Although there were several more sights of interest in Tashkent I decided I better focus on places connected with the Mongol invasion of Transoxiana in 1219-20 and thus hurried on to Samarkand. Almost everyone has heard of Samarkand, in large part because it pops up so often in literature. Milton, Keats, the Persian poet Hafiz, Oscar Wilde, and who knows how many others took a crack at it.
The almond groves of Samarkand, Bokhara, where red lilies blow
And Oxus, by whose yellow sand
The grave white-turbaned merchants go.
Then there is the novel Samarkand, by Amin Maalouf, one of my favorite authors, which I recommend most highly. But of course the most famous work about Samarkand is that old chestnut of early twentieth century Romantic Orientalism, Hassan: the Story of Hassan of Baghdad and How He Came to Make the Golden Journey to Samarkand, or more simply, The Golden Road to Samarkand, by James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915):
Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells,
When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
And softly through the silence beat the bells
Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.
We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
Although Samarkand is fairly dripping with historical sites—the Registan, the tomb of Amir Temür (Tamurlane), the tomb of his favorite wife, the Mongolian princess Sarai Mulk, etc, etc, etc, all of which I will get to eventually, I thought that I, World Wide Wanderer that I am or aspire to be, had better head first for the mosque and tomb of Khazret Khizr, known as the Eternal Wanderer and Patron Saint of Travelers (some folks might be interested to know that Khizr is also the Patron Saint of Marijuana).
Mosque of Khazret Khizr
Located in a low hill overlooking Sarai Mulk’s tomb the Khazret Khizr complex is certainly not the most imposing edifice in Samarkand, but it does boast of some extremely intriguing associations. Its namesake, Khizr (also Khidr, Khidar, Khizr, Khizar, Hızır, etc), is an enigmatic figure in Islam (he is also identified with Elijah from the Christian Bible):
There are differences amongst the scholars regarding whether Khidr is still alive, or has died. There also exists questions regarding whether Khidr was a Prophet or a saint. Many scholars are of the opinion that he is still alive, while others, such as Hafidhh Ibn Taymiyyah and his followers are of the opinion that he has died.
If he is still alive he must be several thousand years old, since he was famous for gallivanting around with Moses, the Ten Commandments Guy from the Old Testament.
In any case, he is particularly venerated by Sufis:
In Sufi tradition, al-Khiḍr has come to be known as one of those who receive illumination direct from God without human mediation. He is the hidden initiator of those who walk the mystical path, like some of those from the Uwaisi tariqa. Uwaisis are those who enter the mystical path without being initiated by a living master. Instead they begin their mystical journey either by following the guiding light of the teachings of the earlier masters or by being initiated by the mysterious prophet-saint al-Khiḍr.
The courtyard of the complex
The ceiling of the porch in front of the mosque is reminiscent of those found in Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist temples.
Behind the mosque is what purports to be the grave of Khidr. Of course those who believe that he was only a legendary figure who never actually lived or that he was/is a living entity who has never died but now lives in Occultation in this or some other dimension, appearing in our mundane three dimensional world only when his services are required, will not accept that this is actually his tomb. In any case, the tomb has become an object of veneration. He belongs to the category of saints whose bodies grow or increase in length after their deaths thanks to the devotion shown them by the faithful. The prophet Daniel, he of Lion’s Den fame, who as we shall see is also reputed to be buried in Samarkand, is another such figure whose body supposedly keeps growing.)
Elongated tomb of Khidr
The current mosque is a relatively new construction, dating to only 1823. A mosque in one form or another has stood on this site at least back to the eighth century, however. This original mosque, said by some sources to be the very first mosque built in Samarkand after the Islamization of the area, was in turn built on a site of what one source describes as a heathen temple of idol worshippers. This is often a code name for Buddhists. This brings to mind Xuanzang (602?–664 AD), the peripatetic Chinese pilgrim and inveterate gadabout who starting in 1629 made a monumental seventeen year journey from Xian in China to India and back, passing through Transoxiana in the early 630s. The first place of note he visited was Shash, or Chach, a place usually associated with modern Tashkent, the current capital of Uzbekistan. Called Che-Shi by Xuanzang, the area was more a collection of oasis towns than a city itself, perhaps some but not all of them within the current boundaries of Tashkent. He has little to say about Che-Shi, other than that the land was very fertile and and that is was under the dominion of the Western Turks.
Statue of Xuanzang at Jiayuguan in Gansu Province, at the very end of the Great Wall
Like me, he turned up next in Samarkand, which he calls Sa-Mo-Kien, and was clearly impressed:
It is completely surrounded by rugged land and very populous. The precious manufacture of many foreign countries is stored here. The soil is rich and productive, and yields abundant harvests. The forest trees afford a thick vegetation, and flowers and fruits are plentiful . . . The inhabitants are skilful [sic] in the arts and trades beyond those of other countries. The climate is agreeable and temperate. The people are brave and energetic . . . They are copied by all surrounding peoples in point of politeness and propriety . . .
Xuanzang’s disciple and biographer, Shaman Hwui Li, adds that “The king and people do not believe in the law of Buddha, but their religion consists of sacrificing to fire” (Zoroastrians). He also mentions two Buddhist temples in the city but adds that no monks dwell in them and that they appeared to have been abandoned long before. Apparently two of Xuanzang’s young disciples tried to enter one of them and were chased away by “barbarians” with “burning fire” (apparently Zoroastrians).
Xuanzang was granted an audience with the king of Samarkand, a vassal of the Western Turks, and was at first treated disdainfully. After a night’s rest Xuanzang had another meeting with the king and this time,
discoursed . . . on the destiny of men and Devas; he lauded the meritorious qualities of Buddha; he set forth, by way of exhortation, the character of religious merit. The king was rejoiced, and requested permission to take the moral precepts as a disciple, and from that time showed him the highest respect.
This of course according to his faithful disciple Shaman Hwui Li, who never tired of heaping his Master with laurels. In any case, the king did not seem to take the precepts of Buddhism entirely to heart, since when he heard that two of his subjects had chased away Xuanzang’s disciples with burning brands when they tried to enter the old Buddhist temples he ordered that their hands be cut off. The Master of the Law—Xuanzang—intervened and begged the king not to mutilate the two culprits. Instead the king ordered that they be given a sound thrashing and then expelled them from the city.
Although it is possible that the “heathen” temple which first occupied the site of the mosque was Zoroastrian, it is intriguing to speculate that it was one of the Buddhist temples described by Xuanzang. The mosque built on this site, or a subsequent version of it, was destroyed by Chingis Khan in 1220. Later mosques also occupied the site, the latest version built, as noted, in 1823. Even this last version, however, is said by local historians to be built on the stone foundation of the mosque which was destroyed by Chingis in 1220. Thus I appear to have found a remnant of old Samarkand which existed before the Mongol invasion of the area.
Another view of the Khazret Khizr Mosque