On Samarkand

The history of Uzbekistan in the 20th century is quite interesting. A Muslim state, a mish-mash of people, under the thumb of Stalin, holding out, holding on, and then … in one shot … before they were ready, independence. They were one of the few republics in the Soviet Union that had to be forced into independence.

But, for me, the really gripping history in the area goes back to medieval times, when this section of the planet was one of the centers of the world, if not the center.

Uzbekistan was part of the old Persian empire, and things did not change much here from the 6th century BC to the 19th century. In the 4th century B.C., Alexander the Great passed through (that boy certainly got around), and married the daughter of a local chieftain near Samarqand. This connected the region to the outside world. The Silk Road propelled the region to the center of the world. The Silk Road was a peaceful connector, a trade-driven connector. Regions did not have to be conquered by outsiders anymore in order to learn about innovations in other cultures. Camel caravans brought news and technology and inventions to these remote areas, and the world got a bit smaller.

In the 6th century AD, Western Turks galloped into the region from the vast steppes and brought Islam with them. They also brought a written alphabet. This changed everything.

Uzbekistan is one of the crossroads of the world. Everybody passed through here in those days, avoiding the Himalayas, avoiding the deserts, following the great rivers. Oases and towns sprung up, people became rich, civilization flourished. The Turks moved on, and the Persians took over again.

City-states were passed from leader to leader over the centuries. For example: Tashkent: in the 1st century AD, it was y our basic oasis settlement. And then Persian armies, Mongol hordes, and Turkic khans swapped it back and forth through the medieval centuries. One despot would subside, leaving room for another. By the middle ages, Tashkent, Samarqand and Bukhara were not just desert oases. They were centers of learning and culture. They were the Prague of the 12th century. This was valuable real estate.

Genghis Khan comes along in the 13th century and sacks the entire region. Every oasis was destroyed. I’m not sure what exactly his point was … I’d have to look into it further. Genghis didn’t seem to be a typical conqueror as in: I will come in, kick you all out or enslave you, and take over all your buildings. He was more like: I will come in, kill everybody, and burn all of your cities to the ground. Then I will decapitate the intelligentsia and I will put their heads on stakes outside of your libraries, and I will smash all of your mirrors. And then he would ride on to the next oasis. Not sure what that accomplished. But that was his deal. Ha ha … such an oversimplification! I don’t even really know what I’m talking about, but all I DO know is that the history books describing the 13th century in this area are peppered with the following sentences: “And they flourished until Genghis Khan.” “And then Genghis Khan sacked the city.” “All was well until the terror of Genghis Khan came from the north.” Who knows. He was a destroyer, not a builder. The same is true, and more so, for Tamerlane.

An explanatory quote about Mr. Khan: (It’s very interesting, I think. Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes)

The Mongols were illiterate, religiously shamanistic and sparsely populated, perhaps no more than around 700,000 in number, living in good-sized felt tents. They were herdsmen around an area called Karakorum. They had been moving across great distances on the grassy plains — steppe lands — north and east of China, frequently fighting wars over turf. Before 1200 they had been fragmented … In the late 1100s and early 1200s a Mongol military leader named Temüjin was creating a confederation of tribes, Mongol and non-Mongol but which would be called Mongol. He was a good manager, collecting under him people of talent. And, when necessary, he warred … In 1206, at the age of 42, Temüjin took the title Universal Ruler, which translates to Genghis Khan.

Like others, Genghis Khan’s subjects saw themselves at the center of the universe and the greatest of people — favored, of course, by the gods. And they justified Genghis Khan’s conquests in previous years by claiming that he was the rightful master not only over the “peoples of the felt tent” but the entire world.

It’s mind-boggling, how much territory he conquered, on horseback. Genghis Khan described himself as “the punishment of God”.

And then there was Tamerlane (or Timur). Tamerlane was a Muslim and has routinely been chosen as one of the most ruthless warriors of the millennium. (At least, Time Magazine voted him so in 2000.)

Tamerlane was a brutal warrior, the terror of the land, but he also loved and appreciated art and architecture. So when he would capture a town, he would enslave the best artists in that town, capture them, spare them from execution, and drag them to Samarqand (the oasis he chose as his capital). He then made these prisoners of war build him the perfect city. A very contradictory mix, that Tamerlane. Samarqand became one of the most famous Islamic cities in the world while Tamerlane was around.

Ulugh Beg (1394-1449) was Tamerlane’s grandson, and he took over when his grandfather died. He wasn’t a ruthless murderer like his grandfather. Ulugh Beg was an astronomer, and also a great patron of scientists and astronomers. He built observatories. He was certainly the most important observational astronomer of the 15th century. He was one of the first to advocate and build permanently mounted astronomical instruments. His catalogue of 1018 stars (some sources count 1022) was the only such undertaking carried out between the times of Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 170 A.D.) and Tycho Brahe (ca. 1600). Blows the mind. Ulugh Beg only ruled for two years, because he was assassinated, but in that time, he was able to supervise the building of astronomical observatories, the ruins of which still stand. Fascinating man. There are madrassahs in Uzbekistan named after him today. He is one of their cultural heroes.

The history of the oases of Uzbekistan tells the story of the whole area. H

Samarqand is one of those cities which has never NOT been inhabited, since its inception, two thousand years ago.

In the 6th century B.C., ancient Samarqand was called Maraconda. It was the capital of the Sogdians (who were, basically, Iranians … the forefathers of Iranians, anyway.)

