Experiencing Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s Showstopper

  • Fozia S Qazi
  • Publish Date: Nov 3 2017 7:17PM
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  • Updated Date: Nov 4 2017 8:47PM
Experiencing Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s Showstopper

Uzbekistan has reclaimed its rich cultural legacy with a pride that only a newly independent nation can fully understand


I grew up hearing about our family’s connection to Central Asia and how one of our ancestors had arrived here from Uzbekistan as Qazi of Kashmir. As a child I would dream of the possibility of visiting Uzbekistan and meeting long-lost ‘cousins’. And, with the self-assurance that only a child’s mind can conjure, I imagined that I would recognize them because I believed these cousins of mine would look exactly like me.

As an adult my mathematical research on the symmetries of geometric patterns, and what they communicate about cultural order and cross-cultural interaction, renewed my interest in Central Asia and its relationship to Kashmiri material culture.  In studying the Kashmiri patterns on shawls, lattices, carpets and other works of art, I have come across many patterns but one lattice pattern, in particular, stood out due to the abundance of symmetries found in it and its relative complexity given the medium of wood. I started calling it shash tulani after a similar (but not the same) pattern depicted in an Iranian design book I came across in an American university. Some windows in the gutted Chrar Sharief Shrine had this pattern and it can also be seen in some old houses as well as the shrine of Dadsar in Tral.

Last month I finally got the opportunity to visit Uzbekistan with my historian spouse who had visited this country a few times before. We arrived in Tashkent first, and an important stop in our itinerary, there was the Museum of Applied Arts. My spouse, knowing my interest in patterns, had recommended this museum highly. The museum houses thousands of pieces of old artifacts including suzani rugs, textiles and lattices. The first thing I saw when I entered the main hall was a 19th century molded lattice from the Margilan Mosque of Ferghana Valley. I immediately recognized the pattern on it as my shash tulani of Kashmir. Long-lost cousins, as my younger self had rightly imagined, do look exactly like each other! I saw this shash tulani again in Samarkand in Timur’s mausoleum, at the Registan Square and at a few other places during the two week trip.

Everywhere you go in Uzbekistan you feel a very strong sense of familiarity. It isn’t always seen but is intimately felt. The words, the names, the phrases that you catch – from an otherwise unfamiliar language – are like outstretched arms reaching out to tap you on the shoulder, prompting you to turn, recognize and smile. The bend in the narrow lane around which some school children disappear, the turn of a head wearing a scarf tied in the back, the expression of a bearded old man sitting on a chowki, the hands raised in prayer at the tomb of Bahauddin Naqshband, a cluster of tall chinars by a sparkling pond, the taste of green walnut or kaghzi badaam that someone gives you, the tash-naer in a hotel lobby, the smell of zeera in a Samarkand bazaar, the poplar lined road with Zarafshan mountains in the horizon, the forest of wooden pillars in Khiva’s Juma Mosque – all of these nudge you into recognition.

What is different in Uzbekistan is how the people there have learned to beautifully preserve their monumental heritage without reducing it to an untouchable, static, relic of past glory. Their monuments are a living breathing part of their contemporary life and the glory is very much shared by the modern-day artisan who is able to restore a several-hundred-year old tiled wall in such a way that one cannot distinguish the old tiles from new. The Uzbek artisan of today is just as skilled with his hands and just as discriminating in her taste as their ancestor from a few hundred years ago. The tradition, one is happy to observe, carries on. Both in Bukhara and Khiva (the ancient Khwarizm) even the new hotels and shopping arcades around the old monuments and madrassas are build in such a way as to seamlessly blend with the centuries.

Khiva’s old walled city of Itchan Kala is one of the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Uzbekistan. It is also a residential neighborhood where children on bicycles dash around in the narrow lanes next to souvenir shops and historic minarets, with an epic statue of the mathematician Al Kwarizmi looking over them at one of the gates. This living museum is a perfect example of the wisdom that heritage – whether monumental or intellectual – needs to be non-static and able to maintain a continuity that will allow future generations to rub shoulders with their past. The only exception to this that I came across in Uzbekistan was in Shahr e Sabz where old neighborhoods had been razed to the ground to make way for expansive ‘theme-park’ style grounds around the main monuments.

In its post-Soviet nation-building efforts Uzbekistan has been able to look back at its rich cultural legacy and reclaim it with a pride that only a newly independent nation can fully understand. As someone once said memory is sacred. This is hallowed collective memory shaping a historically and culturally conscious present.

At the top of a pass in the Zarafshan mountains that one crosses when traveling from Samarkand to Bukhara, there is a rock by the side of the road that had, at some point, been etched with “Gulnoz +Shahrox” – a declaration of an old relationship. Southeast from this point is another fold of mountains, and somewhere beyond those mountains lie the Pamirs and Kashmir.

That view encapsulates the geographical proximity of Uzbekistan to Kashmir. But we have to look back in history to recognize and understand the close cultural relationship these two nations once enjoyed. As a Kashmiri, I admired how Uzbekistan has reclaimed its rightful space in the world. And as a Kashmiri, I hoped, there atop the Zarafshan, that my own nation will also recover its sovereignty to redefine its relationship with the world.