The five Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan were once not as well known as they should be to international audiences. There was their generally landlocked location – only Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan border the Caspian Sea – and there was their forbidding terrain, with the mountains of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan contrasting with the steppe and desert of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
However, in recent years these countries have been opening up to foreign visitors, with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in particular now offering opportunities for hiking, mountain climbing, and ecotourism. Uzbekistan is known for cultural tourism. Exploring the region some years ago while based in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, the present writer had the opportunity to marvel at its unspoiled landscapes as well as experience the ease with which one could generally get around even when shamefully ignorant of the local languages.
As if to underline the developing profile of these still too-little-known countries, an exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Paris early last year presented a survey of over a thousand years of Tajik history in an event organised with the country’s culture and heritage authorities and opened by Tajik president Emomali Rahmon.
Described as the largest event of its kind on Tajikistan ever held in any western country, the exhibition, Tadjikistan, au pays des fleuves d’or – the “land of rivers of gold” – presented the early history of the country, stopping off to consider the arrival of Alexander the Great in the late 4th century BCE, the establishment of Hellenistic rule, the spread of Buddhism along the famous Silk Roads that once crossed Asia from China to the Mediterranean, and the introduction of Islam in the early 8th century CE.
Today it is the turn of neighbouring Uzbekistan to enthrall visitors as two new exhibitions organised by the Uzbek authorities in association with the relevant French institutions opened in Paris late last year. The first, Splendeurs des oasis d’Ouzbékistan at the Louvre Museum, was opened by Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev in a ceremony also attended by his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in November. The second, Sur les routes de Samarcande at the Institut du Monde arabe, is an exhibition of traditional Uzbek textiles that runs until June this year.
Visitors to the first are introduced to the history of the Uzbek cities of Bukhara and Samarkand in a survey that emphasises their role as cultural and trading centres on the Central Asian Silk Roads. Visitors to the second can see a collection of sumptuous late 19th and early 20th-century textiles made in Bukhara and embroidered with gold.
As Louvre curators Yannick Lintz and Rocco Rante say in an interview accompanying the first exhibition, it “presents what will be a new world for visitors and one associated with names like Genghis Khan, Marco Polo, and Tamburlaine… Everyone is likely to have heard of Samarkand, but how many will know exactly where it is located?”
“Our hope is that the exhibition will enable visitors to find out more about the Eurasian civilisations and their geographical and artistic landmarks.”
Oasis cities: Many people will be familiar with the Uzbek cities of Bukhara and Samarkand owing to their religious architecture, much of it built in the 15th century under the Timurid Dynasty founded by the Turco-Mongol warlord Timur, better known in English as Tamburlaine the Great.
At its greatest extent, the Timurid Empire ruled territory stretching from parts of modern-day Turkey in the west to India in east, taking in the whole of Central Asia, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Timurid architecture, employed in mosques and madrasas across the region, uses a vocabulary of domes and monumental entrance portals clad in multi-coloured tiles, and there are many spectacular examples of it in Bukhara and Samarkand.
However, the exhibition starts much earlier than the Timurids in the early centuries BCE and in the wake of Alexander’s sweep through the region on his way to what is now Pakistan. He left pockets of Hellenistic culture behind him in the shape of Greek garrison cities set up under the Seleucid Empire, and this later fused with the Buddhism that was spreading across the region to produce the Graeco-Buddhist art that can be found at sites scattered across Southwest and Central Asia from Pakistan to Uzbekistan.
The period between the end of the 3rd century CE and the arrival of Islam in the region in the 8th century CE was one of rising prosperity, the exhibition says, at least for places like Bukhara and Samarkand that hosted caravans crossing the Silk Roads. Lent by the Uzbek Fine Arts Museum in Tashkent like other objects in the exhibition are artefacts from princely mansions in Bukhara at the time of the arrival of Islam, including a digital reconstruction of mural paintings from a palace at Varakhsha west of the city.
With the Arab conquests that began in the early 8th century CE, Bukhara and Samarkand were incorporated into the easternmost region of the later Abbasid Caliphate, with the Arab general Qutayba ibn Muslim becoming its first governor. Later, this region became more and more detached from the Caliphate in Baghdad, and local dynasties such as the Persian Samanids took power in Bukhara and Samarkand. They were then ejected by the Turkic Qarakhanids and other dynasties before the region as a whole was put to the sword by invading Mongols under Genghis Khan in the 13th century.
With the Islamisation of the region came the development of a new material culture as well as a new religion, represented in the exhibition by ceramic and metalwork pieces as well as a page from an 8th-century copy of the Qur’an. It was at this time, too, that its intellectual fame began to spread, signaled by the births of the Muslim polymaths Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and al-Biruni in what is now Uzbekistan.
