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Volume 27, Number 1January/February 1976

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Islam in Russia

Written by John M. Munro
Photographed by John M. Keshishian
Additional photographs by I. Munro

Taking the "golden road to Samarkand" is not quite the adventure it once was. When James Elroy Flecker, British diplomat and writer, used the phrase in Hassan more than half a century ago, a trip through Central Asia was still a novel and highly dangerous experience. Now you can be wafted into Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent and Urgensch on the wings of Aeroflot; In tourist hotels have superseded the caravansaries; and instead of fearing danger from marauding brigands, the present day traveler need feel threatened only by the jostling crowds of the souvenir shops. Yet much of the old glamour and mystery remain. Turning a corner in Samarkand and being confronted by the gleaming, blue-tiled remains of the mosque of Bibi Khanum, or emerging from the old bazaar in Bukhara and having one's eyes stretched by the towering Kalan minaret, one is forcibly reminded that five centuries ago this part of Asia was one of the great centers of Islam, the heartland of Tamerlane's mighty empire.

Throughout its history Central Asia has been continually overrun by conquering armies. From the west came Alexander the Great who, in 329 B.C., defeated Spitamenes, leader of the Soghidians, and established a center at Marakands (modern Samarkand), before sweeping on towards India. In the 13th century Genghis Khan came from the east, his powerful Mongol forces crushing everything before them until they reached eastern Europe. It was the Arabs, however, who left the imprint of their culture most heavily upon the region, converting the population to Islam, which many Soviet Central Asians still practice today.

The Arabs first penetrated Central Asia in the seventh century, occupying Termez in 689. In 705, Kutayba ibn Muslim was appointed Viceroy of Khurasan and seven years later led his armies to Khorezem to "help" the Khorezemshah crush a rebellion. The same year, skillfully exploiting local rivalries, he led a campaign against Samarkand, supported by the Khorezemians and the Bukharans and by 708 had reached Tashkent. Kutayba, a formidable and sometimes brilliant leader, was eventually killed in 715, thus bringing Arab expansion to a halt.

There followed a confused period during which Turkic tribes and the Arabs contested the region and during which the local population slowly came over to Islam. The Chinese also began to intervene, invading Ferghana in 745 and remaining there until 751, when the great Arab commander Ziyad ibn Saleh finally defeated them, thus insuring that Muslim rather than Chinese culture would dominate the area.

The Arabs then consolidated their position, but in 1220 Genghis Khan and his Mongol invaders captured Bukhara, Samarkand and Urgensch, destroying many of the monuments of Islam, including the mausoleum of Caliph Harun al-Rashid at Tus and the tomb of Sultan Sanjar at Merv. However, in spite of Mongol dominance, Islam survived and—under Tamerlane, a Muslim who claimed direct descent from Genghis Khan and became ruler of the region around Samarkand in 1370—spread west to Moscow and east to the River Ganges with Samarkand the capital.

Even after the death of Tamerlane, or Timur as he is known throughout the Arab world, Samarkand, under Ulug Beg, continued to prosper. It eventually became one of the great cultural centers of Islam. But after Ulug Beg died the region broke into warring principalities. A measure of unity was imposed by various members of the Sheybani family, one of whom founded the Khanate of Khiva—a city in Khorezem—which endured until 1920. Meanwhile, however, the Russians had entered the region and by 1881 had extended their hegemony over most of Central Asia. Finally, in 1923 and 1924, the whole area came under Soviet control.

