Uzbekistan's first postage stamp issued after independence was unusual in its choice of subject; one would expect the first issue to feature the flag (as was the case with independent India), and subsequent ones to picture strongmen or founding-fathers. In Uzbekistan's case, it was a 200-year-old Kokandi queen called Nodira Mohlar-oyim (Nadira Makhlar-oiim) -- wife of an usurper, mother of a debauch, power behind the throne for decades, Sufi teacher, and ghazal poetess with 10,000 verses in her bayat. (Cynics will say the philatelic choice is probably due to a series on Arts In The SSRs having been long planned by the Soviets timed for Nodira's bicentennial; the Uzbek authorities taking a path of low resistance in allowing it to be released. The stamps were printed in Moscow.)
The director of the museum on the palace grounds, a stout Uzbek lady in stylish dark-green leather, is telling me all about otins, the women-clerics of Central Asia, who fill a role somewhere between mullah and witch-doctor. She drops her voice and whispers conspiratorially: "If you come at night after the moon has set and before the sun has risen, you might see Nodira-begim kneeling in prayer in that niche." The power supply fails; the museum room plunges into darkness. We turn on cellphone displays and slant around the lighted panes. In a pale blue phosphorescence the framed image of a queen appears on the wall; her features are indistinct but she is wearing an ascetic's dark cape, made of rough wool in this land of silks. In fact, the word sufi, according to one explanation, comes from the Arabic tasawwuf, at the root of which is suf, or wool.
Nodira's husband Umar Khan ascended to throne as the 7th ruler of the Khanate of Kokand in 1811, after engineering the assassination of his brother Alim. He died in 1822, when Nodira was 30. While Madali Khan, the son of Umar and Nodira, was being groomed for rule, Nodira was part regent and part mourner.
O straight cypress, what are your thoughts? Your promise of rendezvous burnt my soul.
Bound, I pray for pardon, My aim is your perfection.
You argue with the face of the moon, O, sun, have you achieved eclipse?
For the wealth-seeker, water of paradise or water of Kaaba, For me, the pure drops of your tears are enough.
You may not yet read them, But your fortune-telling on holy sheets was blessed.
More precious than Jamshid's cup in which you could see the world, O sufi-beggar, your broken glass.
Your lovers died in your sorrow, But you show not a particle of care.
O sick heart, in separation, You have not strength to beat.
O, Nodira, you speak about love, And your condition becomes more and more notorious.
The folk-culture of Central Asia has retained strong pre-Islamic elements. Wherever you go, large billboards proclaim O'zbekistoni yomon kuzdan asragin! (May God protect Uzbekistan from the evil eye!) In her forthcoming book From Shamanism to Sufism: Women, Islam and Culture in Central Asia, Sultanova discusses how in her opinion Central Asian women kept alive traditional Shamanic Islamic religious culture, especially Sufism (even when all religion was banned under the Soviets), most significantly in Ferghana Valley, which she calls 'the cradle of female Islamic culture.' Another of the celebrated voices from the otins of Ferghana is that of Jahon-otin (1780-1845), whose takhallus or pen-name is Uvaysiy (Jahanotin Uvaisi):
If I ask for the sign of meeting from people who love, they kill me, If I don’t ask I die.
If I build a shop of love for the suffering people, they kill me, If I don’t build I die.
Don’t put me to torments of jealousy, O death, if my beloved is sitting with another,
If I bark unceasing like a dog at his door he kills me, If I don’t bark I die.
There is no other way but to be patient, If I want him till the dawn of day.
If I wander like a vagabond hither and thither, he kills me, If I don’t wander I die.
If I was absent while I was far away, It was because my beloved said, forbear:
If I go today to see the flower of his face, he kills me, If I don’t go I die.
He avoids me, intimidates me, My soul leaves this ephemeral world.
If I stay with this wan face, O strange Uvaysiy, he kills me, If I don’t stay I die.
(again, adapated from Sultanova.)
The bayats of the classical otins of Ferghana are now what is called ethnomusic -- retreating to the village and the elderly under the onslaught of mp3 pop. An example of the traditional music of the Uzbek Sufi women can be found here.
As for Nodira, her son Madali Khan turned out to be a spectacular debauch even by the standards of the khanates, eventually infuriating the clergy by marrying not only his wife's sister but also her mother. The Emir of Buhkara arrived to deliver Kokand from the despot. Conquering Kokand in 1842, Nasrullah had both Madali Khan and Nodira executed. (The Kokandis soon realized that a homegrown despot was better than one from Bukhara, so within a year the nephew of Umar and Nodira was back on the throne. Such was the patrimony of Khudayar Khan the palace-builder.)
Beyond Kamchik Pass, the ribbon of road leads down into Kokand (Qo'qon in Uzbek). The charcoal fog yields up the valley only grudgingly; only here or there does a bend in the highway reveal the green of Ferghana or the gold of her gravel. Even past mid-day, when we are finally across the mountains, down on the valley floor and rattling towards town, the villages remain tucked under a grey quilt, reluctant to emerge this cold day.
There is a popular theory that Qo'qon comes from 'cocoon', since Kokand was the destination of the first westbound Chinese caravan carrying silk in 121 BC. The etymology seems too neat; I wonder if it is not more related to kent/kand/qand (town), i.e. Ko-kand, like Samarkand, Tashkent, Shymkent or Kand-i-Badam.
Once in town, Nosir pulls up at a petrol pump with a detached chaikhana. He will proceed to Andijon to meet us there later, meanwhile Natalya and Abdul-Malek have the van ready and lunch ordered.
As fog lifts, the cathedral windows of the chaikhana let in streams of reddish light. This is far off the beaten track -- we will see only one other traveler during our entire time in Ferghana, at several stops people will come up to thank us for coming their valley -- the owner bustles us into a private room at the back, away from the stares and frank questions of his other customers.
Since Tashkent saw bombings in 1999 from purported Islamic radicals, Uzbekistan has moved to seal the Kyrgyz border unilaterally (see the wiki on Uzbek-Kyrgyz barrier.) In the political conflict over the ousting of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April-June 2010, 200 people were reported to have been killed during clashes between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Osh and Jalal-Abad, and 2000 more were injured. Between 100,000 and 300,000 Uzbeks were ethnically-cleansed out of the Osh area into Uzbekistan, causing a major humanitarian crisis. The result of this has been an effective rupture of economic relations between Ferghana and China. The cheap everyday Chinese goods are now in the domain of the black market; the wiki article on Kokand claims "the black-market provides nearly 75% of the income generated within the borders of the city."
We finish a leisurely lunch. Abdul-Malek walks up nonchalantly to a lawn being laid out, and half-inches a length of plastic rope to secure Mr. M's car-seat. We then head toward the house-and-harems of Khudayar Khan, the last independent ruler of the Emirate of Kokand.
In 1494, Umar Sheikh Mirza, ruler of Ferghana and fourth-generation descendant of Timur, went to inspect a pigeon-cote on a cliff and collapsed into the precipice with his beloved flocks of souror and toghi. His son Zahir-ud-din Muhammad writes in his autobiography:
"In the month of Ramzan of the year 899 (June 1494 AD) and in the twelfth year of my age, I became the Padshah in the country of Ferghana."
For the first 22 years of his life, Babur was more fugitive than ruler. Twice he captured Samarkand, and twice lost it. The second time, in 1500, he barely escaped with his wife, mother and a few companions. His worst enemy was his uncle from his maternal side, the auzbeg (i.e. Islamized Mongol) warlord and descendent of Batu of the Golden Horde, Muhammad Shaybani Khan. Babur half-derisively and half-admiringly calls Shaybani Khan "Wormwood", a pun in Turkish; but in their exchanges, Shaybani was to have the last laugh when he captured Babur's eldest sister Khanzada.
Haunted by Wormwood Khan, and betrayed by his own kinsmen, the wandering Babur made a sudden decision in the summer of 1504 to occupy Kabul. From this base, he extended his kingdom to Kunduz, Ghazni, Balkh, Khandahar and Herat ('a city where sex, opium and wine dictated the measure of man'). In April 1510, the defeat and death of Wormwood Khan in the Battle of Merv, at the hands of Shah Ismail (founder of the Safavid Dynasty, political Shia Islam, as well as the Azerbaijani language) of Iran, provided Babur a God-given chance to retake Samarkand. He entered the city for the third time after an absence of nine years, but his triumph lasted less than nine months. After losing the Battle of Kol-i-Malik, Babur was forced to evacuate, again, to Hissar and Kabul.
