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Uzbek Encounters

Text by Karin Kinney

Our well-arranged journey through Uzbekistan presents us with many of the splendors the country can offer. Beyond the modern shops of the cities lie the old towns, shimmering with turquoise and blue domes and conjuring images from the Tales of Thousand and One Nights. We visit beautiful mosques, madrassas, and mausoleums, both ancient and newly built, with the superb workmanship of old in tile setting, mosaic work, and woodcarving. In the courts of the madrassas--students nowadays attend modern universities--craftsmen set out their wares recalling the trade goods of the ancient Silk Road: silk carpets and scarves, embroidered tablecloths and robes, stringed instruments, silver ornaments, ceramic dishes, and wood carvings.
We travel from the capital, Tashkent, to Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, past monuments to 14th-century conqueror Timurlane--whose empire reached from Turkey to the borders of China--and his scientist grandson Ulug Beg. And we realize what an important swath of history is spread out before us.

Not only the mighty rulers are commemorated in stone and bronze in these cities but, remarkably, so are Uzbekistan's scientists of the Middle Ages who had a global influence on the history of science.

In Samarkand, Ulug Beg (1393-1449), founded a university for the study of theology and science in 1420--still one of the splendid madrassas at the Registan square--and built one of the earliest observatories. On the Chupan-Ata plateau we marvel at the remaining marble arc of the observatory cut deep into the earth that extended for three stories above ground. Long before the existence of telescope lenses, Ulug Beg devised this instrument, a kind of sextant, which enabled him to map the heavens from 19º to 80º. Aided by a circle of astronomers, most notably al-Kashi, he calculated the length of a year as 365 days 5 hours 49 minutes 15 seconds, only a fraction less than modern calculations. The astronomers also charted the position of more than a thousand stars and accurately measured the angle of the sun, moon, and planets. Al-Kashi's book of these celestial observations remained exemplary for more than three centuries.

In Bukhara, we remember ibn Sina (980-1037), better known in the West as Avicenna, the doctor who is celebrated with a statue at the library named after him. Ibn Sina's Book of Healing and Canon of Medicine summed up all medical knowledge of his time and remained standard medical texts in Europe and the Muslim world until the 18th century. Ibn Sina frequently corresponded with al-Biruni (973-1048), another scientist from the region, covering topics such as philosophy, astronomy, and physics. Al-Biruni is perhaps best known as the man who first accurately used triangulation to measure the earth and distances between far-flung cities to create maps, techniques that are still used in our time as global positioning.

In Khiva we stop to admire al-Khwarizmi's statue lounging outside the old city gates. Al-Khwarizmi (780-850) was the mathematician who brought the concept of zero to the Western world and developed algebra in linear and quadratic equations. So far-reaching were his calculations that his name lives on today in the terms algebra and algorithm.
The pleasures of traveling in Uzbekistan are not only historical, but also enjoyable to the palate. In restaurants and private homes, catering to tourists, tables are often set with dishes decorated with the blue and white cotton-blossom pattern, a nod to the country's important cotton-growing industry. The table is heaped with colorfully appealing food: ripe tomatoes and cucumbers, grapes, apples, pomegranates, pears, and melons, baskets of bread, nuts and sunflower seeds, salads of eggplant, carrots, and tomatoes, and pastries stuffed with meat and vegetables called Manty and Samsa. After the appetizers, the courses roll in, first a soup, then plov, the national rice dish flavored with mutton, onions, and carrots, sometimes with raisins, chickpeas or fruit, followed by shashlik or shish-kebabs of lamb, beef, or chicken, and ending with a sweet dessert.

These are the things every traveler can enjoy, but it is the personal incident that sets any voyage apart. Because Uzbeks are a particularly warm and friendly people, it is easy to make small connections, even if language is a barrier. There is the young man—a friend of friends--in Tashkent who offers to take me to his favorite restaurant in a taxi ride across town and orders delicacies from the menu that I haven't seen before, such as Kazi, a special kind of sausage made of smoked horse meat, and fish-kebabs.

In Shahrisabz, Timurlane's birthplace, a young woman, recognizing us as tourists, guides a friend and me through the old Kok Gumbaz mosque, the interior dome of which is painted delicately with Chinese-like tracery. To give us an example of a service, she sings a sura from the Koran, making the space resound with unearthly acoustics, and for a moment we feel that all religions are one, and perhaps we understand a little about the importance of faith in any culture.

Out on the more arid plains, studded only with tamarisk shrubs, somewhere between Samarkand and Bukhara, we stroll through the dusty lanes of a village. At a farm compound we admire fat-tailed sheep and a donkey pulling a cart piled high with hay goaded by a young man. When I ask a farmwoman if I can take a photo, she nods in agreement, runs to the house, and comes back offering us a warm, round loaf of crusty non bread baked in their clay tandoor oven.
Having missed a performance in Tashkent's famous opera house, we find a puppet theater in Bukhara, manned by student performers who just hurried back from the cotton harvest. For a few tourists who happen to drift in, they perform their play about an arranged marriage in English with lively hand puppets miming the intricacies of preparations for a wedding. In the end the young players take the stage themselves in front of the curtain, continuing the story, while engrossed in their roles as bride and friends to be blessed. After the performance they thank the audience with a piece of cotton fabric with the image of Hodja Nasreddin, the popular wise man remembered for his clever, twisted stories.

Toward the end of the trip, after having driven through the cotton fields and the Kysyl-Kum desert to Khiva, with many stops in between, we have become dusty, weary travelers. When we enter Khiva's old town, we wander into the Muhammad Amin Khan madrassa, find two chairs in the garden among the flowers and sit down, saying “if only we could have tea now.” And within minutes a young man arrives, carrying a table and placing it in front of us. “Oh, could we have tea here?” we ask. And he nods and disappears. “We should have asked him for pastries, too,” we say to each other, and the young man reappears with a tray of tea and cookies. And we feel as if we have just entered a chapter in the Tales of One Thousand and One Nights.

Discovery Central Asia #23

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