During Central Asia's turbulent and confusing history, Islam remained until comparatively recent times the region's dominant cultural and religious force. Even today the faithful among the U.S.S.R.'s 50 million Muslims still pray in such places as the 17th-century mosque of Haja Ahror, situated on the outskirts of Samarkand, or in the 13 mosques of Tashkent. In Bukhara the madrasah (school) of Mir-i-Arab provides a formal Islamic secondary education for the Muslim youth of the region, teaching them the Koran and the Hadith (traditions concerning the Prophet), Arabic language and literature, as well as mathematics and science and, curiously enough, communist ideology which, with some ingenuity, has been made to appear as a natural development from the wisdom expressed in the sacred writings of Islam. Many of the graduates, however, continue their Islamic education at Cairo's al-Azhar university and some have returned to pursue higher Islamic studies in Tashkent. At the Center of the Muslim Religious Board for Central Asia and Kazakhstan, also in Tashkent, there is an important library of 25,000 volumes and 2,000 manuscripts, mostly written in Arabic, Farsi and Uzbeki. The board also publishes a quarterly journal, Muslims of the Soviet East, which appears in Uzbeki, Arabic, English and French. Freedom of religious belief is guaranteed to Uzbekis, both by the constitution of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan and that of the U.S.S.R. According to Mr. Abdul Qahar Ghaffarov, vice-president of the board, the Soviet authorities place no obstacle in the way of Uzbeki Muslims wishing to make the Hajj to Mecca.

While the Soviets cast an unenthusiastic eye on Islam as a living faith, they are nonetheless actively promoting the restoration of the region's Muslim monuments. In Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva, angular networks of scaffolding around the walls and domes of mosques and madrasahs indicate the authorities' concern to preserve and restore the architectural glory of the Islamic past. Minarets pushed askew by the depredations of time and frequent earthquakes are being systematically straightened; broken tiles are being replaced; and domes are being regilded.

Perhaps more work has been done in Samarkand than elsewhere, much of it being completed before 1970 in time to celebrate the town's 2,500th anniversary. Here, the Gur-i-Mir, the great mausoleum built by Tamerlane at the end of the 14th century to receive the body of his favorite grandson, Muhammad Sultan, has been repaired and the interior completely restored. A massive cantaloupe-shaped dome of turquoise and green dominates the building and, inside, the intricate gold and blue tracery of the roof provides a fittingly sumptuous resting place for Tamerlane himself, whose massive dark-green, jade tomb dwarfs those of other Timurid princes, including his grandson, Ulug Beg.

Not far away there is a complex of buildings called the Registan, once the market-place of old Samarkand. The British Lord Curzon, who visited the town in 1888 and saw it in an even more ruinous state than it is now, nevertheless found it spectacular. "I know of nothing in the East approaching it in massive simplicity and grandeur," he wrote in an account of his travels entitled Russia in Central Asia. "There is nothing in Europe like it, save perhaps on a humbler scale the Piazza di San Marco in Venice, which can even aspire to enter the competition. No European spectacle indeed can adequately be compared with it, in our inability to point to an open space in any Western city that is commanded on three of its four sides by Gothic cathedrals of the finest order."

None of the three madrasahs which make up the complex was built during Tamerlane's time. The oldest is that of Ulug Beg, which was built around 1420; opposite and evidently inspired by it, is the Shir Dar (Lion-bearing), erected between 1619 and 1636, so named because of the somewhat crude likenesses of the Lion and Sun of Persia, which appear on the tiled facade of the central iwan; and the third, on the north side of the square, is the Tila Kari (Gilded) madrasah, which was built about the middle of the 17th century.

What must have been the most impressive building of Timurid Samarkand, however, is the mosque of Bibi Khanum. Today it is in ruins, but it takes little effort of the imagination to picture it in its original glory. Bibi Khanum was reputedly the favorite wife of Tamerlane, and it is said that she supervised the mosque's construction while her husband was away on one of his campaigns. It is also said that she fell in love with the young architect who designed it, and who, to avoid the wrath of Tamerlane, climbed to the top of one of the minarets and flew off, never to be heard of again. Actually, it appears that Tamerlane himself supervised construction of the building. Aging rapidly and in poor health, it seems that the once proud ruler of Central Asia was determined to secure a slice of immortality by constructing one of the largest monuments in the Islamic world before his death. Working day and night, craftsmen from all over Tamerlane's empire toiled feverishly to complete the building in record time, assisted, it is said, by "95 mountainous elephants." When the building was finished, the inner court measured 270 feet by 180 feet, and the entrance rose to a height of 120 feet. Unfortunately, the very size of the building contributed to its relatively rapid disintegration, the structure being insufficiently strong to support the grandiose conceptions of the architect. Earthquakes and 19th-century neglect did the rest.

