Saturday, June 26, 2010

Uzbekistan | Samarkand | Khazret Khizr

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. 

Oscar Wilde:

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

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

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Uzbekistan | Tashkent | Zengi Ata Complex

I alway pay close attention to the first thought that springs into my mind when I return from the kingdom of Morpheus each morning. Recently the very first conscious thought I had was about Ala ad-Din Muhammad II (علاءالدين محمد), the Khwarezm Shah, the ruler of the Khwarezm Empire from 1200 to 1220. You will recall that the Khwarezm Shah was the titular head of Khwarezm, the empire centered on the lower Amu Darya River in what is now Uzbekistan, when Chingis Khan invaded the area in 1219. His empire, which included the famous Silk Road cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, Otrār, and Tashkent, was devastated by the Mongols and the Shah himself died an ignominious death. Having been alerted by my subconscious to the importance of these events I decided I should see for myself where they took place.

Thus I decided to interrupt my trip in Istanbul and make a sojourn to Uzbekistan. After the usual rigamarole and the expenditure of considerable coin of the realm I was able to get a much coveted Uzbekistan visa at the Uzbek Consulate in Istanbul and soon found myself winging eastward on a four and a half hour Turkish Airline flight from Istanbul to Tashkent. We landed at 1:30 in the morning and I checked into the Grand Wazoo Hotel, located about a ten minute drive from the airport.

While primarily interested in whatever traces I could find of the Mongol invasion in 1219–20, I thought that while I was in the neighborhood I better wander by a few of the other well known sights in the area. Thus after a few cups of instant coffee in the hotel dining room—the tea wasn’t fit to slop down hogs—I headed for the Zengi Ata Mosque and Mausoleum on the outskirts of town. This complex of buildings and park land is dedicated to sheik Aj-Hodzha, nicknamed Zengi-Ata, (zengi means “black”), who lived from the end of 12th to the mid-13th century. He was the fifth student of Sufi Hodzha Ahmad Jassavi, the spiritual head of the Turkic tribes of Inner Asia at the end of the 12th century.  According to legend, Amir Temur, aka Tamurlane, initiated the construction of the complex, including the tomb of Zengi-Ata’s wife, Ambar-Bibi. 
Entrance to the complex
Detail of entrance to the comples
Entrance to the Inner Courtyard
Minaret and Mosque in the Inner Courtyard
Entrance to the Mosque
Detail of entrance to the Mosque
Rooms for students at the Madressa (school) on the inner side of the courtyard
Entrance to a student’s room
When I visited this tomb I thought it was the burial site of Zengi Ata, although I did no see any signs actually indicating this. Later I read a guidebook which seems to indicate that this is in fact the mausoleum of Ambar-bibi, the wife of the Zengi Ata. If this is the case then it is unclear where Zengi Ata’s tomb is. Next time you are in Tashkent swing by the complex and see if you can clear up this matter, then leave a comment here. Whoever is buried in the tomb shown here it is today a popular pilgrimage site.
 Tombs behind the Mosque
 The Garden between the inner and outer walls

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Turkey | Istanbul | Vezir Han #2

After wandering through the centuries in the Courtyard of the Vezir Han I mosied down the street to the light shop of Erol, a guy I met during my last trip to Istanbul. While inspecting his fabulous section of chandeliers I mentioned that I had just been visited the Vezir Han.
Chandeliers in Erol’s light shop
He asked if I had visited the carpet shop in the Vezir Han. I said I had not seen any carpet shop. It turns out it is around the back side of Vezir Han, on a alley leading off Divan Yolu. 
The back side of the Vezir Han
Entrance to the Carpet Emporium
The name of the place is the Antique Carpet and Kilim Store. It now turns out the the Vezir Han has two underground floors in addition to the two above ground floors. The carpet store occupies a corner of the first aboveground floor and the first underground floor. We descend to the underground floor. In previous centuries these underground rooms were storage vaults. Now they have been upgraded into very comfortable carpet viewing salons. 
Old underground storage room in the Vezir Han. The stone pillar in the middle dates from the 1630s.
Another underground cavern in the Vezir Han
Erol lounging by some carpets
Although I was not really in the market for anything I spend an enjoyable hour looking at some nice 4x6 foot silk carpets in the $15,000 to $20,000 range. They would certainly upgrade my humble hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi, but admittedly they were a bit out of my price range. I can see $2000 for a kilo of Puerh Tea, but $20,000 for a small carpet seems a bit pricey. Anyhow, I did see a heart-stoppingly gorgeous 4x6 foot silk rug from Qum in Iran. I would have sold my first-born for this one, but unfortunately I do not have a first born so I will have to do without the carpet. The dealer would not allow me to take a photo of it, probably out of fear I would show it to other dealers and try to get a similar one for a better price. 

