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