One of the stories recorded about Babur's final departure from Samarkand, in both Niyaz Muhammad Khukandi's Tarikh-i-Sharukhi and Nalivkline's Khanate of Khokand, says (quoted here):
When Babur left Samarkand in 918 AH (1512 AD) after defeat by the Auzbegs, one of his wives, Sayyida Afaq who accompanied him in his flight, gave birth to a son in the desert which lies between Khujand and Kand-i-badam; that Babur, not daring to tarry and the infant being too young to make the impending journey, left it under some bushes with his own girdle round it in which were things of price; that the child was found by local people and in allusion to the valuables amongst which it lay, called Altun Bishik (golden cradle); that it received other names and was best known in later life as Khudayan Sultan.
Babur mentions he had several children who did not live past infancy, but provides no more detail about Altun Bishik. (In the Baburnama, the text breaks off abruptly after the events of 914 AH or 1508 AD, to resume with the events of 925 AH or 1519 AD, i.e. a hiatus of 11 years around the purported birth of Altun Bishik.)
In the 1700s, the Khans of Kokand rose out from amongst the successors of Shaybani Khan, born of quarrels between Bukhara and Ferghana. Wishing to legitimize their rule over Kokand through a connection with the great Timur (Chingiz and his descendent Shaybani were not loved in these parts), the Khans of Qo'qon connected their genealogy with Babur, through Altun Bishik. It was claimed that Shahrukh, the Shaybanid emir of the Minglar Uzbeks, was really of the hidden line of Altun Bishik, and therefore heir to Babur and Timur.
Yet this is only half the story. If the Emirs thought that their legitimacy sufficed from this explanation, they would have soon run into questions like that from Mr. M who (additionally conflating baba with babar) wants to know what happened to Altun Bishik's father. Did he not come back looking for the child? From a recent paper on the other part of the tale:
It is reported that later on, Babur, who had established his rule in India, sent men to look for his son he once had left behind in Ferghana. When the messengers finally found Altun Bishik and identified him by the signal objects already known to the reader, and when at this moment the clans who were raising the boy realized that their ward was a direct descendant of Amīr Tīmūr, they harshly refused Babur’s request that the child be returned to him. They thought that they would themselves need a descendant of the great Amīr Tīmūr who later on would help them to establish in Ferghana an independent state of their own. Babur’s envoys returned to India, told him about what they had seen and heard, and comforted their ruler as much as they could by saying that his son was growing up under the guardianship and protection of the people itself and that he gave hopes of taking over in the future a high position in society.
After getting married Altun Bishik took up residence in Akhsi where he lived the rest of his life, highly respected by the people and earning the rank of biy. According to tradition, Altun Bishik died in 952/1545. His son Tangri-yār became the ruler of Ferghana, but his title was biy rather than khan. This was the title all his descendants carried down to ʿĀlim Khān included.
Thus the Qo'qon Xonligi came into existence. In the first half of the 18th century, the khanate expanded to fill Ferghana valley again, and looked towards Kashgar and Xinjiang. In the second half, as Manchu power reached its zenith under the Qing dynasty of China, they were tamed by Emperor Qianlong and forced to pay tribute. After the death of Qianlong, the Khanate shook off the Manchu yoke, and Jahangir Khoja even managed to wrest Qashgar from the Chinese for a few years, visiting that most terrible of humiliations on the captured Manchu garrison: cutting off of queues (pigtails.) The slave markets of Bukhara now got a regular supply of cheap merchandise from China.
The rulers of the khanate took the usual path through tyranny and debauchery. One notable export was Yaqub Beg (Atalik Ghazi or Infidel-Slaying Father), who started from governorship of Kashgar, and expanded to independent rule over the entire Tarim Basin, imposing a harsh Islam on his subjects Chinese or Turkic. Eventually, Qing forces overcame Yaqub Beg in Xinjiang; his son and grandsons were castrated and turned into eunuchs to work in the Imperial Palace. If you have seen Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, you probably remember them (so to speak) playing with little Pu Yi.
Khudayar Khan, the last Emir, became a vassal of the Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1868, his independence lasting about a decade longer than his distant Timurid (thanks to Altun Bishik) cousin Bahadaur Shah 'Zafar', the Last Mughal. Zafar ended his days writing ghazals in Rangoon; Khudayar decided to build a grand palace, which needed much taxes levied and rebellion incurred thereby. One imagines him 'sitting' at his 'throne' room (there were no thrones in the khanates; typically the ruler rolled around on a pile of cotton-stuffed mattresses or tusshaq, nibbling on grape or pomegranate) for Royal Audiences. A day of the week was reserved for appointments with his vast clan. The khush-beg (main minister) would interview prospects in the waiting room and brief the Emir: the next one in is your wife's third half-brother Muhammad; if you remember he has three sons, the eldest one has not yet paid up last season's tax. One imagines the Emir's countenance take on a scowl as he contemplated triangulation between (or strangulation of) wife, half-brother-in-law, and tax-cheat.
The visiting American diplomat Eugene Schuyler wrote that, as of 1873, the Russians had left Khudayar Khan to administer his own justice:
When a criminal is to be put to death -- and executions are very frequent there -- he is taken through the streets of the bazaar, the executioner following behind him, while the crowd hoot and pelt him with stones. Suddenly, without a word of warning, when the executioner thinks the spectacle has lasted long enough, he seizes him by the head, thrusts the knife into his throat and cuts it, and the body sinks to the ground, where it is left for some hours before it is carried away and the blood is covered with sand.
Insurrections against his oppressive taxes forced Khudayar Khan into exile by 1875. A brief rebellion ensued, after which the Russian Major-General Skobelev appeared at Namangan. Lining up sixteen artillery pieces outside the city, he proceeded to shell the rebel positions. After a sufficient "softening up", Skobelev's infantry stormed the town, much of which had been destroyed during the artillery barrage. In his report, the Russian general claimed 3,800 rebels had been killed while the Russian loss was placed at six killed and 32 wounded. The Russians turned residents and refugees out of the few remaining buildings into the cold, and occupied them due to an ostensible lack of barracks space.
The rebels of Kokand made a last stand at Andijon. After being shelled for a week in January, 1876, Andijon surrendered. Skobelev reported that the Kokandian losses had been "immense", compared to 2 Russian dead and 9 wounded. By March, Tsar Alexander II proclaimed that he had "yielded to the wishes of the Kokandi people to become Russian subjects". A Russian town of New Margilon was established, and Ferghana passed into Russian Turkestan.
We head out of Tashkent early, the rising sun in our eyes as we drive out East towards Ferghana Valley. Our goal is to cross the mountains while the coppery autumn light is still abundant.
The division of Turkestan into Soviet Socialist Republics was arbitrary -- nowhere as clearly visible as in the vivisection of Ferghana Valley. The glaciers that fed its rivers were assigned to Kyrghyzstan; the body to Uzbekistan, and the mouth to Tajikistan. (Tajikistan still claims Samarkand and Bukhara are Tajik cities and that she has been historically wronged.) When, following the demise of the USSR, the SSR boundaries suddenly became international borders between unhappy neighbors, Uzbeks in Tashkent and Samarkand, long accustomed to driving up easy path through the mouth of the valley, found passage on that road hostage to mercurial relations between the two neighbors. The tracks through the mountains, previously carting hill-folk from the Tien Shan and Chatkal ranges down to the cities, had to be widened; and the tunnel through Kamchik Pass made operational around 1999. This is the road we will take today.
We pass Angren at 8 am; the tapchans in the chaikhanas are filling up with locals drinking kok-cha. (The words for blue and green are the same in Uzbek, and both pass for turquoise; the Blue Dome in Shakhrisabz is kok-gumbaz, and green tea everywhere is kok-cha.)
Halfway up the hillside sprawls a brooding coal-power plant. The town was founded in 1946 as a center for Uzbekistan's coal industry. There were many Russians who ran the power station, the rubber plant, the cement factories. The bare hillsides shows gashes here and there from quarries. Now, with living conditions harsher every year, many of the Russians are leaving, and the population is 20% less than what it was two decades ago.
This could be Ranchi: the hills, the soft haze, the coal grit, the Stalinist concrete blocks of factory-town 'colony' housing, at the corner of each 'sector' dokoni setting up cuts of gusht or sprigs of sabzi for sale.
An Australian company has bought a stake in the plant for producing coal-gas underground in situ; here-and-there we spot their brand-new SUVs, standing out like bright-little push-pins in a slag heap.
The pass restricts heavy vehicles -- we are cramped in a small sedan. Nosir, who expects he will be driving till Qo'qon, says his friend Abdul-Malek will meet us in a larger minivan once we are safely over the heights and through the tunnel.