Friday, June 4, 2010

Turkey | Istanbul | Vezir Han

During my last sojourn in Istanbul I wandered through numerous Caravanserias in The Neighborhood of the Grand Bazaar. The door to the Vezir Han, one of Istanbul’s biggest hans, or caravanserais, at the corner of Vezirhan Street and Divan Yolu, was closed that day, however, and I was not able to peek inside. My first free day back in the Red Apple I ventured up Divan Yolu for another look. This time the door was open.
Three story exterior of the Vezir Kan
A long gallery leads through the outer facade of the caravanserai to the inner courtyard, surrounded by a two-story gallery. 
Galley leading through outer and inner walls to the courtyard
Two-story Inner Arcade
This caravanserai dates to the 1630s and thus may have caught the very tail end of the Pax Mongolica which had once again opened the Silk Road from Xian in China to Istanbul. These caravanserais served both as hotels were merchants could stay and warehouses and storerooms for the goods they had brought with them to sell. Many of the goods they had were probably sold to wholesalers right on the premises. In the big open courtyard, here at the Vezir Han over 200 feet square, camels and horses were uploaded of their goods and tied. In the middle of the courtyard there was often a small mosque, absent here, unless it was once in the little building which now houses a cafe for local tradesmen and workers. The first floor of the surrounding building had windowless rooms used as storage rooms and stables.  Staircases led to the second floor where merchants stayed in rented rooms.
Staircase leading to rooms on the second floor
A corner of the courtyard
It was early in the morning on a weekday and there was not a single person in the courtyard. Despite all the traffic outside on busy Divan Yolu it was uncannily quiet here within the enclosed precincts of the caravanserai. I sat down on the stone steps at the inner of the entranceway and soon fell into a revelry. In my mind’s eye it was night and a balsamic moon hung in the sky over one of the corners of the caravanserai. In the courtyard were twenty camels still tied in a string. They brayed and snorted at the camel men shouted at them, making then kneel down, first on their front knees, and then slowing bending their back legs into a full siting position. The camel men quickly unlashed their loads, huge wooden boxes and leather packs, and other men carted the baggage into the storage rooms. Under one of the arched openings in the second floor facade stood the merchant who had organized the caravan, which came from the old city of Xacitarxan, near current day Astrakhan, on the Volga River north of the Caspian Sea, in the kingdom of Khazaria. Beside him stood the caravan boss, shouting orders at the baggage handlers down below. Most of the goods had come from farther east, however, and had only be trans-shipped from Xacitarxan. There were bundles of  incredibly fine wool known as targhu, made from the wool of white camels, each length worth fifty or more dinars, which had originated from the desert steppes north of the Gobi-Altai Mountains in Mongolia and had traveled south, passing by Amarbuyant Monastery and Shar Khuls Oasis before crossing the Black Gobi and linking up with the main trunk of the Silk Road at Anxi. Other big boxes were stuffed with bundles of tightly rolled Atlas Silk from Khotan on the southern edge of the the Tarim Depression in East Turkestan. Huge tightly stitched leather bags held bags of the legendarily sweet and flavorful honey from the lush Ili Valley, north of the Tian Shan. There was much else and it would take all night to sort and store the goods.

Meanwhile the tantalizing aroma of cumin-seasoned mutton grilled over hot coals drifted through the courtyard, managing even to overpower the smell of camel dung. The merchant and caravan man retired to one of the small dining rooms and drank green tea and ate the mutton along with rice seasoned with Iranian saffron. News of their arrival had reached the merchants of the nearby Grand Bazaar, one of the largest trade emporiums in the world, and a few men had already slipped into the dining room and were inquiring about their goods, hoping to beat out their competitors who were already fast asleep. It was going to be a long night. 

