Saturday, September 26, 2020

Kazakhstan | Chingis Khan Rides West | Silk Road City of Otrār

Today there is no city known as Otrār, and very few people have even heard of the Otrār which flourished back at the beginning of the thirteen century. The scattered ruins of this once-sizable metropolis which still do exist turn up on the itineraries of only the most determined tourists who venture into what is now southern Kazakhstan. Yet when the Mongol-Sponsored Caravan of 450 Muslim Traders turned up at its gates in 1218 it was one of the most famous trade centers in Inner Asia and renowned for its arts and crafts and the intellectual accomplishments of its citizens. The caravan men were no doubt looking forward to resting in the city’s well-appointed caravanserais and refreshing themselves in its famous bathhouses. Little did they know that the events which soon overwhelmed them would, in the words of nineteenth-century Orientalist E. G. Browne, trigger: 
. . . a catastrophe which, though probably quite unforeseen, even on the very eve of its incidence, changed the face of the world, set in motion forces which are still effective, and inflicted more suffering on the human race than any other event in the world’s history which records are preserved to us; I mean the Mongol Invasion. 
Browne, who translated into English many of the thirteen-century documents which recorded the Mongol irruption, may from the vantage point of the twenty-first century sound overwrought here, but his appraisal did contain a kernel of truth. The events which followed in the wake of the calamity at Otrār did rock all of Inner Asia, led to the fall of at least two empires, and inflicted on the entire Islamic geosphere a blow from which some might argue it has never fully recovered. 

Otrār was located on the north bank of the middle stretches of the Syr Darya River (the Jaxartes of Classical Antiquity) near its confluence with the Arys River, about 105 miles northwest of the current-day city of Shymkent in Kazakhstan. It was situated just west of the so-called Zhetysu, or Seven Rivers, Region, an area which included the watersheds of the Talas, Ili, Chu, and other rivers in eastern current-day Kazakhstan and western China (Xinjiang Province) which flowed into either Lake Alakol or Lake Balkash or petered out into the barren desert-steppes to the west. Much later this area would become known as Semireche, Russian for “Seven Rivers”. As one geographer points out, “Semireche is an area where sedentaries and nomads have met at various points in history—coexisting, overlapping, or competing—because it lends itself to both ways of life . . .” 

Otrār’s location on the boundaries of vast Kazakh Steppe to the north and the fertile valleys of Transoxiana to the south made it natural entrepôt for trade between these two divergent cultures. It was also at the nexus of several east-west trending Silk Road trading. One branch of the Silk Road went east along the Arys to Taraz and Balasagun (current-day Tolmak in Kyrgystan). From here a southern branch went on over the Tian Shan Mountains to Aksu (in current-day Xinjiang Province, China), on the Silk Road route that ran along the northern side of the vast Tarim Basin and on through the Gansu Corridor into northern China. From Balasagun a northern branch proceeded up the valley of the Ili River and over the spurs of the Borohogo Shan Range to the Zungarian Basin on the north side of the Tian Shan. From here routes went to both Mongolia and China. Another route followed the Syr Darya to Shash (modern-day Tashkent) and then versed southwest to Merv (Mary) in current-day Turkmenistan and Nishapur in what was in the thirteen century known as Khorasan, now western Iran. From here various routes continued on the Mediterranean. The road west from Otrār followed the Syr Darya to the Aral Sea before continuing on to the Caspian Steppe Straddling The Volga River. From the old city of Xacitarxan on the Volga, just upstream from Modern-Day Astrakhan, branches led north up the Volga into Kievan Russia and east to the Black Sea, where land and water routes continued on to Istanbul, the main western terminus of the Silk Road. On this vast network of trade routes moved a wealth of various fabrics and textiles, leather, furs, porcelain, pottery, salt, spices, honey, jade and precious stones, musk, herbal medicines, weapons, slaves, and much else. By attempting to open trade with Otrār Chingis Khan hoped to gain access to the rest of the world. 

The Silk Road trade had made Otrār a rich and influential city. It had its own mint, the coins of which now grace museums, was famous for its locally produced pottery, including beautifully decorated bowls, and boasted of one of the biggest libraries of Inner Asia, with a collection of over 33,000 items, including such exotica as Babylonian clay tablets and Egyptian papyrus scrolls which had somehow found their way hither. The library also contained the works of the city’s most famous intellectual, Abu Naṣr Moḥammad Fārābi (died c. 950), a polymathic Philosopher, mathematician, linguist, poet, and composer who was called “the Second Teacher” by his students, meaning that he played second fiddle only to Aristotle. He is also credited with heavily influencing Abū Alī Sīnā, a.k.a. Avicenna (c. 980–1037) perhaps the greatest Medieval Islamic philosopher, who was born near Bukhara, also in the Khwarezmshah’s domains. 

