Monday, March 26, 2012

Merv, an Ancient Silk Road Oasis in Turkmenistan

merv turkmenistan ancient sites and art tour
Great Kyz Kala, Merv
The oasis of Merv in the Karakum Desert, the fourth biggest desert in the world, was at the crossing of the Amu Darya river on the main east-west caravan route to Bukhara and Samarkand. One can imagine the pleasure of dust-covered merchants and pilgrims when they finally arrived in this fabled city.

Merv today, in present-day Turkmenistan, is a collection of ruined cities that were continuously occupied from about 600 BC, when it was settled by Zoroastrians, to 1850 or so when it was abandoned by Turkmen.

Known as Margiana, it formed part of the empire of Alexander the Great and later the Seleucid kings. Merv reached the high point of its development in the Seljuk period, especially during the government of Sultan Sanjar (1118-1157) who made it the capital of his empire. It was a magnificent centre of science, education and culture, attracting astronomers and mathematicians such as Omar Khayyam.

It was one of the most important cities of Islam: a vibrant commercial centre with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. Indeed, it considerably exceeded in size not only Damascus and Jerusalem, but also large cities of Western Europe of the 12th -14th centuries such as Paris, Bologna and Naples. An elaborate system of canals made life possible in Merv: the oasis was famous for its cotton plantations and orchards, while the taste of its melons was legendary.

merv turkmenistan ancient sites and art tour
Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, Merv
This brilliant flowering came to a violent end in 1221 when it was sacked by the Mongols, who slaughtered many of its inhabitants and destroyed the complex water system. Merv was restored in 1418 by Shakhruh, son of Amir Timur and ruler of an independent state with its capital in Herat.

In the 16th century Merv came under the domination of the Uzbek Turks and  was constantly exposed to raids and annexations by rulers of neighbouring kingdoms. This lack of stability led to the relocation of the ancient West-East trade route from Merv to Herat. When Alexander 'Bokhara' Burnes crossed the country in 1832 a much diminished Merv was ruled by the Khans of Khiva.

The Merv Archaeological Park is an area of more than 1,000 hectares: the changing water course determined where new cities were built. There are five separate, adjacent cities. It was declared a World Heritage site in 1999. The Ancient Merv Project, an ongoing collaboration between the Turkmen government and the Institute of Archaeology at the University College of London, has yielded remarkable finds and knowledge about this important site.

merv turkmenistan ancient sites and art tour
Salor torba fragment Ashgabat's Carpet Museum
Turkmenistan's tourism industry is small. Independent travel is not possible: you must travel with a Turkmen guide throughout the country. There are few guide books in English. The excellent Turkmenistan: The Bradt Travel Guide (2006) is out of print and hard to come by. Written by former British ambassador there, Paul Brummel, it is insightful and comprehensive.

Related posts:
Turkmenistan: Tracking Down Mosaics
Buddhist Sites of Termez, Uzbekistan
The Ancient Site of Afrosiab, Samarkand
Ernst Neizvestny's Last Soviet Sculpture - Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Monday, March 19, 2012

Kupkari Spring Tournament in Samarkand 25 March

uzbek kupkari buzkashi match central asia
Kupkari match; image: English Russia blog
Kupkari, (also known as uloq and buzkashi), is a wild, traditional sport played on horseback throughout Central Asia. The Uzbek annual spring kupkari tournament will be held at Samarkand's hippodrome this year on 25 March.

Central Asian equestrian skills are legendary and kupkari today demonstrates that outstanding horsemanship is still highly valued. The goal of a team or individual player is to grab the carcass of a headless calf or goat, then get it clear of the other players and pitch it across a goal line.

As Wikipedia notes, 'kupkari is often compared to polo. Both games are played between people on horseback, both involve propelling an object toward a goal, and both get fairly rough. However, polo is played with a ball. The animal in a kupkari game is normally beheaded and disemboweled and has its limbs cut off at the knees. It is then soaked in cold water for 24 hours before play to toughen it. Occasionally sand is packed into the carcass to give it extra weight. Though a goat is used when no calf is available, a calf is less likely to disintegrate during the game'.

