Friday, December 31

Ulugh Beg

Timur's son Shah Rukh was infatuated of a Persian 'slave' girl. Goharshad (Jawahar Shad or Jewel Shining) came from a family of nobles from Herat (Afghanistan), who had been previously allied to Genghis Khan; and, after Timur's conquest of the area, swore submission to him to retain their governorship of the province. Under Goharshad's influence, Shah Rukh became more and more Persianized, living the cultured life in Herat rather than the military life on horseback. Timur thoroughly disapproved. In 1394, a son was born to Goharshad in Soltaniyeh, in Zanjan province NW of Tehran. Mirza Mohammad Tāraghay bin Shah Rukh, later to be called Ulugh Beg or Great Ruler, would come to be the greatest astronomer of his time. The crater Ulugh Beg on the moon is named after him.

As a child, Ulugh Beg was taken across most of the Middle East and India as his grandfather went about trashing those areas. We have read of Timur's India campaign earlier (see post on Shakhrisabz.) After his return from the subcontinent, Timur started wars with the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Mamluk empire of Egypt. He invaded Syria, sacked Aleppo and captured Damascus after defeating the Mamluk army. The city's inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand. This led to Timur's being publicly declared an enemy of Islam (he was no longer only killing non-Muslims.) To restore his status as ghazi, in 1400 Timur invaded Christian Armenia and Georgia. Of those that survived the slaughter, more than 60,000 were captured as slaves, and many districts were depopulated. Timur then invaded Baghdad in June 1401. After he captured the city, Timur ordered every soldier to return with at least two severed human heads (once again, that these would be Muslim heads did not matter, under the doctrine of necessity.) His hordes were so scared of his wrath that they had started stockpiling prisoners earlier in the campaign to ensure they had a supply of heads to present on demand.

Meanwhile, under the patronage of Ulugh Beg's mother Goharshad, who had emerged as the power behind Shah Rukh's governorship, Persian became the court culture amongst the early Timurids. She led a renaissance through her lavish patronage of the arts, attracting to Herat artists, architects, philosophers and poets, all acknowledged to be the world's most illustrious at the time, including Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman 'Jami', one of the greatest Persian poets of the15th century and one of the last great Sufis. In breaks between his grandfather's pillage and rapine, Ulugh Beg spent time composing diwan with his mother and watching his father build a great library. Such, then, was his education.

As soon as Timur died in 1405, his empire fell apart. The Qara Qoyunlu (Black Sheep) tribes of Turcomans (whose ruler Qara Yusuf had been sent flying to Egypt by Timur in 1400) sacked the western part of the empire, capturing Tabriz by 1406 and Baghdad by 1409. The Aq Qoyunlu (White Sheep) Turcomans rebelled in Eastern Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan. In Persia and Transoxiana, Shāh Rukh was able to secure effective control from about 1409. Fortunately, these contained the trading routes of the Silk Road, and Shah Rukh became immensely wealthy from the tax revenues, perhaps more so than his father did from pillage. Shah Rukh moved the capital to Herat, deciding to put his son in control of Samarkand; the 16-year-old Ulugh Beg thus became his father's deputy and the ruler of the Mawaraunnahr (Transoxus) region.

Gradually, Ulugh Beg would go about making Samarkand a center of science and learning. In 1417, to endow the study of astronomy, Ulugh Beg began building a madrasah at what would become the Registan Square in Samarkand; he then began to appoint the best scientists he could find to positions thence as lecturers. One of the recruits was Ghiyāth al-Dīn Jamshīd Masʾūd al-Kāshī; a letter from al-Kāshī to his father has survived and affords a glimpse into the intellectual life at Ulugh Beg's court. In this letter (translated in Studies In The Islamic Exact Sciences) the lecturer writes of his patron:

(Ulugh Beg) himself cultivates the branches of mathematics, and this has reached the extent that one day while riding he wanted to determine the date, which was a Monday of [the month of] Rajab, between the fifth and the tenth in the year eight hundred and eighteen (A. H.), as to what day it was of the (astronomical) season of the year. From these very given data, by mental computation, and from horseback, he determined the true longitude of the sun (correct) to degrees and minutes. When he came back he asked this humble servant about it. Truly, since in mental computation the quantities must be retained by memory and others determined, and there is a limit to one's strength of retention, he (i.e. I) was not able to extract it to degrees and minutes, but contented myself with degrees.

Ulugh Beg also built an observatory to match the school. Lacking telescopes, he obtained his accuracy of astronomical observations by constructing a giant sextant; the Fakhri-style mural sextant had a radius of about 40 meters (and the optical separability of 180" of arc.) Around 1437, i.e. almost a century before Copernicus, Ulugh Beg determined the length of the sidereal year to be 365d 5h 49m 15s, which has an error of +25s, making it more accurate than Copernicus' estimate (which had an error of +30s.) Ulugh Beg then determined the Earth's axial tilt as 23.52 degrees, which remains the most accurate measurement to date; it is more accurate than later measurements by Copernicus and Tycho Brahe, and matches the currently accepted value precisely (see Hugh Thurston's Early Astronomy, p194 for a comparison of historical measurements of the axial tilt.)

The trigonometric results from Ulugh Beg's observatory include tables of sines and tangents, given at intervals of 1° (like schoolboys used to have to consult). His calculation was built on an accurate determination of sin 1°, which Ulugh Beg first shewed to be the solution of a cubic equation and then solved by numerical methods. He obtained
sin 1° = 0.0174 5240 6437 2835 71
Contemporary online astrophysical calculators give the value as
sin 1° = 0.0174 5240 6437 28
A more correct approximation apparently is
sin 1° = 0.0174 5240 6437 2835 12820
which shows the remarkable accuracy -- correct up to a part in a quadrillion -- that Ulugh Beg achieved. At this precision, he would have been able to measure the distance to Voyager I (currently at 16 light-hours away the most distant man-made object, and taker of the famous pale-blue-dot photo) accurately to about a third of a millimeter; or hit an elephant on Proxima Centauri.


Ulugh Beg's scientific expertise was not matched by his skills in politics. He kept losing his forefathers' territories, and in 1448 faced a particularly bloody uprising in his father's former fiefdom in Herat which he failed to suppress in spite of ordering Timur-style massacres. Within two years, he was beheaded by his own eldest son, 'Abd al-Latif, while on his way to Mecca. Later, his remains were placed in the Gur-i-Emir (Timur's tomb) in Samarkand, and they were rediscovered there by Russian archeologists in 1941. It was discovered that Ulugh Beg had been buried in his clothes, which is known to indicate that he was considered a martyr; when his exhumed body was examined the injuries were described as:

... the third cervical vertebra was severed by a sharp instrument in such a way that the main portion of the body and an arc of that vertebra were cut cleanly; the blow, struck from the left, also cut through the right corner of the lower jaw and its lower edge.

In other words, his neck was chopped off; according to legend, from behind as he pored over star tables; to be a metaphor for the fate of learning in front of power (and it must be noted that Galileo nearly suffered a similar fate.)


What of Goharshad, Ulugh Beg's mother? In his book Taliban, Ahmed Rashid tells a story:

One day in the company of 200 'ruby lipped', beautiful ladies in waiting, (Goharshad) inspected a mosque and madrassa complex she was building on the outskirts of Herat. The madrassa students (or taliban) had been asked to vacate the premises while the Queen and her entourage visited, but one student had fallen asleep in his room. He was woken by an exquisitely attractive lady-in-waiting. When she rejoined the Queen, the lady was panting and dishevelled by the exertions of passionate love-making and thus she was discovered. Instead of punishing her or the student, the Queen ordered all her ladies-in-waiting to marry the students in a mass ceremony so as to bless them and ensure they avoided temptation in the future. She gave each student clothes and a salary and ordered husband and wife meet once a week as long as the students studied hard. It was the kind of story that epitomized the liberal, human tradition of Islam and madrassa education in Herat.

The Taliban had no knowledge of Herat's history or traditions. They arrived to drive Herati women indoors. People were barred from visiting the shrines of Sufi saints of which Herat had an abundance. The Taliban canceled out years of effort by the Mujaheddin commander Ismael Khan to educate the population, by shutting down all girls' schools. Most boys' schools also closed as their teachers were women.

Goharshad lived to be 80, plotting, parrying and patronizing, the de-facto power in the Persian part of Timur's fragmenting empire, a strong woman in a man's world. About a decade after Ulugh Beg's murder, Abū Saʿīd, warlord of Yasi (modern-day southern Kazakhstan), great-grandson of Timur, grandson of Miran Shah, nephew of Ulugh Beg, and grandfather of Babur, captured Herat, and had the old queen executed.


Near the historical Afrosiab (more on that later) is Ulugh Beg's hill, now a musuem filled with astrolabes and pictures of life at his court. Outside, there is a statue of Mirza Ulugh Beg, framed against a background of the milky way and stars.

Here is the museum on Ulugh Beg's hill. Beyond the distant mountains lies Tajikistan.

