how the latter gave the city its name, when he drank from the well here and exclaimed ‘khiva’, meaning sweet water.

Khiva rose to prominence in the region during the 16th century and for several hundred years was seen as a place of lawlessness where brigands, slave traders, and later spies operated within the seclusion offered by the surrounding desert. One story I loved was that of Robert Jefferson, an eccentric Englishman (why is there always an eccentric Englishman?!) who in the late 19th century rode his bicycle from Catford in South London to Khiva, surviving en route an encounter with Kazakh witches and creating terror among local tribes who viewed his means of transport with horror and suspicion.

For me Khiva proved to be a wonderful place to start our exploration of the Silk Road as it enabled me to get a strong sense of its history and visualise its past. The downside though is that this very intactness, and the thoroughness of the restoration work, meant that it did feel more like a museum or film-set than a living city, lacking the ‘realness’ of Bukhara or Samarkand.

One plus for us was that at that time at least (summer of 2007) it was much less visited than either of these, and in the intense heat of July we found only a small group of French tourists and a few Uzbek family groups exploring the city at the same time as ourselves. It was easy therefore to find myself for a moment or two at least the only person in a sun-baked lane, and to visualise myself back in those days of caravans and sultans.

Getting to Khiva

Khiva is rather a long way from anywhere else on the tourist route in Uzbekistan – a full and dusty day’s drive from Bukhara, for instance. Most tourists do as we did, flying to Urgench from Tashkent and then driving the 35 kilometres to Khiva by bus or taxi.

Our flight on Uzbekistan Airlines left Tashkent’s domestic terminal at 7.00 AM, meaning an early start for the 6.00 AM check-in (no joke when we’d only arrived in the country just over 24 hours earlier and had only 3 hours sleep the previous night!) The one hour flight was in a Tupolev 154 plane, which was very noisy and smelled disconcertingly of petrol. Carry-on luggage was stowed in overhead racks rather than lockers (i.e. without any doors), but somewhat to my amazement stayed in place throughout the flight, including take-off and landing. A small breakfast was served (roll with cheese and apricot jam, a soft drink and pack of salted nuts). There were views of the desert from both sides of the plane but no spectacular scenery that would make one side better than another as far as I could see. The landing was smooth and we were quite impressed with our flight despite the plane’s appearance – until, that is, we got off and saw the fire-truck frantically spraying water into the under-carriage to prevent the overheated tyres from catching fire!

At the airport it was a relatively short drive by bus to Khiva, where we arrived still quite early in the morning – time to check into our hotel, dump our bags, and set out on a walking tour of the city. But first, a few words about our hotel as it was certainly the most interesting of those we stayed in on this trip. And I use the word ‘interesting’ advisedly!

Hotel Khiva Madrassah

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Entrance portal, Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah

I start my comments on our hotel with a disclaimer: we stayed here as I have said in 2007 and I have two friends who have stayed here more recently, one of whom had a great experience and the other who, while not enthusing about the hotel, found only minor shortcomings.

Somewhat controversially, the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah (built by Mohammed Amin Khan in the 1850s), just inside the west gate of the old city, has been converted during its restoration into a hotel, and this is where we stayed.

The controversy concerns whether this use of an ancient Madrassah as a hotel is appropriate. UNESCO say no, and that it should be restored to its original purity, but to be honest I can’t see that happening. Everywhere you go in Uzbekistan the madrassahs are in use for different purposes – museums, bazaars etc. Only a very few are still used as religious seminaries, their original role. For me, this use seems no less appropriate than others, and maybe closer to the spirit of the original than some others. After all, these hajiras, or cells, were designed to be slept in, and the restoration hasn’t resulted in major re-design or destruction of character.

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Our hajira

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The rather basic bathroom

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As for our stay here, I found plusses and minuses to this hotel. One obvious plus is the location, just inside the old city walls. There is a stunning entrance gate (see photo above) which, coupled with the adjoining Kalta Minor, makes this a dramatic and a romantic pace to stay. The thick walls of the cells mean they stay relatively cool in the baking heat of summer, without the need for air-conditioning. The downsides back in 2007, however, included rather primitive plumbing, chipped and grubby-looking tiles in the bathroom, and an erratic water supply: we could get almost nothing from our hot tap, though others in our group did better. This latter however was a downside I can live with in temperatures of almost 50 degrees! More of a concern for me was that the beds felt damp, possibly a natural side-effect of those same thick walls, or possibly simply due to poor airing after laundering.

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Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah - architectural details

Anyway, check-in completed it was time for that tour. This was sensibly divided into two segments, with a break during the hottest part of the day for lunch and a siesta – or at least that was the plan!

Kalta Minor

We started our walk right by the hotel, as the Kalta Minor is attached to the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah. The name means ‘short minaret’ but it was not intended to be a short minaret at all, quite the opposite. It is said that it was commissioned by the khan in 1852 to be the tallest in the Islamic world, but that when he found out that the architect had secretly agreed to build an even taller one for the emir of Bukhara, the khan had him killed by being thrown off the minaret and it was never finished.

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The Kalta Minor

Whatever the truth of this legend, the reality is that this is 26 metres of stunning architecture. Its walls are totally covered with amazing tilework in a shade of rich jade typical of the Khivan style but seen much less in other parts of the country, and with bands of other shades that serve merely to make the jade look even more vibrant. As the sun moved around during the day I noticed that the colours shifted, and at night it was wonderfully illuminated.

Khiva’s city walls

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The Western Gate

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Khiva's walls

From the Kalta Minor we headed back to the entrance to the city through which we had come on our arrival an hour or so beforehand, the West Gate or Father Gate, Ota Darvoza. The old city of Khiva, Ichan Kala, is surrounded by ochre-coloured walls of sun-baked clay which form an effective barrier between the present-day world outside and the magical recreation of the past within. These walls change in appearance with the light at different times of day, and look at their best in the early morning or evening, when the clay glows warmly. At times they reminded me of the classic seaside sandcastle!

The walls are 2.2 kilometres in length (so you can see that this old city is not very large), strengthened along that length by forty bastions. They are truly ancient, dating in places from the 5th century. There are four gates, one in the centre of each side; the western gate, Ota Darvoza (meaning Father Gate); the northern, Bakcha Darvoza; the eastern, Palvan Darvoza; and the southern Tash Darvoza (Stone Gate). The first of these, the Ota Darvoza, is where most tourists enter the city, and is the most heavily restored, having been more or less completely rebuilt forty years ago (after having previous been pulled down to allow motor traffic to enter the city, something not now permitted except in a small area to the south of the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah).

I found it interesting to go outside this gate – it jolted me back into the modern world from the film set that is Ichan Kala, and reminded me what real life looks like! Outside the walls was also a good place from which to get a sense of their solidity and structure, although I was to get an even better view shortly from the Kukhna Ark (the photo alongside).

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Outside the walls

Near the gate is a huge statue of Al-Khorezmi. If you’ve always hated algebra, here’s the man to blame! Mukhammad ibn Musa Al-Khorezmi lived about 780-850 AD and was the chief mathematician in an academy of sciences in Baghdad, though he came originally from Khorezm province. He is credited with introducing a decimal-based numbering system in the Arab world, and his name, corrupted by western attempts at pronunciation, gave rise to our word ‘algorithm’. He also wrote what is thought to be possibly the first book introducing the notion of algebra, which he called ‘al-jabr’, an Arabic word which I have found variously translated as ‘filling in’, ‘restoration’ or ‘calculation’. He also excelled in astronomy, producing tables for the movements of the sun, the moon and the five planets known at the time, and geography, reworking Ptolemy's 2nd century Geography and correcting several major miscalculations such as the length of the Mediterranean Sea.

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Statue of Al-Khorezmi

Kukhna Ark

Back inside the gates and a short walk along the main street, Polvon Qori, we came to the impressive Kukhna (also spelled variously as Kunya or Kuhna) Ark or fortress. This was the original residence of the khan, first built on this site in the 12th century by one Ok Shaykh Bobo. It was rebuilt and expanded by Arang Khan in the 17th century, and at the end of the 18th century, Kunya Ark became a ‘city within a city’, separated from Ichan Kala by a high wall. It was restored in the early 19th century.

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Entrance gate, Kukhna Ark

Entering through the old gate with its intricately carved wooden door and twin towers decorated with turquoise tilework, we found ourselves in the main courtyard, with the khan’s summer mosque, and the old mint, now a museum.

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The summer mosque

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Exhibit in the mint, showing how coins were minted

Beyond the first courtyard is another with the beautiful blue iwan of the Kurinish Khana or Throne Room.

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The iwan
- right-hand photo taken by my friend Sue

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Iwan detail

Here the khan would hold his royal audience – on the iwan itself during the summer, and in a yurt set up in the centre of the courtyard in the winter. The decoration of this small space is wonderful, with delicate tilework and ganch (carving in alabaster). Behind the iwan is the room that would originally have housed the throne itself – the one in place today is a replica, as the original is now on display in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

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The replica throne

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The steep steps

In the north western corner of the Kurinish Khana is the entrance to the Ark’s watch tower. For a small additional fee you can climb its 33 steps for a view of the fortress and the city beyond. My photo at the top of this page was taken here, as was the one Chris took of me with a group of Uzbek tourists which I included on my Uzbekistan introduction page.

Be warned though – these are ‘Khivan’ steps, i.e. very tall and steep, and they are very badly lit, so this isn’t a climb for the infirm or nervous. It is worth doing however, though when we went up in the morning the sun was shining from the wrong direction to get the very best views of the city. We planned to return later, but unfortunately the heat got the better of us before we got around to it, and a rest in our hotel room seemed the better option for our remaining free time this afternoon.