Past Angren, we drive up to the 'neck' in the mountains, where Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan all come close together. From Eurasia, a NY-based NGO working in the region:
Kuldash is unsure which country he lives in. An ethnic Kyrgyz, he has a Kyrgyz passport, but his son possesses a Tajik one. "My son lives in the next house, in Kyrgyzstan. My house is supposed to be in Tajikistan," he says with a wry grin.
"During Soviet times we grazed our cows wherever we wanted and there were no borders," adds Kuldash. Now, gesturing to his right and left, to two countries born out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union's fall, he emphasizes how difficult determining the border has been. "A lot of times the argument depends on which map you use, if you take the map that was drawn in 1936, or the map that was drawn in 1960, or the map that was drawn in the 1970s, because they all show different border demarcations. You can make an argument for anything."
The Ferghana Valley's overlapping borders are notoriously porous, portals for narcotics smugglers and -- regional governments claim -- Islamic insurgents. In many areas, such as around the Tajik town of Charku, the boundary is unmarked and runs through villages that are checkerboards of nationalities, with adjacent houses in different countries.
Aberosat faults the Tajiks for the frequent arguments. "In our national mentality, we feel we must maintain good relations with our neighbors and not have conflicts with them. But in Tajik culture, it is completely the opposite," Aberosat said.
In identical terms, a schoolteacher at a Tajik school a few hundred meters away blamed the Kyrgyz with stirring up tension. "If we adults see two groups of children fighting, we separate them and tell them they shouldn't fight," says Israel. "But on the Kyrgyz side, it is the opposite. If they see Kyrgyz children beating up Tajik children, they encourage them."
We climb for an hour. Past Kok-Sarai, a branch of the road goes off the Namangan, on the other side of the Tien Shan. The scenery turns alpine. At about 2300m, where the road plateaus before dipping into the tunnel of the pass, there is the checkpoint. Every vehicle is flagged down, militsia peer in and look every traveler in the eye. The side of the road sports a line of suitcases and boxes open for inspection, their contents casually strewn around in the frozen mud. The owners, their headgear of skullcap or chapan encoding national affiliation, quarrel with soldiers. It is not that Uzbeks themselves are unmolested, Karimov's zeal in pursuing radical Islam means that the mullah's beard might set off a guard having a bad day (these people have bad days pretty much all the time), and cause the modesty of his matron's unmentionables to be outraged by the soldier's poking cane.
As for us, we definitely do not look like locals, and Nosir to boot looks Tajik (he says he is 'Sogdi'). He tries 'mekhman, mekhman' (guests). No dice. We are asked to pull up by the side. Nosir collects our passports, letters of invitation, OVIR registrations that show where we have stayed each night of the trip and proceeds into the guardhouse. The details are written down, each page of the passports thumbed over and pored through, and finally when there is no more entertainment value left, we are let through.
At a distance, we spy some tabun horses, prized for the mare's milk. We are close to the tunnel, Nosir is nervous and makes chopping motions to put the camera away every time I take it out. In 2000, small groups of irregulars affiliated to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had 'infiltrated' this area: some occupied Uzbek kishlaks, while others captured a part of the road through the Kamchik pass, cutting off the Ferghana Valley from Uzbekistan. A repeat would be embarrassing, so the tunnel is heavily guarded. We come upon it suddenly, the drooping flag, a solider standing stiffly at the entrance, machine gun batteries on slopes littered with sandbags, and then we are swallowed into the dark bore.
The Ferghana side is shrouded in fog. We pass Sarvan (or Sarvak), an island of Tajikistan inside Uzbek territory. There are a dozen such enclaves (or exclaves, depending on your viewpoint) in Ferghana valley -- territories that belong to one country but are located in another. There are Uzbek enclaves Sokh and Shakhimardan in Kyrgyzstan; the Kyrgyz territory of Barak is surrounded by Uzbekistan; and so on.
The enclave is named after the village of Sarvak, the only more or less noticeable settlement of the whole enclave and its informal capital with the population amounting to about 150. The state border divided the settlement into two nearly equal parts. One half of the population therefore lives in Uzbekistan and the other in Tajikistan.
In the Soviet Union territorial jurisdiction did not matter much. Importance was attached to it only when the USSR disintegrated. The new countries set up fences along the borders and began slapping heavy fines on trespassers. Residents of distant mountainous settlements that found themselves living in a foreign country were the worst affected by the new state of affairs. When security was upped, they found themselves practically isolated.
These days, the road from the capital of Uzbekistan to Sarvak is anything but easy. A turn from Tashkent-Kokand highway right into the scorched steppes, on the only road leading to the mountains. An outpost is encountered five kilometers later. Barbed wire, trenches around the barracks, weapons emplacements. Line of defense against the enemy that may come from the Tajik enclave. Soldier wearing a steel helmet and wielding an automatic rifle studied our papers and summoned his superior. Our passports (and even our driver's) were confiscated and the turnpike was raised. We were permitted to enter the border zone.
A couple of kilometers later we reached the mountains, as lifeless as the steppes all around - no trees, no bushes. The sun killed everything on the slopes. Even the river deep down in the gorge dried up. A narrow wooden bridge is the only reminder that there was a river here once.
The road disappeared altogether and we proceeded through the rocks along the riverbed. Any car assembled by UzDAEWOOauto would have stuck immediately or disintegrated soon enough. The old GAZ of Soviet vintage is probably the only vehicle capable of negotiating this road, the shortest road between Sarvak and the rest of the world.
The settlement of Sarvak is a green oasis in a mountainous desert. Massive walls of stone along the only street. There must be the state border somewhere here but no signs indicate where it may be. The locals pay no heed, going about their business in all directions this business may take them. It is hardly surprising because they are all relatives here. It has been so ever since establishment of the settlement. Only Uzbeks live here even though half the population has Tajik passports. Passports or not, they identify themselves as Uzbeks. We were told of an episode that happened here once when a commission from Tajikistan came to the local school.
"Children, do you know who our president is?" commission members asked." "Islam Karimov," was the reply. "Wrong. Emomali Rakhmonov is the president. Shall we try again? Who is the president? "Islam Karimov."
"We are one people, citizens of Tajikistan and citizens of Uzbekistan," another local said, "and we cannot go anywhere. We all have relatives living nearby, but we cannot attend funerals or weddings. Rekzasai is close by, barely 3 kilometers away. Many men found wives there, there are lots of relatives over there, but we cannot go them and they cannot come to us because the road is closed."
Kholmurod Kuralov is 89. He has eight children, four of them in Kokand and four in the Pap district. Kuralov himself is a citizen of Uzbekistan but he cannot visit his children because border guards do not permit it for some reason.
"They say that we of Sarvak are not supposed to go anywhere," someone said. "Everything was all right before last year when the road was closed. As soon as we set out for some place, we are detained and taken to the Pap District Directorate of Internal Affairs. Or border guards detain us and turn over to the police. And policemen charge us calling it fines..."
Mukarram Madaliyeva has two brothers in Kokand. She has a sick mother (she is 80), and one of the brothers once came to see her. On his way back the brother was detained and forced to pay a fine (20,000 sums).
"They even arrest women!" a local said.
Another woman says that she went to Rekzasai to sell apples. Three border guards detained her and turned her over to the police. The woman, a citizen of Uzbekistan, spent some time under arrest.
One Jigitali has his own story to tell. He said that several border guards had come over to check papers once. Jigitali himself was not in, and the border guards arrested his two sons. A citizen of Tajikistan, Jigitali lives on what is supposed to be Tajik land. Border guards did not care. "This is our land," they said. Jigitali's sons were taken to the Pap District Directorate of Internal Affairs and locked up for two days.
The conversation is over. Good-byes are exchanged when a man with a notebook approaches us. He never said a word during the meeting, only listened.
Our Russian driver Dima is super nice, proactively and unobtrusively helpful all the time. (In fact, all the non-official people we have met in Uzbekistan have been super nice, just as every official we've crossed has been quite the opposite.) As we drive around Tashkent, our conversation dwells on Uthman, or Kaffal of Chach, or the ancient history of Sogdiana, and Dima invariably quietly listens. When we pass the Orthodox Church of Tashkent, he speaks at last, with a big smile: "That," he says, "Russian Church."
A little later, we are passing Independence Square -- the largest public city square in the former USSR, in the middle of which stood the largest Lenin statue in the Soviet Union. That statue is gone -- now there is a globe with Uzbekistan in its place. Our driver guffaws and gives a theatrical shrug: "Lenin Kaput!" It is not hard to hear the anguish behind the laughter.