A motorcyle with a big bundle of carpets draped on the bumper behind the driver roared into the courtyard, interrupting this nostalgic vision. The scene I had conjured up had been so real that I could almost believe that I had been here long before and witnessed it myself. Shaking off this fantasy I went outside and treated myself to a Turkish coffee with sugar. It was only seven in the morning and I had a long day ahead of me.
Vezir Khan 

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Turkey | Istanbul | Mehmet II and Hagia Sofia

I suppose everyone has had the experience of waking up in a place other than one’s usual abode and experiencing momentary befuddlement as to where one actually was. Such a feeling often happens while traveling. The period of mental discombobulation lasts five or at most ten seconds and then it suddenly dawns on one that of course you are in this or that place. But this experience was lasting longer. I awoke in a small room, laying full clothed in narrow single bed on top of a red bedspread. The windows were covered by white curtains and there was a tall dresser of blonde wood along one of the walls. On a floor was a large suitcase with the top flung open. Obviously this was not my sleeping den in my beloved hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi. But where was I? My mind drew an absolute and complete blank. I tried to concentrate my thoughts. When I had last been in Zaisan Tolgoi? Why was I no longer there? My immediate past seemed to have disappeared completely. A disconcerting panic began to well up in my mind. I threw back the curtains at one of the windows and beheld a courtyard surrounded by large trees bedecked with fully grown leaves. Obviously this was not Mongolia where I imagined that I should be. Again I tried to focus. Why was I not in Mongolia? How had I left Mongolia and where could I possibly be? The thought suddenly arose that perhaps I had died. Was I in Heaven? Or perhaps, Heaven forbid, Hell? My panic crescendoed as this state of utter mental confusion went on for at least forty-five seconds, possibly even a minute.

Then it dawned on me very suddenly. I was in Istanbul, Turkey, in a room at the Kervan Guesthouse, next to the entrance to the Basilica Cistern, directly across the street from Hagia Sofia, for over thousand or so years the largest church in the world, and now the axis mundi of the tourism in the city.  I had flown here from Ulaan Baatar via Beijing. The plane from Ulaan Baatar to Beijing was three hours late and I had caught the Beijing to Istanbul flight when it was already boarding. For ten hours we had flown westward following very roughly the course of the main trunk of the old Silk Road: from Beijing westward over the Gansu Corridor, then over Xinjiang and southern Kazakstan, passing right over the Aral Sea and the northern part of the Caspian Sea, then Georgia and the Caucasus to the northern shore of the Black Sea, which we then followed the whole way into Istanbul. 

I soon discovered that my luggage had not made the transfer to the final leg of my flight, which was not surprising, since I myself had barely made it. It was still in Beijing. As I was sitting in Turkish Airlines office filling out a lost luggage report a public service announcement came on: “Don Croner please report to the Information Desk. Don Croner please report to the information desk . . .”  I got the forms filled out as quickly as possible and hurried to the Information Desk. The owner of the Kervan Guesthouse, the esteemed Mr. Turgut Bataray, had sent someone to pick me up but having waiting almost an hour for me this person concluded that I was not coming and had already left. I took a cab to  the Sultanahmed district of Istanbul where the questhouse is located and checked in. It was still very early in the morning so I thought I would just lay down and rest for a bit before going out to look for breakfast. Not surprisingly, since I had taken only a brief catnap on the all night flight, I immediately fell asleep, later waking in my befuddled state. 

It was May 29th, the day Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. I had flown to Istanbul to commemorate this day with a visit to Hagia Sofia, which played a special role on that fateful day. As you know, Hagia Sofia was dedicated on December 26, 537, by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. For 916 years it served as an Orthodox cathedral and had acquired a reputation as one of the great architectural monuments in the world. On the late afternoon of May 29th, 1453,  the twenty-one year-old Sultan Mehmet II at the head of the Ottoman armies which had just conquered Constantinople after a prolonged siege rode through the street of the defeated city to the doors of the Hagia Sofia. Here he dismounted and gathering a handful of dust sprinkled it on his head as an act of humility before the Face of God. That very day he converted Haghia Sofia into a mosque, and Constantinople, the city  named after the Byzantine emperor Constantine, became Istanbul. 

The guesthouse is full and all the nearby cafes are packed with people. I asked the waiter if many of these people had come to Istanbul to commemorate the fall the old city in 1453. He seemed a bit surprised that I would ask about this. Almost everyone—here he indicated the patrons of his restaurant with a sweep of his arm—are with tour groups who are attending the Formula I motor car races being held this weekend on the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait. They take ferries over in the morning, spend the day watching the races, then return to the European side in the evenings. Was I here for the Formula I races, the waiter asked me? No, I said, I did not know about the Formula I races. I had flown from Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia the night before to commemorate the day Constantinople had fallen to Sultan Mehmud  and the Ottomans. The waiter just shrugged and walked away. He no doubt meets a lot of strange people working in a place like this. 
Hagia Sofia
Interior of Hagia Sofia
Pulpit installed in Hagia Sofia after it became a mosque
The Blue Mosque, across the square from Hagia Sofia