Mohammed Rakhin Khan Madrassah

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Window, Mohammed Rakhin Khan Madrassah

Opposite the Kukhna Ark we visited the history museum in this large madrassah. Although I found some of the exhibits tired and frankly dull, it was worth a look for the old photos of Khiva and the camera with which they were taken, and some interesting traditional musical instruments. There are also items of pottery, armour and clothing.

Also on this large square is the city’s jail, or Zindan, with a gruesome display of instruments of torture which is supplemented by graphic images showing them in use. The excellent guidebook I read as background to this trip, ‘Uzbekistan: the Golden Road to Samarkand’ (written by Calum MacLeod & Bradley Mayhew, published by Odyssey) describes some of most unpleasant Khivan forms of justice in some detail, quoting from Arminius Vambery’s ‘Travels in Central Asia’ (1864):

‘To have cast a look upon a thickly-veiled lady sufficed for the offender to be executed by the Redjin according as religion directs. The man is hung and the woman is buried up to the breast in the earth near the gallows, and there stoned to death. As in Khiva there are no stones, they use kesek (hard balls of earth). At the third discharge the poor victim is completely covered with dust, and the body, dripping with blood, is horribly disfigured, and the death which ensues alone puts an end to her torture.’

Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah

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Zoroastrian symbol

Walking back along Polvon Qori we turned south roughly halfway along its length and found ourselves on a smaller and less frequented street which lead us past several madrassahs, a number of which were in use as workshops.

We spotted a number of unusually shaped tiles set in the wall of one madrassah, just by the entrance. Our guide pointed out that this is a Zoroastrian symbol; we saw several such reminders of this ancient religion on our travels and were told that its beliefs have had a strong influence on Uzbek architecture.

We were disappointed not to be able to visit the silk- weaving one, which by the time we arrived had closed for lunch, but we were luckier at the Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah, where a wood-carving school operates. The young boys here were using their school holidays to learn a craft and were mainly engaged in carving the traditional wooden Koran stands that you find in all the tourist souvenir shops here. It would be a good place to buy one of these if you’re looking for one, but we focused instead on getting some photos of the boys as they worked, all of whom were very happy to pose.

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Young woodcarvers, Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah

Lunch break

After visiting the wood-carving school we were free for a few hours to seek some lunch and a break in the shade. Along with some others from our group we headed to the Chaikhana Zarafshan, in a small madrassah near the Museum of Applied Arts, choosing it because it had been recommended by our guide as having good food and air-conditioning; in the July heat even the shade in Khiva had become too much to bear by midday and we needed to cool down somewhere. We weren’t disappointed – we found an attractive large room, friendly service, tasty food and very reasonable prices. We drank a cold beer each in addition to the green tea, shared a couple of salads, some non (bread) and a single shashlik.

After lunch it was officially siesta time – our tour would resume in a couple of hours when it would be a little less hot. The sensible thing to do would have been to retire to the relative cool of our hajira back at the Hotel Khiva Madrassah, or to remain in this cool spot with another beer. But our time in Khiva was so limited that Chris and I decided to brave the burning sun to have a bit of a look around on our own.

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On Polvan Qori, the main street

It proved to be a hot but rewarding hour. As we wandered through the sun-baked streets and lanes, I enjoyed picking out all the details to add variety and atmosphere to my photos. A carved door, an especially beautiful piece of tile work, a small window letting in a shaft of light – all these helped to paint a vivid picture of this gem of a city. And the tranquillity of the side streets in particular made it seem as if nothing has changed here for centuries.

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Sun-baked street in Khiva

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Carved door

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Hats for sale

Even more so did my images of the people add to the story I hoped my photos would tell. As was the case everywhere we went in Uzbekistan, most were very happy to have their pictures taken – friendly shopkeepers, smiling children and Uzbek families visiting the sights.

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Shop-keeper

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Young tourists happy to pose

In several spots in the old town we saw these ‘photo opportunities’, where tourists could dress up in traditional costume and pose in elaborate settings. It was far too hot though for us to want to put on layers of heavy clothing or thick furry hats, even if we’d wanted to pay for the privilege of looking a bit silly! There was also a place where you could be photographed with a camel (who was called Misha according to my guidebook) but I’m fond of camels and it didn’t seem to me that he was very happy with his lot so I kept away in order not to encourage this practice.

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Khivan photo opportunity (by Chris)

The Juma Mosque

We knew we were going to be visiting Khiva’s old Friday mosque later when our walking tour recommenced, but we had been told by our guide that if we wanted to, we could also visit alone this afternoon, and that if we gave her name at the entrance we could avoid paying an entrance fee as those looking after the mosque would know that our fee has been paid already. This proved to be the case, and I was very grateful for her advice, as it meant that we could soak up the special atmosphere of this unique building when it was almost empty (there was just one other visitor here) before later returning with the group to benefit from the guide’s expert knowledge and interpretation of what we were seeing.

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In the Juma Mosque

I found this a magical space, unlike any other building I saw in Uzbekistan (or have seen anywhere, though others in the group who’d travelled in Turkey said they’d visited similar mosques there). It is almost completely unadorned, apart from the small mihrab (niche) and central pool, but derives its special atmosphere from the forest of wooden pillars that support its roof. I use the word ‘forest’ with care, for that is exactly the sensation I had – of being in a small forest or wood, the light diffused and filtered by the trees, and the possibility of magic just around the corner. What must it have been like to have worshipped here in the days when it was the main Friday mosque of the city? And in fact there are trees, two of them, growing up through the building almost organically, as if it is slowly returning to the nature that provided the wood for all those other stately columns.

Leaving the mosque we went to see if the silk carpet weaving workshop had reopened but it hadn’t although we were able to get some photos in the courtyard outside.

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In the courtyard outside the carpet workshop

At this point the heat defeated us, and we returned to the hotel for a much-needed rest and cold drink.

Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum

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The Pokhlaven Mahmood Mausoleum

When our tour resumed later in the afternoon, our first stop was here, the holiest spot in all of Khiva, the tomb of its patron saint known variously as Palvan Pir the wrestler saint, Pirar Vali the Persian poet, Mahmoud the furrier. This hero of local folklore died in 1325, and a small mausoleum was built on the site of his furrier shop which later grew to become the imposing and beautiful structure we can see here today.

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Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum: entrance to the mosque

We entered through a gate on the south side to find ourselves in a smallish courtyard with the main mosque on the far side. We were surrounded by colour – an intense blue that mimics the Khivan sky. We took off our shoes to enter the mosque – unlike many of the decommissioned mosques we visited on our travels in Uzbekistan, this is a holy place. There were several sarcophagi in the first room we came to but the tomb of Pakhlavan Mahmoud is in a separate room, beautifully decorated and protected by a screen.

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The tomb

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In the Pokhlaven Mahmood Mausoleum

Another room on the west side of the courtyard was intended to hold the tomb of one of the khans, Isfandyer, but he was assassinated outside the city walls so by local law couldn’t be buried within them. His son suffered a similar fate, so only his mother lies here out of the three for whom it was originally constructed. The room was in a poor state of repair, so we couldn’t enter, but peering in gave me a sense of what the restorers of Khiva (and elsewhere in the country) had rescued for us to appreciate today. I wonder if this room too has since been restored?

From outside the complex, especially from the street that skirts its eastern edge, we could see the large number of small tombs scattered around it. People believed that to be buried close to a holy man was to buried closer to heaven, so many holy sites are surrounded in this way (the Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand, which we were to visit a few days later, is another good example).

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The Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum, surrounded by other tombs

Islam Khodja Minaret & Madrassah

Almost everywhere we went in Khiva we could see the tall slim Islam Khodja minaret, its more subtle bands of colour and elegant shape the perfect foil for the squat and spectacularly coloured Kalta Minor. At nearly 45 metres, and dating from 1910, this is by far the youngest, as well as the tallest, of the city’s three minarets, and affords a wonderful view for those who have the stamina to climb it. I regret to say that, in 45 degrees of heat, I was not among them!

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The Islam Khodja Minaret

The madrassah that bears the same name was home then (it has since moved I believe) to the Museum of Applied Arts, which I found to be the most interesting by far of Khiva’s small museums. The route led us from one small hajira to the next to see a diverse collection of costume (some of them with really stunning embroidery work), ceramics, wood carving etc.

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Mosaics in the Applied Arts Museum

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Colourful shop near the Applied Arts Museum

Juma Mosque: group visit

As expected, our tour took in the Juma Mosque which we had already visited earlier in the afternoon, but I was happy to have the chance to return to this magical space and learn more about it.

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In the Juma Mosque

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Column details

We were told that while the mosque was built in the late 18th century (rebuilding the 10th century one which stood on this site), some of its 213 columns are truly ancient. The four oldest were taken from an earlier building in Kath (the one-time capital of Khorezm) in the 10th century, and another seventeen are only 100 years younger. On the other hand, a few are very new, replacing older ones during the restoration process in the latter half of the 20th century. And in accordance with Islamic beliefs, the carving on each is different – only God should be allowed the perfection of symmetry.

Tash Hauli Palace

Towards the eastern end of the old town lies the Tash Hauli, or Stone, Palace, the final stop on our walk through the past. We entered through the imposing stone gatehouse to visit the impressive reception courtyard, the Ishrat Hauli, its walls covered with beautiful blue and white tile work, and a raised platform at its centre for the yurt that would have sheltered the khan and his royal guests in winter months. This courtyard is apparently now used for occasional musical performances and we saw some of the performers relaxing there and posing for photos.