Sometimes there are more than 100 stallions and riders caught up in the mêlée: the riders and horses must be smart and experienced to handle the excitement. An old saying 'better a poor rider on a good horse than a good rider on a poor horse' echoes the importance of the mount in kupkari.

Horses are trained never to trample a fallen rider and to swerve away from collisions without a gesture from their rider. To enable the rider to pick the calf from the ground, the best  horses will push and ram their opponents, forcing their way into the middle of the fray around the starting circle. But when a rider makes the perilous reach down to grab the calf, his horse will stand perfectly still, waiting for the real action to begin.

kupkari rider old russian anrmy tank helmet
Kyrgyz kupkari rider; image: English Russia blog
Prizes can be significant, such as a car, and although strict rules govern the sport, the competition is fierce and rough. (Riders often wear old Russian army tank helmets).

Theodore Kaye's series on buzkashi (kupkari) riders in Tajikistan, which won a gold award in the Paris 2011 Prix de la Photographie and a 2nd place in the International Photography Awards, captures the atmosphere of this game.

As well as the chance to view this ancient sport, many other traditional activities will be on view in Samarkand: qiz quvar (girl catching), belbogi kurash (wrestling), ot ustida kurash (wrestling on horseback), darboz (rope walking), clowns and Uzbek dance and music.

Related posts: 
Celebrating Nowruz - Spring New Year in Uzbekistan
Kyrgyz-style Polo: Ulak Tartysh or Buzkashi 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Celebrating Nowruz - Spring New Year in Uzbekistan

Suzanna Fatyan Uzbek Samarkand tour guide food writer navruz nowruz celebrations
Suzanna Fatyan
Nowruz - the spring New Year festival in Uzbekistan - is approaching. Suzanna Fatyan, one of Uzbekistan's finest tour guides, shares tales of the Nowruz table in her home town, Samarkand.

Uzbekistan is the country where people love gathering for different events and festivals. The favourite, and most traditional feast in our country is Nowruz. Celebrated on 21 March, it is the holiday of New Year and the spring equinox.

For more than 3000 years Nowruz (also known as Navruz in English) has been celebrated not only in Uzbekistan, but also throughout Central Asia, Iran and the Middle East. For everyone the holiday is associated with the beginning of a new life, the revival of nature and the creation of closer ties with relatives, neighbours and friends. Nowruz is a holiday of kindness, forgiveness, joy and warmth.

The roots of Nowruz date back to the times when most inhabitants of Central Asia and Iran were sun worshippers. Later the holiday was adopted by followers of Zoroastrianism, the earliest religion that developed a theory of dualism: it divided the world into good and bad. It called for good thought, good word and good deed.

nowruz navruz spring celebrations uzbekistan
Nowruz - celebrating spring and renewal
Zoroastrianism is the religion connected to nature and reveres the main four elements of fire, water, air and land. Being a part of nature, Zoroastrian customs and festivities did not disappear after the Arabian conquest of Central Asia. Instead they were integrated with Muslim traditions. They absorbed the new culture and gave birth to the amazing and colourful Nowruz.

The philosophy of Zoroaster later appeared in Eastern and Western cultures. There are many similarities in the Greek and Zoroastrian pantheon: the fertility goddess Anahita is named as Anaïtis in Greek. Later, Nietzsche in his Thus Said Zarathustra uses the plot of the Zoroastrian prophet to appeal to humanity with his ideas.

There are certain preparations necessary for this New Year celebration. Before Nowruz every person must clean every part of their house and forget all offences. In the old times Nowruz was celebrated not only on March 21 but also on June 25: ancient Sogdians had a custom to swim in the waters of the Siyob river to purify their souls and hearts. Today this custom no longer exists: after the reforms in Persia centuries ago it was decided to celebrate Nowruz only on 21 March, when the Sun enters Aries.