By the early thirteen-century the city consisted of the triangular-shaped Ark, or citadel, located within the tightly packed Shahristan (walled inner city). The Shahristan itself was in the shape of a pentagon and covered about 200,000 square meters, or about fifty acres The city was famous for its baths and most homes were served by a city-wide sewage system. The big Friday mosque was also probably within the Shahristan. Surrounding the Shahristan was the Rabad, or trade quarter, which was also walled. Covering some 420 acres, it contained the extensive markets and caravanserais connected with Silk Road trade, local bazaars, craft shops, and low-class residential areas. The medieval Arabic historian Moqaddasi claimed the city had 70,000 inhabitants, but at least one modern historican has opined that this was a misprint and that he must have meant 7,000. In any case, numerous small towns and villages in the immediate environs of the city contributed to a sizable urban conurbation.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

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

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Iran | Tabriz

Caught the Midnight Special from Istanbul to Tabriz, Iran. The flight is scheduled to leave Istanbul at 12:20 a.m. and arrive in Tabriz at 4:25 a.m, with a one and a half hour time change, for a flight of about two hours and thirty-five minutes. I am flying to Tabriz instead of Tehran, the usual gateway for tourists to Iran, because I am interested in visiting various nearby sites connected with the Ilkhanate period of Persian history—the years 1256–1335—when the descendants of Chingis Khan ruled much of the Mid East, including current-day Iran. For the last four or five years I have been tracking the westward movement of the Mongols, starting with Chingis Khan’s invasion of Mawarannahr, or Transoxiania, (current day Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan) in 1219. In connection with this I visited Bukhara, Samarkand, Termez, and other cities attacked by the armies of Chingis Khan in Uzbekistan (see my book Chingis Khan Rides West: The Mongol Invasion Of Bukhara, Samarkand, And Other Great Cities Of The Silk Road), and also Merv and several other cities sacked by the Mongols in what is now Turkmenistan. 

Now I am jumping ahead three decades to the Mongol invasion of what is now Iran and Iraq by Chingis Khan’s grandson Khülegü. In 1256 Khülegü wiped out the strongholds of the Nisari Ismailis, better known to the world as the Assassins, in Iran and cemented the Mongol occupation of the Iranian Plateau. Two years later, in 1258 Khülegü sacked Baghdad and brought to an end the 508 year old Abbasid Caliphate, thus bringing most of what is now Iraq into the Mongol orbit. A new Caliphate would be initiated by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople in 1453, and solidified under the rule of his grandson Selim I, who brought the Holy Cites of Mecca and Medina under Ottoman control. This Turkish-led Caliphate lasted until 1924, when it was finally abolished by the new secular state of Turkey. As I write this, the group known as ISIS is attempting to create a new Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, thus resurrecting the Arab-based Caliphate destroyed by Khülegü Khan back in 1258. 

Khülegü Khan was the first Ilkhan, or ruler, of the Mongol state known as the  Ilkhanate. The term Ilkhan is usually defined as “Deputy Khan”, meaning that the holder of the title was subordinate to the Great Mongol Khan in Beijing and that the Ilkhanate was a part of the greater Mongol Empire. During the lifetime of Khülegü the Great Khan was his brother, Khubilai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China. The influence of the Yuan Dynasty on the rest of the Mongol Empire gradually lessened, however,  and the concept that the Ilkhanate was in fact subordinate to the Great Khan in Beijing became little more than a convenient fiction. Eventually the Ilkhanate became for all practical purposes an independent state. 

Most sources date the founding of the Ilkhanate to 1256, the year Khülegü seized the Assassin headquarters at Alamut. The Ilkhanate ended in 1335, when the last Ilkhan, Abu Sa’id died without issue, after which it disintegrated into several small successor-states. Thus for seventy-nine years the Mongols controlled much of the current day countries of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and sizable portions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.There were nine Ilkhans:

Khülegü (1256–1265)
Abaqa (1265–1282)
Ahmad Tegüder (1282–1284)
Arghun (1284–1291)
Gaykhatu (1291–1295)
Baidu (1295)
Mahmud Ghazan (1295–1304)
Oljeitu (Olziit), Muhammad Khodabandeh (1304–1316)
Abu Sa'id Bahadur (1316–1335)

During the reign of Khülegü the capital of the Ilkhanate was in Maragheh, about fifty miles south of Tabriz. His son Abaqa moved the capital to Tabriz, where it remained until the reign of Oljeitu Khan (henceforth Olziit, the Mongol spelling of his name), who moved it to Soltaniyeh, about 185 miles southeast of Tabriz. 