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In the Ishrat Hauli

To see the even more impressive harem courtyard it was necessary to leave the palace and re-enter on the far side as the secret corridor linking it to the main complex (to be used only by the khan) was currently closed off. This harem court, lying somnolent in the hot sun, is redolent of past intrigue and a very different world. Standing at its centre I tried to imagine what life must have been like for these women: sheltered totally from the world, given all the basic necessities of life apart from one – the freedom to leave. And of course, there only to ‘serve’ the khan. In the oppressive heat of a July afternoon it was easy to feel as they must have done, enclosed and stifled.

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The harem court

The rooms to our right as we entered the courtyard (on its the northern side) are those that would have been occupied by these women (or more likely girls), while the more luxurious ones on the left were for the khan’s four legal wives. There would also have been a couple of servants here to look after the girls: an old woman and a eunuch. We climbed the short flight of stairs to the balcony of the girls’ quarter to get a closer look at the beautifully decorated ceilings of the rooms and a bird’s eye view of the courtyard.

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Colourful ceiling

This was as I said our last visit of the afternoon, and after it we walked back to the hotel to cool off over a soft drink in the courtyard with some others from our group, before getting ready for dinner.

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The 'bar' in the Hotel Khiva Madrassah

Mizorboshi B&B restaurant

There aren’t (or at least weren’t back then) a lot of restaurants in Khiva, but it was possible by booking in advance to arrange to have dinner at one of the several homes in the old city which provided bed & breakfast. Most of our group adopted our guide Marat’s suggestion to do this at the Mizorboshi B&B and we had a very pleasant evening here.

We ate in the courtyard of this old house, still a little hot even at 7.00 pm but generally a relaxing place to sit, and were well served by the son and daughter of the family. We started with non and a good variety of salads – as well as the ubiquitous tomato and cucumber, and eggplant, there were slices of fried courgette and a juicy beetroot dish. These were followed by a plate of mixed stuffed vegetables – cabbage, courgette and green pepper, each filled with the standard mutton and onion mix (though the one vegetarian in our group was catered for with a suitable alternative). As one of our number had a birthday that day, the family provided a cake, complete with candles, for our dessert.

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Table set for dinner

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Stuffed vegetables

We had a rather nice encounter after the meal too. The teenage son who’d served us at dinner came running after us when we left. We thought maybe we hadn’t paid enough for our meal, but no – he had overheard us talking about football and was keen to spend some time chatting to us about his favourite European teams and practising his English (which was already very good). The conversation finished with an exchange of email addresses so we could continue the football chat after our return home!

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The Kalta Minor at night

We then continued our walk back to the hotel, finding that strolling the streets after dark in an atmosphere so redolent of past wonders was a special pleasure, making our overnight stay here far more rewarding than visiting on a day trip from nearby Urgench, even if it did mean sleeping on slight damp mattresses!

But before that we needed a night-cap, and found one in the 'bar' in the courtyard of the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah / hotel which was totally in keeping with the special night-time atmosphere here. There was no menu; instead the choice of drinks was set out on a low wall (soft drinks, beer, wine or vodka - see photo above taken earlier in the day) and were retrieved from the cool of the room below by a willing ‘bar tender’. We sat then in the cool of this pretty courtyard, surrounded by the old stones and cells of the madrassah, with the stars overhead and little in the way of noise or bustle to disturb our tranquillity.

Posted by ToonSarah 04:09 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged buildings architecture mosque restaurant history hotel fort flight palace city museum crafts uzbekistan khiva street_photography Comments (8)

The beauty of the spirit

Uzbekistan day four


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

A traditional saying tells us that:
‘Samarkand is the beauty of the earth, but Bukhara is the beauty of the spirit’
and another that:
‘In all other parts of the globe light descends upon the earth, from holy Bukhara it ascends’

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Bolo Hauz Mosque

Certainly, this is where Uzbekistan really came to life for me. In the ancient streets of Bukhara history weaves itself effortlessly around the present-day lives of its people. Here you get a real sense of continuity – the world of the Silk Road caravans isn’t preserved in the aspic of Khiva, nor tucked into islands among the modern-day bustle of Samarkand, but is an ever-present backdrop to daily life. To walk these streets, duck through the low arches of the caravanserai and trading domes, sit for a while over green tea by the pool of Lyab-i-Huaz; this is what people of this city have done for centuries.

We had a very full day here, sightseeing mainly with our group but also exploring a little bit on our own. I would have welcomed a second day, in order to go back to some of the most interesting sights and also simply to wander the streets or sit for a while in a Lyab-i-Hauz chaikhana to absorb the special atmosphere which for me was one of the main highlights of Bukhara.

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The breakfast room at the Hotel Mosque Baland

Our day started with breakfast which was served in the same lovely room where we had enjoyed tea and cake the previous evening. Unfortunately, I was suffering a little with ‘Uzbek tummy’, although not as badly as some travelling companions had done or were doing. I was very careful about what I ate and felt well enough to go out on the tour. In fact, my stomach settled pretty quickly once we were out and about, and I snacked on some bread saved from breakfast an hour or so later!

Ismael Samani Mausoleum

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The Ishmail Somani Mausoleum from Pioneer Park

The first stop on our tour was at this striking small mausoleum set in a park to the west of the old town – striking because of its simplicity and perfect symmetry. Built at the beginning of the tenth century, it is the first known example of the use of fired bricks in Central Asia. And these bricks are used to stunning advantage, to produce eighteen different types of decorative effect. The patterns of light and shade thus created are the building’s only adornment – there is no sign here of the rich colourful tile-work seen elsewhere in the country.

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The Ismael Samani Mausoleum

The design of the mausoleum is strongly influenced by Zoroastrianism, a religion which was practiced in this part of the world before the days of Islam, and also by the mathematical discoveries of al-Khorezmi, whose story is told in my Khiva entry. Its almost two-metre thick walls form a 10.8 metre cube with identical sides, topped by a small dome. The cube is considered to symbolise the earth, and the dome heaven.

The mausoleum was built originally for Ismail Samani’s father but was used also for Samani himself and thus bears his name. A legend tells that he ruled for more than 40 years even after his death, and that even after his death he would still come to the aid of his people when they needed justice. They would come to his mausoleum, pray and put their statements on his tomb. The next day they would receive the answer and their problems would be solved. It seems some people must still believe this legend, because I saw several notes left on the tomb with a small sum of money.

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Inside the Ishmail Somani Mausoleum

Pioneer Park

The Ismael Samani Mausoleum lies in a small park, which we were told was the Pioneer Park but which present-day maps name as Samonids Recreation Park. We had a little time to wander around here. It was still quite early in the day, but it struck me that this is a good place to come if you want to see Bukharans at play.

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Boating in Pioneer Park

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The lake with city walls beyond

There were some slightly scruffy looking children’s fairground rides, which I thought unlikely to have passed a health and safety examination here in the UK! Beyond these was the lake, popular with families and couples already out enjoying the peddle boats, and beyond that we saw a short stretch of the old city walls of Bukhara, dating from the 16th century and now in a poor state of repair though they once stood 10 metres high and 5 metres thick. We were told that the reason for their dilapidated state was that the clay of which they were built was much prized for the medicinal qualities of some of the chemicals it contains.

Bolo Hauz

From the Pioneer Park we drove the short distance to Bolo Hauz, after which our tour would be on foot for the rest of the morning.

Bolo Hauz, the ‘mosque near the pool’, is Bukhara’s Friday mosque and is again being used as such after the years of Soviet rule when it served as a workers’ club and a warehouse, having been restored to its former (1712) glory.

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Bolo Hauz Mosque

The exterior is adorned with a beautiful 12 metre high iwan, one of the highest in Central Asia. The shape of this echoes that of the mosque in the Ark which we were headed to after this, and was designed to form a beautiful reflection in the pool opposite, though on our visit this was sadly too murky to produce the desired effect. The colours are vibrant, and the many wooden pillars are all different, as is usual in Islamic architecture – only God is allowed the perfection that would be created by making them all alike.

The interior is relatively simple, as is usual in Suni mosques, with only the mihrab showing rich colours. Incidentally, the upper part of this mihrab is original. I loved the relative simplicity of the cobweb-like design on the ceiling.

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Inside Bolo Hauz Mosque

I was surprised, but pleased, to find that in Uzbekistan there seem to be no restrictions on entering practising mosques, providing you show respect and remove your shoes. Unlike in other Muslim countries there is no requirement to be especially modest in your dress, and in most places photography is allowed. In return for this welcome, we left a small donation – the state here recognises Islam and allows its practice but doesn’t support it financially, so tourist contributions are important.

The man who had shown us around was keen to pose for us, as was the imam outside as we left.

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In Bolo Hauz Mosque

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Imam outside Bolo Hauz Mosque

The Ark

The Ark or fortress of Bukhara lies immediately east of Bolo Hauz. There has been a fortress on this site for as long as the city of Bukhara has existed, though the one we see now dates largely from the 16th century. It was considerably destroyed in 1920 – at first when attacked during the conquest of Bukhara by the Red Army, under Mikhail Vasilyevich Frunze, and then by fire, burned either by the attacking forces or by the retreating emir. Today, therefore, it consists of a mixture of old elements from various periods and other parts that have been restored fairly recently. At its height it would have housed the emir, his family and servants, and over 3,000 other inhabitants in its palace, harem, treasury, barracks, dungeon and slave quarters.

