The Silk Road: Pomegranate
Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
351Trip End Ongoing
A marshrutka from the bus station dropped me in front of the Ark, the fortified royal palace of the Bukhara Khan under the Uzbeks, nomads from the north who settled in the fertile Bukharan oasis following Timur. At number 18, no one was home, but soon passed a woman, who said "can I help you?" It was Madina, and she escorted me back to number 18 for a large wholesome dinner as the temperature dropped to minus twenty-five Celsius.
In temperatures so cold, I walked around Bukhara in brief spurts, visiting covered markets, minarets, medrassas, and small alleyways. But despite the cold, Madina, Ilyos, and I went to a nearby market town looking for shoes and prayed at the town mosque.
Although Islam mentions five daily prayers at specified times, people of faith in Uzbekistan seem to pray whenever they drove past a mosque, or ate food, or passed a mausoleum, or sitting on trains. Sometimes it's not so clear if the person leading the prayers is affiliated with a mosque or if that even matters.
On the roadside, I bought a liter of fresh pomegranate juice from the farmers. In the winter they didn't work, so it was their only income as they braved the cold. If any fruit could symbolize winter ın Central Asıa, its fruit bazaars, and its fertile irrigated river valleys, it would be the pomegranate, cited in the Koran as a good thing that God created. The pomegranate promides not only rich juice but also ornamentation on carpets or mosaics or woodwork, a symbol of abundance and fertility. It also makes a good gift, as I found out when I gave one to a man leading a prayer on a train: his face sure lit up!
The most important place, arguably, in Bukhara was the Mir-i-Arab Medrassa, with its twin turquoise domes. Not because it's old or famous, but because it is a working medrassa, or Islamic School. It was one of few that Stalin re-opened during World War II and one of few that today is not full of tourist trinkets, wine tasting, hotels, or museums.
Before coming to Central Asia, my only experience with medrassas were the Taliban medrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, who were inciting violence and jihad, combined with a negative media portrayal. This is the stereotypical media-bureaucratic-military definition of medrassa.
But now I can see that the medrassas--translated more generally as "a place where learning occurs"--have much more to offer. Historically, arabic numerals, algebra (spelled Al-Jebr), the decimal system, astronomical discoveries, and poetry came from these medrassas. These medrassas were the learning centers and universities that marveled travelers of the Silk Road during Timur's time. Still, they are seen as a threat to the secular dictator, Karimov, so are obviously repressed.
But one site was the most important for Muslims in Uzbekistan, the Bakha-ud-din Naqshband Mausoleum, where the 14th century founder of the Naqshband Sufi order lies under a humble tomb in a rectangular courtyard. Many Naqshband leaders fought against Russian imperialism, most recently in Chechnya. I visited the holy site, just outside of town, taking marshrutka 128 the whole way for fifty cents.
The basic precepts of Naqshband Sufis are :
remembrance (or awareness) of God,
recollection of the Diving Presence,
solitude in a crowd, and
awareness of time, the heart, and stream of thought.
Despite the tourist nature of the town, visiting in the wintertime meant that the tourist infrastructure was on holiday--no puppetshows, no fashion shows, no trinket vendors in the covered markets, only locals walking on icy streets dressed in warm black clothing or even playing backgammon out in the cold.