Soon after Uzbek independence, the Russian language lost its official status in Uzbekistan. Living standards dropped; the school, the electricity, the public transport taken for granted under the USSR suddenly seemed luxuries. Karimov started a process of reducing the presence of ethnic Russians in positions of influence. The revenge of the Sart has made Russians the new nomads in Central Asia.
Imperial Russia had conquered Tashkent in 1865. In the aftermath of the Russian humiliation in the Crimean War, a difference had opened up between the Foreign Office in St. Petersburg (which did not want to re-antagonize Western Europe in the time needed to recover economically) and Tsar Alexander II (who delighted in lavishing honors and medals on successful military exploits). Into this gap stepped in General Mikhail Cherniaev, who disregarded direct orders not to engage the Khanate of Kokand (then in lordship over Tashkent), figuring it was easier to get forgiveness than permission. Cherniaev's first attempt in 1864 was not successful; in 1865, he managed to capture the city's water supply. The elders of Tashkent sent for help to Bukhara. Cherniaev's response was to mount an assault on the city, his 2,000 troops (and 12 cannon) facing perhaps 10,000-30,000 Kokandian forces. The relative isolation from large Eurasian countries had given the despotic khans a false sense of preparedness; after 2 days of battle, it became clear that the semi-regulars of the khanate were far behind the professional Russian forces in organized military prowess if not in ruthlessness. Hundreds of Kokand soliders lay dead, vs. a few dozen Tsarist casualties. The city elders then arranged a surrender, recognizing Tsarist control over Tashkent in return for promises not to levy any new taxes, and not to billet soliders with civilians in the city. Upon hearing of the conquest, Alexander II was delighted; he decorated Cherniaev (in spite of his contravention of specific orders from military superiors) and remarked it had been "a glorious affair." There was less British indignation than feared, in the end "Lion of Tashkent" Cherniaev's fait accompli, and similar derring do by Generals Kaufman and Skobelev, opened the doors for a new empire in the East.
A colonial society was spawned. A cotton boom, a railway boom, and all-around industrialization resulted in an influx of settlers. In the first census of Russian Tashkent conducted in 1872, out of 2000 townspeople 600-odd were Orthodox Russians (the rest being Muslims or Jews.) Five years later, there were 14,000. Most of the new arrivals were urban poor from European Russia, braving 2,000 kms over uninhabited wasteland. According to Jeff Sahadeo's recent book on Russian colonial society in Tashkent:
The route to Tashkent from European Russia passed through two thousand kilometers of harsh steppe and desert territory and lasted anywhere from one to four months. Between the city of Orsk and the Aral Sea, the condition of the road was atrocious: sandy and dusty in summer, muddy in the spring and fall, and almost invisible in the winter snows. The steppe became increasingly desolate; corrosive, salty soil stung the eyes and inhibited breathing. Travelers then entered the Karakum desert. Kazakh guides directed the traveler to wells and around sand dunes, but carriages frequently stuck in deep deposits of sand, requiring hours of work to be dug out. Camels proved far more reliable than horses at traversing the desert sands, but their slow gait and surly behavior infuriated travelers. Postal stations, the only form of shelter, were no more than small dirty huts or tents maintained by local Cossacks or Kazakhs, who often lived elsewhere on the steppe, and remained abandoned for days. Stationmasters, when present, frequently robbed travelers. Dehydration and diarrhea struck frequently. Mennonites traveling in a caravan in 1880 lost eleven children to disease, in their words, in the “burning hell” of the Karakum.
A bristling Tsarist intellectual quoted in the book writes the new arrivals were "identified by their hungry faces, ragged dress, and mud-shacks on the edge of Russian Tashkent"; the upper classes clearly feared that the proletariat flooding in, "the dark, reverse side of our civilization", would threaten Russia's image as bearer of a superior St. Petersburg civilization. Along with the railway came railway workers, bringing not only their skills but also revolutionary thoughts on class (i.e. that they had more rights than the natives but no less than the aristocracy). A few decades later, Lenin would find the ranks of these workers throw up many leaders of the Bolshevik revolution in the East.
Neither Russia nor Kazakhstan requires visas for Uzbek citizens; "you can just get up on a bus and go", explained Nadia, who is half-Russian. According to the 2010 IMF GDP list, Russian per capita GDP is about USD 10000 -- i.e. in the neighborhood of Poland or Lithuania, and above the world average of around USD 9000. Kazakhstan's per capita GDP is USD 8000, i.e. similar to that of Argentina or Venezuela; Uzbekistan is at USD 1300, somewhere around India or Pakistan. Just before the fall of communism in 1989, 10% of Uzbekistan's population was ethnic Russian; by 2004, it was 4%, and it probably less today. Meanwhile, the Russian population in the East Kazakh Region of Kazakhstan alone (the traditional Russian-populated area) comprises 46% (vs. 49% ethnic Kazakhs) of that territory.
Kazakhstan has tremendous natural resources; the second largest reserves in the world of uranium, chromium, lead, zinc; the third largest reserves of manganese reserves; the fifth largest reserves of copper; ranks in the top ten for coal, iron, and gold; and has the 11th largest proven reserves of gas. As investment floods in to develop these, it is not hard to see Kazakhstan soon reaching the levels of per-capita GDP of Saudi Arabia (USD 16000), or more; making the Kazakh-Uzbek border resemble the one between the USA and Mexico.
"I have already taken my wife and daughter to Ust-Kamenogorsk. I'm selling our apartment here in Tashkent to join them there," Igor, 29, said. A certified engineer, he earned his daily bread in Tashkent as a self-appointed cabby. "A lot of our acquaintances and friends left for Kazakhstan. Besides, I want a normal salary paid for what I'm a specialist in. I'm fed up with how things are here where I never know if I'm going to earn anything or not. And I want to be able to speak my mind. We may even decide to move on at some later date. No, not to Russia - Kazakhstan is not any worse than Russia. We'll go abroad."
Igor hopes to be granted citizenship in Kazakhstan.
Motives of many other immigrants are similar.
"My daughter and me would have gone to Russia long ago, but there will be problems with citizenship and lodging there," hotel manager Irina, 45, said. "Besides, we do not have relatives in Russia. Cannot say that we have any in Kazakhstan, but in Kazakhstan one can make himself without help. I'm not saying there is any harassment here in Uzbekistan or something. It's just that we will have to leave Tashkent sooner or later in any case. There are lots of Russians in Kazakhstan. Salaries there are decent, and goods are not that expensive."
"Sure, it is possible to earn a fine salary in Tashkent too," translator Irina, 32, announced, "but living standards in Kazakhstan are higher. Consider Astana. It is practically a European capital! I want to live in Europe but nobody will let me leave Uzbekistan for Europe. It will be easier to accomplish that in Kazakhstan. I know, I asked around. Besides, I have relatives there encouraging me to come over. So, why would I stick around here?"
"I'm leaving to earn some dough for the time being. Still, I'm already thinking about settling there for good. There are lots of Russians there, that's what I like. Russians are rare in Tashkent nowadays. When I see one, I'm happy like I met a friend or something! It's different in Kazakhstan where Russian is a state language. That's great because I do not speak Uzbek. Everything will be in the Uzbek language here in Tashkent soon - I'm not even talking about regions. Well, I'll go and see what salaries there are like. I have some acquaintances who invite me to go there together," Nikolai, 22, said.
Obtaining citizenship in Kazakhstan for an ethnic Russian is not that easy. He or she must have lived in Kazakhstan for 5 years and have $8,000 in a bank. Kazakhstan does not want paupers which is only understandable.
All these and other difficulties notwithstanding, Russians are not alone to be leaving for Kazakhstan. There are also Uzbeks, Koreans, and Tatars. Some of them aspire for citizenship, others merely want to earn some money.
According to Andrei K. (his family moved from Tashkent to Kazakhstan not long ago), business opportunities in Alma-Ata are better.
"A lot of my friends moved to Kazakhstan to set up businesses here," Andrei wrote to Ferghana.Ru news agency. "In Tashkent, businesses are slowly strangled by bureaucracy. Every next government resolution is more moronic than the previous one. Absurd demands, the necessity to pass through administrative levels, etc. It takes between 10 and 20 days to have some shipment pass through the Uzbek customs - and that's official. You need approval from between 5 and 10 structures. Bureaucrats everyone. You approach them only to discover that someone is sick, another is away at some wedding, the third has a funeral to attend, and the fourth is picking cotton in the fields. Even when they all are present, all of them want their palms greased. Sure, Kazakhs and Kyrgyzes aren't exactly lily-white either but in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan problems like that are solved inside of half an hour."