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Entrance to the Ark

We ascended a stone ramp, which climbs from the empty expanse of the Registan square, and entered through the western gateway, which dates from 1742. From here the dolom, a winding passageway tall enough to allow a man on horseback to enter without dismounting, leads past a row of prison cells and torture chambers, and today’s inevitable tourist souvenir stalls. Climbing up here I found it easy, despite these modern-day trappings, to imagine how hard this fortress would have been to attack, and how this sombre entrance might have struck terror in those who had reason to fear the emir’s power.

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The mosque in the Ark

We emerged by the Ark’s only remaining mosque built at the end 18th century. Although partly ruined, the pillars of rare sycamore are impressive and its shape echoes that of the Bolo Hauz Mosque opposite. It now houses an interesting display of calligraphy. In Tashkent we had seen the ancient Koran displayed in the Tellya Sheikh Mosque, so I was pleased to find here its replica which (unlike the original) can be photographed. On my Tashkent page you can read the story of how Chris came to photograph the original!

A little further into the complex we came to the Throne Room, the kurinesh khana. This is largely ruined, due to the 1920 fire, but you can still see the iwan where coronations took place and the remnants of the impressive tilework on the gate.

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The throne room

A number of museums are to be found in the different buildings that still stand within the Ark, including a good local history museum and a very unremarkable (unless you like moth-eaten stuffed animals!) natural history one. In the main courtyard were stables for the horses – apparently when the horses and their stalls were washed down each day the dirty water was swept down the slope of the courtyard and down into the prison cells directly below. Also off this courtyard is the viewing platform that the women of the emir’s court would use to look out over the Registan below without themselves being seen.

And why would they want to look out over the Registan? This once-great square which surrounded the Ark was the heart and soul of Bukhara. pokes led out from the Registan to the four corners of the globe and a seething mass of hawkers, barbers, beggars, butchers, bakers, dervishes and courtiers thronged the bustling square.

In this vast square, under the emir’s reign, tortures and executions would be carried out, and, under the Soviets, mass rallies took place. In those earlier days of executions and flogging the Registan would have looked more like that in Samarkand, surrounded by madrassahs and mosques. All these were cleared away by the Soviets to create the wide-open space we see now, where until 1992 a statue of Lenin took pride of place.

My guidebook described the present-day Registan as ‘leafy’ and an ‘island of green’ but what we saw was anything but – an empty paved expanse baking in the hot sun and crossed swiftly by women shaded by colourful parasols and tourists eager to reach the shade of the Ark’s great gateway.

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The walls of the Ark from the Registan

This is a place though in which to pause and remember all those who were tortured and executed – the dark side to Bukhara’s beauty. The British pair of Connolly and Stoddart for instance, whose lack of deference (as exhibited by not dismounting in his presence and offering too few expensive gifts) offended the emir. After years of suffering in the nearby gaol, the Zindan, they were finally beheaded in this square, but not before they had been forced to dig their own graves.

Up to this point on our tour I had been suffering a little with the after-effects of my earlier attack of ‘Uzbek tummy’ which maybe explains why I took fewer photos than I would normally do. But as I started to feel better I also started to feel hungry, and as we stood in the shade of the Ark listening to our guide I ate the bread salvaged from breakfast. Revitalised by this I started to take in my surroundings more thoroughly and the spell of Bukhara captivated me.

Just as well, as we had a lot more to see, starting with the nearby Poi Kalon complex

Poi Kalon

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Poi Kalon complex

In terms of scale at least, the Poi Kalon complex is probably the most impressive of Bukhara’s sights. A great Friday mosque and working madrassah face each other across the square, both dwarfed, in height at least, by the elegant 48 metre high minaret.

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The Kalon Minaret

This has stood here since 1127, having survived an onslaught on the city by Ghengis Khan (who was so awed by the minaret he spared it from destruction), attack by a Soviet shell in 1920 and an earthquake in 1976. One reason for its durability is the care that went into its construction: its foundations go down to a depth of 13 metres and the architect devised a special mortar mixed from camel’s milk, egg yolk and bull’s blood!

In addition to its main purpose, namely the call to Friday prayer at the great Kalon Mosque, the minaret has served as a lookout tower in times of war and as a beacon – a ‘lighthouse’ for those ships of the desert, the camel trains. Its darkest purpose though was to serve as a ‘Tower of Death’, when the city’s worst criminals would be led up the 105 steps to the top, tied up in a sack and thrown to their deaths – a form of punishment that persisted here until the mid 19th century and, like the tortures that took place in the Registan square, a graphic reminder that Bukhara, for all its charm, has been for much of its existence a desperate place.

Today the minaret has been restored (the aforementioned Soviet shell had clipped one corner) and stands almost as a symbol of the city. It is decorated quite simply but beautifully in bands of patterned brickwork. Near the top a ring of turquoise tiles is thought to be probably the first use of coloured majolica tilework in the region. It is possible to climb the tower on payment of a small fee inside the mosque, and I rather regret that we didn’t have time to do this (like so many other things in Bukhara), although the heat would have made it a daunting climb perhaps.

Kalon Mosque

This is the largest mosque in Uzbekistan, and the second largest in central Asia with a capacity in its huge courtyard for up to 12,000 worshippers. Unlike its minaret, the 8th century original was destroyed by Ghengis Khan on his invasion of Bukhara in 1219, when he stood on this spot to order that the pages of the Quran be trampled beneath the feet of his horses and the whole of Bukhara (with the exception only of the Kalon Minar) be destroyed.

This present-day building then dates ‘only’ from 1514. When completed it could hold 10,000 worshippers, the entire male population of the city at the time. Although it is a working mosque, visitors are welcome, for a small charge (and an additional fee if you wish to take photos which you will!)

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Entrance to the Poi Kalon courtyard

We entered through the magnificent portal, passed through a cool lobby area and emerged into the bright light and heat of the huge central courtyard.

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The courtyard

On the four sides of the courtyard are colonnades of arches and in the centre of each a further portal allows entry to the cool stone interior with its rows of stone columns and vaulted ceilings that reminded us of a western cathedral. As in Khiva’s mosque, a sense of tranquillity and isolation from the bustle of the city pervades these walls.

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In the mosque
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Looking out from the colonnades

Back in the courtyard, our guide pointed out the central octagonal pavilion, a 19th century addition designed to improve the acoustics and amplify the voice of the Imam as he delivers his Friday sermon.

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Octagonal pavilion, with entrance to courtyard beyond

Above the mihrab in the western section is the beautiful turquoise dome, the Kok Gumbaz. An inscription around its base reads ‘Immortality belongs to Allah’.

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The dome of the mosque

Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

Immediately opposite the Kalon Mosque, and with it and its minaret forming the complex known collectively as Poi Kalon or ‘Pedestal of the Great’, lies a madrassah. This was then (2007), and is still as far as I know, one of only three working madrassah in the country – a religious seminary in a country only just rediscovering its Islamic roots after years of Soviet secularism.

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Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

The building dates from the mid 16th century and has been in use for most of that time, only closing from 1925-1946 under the Soviets, who in the later part of their rule reopened it as a concession to the region. Today roughly 125 students live and study here, so the madrassah is firmly closed to tourists. You are however permitted to step just inside the impressive portal and may catch a glimpse of the working life of the seminary as we did; my photo shows students in the courtyard who appeared to be taking time off from their studies to clean rugs spread out on the paving stones.

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Peeking into Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

But even if this peek inside is denied you, the madrassah repays your visit with its beautiful façade (best seen in the late afternoon so my morning photo doesn’t really do it justice) and the rich jade of its twin domes.

Carpet weaving shop

Crossing the road from the Poi Kalon complex we visited this UNESCO-sponsored carpet weaving shop. Although we weren’t interested in buying, I found this a worthwhile visit. We were welcomed with green tea and given an explanation of the techniques used in creating the beautiful silk carpets and also the traditional suzanni made and sold here. We were told how a girl would include different motifs in the design of her embroideries to give prospective suitors an indication of her character, such as a snake for cleverness.

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Carpet weaver

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Weaving technique

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Silks for carpet making

No one minded us taking photos, and as a bonus there were clean toilets for visitors’ use – not something to be taken for granted in Uzbekistan!

Ulug Beg Madrassah

Bukhara has two sets of what are known as kosh madrassah, a facing pair of madrassahs (kosh means double). The pair we visited was that on the northern edge of the old town (the other is in the west near the Ismael Samani Mausoleum) where they face each other across Khodja Nurobod Street.

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The Ulug Beg Madrassah

On the north side of the street is the Ulug Beg Madrassah, the older of the two by over 200 years. It is a Sunni madrassah (unlike its Shia companion) and was built in 1417, one of three in the country to be commissioned by Ulug Beg (the others are at the Registan in Samarkand and in Gijduvan to the east of Bukhara). The rich blue of its tilework, although incomplete, includes a scattering of stars to reflect the ruler’s passion for astronomy, and a beautiful twisted rope design framing the arch.

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At the Ulug Beg Madrassah

Inside, in the mosque to the right of the entrance, is a small museum devoted to the story of restoration work in Bukhara. I was interested to see some old photos showing the Kalon Minaret before restoration, with its top damaged by the Soviet shell, as well as several good examples of original tilework.