The other major Islamic monument of Samarkand is a complex of 16 buildings known as Shah-i-Zinda (The Living Prince), which contains some of the finest tile work in Central Asia. The history of Shah-i-Zinda dates back to pre-Mongol times, for Qasim ibn Abbas, reputedly a cousin of the Prophet, is buried there. It is said that he lived in Samarkand around 676; after his death his tomb became a place of pilgrimage. The Arab geographer Ibn Battuta describes it as he saw it in 1333, but this was before the Mongol depredations. What one sees today dates from Timurid times and later. Entry to the complex is through a gateway built by Ulug Beg and up a flight of stairs bordered on each side by a series of mortuary chapels. One belongs to Shad-i-Mulk, another of Tamerlane's wives, and a second to his wife Tuman Aka; the others belong to less illustrious friends and members of Tamerlane's family. The buildings themselves are comparatively modest, but their tiled facades exhibit a delicacy and range of styles which remind us that Tamerlane, in his determination to make Samarkand the noblest and most beautiful of cities, imported an army of craftsmen from as far away as Syria, the Caucasus, India, Iraq and Persia in order to achieve an enduring splendor.

By contrast with Samarkand where, in the words of the English playwright Christopher Marlowe, Tamerlane built a city "whose shining turrets dismayed the heavens and cast the fame of Ilion's tower to hell," Bukhara is someting of an anticlimax. Yet, in its day, this other great center of Islamic Central Asia, rivaled Samarkand. Described by Tha'alibi, a Samanid writer of the 11th century, as the "home of glory, . . . the place of assembly of all eminent people of the age," Bukhara today is more likely to appeal to the historian than to the poet. Samarkand's buildings all date from the 14th to 17th centuries and for all their grace and magnificence, they give a general impression of uniformity. The buildings of Bukhara, on the other hand, exhibit a diversity of styles reflecting more than 1,000 years of history.

The old city is dominated by the Arg, or Citadel where, on the site of a Buddhist temple the Arabs built a mosque in 713, later destroyed by the Mongols. The Mongols devastated most of the town's early Islamic monuments, but respected the tomb of Ismail Samanid, who ruled Bukhara from the end of the ninth century to the beginning of the 10th. This monument, built shortly before Ismail's death in 907, is the oldest surviving building of Central Asia, a solid, dignified structure which counts among the greatest of early Islamic monuments. Built in the shape of a cube, each side being 31 feet, and surmounted by a dome, the intricate brick exterior exerts a quiet harmony in striking contrast to the colorful tiled facades of later buildings.

Among Bukhara's early and most significant Islamic monuments is the 12th-century, 170-foot-tall Kalan (Great) minaret, a massive structure, 40 feet in diameter at the base, and decorated with 14 different baked-brick bands. Another is the Magoki-Attari mosque, also dating from the 12th century. Others include the 14th-century mausoleum of Chashma Ayub (Well of Job), a simple unadorned structure surmounted by a conical cupola on a high drum; and the 16th-century Masjid-i-Baland (High Mosque), whose rather drab exterior gives little indication of the superb decoration within, notably a mihrab niche with patterns of incised mosaics and a beautifully carved and painted wooden ceiling. There are many other important and attractive monuments in and around Bukhara, among them the Mir-i-Arab madrasah and the Labi-Hauz complex, which includes the Kukeltash madrasah, a group of buildings ranged around a water reservoir, whose still waters throw back an image of the buildings and their attendant trees. Another of the great monuments of Bukhara is a structure called the Char Minar (Four Minarets) mosque. Completed in 1807, the Char Minar is a most arresting building, certainly one of the most original structures in Bukhara of the late Muslim period, but still only one of many memorable monuments which the energetic visitor will discover.