Thus my plan is to visit the old Mongol capitals of Tabriz, Maragheh, Soltaniyeh, and other nearby cities and find whatever traces of Mongol influence may remain. I also plan to visit Alamut, the Assassin stronghold conquered by Khülegü in 1256. While my main interest is in places connected with the the Ilkhanate era I have also tacked onto my itinerary some of the more popular destinations in Iran, including Tehran, Esfahan, Yazd, Shiraz, and various towns and cities in between. I have only been able to wrangle a sixteen-day visa and so have no time to waste. I intend to hit the ground running in Tabriz.

Despite the fact that it was eleven o’clock at night the huge Turkish Airlines business lounge In Istanbul (it supposedly seats 1038) was jammed with people and I had trouble finding a place to sit down. Finally I squeezed into a chair next to some huge guys speaking Russian. The elegantly appointed (at least by airport standards) lounge had an array of buffet dishes and fresh fruit, special tables featuring only baklava and olives, and numerous coffee and wine bars. Since baklava in Istanbul is now running about a dollar a pop I decided to fill up here, washing down a dozen or so pieces with a three double expressos. At 11:40 the Now Boarding sign became flashing for Flight 0880 to Tabriz. 

The Istanbul-Tabriz flight is a milk run. The departure lounge in a far-flung area of the terminal without walk-on ramps. A shuttle bus takes passengers to the plane parked in the nether regions of the airport. There were sixty or seventy people in the departure lounge. I far as I could tell I was the only non-Iranian. About half of the Iranians were women and oddly enough only three of them were wearing head scarves (rusari). None were wearing chadors, the long black robes so often associated with Iran. At the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul where I had applied for my visa, woman, including non-Iranians, are not allowed inside unless they are wearing a head scarf. A guy at the door hands out scarves to those who come unequipped. 

We left right on time at 12:20 a.m. As soon was we reached cruising altitude breakfast was offered, but I waved it off—I was still reeling from the baklava high—and settled back with my Kindle. In Istanbul I had been reading The Book of Travels (Seyahatname) by the legendary Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi (1611–1682?) and I now concentrated on his account of Tabriz, which he visited in the 1640s. 

Evliya Çelebi (his given name is Evliya. Çelebi, pronounced Chelebi, is a title meaning, roughly, gentleman or esquire) came from a prominent Istanbul family. He claimed to be a descendant of Khoja Ahmat Yassavi (1093–1166), the earliest known Turkic poet to compose poetry in a Turkic dialect and the eponym of the Yassaviyya sect of Sufis. Yassavi was one of the four main disciples of Yusuf Hamadani (d.1140), one of the so-called Khwajagan, or Masters of Wisdom, whose Mausoleum At Merv, in Turkmenistan I had visited earlier. His father was the chief goldsmith of several of the Ottoman sultans. He himself was tutored by the imam of Sultan Murad IV. A precocious student, he soon memorized the entire Quran and was able to recite it without a single error in eight hours. Sultan Murad IV was so impressed by the young man’s skills as a conversationist and singer that he introduced him into his Court as a boon companion. Given his varied talents, he might well have made a career as a reciter, scholar, entertainer, or full-time courtier, but he soon discovered that he possessed by insatiable wanderlust:
I beseeched the Creator at every moment to grant me health of body . . . asking myself, “How can I get free of the pressures of father and mother, teacher and brother, and become a world traveller?” I was always on good terms with heart-wounded dervishes and glad to converse with them. And when I heard a description of the seven climes and the four corners of the earth, I longed to travel with all my heart and soul. So I became utterly wretched, a vagabond crying out, ‘Might I roam the world? Might it be vouchsafed to me to reach the Holy Land, Cairo and Damascus, Mecca and Medina, and to rub my face at the Sacred Garden, the tomb of the Prophet, glory of the universe?
According to Evliya, he had “always desired God’s guidance in dreams,” and “So I lay down on the pillow of lamentation, in the corner of my hovel, in my birthplace Istanbul, to a sleep of wish fulfillment. It was the night of Ashura in the month of Muharram, the year 1040 (10 August 1630), in a state twixt sleep and wake, that I had a dream.”