Abdul Aziz Madrassah

Opposite the Ulug Beg Madrassah on the south side of the road is the newer Abdul Aziz Madrassah (built in 1652). Unfortunately (perhaps because of the poor light) I don’t appear to have taken any photos of its exterior, which is unrestored but shows clearly the use of different colours in addition to the usual blues and greens, such as yellows introduced to this region by the Iranians.

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Ceiling of the mosque in Abdul Aziz Madrassah

Another departure from the usual practice is the use of floral motifs, especially in the mosque, as my photo of its ceiling shows. This is a Shia madrassah and the ban on images of living creatures was not so strictly observed as it would usually be in a Sunni building. This mosque, on the right-hand side as you enter, is the chief attraction here as its decoration is quite breath-taking, but you can also visit a first floor room on the far right-hand side of the courtyard which shows more intricate floral patterns and the traditional Uzbek niche decorations.

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Detail of frieze in a first floor room, Abdul Aziz Madrassah

The trading domes

More than any other sight or historical building, it was seeing and learning about the trading domes that brought ancient Bukhara to life for me. At the height of its powers as a centre of trade, Bukhara had five great bazaars or toks. These vaulted stone buildings straddled the intersections of the various trading routes that converged on the city. Their great arched entrances were high enough to allow a laden pack camel to enter, and each was devoted to a particular trade.

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The Tok-i-Zargaron

The Tok-i-Zargaron, or Jewellers’ Trading Dome, is the largest and most northerly of the three that remain. The building dates from 1570 and was the centre for the trade in gold and other precious metals, gems and coral. Nowadays, like the other two bazaars to the south, it houses a number of stalls selling tourist souvenirs; nevertheless it isn’t difficult to imagine it in the days when merchants haggled here and deals were struck, while camels and donkeys waited patiently as their heavy bundles were unloaded.

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The domes of the Tok-i-Zargaron

Seen from a distance you can appreciate the complexity of the arrangement of domes that makes up this building, with the large central one surrounded by many smaller ones, as though they had been breeding!

Among the souvenir stalls we found a wonderful stall selling spices and herbs. The smell that wafted towards us as we approached was truly enticing, and the display a photographer’s, and cook’s, delight! We were offered what the owner, Mirfayz, described as ‘magic tea’ to taste, and it was so delicious we bought some – two large bags in fact. The tea was made from six spices: cardamom, cloves, oregano, star anise, mint, and cinnamon. When brewing it himself Mirfayz told us that he always adds a little saffron, as he had to ours. What a wonderful, reviving drink in that heat!

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Saffron at the Silk Road Spices stall in the Tok-i-Zargaron

To the south of the Tok-i-Zargaron lies the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon or Cap Makers’ Bazaar. This is of a more complex construction than the others as it straddles not a simple crossroads but a meeting of five routes. Its irregular corners and arches once sheltered stalls displaying the various styles of headgear favoured here – gold-embroidered hats, colourful skull caps, fur hats for the cold desert winters. Now like its neighbours to the north and south it houses craft and souvenir stalls.

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In the the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon

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Scissors shaped like a stork

There are also several blacksmiths’ workshops and stalls, selling the traditional Bukharan scissors in the shape of a stork. Not all are of the quality of those sold in the Museum of the Blacksmith’s Art, just to the south of the bazaar, but the prices are lower and haggling encouraged, so we returned later to buy a pair as a gift for Chris’s father who had set up a sort of mini-museum displaying various objects we had bought him or acquired on our travels. After my in-laws died these scissors were one of the objects we kept from their house and they now hang in our kitchen among many other souvenirs from all over the world.

Just north of the entrance to the bazaar was a smithy. The blacksmith was working outside on his anvil and happy to pose for photos.

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The blacksmith

The Tok-i-Sarrafon or Money Changers’ Bazaar, is the smallest and most southerly of the remaining great trading domes. We didn’t visit this on our tour, but Chris and I had seen and photographed it the previous evening without realising its significance. As the name suggests, this bazaar was home to the Punjabi money-changers, whose activities were critical to the trade of Bukhara. Here traders from many lands would exchange their money for the bronze pul, silver tenge and gold tilla that made up the currency in use here. Also here would have been the stalls of the money-lenders, no doubt no less essential to Bukhara’s success as a centre of trade.

Magok-i-Attari Mosque

Walking towards Lyab-i-Hauz we passed the Magok-i-Attari Mosque, which I had also photographed last night. There has been a place of worship on this site for 2,000 years. Today’s mosque was built in the 12th century on top of a Zoroastrian temple, which in turn had been built on a Buddhist monastery and that on a heathen shrine.

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Magok-i-Attari Mosque

My photo shows the main southern portal, rich in elaborate brickwork but with touches too of other decorative styles – carved turquoise tiles still cling to the arch and either side are panels of ornate ganch. This portal, still used as the main entrance, dates back to the original 12th century building, while the eastern façade was added in the 16th century and the two small domes restored in the 20th following their collapse in an earthquake a century earlier. Nowadays the mosque serves as a carpet museum, which we didn’t have time to visit unfortunately.

By the time we reached the pool it was lunch-time. It had been a long morning and we were ready for a break, as no doubt are you! So I will continue this tour on a separate page, after lunch ...

Posted by ToonSarah 18:11 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged buildings architecture mosque history fort market shopping city spices crafts bukhara Comments (22)

‘The spine of the earth is about to crumble’

Uzbekistan day eight


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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The great dome of the Bibi Khanum northern mosque

Today was our last day in Uzbekistan, and like yesterday we had a morning sightseeing tour with the afternoon free for independent exploration. So after breakfast at the Zarina it was into the bus for the short drive to our first stop.

Bibi Khanum Mosque

This is not one mosque, but three: two fairly normal in size, and the third on a truly grandiose scale. This is Tamerlaine’s great work, his attempt to build a mosque larger and more splendid than the Muslim world had ever seen. But his ambitions here overstretched the capabilities of his craftsmen, and the mosque was doomed almost from the start, though not from want of effort. He employed the very best slaves and workers, imported 95 elephants from India to haul the wagons and, when he judged the portal too low, had it pulled down and ordered it to be rebuilt. He himself superintended the work, coming to the site each day in his litter, and arranging for meat to be thrown down to the men digging the foundations rather than have them stop working for a moment.

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The entrance portal

The result was a mosque of never-before seen proportions – a portal over 35 metres tall leads to a huge courtyard, which was originally surrounded by a gallery of 400 cupolas supported by 400 marble columns. The main mosque on the eastern side has a portal of over 40 metres, and all was adorned with the most ornate tilework, carvings, gildings etc.

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In the main mosque

But this splendour wasn’t to last. Almost from the first day it was in use, the mosque began to crumble, putting worshippers in peril. No one seems to know for certain why this was – maybe the building was simply too ambitious for the technologies of the day. Whatever the reason, this is one ancient structure that has so far defied the attempts of modern builders to restore it properly. Thus when I went inside I was taken aback to see not the beautifully restored interior I’d come to expect by this point in our travels but a semi-ruin held together with great iron bolts. Weirdly though, this seemed to me to emphasise, even more than if it had been restored, the great scale of this monument to Tamerlaine’s ambitions.

Back outside in the courtyard we saw the huge marble Koran stand, designed to hold the Osman Koran we had seen on display in Tashkent.

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The Koran stand

An artist was painting quietly in the centre of the courtyard, his paintings arranged around the great marble Koran stand. These were mostly very detailed watercolours of some of the exquisite tilework on Samarkand’s mosques and other monuments. We watched him at work for a while, then checked out the paintings more carefully.

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Artist at work

The work was very fine, and the prices incredibly reasonable, so it was an easy decision to buy one, though a much harder one to choose which it should be. In the end we selected one that we liked, of an entrance surrounded by blue and green mosaic. For this original watercolour measuring about 15 by 20 cms we paid just $7 – what a bargain, and what a lovely souvenir of our visit to the mosque. It now hangs just by our front door and reminds me daily of the wonders of Uzbekistan’s architecture.

The Bazaar

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In Samarkand Bazaar

Next to the Bibi Khanum Mosque is a bazaar/market, and this provided us with complete contrast to, and respite from, Samarkand’s wealth of blue-tiled splendour. This isn’t, or at least wasn’t back in 2007, a tourist attraction (though tourists do visit) but a real slice of the daily life of this city. People flock here to sell and buy local produce of all kinds – fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices, meat and more.

And of course, as this is Uzbekistan, we saw bread in a huge variety of designs – even some decorated with coloured sweets, intended for celebrations and parties. Bread, known as non, holds a special place in Uzbek society. Every region, and indeed every baker, has its own distinctive style, from the flaky pastry-like offerings we had enjoyed in Bukhara to the elaborately decorated loaves in the market here. Patterns are created by stamping the unbaked loaves (you can buy the stamps in many souvenir shops in Bukhara for instance) and the bread is then baked in a traditional tandoor oven – the loaves are slapped onto the walls of the oven, and when they drop off they are ready to eat.

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Decorated non

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Rounds of non

The loaf commands great respect. It should never be served or placed upside down on the table, and if dropped on the ground should be picked up and kissed. Traditionally, when a son left home to fight or to seek his fortune, he would take a bite from a loaf that would then be kept, hung on display in the house, to await his safe return.

Also on sale in the market we saw brooms, caps and other necessities, but it was fresh produce that dominated. There was a separate area for the sale of each, so we walked past stall after stall selling nothing but onions, potatoes, or heaps of fresh herbs. In the spice section we encountered the most enticing smells while in the sections for bread or dried fruits we were offered tempting samples.

