The Silk Road: Unpeeling the Layers of History

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Bahodir Bed & Breakfast

Flag of Uzbekistan  ,
Monday, January 14, 2008

The settlement history of Samarkand is thick, layers thick.  Over the years, earthen accretion, erosion, and sieges have covered and destroyed preceeding layers.  But each layer tells a story that is a piece of the Silk Road legend called Samarkand.

Samarkand is located on the strategic Zeravshan River in between the larger Central Asian rivers of  Amu and Syr, all of whom flow from the Celestial Mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Pamirs of Tajikistan.  These fertile river valleys are not unlike those of the Nile or Tigris and Euphrates, in that they are surrounded by desert, making them corridors for human travel and agriculture.

It's hard to visit Samarkand without delving into history, from the Afrosiab murals and old city palace to the monuments of Tamerlane. 

So let's dig in to the layers--this is what I unearthed while walking around Samarkand's sites.

Stone Age artefacts are the clues to the puzzle of the first layer.  Genetic studies are perhaps another.  What has been uncovered suggests that 100,000 years ago, the oases, springs, and river valleys in Central Asia were home to prehistoric man, who arrived from parts of northern Africa before heading further north, east, and south.  According to this version of Uzbek history, it is the focal point for Eurasian prehistoric diaspora (but in reality, there were probably many focal points, interactions, and mixing).

In the next layers, Bronze Age settlements developed further, evolving into agricultural sedentary settlements in the first milenium B.C.  By the eigth century B.C., the state, called Sogdiana was the center of trade for much of Asia, with its capital at Samarkand, known then as Afrosiab. 

If you set foot in a time machine, you could see a well-developed irrigation and water system, city walls, a massive Acropolis, Zoroastrian priests and fire temples, metalworkers, potters, weavers, traders, and products from neighboring states.

Further up, the layers record the coming of many invaders and settlers, the Persians, Alexander the Great, border nomads called Uachgy known as Kushans, Turks, Muslim Arabs, and surrounding city-states of the Amu-Darya River Valley. 

Interestingly, the Turks at this time had not yet arrived in Turkey.  They were originally nomads from the northern steppes in present-day Russia, who moved into Turkestan, forming more sedentary cultures from the Uighurs in present-day China to, eventually, Seljuks settling in Anatolia and Persia to create empires.

Each invader rebuilt what was previously destroyed, cultures mixed, time progressed.  I marveled at frescoes from the 7th century showing the Silk Road in action, complete with Chinese princesses, camels, and a Chinese delegation bringing silk to the throne.  Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism would have mixed here.

Genghis Khan, the nomadic warrior, then swept through the region, leaving a layer of destruction. The nomadic warrior was a counterweight to the archetects and gatekeepers.  One destroyed cities and lived in the wide expanses of grasslands.  The other built cities, guarded city walls, and sought stability.  It's not surprising that Genghis embraced Taoism, as he was part of the yin and yang of humanity.

The history of Central Asia, in a nutshell, is waves of nomadic invasions followed by successive creations of city state empires.  Nomadic invaders, it seems, had a strategic advantage because they had neither territory nor physical cities to lose and were highly mobile.  Each successive victory fed the next, until the nomadic invaders ultimately settled the fertile river valleys.

What sits on top of these layers is a new city speckled with restored Middle Age mosques and medrassas.  Tamerlane, Amur Timur, rebuilt Samarkand and created a vast Muslim empire.  But to create his civilization, he destroyed many others, sending booty from elsewhere to take care of his own.  You can look at the Registan, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque (named after his Chinese wife), the Shahr-i-Zindah from the top of a minaret, as I did with Yuki and Motoko (who I met once again here) and get an idea of the magesty of Timurid Samarkand.

After Timur and his ilk came the Uzbeks, followed by the Russians, but through it all, many of Samarkand's residents today are Tajiks, who speak a Persian dialect mixed with Turkish words.

In Samarkand, I stayed at Bahodir Bed & Breakfast, greeted with a warm handshake and hand on the heart, with a slight bow from Bahodir.  He warmed me with his hospitality and a cup of tea.  I stayed here twice: first for a brief weekend between visa hassles and second once I put the visa hassles behind me.

Dinners were large and hearty as I ate with a Siberian family on vacation and also with Yuki and Motoko, once they arrived.  From the traveler's guestbook we read tales of militsia run-ins, B&Bs, visa stories, and travel information.

Did I mention: the cold spell continued.

At the Chorsu bazaar, I bought carrot salad, fruit, bread, and more, but avoided the Barf Detergent.  I talked with a fish salesman, a girl who gave me an apple, and others, using a few words of Russian or Uzbek or English with hand signals and such.

During a light snow, I visited the Shahr-i-Zindah, a group of old mausoleums surrounded by Muslim graves.  The snow draped upon the blue domes, creating a peaceful and crisp atmosphere, especially if you see winter symbolically as a season of purity and death followed by renewal.

I left Samarkand understanding more and more that the Cradle of Civilization was not the Fertile Crescent or the Middle Kingdom, but that both nomadic and sedentary and semi-nomadic cultures existed all over Eurasia, with civilizations developing in a broad swath from the Middle East to China.  Of course much of this depends on your definition of "civilization."

I hope they've revised my high school history books.
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