Imagine one of the worst mass murderers in history, responsible for the slaughter of 17 million people, 5% of the world’s population, without gunpowder or nuclear weapons, many dying painful, grotesque deaths involving decapitation, being burned alive, having their insides brutally ripped out and prominently displayed giant mountains of victims’ skulls as a caution to others. Most nations would be ashamed of such a legacy, relegating such villains to a past best forgotten. Not so Uzbekistan, where its national hero is Timberlane, the prolific executioner whose exploits were exceeded only in the 20th century by the estimated 70 million who died during WW2.
Timerlane (also known or spelled Emir Timer, Timurlane or Timer-Lane) was not completely evil. He promoted Islam and was responsible for Islam’s resurgence in Central Asia in the 14th century, where he established many madrases – Islamic schools – and constructed fabulous mosques. His craftsmen created some of the most gorgeous buildings, many in Samarkand, which was referred to as the most beautiful city in the world in the 15th century. He fostered education, the sciences and astronomy. He captured large swaths of land in India, the Caucasus, Iran, Turkey and, in a strange twist, his defeat of the Ottoman Turks in 1402 at Ankara so weakened the Ottoman Empire that it failed in its later endeavors to capture Christian Europe.
Uzbekistan’s embrace of Timerlane is not completely unjust. He was partly Uzbek on his mother’s side, his father a Mongol descendant by marriage of Ghengis Khan. Timerlane was born in what is now Uzbekistan, came to power in Samarkand and made it his capital. Equally important, Uzbekistan needed a national hero when it became independent from Russia in 1991. Although the region enjoys a long history going back to Neolithic times, the Uzbeks were a fairly recent arrival, likely being one of many Turkic tribes who settled in the area in the 10th century, although others claim the Uzbeks did not arrive until the 16th century. During its time as a Soviet Republic, Stalin did his best to quash the Uzbek identity, scattering Uzbek people throughout the USSR, settling other ethnicities including many Russians in Uzbek-speaking territories, and making Russian the official language. It is not surprising that the newly formed independent country desired a hero that could unite a country, conveniently sidestepping his less positive sides.
I visited Uzbekistan in September, 2019 as part of a 5 country tour called “The Stans” organized by the Canadian company, Adventures Abroad. Advertised as for the over-55 crowd, at 59 I was by far the youngest of our 17 strong group. I think the oldest was 83. The relative older age range was reflective of most of the other tourists in the areas. Either because of restrictive visa requirements or the expense in flying here, backpackers were rarely seen and most visitors seemed to be seniors.
The major attraction for me of the Stans is its history as the Silk Road, the name given to a variety of overland trading routes linking the Far East to Europe, Turkey and India. Used since at least the time of Alexander the Great, camels starting in China traversed the deserts of Central Asia to Byzantium, laden with silk, spices and paper and returning with horses, wool and grapes. Along the roads, great cities with names like Samarkand and Merv gave refuge to weary travellers for centuries, provided a repository for ancient literature and scientific knowledge while Europe languished in the Middle Ages, and sparked a golden age of Arab art. More sinisterly, the Silk Road also transported the bubonic plague to Europe in the 6th century. In the 15th century, the Ottomans banned trade along the routes, a move that encouraged Portuguese navigators in the 16th century to discover faster sea routes and make the overland roads obsolete.
A Short History:
Tourists have been visiting since Marco Polo in the 14th century. I joined the new wave of tourists eager to sample The Five Stans: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgzstan. Each country shares something of a common history: early Neolithic settlements, Hellenized by Alexander the Great and his successors, the start of global trade and silk roads during the Roman times in 132 BC to satiate the Roman desire for silk and inhabited by Persian speaking Zoroastrians until the Arabs captured and converted most of the area in the 7th century. In the 13th century, Mongol tribes led by Ghenghis Khan and a century later, Timerlane, first destroyed the great trading cities, then rebuilt them. The 15th century saw the immigration and settlement of Turkic speaking tribes and a variety of Arab empires. Both Russia and Britain turned their ambitions to Central Asia in the 19th century as the Great Game played out with Russia eventually emerging victorious.
