Monday, September 26, 2011

Avicenna of Bukhara and Al-Khorezmi of Khiva

I have just finished re-reading Jonathan Lyon's outstanding book The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization.

Avicenna Bukharan born physician and philosopher
Avicenna - father of modern medicine
It is a well documented discussion of how Arab culture had become a powerhouse of intellectual exploration at a time when Europe was in the Dark Ages. "Today many tend to see religion as the enemy of scientific progress," Lyons writes. "Yet early Islam openly encouraged and nurtured intellectual inquiry of all kinds".

The Arabs could measure the earth’s circumference (a feat not matched in the West for eight hundred years), they discovered algebra, were adept at astronomy and navigation, developed the astrolabe, and translated all the Greek scientific and philosophical texts.

Of particular interest to travellers to Uzbekistan are Avicenna (the Latinized name of Ibn Sina) and Al-Khorezmi.

Avicenna was born in  980 A.D. in the village of Afshana near Bukhara.  He was clearly a precocious youth: aged 10 he knew the Koran by heart, before he was 16 he had mastered  physics, mathematics, logic, and metaphysics, and at 16 he began the study and practice of medicine. By the age of18 he had built up a reputation as a physician and was summoned to attend the Samani ruler Nuh ibn Mansur, who, in gratitude for Avicenna’s services, allowed him to make free use of the royal library, which contained many rare and even unique books.

In 1025 Avicenna completed the encyclopedic Canon of Medicine, one of the most famous books in medical history. After translation into Latin in the 12th century, it became the textbook for medical education in Europe and Asia for the next 600 years. Among the Canon's contributions to modern medicine was the recognition that tuberculosis is contagious, diseases can spread through water and soil and a person's emotional health influences his or her physical health. Avicenna was also the first physician to describe meningitis, parts of the eye, and the heart valves, and he found that nerves were responsible for perceived muscle pain. Avicenna, the most famous and influential polymath of the Islamic Golden Age, died in 1038.

Al-Khorezmis statue Khiva
Al-Khorezmi's statue, Khiva; image: G. Menon
Born just outside Khiva, in Khorezm, Muhammad ibn-Musa Al-Khorezmi (780-850) was the chief mathematician in the once-great Baghdad academy of sciences, known as The House of Wisdom.

Al-Khorezmi made major contributions to the fields of algebra, trigonometry, astronomy, geography and cartography. He wrote more than 20 research works, the most famous of which is the Concise Book of Calculus in Algebra. This work was extremely influential: European thinkers corrupted the word 'al gabr' (calculation) to algebra and Al-Khorezmi's name to 'algorithm', naming the mathematical concept after him.

His other major contribution to mathematics was his strong advocacy of the Hindu numerical system, which he recognized as having the power and efficiency needed to revolutionize mathematics. The Hindu numerals 1 - 9 and 0 were soon adopted by the entire Islamic world and later, Europe.

In addition to his work in mathematics, Al-Khorezmi made important contributions to astronomy, also largely based on methods from India, and he developed the first quadrant (an instrument used to determine time by observations of the sun or stars), the second most widely used astronomical instrument during the Middle Ages after the astrolabe. He also produced a revised and completed version of Ptolemy's Geography, consisting of a list of 2,402 coordinates of cities throughout the known world.

To throw in two other names: the great scientist Al Biruni - also from Khorezm in present-day Uzbekistan. He pioneered the notion that the speed of light was much greater than the speed of sound, observed solar and lunar eclipses, and accepted the theory that the earth rotated on an axis long before anyone else.

Ahmad Ferghani, from the Ferghana Valley, was an astronomer, mathematician and geographer. His main work was the Book of Celestial Movements and a Code of the Science of Stars. He identified the dates of the longest and shortest days of the year and advanced the theory that the world was round.

These men were profound thinkers who advanced the frontiers of knowledge. Why are their names and contributions so little known today in the West? It is this issue that Jonathan Lyons explores in his book. If it's a topic that interests you too, you would certainly enjoy this Library of Congress webcast of Jonathan Lyons' lecture. Settle down with a cup of tea -- it's 56 minutes and well worth the investment.

