After not enough sleep I wake and join the rest of my similarly jet-lagged group at breakfast in the hotel. We meet our guide in Tashkent, a bright young woman called Olga, who is eager to show us the old part of the city – namely the Hazrat Imam Complex. It’s hard to get ones bearings on the first outing so I simply enjoy seeing Tashkent in daylight. We drive past street after street of smart and sturdy Soviet buildings but the overriding impression of Tashkent is just how leafy green it is. The base of every tree trunk is painted white and as we approach the squares the trees look like an assembled group of school boys with their white socks pulled up. Olga tells us that the planting of trees in each of the city’s public open spaces was a direct response to their Independence a physical resistance against ever using their squares again for military or political parades. What a wonderful gesture and the city looks fabulous as a result.
The Hazrat Imam Complex looms into view and the familiar blue tiled mosque of which we saw so many in Iran stands proud. Although the present mosque was only built in 2007 the origins of some of the structures date to the 16th century. We wander into the main square behind the mosque and find that it is dotted with figures tugging on strings and above us their kites soar against the blue sky. The kites sound like small engines purring away as the wind vibrates against them. Old and young busy themselves with weaving their kites to avoid others and it is mesmerising watching them.
We are guided into the Muyi Mubarak Library, a small domed building in the square, and led to a central display case in which sits what is claimed to be the world’s oldest copy of the Qu’ran, dating to the 7th century. It is huge book about 2m long and the elk skin pages looked waxed. The Kufic script is pleasingly large and the characters dance across the pages. No photography was allowed but later I saw a copy in the History Museum so at least I was able to capture its beauty. The library has other examples of the Qu’ran on display including one ‘optimistically written in Hebrew’ as the guidebook politely described it.
Walking back outside into the harsh light we are greeted by the whirring of kites once again and we head towards the Barak Khan Madrassa which, though heavily restored after the earthquake in 1966, has a beautiful facade.
Inside we find each of the rooms around a central courtyard is now a tourist shop and so we linger over the silk scarves and ceramics. We are all taken by one particular scarf design that includes little white nodules woven into it representing the silk worm cocoon. It seems a fitting reminder of the little creatures that were the catalyst for the incredible network of Silk Roads which weave across Asia and beyond.
We drive back to the hotel to meet a local archaeologist and over our lunch of a mountain of grilled lamb and beef he regales us with stories of excavating in the mountains in the Jizzax region of Uzbekistan. The site sounds wonderful and the hardships of digging in a remote mountainous region soon impress upon us how dedicated the team is. He is a buoyant character and his enthusiasm is infectious. It is also heartwarming to hear how much archaeological work is being done in Uzbekistan. He urges us to visit the State Museum of History of Uzbekistan so we bid our farewells and board the bus.
We are taken to another site on route to the museum and pull up next to what looks like a mudbrick citadel fortified by a high mudbrick wall with bastions called Ming O’rik.
We are proudly told that the construction dates to 2500 years ago. This information is then immediately retracted as the custodian of the site boasts that it earliest phase dates to 2500 BC. Our learned group explores the ruins by way of walkways and and with a lack of any written information panels we try and justify the claims being made. The construction looks like melted ice cream and as we investigate there is nothing that leads us to be convinced of the chronology being suggested
We are then told the complex includes a Zoroastrian fire temple but evidence of this alludes us although I kind of love what I assume to be the mannequin mock-up of fire related activity
Eventually we make our way to the heritage centre next door to ask for a definitive answer and are handed a print out that reveals that the structure is in fact Late Antique. Needless to say we are all quite amused and definitely confused by the date range we have now been offered and we clamber into the bus in the hope that the History Museum may shed some light on this.
Housed in a formidable building, the History Museum is spread out over various floors and we learn that at one time one of those floors was dedicated to the life of Lenin. I am immediately reminded of the Red Castle Museum in Tripoli where one floor was devoted to the rise of Gaddafi and his achievements. It suddenly seems like an age ago that I was in Libya wandering the corridors of photos, gold plates and medals in Gaddafi’s honour and wonder what has become of the display of this slice of history now and whether it too has been irradiated. We plunge into the archaeological section and are all astounded at the complexity and diversity of the rich history of what is now Uzbekistan. One minute we are looking at funerary vessels that remind us of the Villanovan culture of the Iron Age in central Italy and the next we are staring into the carved faces in a relief that could have been plucked from Palmyra. We see Bactrian statuary and in an adjacent cabinet the fragments of a Buddha. It is mind boggling. Somehow in the next 10 days some of this rich story will be better understood as we visit places and I familiarise myself with the chronology but for now I look around in awe.
I am listening to The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan as we travel and he has a knack, which is nothing short of genius, for unpicking this story and fitting it in to the bigger picture. I feel a huge sense of privilege that I have travelled here to see this extraordinary blend of cultures and just hope I can do it justice in these scribblings.