The region was artificially carved into the Five Stans by Stalin, worried that a single, Muslim republic might pose a danger to the USSR. The USSR forced its usual Sovietization on the area, nomads were required to move to collective farms, intensive cotton farming led to environmental catastrophe and ugly rectangular apartment buildings dominated newly appointed cities. It wasn’t all negative: compulsory education, modern, free healthcare, roads and telephones were introduced. Upon the collapse of the USSR in 1991, each of the Stans declared independence but their newfound rulers with parties called the People’s Democratic Party or the like were all authoritarian dictators in the Stalinist mold.
Today, Uzbekistan has mostly unshackled the chains of Soviet subjugation. Uzbek is the main language (Russian is secondary), the Cyrillic alphabet has been replaced with Latin, the currency is the Som, religion is allowed (the country is 90% Muslim) and the free market economy is thriving. One of our guides loved to tell jokes about the USSR, none of them flattering, but he had studied Russian in university and was fluent. Few in Uzbekistan want to return to the Soviet days.
In a move to make traveling easier, Uzbekistan recently removed visa requirements for 120 countries, so I breezed through formalities at the Tashkent airport in less than 10 minutes, being welcomed to the country without questions, but with a smile, by the immigration officer and waved around, not through, the luggage scanning machine. A late night ride followed first along a wide, paved highway, then a broad boulevard before stopping at a modern hotel.
While this city of 3 million has a long history, much of it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1966. The result is a small old city and loads of Russian era Soviet Realism office and apartment blocks which are slowly being replaced in the center by more interesting architecture.
In search of the real Timerlane, I walked to the Timur Museum, housed in a round white building, topped with a turquoise green dome, indicative of the new, Uzbekistan architecture. The museum was disappointing, lots of portraits of famous historical rulers, none of whom I’d heard of, a few traditional costumes, some ceramics, historical Korans and a map showing Timerlane’s conquest.
Far more interesting was the nearby statue of Timerlane, astride a horse. The facial depiction is considered accurate. In a strange convergence of history’s nastiest dictators, Stalin was fascinated by Timerlane and his legend. In 1941, he ordered his tomb opened to determine if the body truly belonged to Timerlane and to reconstruct Timerlane’s face using the skull. An inscription on the tomb translates to “Whoever Disturbs My Tomb Will Unleash an Invader Møre Terrible Than I.” Two day after the tomb was opened, Hitler and the Nazis attacked the USSR.
Beyond the homage paid to Timerlane, not much in Tashkent interested me. A newish Mosque, a madras, a market selling fresh produce, dried fruit and meat, with carcasses of freshly slaughtered sheep hung from metal bars. In one corner, men baked bread in giant tandoori ovens, then the ladies sold them for pennies.
Nukus: The Savitsky Gallery
We flew over the Zkarakul desert to Nukus, the capital city in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, where the majority are ethnically and linguistically different from most Uzbeks, more Mongolian in features and background. I was expecting Silk Road cities and cavernasi and camels, so I was surprised where we stopped in front of a large, modern building, the Savitsky Gallery, aka The Uzbekistan Fine Arts School. It was the pet project of Igor Savitsky, an artist from the Ukraine who lived in Nukus between 1950 and 1984. He fell in love with the area and painted numerous landscapes, but also acquired, legally and not, works of Russian artists who had run afoul of official Russian guidelines for art. Thus, many of the paintings portray communism and the struggles of the workers in a less than flattering light. The Russians left Savitsky and his growing art collection alone – Nukus was too remote for them to know, or care, about some rogue artworks. The Nukus Museum now houses one of the world’s largest and finest collections of Russian avant-garde artistry.
Finally, we arrived at Khiva, an iconic Silk Road city of 90,000 people. We approached the ancient walls, then passed through one of 4 gates into the old city and were met with adobe houses, sandy streets and a dizzying array of decorated, dark blue tiles covering towers, domes, over doorways, everywhere we looked. Alas, there was little evidence of Timerlane’s handiwork. Although he had visited the city, he basically razed it every time he came.
The city has been largely reconstructed. Successive invaders, first Arabs, then Russian cannon bombardments in 1873, destroyed much of the city and whatever was left over, earthquakes and natural wind erosion finished off. Despite the constant renovations, walking through the city takes one back to its heyday as a major stop on the trade routes, selling goods and slaves in the bazaars,
It was also a religious center, first for the Khorezym Persians between 200 BC and 700 AD, when Zoroastrians dominated the city. The Palace of the Kings, fire temples, the 8 pointed star and lack of in-ground burial sites are all telltale signs of the religion that was banished when the Arabs invaded in the 8th century but symbols of Zoroastrian remain, mostly incorporated into Muslim buildings.