Wednesday, December 29

The Road To Samarkand

M39 over a small outcrop of the Pamirs, via Kishlyk, Kizyl-Turuk, Dzhana; leaving the highway to cross the Zarafshan near Urtashikh; into Samarkand from the S:

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,

White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
And softly through the silence beat the bells
Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

-- James Elroy Flecker.


In 329 BCE Bessus, the last Achaemenid king of Persia, was deposed and jailed to Nautaca, the ancient Zoroastrian town of the Nine-Horse Races. Alexander spent time here with his beloved Bactrian wife Roxana, it was cool at an altitude of 600m over the steppe, so-much-so that in the middle ages it came to be known as Kash (heart-pleasing.) In this town in 1336 was born a tyrant of tyrants, Timur the Lame. It is said that the tiny infant's palms were filled with blood at birth. Timur expanded and built out the family seat in Aksarai -- White Residence -- and renamed the town as Shakhr-i-sabz (Shahr-i-sabz) -- City of Green. Today, his statue dominates the approach to the collapsed entrance arch. Below, newly married couples congregate for photos of their "Russian" (i.e. civil or registry) marriages decked in gowns and tuxedos (the "Uzbek" or traditional wedding to be performed later at home), under the benevolent eye of Amir Timur.

From the Tuzk-i-Timuri:

"The History of my expedition against Hindustan:

About this time there arose in my heart the desire to lead an expedition against the infidels, and to become a ghází; for it had reached my ears that the slayer of infidels is a ghází, and if he is slain he becomes a martyr. It was on this account that I formed this resolution, but I was undetermined in my mind whether I should direct my expedition against the infidels of China or against the infidels and polytheists of India. In this matter I sought an omen from the Kurán, and the verse I opened upon was this, “O Prophet, make war upon infidels and un­believers, and treat them with severity.”

My great officers told me that the inhabitants of Hindustán were infidels and unbelievers. In obedience to the order of Almighty God I determined on an expedition against them, and I issued orders to the amírs of mature years, and the leaders in war, to come before me, and when they had come together I questioned the assembly as to whether I should invade Hindustán or China, and said to them, “By the order of God and the Prophet it is incumbent upon me to make war upon these infidels and polytheists.” ...

At this time the prince Sháh Rukh said: “India is an extensive country; whatever Sultán conquers it becomes supreme over the four quarters of the globe; if, under the conduct of our amír, we conquer India, we shall become rulers over the seven climes.” He then said: “I have seen in the history of Persia that, in the time of the Persian Sultáns, the King of India was called Dáráí, with all honour and glory. On account of his dignity he bore no other name; and the Emperor of Rome was called Cæsar, and the Sultán of Persia was called Kisra, and the Sultán of the Tátárs, Khákán, and the Emperor of China, Faghfúr; but the King of Írán and Túrán bore the title of Sháhinsháh, and the orders of the Sháhinsháh were always paramount over the princes and Rájás of Hindustán, and praise be to God that we are at this time Sháhinsháh of Írán and Túrán, and it would be a pity that we should not be supreme over the country of Hindustán.” I was excessively pleased with these words of Prince Sháh Rukh. Then the Prince Muhammad Sultán said: “The whole country of India is full of gold and jewels, and in it there are seventeen mines of gold and silver, diamond and ruby and emerald and tin and iron and steel and copper and quicksilver, etc., and of the plants which grow there are those fit for making wearing apparel, and aromatic plants, and the sugar cane, and it is a country which is always green and verdant, and the whole aspect of the country is pleasant and delightful. Now, since the inhabitants are chiefly polytheists and infidels and idolaters and worshipers of the sun, by the order of God and his prophet, it is right for us to conquer them."

Timur's piety is keenly informed by the prospect of loot; in fact the more his nobles talk about the wealth of India, the more anxiously does Timur consult his theologians:

"My wazírs informed me that the whole amount of the revenue of India is six arbs; now each arb is a 100 krors, and each kror is a 100 lacs, and each lac is a 100,000 miskáls of silver. Some of the nobles said, “By the favour of Almighty God we may conquer India, but if we establish ourselves permanently therein, our race will degenerate and our children will become like the natives of those regions, and in a few generations their strength and valour will diminish.” The amírs of regiments (kushúnát) were disturbed at these words, but I said to them, “My object in the invasion of Hindustán is to lead an expedition against the infidels that, according to the law of Muhammad (upon whom and his family be the blessing and peace of God), we may con­vert to the true faith the people of that country, and purify the land itself from the filth of infidelity and polytheism; and that we may overthrow their temples and idols and become gházís and mujáhids before God.” They gave an unwilling consent, but I placed no reliance upon them. At this time the wise men of Islám came before me, and a conversation began about the pro­priety of a war against infidels and polytheists; they gave it as their opinion that it is the duty of the Sultán of Islám, and all the people who profess that “there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah,” for the sake of preserving their religion and strengthening their law, to exert their utmost endeavour for the suppression of the enemies of their faith. "

On Dec 15, 1398, Timur prepared to attack Delhi. In his campaign through the Punjab, he had accumulated 100,000 Hindu prisoners of war, who were clearly a security-risk if left behind amongst baggage as the main army engaged in war.

"Massacre of 100,000 Hindus:

At this Court Amír Jahán Sháh and Amír Sulaimán Sháh, and other amírs of experience, brought to my notice that, from the time of entering Hindustán up to the present time, we had taken more than 100,000 infidels and Hindus prisoners, and that they were all in my camp. On the previous day, when the enemy's forces made the attack upon us, the prisoners made signs of rejoicing, uttered imprecations against us, and were ready, as soon as they heard of the enemy's success, to form themselves into a body, break their bonds, plunder our tents, and then to go and join the enemy, and so increase his numbers and strength. I asked their advice about the prisoners, and they said that on the great day of battle these 100,000 prisoners could not be left with the baggage, and that it would be entirely opposed to the rules of war to set these idolaters and foes of Islám at liberty. In fact, no other course remained but that of making them all food for the sword. When I heard these words I found them in accordance with the rules of war, and I directly gave my com­mand for the Tawáchís to proclaim throughout the camp that every man who had infidel prisoners was to put them to death, and whoever neglected to do so should himself be executed and his property given to the informer. When this order became known to the gházís of Islám, they drew their swords and put their prisoners to death. 100,000 infidels, impious idolaters, were on that day slain. Mauláná Násiru-d dín 'Umar, a counsellor and man of learning, who, in all his life, had never killed a sparrow, now, in execution of my order, slew with his sword fifteen idolatrous Hindus, who were his captives."

Around 1400, it is estimated the world population was 350 million. India and China have consistently had 1/3 of the world population, and each has been roughly as populous as the other. By this reasoning, around the time of Timur, the population of India was around 60 million. As a proportion of population, then, 100,000 killed in one night is like a contemporary slaughter of 2 million souls -- if not in terms of the banality of mass-murder, at least in terms of impact on the economy and society. If you consider the killing to be limited to Punjab's the then-population of ~5 million, and assume the prisoners were mostly able-bodied men, then that single night's work represents a decimation: killing one able-bodied man in ten. Then there is more:

"Sack of the City of Dehlí:

On the 16th of the month some incidents occurred which led to the sack of the city of Dehlí, and to the slaughter of many of the infidel inhabitants. One was this. A party of fierce Turk soldiers had assembled at one of the gates of the city to look about them and enjoy themselves, and some of them laid violent hands upon the goods of the inhabitants. When I heard of this violence, I sent some amírs, who were present in the city, to restrain the Turks. A party of soldiers accompanied these amírs into the city. Another reason was that some of the ladies of my harem expressed a wish to go into the city and see the palace of Hazár-sutún (thousand columns) which Malik Jauná built in the fort called Jahán-panáh. I granted this request, and I sent a party of soldiers to escort the litters of the ladies. Another reason was that Jalál Islám and other díwáns had gone into the city with a party of soldiers to collect the contribution laid upon the city. Another reason was that some thousand troopers with orders for grain, oil, sugar, and flour, had gone into the city to collect these supplies. Another reason was that it had come to my knowledge that great numbers of Hindus and gabrs, with their wives and children, and goods, and valuables, had come into the city from all the country round, and consequently I had sent some amírs with their regiments (kushún) into the city and directed them to pay no attention to the remonstrances of the inhabitants, but to seize and bring out these fugitives. For these several reasons a great number of fierce Turkí soldiers were in the city. When the soldiers proceeded to apprehend the Hindus and gabrs who had fled to the city, many of them drew their swords and offered resistance. The flames of strife were thus lighted and spread through the whole city from Jahán-panáh and Sírí to Old Dehlí, burning up all it reached. The savage Turks fell to killing and plundering. The Hindus set fire to their houses with their own hands, burned their wives and children in them, and rushed into the fight and were killed. The Hindus and gabrs of the city showed much alacrity and boldness in fighting. The amírs who were in charge of the gates prevented any more soldiers from going into the place, but the flames of war had risen too high for this precaution to be of any avail in extinguishing them. On that day, Thursday, and all the night of Friday, nearly 15,000 Turks were engaged in slaying, plundering, and destroying. When morning broke on the Friday, all my army, no longer under control, went off to the city and thought of nothing but killing, plundering, and making prisoners. All that day the sack was general. The following day, Saturday, the 17th, all passed in the same way, and the spoil was so great that each man secured from fifty to a hundred prisoners, men, women, and children. There was no man who took less than twenty. The other booty was immense in rubies, diamonds, garnets, pearls, and other gems; jewels of gold and silver; ashrafís, tankas of gold and silver of the celebrated 'Aláí coinage; vessels of gold and silver; and brocades and silks of great value. Gold and silver ornaments of the Hindu women were obtained in such quantities as to exceed all account. Ex­cepting the quarter of the saiyids, the 'ulamá, and the other Musulmáns, the whole city was sacked. The pen of fate had written down this destiny for the people of this city. Although I was desirous of sparing them I could not succeed, for it was the will of God that this calamity should fall upon the city."