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On sale in the market

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Traditional brooms

And of course, as this is Uzbekistan, everywhere we wandered people were eager to greet us, to pose for photos and press treats upon us. In fact the willingness to pose became a bit of a problem – it made it hard for me to capture natural shots of people going about their daily business, not because they didn’t want me to, but because as soon as I raised the camera they would break off from their sale or their conversation to smile at me rather stiffly.

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Market traders

This is also a good place to observe local customs in dress and personal adornment. Gold teeth are very popular here – they are considered a sign of wealth and people will often have healthy teeth replaced if they can afford to, rather than wait for the teeth to go bad and give them problems later. Another striking difference from what we in the UK consider beautiful is the custom of the women of some ethnic groups to draw in the space between their eyebrows to create a single line, as the woman in my photograph on the left below has done.

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More market traders

For me it’s as much a part of travel to learn about these cultural differences as it is to see the great monuments, and a market is always a great place to start!

The Registan

But now it was time at last to properly explore the most famous sight in Samarkand (indeed, probably in Uzbekistan) – the Registan. So far we had simply looked at the three madrasahs which surround the square from the road, as it’s necessary to pay to enter the square, so today was our first close-up look.

Ulug Beg Madrassah

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The Ulug Beg Madrassah

When Ulug Beg demolished the trading domes of his grandfather Tamerlane’s square, where previously public executions had taken place and royal decrees proclaimed, he changed the emphasis of the Registan from earthly power to heavenly. The first building erected here was the madrassah which bears his name. Built between 1417 and 1420, the Ulug Beg Madrassah has an ornate pishtak (portal) 35 metres high, which is decorated in rich blues and other colours – I found that there was more variety to the colours here in Samarkand than in the other cities on the Silk Road.

Above the main arch is a cluster of stars, reflecting its founder’s passion for astronomy. A Kulfic inscription reads:
This magnificent façade is of such a height it is twice the heavens, and of such a weight that the spine of the earth is about to crumble’.

Either side of this portal are minarets of roughly the same height and framing it perfectly.

The portal leads to a square courtyard lined with 50 hujira, the former students’ cells, which were (like the portal and minarets) largely restored in the mid 1990s and are decorated with the same rich colours – blue, green, gold. They are now, inevitably, devoted to craft and souvenir shops with products of varied quality. One sold cold drinks which were very welcome on this hot day.

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In the Ulug Beg Madrassah

In the NW corner of the courtyard an entrance passage lead us to a small mosque, now used as an art gallery. We enjoyed this – some of the items (both paintings and ceramics) were of a high quality and there was plenty of variety in the styles from traditional to very modern.

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Ulug Beg's classroom

A room opening off this one is known as Ulug Beg’s classroom. This apparently is where he would teach astronomy to the students of the madrassah, seated (unusually for that place and time) on a throne-like chair rather than the floor. The room was cordoned off, so we could peer inside but not enter (or so we were told – when we returned later we did see a small group in there but were prevented from entering ourselves – I suspect that money had changed hands!)

Shir Dor Madrassah

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The Shir Dor Madrassah

Two hundred years after the construction of the Ulug Beg Madrassah, the then ruler of Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodur, decided to complete the ensemble with two further buildings. The first of these to be completed was the Shir Dor Madrassah, which sits directly opposite the Ulug Beg Madrassah and is almost a mirror image in terms of size and basic shape, though very different in its decoration.

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Dome and minaret, Shir Dor Madrassah

Interestingly, it obeys some of the rules of Islamic design, while flouting others. So despite being identical in size and shape to its older ‘reflection’, it follows Koranic law in avoiding symmetry. However, like the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah in Bukhara, this one deviates from normal Islamic practice in having representations of living creatures as part of its decoration. The two golden lions that give the madrassah its name (Shir Dor means ‘lion bearing’ chase two white does across the arch. Striped (and thus looking more like tigers), they each bear a sun on their backs, showing the influence of Zoroastrianism. For me this was one of my abiding images of Uzbekistan.

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Golden lions on the Shir Dor Madrassah

The inscription on this portal reads: ‘The skilled acrobat of thought climbing the rope of imagination will never reach the summits of its forbidden minarets.’

Passing through it you find yourself in another hujira-lined courtyard, though less thoroughly restored than that in the Ulug Beg Madrassah. One of these cells houses a shop selling traditional Uzbek musical instruments where the owner had arranged a few rows of chairs in the small space. When enough visitors had gathered (and our group constituted ‘enough’) he gave a demonstration of the various traditional instruments in his collection. These ranged from some simple two stringed ones (which reminded me very much in sound and style of those we heard on a trip to China) to a banjo-style one, Uzbek tambourine and a flute.

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Traditional musical instrument demonstration

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Lute-style Uzbek instrument

Another cell was decorated as a typical Uzbek room with various pieces of furniture and some traditional costumes, supposedly in the style a newly-wed couple might adopt.

Tillya Kari Madrassah

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The Tillya Kari Madrassah

Ten years after the Shir Dor Madrassah was completed the third side of the Registan was filled in by the addition of the Tillya Kari Madrassah. This building is of a similar height but noticeably wider than its neighbours to either side; it was obviously thought more important to give the square harmony and balance than to follow normal practice in madrassah design. Thus the pishtak here is flanked by two-storied rows of hujira facing out onto the square in addition to the single story row which lines the interior courtyard.

Above the western side of this courtyard a stunningly turquoise dome announces the presence beneath it of the city’s main mosque (built to replace an already-ruined Bibi Khanum).

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The dome of the Tillya Kari Madrassah

The mosque has been restored and is full of the most ornate decoration, covered in the gold leaf that gives the madrassah its name (Tillya Kari = gilded). The ceiling is particularly striking – it is almost flat but the trompe l’oeil effect had me believing that I was looking up into a great dome. The mihrab is similarly gilded. A small museum set up in a side room of the mosque shows pieces of ceramic and terracotta from the restoration work and some fascinating ‘before and after’ photos.

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Inside the 'dome'

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The mihrab

Seeing more of the Registan

Our tour of the Registan brought to an end our official sightseeing in Samarkand. We were to leave this evening, but we had most of the afternoon free to explore a bit more, as well as fit in the somewhat less enjoyable task of packing to go home.

Our tickets for the Registan were good for the whole day so after popping back to Labi Gor for a spot of lunch we returned to revisit the Registan’s madrassahs and do a bit of souvenir shopping here.

But before we could start our shopping, we were approached by one of the security guards who offered (for a fee, naturally) to let us climb one of the minarets of the Ulug Beg Madrassah. I reluctantly decided that it would be more than I wanted to attempt in that heat, but Chris went ahead, paid the guard 3,000 som (with the transaction conducted in secret inside the building, as this was strictly speaking illegal) and made the climb. He told me it was dark and steep in places, but well worth the effort to get some great shots.

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A shot taken by Chris from the Ulug Beg minaret, and the minaret of the Shir Dor Madrassah, taken by me!

I waited in the square below, taking a few more photos. When Chris returned from his climb, we went back into the Ulug Beg Madrassah to browse the souvenir stalls in the hujira. While these can detract (and distract) considerably from the impact of the madrassah, we found them convenient we could browse several places before making our selections. We quickly found however that most of the items available were much the same from shop to shop, as were the prices. The standard items in almost every shop included suzanni (embroidery, usually wall-hangings or cushion covers), small pottery or ceramic pieces, silk scarves, knives, pictures, rugs, musical instruments, cheap beads etc.

We bought a small mosaic picture which reminded us of a typical Uzbek scene, a pre-restoration photo of the Tillya Kari Madrassah and a simple cushion cover for my mother-in-law, all of which we found in various hujira here.

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One of the shops, and the 'Museum of embroidery'

The best purchase for us though was another cushion cover which I found in a more substantial shop to the left of the entrance, which proclaimed itself a museum of embroidery. Here a young girl was working at a suzanne, and the quality of the work on display was very evidently superior to much that we’d seen elsewhere. Whereas the first cushion cover we bought had large areas of plain cotton unadorned by embroidery, the ones here were completely covered with beautifully worked silk stitches. You can see the one we chose in my photo below, still looking good all these years later on our sofa at home. Of course it wasn’t cheap, and unlike in the cells haggling was not really permitted, although when we asked if the price of $35 was negotiable (polite speak for ‘can we haggle’) we were told no – but he would let us have it for a discount at $30!

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Our cushion cover

A few more photos and it was time to go back to the hotel to pack. Our time in Samarkand, and in Uzbekistan, was coming to an end.

Dinner in a family home

As it was our last evening in Uzbekistan Marat had arranged for as many of us as wanted to (almost all of us) to have a final farewell dinner in a restaurant run in a family home in the city’s suburbs.

This was a lovely occasion. A long table was set for us on a raised balcony in the leafy courtyard of the house, laden with various salads, bread and fruit. After the salads we were served a selection of samsas, which are an Uzbek version of samosas, little pastries filled with meat or vegetables – I particularly liked the spinach one. These were followed by a soup with chickpeas and then a dish I hadn’t had elsewhere: a roll of a pasta-like dough filled with meat, a bit like a large manty. The meal ended with slices of juicy watermelon and cake. To drink we had bottled water and Uzbek wine – I chose some red but found it bizarrely sweet and not to my taste.

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Our group at dinner

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Me with Sue, Georgina and Els

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With Chris and Sue at dinner

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Farewell from our host

The one downside to this otherwise excellent meal was that we had to eat it rather quickly, as most of us had to leave on the long overnight drive to Tashkent to catch an early morning flight (which ironically was delayed!) But before we left Chris, who had somehow been nominated by the group, presented Marat with the tips we had collected for him, and gave a nice speech to thank him for being such an excellent guide and looking after us so well in his country and here in his home city.