Ibn Sina, born in Bukhara in 980 CE, was the author of works of philosophy, medicine, and science and is widely considered to be one of the most important writers of a period known for its achievements in philosophy and science. Al-Biruni, born in a city now on the Uzbek border with Turkmenistan in 973 CE, wrote pioneering works of history, anthropology, and geography.
In the early 13th century, both Bukhara and Samarkand were destroyed by invading Mongol forces led by Genghis Khan in a foretaste of the destruction meted out to Baghdad just a few decades later. However, both cities had apparently recovered by the time the Venetian traveler Marco Polo passed through them in the 1270s, even if their full recovery and renewed splendour would only come after the conquests carried out by Timur in the late 14th century.
It is this period that is the easiest to illustrate because of the extraordinary Timurid religious architecture of especially Samarkand that may remind many of comparable buildings in Herat in Afghanistan or Isfahan in Iran. The exhibition does the two cities proud with a video installation that allows visitors to view buildings such as the Mausoleum of Timur, Registan Square, and the Shah-i-Zinda Cemetery in Samarkand from multiple perspectives as well as close to as if they were watching a high-tech architectural fly-through. Aerial photography of the facades and domes allows them to appreciate the patterned tiling of the buildings in a geometric symphony of greens and golds.
Among the objects on display are plates taken from illustrated books from the period, among them miniatures illustrating a late 16th-century Persian version of the traditional Arab story of Layla wa Majnun. There is an elaborately carved door taken from the Mausoleum of Timur in Samarkand, ordinarily to be found in one of the city’s museums.
According to the notes accompanying the exhibition, the Silk Roads, stronger than ever under the Mongol, Turkic, and Timurid Empires that at different times united Central and Southwest Asia, fell into disuse after the Ottoman conquests of the Eastern Mediterranean in the late 15th century and the parallel European discovery of sea routes connecting Europe to China.
Silk and gold: The second exhibition at the Institut du Monde arabe presents the traditional textile industry of Bukhara that saw an Indian summer at the end of the 19th century owing to increased patronage from the court of the emir.
As the notes to it explain, Russian expansionism across Central Asia led to the three khanates of Bukhara, Khiva, and Kokand losing their independence. Corresponding to the modern states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, along with parts of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, they were incorporated into what became the Russian government-general of Turkestan with its capital in Tashkent, today the modern capital of Uzbekistan. However, the khans continued to rule their traditional territory, though now under Russian protection.
In Bukhara, a policy of official support for the khanate’s traditional handicrafts led to the preservation and expansion of the textile sector. Still on an artisanal scale, but now benefitting from the emir’s patronage, this made use of the abundant cotton, wool, and silk produced in the region. When suitably woven, embroidered, and dyed, these materials were made into the kind of sumptuous chapans – a roomy top coat or kaftan worn by men – and the originally rather plain paranjas – a covering robe worn by women – that are on show in the exhibition.
What stands out among the chapans is the embroidery, the colours, and the use of gold. According to the exhibition notes, “the most beautiful chapans were made at the court of the emir using silk and gold embroidery called zardozi… with monumental pieces being made for his own personal use.” The ample use of gold is certainly a feature of some of the pieces on show, which, weighed down by gold embroidery and reaching to the floor, include the ceremonial chapan worn by the last emir of Bukhara, Mohamed Alim Khan, at his coronation in 1911. Like the other pieces on show, this has been lent to the exhibition by the Uzbek state museums.
According to the notes, zardozi embroidery was exclusively done by men, and only men of suitably high rank could wear chapans or other clothes embroidered with gold. “Gold embroidery was exclusively the preserve of men in a society where it was thought that gold would tarnish if touched or breathed on by a woman,” they add. The overall result seems to have been that while men of high status could dress in sumptuous outfits weighed down with gold, the choices for women were far more limited.
“In the same way that it was forbidden for women to touch gold, it was also forbidden for them to wear it in an ostentatious fashion,” the notes comment, adding that women’s dress was carefully monitored as a way of signaling social status and the age and marital status of the individuals concerned. Later in the exhibition, however, there are chapans on show that are labelled as having been made for women, many of them in brightly coloured silks and embroidered with gold, so perhaps the rules were not always strictly observed.
The exhibition also includes some of the ceremonial trappings used for horses, an important part of the traditional culture of the region, as well as examples of traditional embroidered skullcaps, called doppis, flatweave and pile carpets, and many suzanis, embroidered pieces made of cotton and silk that were hung on walls or used as bedspreads or furniture throws. These were made at home by the female members of the family and were often passed down the generations.
In the exhibition’s final room, there are examples of traditional jewelry from one of the regions of Uzbekistan. Made of heavy looking silver and decorated with coral and coloured glass and sometimes hung with imperial Russian ruble coins, these may remind some visitors of traditional Arab Bedouin styles.
Splendeurs des oasis d’Ouzbékistan, Louvre, Paris, until 6 March; Sur les routes de Samarcande, merveilles de soie et d’or, Institut du Monde arabe, Paris, until 4 June
* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly