Silk Road Part 11 of 17.
Khurshid, my guide in Tashkent, picked me up after breakfast and we drove north – crossing the Anhor river, thereby leaving the new and entering the old town – to the Harzat Imam Complex. This is the heart of old Tashkent. It includes buildings of various ages including the lovely 16th-century Barak Khan madrassah, 19th-century Tila Shaikh Mosque, 16th-century tomb of local poet Kaffal Shashi and the remarkable 21st-century Hazrat Imam mosque built in 2007. Its sandalwood columns were brought from India and carved by masters from all 12 of Uzbekistan’s regions, while the marble was brought from Turkey. With its blue-tiled domes and real gold leaf, the effect is very special. Amazingly, the mosque was fully built in only 4 months.
Most interesting of all here is the Muyi Moborak library containing the oldest Koran in the world, created only 19 years after Mohammed’s death and supposedly stained with blood from the assassination of the Caliph Uthman, Fatima’s husband and the son-in-law of Mohammed. Written on deerskin in kufic script, it has travelled far and wide, having been to Mecca, Medina, Damascus and Baghdad before Timur took it back to Samarkand. It was then bought for a derisory 100 roubles by the Russian governor general von Kaufman and sent to Moscow from where it continued to St Petersburg and then on to Ufa (in Tatarstan, the Muslim “capital” of the Soviet Union). In 1917, somewhat out of character, Lenin sent it back to its “owners” and it stayed in Samarkand until independence in 1991 when it moved to Tashkent for its protection. “But now it’s here to stay”, Khurshid remarked. I couldn’t help a smile.
As we drove, I noticed that 2 in 3 cars on the road were Chevrolets. Apparenly they are locally produced, and thus exempt from the 100% sales tax imposed on foreign cars. Those sums weren’t hard to explain. Khurshid explained that much of the old city of Tashkent was destroyed in the 1966 earthquake, which left more than 300,000 people homeless. Moscow ordered the city rebuilt and as much historic value was perhaps lost in the rebuild as in the earthquake.
We drove on to the busy Chorsu market, a hive of activity. There were vendors selling meat, dried fruit and nuts, vegetables and frantically chopping veg for quickly making plov, the national dish of rice with meat and finely-chopped carrots. The handmade bread baked in clay ovens was a wonderful thing to watch, and smelled delicious. People were warm and welcoming and photographs were never a problem. We walked on to the 16th-century Kukeldash madrassa, a religious mud-brick school for boys decorated with painted ceramic tiles. It is still in active use, though it has served as a caravanserai, a Soviet barracks and even a stage from which unfaithful women were hurled to their death.
We next visited Timur square, with the Soviet style Hotel Uzbekistan, the “Uzbek Big Bens”, and an impressive statue of a mounted Timur where once there was a Hammer and Sickle and later a bust of Marx. The nearby Mustakillik or Independence Square is a large square with lots of fountains. Once called Red Square, later Lenin Square, the old Lenin statue was replaced by an independence monument showing an over-sized Uzbekistan on a golden globe. Beneath it, there is a World War II memorial showing a grieving mother waiting. Uzbekistan lost over 400,000 people during the war. We took a short tour of Tashkent’s metro and its large elaborately decorated stations. Many of the metro carriages are the same as those that ply Moscow’s underground arteries.
Our final stop for the day was the Museum of Applied Arts. Housed in a luxurious former merchant’s home that housed Austrian officers during World War II, this small museum contains examples of Uzbek embroidery, pottery, miniatures, jewellery, copper engravings and carpets and the building itself is half the charm, with lavishly carved and painted wooden ceilings. There are some beautiful pieces here and it’s a good way to get a feel of regional styles and strengths.