In December 1398 Timur marched on Meerut and destroyed that city. He then rode up to Haridwar and sacked the holy city on January 23, 1399.

"Information was also brought to me that all the men whom I had defeated in the valley of Kútila, before coming hither, had not been killed. The day having drawn to a close, many had escaped and were hiding in the thickets and broken ground. Neither had all their property been plundered. So I resolved to go again next day to that valley, and to put all the surviving infidels to death. At dawn on the 5th Jumáda-l awwal I said my morning prayer, and started with a suitable force for the valley of Kútila, which lies at the foot of a lofty mountain and on the banks of the Ganges ... My brave men displayed great courage and daring; they made their swords their banners, and exerted themselves in slaying the foe. They slaughtered many of the infidels, and pursued those who fled to the mountains. So many of them were killed that their blood ran down the mountains and the plain, and thus (nearly) all were sent to hell. The few who escaped, wounded, weary, and half dead, sought refuge in the defiles of the hills. Their property and goods, which exceeded all computation, and their countless cows and buffalos, fell as spoil into the hands of my victorious soldiers." ...

And then on to Kashmir:

"When my eyes fell upon the Rája of Jammú, who was wounded and a prisoner, fear took possession of his heart, and he agreed to pay certain sums of money and to become a Musulmán if I would spare his life. I instantly ordered him to be taught the creed, and he repeated it and became a Muhammadan. Among these infidels there is no greater crime and abomination than eating the flesh of a cow or killing a cow, but he ate the flesh in the company of Musulmáns. When he had thus been received into the fold of the faithful, I ordered my surgeons to attend to his wounds, and I honoured him with a robe and royal favours."

By April 1400, Timur had returned to his own capital beyond the Amu Darya. Immense quantities of spoils and slaves were taken from India. According to Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo, 90 captured elephants were employed merely to carry precious stones looted from his conquest, so as to erect a mosque at Samarkand – what historians today believe is the enormous Bibi-Khanym Mosque. Unlike Genghis Khan, whose slaughters were aimed strategically, at holding and retaining territory, Timur's great killings served no long term purpose altogether; he did not establish any administration or society to replace ('better' being asking for too much) what he destroyed. In the space of a just a century or two, the foolish grandeur he had tried to bring to Samarqand was in ruins (most of what you see in the footage is the result of Russian restoration.)


Till the dissolution of the USSR, Timur was treated as a local brigand by the state. Since Uzbekistan's reluctant independence in 1991, the cult of Lenin has given way to a cult of Timur. From Robert Rand's Tamerlane's Children (see post on Sevara Nazarxon below):

(Edvard) 'Rtveladze is Uzbekistan's foremost Tamerlane scholar. I wondered whether the decision to make Amir Timur the nation's father figure was a controversial one, given Timur's record as a brutal warrior ...

“Was there any protest of the decision to elevate Timur?” I asked.

Rtveladze, a wiry man with green eyes and a weathered face, leaned forward on his desk. It was Karimov's decision, he said, and his alone. “Literally, this intiative to create the cult of Timur as a national hero came from him.”

“By the way,” he added, “our President knows history very well. I have often discussed history personally with him, on various excursions to our museums, and he has sufficient historical knowledge to determine who should be the national symbol of Uzbekistan.”

“Was there any opposition to the choice of Timur, given his violent track record?” I asked.

“There was among scholars,” Rtveladze said. “Among the country's intelligentsia there were discussions that Timur shouldn't be made a national hero because he was a cruel conqueror of other peoples, and so forth. But, you know, history is complicated and multi-dimensional. It is difficult to evaluate the role of the individual in history.”

Rtveladze took a drag on a cigarette, one of the many he smoked during our conversation. His office overlooks the Cabinet of Ministers building, the functional arm of Karimov's government. And overlooking Rtveladze, on the wall above his desk, is a photograph of Edvard Rtveladze with the Uzbek President. '


Below, the drive from Bukhara through Qarshi and G'uzor; Shakhrisabz, and Aksarai palace.

Tuesday, December 28


We are driving on the stretch of road between Qarshi (Karshi) and G'uzor (Guzar.) The Afghan border is beyond the hills that loom on the SE horizon, they look probably fifty miles away. This is a tense part in a tense country. We are stopped by the militsia; when they find everything is in order they frog-march Jora, our protesting Russian driver, into a little room a distance from the road; later he emerges with a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt. (No one wears a seatbelt in Uzbekistan.) We drive away. "Crazy" says Jora, making the international sign for lunacy by holding a finger to his temple and tracing circles.

Guru Nanak had apparently passed through these parts on his way to the Arabian peninsula c. 1515. There is a Nanak Qalandar (i.e. Nanak the Dervish) shrine just to the south of Qarshi. (At Mecca, the Guru was assaulted by the Qazis, who took offense at Nanak sleeping with his feet towards the Kaaba; "Tell me, O Musulmans, which side God Is not?" he is supposed to have asked.)

Just east of Karshi, at Khanabad, is a new, empty former US airbase. Between 2001 and 2005 the United States Air Force used the base aka Karshi-Khanabad, K2, or "Stronghold Freedom" for missions against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. After the Andijon Massacre (more on that presently) strained relations between George W. Bush and Islam Karimov, the US was told to vacate the base within six months; which it did.

The countryside is more prosperous as we drive east. Brick buildings and whitewashed villages have replaced the mud-thatches of the western districts.

G'uzor is likely connected to the the Turkic tribal name Göçer. Scott Cameron Levi, in his The Indian Diaspora in Central Asia and its Trade (see Havildar In Bukhara below) mentions Kazar (Khazar) and Kujar (Gujar) as two different tribes with links to Central Asia. In India, around the time of the Hun invasions in the 6th century, sun ("Mihir") worshipping sheep herders, the Gujjars or Gurjara, appear in the Indian northwest, slowly seeping into the culture and the gene-pool. The town of G'uzor was an important stop in the caravan route between Kabul and Bukhara; the Qashqadaryo flows through the Qarshi steppe without drain, providing many a watering hole for sheep and camel.


In the spring of 1941 I, and some 200,000 Polish citizens living in Eastern Poland, were conscripted into the Russian Red Army. I was transported from Lwow (Lviv) to Voroshylovsk (Stavropol) in the Northern Caucasus. In July 1942 I escaped and travelled from Krasnodar to Guzar (Uzbekistan) where I joined Polish Army commanded by Gen. W. Anders. In August we left for Persia.

From The Warsaw Voice, dated Apr 25 2007:

"On the outskirts of the town (of Guzar) is the largest Polish war cemetery in Central Asia. About 700 Polish soldiers were laid to rest here, after serving in the East under the command of General Władysław Anders. There are also the graves of an unidentified number of civilians, including women and children, who were part of the evacuation of Poles from Soviet territory in 1942. These people are among the thousands of Poles deported to Siberia and northern Kazakhstan by the Soviet powers in the first years of Word War II. The formation of the Polish army in the East created the possibility of freedom from Soviet labor camps. The road through Central Asia was a road through purgatory. People were starving and wracked by disease. They were tormented by difficult climate conditions and were usually dressed in rags. They walked south, through Uzbekistan and then through Turkmenistan to reach Persia, which was governed by the British at the time. Thousands died on this road, from hunger, exhaustion and dysentery and other diseases.

During the Soviet years, Polish war cemeteries in Central Asia were largely forgotten. For communist officials, these events did not exist. The end of communism brought with it the opportunity to restore the memory of those tragic times. The Council for the Remembrance of Struggle and Martyrdom set about intensive work documenting those years. It began looking for war cemeteries, and after locating them started reconstruction work, thanks to the cooperation of Kazakh and Uzbek officials.