Khiva embraced Islam and soon boasted 64 Madras, or religious schools and 50 minarets. Today, no active madras remain and just 13 minarets, victims of the Soviet policy of atheism and modern day apathy toward religion. The majority of Uzbeks are Muslim, but it is a secular state with a very moderate form of Islam being practised by most. Liquor is available, beer is brewed locally, and the hijab, completely veiling a woman’s face, is banned.
The palaces, former madrases and mosques provide the best example of the fanciful tile work. Most of the outside tiles are limited to white, blue and green, a result of the dyes used to create the colours and the high heat needed to set them. Other colours- reds, yellows, golds – would simply burn and turn brown.
A free show is put on for the tourists at the King’s Palace every afternoon, featuring a band, dancing, singing and a re-enactment of the king welcoming envoys with visitors bowing officiously and showing proper decorum in royalty’s presence. Corny yes, but I closed my eyes and allowed myself to be transported back 500 years.
Bukhara is another ancient trading center on the Silk Road. Timerlane was too late to destroy it -that feat was accomplished in the 12th century by Ghengis Khan. The city didn’t recover until the 16th century when it was made the capital of the region.
There are no walls, but plenty of domes and 3 prominent trading bazaars – one for jewellers, one for caps and the third for money changers. The domes provided ventilation in the summer in the days before air conditioning where temperatures soar over 50 degrees. The bazaars, with their unadorned walls after the Russians carted off mosaics and murals to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the heavily decorated madrases have been turned into stores selling traditional crafts: carpets, embroidered cloth and clothes, tall fur hats and carved wood.
We arrived, at last, at Samarkand, Timerlane’s capital, where he lived and devoted his energies to rebuilding it after Ghengis Khan destroyed it and beautifying it into an Islamic paradise. Five separate sites, mostly reconstructed after earthquakes, try to duplicate its glory days in the 14th century. First is the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, with its soaring tower. Named after Timerlane’s favourite wife, she is also suspected of directing its construction, with Timerlane absent so often on his war campaigns.
Next is the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis begun to house the remains of a cousin of the prophet Muhammad. Later, Timerlane built about 15 mausoleums for his favourite wives, family members and important officials, all covered with magnificent tile work.
The Ulugbek Observatory is the third must-see sight. Constructed atop a hill for Timerlane’s favourite astronomer/scientist, Ulugbek, nothing remains of the original observatory, but a quarter of the giant sextant was uncovered by the Soviets and can be viewed. A small museum devotes itself to Ulugbek’s many accomplishments, including calculating the calendar to within seconds of accuracy, no mean feat in the 15th century.
Timerlane and some of his family are entombed in the Gur Emir Mausoleum. Tiled with ceramics and gold leaf, it is a dazzling monument to Timerlane’s love of Islamic art. Timerlane’s simple black tomb is the one Stalin opened in 1941.
The crowning glory is Registan Square, where 3 giant madrases, each more magnificent than the next, circle the square. Despite being damaged many times by earthquakes and neglect, the basic structure of the madrases remains and each have been restored to their imagined former glory.
I couldn’t leave without one more glimpse of Timerlane, so I walked to his statue and had my photo taken there, the larger-than-life Timerlane overshadowing everything around him.
I came to Uzbekistan in search of the Silk Road and Timerlane and found both. Despite the cities and monuments being heavily restored, the reconstruction has been methodically completed in a manner that tries to remain true to the original. Not so Timerlane’s legacy, which has been whitewashed to such a degree as to make me wonder what else abut this country has been conveniently forgotten. I asked our university educated guide in Samarkand whether Timerlane’s massacring tendencies are taught to children in school. “No,” he replied, “but I was able to learn about him from other sources.”
I understand and appreciate the need for Uzbekistan to adopt a national hero, but to elevate a mass murderer to near sainthood without so much as a mention of his darker side is, to me, unfathomable and unfortunate.
Next: The Silk Road continues