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Farewell from Marat at Tashkent Airport

Dinner over we hurried to the bus which was waiting outside. Thanks to the last minute changes that had had to be made to our flights (from Uzbekistan Airways to Aeroflot) we faced an overnight drive to Tashkent for our 2.00 AM check-in. As it turned out, when we got to the airport our flight was delayed by some hours and for a while we weren’t even allowed to get off the bus as the terminal was crowded and check-in not yet open. Eventually however we were on our way on the first leg of the journey, to Moscow.

There the delay meant that we had only a very short time in which to make our transfer, so we were horrified to see the length of the queues to go through passport control (mandatory even though we weren’t actually entering the country!) Chris and I, with Sue and Georgina who were on the same flight to London, cajoled those in front of us into letting us jump the queue, only to find that our departure gate was the same one in which we had deplaned, and our plane the same one in which we had arrived from Tashkent! It was refuelling and there had been no chance therefore that we could have missed the flight despite those queues – if only someone had told us, or better still allowed us to simply wait in the lounge at the gate!

After this it was plain sailing (should that be ‘plane flying’?!) and we reached home safely, memory cards and brains overloaded with the rich blues of the architecture of the Silk Road.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:31 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged people food architecture mosque history market flight airport shopping museum music tour crafts uzbekistan samarkand madrassah Comments (8)

A place prepared

New Mexico day five


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

We took advantage of the breakfast included in our room rate at the Grants Best Western, where the buffet was more extensive than in some other places we stayed on this trip, with reasonable eggs and bacon alongside the usual juice, muffins, yoghurts and weak coffee. Then we checked out and drove east on I40, heading for our first major stop of the day.

Acoma

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Landscape with mesas, Acoma

This was definitely one of the highlights of our whole trip! Acoma Pueblo is built on top of a sheer-walled, 367-foot sandstone mesa in a valley dotted with sacred, towering monoliths, and is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. While most Acoma people no longer live there, preferring a home with a few more ‘mod cons’ elsewhere on the reservation land (houses in the pueblo have no electricity, no running water and no toilet), it is still home to about 30 people year-round, and to many more during festivals when everyone returns to their ancestral home on the mesa.

To visit Acoma is to be transported to a time and place that has existed for centuries. We turned off busy Interstate 40, drove a few miles across an empty, dusty land, and suddenly we were in a different world. In a landscape dotted with sandstone columns and mesas it was hard at first to pick out the one that has a pueblo on its summit. The only giveaway sign was the twin adobe towers of the church of San Esteban on one side of the village, but even they blended into the warm hues of the sandstone and only became distinct when we were just a couple of miles away.

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At the Cultural Centre

To visit the pueblo you have to take a tour, which starts from the very attractive and informative Cultural Centre, so we parked there and went in to look round and purchase our tickets. The fee included permission to use one camera, which was tagged to show we had paid (we would have had to pay extra to have additional equipment tagged, if needed).

But the Cultural Centre is not just the starting place for tours, it’s also worth a visit in its own right as we discovered while waiting for our tour to leave. I loved the building itself, with its heavy doors (carved to resemble 19th century textiles) and restful interior. The Haak'u Museum displays not only traditional Acoma wares, especially pottery, but also hosts changing exhibitions of more modern art and crafts. When we were there in September 2011 there were two excellent photography exhibitions, one of photographs taken across New Mexico by Craig Varjabedian and the other, which we found the more interesting, of photographs by local Acoma residents. The latter, although amateur, were very accomplished and in some cases powerful works. There was also a very interesting display of modern interpretations of traditional native art.

When it was time for our tour, we joined the small group (we were seven in number) in a minibus for the short ride to the top of the mesa with our guide. We were then escorted around the pueblo – the tour lasts about an hour and a half and is accompanied throughout, so there was no wandering off on our own, much as I might have liked to do so.

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Our guide

There are strict etiquette rules for visitors to Acoma, and it is important to read and abide by these. Think of it as a visit to another country, whose laws must be upheld and whose traditions respected. They include:

~ You must register for a guided tour in order to visit the Pueblo, stay with your tour guide at all times and not wander off the designated tour route
~ Restrain your children at all times. Absolutely no pets are allowed on tour.
~ No Smoking
~ Permits for cameras must be purchased at the Sky City Cultural Center prior to photographing on the Acoma lands. No photography is allowed inside the Church, within the cemetery courtyard, and during feast days. Permission must be obtained prior to photographing tribal members or their artwork.
~ Use of tripods, go pros, video cameras, digital video cameras, binoculars and audio recording devices is prohibited.
~ Commercial use of a photograph depicting Acoma imagery for personal gain (profit) is prohibited.

There is also a dress code:

‘We encourage you to dress comfortably however out of respect for our religious leaders who reside on the mesa year round we ask that no revealing clothing be worn (short shorts, short skirts, halter tops, tube tops, spaghetti strap tanks, and tank tops etc). We do have limited clothing pieces available that may be borrowed at the time of your visit. If we feel that your clothing is inappropriate we will ask you to cover up. Thank you for your understanding and respect for our home.'

All guides come from the pueblo and really know their stuff – ours was excellent, and we learned a lot from her, and although some details I later forgot, I was able to piece them back together again with some subsequent research.

The story of Acoma

The name of this place, Acoma, is derived from the native word ‘Haak’u’ which means ‘a place prepared’. The people believe they are descended from the one-time inhabitants of Chaco Canyon, forced to leave their home by a prolonged drought. Their ancestors had been told by the spirits ‘at the time of emergence’, that is from the very beginnings of their existence, that a place had been prepared in which they would live. So the tribe left their lands in Chaco and wandered through the American Southwest, pausing from time to time to call out ‘Haak’u’. When they arrived in this particular valley, their call reverberated off the mountain peaks and returned to them in an echo, telling them that they had at last found their ‘place prepared’.

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View from the mesa top

But their first home in the valley was not on this mesa but on nearby Enchanted Mesa, seen to the right of centre in the background of this photo and more centrally in the photo higher up this page. According to their legends one day, when all but a few elderly women were down on the valley floor below tending the crops, a terrific storm blew up and destroyed their only path up to the top of this mesa. Those left above were trapped and sadly died (some say that they jumped to their deaths rather than face a slow starvation), and the larger part of the tribe abandoned this mesa and moved to one nearby, where they remain to this day.

Life here has been touched only superficially by the twenty first century, and indeed by all the other centuries that have passed since the village was founded in around 1150. Houses may have been modernised (although only a little) and access improved (one road now ascends to the mesa’s top), but the traditions, the sacred beliefs and much of the life-style of the Acoma people is as it has always been.

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In Acoma Pueblo

Of course there have not always been tourists here but others have come, some much more invasive than the current bus-loads of visitors. The first white visitor to the Acoma Pueblo was Francisco Vasques de Coronado on his 1536 expedition to the Indian pueblos. He and his soldiers were in awe of the seemingly impenetrable fortress at the top of the mesa, and left the Acoma people alone. But that could not last.

In 1598, the Spanish conquistador Don Juan De Oñate, under orders from the King of Spain, invaded this region and raided the native American pueblos, with his troops looting anything of value. They tried to steal grain from a granary and the Acoma fought back, killing several Spaniards in the defence of their crops. De Oñate ordered his soldiers to conquer the pueblo, and in the ensuing battle the indigenous population, which had been approximately 2,000 people before the Spanish attacked, was reduced to just 250 survivors. These were herded to Santo Domingo Pueblo, which the Spanish had previously defeated and were now using as a base. There children under the age of 12 were taken from their parents and assigned them to Spanish missionaries to be raised. Most of the adult Acoma were sold into slavery. Of the few dozen Acoma men of fighting age still alive after the battle, Oñate ordered the right foot chopped off each one.

As we toured the pueblo and listened to our guide we learned that although such injustices may, we hope, have been confined to the pages of history, they are not forgotten. The past has shaped this people and in this almost mystical place past, present and future seem largely indistinguishable from each other.

Acoma houses

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A street in the pueblo

The tour wound through the village streets where we saw the traditional houses, ovens, water cisterns and more. There are about 275 houses in the pueblo, although only around 30 people live here year-round. These are mostly older people and pre-school children, who are often sent to live with grandparents so that they can learn the culture and traditions of the tribe from them. But all the houses are owned and cared for by an Acoma family, and the family will visit and stay there during festival times. Many of the houses we saw therefore had been extensively restored – this is very much a living village, not a museum.

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Another typical street

The houses are made of adobe, like so many buildings across New Mexico (and indeed across the south-west). The Spanish invaders, on first encountering these structures, saw the straw glinting in the sunshine and believed the houses to be made of gold! The thick adobe walls keep the homes cool in summer and warm in the winter, and sharing walls with neighbouring houses adds to the insulation effect. The roads too were carefully planned, each exactly the right width to ensure that even the long shadows of winter would not fall on the houses opposite, so that all could benefit from the warmth of the sun’s rays.

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Typical houses

Traditionally all the houses were of three stories, but the use of each floor varied with the season. In the winter the ground floor would be used for cooking. Heat from the fire would rise to the floor above, which was used as living and sleeping space year-round, and food would be stored on the top floor away from that heat. In the summer the ground and top floor usage was reversed; cooking would be done on the top floor so the heat could escape through the roof without overheating the inhabitants, and food was stored on the ground floor.

