Wednesday 8 January 2014

Photo Essay: My Silk Road By Andreas Romagnoli

The sunset silhouette's Khiva's ancient, mud-brick fortress walls.
Travelling through the landlocked country of Uzbekistan in Central Asia, Andreas Romagnoli captures the remarkable architecture and the faces of the proud Uzbek people

WHEN I first heard the word Uzbekistan I remembered childhood fairy tales of Tamerlane and the intriguing and legendary stories about him. Folk stories are the cultural heritage of every nation but here in Central Asia the myths are particularly colourful and rich. In Uzbekistan people glorified their heroes and composed legends about them. Each historical monument is cloaked in the myths of the past. This unique and mysterious world of folk tales and stories were carefully collected and passed on from generation to generation by the Uzbek people.

Once part of the Persian Samanid and later Timurid empires, the region which today includes the Republic of Uzbekistan was conquered in the early 16th Century by nomads who spoke an Eastern Turkic language. This region became part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century and in 1924 became a republic of the Soviet Union. It became independent in 1991 and today most of Uzbekistan’s population today belong to the Uzbek ethnic group and speak the Uzbek language.

I started my journey from the modern and vibrant Tashkent and then crossed the country to the charming town of Khiva on the other side of Uzbekistan. One of my dreams was also to visit what remains of the Aral Sea with its white salt lake and its boat cemetery ~ an experience that made me realise how human beings can destroy the natural world and its resources.

My first impression of Uzbekistan is of a place where the mix between Eastern and Western culture appears balanced. The influence of the Russians in the 20th Century has altered the oriental aspect of towns such as Samarkand and Bukhara. But the Uzbeks are a proud people and have tried to keep their valuable cultural heritage preserved. Today, Uzbekistan is home to numerous monuments and artifacts of architectural and historical importance.

Tashkent is one of the biggest cities in Central Asia and is the capital of Uzbekistan. Chinese inscriptions talk about Tashkent as Yuni as far back as 262 B.C. As an oasis, Tashkent was a crossroads on one of the spice export routes located on the path of travellers transporting precious stones, gold and horses. The city still has many historic monuments including the Mausoleum of Kaffal-Shashi, Madrasah of Kukeldash, the Square of Amir Temur and the Mosque of Tila Sheyh.

Travelling to Bukhara I felt the air was saturated with the spirit of antiquity and the narrow streets of the old city suggest living in a world of folk tales and legends. The city was a commercial hub on the Silk Road route and is now known as the city of museums and dates back 2,300 years. It has more than 140 grand monuments and designs such as Kosh Madras, Poi-Kalan, the mausoleum of Ismail Samoni and the Kalyan minaret.

Khiva is one of the few cities in Uzbekistan that has managed to retain its true Eastern culture within the ancient inner city. The city was divided into two parts in the 19th Century: Ichan Kala (inner city) surrounded by high walls and the Dishan Kala (outer city). At the same time, the entire city was surrounded by several settlements and villages.

The ancient walls of the inner city are eight meters high and more than two kilometres long, covering 26 hectares in area. Like other fortresses in Central Asia, the city walls were built out of sun-baked bricks. They were destroyed several times but they were always reconstructed. The original city was rectangular in shape with four different gates.

In Samarkand, the city’s Registan is one of the most impressive squares I have ever seen, comparable to the Grand Canyon or Sistine Chapel in terms of visual power. The Registan was the heart of the ancient city and the name means Sandy place in Persian. Samarkand’s ensemble of three madrasahs or Islamic schools is a unique example of town-planning and a remarkable architectural design in the main town square. There are three madrasahs that surround the Registan: the Ulugbek Madrasah built between 1417-1420, the Sher-Dor Madrasah created from1619 -1636 and the Tilya-Kori Madrasah constructed between 1646-1660.

The Ulugbek Madrasah has an imposing portal with a lancet arch facing the square. The corners are flanked by high, well-proportioned minarets and a mosaic panel over the entrance arch is decorated by geometrical stylised ornaments. The square-shaped courtyard includes a mosque, lecture rooms and is fringed by the dormitory cells in which students lived. Originally the Ulugbek Madrasah was a two-storied building with four domed lecture rooms at the corners. The madrasah was one of the best universities in the Muslim world of the 15th Century where Ulugbek himself gave lectures and it became a great centre of secular science. 

In the 17th Century the ruler of Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodur ordered the construction of the Sher-Dor and Tillya-Kori madrasahs. The decoration of the madrasah is not as refined as that of the 15th Century but the harmony of large and small rooms, exquisite mosaic decor, monumentality and symmetry put the madrasahs among the best architectural monuments of Samarkand.

Click on photographs for full-screen slideshow
 Roof lantern throwing light down into the souk selling carpets in Bukhara.

The ancient mud walls protecting old Khiva.

 The soaring brick minaret in Khiva.

Samarkand Registan, Madrasah Ulugbek

Tamerlane's mosque of Gur-emir in Samarkand.

Samarkand's Registan and the view of Shir Dar Madras.

The registan at Samarkand with a view of Shir Dar and Tilla-Kari Madras.

Old man in typical Uzbek dress and hat at the food market of Samarkand

The Blue Mosque in ancient Khiva.

Woman resting against the ancient walls in the old town of Khiva. 

Mother and son ready for a religious procession in Bukhara.

Detail of the Shah-i Zinda complex.

Detail of a mosque inside the complex of Shah-i Zinda.

Woman dressed in typical Uzbek clothes in the ancient food market of Samarkand.

Locals resting in front of a church in Khiva.

Young shepherd and his goats in central Uzbekistan.

Remains of a fortress near Bukhara.

A ship stranded in the cemetery of boats created by the Aral lake disaster.

The steps of  central Uzbekistan.

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