In contrast to other parts of the former Soviet Union, cemeteries in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were not deliberately destroyed. Their devastation is the effect of time and climate conditions, not the activities of town residents or Soviet powers. After many years of reconstruction, 13 cemeteries are now fully restored-two in Kazakhstan and 11 in Uzbekistan."

Monday, December 27


Mohammed Alim Khan, the final Emir of Bukhara (overthrown by Bolsheviks in 1920), had been the last direct descendent of Genghis Khan to rule over a nation. Ayni Sadriddin, creator of the contemporary world of Tajik letters, was flogged by Alim Khan for daring to speak in Tajik in Bukhara. Sadriddin wrote of life under the often capricious and sadistic Emirs in his book Jallodon-i-Bukhara (The Executioners of Bukhara.)

From stuffing debtors into sacks of starving wild cats, to flaying captured Russians (pushing straw under the skin to separate it from the entire body, and then displaying the still-alive victim from ramparts), to throwing thieves off minarets every Friday for public edification, Central Asia has probably seen it all when it comes to psychological warfare. In 1839, following the British invasion of Afghanistan, Col. Charles Stoddart was sent to Bukhara by the Lord Auckland, Governor General of India, to convey to the then Emir Nasrullah (aka Emir-i-Qassab, the Butcher Emir, who had cleared his own path to the throne killing all his brothers as well as several dozen close relatives) the benign intentions of the British towards his khanate. Stoddart, clueless of protocol, mortified the Emir by riding up to him (instead of approaching bowing and scraping on foot), carrying no gifts, and, quelle horreur, bearing a letter not from Queen Victoria (whom Nasrullah regarded his equal sovereign) but from Auckland. The piqued Nasrullah had Stoddart thrown into the feared scorpion dungeon. Captain Arthur Conolly arrived in 1841 to secure Stoddart's release; he too was thrown in with Stoddart.

On January 1, 1842, the British in Kabul and a number of Afghan chiefs reached an agreement that provided for the exodus of the entire British garrison and its dependents from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Ghilzai and allied tribes had not been among those who had signed the agreement, and during the retreat by some 4,500 British and Indian troops with 12,000 camp followers, as the would-be-invaders struggled back down the snowbound passes, the Ghilzai struck. Dr. W. Brydon is usually cited as the only survivor of the march to Jalalabad (out of more than 15,000 who undertook the retreat.) After Auckland's Folly, Abdul Samed Khan at the Emir's court instigated the theory that British power would never extend into Central Asia from India. On June 24 1842, the delirious Stoddart and Conolly were pulled out of the pit of scorpions, marched out to the Registan, and, to the festive tune of shehnai from the Ark Citadel, made to dig receptacle pits for their own blood before being beheaded.

Subsequently, here is Vámbéry c. 1863:

"The infamous Abdul Samed Khan, the murderer of Conolly, Stoddart, and Naselli, had in the meantime been overtaken by a righteous punishment. The Emir, who had sent him to ShehriSebz, was at last convinced of his treason, and, not being able to reach him by forcible means, sought to employ artifice to get possession of his person. Abdul Samed evaded his fate a long time, but finally fell into the snare laid for him, and, aware of the presence of the executioner in the ante-room, he rent up his belly with his own poniard, to irritate by his death a master so like himself in character.

I heard from good authority that the death of the Emir Nasrullah was solely owing to a paroxysm of rage at the constant ill success that attended his campaigns against Khokand, and the unprecedented obstinacy with which the city of Sheri-Sebz resisted, for although he had taken the field thirty times against it, and had been then besieging it six months, it was all without effect. Upon this occasion his adversary was a certain Veliname, whose sister he had married to obtain by the connection a faithful vassal in the brother of his wife. Now it happened that the news of the capture reached the Emir when on his deathbed ; although half senseless, the tyrant ordered his rebel brother-in-law to be put to death with all his children. But as circumstances prevented him from feasting his eyes with that spectacle of blood, in the evening, a few hours before his death, he summoned, to his presence his wife, the sister of Veliname; the unhappy woman, who had borne him two children, trembled, but the dying Emir was not softened—she was executed close to his couch, and the abominable tyrant breathed his last breath with his glazing eye fixed upon the gushing blood of the sister of his detested enemy."

Friday, December 24


Like A Dog: "In the beginning of my Travel on this Way, I met a lover of Allah and he told me, 'it seems as if you are from Us.' I told him, 'I hope you are from Us and I hope to be a friend to you.' One time he asked me, 'how do you treat your self?' I said to him, 'If I find something I thank Allah and if not I am patient.' He smiled and said, 'This is easy. The way for you is to burden your ego and to test it. If it loses food for one week, you must be able to keep it from disobeying you.' I was very happy with his answer and I asked his support. He ordered me to help the needy and to serve the weak and to motivate the heart of the brokenhearted. He rdered me to keep humbleness and humility and tolerance. I kept his orders and I spent many days of my life in that manner. Then he ordered me to take care of animals, to cure their sicknesses, to clean their wounds, and to assist them in finding their provision. I kept on that way until I reached the state that if I saw an animal in the street, I would stop and make way for it."

"Then he ordered me to look after the dogs of this Association with Truthfulness and Humility, and to ask them for support. He told me, 'Because of your service to one of them you will reach great happiness.' I took that order in the hope that I would find one dog and through service to him I would find that happiness. One day I was in the association of one of them and I felt a great state of happiness overcome me. I began crying in front of him until he fell on his back and raised his forepaws to the skies. I heard a very sad voice emanating from him and so I raised my hands in supplication and began to say 'amin' in support of him until he became silent. What then opened for me was a vision which brought me to a state in which I felt that I was part of every human being and part of every creation on this earth." -- Shah Naqshband.

Bakhtoudin (Baha-ud-din) Naqshband (1318-1389), a Bukhari Persian of Arab origin, was a Sufi master whose Tariqa, or Method, or Order, would become one of the most 'potent' of the ten-or-so such orders. Since its advent, Islam functioned as a top-down ideology of power and political consolidation (which organized religion doesn't?) ; from the Transoxian substratum of Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism arose a bottom-up response as the Peoples Religion of the Sufis.

While most of the Sufi orders 'connect' to Muhammad via that most charismatic of the Arabs, Ali, the Naqshbandiyya trace the golden chain back to the Prophet via his original gerontocratic business partner, Abu-Bakr. Feeling the tug of the center-of-gravity of popular religion, the 'papacy' of the Naqshbandi order moves from Arabia to Iran c. 850 CE (Bayazid Bastami of Bistaam), to Turkmenistan c. 1150 CE (Yusuf al-Hamadani of Bayram-Ali), to Uzbekistan c. 1200 CE (Abdul Khaliq al-Ghujdawani of Ghijdawan). After Bakhtoudin, the order is called Naqshbandiyya, meaning (depending on interpretation) "the engravers (of the heart)", "related to the image-maker", "pattern maker", "image maker", "reformer of patterns", "way of the chain" and "golden chain." It is also possible that, in deference to the instruction to Sufi masters to keep a vocation howsoever humble (as inoculation against becoming a grandee), Bakhtoudin became a maker of the kind of patterned majolica tiles that decorate every monument in Central Asia.

Bakhtoudin's shrine in a village 30-minutes out of Bukhara is Uzebekistan's (and perhaps Central Asia's) holiest place. You can see the stream of people content to caress the inscriptions on his tomb in the video clip accompanying the post on Hodja Nasruddin below (start around minute 6:30.)

Circa 1600, in the reign of Akbar, the Naqshbandi chain passes into India (to Baqi Billah Berang of Delhi.) It stays in India across several centuries of masters in Sirhind and Delhi; after the more-Hindu-reconciled Chishtiyya becomes predominant in the subcontinent, the chain then moves back into Iraq c. 1800 (Khalid al-Baghdadi of Baghdad), and then to the Caucasus and Daghestan; today the head is in Turkish Cyprus (Mawlana Sheikh Nazim Al-Haqqani of Lamaca.)

Ma Laichi brought the Naqshbandi order to China, Chinese Naqshbandis played major roles in the Dungan Revolt (1895-96) against the Qing dynasty. All the Chinese Muslim warlords of the Ma Clique (Ma Zhan'ao, Ma Anliang, Ma Fulu, Ma Fuxiang, Ma Hongkui, Ma Hongbin, Ma Qi, Ma Bufang, and Ma Buqing -- Ma is typically Chinese for Muhammad) belonged to Naqshbandi Sufi orders.