Some of the houses have window frames painted in the traditional turquoise colour, symbolising the sky. In the past windows were made of mica, letting in some light but no view, but today almost all are of glass. But modernisation has only gone so far. To those of us used to ‘all mod cons’ it may seem strange to us that the Acoma choose not to fully modernise their houses here in the pueblo. They could easily do so. Those elsewhere in the reservation, on the plain below, have all the facilities we might expect. There is a school, a fire station, offices for the tribal government, a hotel and casino for visitors. But here there are only the bare necessities. There is no running water and no electricity. Coolers not fridges keep food fresh, although a few houses do have a generator.

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Building work

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Restoration in progress

Water, or rather the shortage of it, has always been a challenge for those living on the rocky mesa. It has almost no soil, so almost nothing of any size grows here, apart from a single tree. It is thought that this survives because of its proximity to a deep pool of water or cistern. In the past the inhabitants of Acoma relied on these cisterns for all their water supplies. They would collect rainwater during the wet summer months and this was carefully conserved and used in dry periods. To keep the water pure it was forbidden to wash or play in the cisterns.

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Cistern and lone tree

These days however water is brought up to the pueblo in tankers. But the houses don’t have any running water. The Acoma people prefer to keep things as they always have been here in the pueblo (we were to find the same preference for traditional ways later in our trip when we visited Taos Pueblo). Admittedly many choose not to live here year round, but some do – and all believe that a resistance to modern development is essential to preserve their traditions and to remind them to value what is important in life: family, tribe and the continual thread of their culture and beliefs that anchors each generation to the ones that came before and those to follow.

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Portaloos

There are no toilets in the houses either – instead you will see communal Portaloos around the edges of the village which are used by everyone and which are regularly emptied by a commercial firm. Our guide explained that in the past they had drop toilets, and also told us that there are plans to introduce new ones with a compostable system – but not to install them in the houses.

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Horno at the mesa's edge

Dotted around the pueblo you will see ovens shaped like beehives and known as horno. These were introduced by the Spanish, who in turn had adopted them from the Moors, so if they look like something you have seen in North Africa it is not surprising. They are used for cooking the traditional bread. A fire is built in the oven and left until the walls are red hot. The fire is then raked out, rounds of dough stuck to the oven walls, and the small hole at the front is sealed with mud until the bread is cooked. The result is a light fluffy bread, not dissimilar to pizza dough.

Kivas

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Street with kiva

In the photo above you can see the distinctive ladders resting against the houses. The double ladder near the centre of the photo indicates that the building is a kiva or sacred building. Kiva ladders also have pointed tips, believed to pierce the clouds and bring rain. The ladder below illustrates this belief, with a stylised cloud-shaped bar across its three poles.

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Kiva ladder

These kivas would once have been round but our guide told us that after they had been destroyed by the Spanish invaders they were rebuilt with square walls to look more like normal houses and fool the enemy. [I have also read a more practical explanation – that square buildings make better use of the very limited space here on the mesa top]. But you can spot a kiva as it has no door; entry is only by the ladder, whereas in the case of the houses the ladders are used just for access to the upper floors. Look at the photo above carefully and you will see on the far right the tips of the second ladder that leads down into the kiva itself.

No visitors are allowed in the kivas and guides are not permitted (even if they would want to) to share anything of what goes on in them. Their use is sacred and even to tell outsiders about them would be seen as a threat to the integrity of the tribe’s culture and beliefs. It is essential to respect this and not to push the guides for information they are unable to provide.

One of the interesting things I learned on the tour was that the Acoma have a matriarchal society; that is, the women are the more powerful sex. It is they who own the land, make the major family decisions and maintain the traditions of the tribe.

The land and the family home are passed down to the youngest daughter, as it is thought that she will have stayed closest to her parents and have the most respect for the traditions. The matriarch will pass on her role to this daughter at what she feels is the right time, not necessarily waiting until she dies. At that point the matriarch loses her role in the family, moves out of the home in the pueblo (if indeed she has been inhabiting it full-time) and relinquishes all claims on the family property and possessions. She will never live on the mesa again, but may return for visits and celebrations. If she dies before succession, the title of matriarch passes automatically to her youngest daughter or, if there is no daughter, to the youngest grand-daughter.

And so it is the women who have kept alive the traditions of the Acoma, they who have made this pueblo the magical place it is, and they who hold the responsibility to continue to do so for generation beyond generation to come.

The Church of San Esteban

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San Esteban

Our tour finished at the pueblo’s church, its most prominent building, dedicated to Saint Stephen. It was built between 1629 and 1641 by the Acoma people under the direction of their Spanish conquerors. Some accounts say that the Spanish forced them to build the church, others that the people were grateful to the Catholic friar, Juan Ramirez, after he saved the life of a local child, and thus built the church willingly. A legend tells that just as Friar Juan arrived at the mesa this child fell from its edge and was assumed to be dead. But as the people grieved for their loss, the stranger arrived at the top of the stone steps carrying the lost child in his arms, safe and well. The people took this as a miracle and a sign that they should welcome this man and the new religion he preached.

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San Esteban

The adobe structure remains largely unchanged over the centuries. The left-hand of its twin towers contains an ancient bell (the one on the right is newer). According to the Spanish account, the Acoma people traded four children for this older bell, but according to the people of Acoma, the Spaniards gave the bell as reparation after stealing four children from their families.

Photography of the beautiful interior of San Esteban is not allowed by tribal rules. Its stand-out features include a traditional viga ceiling, with the characteristic parallel rows of heavy timbers, and a wooden altar carved by the Acoma in the 1630s, its twirled columns painted red and white – red, the colour of sandstone and adobe, to symbolise the Acoma and their traditional beliefs, and white to symbolise Catholicism, the two intertwined here as they are in the spiritual lives of the people. Most Acoma believe in and practice both religions, but a few only one or the other.

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At the edge of the mesa

In this photo of Chris and me at the edge of the mesa you can see behind us Mount Taylor, known as Kaweshtima to the Acoma people. It was from this distant and sacred mountain that the Acoma were forced by the Spanish to bring wood to construct the church, including the large logs of the traditional viga ceiling. The wood was not permitted to touch the ground between Kaweshtima and Acoma – if a log fell or was dropped it had to be left where it was rather than be used for the building.

Mass is celebrated in the church on special feast days. One of these is the feast of St Stephen, after which the statue of the saint is paraded around the village. Another is on Christmas Eve, when Midnight Mass is said. On these and on other feast days all the people return to the pueblo from their homes elsewhere as it is important for the tribe to celebrate together. As the church was built on the pueblo’s former plaza (lending credence I think to the version of the story that claims the people were forced to build it here), its dirt floor is kept largely bare and is used on native feast days for dancing.

I have no pictures of the adjoining cemetery, as all photography of it is strictly forbidden, but it is too interesting a place not to mention it here. It lies in front of the church and is even older than it. It was not part of the Acoma tradition to bury their dead, but with the adoption of some of the Spanish conquerors’ Catholic beliefs came also the introduction of burials. There is of course no soil on the mesa top, so earth for the cemetery has had to be carried up from the plains below in woven baskets. There are now five layers of graves here, and when this one is full no more will be added. Places in the cemetery are reserved for tribal elders and for those who have made the pueblo their year-round home – most Acoma are now buried elsewhere in the reservation, in the churchyard they share with the neighbouring Laguna tribe.

At one end of the cemetery, in front of the church, is a raised area with a large cross, a memorial to all the unknown ancestors buried here in unmarked graves. The walls around the cemetery have humps, which in the inside can just be made out to contain faces. These are the guardians of the dead. One wall has a hole in it, to allow the spirits of the deceased an exit route out into the afterlife.

A souvenir of Acoma

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Pottery seller

During our tour we had numerous opportunities to purchase the traditional Acoma pottery. There were tables set up at strategic points on the tour with a local potter displaying their creations, and our guide encouraged us all to examine these and waited patiently for a few minutes at least while we did so. We were tempted at several points, but I’d read that if you’re serious about buying it’s best to wait till the end of the tour and then ask to be escorted back to the one whose work most appealed to you.

The traditional Acoma style is very striking, usually in shades of black and red only, though some other colours are included in non-traditional designs in order to appeal to tourists. They didn’t appeal to us however, as we much preferred the simplicity of the traditional colour scheme which contrast well with the intricacy of some of the designs. These designs reflect the landscape around the pueblo and the legends of the people, so you will see triangular shapes for mountains, lines showing rain, and spiritual animals such as the lizard. We were also (rather incongruously it seems) shown designs featuring parrots. Of course there are no parrots in New Mexico! But there is an Acoma legend that tells how traders from the tribe visited rainforest areas in South America and brought back a parrot in the hope that the presence of a bird from that region would bring much-needed rain to the parched lands of their home.

Prices aren’t cheap, as everything is hand-made (if you think you’ve found a bargain, it won’t have been made by hand), but they are better value than in tourist shops elsewhere in the state, so if you like the work this is a great place to buy. We purchased a very small plate (about two inches across) decorated with lizards which cost us $20 – we wanted a souvenir of our visit but were concerned about carrying anything larger and heavier (and breakable) having already bought our ceramic horse in Hillsboro a few days earlier.

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Pottery for sale

Our visit to Acoma occupied most of our morning and has filled a lot of blog space, so I’ll stop here for now and continue with the rest of today in the following entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 09:15 Archived in USA Tagged art people architecture road_trip culture history church village houses new_mexico crafts customs Comments (5)

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