Thursday, March 21, 2013

Samarkand's Musical Traditions

Suzanna Fatyan
Suzanna Fatyan, one of Uzbekistan's finest tour guides, explores the musical traditions of her hometown, Samarkand, in the lead up to the summer Sharq Taronalari world music festival 25 - 30 August 2013.

Uzbekistan’s turquoise domes, mosques and minarets are known to passionate travellers from history books, fairy tales and their own concept of the Orient. Uzbekistan is also known for its people. They make Uzbekistan so special: warm and welcoming. Although the country is rapidly changing it has maintained its authenticity. People proudly follow their traditions, preserve local crafts, and their traditional lifestyle.

As in centuries past, early in the morning you can buy non (round shape bread) baked in a tandyr at your neighbourhood bakery. You can go to the old city bazaar and get ceramics for your home from your friendly local trader and buy a sunduk (chest) to store your most beautiful things.

Objects and customs that are disappearing worldwide are alive here. Gathering for feasts, weddings or other events, people not only follow traditions inherited from their ancestors, they also listen and perform their traditional music. This music unites people and generations.

uzbekistan music traditions, samarkand Sharq Taronalari  festival
Babur playing in his hujra in the Sher Dor madrassah; Image R. Marshall
The best place where you may touch that uniting feature of music is the Registan Square. In the Sher Dor madrassah, in a small hujra (cell) you can meet an amazing musician, Babur, named after the founder of the Moghul dynasty in India, who was Amir Timur's descendant.

Babur was born into a family where music and history were highly appreciated. Already at the age of four, Babur started taking his first music classes. Today, as a professional musician, Babur plays most traditional Uzbek instruments. His room at the Registan Square is a treasury where you discover doira – traditional tambourine, gijak – local violin, dutar - string instrument, chang - variation of psaltery, karnai a very important wedding instrument - and many more.

Once you arrive, Babur greets you with a charming and kind smile, he touches his instruments and melodies come out of his fingers and they immediately hypnotise you. Close your eyes and the sounds of the nay (flute) take you to the endless desert and caravans loaded with silks; the dutar transports you to a beautiful, Emir’s palace; the joyful sounds of the doira make you dance; and the gijak inspires you to write verses for your beloved…

Uzbek diora player
Presenting beautiful melodies, Babur explains the structure of the instruments, which makes you realise the scope of the ancient trade routes – India, China, Iran, Italy… suddenly you understand the importance of traditional heritage, succession, and mutual influence among people and continents.

Among the numerous instruments Babur shows you is something very small and unusual – named lab chang or chang kovuz. You may know it as a Jew’s harp. When you hear its sound you imagine shaman calling for rain near the ritual fire, you visualise the steppes and  heavenly horses, you feel eternity! Although lab chang does not seem complicated, it is hard to understand the way the instrument is played. For an inquisitive and musically addicted traveller, Babur may reveal this secret by holding a small chang kovuz master class.

You are very fortunate if you are travelling in Uzbekistan during summer. Every two years, at the end of August, Samarkand hosts a spectacular event – the world music festival Sharq Taronalari (Melodies of Orient). Musicians from more than 50 countries participate across five stages in Samarkand, the most spectacular of which is in the Registan Square. It is a splendid, once-in-a-lifetime experience to attend this festival.

Music is at the soul of Uzbekistan! Outstanding scholars such as Avicenna, who wrote the Canon of Medical Science, Al-Khorezmi, known for his algebra, Mirzo Ulughbek, ruler and astronomer renown for the Star Tables, Alisher Navoi, author of Khamsa and considered the founder of Uzbek literature – these men were also respected as musicians and even composers. They left us discourses on musical theory and summaries of music inherited from our ancestors.

Afrosiab mural of boat carrying princess and musicians. Image: R. Marshall
The musical passion of our ancestors is also displayed in fine arts. The famous murals of Afrosiab include an image of a Chinese princess surrounded with musicians. Miniatures by artists such as Bekhzad, Sultan Muhammad, and Mirza Ali provide us with knowledge of the history and evolution of musical instruments. Regardless of whether we refer to epic genre, architecture, poetry, fine arts, fairy tales of Arabian nights or rituals, we face the music!

Thus, Samarkand continues to be a musical melting pot, inviting people of different cultures and countries to share their melodies and learn about Central Asian musical traditions.

On an Uzbek Journeys tour you will visit Babur's hujra to enjoy a small concert during which he plays and explains a variety of Uzbek instruments. Babur also sells his CDs so you can bring back a lasting memory of Uzbek music. (The flute CD Melodies of Nay is glorious).