Related posts:
Omar Khayyam in Samarkand and Bukhara
Travelling the Great Silk Road to Canberra, Australia
Arminius Vámbéry : a Dervish Spy in Central Asia
Mennonites in Khiva 1880 -1935
Langston Hughes: An African American Writer in Central Asia in the 1930s

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tashkent's Soviet Buildings

Facade of Hotel Uzbekistan Image courtesy Wayne Diamond
Facade of Hotel Uzbekistan (Image courtesy Wayne Diamond)
Mention the term 'Soviet architecture' and instantly enormous concrete buildings come to mind. The term 'Brutalist', from the French 'beton brut' (raw concrete), flourished in the 1950s -1970s, inspired by the works of Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. As an architectural style it was also associated with social, utopian ideology.

After the devastating Tashkent earthquake of 1966, many large-scale apartment blocks were quickly built to house the homeless. Later, several grand buildings were constructed as well as the marvellous metro system.

The massive Hotel Uzbekistan, centrally located at Amir Timur square, Tashkent, is a classic example of Soviet 1970's modernist architectural style. In its heyday celebrities such as Federico Fellini, Marcello Mastroianni and Raj Kapoor stayed there, as well as the power brokers of the USSR.

Tashkent's State Museum of History of Uzbekistan
Tashkent's State Museum of History of Uzbekistan
Influenced by the Soviet space program and Yuri Gagarin's celebrated journey into outer space, Soviet architecture also took on ideas of the cosmos and science fiction. One such building in Tashkent is the former Lenin Museum, which now houses the vast State Museum of History of Uzbekistan.

Earlier this year Taschen published Frédéric Chaubin's book CCCP:Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed. Chaubin, editor of the very cool French lifestyle magazine Citizen K, documented 90 buildings, constructed from the 1970s through to 1990, that dominate the urban landscapes of 14 former Soviet republics.

It's a fascinating record of daring, imaginative, even eccentric structures. As Chaubin comments in the introduction: "The key to Soviet architecture is above all political. The causes of its evolution are to be sought not in architectural theory but, more prosaically, in the regime and its evolution. Nowhere else and nowhere over such a long period of time has the urban landscape been so directly shaped by power”.
TFrédéric Chaubin's image of the Tashkent Circus
Frédéric Chaubin's image of the Tashkent Circus
View a video clip interview with Chaubin (3:30 mins).

Related posts:
Uzbekistan's Decorative Architectural Panels #1
Tashkent: A City of Refuge
48 Hours in Tashkent
Seismic Modernism - Architecture and Housing in Soviet Tashkent

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Samarkand: The Revival of Papermaking

Samarkand became a major papermaking centre after the Arab Caliphate won the mighty Battle of Talas (in present day Kyrgyzstan) against the Chinese Tang dynasty in 751 A.D. Legend has it that the production secret was revealed by two captured Chinese soldiers, who happened to be paper makers.

Samarkand papermaking mill
Koni Gil paper mill - a very charming setting
Water and wind power were used to operate the mills, which pounded mulberry bark, cotton, and waste from cotton and silk production. From the 10th century, mulberry replaced all other materials as it was pest resistant, flexible and durable. These qualities met the needs of Islamic calligraphers. The paper was renowned for its light color and fragrances, derived from adding henna and rosewater to the process.

From Samarkand, papermaking spread  to Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo. By 900 A.D. bookshops and even public lending libraries existed in the Arab world.  Paper entered Europe in the 12th century, after North African Moors conquered Spain and Portugal carrying the process with them.

Preparing mulberry branches for papermaking
Preparing mulberry branches for soaking
The revered 15th century Uzbek poet, thinker and scientist Alisher Navoi called Samarkand paper "the wings that spread the thoughts of wise people to the world". By the 19th century, however, the skills were lost with the importation of cheap Russian paper.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s, when Uzbek miniature painters faced a critical shortage of suitable paper for their work: local artisan Zarif Muhtarov resolved to revive handmade paper.