In some regions during Nowruz there is the Chaharshamba Suri tradition – a torchlight procession. It symbolizes the burning of everything negative: diseases, misfortunes, sorrows.  In Samarkand Chaharshamba Suri is typical for weddings today. Every country has its own rules for celebrating Nowruz. Somewhere it’s a must to prepare seven items starting with the letter S (in the Persian language) for the New Year table. Somewhere else the main meal should contain seven elements.

navruz nowruz uzbekistan making sumalak
Neighbours preparing sumalak
In Uzbekistan these rules also vary from one city to another. I would like to describe the Nowruz celebration in my native city – Samarkand.

In my mahallah (neighbourhood), I can not only celebrate Nowruz but also participate in preparing traditional dishes for this event. I can make wishes mixing sumalak in a huge pot in my neighbour’s garden, exchange gifts, and enjoy the atmosphere of universal joy.

I want to introduce you to a famous Samarkand cook Mubaro Sharipovna, whom I visited to learn more about the Nowruz table. For many years the kitchen of this remarkable lady (and physics teacher!) has attracted visitors from around the world.

From the early 1990s she started receiving guests from Iran and Europe for traditional lunches and dinners. She offers Uzbek hospitality and shares the warmth of her family with everyone. (If you book in advance, you can dine at Mubaro's at Shahsina National House, 16 Turon St., Samarkand, tel: 998 66 237 4621 or mobile +998 66 226 6158).

mubaro sharipovna home restaurant samarkand
Mubaro Sharipovna
At Nowruz, Mubaro Sharipovna holds special festivities, inviting her entire mahallah and all her friends. And of course she makes sumalak and halisa –“must tastes” for every visitor to Uzbekistan during the festival.

Sumalak is a dish that requires a lot of skill and preliminary preparations. Mubaro's family buys 20-30 kilos of wheat and germinates it in advance. Germinating wheat needs not only experience but also lots of patience!  Every morning before it reaches 2.5 centimetres, the wheat needs to be washed and spread out on a flat, raised surface and covered with gauze. This work is usually done by women and accompanied with prayers.

After the wheat is germinated, it must be ground and washed; after the third washing the wheat is ready for cooking. For that purpose the family has a huge pot, like those we use for wedding plov. At the bottom of the pot, the cook allocates 20 clean stones and walnuts to avoid clumps.

Later the stones will be removed, though only after the dish is ready. Before that it boils for at least 12 hours and attracts all the neighbors for making wishes.  Sumalak is usually cooked at night and it makes the holiday even more charming and mysterious. Everyone enjoys folk songs and rousing dances while the sumulak is cooking.

After the sumalak is ready it needs to sleep, covered, and hidden from everybody’s eyes for at least two hours. Then, around 9 o’clock in the morning, it wakes up and, accompanied  with songs, visits neighbours, relatives, and friends together with lavz halvoi (halva) and other treats. It is interesting to note that in some regions it can be also accompanied with decorated eggs like the Christian Easter tradition.

Now, that the sumalak has visited everyone, it will enrich all those who eat it with energy, health and fortune. Enough for the whole year! Important warning: if you decide to cook sumalak yourself, use only mulberry tree or cherry tree wood. Only these trees are considered suitable for this sacred ceremony.