In India, Naqshbandi theology tried to follow the changing space accorded to religion by state-policy. (Clearly, its spirit and structure allowed each Master to disagree with his elders, a sign of vitality.) The sect came to India during the time of Akbar, a relatively amicable period in Hindu-Muslim relations. Ahmed Sirhindi, 25th Naqshbandi Master, tried to take a position against Akbar's top-down syncretism, especially mixed marriages: "Muslims should follow their religion, and non-Muslims their ways, as the Qur'an enjoins 'for you yours and for me my religion.'" After Aurangzeb's fundamentalism, a popular backlash against his divisiveness enabled Mirza Mazhar Jan-i-Janan to declare a divine origin for the Vedas, which he claimed were revealed by God at the beginning of creation; he then declared acceptance of the Hindus as people of the book. In Mazhar's view, Rama and Krishna were both Prophets who preached the oneness of Vishnu, and their religion was one that pleased God; it is just that Hinduism should be 'updated' by the more recent revelation in the Quran. (Jan-i-Janan was subsequently assassinated in 1781, apparently by a Sunni zealot, for penning some praise of Ali.) A few months ago, the Dawn carried an interesting op-ed on Jan-i-Janan's position in this respect.

While the auls of the Sufis occupy the same space as the bauls of the Bhakti cults of Hinduism, it must be noted that Hindu sahajiya cults have no hierarchy or organization comparable to Sufism; their Masters do not go in jets to address Washington or New York; their adherents do not painstakingly maintain wiki pages showing how the Master is related to saints and kings of 'ere. The degree of need for hierarchy and legitimacy that contemporary Sufi orders exhibit indicate there must be spoils to be had for appearing legitimate.

As an antidote to Muslim fundamentalism, it has occurred to most of those governments not seduced by Wahhabism that co-opting organized Sufis may help get leverage on the 'good mussulmans' and split the ummah into those who sit inside the tent with secular powers, and who are consigned by history or geography (or just benightedness) to sit outside. The 'good mussulmans' have sensed the opportunity for official largesse if they can deliver a body of pliant moderates; go to Nizamuddin in Delhi, the mazaris will hand out nicely typed cards and fire up their laptops to enter your particulars in their 'subscribers' databases. The bauls are not thus co-opted, so still produce the music, the insight, the power to move men that the organized Sufis are fast losing.

In India, the Chishtiyya with their hallmark adoption of all devotional traditions was more able to transcend the Hindu-Muslim divide; to the point that Naqshbandiyya declined in the subcontinent and the Chishti became poster children for the official syncretism that fronts the Government's quest for a muscular nationalism modeled on the West (and also creates a sweet fantasy about how Muslims should be), as illustrated in the following propaganda clip.

Thursday, December 23

Hodja Nasruddin

On one side of the Lyabi Hauz in Bukhara is the bronze statue of a laughing man astride his donkey (around min 1:30 of the video clip below.)

Nasruddin, or Nasreddin, claimed by many nations and variously called Hodja, Goha, Mollah, J'ha, or Effendi, is the inspired simpleton of Sufi teachings. He lived in the 13th-14th centuries in some Turkic principality of Central Asia. From around the 17th century, many of his stories start to figure the despotic Timur. (It is not clear why.) Timur typically represents arbitrary authority and oppressive power in the Hodja corpus.


Central Asia lay smoldering at the feet of Timur's armies. One day there were rumors that Timur was heading for Mullah's village. Hearing this, Nasruddin in his Friday sermon called for a collective prayer "Let us all pray Timur the Lame dies before before he reaches us," All the villagers said amin loudly.
A man stood up from among the worshipers and asked, "Have you ever seen Timur?".
Mullah replied, "No, and I have not seen you before either".
The man said, "You are right, because I am Timur".
The Mullah was stunned by the news, and his congregation started shaking like leaves. He tried to say as calmly as he could "Let us pray once more collectively, this time our Janaza (funeral prayer)".
"How can you say your own Janaza, you fool", asked Timur, "Janaza is prayed by the living for the dead".
"Yes, my lord but you see" replied Mullah "We are all about to be dead with no one to say the Janaza for us. So we have to take care of our Janaza ourselves".
Timur laughed, pardoned the Mullah and gave a war elephant as his gift to the village.


The villagers soon discovered that the elephant ate their crops and trampled what he could not eat. The beast was of no use in their lives. However, they could not kill or sell the gift of Timur out of fear of his wrath. Naturally, they blamed the Mullah and demanded he find a solution. The Mullah was scared but reulctantly agreed on condition that all villagers should accompany him to petition Timur, so he would not be the only one to stick his neck out. His congregation faithfully promised to support him.

Timur was in a bad mood and shouted at the Mullah as he saw him. "What do you want?"
"Sire, it is about the elephant you gave us ..." the Mullah quavered.
"What about the elephant? Is my gift no good to you?" Timur's face darkened ominously. The villagers immediately took to their heels and disappeared over the horizon.
The Mullah turned and found no one behind him. Feeling cheated, he decided to take revenge.
"Oh, he is good alright, my lord!" the Mullah said, "It's just that he is all alone and feels sad. I was wondering if you can provide him with the company of a few female elephants".


Timur was in an inquisitive mood. "Hodja," he asked, "can you teach your donkey how to read?"
"Yes I can Great Timur."
"Come on now Hodja! How can you teach a donkey to read?"
The Hodja was adamant. "If you give me five years' time and 5000 gold coins, then I can also teach my donkey how to read."
"But if in five years' time, your donkey cannot read, then I will punish you most severely for trying to make a monkey out of Great Timur."
Nasruddin Hodja and Timur agreed on the terms, the Hodja took the 5000 gold coins and left Timur's luxurious palace. Hodja's friends who witnessed the deal were horrified.
"Hodja Effendi, what have you done! You know all a donkey can do is bray! Five years from now Timur will have your head chopped off!"
Nasruddin Hodja was very serene. "My dear fellows," he said calmly, "before five years are up, either I will die or Timur will die. Even if neither, the donkey will surely die!"


One day Nasruddin Hodja was called before Timur. Since Timur was famous for his barbarity, the Hodja, even though he was called to the Amir's presence often, feared him as much as the rest of men. This time, he decided to take some beets to Timur to put him in good humor. As he was on his way with his basket full of beets under his arm, he ran into a friend.
"Where to, Hodja Effendi?"
"Timur called for me. I am taking him beets."
The friend was horrified.
"Hodja Effendi, beets don't make a good gift! You'd be better off if you took him figs." Nasruddin took the counsel, went home and re-filled his basket with figs. Sadly, the Hodja had no idea that the dreaded ruler loathed figs. When he offered his basket of figs to him, Timur ordered his men to throw the figs one by one at Hodja's head. As the men showered the Hodja with one fig after another, the Hodja didn't seem to be distressed at all. He was laughing and praising Allah.
"What are you laughing at?", Timur roared, "Are you making fun of me? What are you being so thankful for?"
"Great Timur,' answered the Hodja, "I am grateful to my good friend and am thanking him. What would have been happening to me now, had I brought you beets instead of figs?"


If you want special illumination, look upon a human face:
See deeply, within laughter, the essence of ultimate truth.
- Jallaludin Rumi.

Wednesday, December 22


From ancient yurt by Aral sand
To hip-hop club in Samarqand
Under-ground, on land, in skies above
All-Uzbekistan there's always Plov.

Plov, Plov, O Glorious Plov
Nothing like it for Inner Glow
Take a pot, bring a pail
Cut choicest fat (from mutton tail) --

Saute onion, carrot, and lots of rice,
Add token veg (if there be supplies)
And then the meat: in summer lamb,
In winter beef (though never ham.)

Cover with water, bring slowly to boil
(For better taste, add some more oil.)
Salt, pepper, saffron, cumin
(Any other spices per your acumen.)

An hour passes; at last it's ready
Steaming, filling, the aroma heady
Envy of Nazarbayev (or Niyazov)
Plov, Plov, Glorious Plov.

Tuesday, December 21

Sevara Nazarxon

“On the evening of the first day of Ramadan in Tashkent, capital of the secular Islamic republic of Uzbekistan, the crowd inside Mama's Fun Pub was cutting loose. A beefy deejay, black baseball cap akimbo, pranced about the nightclub's sound stage. Slithery, sweaty female torsos provocatively clad in hotpants, skintight skirts, and black leather halters undulated on the dance floor, rolling their exposed navels to the pulsating rhythms of electronically enhanced pop music. Young men, their eyes popping out, tried to keep pace. Nearby, bartenders doled out Heineken on tap. Cigarette smoke clouded the room. Laser lights cut through the fog, creating an otherworldly scene, heaven or hell, depending on the depth or direction of your religious predilection.” (Robert Rand, “Tamerlane's Children”.)

This is the world of Sevara Nazarxon.

Sevara was born in 1978 in Andijon, to a father who was at the State Radio Committee, and a mother who taught traditional Uzbek musical instruments. She started her career in music as a dotar player in the National TV and Radio Committee of the newly independent Uzbekistan; upon graduation from school, she went on to the Uzbek National Conservatory. Folk traditions are the foundation of her music. In 2000 she started her solo Uz-Pop career, and now is one of the many 'world music' performers on the Peter Gabriel circuit. (It is a pity that the economics of production, dictates of mixing, and the uncomplicated tastes of the consumers all conspire to make every last one of the 'world fusion' performers from Paban Das Baul to Anusheh Anadil to Sevara sound about the same, but that's for another day.)