Businessmen say that there is more economic freedom in Kazakhstan than in Uzbekistan. Nobody hunts down menial workers from abroad or organizes mass passport checks.
"I came here, rented an apartment, and found a job with a nice firm. That's all," cook Sergei Zherdev said. He has lived in the capital of Kazakhstan for over a year now. "Nobody has inquired about my citizenship yet."
Tashkent is an oasis on the Chirchiq River at the foothills of the western Tian Shan. The Chirchiq flows down to the Syr Darya; the principality of Chach, whose main towns date back to the 5th century BC, is some five miles to the south of the Syr Darya. The Buddhist monk Hsüan-tsang (or Xuánzàng, 602 - 664 CE) mentions the name of the city as Zhěshí. The Arabs pronounced it al-Shash. The modern Turkic name of Tash-kent (Stone-City), derided by Curzon as an example of lucus a non lucendo (though, like Asmara-kent or Samarkand, another stone city, its proximity to large outcroppings of rock cannot preclude a more rational etymology), comes from the Kara-Khanid period around the 10th century.
We are wandering around the brand new Khast Imam, a wide, spacious mosque-and-museum complex for the nomenclatura to express their piety on Eid. The president and prime-minister pray here; the buildings (other than the mosque) house the official Islamic press, or the official training center for clergy, or other official organs of this 'secular Islamic state'; several fly the Uzbek flag. One squat building, guarded by body-scanners and militsia, houses the greatest relic of the city, a bloodstained manuscript of the Qur'an over which the third Caliph, Uthman, was beaten to death.
The Qur'an is the main miracle of Muhammad: regarded as the proof of his prophethood, as well as the culmination of a series of divine messages that started, according to Islamic belief, with the messages revealed to Adam the first of prophets; continued with the Scrolls of Abraham; the Torah or Pentateuch of Moses; the Book of Psalms of David; and the Gospel of Jesus. Apart from the Ahmadis, most Muslims believe Muhammad was the final prophet, and that there can be no more revelations.
The German Qur'anista Theodor Nöldeke controversially said that it was entirely commonsense that in the very early days, when Muhammad had next to no following, that he did not have the means to record the prodigious material revealed to him; in which case it is likely that at least some of the last revelation from God to man has not survived. Muslims, of course, have formed the opposite view that Muhammad the Prophet could never forget the Qur'an, even if Muhammad the man might forget to recall this or that verse in everyday life, such as in an incident recorded in the hadiths where in a mosque "The Messenger of God heard a man recite by night and said 'May God have mercy on that man! He has just reminded me of verse so-and-so from sura such-and-such.'"
The Qur'an, according to Muslim histories, was not, then, written down in Muhammad's time. In 631, Muhammad became fatally ill; after his death, his business-partner Abu Bakr became the first Muslim Caliph. Most of Muhammad's immediate companions, called the Sahaba, had had to learn the Qur’an by heart, to be repeatedly recited in front of Muhammad for his approval. Muslim tradition says that although the Qur’an was authentically memorized completely by many, after 300 of the memorizers of the Qur’an died in the Battle of Yomama (against Musaylimah, another prophet of the time, known for being able to perform miracles like putting eggs into bottles), Umar advised Abu Bakr to definitively combine the material into a single text. From The Collection of the Qur'an by John Burton:
'Abdullah bin Umar reportedly said, 'Let none of you say, “I have got the whole of the Qur'an.” How does he know what all of it is? Much of the Qur'an has gone. Let him say instead, “I have got what has survived.”'
The intimate connection between this utterance and the classical hadiths on the collection of the Qur'an texts is illustrated by a remark attributed to Zaid bin Thabit, 'The prophet died and the Qur'an had not been assembled into a single place.' For it is this Zaid who plays the central role in all the hadiths on the post-Muhammadan collection(s) of the revealed texts variously attributed to the Prophet's first, second and third successor.
In this report, two motives are insistent: the failure by Muhammad to collect and edit the texts; and the suggestion of the incompleteness, potential or actual, of what might have been expected to follow.
Zaid reports, 'Abu Bakr sent for me on the occasion of the deaths of those killed in the Yemama wars. I found Umar bin al Khattab with him. Abu Bakr said, “Umar has just come to me and said, 'In the Yemama fighting death has dealt most severely with the qurra, and I fear it will deal with equal severity with them in other theatres of war and as a result much of the Qur'an will perish. I am therefore of the opinion that you should command that the Quran be collected.'” Abu Bakr added, “I said to Umar, 'How can we do what the Prophet never did?' Umar replied that it was nonetheless a good act. He did not cease replying to my scruples till God had reconciled me to the undertaking.” Abu Bakr continued, “Zaid, you are young and intelligent and we know nothing to your discredit. You used to record the revelations for the prophet, so pursue the Qur'an and collect it all together.” By God! Had they asked me to remove a mountain it could not have been more weighty than what they would now have me do in ordering me to collect the Qur'an.'
Umar was stabbed by an angry Persian slave named Feroz in 644. On his deathbed, Umar could still vividly recall the bad-blood at the time of deciding the successor to Muhammad, when the followers of the young Ali had clashed against the old-guard under Abu Bakr. Umar then nominated an electoral college of six, who were required to elect one of themselves as the next Caliph. The college consisted of Saad, Abdul Rahman, Zubayr, Talha, Ali and Uthman ibn Affan (aka Usman or Othman.) To ensure that no single person could stall the proceedings, Umar stipulated that should the college fail to reach unanimity, his son Abdullah bin Umar could kill any one person whose opinion differed from the rest of the group! Zubayr immediately withdrew in favor of Ali; Talha was not able to reach Medina in time and assigned his vote to Uthman; Saad withdrew in favor of Abdul Rahman. Next, Abdul Rahman decided to withdraw, leaving Uthman and Ali remaining in the ring. Abdul Rahman was appointed as the arbitrator to choose between them. Interviewing the two candidates separately, he put to them the question whether they would follow in the footsteps of the previous Caliphs. Ali said that he would only be guided by the Qur'an and the Sunnah of Muhammad. Uthman replied to the question in the affirmative without any reservation. Thereupon, Abdul Rahman gave his verdict in favor of the election of Uthman.
While Abu Bakr had ordered the Qur'an to be written down, the written version was not given immediate primacy. Zaid's work in compiling a manuscript was somewhere between perfunctory and perfect. Some passages were acknowledged as having been lost, and the compiler himself had overlooked at least two verses until he'd been reminded of them by Abu Khuzaima. If Abu Bakr or Umar had been persuaded that Zaid's text was unquestionably sound and non-controversial, it would almost certainly have been given immediate public prominence; instead, as it turned out, the manuscript was given to the private keeping of Hafsa, Muhammad's widow and Umar's daughter, perhaps to bide time till the qurra (memorizers) among Muhammad's companions had finally passed away, and there was no one left to challenge a text that was different here from one person's memory, at odds there with the dogged belief of another. Zaid's manuscript was prized as unique, but nevertheless not regarded as having any greater authority than the others' beliefs about what had been revealed to Muhammad.
Upon Uthman's ascension, version-mismatch problems resurfaced. Again, from John Burton:
Hudaifa figures in a second hadith series that reports textual differences, not only between Iraq and Syria, but also between rival groups of Iraqis.
"We were sitting in the mosque and Abdullah was reciting the Qur'an when Hudaifa came in and said 'The reading of ibn Umm Abd (i.e. Abdullah)! The reading of Abu Musa! By God! If I am spared to reach the Commander of the Faithful, I will recommend that he impose a single Qur'an reading!' Abdullah became very angry and spoke sharply to Hudaifa who fell silent."
"Yazid bin Muawiya was in the mosque in the time of al Walid bin Uqba, sitting in a group among whom was Hudaifa. An official called out, 'Those who follow the reading of Abu Musa, go the corner nearest the Kinda door. Those who follow Abdullah's reading, go to the corner nearest Abdullah's house. Their reading of Q 2.196 did not agree. One group read it, 'Perform the pilgrimage to God.' The others read it, 'Perform the pilgrimage to the Ka'ba.' Hudaifa became very angry, his eyes reddened and he rose, parting his qamis at the waist, although in the mosque. This was during the reign of Uthman. Hudaifa exclaimed, 'Will someone go to the Commander of the Faithful, or shall I go myself? This is what happened in the previous dispensations.' " …
The conclusion which such reports invite us to draw is that there was genuine fear that Islam, like the religions before it, would be fragmented into warring sects as a result of differences arising in the reading of sacred texts. Uthman's purpose and his achievement was to unite the Muslims on the basis of a single agreed Qur'an reading.