Halisa is another 'must do' for Nowruz. In Tashkent this specialty is known as halim. This wonderful dish is perfect for meat eaters. Its proportions are 1:3. You don’t understand what I mean? 10 kilograms of wheat to 30 kilograms of meat completely separated from the bones! Like sumalak, halisa is cooked in a huge pot for 12 hours, which makes its taste very special. If you have ever visited Armenia, halisa might remind you of kurkut, a traditional Armenian porridge. As you travel around Uzbekistan, remember that in Tashkent halisa (halim) is served with sugar, which never happens in Samarkand: the Samarkand version of the dish can be accompanied with chakka (a local yoghurt).

navruz nowruz table special food
The Nowruz table
The Nowruz table is very rich and not limited to sumalak and halisa, although these are substantial and seem enough to feed several mahallas in the city. Families also cook samsa, barak beirok (a kind of fried ravioli), pirojki filled with potatoes and the most important bichak – savoury pastries filled with green vegetables. It is very symbolic: in spring nature wakes, trees start blooming and fresh greens seduce us with their wonderful aroma at Siyob Bozori, Samarkand’s fruit and vegetable market.

Do you think my list of Nowruz dishes is over? No, you are mistaken. Shurpa and plov also must be prepared for the feast. And not a simple plov, but tugrama palov – festive plov, with raisins, chickpeas, excellent meat, and quail eggs.

Finally time for dessert: shordonak (salted apricot stones), parvarda (traditional type of candy), lavz halvoi, halvoi ruhonim, raisins, dried apricots and of course green tea. Everything you need for happiness you find at Nowruz table!

Remember, celebrations are not limited to 21 March: they take place for a month. So, for a month, be ready to receive and visit friends, exchange gifts and yummy treats, and enjoy life. Happy Nowruz!

Related posts about Nowruz:

Nowruz Spring Festival – Part #1
Nowruz Spring Festival – Part #2 

Related Uzbek food posts by Suzanna:

Uzbekistan for Vegetarians
Samarkand Restaurants and Cafés: An Insider's View
Tashkent Restaurants and Cafés: An Insider's View
Bukhara Restaurants and Cafés: An Insider's View

Contact Suzanna via email:              
contact suzanna fatyan uzbek guide samarkand

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Travelling the Great Silk Road to Canberra, Australia

 silk road exhibtion canberra
Turfan night market: image AMNH
On 31 March a marvellous exhibition, Travelling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World, opens at the National Museum of Australia. Based on the review in the New York Times. I plan to make a special trip to Canberra to see it.

The travelling exhibition was designed by the American Museum of Natural History as a journey covering the entire distance of the Silk Road from east to west: from Xi’an, the capital of China, to Turfan, Samarkand and Baghdad, the heart of the Islamic world. It spans six centuries, from 600 to 1200 AD.

According to the museum's publicity, visitors 'will be welcomed by life-size camels in full caravan regalia, rooms draped in brightly coloured silk fabrics, lanterns casting intricate light patterns on the floors, and the heady fragrances of exotic’ll be immediately immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the world’s oldest international highway: the Silk Road'.

Appealing to all age groups, the exhibition will include interactive features and accompanying activities to bring to life the vibrancy of this grand trade route that connected people, cultures and technologies. When you enter you will receive a passport that can be embossed with iconic symbols as you travel from one city to the next, marking your passage through the exhibition.

canberra exhibtion travelling the great silk road
Brass astrolabe
Silk making and musical instruments will feature in the Xian section. Next is the lush oasis city of Turfan, famed for its vineyards. That section will include a karez, which formed the basis of the city's ingenious underground water system, and a night market.

Drawing on Samarkand's history as a paper-making centre, rare paper-based objects will be on display and a computer-animated book will bring to life tales that merchants would have shared in caravanserais along the route.

Baghdad was once a powerhouse of scientific scholarship, and the exhibition includes a working model of a water clock made of glass. There is also a working model of an ancient astrolabe, used by astronomers to navigate and predict sunrise and sunset. An interactive display will teach you how to tell the time by plotting the position of the stars using an astrolabe.

It runs until 29 July 2012 and details are at the National Museum of Australia's website. What a treat!

Related posts:
Uzbek Caravanserais
Samarkand: the Revival of Papermaking
Omar Khayyam in Samarkand and Bukhara
Avicenna of Bukhara and Al-Khorezmi of Khiva