You cannot be a nightclub blues chanteuse in conservative Andijon, where I would struggle to see a single woman with uncovered head in public (the local boys have to head to the 'Russian' town of Farg'ona to have a drink.) So Sevara lives in Tashkent. With a Real World Records contract, she lives the dream life of her co-clubistas (a typical monthly salary in Uzbekistan is USD 50, somewhat more in Tashkent.) She describes herself as Muslim; but her belief is supple like the nightclub belly dancers she works with. During the weekends in Ramazan, she goes to the Zangi Ota mosque outside Tashkent to sit in silence and pray briefly. Nearby, Uzbek elders sacrifice chickens to Zangi Ota and beggar women wait in huddles for alms. When evening falls, Sevara and her generation head back to Mama's Fun Pub.

Sevara's lyrics come out of traditional Uzbek poetry on 'muhabbat' (love, typically lost):

Umir oqmas bir tekis titdek
Kimlarnidir hasrat yengadir
Men toparman irodani lek
Korgim kelar sizni negadir

Grief can overtake someone
I will find strength to overcome
But I still want to see you
For some reason.

(Robert Rand lived in Uzbekistan between 2001 and 2004. He was a part-time producer of National Public Radio, and wrote several portraits collected into Tamerlane's Children - Dispatches from Contemporary Uzbekistan. You can hear his piece on Sevara Nazarxon at the NPR archives.)

Monday, December 20

Havildar in Bukhara

(In his Bangalnama, Tapan Raychaudhuri translates the 'Subaltern' of Subaltern Studies into Bengali as Havildar, as in Havildar Tattwa. However, insofar as most of the Indian subalterns in Central Asia were 'gumastas', money-transferers or moneylenders, this post could also have been titled Hawala in Bukhara.)

Looking past the orientalists' fantasies of unreachable oases of depravity and derring-do, Central Asia has another reality as being contiguous to and continuous to India. Scott Cameron Levi has written an interesting book on the Indian diaspora in Central Asia; it is worth quoting at length from his introduction:

“In recent years it has become more generally acknowledged that the comparatively well-recorded political and commercial activities of the Portuguese Estado da India and the Dutch East India Companies in the Indian Ocean have for some time received an amount of attention disproportionate to their importance to early modern Asian economic history. One product of this historiographical bias has been the long held belief that, following periods of great prosperity under the Mongol and Timurid Empires, from the seventeenth century Central Asia became increasingly isolated and plunged into a lengthy period of political instability and socio-economic decline. This era of alleged isolation has generally been attributed to the Europeans' monopolization of the transcontinental movement of commodities between Asia and Europe, presumed to be the bedrock upon which all Central Asian prosperity was built. It is considered to have continued until the region again became a part of the global economy as a result of its growing trade relations with the developing markets of nineteenth-century Russia.

It is a central argument of this book that early modern Central Asia was not economically isolated and that, in fact, the commercial relationship between Central Asia and India during this period continued at an escalated level. In an effort to debunk the notion of Central Asian isolation, one need look no further than the main subject of the present work. It cannot be overemphasized that it is during the very period that Central Asia was supposed to have sunk into abject decline that we see thousands of Indian merchants overcoming seemingly prohibitive geographical, political, cultural, and religious barriers to establish a diaspora network comprised of dozens of highly active commercial communities dispersed across urban and rural Central Asia. It is hoped that the present work will encourage others to reconsider global history themes in a less Eurocentric perspective.

… Throughout the diaspora these merchants were well known as a source of various types of short-term high-interest loans and for financing elaborate systems of urban and rural credit. It will also be shown that the Indian merchants' trade and moneylending activities placed them in a unique socio-economic position in their host societies. This, with only a few notable exceptions, earned them the outright protection of the local ruling elites, despite the fact that the vast majority of the diaspora population consisted of Hindu merchants living in Muslim states.

The Indian merchants' ability to dominate the moneylending business throughout the diaspora was made possible by their position as agents of Indian family firms. Those who have looked to European influences for the roots of Asian capitalism will find it interesting that, long before the European merchants working for the Dutch and the English East India companies arrived in the Indian Ocean, there were Indian family firms established throughout north India operating heavily capitalized commercial institutions that maintained diverse portfolios of trade and moneylending investments.”

In his book The Global World Of Indian Merchants, Claude Markovits identifies most of the ones operating in Central Asia as Multani and Sindhi Hindus, such as Bhatias, Sahukars, Banias. In Bukhara, by the reign of Imam Quli Khan (1611-41), there is mention of an Indian Quarter (that continued to the 19th century, corroborated by the accounts of Bukhara Burnes), and records indicate Multani Hindus owning substantial property in the city.

The image in India of the usurer (of whatever nationality) lending planting-money to the impoverished indigo farmer (against hypothecation of the produce) is not a pretty one; so it does not seem likely that any community that monopolized short-term high-interest loans would be regarded by the locals as any more than bloodsuckers. However, Levi writes “the Indians unique economic function in their host societies nearly always earned them the favor and protection of the local government”; and further, in Turanian folklore the “Indian merchants are portrayed as unenviable victims of individuals in dire need of money, frequently for romantic pursuits.“ An example provided by Levi can be paraphrased thus: A holiday was approaching in Bukhara and a teacher wanted to buy a gift of some fine clothing for his lady love. He and two students decide to steal some money from the Indian bania. They sneak into his house, find a box of jewels, and are on the verge of escaping when the merchant wakes to give chase. The rest of the story involves the city watchman; impersonation by the three thieves of the voice and manners of the Emir, his Vizier and his Beg; much confusion; and some sort of eventual restitution to the bania when a good laugh has been had by all.

The German traveler von Albrecht visited an Indian caravanserai in Bukhara in the 1880s and wrote of the internal walls decorated with “Indian paintings”, likely idolatrous to Muslims; other visitors commonly noted that while alcohol and tobacco were banned in the conservative khanate, these flowed freely in the Indian merchants' caravanserais, i.e. Indians were free of the many legal restrictions placed on the native populace. The caravanserais were also known to have housed servants, cooks, barbers, tailors and Indians acquired “much of their necessary goods, including religious paraphernalia, from other Indians.” One imagines incense and Ganges-water carried up the Khyber in camel panniers; the picture below shows an Indian caravan arriving at a Bukhara caravanserai.

At Astrakhan, Hindus were even permitted a temple; in a sketch of icons there by the German botanist Peter Pallas (c. 1790s) I think I see Balgopal, and also Amba or Durga with lion. Another temple at Baku even drew pilgrims from India due to phenomena associated with burning naphtha.

The contiguity of the Indian and Central Asian experiences is not limited to finance or science. Niyazkul Bek was a Bukhara merchant of Turkmen extraction. He traded in horses and carpets and visited Hyderabad (in Deccan) often. Impressed by the Charminar in that city, he decided to build a similar building back in Bukhara. This was completed in 1807.

Sunday, December 19

Beruni and Qyzylqum

We have a long desert crossing ahead of us; so, an early start – the fields outside Urgench are covered with rolling fog in the pre-dawn chill. As day breaks, mothers holding the hands of uniformed boys and girls march them to schoolbus stands by the road.

At first light, we cross the Amu Darya into Beruni (Biruniy) district. The land on this side is salty, for extended stretches a white crust covers the ground and nothing can grow.

This is the birthplace of another Al (it was a popular name around here): Al-Beruni (973-1048.) Edward Sachau writes in his preface to al-Beruni's 'India':

"Early distinguishing himself in science and literature, he played a political part as councillor of the ruling prince of his native country of the Ma'muni family. The counsels he gave do not seem always to have suited the plans of King Mahmud of Ghazna, who was looking out for a pretext for interfering in the affairs of the independent Khiva, although its rulers were his own near relatives. The pretext was furnished by a military emeute.

Mahmud marched into the country, not without some fighting, established there one of his generals as provincial governor, and soon returned to Ghazna with much booty and a great part of the Khiva troops, together with the princes of the deposed family of Ma'mun and the leading men of the country as prisoners of war or hostages. Amongst the last was Abu Raihan Muhammad Ibn Ahmed al-Beruni.

This happened in the spring and summer of A.D. 1017. The Chorasmian princes were sent to distant fortresses as prisoners of state, the Chorasmian soldiers were incorporated in Mahmud's Indian army; and al-Beruni – what treatment did he experience at Ghazna? From the very outset it is not likely that both the king and his chancellor, Ahmad ibn Hasan Maimandi, should have accorded special favors to a man they knew to have been their political antagonist for years … There is nothing to tell us that al-Beruni was ever in the servie of the state or court in Ghazna … al-Beruni probably enjoyed the reputation of a great munajjim, i.e. astrologer-astronomer, and perhaps it was in this quality that he had relations to the court and its head.“

Al-Beruni says of Mahmud Ghazni “he utterly ruined the prosperity of the country (of India) and performed those wonderful exploits by which the Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions, and like a tale of old in the mouth of the people.” This, as Sachau notes, was somewhat out of place in the traditional Muslim glorification of a Ghazi like Mahmud Ghazni.