In the 4th century (329 B.C.), Samarqand was captured by Alexander the Great, during his push east. The Sogdians outlasted Alexander’s rule, however. (Those resourceful Iranians … they just cannot be completely conquered!)

In the 2nd century B.C., Samarqand was made into an essential junction point of the Silk Road by China. Chinese merchants chose it because of its location, and its nearness to a river, a perfect combination. Samarqand flourished. Became a very wealthy and cosmopolitan medieval city throughout the centuries that followed.

In 712 A.D., Samarqand (Maraconda) was conquered by the Arabs.

In the 13th century A.D., Samarqand was, you guessed it, sacked by Genghis Khan. The entire city was wrecked. And then built back up.

In the 14th century A.D., Samarqand was chosen as Tamerlane’s capital, which made it famous. Samarqand became Tamerlane’s showpiece, his pride and joy. It was a mud city, but underneath Tamerlane, the place bloomed. Artists and architects from Persia were captured and brought here to build it up, silk weavers from Syria brought here, jewellers from India. It once was a mud city, but under Tamerlane the place exploded: tiled mosques, minarets, towers.

From 1407 – 1449, Samarqand was ruled by Ulugh Beg (Tamerlane’s grandson).

In the 14th century, the Mongol tribes who called themselves “Uzbek” began moving south, and they eventually conquered all of Tamerlane’s empire. By 1510, they controlled everything in the area (and the descendents still control that very same area today, the area known as modern-day Uzbekistan).

I’ll close today with Ryzsard Kapuscinski’s discussion of Samarqand, Bukhara, and Tamerlane in Imperium:

Bukhara is brownish; it is the color of clay baked in the sun. Samarqand is intensely blue; it is the color of sky and water.

Bukhara is commercial, noisy, concrete, and material: it is a city of merchandise and marketplaces; it is an enormous warehouse, a desert port, Asia’s belly. Samarqand is inspired, abstract, lofty, and beautiful; it is a city of concentration and reflection; it is a musical note and a painting; it is turned toward the stars. Erkin told me that one must look at Samarqand on a moonlit night, during a full moon. The ground remains dark; the walls and the towers catch all the light; the city starts to shimmer, then it floats upward, like a lantern.

H. Papworth, in his book The Legend of Timur, questions whether the miracle that is Samarqand is in fact the work of Timur, also known as Tamerlane. There is something incomprehensible — he writes — in the notion that this city, which with all its beauty and composition directs man’s thoughts toward mysticism and contemplation, was created by such a cruel demon, marauder, and despot as was Timur,

But there is no denying the fact that the basis of Samarqand’s fame was born at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries and hence during Timur’s reign. Timur is an astonishing historical phenomenon. His name aroused terror for decades. He was a great ruler who kept Asia under his heel, but his might did not stop him from concerning himself with details. His armies were famed for their cruelty. Wherever Timur appeared, writes the Arab historian Zaid Vosifi, “blood poured from people as from vessels,” and “the sky was the color of a field of tulips”. Timur himself would stand at the head of each and every expedition, overseeing everything himself. Those whom he conquered he ordered beheaded. He ordered towers built from their skulls, and walls and roads. He supervised the progress of the work himself. He ordered the stomachs of merchants ripped open and searched for gold. He himself supervised the process to ensure they were being searched diligently. He ordered his adversaries and opponents poisoned. He prepared the potions himself.

He carried the standard of death, and this mission absorbed him for half the day.

During the second half of the day, art absorbed him. Timur devoted himself to the dissemination of art with the same zeal he sustained for the spread of death. In Timur’s consciousness, an extremely narrow line separated art and death, and it is precisely this fact that Papworth cannot comprehend. It is true that Timur killed. But it is also true that he did not kill all. He spared people with creative qualifications. In Timur’s Imperium, the best sanctuary was talent.

Timur drew talent to Samarqand; he courted every artist. He did not allow anyone who carried within him the divine spark to be touched. Artists bloomed and Samarqand bloomed. The city was his pride. On one of its gates Timur ordered inscribed the sentence: IF YOU DOUBT OUR MIGHT — LOOK AT OUR BUILDINGS! and that sentence has outlived Timur by many centuries. Today Samarqand still stuns us with its peerless beauty, its excellence of form, its artistic genius. Timur supervised each construction himself. That which was unsuccessful he ordered removed, and his taste was excellent. He deliberated about the various alternatives in ornamentation; he judged the delicacy of design, the purity of line. And then he threw himself again into the whirl of a new military expedition, into carnage, into blood, into flames, into cries.

Papworth does not understand that Timur was playing a game that few people have the means to play. Timur was sounding the limits of man’s possibilities. Timur demonstrated that which Dostoyevsky later described — that man is capable of everything. One can define Timur’s creation through a sentence of Saint-Exupery’s: “That which I have done no animal would ever do.” Both the good and the bad. Timur’s scissors had two blades — the blade of creation and the blade of destruction. These two blades define the limits of every man’s activity. Ordinarily, though, the scissors are barely open. Sometimes they are open a little more. In Timur’s case they were open as far as they could go.

Erkin showed me Timur’s grave in Samarqand, made of green nephrite. Before the entrance to the mausoleum there is an inscription, whose author is Timur: HAPPY IS HE WHO RENOUNCED THE WORLD BEFORE THE WORLD RENOUNCED HIM.

He died at the age of 69, in 1405, during an expedition to China.

I must go and see Samarqand one day.

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