… [Uthman] addressed the people, 'You who are around me are disputing as to the Qur'an, and pronouncing it differently. It follows that those who are distant in the various regional centres of Islam are even more widely divided. Companions of Muhammad! Act in unison; come together and write out an imam for the Muslims.'
Uthman then requested Hafsa to allow him to use Zaid's Qur'an text, in her possession and forgotten for a decade, to be set in the Quraysh dialect which, through Fus'ha, was to become Modern Standard Arabic. Uthman again summoned Zaid, got made several copies of the old compilation, and ordered any other texts to be rounded up and burned. The formalization of the orally transmitted text to one copy of Qur'anic text resulted in the Uthmanic codex. Five of these "original" Qur'ans were sent to the major Muslim cities of the era, with Uthman keeping one for his own use in Medina. Of the five copies that were sent out, the only surviving copy is said to be held in Topkapi Palace, in Turkey. Some sects of the Shi'a dispute the Uthmanic codex; they add two additional suras known as al-Nurayn and al-Wilaya, on the premise of Ali's copy being different from that of Uthman. It is still a matter of debate and speculation what part of the revelation Muhammad the man might have overlooked, what part did not survive Zaid, and what has been forgotten due to Uthmanic recension.
Unlike the disciplinarian Umar, Uthman focused more on prosperity. Under Uthman, the Muslims became richer and on the political plane they came to enjoy a larger degree of freedom. No institutions had been, however, devised to channel political activity, and, in their absence, pre-Islamic tribal rivalries suppressed under earlier Caliphs re-erupted. People took advantage of Uthman's liberties; this culminated in his assassination.
In 655, Uthman invited anyone with a grievance against the administration to assemble at Mecca for the Hajj. In response, his opposition came in large delegations from various cities to present their grievances before the ummah. Uthman addressed the gathering and gave long explanations of his policies, and then said: "I have had my say. Now I am prepared to listen to you. If any one of you has any legitimate grievance against me or my Government you are free to give expression to such grievance, and I assure you that, I will do my best to redress such grievance."
The reasonableness of the offer took the wind out of the rebels' sails; it was a great psychological victory for Uthman. Before returning to Syria, the governor Muawiyah, Uthman’s cousin, suggested Uthman should come with him to Syria as the atmosphere there was safer. Uthman rejected this offer, saying that he didn't want to leave the city of Muhammad. Muawiyah then suggested that he be allowed to send a force to guard Uthman against any possible attempt by rebels to harm him. Uthman rejected that, too, saying sadly that the Syrian forces in Medina would be an incitement to civil war within Islam, and that he could not be party to such a move.
Things were quiet for a year. In 656, a contingent of about 1,000 people were sent to Medina from Egypt, with instructions to assassinate Uthman and overthrow the government. Similar contingents marched from Kufa and Basra to Medina. The Egyptians waited on Ali, and offered him the Caliphate in succession to Uthman, which Ali turned down. The representatives of Kufa waited on Zubayr, while the contingent from Basra tried to get as their proxy Talha. In proposing alternatives to Uthman as Caliph, the rebels neutralized the bulk of public opinion in Medina and Uthman's faction could no longer offer a united front. Uthman had the active support of the Umayyads, and a few other people in Medina, but the rest of the people of Medina chose to be neutral. This proved fatal, the rebels mounted a siege on Uthman's compound, and, one night, entered his room while he sat reading. Naila, his wife, threw herself on him; raising her hand to protect him, she had her fingers chopped off and was pushed aside; Caliph Uthman was bludgeoned till his blood flowed out on the Qur'an and he was dead.
Uthman was succeeded by Ali, who took the bloodstained copy of the Qur'an to Kufa. When Timur destroyed the area c. 1401, he took the Qur'an of Uthman to his capital, Samarkand, as a trophy; it was also well known that such relics attracted pilgrims, and pilgrims could be taxed. The Qur'an remained there for four centuries until, in 1868, when the Russians invaded, they captured the manuscript to take it back to the Imperial Library in St. Petersburg. After the October Revolution, Lenin, in an act of goodwill to the Muslims of Russia, gave the Qur'an to the people of Ufa, Bashkirtistan. After appeals by the people of Turkestan, the Qur'an was returned to Central Asia, to Tashkent, in 1924, where it has since remained.
At the Khast Imam, we are greeted affably by the Mufti in charge of the Qur'an of Uthman. He is dressed in suit-and-tie, scholarly and engaging. 'Made In India?' he asks with a laugh, many of the Uzbek clergy have visited India to study. He adds to our knowledge of the manuscript; it is written on gazelle-skin parchment; the ink is made out of lamp-black and iron-gall. I say the script looks Kufic, he gently corrects me. "No, it was written in Hejaz province, in which is located both Mecca and Medina. This script is Hejazi." The text is devoid of the Arab harakat diacritic marks, showing its antiquity. The manuscript is also incomplete, only a third of the Qur'an surviving -- it begins in the 2nd sura and ends abruptly at surah 43 (of 114). He seems at pain to impress upon visitors that this is the real thing; he shows off a certificate from UNESCO framed on the wall, guaranteeing the authenticity of the relic (one is left wondering why such certification is needed.) "Not as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls," he says, "but very, very, old."
Pictures or video of the Qur'an of Uthman are not allowed. I ask for an exception, he wavers, but no waiver; this man-made object, he says, should not become an item of veneration or deification, like the Granth of the Sikhs. "Islam would not permit that." We are left with footage of the complex, below (Mr. M once again mobbed by the ladies.) As we take leave, a German diplomat and his painted frau appear, complete with entourage; the Germans pay for housing the Qur'an of Uthman in climate-controlled repose, the Mufti strides off anxiously to greet them.
Jizzakh seems a spruce Anyville as we drive through; a hospital, a high school marching band practicing in uniform, the football field decorated in the colors of the local football club Sogdiana Jizzakh. Then we see the tank trundling through the main street this weekday morning. Behind, a truckload of soldiers follows in escort. Traffic is backed up behind this stubby convoy -- hesitant to pass. As we come closer, we realize the soliders are all wearing black ski masks over their blue charcoal camouflage uniforms. Their faces remain hidden, with slits for eyes, and the cut of the masks make it appear they have no necks. The company have machine guns cradled in their laps as they follow the T80 on this crisp, beautifully clear winter morning; at the edge of town the militsia detail guarding the checkpost fumble with the road dividers to let the tank turn around.
In the bal masqué of the history of Uzbekistan, it is time to introduce another character, F. M. Bailey -- spy, orientalist, linguist, lepidopterist, botanist, mad dog and Englishman -- a bit player in the Great Game.
Born in Lahore in 1882, Frederick Marshman Bailey was the son of an officer in the British Indian Army. He studied at Wellington and at Sandhurst before returning to India as a member of the Bengal Lancers; during a mission to Sikkim, he began to study Tibetan, and became so proficient that he accompanied Younghusband in the 1904 invasion of Tibet ordered by George Nathaniel Curzon to stop Russian infiltration there. (Francis Younghusband is in many ways cut from the same cloth: born in British India, a mountaineer who set up the first explorations of Everest, subsequently war criminal and massacrer of Tibetan monks, finally New Age mystic spiritual writer of books with titles like The Gleam: Being an account of the life of Nija Svabhava.) Younghusband and Bailey found no Russians in Lhasa, but the invasion pointed out to Bolsheviks (once they came to power in 1918) what they could be doing to counter the British Empire.
As they consolidated power in Central Asia, the Soviets developed plans (The Kalmyk Project) to launch a surprise attack on the northwest frontier of India via Tibet in 1919-1920, in order to destabilize Britain through unrest in the Empire. Afghanistan had just seen a coup d'état that placed the young prince Amanullah Khan in power and precipitated the final (not counting the present NATO invasion) Anglo-Afghan War. The Soviets proposed to Amanullah a military alliance against British India and a campaign for which Soviet Uzbekistan would bear the costs. The Bolsheviks liaised with the Indian revolutionaries of Raja Mahendra Pratap's Provisional Government of India in Kabul (more on this in a later post), intending to raise a force of nearly forty thousand cavalry from Turkestan and the Urals which would advance to India through Afghanistan, with help from any Afghan tribes who might rally against the British. Among alternatives explored were the possibilities of fomenting unrest in Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, Thailand and Burma through the Buddhist Kalmyk people, and using these places as staging grounds for an advance into India from multiple directions in a series of lightning pushes, to reach Bengal which was the centre of the revolutionary movement in India. As Soviet thinking developed, signs were picked up by British Intelligence, and FM Bailey's services were needed again.