Here is a preview of his introductory concert.[6 mins] If the video does not appear on your device, please visit this link:

If you would like Suzanna to be your guide in Samarkand, please contact her via email:

contact suzanna fatyan uzbek guide samarkand
Related posts:
Suzanna Fatyan's Uzbek Restaurant and Café Reviews
Sharq Taronalari Festival 2011
Uzbek Divas: Capturing the Poetic Traditions of Central Asia
Manaschi - Bards of Kyrgyzstan
Samarkand: Fashion Show & Uzbek Concert 
Uzbek Jazz is Alive and Well in Tashkent

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Alexander the Great's March from St Petersburgh to Sydney

uzbekistan art and craft tours 2013, central asian history
Alexander the Great exhibition poster
Over 400 objects from Russia's Hermitage Museum make up this grand exhibition at Sydney's Australian Museum. It runs until 28 April 2013. If you are travelling to Central Asia or are interested in the history of the region and the impact of Alexander and his armies, the exhibition is a must-see.

The objects were sent in three shipments, each taking over three days to reach Sydney by air, with much of the road route overseen by police escort. A group of 29 curators and conservators accompanied the pieces on the journey. Dr Anna Trofimova, the Hermitage's Head of Classical Antiquities, working alongside Professor Dr Mikhail B. Piotrovskjy, Director, State Hermitage Museum, has brilliantly curated the exhibition.

It is organised around six major themes:

    •    The myth of Alexander
    •    Alexander’s background
    •    Alexander's Eastern campaign
    •    The Hellenistic cultural legacy created by Alexander’s empire
    •    Ongoing Hellenistic influences
    •    Reinventing Alexander

alexander the great exhibtion sydney, central asia tours 2013
The exquisite 3rd century BC Gonzaga cameo
Among the prized pieces are the famous Gonzaga cameo and a polished black basalt statue of Cleopatra VII. The exhibition is punctuated with short and interesting video clips of experts discussing Alexander's campaign strategies, the impact of the Greek language throughout his empire, the artistic legacy etc. The catalogue is excellent.

Alexander in Uzbekistan

Alexander and his armies marched through much of Central Asia. Today, many blue eyed Uzbeks will tell you their ancestors were soldiers from his armies. He is not, however, known in the region as 'The Great'. Either you will hear him referred to as Alexander of Macedonia (Александр Македонский) or Iskandar Zulqarnay (Iskandar is the Persian for Alexander and Zulqarnay means 'two horns', from coinage depicting him with two ram's horns).

In 329 BC Alexander conquered Samarkand, then known as Marakanda.  Marakanda was the base of fierce resistance to Alexander. Indeed the local Sogdians, led by the hero Spitamen, significantly delayed Alexander's eastern campaign. Although Alexander had said “Everything I have heard about Marakanda is true.  Except that it is more beautiful than I ever imagined,' this did not stop him sacking the city. Marakanda was also the place in 328 BC where Alexander killed his childhood friend, Cleitus, (who had once saved his life), following a drunken dispute.

alexander the great exhibtion sydney, uzbekistan art tours
Alexander kills Cleitus, painting by Castaigne
Alexander founded the ancient town of Nur, 200 kms from Samarkand, in 327 BC, and known today as Nurata. The remains of his military fortress in the south of the town can be seen today. The water supply system, based on underground water pipes that Alexander had installed, is still partially used.

Alexander in Kyrgyzstan

The earliest notable residents of what is now Kyrgyzstan, from about the 6th century BC to the 5th century AD, were Scythians. Excellent warriors, the Scythian tribes in the far west resisted the invasion of Alexander's troops in 328-27 BC.

The vast tracts of woodland with nut and fruit trees in the valley of the Arslanbob river are the largest of their kind in the world, measuring over 600,000 hectares. A legend states that Alexander once led his troops to these parts. Here, it is said, he completed his campaign to the east and decided to return home. He took with him fruits and nuts grown in the forests. And that is how the walnut from the Kyrgyz Mountains appeared in Greece: it has since been known as the 'Greek nut' (Gretski) in many parts of the world.

Do catch the Sydney exhibition. We are incredibly lucky to have a chance to visit this collection. View details on the Australian Museum's website.

Related posts:
Buddhist Sites of Termez, Uzbekistan
The Ancient Site of Afrosiab, Samarkand
Merv, an Ancient Silk Road Oasis in Turkmenistan 
The Greek Community of Uzbekistan