Uzbekistan captures the imagination like almost nowhere else, and nowhere is this more obvious than at Samarkand’s Registan © Laurent Nilles, @societyofexploration
James Elroy Flecker’s characters describe in vivid detail moonlit cities, the heat of the winds, shadows cast on the sands, and the silent air of the desert…
In his 1913 poem The Golden Road to Samarkand, each of James Elroy Flecker’s characters describes in vivid detail moonlit cities, the heat of the winds, shadows cast on the sands, and the silent air of the desert. The reader is swept along in their timeless caravan, sharing in the atmospheric journey, and, like the merchants, gives scarcely a thought for the women left behind, ignored completely, as everyone’s attention is utterly transfixed by the destination of which they dream.
Uzbekistan captures the imagination like almost nowhere else. The country is virtually synonymous with the Silk Road, and three of the greatest Silk Road cities Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva – all fall on Uzbek soil. The people, ideas and goods that travelled east to west, and, indeed, west to east, have left indelible marks on Uzbekistan’s landscape, its culture and the genetic make-up of its people, creating a diverse destination with layer upon layer of competing (but entwined) identities.
It is a country with a rich, fascinating past, and its long-settled history has left numerous physical remains, making it far more tangible than in neighbouring Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, where nomadism was the norm. The country has been continually inhabited since Neanderthal man first walked across the steppe and took refuge in the Gissar Mountains south of Samarkand. His Stone Age descendants carved their marks in caves, and by the 1st millennium bc Iranian nomads had settled the grassy plains, planted crops and built rudimentary irrigation channels. In their wake came wave after wave of invaders: Scythians, Achaemenids, Greeks, Arabs and Mongols. Each group built palaces, fortresses and places of worship and of trade, attempting to eclipse both physically and in public memory whatever had been there before.
The constant cycle of construction and destruction has had a significant impact on what we see in Uzbekistan today. The buildings that survive, and which make the striking skylines of each and every city, are not necessarily the most modern or the mostly strongly constructed: they are the ones which, by dint of good fortune, have avoided both the attentions of marauding hordes and equally destructive natural disasters. Well into the 20th century the Soviets were levelling ancient buildings to make way for architecture that was, in its aesthetics and its function, better in keeping with their ideology. To a lesser extent, the same is also true of the post-independence period. Restoration projects, some more sympathetic than others, have raised medieval buildings like phoenixes from the ashes, though how much of their appearance is original and how much should be attributed to artistic licence, a modern architect or a politician’s idealised vision of the past, is always open to debate. City-wide beautification projects, such as the one that occured in Shakhrisabz, are especially controversial.
Man’s impact, past and present, on the natural environment, as well as on the urban landscape, is clear in Uzbekistan, too. The taming of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers and the construction of canals, dams and other irrigation methods have made it possible to farm huge swathes of land that naturally could not support crops. The country’s lucrative cotton crop especially depends on man’s manipulation of nature. Interfering in this manner is not without its dangers, however, and in the race to cultivate more and more land, to produce ever-greater quantities of cotton, the ecosystem has become disturbingly unbalanced: the Aral Sea has already retreated beyond the level from which it is thought to be recoverable; stretches of once fertile land are turning to desert; and even greater areas are increasingly saline and/or toxic, heavily polluted with industrial waste and chemical pesticides.
In many ways, Uzbekistan is at a crossroads. This applies, as it has always done, in a physical sense, as the country lies in the heart of Eurasia: Europe and Iran are to the west; Russia is to the north; China is to the east; and Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent spread out southwards. But it is also true culturally, economically and politically. Almost three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan is no longer a bedfellow of Moscow, but neither has it been able properly to integrate with markets and potential allies in the West. If any country is the beneficiary of this economic and political power vacuum, it is China, who is now Uzbekistan’s biggest investor; but even so, the Chinese are still viewed by the Uzbeks with suspicion. Unlike in Africa and other resource-rich regions, the Chinese have not had it all their way in Uzbekistan, with local firms, and government regulations, keeping them in check.
History has shown that Uzbekistan is at its greatest when it has a symbiotic relationship with its neighbours, when people, ideas and goods flow back and forth, enriching society. After a period of relative isolationism, it is returning to the world stage. Since 2016, the country has grown in confidence and influence, actively courting foreign governments, businesses and tourists to visit, collaborate, trade and share the finest aspects of their respective societies for mutual benefit.
I started out writing guidebooks to eastern Europe and then moved further east to Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia, so updating Bradt’s Uzbekistan seemed like a logical extension – and indeed much of the post-Soviet background was very familiar. But at the same time, this is Asia – this is the Silk Road! There was much that was new and thrilling, and I’m very grateful to have been offered the opportunity to work on this guide. It was already excellent, but a lot of work was needed to bring it into the post-Karimov era – I hope I’ve managed that successfully.