If Samarkand offers the most striking Islamic monuments of Central Asia, and Bukhara the most varied, Khiva offers the most picturesque. Walking along the narrow, dusty streets of this once thriving town set in an arid, uncompromising landscape, it is easy to imagine an earlier more violent age when, as the In tourist guide is sure to remind visitors, the ears of recalcitrant serfs were nailed to the great wooden doors at the entrance of the bazaar, and the khan sent out into the neighboring countryside for choice young brides. The Uzbek Khanate of Khiva was, until the late 18th century, little more than a refuge for caravan robbers, but after that it gradually became more civilized, the artistic genius of its people blossomed and an attractive, well-built town began to take form. Because of its relative isolation and the legendary violence of its people, Khiva was only slowly drawn into the modern world, and it was not until 1873 that the Khan of Khiva formally accepted the sovereignty of the Czar. The town, unlike many in Central. Asia, suffered hardly at all from either armed assault or the good intentions of modern planners, and today it survives as an unspoiled relic of the past, a unique example of Islamic city architecture.

The town has an inner city, Ichan-Kala, which is surrounded by a completely preserved wall of clay and sunbaked brick, intersected by gateways and punctuated by bastions. Outside there are groves of mulberry trees, orchards and tiny vineyards. Beyond these lie the irrigated fields, and still further are the sand dunes of the Kara Kum, dotted with tufts of long dry grass and thorns, upon which the hardy Khiva sheep somehow manage to thrive.

In Ichan-Kala there are two palaces, the Kunya Arg (Old Castle) of the 18th century, and the Tash Hauli (Stone House), built around 1830. Attractive in their simplicity as both these buildings are, more beautiful is the mausoleum of the local hero, the poet and wrestler Pahlovan Mahmud, built in 1835. It has an octagonal dome and inside the blue and white tiled walls and ceilings are completely covered with an elaborate design of interlacing leaves, stems and flowers, gazelles and Arabic calligraphy. The most striking monuments of Khiva are, however, its two minarets, which dominate the skyline: the Kok Minar (Green Minaret), sometimes called the Kalta Minar (Short Minaret), and the Khoja Islam. The former was begun in 1852 but never finished, its unusually large diameter suggesting that it was originally destined to reach a dizzying height; while the latter, built in 1908, may fairly claim to be the last great architectural achievement of Islam in Central Asia.

One of the notable features of Khiva's monuments is their exquisite decoration, the local artisans revealing a delicate command over their craft, whether working on tile, on wood, or in plaster. Particularly noteworthy is the rich variety of their motifs, ranging from the fairly traditional star-shaped figures inscribed within pentagons, to complex vegetal and floral patterns of varying intricacy.

Around old Khiva a new town has arisen, whose modern apartment buildings and spacious public gardens are eloquent testimony to government efforts to create a pleasing environment. Meanwhile, the government of the Uzbeki Soviet Socialist Republic has decreed that the ancient district of Ichan-Kala shall be a museum zone. For over a decade the streets and squares of the old town have been repaired, the buildings restored, and local ceramists are patching up the crumbling tile work of the mausoleum of Pahlovan Mahmud and the palace of Tash-Hauli. The old is being cared for amid the development of the new.

It would be misleading to suggest that Islam is actively flourishing in Central Asia; but, as King Khalid of Saudi Arabia recently suggested in an interview, it would be inaccurate to suggest that it was being crushed. The Muslim faith endures, and while the muezzin's call can no longer be heard ringing out over the towns of Soviet Central Asia, the faithful continue to attend prayers, as they have for the past 1,000 years. Meanwhile, the mosques and madrasahs are gradually being restored to their former glory, their presence serving as a reminder of the powerful spiritual force which sustained and animated both the armies of Tamerlane and the intellectual enthusiasm of Ulug Beg, as well as a large percentage of the citizens of Soviet Central Asia today.

John Munro is a professor of English at the American University of Beirut and author of eight books.

This article appeared on pages 6-13 of the January/February 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1976 images.