Mahmud had “proclaimed as his successor his son Muhammad, not Masud, but the latter contested the will of his father, and in the following contest with his brother he was the winner.”

Masud rehabilates al-Beruni and fixes a pension on the scientist, then 61 years old; this leaves him free to write his 'Hindostan.' Sachau observes:

“If (al-Beruni) and his countrymen had suffered and were still suffering from the opression of King Mahmud, the Hindus were in the same position, and perhaps it was his community of mishap which inspired his sympathy for them. And certainly the Hindus and their world of thought have a paramount, fascinating interest for him, and he inquires with the greatest predilection into every Indian subject, howsoever heathenish it may be, as though he were treating of the most important questions for the souls of Muhammedans, – of free will and predestination, of future reward and punishment, of the creation and eternity of the Word of God, &c. To Mahmud the Hindus were infidels, to be dispatched to hell as soon as they refused to be plundered. To go on expeditions and to fill the treasury with gold, not to make lasting conquests of territories, was the real object of his famous expeditions; and it was with this view that he cut his way through enormous distances to the richest temples of India at Thaneshwar, Mathura, Kanauj and Somenath.

To al-Beruni the Hindus were excellent philosophers, good mathematicians and astronomers, though he naively believes himself to be superior to them, and disdains to be put on a level with them … He does not conceal whatever he considers wrong and unpractical with them, but he duly appreciates their mental achievements, takes the greatest pains to appropriate them to himself, even such as could not be any use to him or his readers, e.g. Sanskrit metrics; and whenever he hits upon something that is noble and grand both in science and in practical life, he never fails to lay it before his readers with warm-hearted words of approbation. Speaking of the construction of the ponds at holy bathing places, he says: 'In this they have attained a high degree of art, so that our people (the Muslims), when they see them, wonder at them, and are unable to describe them, much less to construct anything like them.'"


Qyzyl = Red, Qara = Black. The sand in the Qyzylqum seems no more red to me than sand anywhere else, perhaps the Qaraqum desert (in Turmenistan) is really dark for this to be considered ochre. The potholed roads reduce us to 10kmph speeds for much of the morning. Continuing SE roughly along the spine of the doab, we see the lakes Saduar Chash Kala and Rabochiy (along the Amu Darya) between Kulatau and Uch-Uchak. The next 300 miles are barchan dunes and scrub. Strangely, I get a 3g GSM data signal at 40.9 deg N 62.25 deg E -- probably picking up the communications tower at the Turkmen border post of Dzigherbent -- and successfully send off a tweet from this most desolate part of Central Asia.

Saturday, December 18


Just outside Khiva's Ata Darwaza (Old Gate), bathed in the afternoon light, is the statue of a bearded man pensive over a scroll. I ask the young Uzbek lady who trips up to me with her kid sister in order to get a photo taken if they know who it is. They can manage 'Aksakal' (greybeard) but are not sure of much else.

Poor Al is having a not-so-good couple-of-decades. From being co-Hero of the Uzbek SSR (along with Ali-Sher Navoiy), his spot as torch-bearer has been usurped by Tamerlane (and Bobur Mirza in Ferghana.) Every third person in this country seems to be named Ulugh Beg. Meanwhile, his declining star in Uzbkeistan, combined with his birth having had been in a Persian-speaking family of Khiva, has emboldened Iran to start an international Khwarizmi Award “in memory of Abu Jafar Mohammad Ibn Mousa Khwarizmi, the great Iranian Mathematician and Astronomer (770-840 C.E)”; his association with al-Mamun's Baghdad lets the Britannica Childrens' Encyclopedia call al-Khwarizmi an Arab Mathematician in its one-line entry; while The Dictionary Of Scientific Biography claims that his title al-Majūsī indicates that his ancestry belongs the old 'Magian' (Zoroastrian) religion after all.

Sometime after 800 CE, al-Khwarezmi seems to have traveled to India, coming in contact with the mathematical work of Brahmagupta (598-668 CE.) Interestingly, Brahmagupta hailed from the peripheries of the classical Indic civilization – he was born and raised in the kingdom of the Bhils (Bhillamalla, today Bhinmal in the hills near Jalore in Southern Rajasthan) – though he moved to Ujjain later in his life. The radical concepts outlined by Brahmagupta in his Brahmasphutasiddhanta are fortune (positive) quantities, debt (negative) quantities, and zero:

The sum of two fortune quantities is fortune
The sum of two debt quantities is debt
The sum of zero and a debt quantity is debt
The sum of zero and a fortune quantity is fortune
The sum of zero and zero is zero.
The sum of a fortune and a debt is their difference; or, if they are equal, zero
In subtraction, the less is to be taken from the greater, fortune from fortune
In subtraction, the less is to be taken from the greater, debt from debt
When the greater however, is subtracted from the less, the difference is reversed
When fortune is to be subtracted from debt, and debt from fortune, they must be added together
The product of a debt quantity and a fortune quantity is debt
The product of a debt quantity and a debt quantity is fortune
The product of two fortune, is fortune.
fortune divided by fortune or debt by debt is fortune
fortune divided by debt is debt. debt divided by fortune is debt
A fortune or debt number when divided by zero is a fraction with the zero as denominator
Zero divided by a debt or fortune number is zero
Zero divided by zero is zero.

In the Arab world, numbers had been represented according to a system known as huruf al jumal (letters for calculating) or abjad  (abbreviating the first four numbers 1 = a, 2= b, 3 = ja, 4 = d). The numbers from 1 to 9 were represented by the first 9 letters; then 10 to 90 by the next nine letters (viz. 10 = y, 20 = k, 30 = l, 40 = m, ...), subsequently 100 to 900 by the next letters (100 = q, 200 = r, 300 = sh, 400 = t, ...). The 28th Arabic letter was used to represent 1000.

Al-Khwarizmi would go on to extend the ideas of Brahmagupta (though he could not stomach Brahmagupta's negative numbers, nor negative roots) becoming one of the first mathematicians to not only use the concept of zero as a number, but also use zero as a symbol in positional base notation. This idea was met with great skepticism. Most could not at first accept that attaching this “worthless nothing” to another number would somehow increase the number's value tenfold; but Ibn-Sina mentions being taught the Indian system of counting when he was around 10 (c. 997 CE) by visitors to his father's house, so it would seem the Arab world was slowly converting to the al-Khwarizmi's Indian notation over 200 years.

Leonardo of Pisa (c. 1170-1250 CE), also known as Leonardo Bonacci or Leonardo Fibonacci, was the son of a bureaucrat. As the director of a Pisan trading colony in Algeria, Bonacci Sr. understood the quality of Arab schooling. As a result, Leonardo was sent first to study, and then to work, in various Arabic cities. From this immersion, Fibonacci deemed the Hindu-Arabic number system to be the superior vehicle for calculation. Around 1225 CE, Fibonacci produced Liber Abbaci (Book of the Abacus), Pracitca Geometriae (Practice of Geometry) and Liber Quadratorum (Book of Square Numbers), introducing al-Khwarizmi's notation to Europe, where it again struggled for centuries before gaining acceptance. (The Fibonacci numbers named after him had been known in India for 500 years.)

Al-Khwarezmi also contributed to the abstract systemization of linear and quadratic equations in his Kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī hīsāb al-jabr wa’l-muqābala (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing.)

The al-jabr (restoration, completion) and al-muqābala (balancing) aspects can be illustrated thus:

Take an equation to be solved: x2 + 10x = 39
Complete (the square) by adding 25 to 39, and balance it by adding 25 to the other side as well, i.e. x2 + 10x + 25 = 39 + 25
Thus (x + 5)2 = 64, i.e. x + 5 = 8
So x = 3.
(Note the absence of the second possibility, x + 5 = -8 or x = -13.)

Needless to say, from the word al-jabr we get algebra; and from al-Khwarizmi we get algorithm.

Here is the Algorithm Sunset/Moonrise (executive summary: minute 4:30.)

Friday, December 17

Pahlavan Mahmud

Pahlavan Mahmud -- furrier by profession, prizefighter by destiny, poet by skill, Sufi by inclination and philosopher by legacy -- was born in ancient Gurganj (Urgench/Khiva) in 1247.

Especially strong and nimble, he took part in wrestling championships not only across Khwarezm but also in Iran and India. A practicing Sufi auliya, he was called the 'Pahlavan Pir' or Wrestler Saint by the people of Khwarezm. A Renaissance-man before the Renaissance, he was a composer of rubaiyat -- quatrains -- in the style of Omar Khayyam, whose work he admired. Here's a rubai by the Pahlavan, perhaps an appeal to the vanity of his wife in order to get her to talk less:

I said to Beloved: "Coquette, why
Does your speech so slowly fly?"
"But my mouth's tiny - every word's
Sliced going out" was the reply.