With the support of UNESCO and JICA, a suitable site in the village of Koni Gil,10 kms from Samarkand, was identified. A traditional water mill was constructed, fed by the clear waters of the Siob river. Mulberry bark provides the fibre, an ingenious system of simple water-driven machinery is used to pound the stripped bark into the desired softness and a dedicated band of apprentices works with Usto (master) Muhtarov to create sheets of hand-made paper. Once again Samarkand paper is being produced using traditional methods.

Finished Uzbek masks of Samarkand hand made paper
Finished paper masks 

Demand for the paper is growing, particularly in the field of restoration of Korans. Usto Muhtarov and his team also experiment with new products that will appeal to tourists who visit. As well as beautiful cards painted with suzani designs, I bought adorable bookmarks there this year, in the shape of Uzbek women with round non (bread) piled on their heads.

On Uzbek Journeys tours you will visit Koni Gil, view the production process and enjoy a green tea in the shaded grounds of this lovely workshop.

Related post: Travelling the Great Silk Road to Canberra, Australia

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Mennonites in Khiva 1880 -1935

Mennonites on the Great Trek through Central Asia
Mennonites on the Great Trek
Researching aspects of Central Asia regularly throws up unexpected and compelling stories. Such is the tale of the German Mennonites, who had established colonies in Russia in the 18th century following Catherine the Great's invitation to Europeans to settle in her territories. Catherine granted the Mennonites exemption from military service, which Tsar Alexander revoked 100 years later.

Pacifism is a core value of the Mennonites' Christian beliefs: over 10,000 left Russia for America, and a group of a 100 families headed east under the leadership of preacher Claas Epp, who predicted Christ would meet them there on 8 March 1889. General Kaufmann, the Russian Governor-General of Turkestan (of German descent) helped them to travel to Central Asia on what has become known as The Great Trek.

Unfortunately when they arrived in Tashkent, General Kaufmann had had a stroke and soon died. The Emir of Bukhara expelled them from his territories and finally Khan Mohammad Rakhim of Khiva rescued the Mennonites from the raids of Turkoman tribes when he invited them to settle at Ak Metchet. (This means 'White Mosque', the name their neighbours gave to the white-washed church the settlers built).

German Mennonnite designed tiled heater at Nurullal-bai
Oven at Nurullah-bai palace
Against the odds the colony built a small Germanic village about 12 kms outside Khiva. The Mennonites became modernizing agents, bringing new agricultural produce (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and cucumbers), improved livestock, and trades of many kinds.

Craftsmen made windows, doors, parquet floors, developed the ornamental designs for 10 tiled heating ovens installed at the Nurullah-bai palace and painted intricate designs with brightly colored paints for the Khan’s summer palace. On a decorated ceiling there Mennonite artists painted a landscape which evoked memories of their distant homeland - the green banks of the Volga and a mill.

The Khan recognized the skill and integrity of the new settlers: he engaged them not only as craftsmen on his architectural projects but also as palace administrators and tutors.

The community thrived in Ak Metchet until 1935. They had no need of Communist rhetoric, as the Mennonites already modelled a successful collective. Continuing to refuse Soviet attempts to move them into separate collectives, the elders were shot and the rest of the community deported to Tajikistan in 1935, where they stayed for more than 50 years in difficult circumstances.

Mennonites all over the world today participate in 'The Great Trek' tours and revisit the Central Asian outposts of their ansectors. Walter Ratliff has made a documentary and written a fascinating story Pilgrims on the Silk Road: A Muslim-Christian Encounter in Khiva, about this episode of history. Watch the preview clip below (1:24 mins) of Through the Desert to see footage of the Mennonites' journey.

Related posts:
Khudaybergen Divanov - Father of Uzbek Photography 
Arminius Vámbéry : a Dervish Spy in Central Asia
Langston Hughes: An African American Writer in Central Asia in the 1930s