In the meantime, Bailey had been sent to Assam as Intelligence Officer for an expedition geared towards bringing British Indian control over what is today Arunachal Pradesh; been wounded once facing the Kaiser's Germans in the European theater of WWI; been wounded twice more facing Ataturk's defenders in Gallipoli with the Indian Expeditionary Forces (he spoke Hindi and Urdu fluently); and served in Persia for British Intelligence. He was in a long line of lethal gentlemen spies, a shadowy wearer of many faces (he was a naturalist in his own right and won the Royal Geographic Society's Gold Medal for exploring the source of the Brahmaputra; the blue poppy found at the headwaters is named Meconopsis baileyi after him).
Secretly promoted to Lt. Colonel, Bailey was assigned to the Great Game. He trekked to Uzbekistan in the first year of the Bolshevik takeover (1918), crossing into Kashgar via the Karakoram Pass from Kashmir, and thence to Tashkent. No one in Europe had any idea of what to expect from the Bolsheviks; Would the Muslim population rise up? Would the White Russians overcome them to restore the Czar? Would they export their revolution to India?
In the midst of all these swirling theories, Bailey set himself up in Tashkent as the official representative of His Majesty's Government. Unfortunately, without informing Bailey, Britain had in the meantime engaged the Bolsheviks in battles near Arkhangelesk and in the Caucasus; as an enemy government's diplomat, the Bolsheviks made him persona non grata (i.e. ripe for execution in those times).
Tipped off by friends (Bailey had a knack for befriending telegraph clerks) Bailey immediately went underground, staying hidden in plain sight under various assumed identities -- of Romanian, Austrian, Albanian, Serbian POWs, of which Tashkent housed many in those WWI days. He rarely stayed in one place for more than a day or two, eluding capture for a year, collecting intelligence on the ebb and flow of the revolution as it progressed. Actively sought by the Cheka, he finally hit upon the mad scheme of using a false identity to actually join their ranks; and, as luck would have it, his assignment was to arrest the notorious English absconder Bailey (i.e. himself).
In many ways the Russian revolution followed the course of the French revolution. Many of the actual revolutionaries were youths, maddened by a little temporary power to commit fearful atrocities. In 1792 the sans-culottes were mostly youths.
Many of the early revolutionaries, both in Russia and in France, eventually became victims. We all know of the Russian purges. In Russia especially, people advocating Liberal reforms whom the Imperial Government punished in various ways for their advanced views, were 'liquidated' by the Bolsheviks who considered them revolutionaries. Rising prices, the refusal of peasants to sell food in the towns at the prices fixed by the Government, and many other things had all happened before. But the Russian revolution did not produce a Napoleon!
When the first revolution led by Kerensky occurred in Petrograd in February in 1917, the population of Turkestan, both Russian and native, accepted the situation with delight, and most of the government officials served in the new provisional government.
In November 1917 when the Bolsheviks brought off their coup d'etat, they really only obtained control of the center at Tashkent, but the officials of the previous provincial government in other districts worked for them, not quite knowing what to do and being economically dependent on whatever government was in control in Tashkent. Gradually in the beginning of 1918 unreliable officials were replaced by the Bolsheviks.
In November 1917 fighting broke out in Tashkent, and after four days the Bolshevik party gained the upper hand and many adherents of the provisional government were killed.
In the beginning of 1918 a similar movement against the Bolshevik regime had been attempted, and one day an enormous number of unarmed Mohammedans, estimated at two hundred thousand, came from the native city and surrounding country to the Russian town and released from gaol eight members of the provisional government who had been imprisoned by the Bolsheviks, the gaol guards offering no resistance. This enormous crowd was then faced by a small detachment of the Red Army who fired on them. The native Sarts scattered and the prisoners were recaptured and immediately shot in the street.
In the summer of 1916 there had been an attempt at revolt by the native population. This had been repressed with the greatest severity by the Imperial Government and the village of Jizak had been destroyed. Natives from other parts of the country had been brought to Jizak and shown the ruins with corpses lying in the streets and had been told that if they gave any trouble they knew what to expect. The 'Jizak Event' as it was called was effective and the native population was completely cowed.
There is a glimpse of the tank in the video following the Curzon Goes To Tashkent post below, around 0:50.
It is time to leave Samarkand; we are headed next to Jizzakh through the Gates of Tamerlane (Pass of Jilanuti), then across the Hungry Steppe to Tashkent, the most Russified city in Central Asia. The same path was taken by George Nathaniel Curzon over a century ago.
In 1889, a 30-year-old Curzon (10 years away from becoming Viceroy of India, a capacity in which he notoriously instigated the Partition of Bengal) traveled to Central Asia with the ostensible purpose of finding the source of the Amu Darya (for which he was later given a Royal Geographic Society medal), but with the ulterior motive of studying the 20-year-old Tsarist Russian rule in these parts as well as the implications of an expansionist Russia for British India.
Even allowing for the times, Curzon is pompous. A rich but austere Earl (holding lands from 12th century Norman grants) for a father, and in lieu of mother a brutal governess (who made him frequently parade through the village wearing a dunce cap labeled Liar, Sneak or Coward) built in him an aloof stiff-upper-lip valued by Victorian aristocracy. While at Oxford, the following doggerel written about him was to stick for life:
My name is George Nathaniel Curzon, I am a most superior person. My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek, I dine at Blenheim twice a week.
Curzon famously called the Registan of Samarkand the noblest public square in the world. A lifelong Restorer (as Viceroy he would try to restore the Taj Mahal), Curzon notes with approval Russians tearing down the old, eastern-style mohallas of Samarkand to make way for new, western-style boulevards. He writes in Russia Rule in Central Asia:
Even the native bazaar has been thoroughly transformed under Russian rule, large blocks of crooked alleys having been swept away to make place for broad boulevards converging from the different points of the compass upon the Righistan. In driving the latter in straight lines through the heart of the city, the Russians have been unconsciously following an example set them nearly 500 years ago by their great forerunner Tamerlane; for again we owe to the agreeable gossip of the Spanish Ambassador of King Henry III of Castile the knowledge that 'The lord (i.e. Timur) ordered a street to be made through the city, pulling down all houses that stood in the line."
(Above: The Chorsu Bazaar in Samarkand, pictured from Curzon's Russia in Central Asia.)
Eventually Curzon takes a chance to get out of Samarkand:
While at Samarkand the chance was presented to me of making under the best auspices a visit to Tashkent. Though the distance between the two cities is considerable—190 miles—and can only be covered by road, I eagerly grasped this opportunity of forming even a slight acquaintance with the capital of Russia in the East; being anxious to observe the visible effects of a dominion that has now lasted for over twenty years, to acquaint myself with the ideas that are rumoured to prevail in its military circles, and to contrast its Court life and etiquette with the analogous British regime at Calcutta. I also wished to form some opinion as to the feasibility of an extension of the Transcaspian hue from the Zerafshan province into Turkestan.
It was not till I was well on my way to Tashkent that I realised how great, from the most selfish and personal point of view, the advantages of that railway had been. The luckless traveller condemned to the amenities of a tarantass across the Golodnaya, or Famished Steppe, hankers after the second-class carriages of General Annenkoff as eagerly as did the Israelites in similar surroundings after the flesh-pots of Egypt. I know that it is the fashion of English writers to decry, just as it is of Russians to extol, the tarantass; but I must confess in this case to a full and honest share in the prejudices of my countrymen. A kind of ramshackle wooden boat, resting on long wooden poles, which themselves repose on the wooden axles of wooden wheels—this is the sorrowful and springless vehicle in which two of us were to travel 380 miles, and in which travellers have often covered thousands. There is one advantage in the fabrics being entirely of wood—namely, that if it breaks down en route, as sooner or later it is perfectly certain to do, its repair can be effected without much difficulty. Too nicely pieced a structure would indeed be unsuited to the conditions of Central Asian travel; for the vehicle is required to ford rivers and cross deserts, now buried in mud, now plunging heavily through sand, to resist concussions, and to emerge from mishaps that would dislocate any finer piece of workmanship. The Russians have reduced to a science the subjugation of the tarantass by means of straw and mattresses; but the less skilful Englishman, in the rough places where there is no road, is tossed about like a cork on tumbled water. Fortunately, the remaining difficulties usually associated with such a method of locomotion are here somewhat curtailed; for there is a postal service along the road between Samarkand and Tashkent, with relays of post-horses at the various stations, placed at distances of about fifteen miles apart. A Podorojna, or special order, must first be procured from the authorities. This entitles the traveller to a change of horses at each station; though, even so, he is far from safe, for the intimation that all the available horses are tired or unfed or still feeding, which occurs from time to time with mathematical regularity, may compel him either to wait half a day in a grim post-house in the middle of an odious desert, or to hire whatever animals he can procure from any well-disposed rustic possessing a stable in the neighbourhood. The horses are harnessed to the tarantass in a troika—i.e. three abreast; the middle horse between the shafts having its neck held tightly up by a bearing-rein attached to a high wooden arch rising above its head, while the outside horses are not even confined within traces, but gallop along in random fashion, with their heads, as a rule, looking inquisitively round the corner. A different driver, Tajik, or Uzbeg, or Kirghiz, each with unmistakable physiognomy, mounts the box at each posthouse, and at the end of his stage absorbs without either gratitude or protest a modest gratuity.