According to legend, once the King of India Rai Chuna or Juna (could this be Juna Khan, the future Alauddin Khilji?) invites from all over the world kings, wrestlers, magicians, musicians, dancers and tightrope-walkers to a wedding ceremony. The king of Khwarezm also gets an invitation, and takes with him to India Pahlavan Mahmud. Tales of the strongman's prowess reach Rai Juna, and he asks that Pahlavan be pitted against his All-India champion. The evening before the match, Pahlavan visits a nearby Sufi shrine to prepare his mind for the fight, and hears a widow praying:

- Lord my son works in the Rai's employ as a fighter. I heard that a very strong hero-wrestler came from Khiva. They say he is auliya, too. Tomorrow he will wrestle with my son. If he is auliya, he will definitely be victorious over my son. Lord protect my son, he is the only one I have in this world.

Pahlavan writes the rubai:

King of his ego, he is the true brave man,
The brave man is not a slave man.
It's no bravery to kick those who are weak
Who supports the poor, he is the true man.

The next day in the big contest he lets the Indian wrestler overcome him. The king of Khwarezm is furious.

Some weeks later king Juna goes hunting and takes Pahlavan Mahmud along. In the heat of the chase, the Rai's chariot is about to fall into an abyss. Pahlavan jumps in and single handedly pulls out the king, his horses, and his chariot. Astonished, Rai Juna asks:
- You have managed what is beyond mens' power. You have such great strength, but how were you overcome by the young wrestler?

Pahlavan Mahmud tells him the real story and Rai Juna grants him a favor. Pahlavan wishes that all the people of Khwarezm in India be freed. Juna, who by this time has had second thoughts, agrees to free only as many slaves as Pahlavan can fit in a sheepskin; but being a furrier, Mahmud knows a thing or two more than the king suspects. He draws a sheepskin into a huge length of fine thread, enough to encompass all the slaves from Khwarezm, who thus win freedom and return to their land.

In another instance, in Iran, after the Pahlavan had run through a gamut of court wrestlers, the enraged Shah egged on a giant Abyssinian eunuch of the harem with the promise of freedom as well as a thousand gold coins if he could defeat the foreigner. Again, Pahlavan deliberately lost; at night the manumitted slave came to him in tears bearing the prize. The Pir admonished him gently, telling him to go back to his homeland and do good with the money.


The Emir of Samarqand was a notoriously bad and vain poet, but his courtiers always fawned over his writings. The Emir asked the Pahlavan for his opinion about some rubai and got a forthright answer: Your poems have no taste at all.

The Emir was livid and clapped Pahlavan into the zindan. The next day he wrote another quatrain and called Pahlavan Mahmud again, thinking that this time he would get praise for sure. Mahmud listens to the rubai, and, silently turning his steps back to the dungeon, offers this in return:

I'd rather crush hundred stones with a truncheon,
Or with a hundred whips my body bludgeon
Be left for a hundred years in a dungeon
Than argue with a foolish person.


Pahlavan Mahmud died around 1322 and was buried according to his wishes behind his fur shop in Khiva. The site soon became a place of pilgrimage, and over the centuries the Pahlavan came to be considered Khiva's parton saint. Today, the blue dome of his mausoleum dominates the skyline of the inner city, and the main street joining the West/East gates is named after him. Many later Emirs, especially the Qungrat Khans, wished to be buried near the Pahlavan, to guarantee traffic to their tombs. Some panoramas of the area are available at Patrimonium-Mundi.

"Our people" says Saeeda, who has been educated in Moscow, with a shrug "are superstitious." Inside the the shrine, people bring gifts of nan and money to be blessed. In the courtyard, the young husband drinks deep from the well and passes the plastic mug to his bride. The wishing tree has left below it little cribs made of wood and string, indicating a desire for children. Here's some footage of locals at Pahlavan's shrine (around minute 10 for the impatient):

Ah, my sick heart has become humble,
Now that my memory is in trouble.
This existence didn't give its fruits,
My precious life, God, has crumbled.

Thursday, December 16


All day I have bumped across Khorezm, hugging the Turkoman Uzbek borderlands and the Amu Darya, and when the gates of Khiva appear in the late afternoon most of the city is already in shadow.

In 1863 Ármin Vámbéry, Hungarian linguist, Turkish osmanli, Sufi dervish and British spy, reached the desolate Khanate of Khiva. From Wikipedia:

This was the first journey of its kind undertaken by a Western (sic) European; and since it was necessary to avoid suspicion, Vámbéry could not take even fragmentary notes, except by stealth. He returned to Europe in 1864 ... That same year, he published his Travels in Central Asia, based on the few, furtive notes he was able to make while traveling with the dervishes.
Vámbéry was one of the Jewish Orientalists [], who assumed Muslim identities and wrote about Muslim life. He converted four times. He was a double agent and a double dealer. He was close to the Ottoman sultans. In 1900-1901 he promised Theodor Herzl to arrange an audience for him with Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamit II, but his real goal was to obtain money from Herzl, and he did not arrange the meeting … Vámbéry became known also as a publicist, zealously defending English policy in the East as against that of the Russians. In 2005 the National Archives at Kew, Surrey, made files accessible to the public, and it was revealed that Vámbéry had been employed by the British Foreign Office as an agent and spy whose task it was to combat Russian attempts at gaining ground in Central Asia and threatening the British position on the Indian sub-continent.

Here are some excerpts from Vámbéry's Travels in Central Asia about reaching Khiva:

The reader will easily imagine in what a state my spirits were when I found myself before the walls of Khiva, if he reflects on the risks to which any suspicion of my disguise would expose me, as soon as a first introduction should discover my European features. I was well aware that the Khan of Khiva, whose cruelty was displeasing to the Tartars themselves, would, in case he felt any distrust, become far severer to me than the other Turkomans. I had heard that the Khan was in the habit of at once making slaves of all strangers of doubtful character; that he had, not long before, so treated a Hindustani, who claimed to be of princely origin, and who was now, like the other slaves, employed in dragging along the artillery carriages. My nerves were all strung to the highest point, but I was not intimidated. I had, from constant risk, become inured to it. Death, the least serious result of my enterprise, had now been floating continually before my eyes for three months, and instead of trembling I considered how, on any pressing emergency, I might by some expedient get the better of the watchfulness of the superstitious tyrant.

At the very entrance of the gate we were met by several pious Khivites, who handed up to us bread and dried fruits as we sat upon our camels. For years so numerous a troop of Hadjis had not arrived in Khiva. All stared at us in astonishment, and the exclamations ' Aman eszen geldin ghiz ' (welcome) ! 'Ha Shah bazim ! Ha Arszlanim!' (ah, my Falcon, my Lion!) resounded on all sides in our ears. On entering the bazaar, Hadji Bilal intoned a telkin. My voice was heard above them all, and I felt real emotion when the people impressed their kisses upon my hands and feet—yes, upon the very rags which hung from me. In accordance with the custom of the country we dismounted at the karavanserai. This served also as a custom-house, where the new arrivals of men and merchandise are subjected to severe examination. The testimony of the chiefs of the karavans have, as is natural, the greatest weight in the balance. The functions of chief of the customs are filled in Khiva by the principal Mehrem (a sort of chamberlain and confidant of the Khan). Scarcely had this official addressed the ordinary questions to our Kervanbashi, when the Afghan pressed forward and called out aloud, ' We have brought to Khiva three interesting quadrupeds and a no less interesting biped.' The first part of this pleasantry was, of course, applied to the buffaloes, animals not before seen in Khiva; but as the second part was pointed at me, it was no wonder that many eyes were immediately turned upon me, and amidst the whispering it was not difficult to distinguish the words ' Djansiz ' (from Arabic djasus or spy),'Ferenghi,' and 'Urus' (Russian). 

In the last court I found about three hundred Tchaudors, prisoners of war, covered with rags; they were so tormented by the dread of their approaching fate, and by the hunger which they had endured several days, that they looked as if they had just risen from their graves. They were separated into two divisions, namely, such as had not yet reached their fortieth year, and were to be sold as slaves, or to be made use of as presents, and such as from their rank or age were regarded as Aksakals (grey beards) or leaders, and who were to suffer the punishment imposed by the Khan. The former, chained together by their iron collars in numbers of ten to fifteen, were led away; the latter submissively awaited the punishment awarded. They looked like lambs in the hands of their executioners. Whilst several were led to the gallows or the block, I saw how, at a sign from the executioner, eight aged men placed themselves down on their backs upon the earth. They were then bound hand and foot, and the executioner gouged out their eyes in turn, kneeling to do so on the breast of each poor wretch; and after every operation he wiped his knife, dripping with blood, upon the white beard of the hoary unfortunate.

Ah! cruel spectacle! As each fearful act was completed, the victim liberated from his bonds, groping around with his hands, sought to gain his feet! Some fell against each other, head against head; others sank powerless to the earth again, uttering low groans, the memory of which will make me shudder as long as I live.