Cities of Lost Civilization

By Harnik, Eva | Insight on the News, October 12, 1998 | Go to article overview

Cities of Lost Civilization


Harnik, Eva, Insight on the News


A trip to the independent states of Central Asia calls for research before going and stamina upon arriving. But the rewards are great for intrepid travelers with a sense of history.

Central Asia -- an area where vast mountain ranges separate wide deserts, where oases spawned fabled cities such as Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. Marco Polo was the first Western visitor, but he was preceded by conquerors such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, to name a few.

An endless succession of long-vanished people have lived on the land, but by 1800 the ethnic mix was Turkic, Persian and Afghan. Islam was firmly established. The oasis cities became the khanates, the city-states of Central Asia, each ruled by conniving khans who vied for the favor and protection of czarist Russia and Queen Victoria's Britain, playing one against the other for most of the 19th century.

Colorful personalities passed through the area: furtive spies and idealistic explorers, young and ambitious military officers, traders disguised as Muslim preachers and missionaries passing as horse traders. Many died from exposure in these uncharted territories or languished in captivity of vicious khans and Turkmen marauders, who attacked trade caravans, stole the goods and sold the travelers into slavery.

By about 1885, the Russian empire had swallowed the Turkmen territories and extended its southern borders to Afghanistan and today's Pakistan. The five "stans" -- Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan -- were created by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who gerrymandered their borders. In 1991, the stans gained autonomy from the disintegrating Soviet Union and became the Central Asian Independent States.

Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, is mostly a modern city, rebuilt after the 1966 earthquake. The appearance is typically Soviet: broad, tree-lined avenues, large parks and incredibly shabby apartment buildings. Here and there, a Muslim motif is incorporated in the windows. Government buildings are restored to their original neoclassical style; among these, the Opera House is quite impressive and, for a few dollars, one can attend a respectable performance.

My party stayed at the newest hotel, the Meridian, which was adequate but not luxurious. The heavy hand of the old system was still much in evidence: An army of blue-suited women watched over the public areas. Whether they were looking for illicit business or merely keeping track of their guests at the buffet, their presence made me uncomfortable.

Politically, Tashkent is a confused place. People tremendously resent the Soviet past, and many see the reemergence of Islam as the guiding social force. Parents put their children on waiting lists to attend the few medreses, or Islamic schools, although the Islamic revival is not blatant. Young men and women walk in pairs, often hand in hand. Women wear conservatively long clothing of colorful silk prints, and some forego scarves and pantaloons.

There neither is a free press nor a democratic opposition. Economic reforms remain in their infancy. Prostitution and organized crime seem to flourish. Cars are few and taxis fewer, but extensive bus and subway services exist. Street names have been changed so frequently since the Soviet era nobody bothers to keep track, and maps are unavailable; in any case, people cannot read them. The important buildings in my guidebook were noted in Cyrillic and Roman letters, but I could not find anyone who could give directions to them.

But there are unexpected surprises. The shish kebab grilled street side is very good -- the kitchen often a covered shed with chairs and tables in front, but the meat well-spiced and tasty. Tashkent also has many good museums, including the Uzbek Museum of Decorative Arts.

From Tashkent, we flew to Bukhara, the golden city of Central Asia. While Bukhara's history stretches back at least 2,000 years, the first important rulers, the Samanids appeared in the ninth century and introduced Islam to the area. …

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