“Isn’t it very dangerous over there?” people asked when we announced our most recent trip to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Countries ending in the suffix “stan” (meaning “place” in Persian) can remind us of places of instability and extremism, places that don’t seem safe, and yet, the “stans” of Central Asia offer friendly, welcoming Muslim people, rich history, peaceful and beautiful countryside, and astounding examples of human intelligence and artistry.
Many Americans know little of the countries in this region, including Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, perhaps because before 1991, they were part of the Soviet Union. Since 1991 and the demise of the USSR, these places have had the overwhelming task of building independent nations from what was once a powerful, authoritarian empire. My husband Roger, a Peace Corps director, and I became acquainted with the area personally in the late 1990s, when Peace Corps began sending volunteers to help with the task of nation-building as English teachers and advisors to new businesses. Roger was a director of pre-service trainings for Peace Corps volunteers for two summers, and I joined him to travel at a time of uncertainty and hope.
Fourteen years later, Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan and our first stop, seemed both familiar and new. Narrow, dusty streets still wound through old neighborhoods of adobe houses with entrances into cool courtyards, and women still thronged the streets in their dresses of colorful tie-dyed patterns and glistening gold and silver threads. But the city felt more flourishing, very clean and free of litter with well-tended parks and monuments in pristine condition. There is almost no crime, most likely thanks to 7 million people working in security out of a population of 30 million and a Soviet-style president still in power.
We traveled from Tashkent to the ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. The Silk Road from China passed through both these cities from the 1st century until the advent of the railroad, and they still have the feel of the time when merchants with exotic textiles and spices crowded the caravansaries, and camels jostled with donkeys in the sandy roads. A caravan often included as many as 8,000 animals, passing through 21 different languages and 40 currencies over the 2.5 years it took to complete the journey. Few completed the trek, partly because it required different animals for different parts of the journey—camels were great in the desert but not so well-adapted to the mountains. The huge trading areas in each city are still full of beauty and business—richly colored carpets, bright embroidered cloth, finely honed swords, knives and scissors, and heaps of fragrant spices are displayed for travelers by eager vendors.
These cities are also examples of the theme of the creative and destructive forces of history that Denise describes in her book, Waves of Global Change. For example, Tamerlane, a crippled military leader who was the scourge of three continents, made Samarkand his capital in the mid-14th century. It is said that his campaigns were responsible for the deaths of 17 million people, or 5% of the world’s population at the time, and yet he also had great appreciation for the arts and sciences. He commissioned the beautiful Gur-e Amir in Samarkand, a mausoleum for his favorite grandson, covered in stunning blue mosaics and Arabic calligraphy. He was quite a mathematician himself and was the patron of poets and philosophers during this golden age of Islamic culture.
I was particularly pleased to find that the stories of Nasreddin Hodja, the funny and wise trickster of Turkey and the Middle East, have survived in Uzbekistan through the centuries and have even inspired a statue in downtown Bukara, appropriately both silly and imposing. You will find two Nasriddin stories in my book, International Folktales for English Language Learners.
While the ancient history of this area is fascinating, even more fascinating is the more contemporary story of how these nations survived the fall of the USSR. Stay tuned in the next blog for that story.
- What are some of the creative and destructive elements in the “stan” countries?
2. Conduct more research about the Silk Road and its significance in ancient world history.