(The ruins of the Bibi Khanym in Curzon's time.)
The road to Tashkent is roughly divided into three sections by the mountain defile known as the Gates of Tamerlane and the main stream of the Syr Daria or Jaxartes; and the distances between its principal points are as follows :—
Samarkand to Jizak . . . 65 miles Jizak to Tchinaz . . . 83 " Tchinaz to Tashkent . . . 42 " Total . . . 190 "
Our outward journey occupied thirty hours, including halts at the post-stations; the return journey, upon which we suffered from scarcity of horses, thirtysix. Russian officers, travelling at the maximum rate of speed, have covered it in twenty-four and even in twenty-two hours.
Leaving Samarkand on the north-east, we skirt the hill Tchupan-Ata—once crowned by the great observatory of Ulug Beg, but now by the whitewashed tomb of a local saint—and pass at no great distance from the mass of crumbling tumuli and mounds that mark the site of an ancient city, associated with the legendary hero Afrasiab, and supposed to have been the predecessor of the Maracanda of the Greeks. Heaps of rubbish and the accumulations of centuries cover an immense extent, not unlike the ruins of Fostat or Old Cairo. Excavations have been pursued in a half-hearted and disjointed fashion by the Russians, but no deliberate or scientific effort has been made to explore whatever secrets of the past—and they must be manifold and important—the ruins of Kaleh-i-Afrasiab can tell. This is one of the many chances of the future.
(Above: Shah-i-Zinda from Curzon's time.)
After traversing a succession of gardens and orchards, we come at the distance of a few miles from Samarkand to the fords of the main stream of the Zerafshan. It courses swiftly along over a very stony bed, and was divided at this season of the year into four or five channels, of which none were over a foot and a half in depth. The space between its banks is, however, several hundred yards in width; and in summer, when the snows in the mountains melt, is for a short time filled by a raging torrent. Hard by are the ruins of two stupendous arches, meeting at an obtuse angle, which are called Shadman Melik by the natives, and which tower magnificently above the attenuated volume of the autumnal stream. Nothing is known of the authorship or date of these huge remains; but it is conjectured that, placed as they are close to the spot where the Zerafshan divides into two main streams— the Ak Daria or White River, and the Kara Daria or Black River — they originally bridged the two channels at the angle of bifurcation. Near the Zerafshan in this quarter are several hundreds of acres that have been planted as a nursery garden by the Russians, and where are grown vines (of which there are no less than sixteen varieties in the country), acacias, and ilanthus.
Upon the other side of the river vegetation dwindles and finally disappears, and for many miles we proceed between the low hills of the Pass of Jilanuti, culminating at the northern end in a rocky portal where many a bloody conflict has been waged for the possession of the Zerafshan valley. The boastful record of two ancient conquerors is deeply incised on the smoothed face of the rock—of Ulug Beg, victorious in 1425, and of Abdullah Khan of Bokhara, Anthony Jenkinson's host, in 1571, when the inscription records that he slew 400,000 of the enemy, so that blood ran for a month in the river of Jizak. Very like in character, and not unlike, though less rugged in surroundings, are these sculptured trophies to the celebrated inscription of Trajan above the Iron Gates of the Danube in Europe. In spite of the deeds and names it commemorates, the Central Asian defile, in characteristic deference to the overpowering prestige of a single name, is known as the Gates of Tamerlane.
Not many miles beyond is the extensive but straggling town of Jizak, with a population of 4,000, the mouldering walls of whose former citadel serve as a forlorn reminder of the Russian victory of 1866. Then ensues the Waste of Hunger, very properly so called, for a more starved and sorry-looking region it would be difficult to conceive; and as the tarantass goes bumping along, with the bells hung in the high wooden arch over the central horse's head jingling a wild discord, and the dust rolling up in suffocating volumes, the traveller too is very hungry for the end to arrive. He can draw but little repose or consolation from his halts at the post-houses, where a bare waiting-room with wooden tables and uncovered settees is placed at his disposal, and whose culinary resources do not rise above the meagre level of a cup of tea and a boiled egg. Any other or more extravagant rations he must bring with him.
At length we reach the Syr Daria, or Jaxartes, approach the second great river of Central Asia, terminating at present, like its greater brother the Oxus, in the Aral Sea. The channel here appeared to be over a quarter of a mile wide, and flowed along with a very rapid ochreous current. Our vehicle was driven bodily on to a big ferry boat, worked by the stream, and attached to a chain, the ferry being commanded by a fort on the northern bank. Here is the Eussian town of Tchinaz, at a distance of three miles from the old native Tchinaz, which was taken in 1865. Then ensues another spell of dusty rutworn desert; and our vehicle selects this opportune moment to discard one of its wheels. But patience is at length rewarded; tall snow-capped mountains, which mean water, which in its turn means verdure, rise into view; we enter the valley of the Tchirtchik and its affluents, twentyfive miles in width; and amid the sound of running water, and under the shade of broad avenues of trees, forty miles after leaving the Syr Daria we approach the suburbs of the capital of Turkestan.
By the suburbs of Tashkent I need not refer to the environs only; for in reality the Russian town is one vast suburb, in which the houses stand apart amid trees and gardens interspersed with open spaces. The meaning of the name is 'city of stone,' a lucus a non lucendo title as far as either the Russian, or the native town, is concerned, though whether it applies more strictly to the ruins of old Tashkent, twenty miles away, I cannot say. The size and height of the trees, principally poplar, acacia, and willow, with which the streets of the new town are planted in double and even in quadruple rows, and which are of course only twenty years old, give a fair indication of what irrigation and this superb climate when in partnership can do. A shoot has simply to be stuck into the ground, and the rest may safely be left to nature.
(Above: The new Russian Cathedral in Tashkent pictured from Curzon's book.)
Tashkent is a very large city, for it covers an area as extensive as Paris, though with a population, not of 2,500,000, but of 120,000, of which 100,000 are congregated in the native or Sart quarter. The Russian civil and military population are computed at the same figure, 10,000 each, and so large are the enclosures or gardens in which the houses stand apart that the majority of the residents would seem to have attained the ideal of Arcadian bliss expressed elsewhere in the historical phrase,' Three acres and a cow.' A valley bisects the two portions of the town, native and European, which are as separate in every particular as are the lives of the double element in the population, neither interfering nor appearing to hold communication with the other. In the capitals of India, at Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, there is far greater fusion, both in private and in public life —the Parsees at Bombay, the resident princes and noblemen at Calcutta, and the most influential native merchants in all three, mingling habitually in Anglo-Indian society, and taking a prominent part, in some cases in government, in others in the management of public institutions. In Tashkent, on the other hand, several obstacles preclude a similar amalgamation— the purely military character of the administration, the dearth of any wealthy or capable men among the natives, and the recency of the Russian conquest. I remember once reading the remark that 'In Russia the discipline of the camp is substituted for the order of the city; martial law is the normal condition of life ;' and of no Russian city that I have seen did this strike me as more true than of Tashkent. Uniforms are everywhere, parade-grounds and barracks abound, the extensive entourage associated with a great administrative centre is military and not civil in character. It is hardly surprising that under such a system practical or far-seeing projects for commercial and industrial development should not be forthcoming; that the fiscal balance should be habitually on the wrong side of the budget; or that Chauvinistic and aggressive ideas should prevail. Where the ruling class is entirely military, and where promotion is slow, it would be strange if war, the sole available avenue to distinction, were not popular.
In light of the above, our journey through Jizzakh covers familiar territory -- bumpy roads, military presence, and the Syr Darya. (The Greek name Jaxartes for the Syr Darya is derived from Yaksha Arta, or Great Pearly River. Oxus for Amu Darya derives from Vakhsu, which may in turn derive from the ancient name for the Aryan goddess Sarasvati -- Vachas; for its water flows like speech. Ancient sarasvati is a common noun for anything that flows.)
Mountain-people come down by the road to sell wild apples, and honey.