Ashura is a day commemorated by both Sunni and Shiite Muslims, although they have radical different views of its significance. For Sunnis it is the Day of Atonement on which the Israelites, led by Moses, recognized as a prophet in Islam, were freed from the Pharaohs of Egypt. For Shiites it is a day of great mourning marking the death of Muhammad’s grandson Husain and his family and supporters at the hands of the Umayyad caliph Yazid I at Karbala, in what is now Iraq, in October 10, 680.

In this dream Evliya found himself in the Ahi Çelebi mosque, on the shores of the Golden Horn in Istanbul. 
The door was opened and the light-filled mosque was crowded with a luminous congregation, who were busy performing the dawn prayer. It seems that I stood motionless at the foot of the pulpit and gazed in astonishment at this congregation with their beaming faces. “Good sir,” said I, turning to the person beside me, ”please tell me who you are, and what your noble name is? The man replied that his name was Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas, “‘the patron saint of archers.”
The other notables in the mosque, he explained to Evliya, were a whole host of prophets and Islamic holy men, including the People of the Bench, a select group of the Prophet Muhammad’s followers during his own lifetime; the first four “Rightly Guided” caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali; Hussain and the other martyrs of Karbala; and many others. Suddenly the mosque was filled with light and in through the door strode the Prophet Muhammad himself. He was wearing a yellow shawl and yellow boots and had a toothpick stuck in his turban. The Prophet then asked Evliya himself to recite various prayers. At the end of the long ceremony Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas “at once lay hold of my hand and brought me before him [the Prophet], saying, ”Your loving and faithful servant, Evliya, begs your intercession. At this point Evliya asked Muhammad to bless his endeavors as a traveler. Muhammad gave him his blessings, adding “may God give you health and well-being.” Muhammad and the other holy personages filed out of the mosque, leaving only Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas, who said to Evliya:
Be in God’s protection and safety. And receive these good tidings: Of all the spirits you met in this assembly and whose hands you kissed, you are vouchsafed to visit their tombs. You will be a world traveller and unique among men. The well-protected kingdoms through which you pass, the fortresses and towns, the strange and wonderful monuments, and each land’s praiseworthy qualities and products, its food and drink, its latitude and longitude—record all of these and compose a marvelous work.
At this point Evliya awoke. Fearing that his dream was no more than a phantasm of no significance, he sought the counsel of an interpreter of dreams named Ibrahim Efendi, who assured him that the dream was indeed a prediction of his future. “You will be a globe trotter and world traveller,” the interpreter of dreams told Evliya. “Your journey will be sealed with a good ending. You will be admitted into paradise by the intercession of the Prophet.”

Thus began Evliya’s career as a traveler and writer. He ended up wandering around the lands of the Ottoman Empire and surrounding territories for almost forty years, eventually recording his travels in his mammoth ten-volume Book of Travels (of the ten volumes, only eight have survived). His translator calls it “probably the longest and most ambitious travel account by any writer in any language.”

While in Istanbul I visited the Ahi Çelebi Mosque where Evliya met the Prophet Muhammad and other luminaries in his dream. It is located between the banks of the Golden Horn and a busy highway, just across the road and west of the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar. In a city chockablock with magnificent mosques this small edifice has little to distinguish it except for its age—it was founded by Ahi Çelebi ibn Kemal, the Chief Physician of the Hospital of Mehmet the Conquerer, sometime between 1480 and 1500—and its association with Evliya, which is commemorated by a stone plaque in the form of an open book located in front of the mosque. I sat on one of the nearby benches for half an hour pondering the impulse that leads some to incessantly roam this world in search of new sights and sensations. After all, it was Evliya himself who said, “Travel is a fragment of hell, though it be but a single parasang [a measure of length equal to about four miles].
 The Ahi Çelebi Mosque (click on photos for enlargements)
A different view of the Ahi Çelebi Mosque showing the stone book
The stone book commemorating the mosque’s association with Evliya.  Some of the text is worn off.
Evliya ended up spending two months in Tabriz as part of an Ottoman embassy to the Safavid governor of the city Pir Budaq Khan Pornak Turkman. Evliya does not use the governor’s real name (his translator provides it) but instead calls him Kelp Ali Khan, which apparently means “Dog of Ali”, Ali being, of course, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and the progenitor of the Shiite sect. Evliya’s translator insists that this was a self-deprecating nickname, although it could be interpreted as  an anti-Shiite slur. In any case, Evliya, a strict Sunni Muslim, was shocked by the Shiites he encountered in the first village he visited inside Persia (Shiism became the state religion of Persia during the reign of the Savafid Ismael I [1501–1524] and of course remains so today):
A flourishing village with orchards and gardens beyond number—may God the Avenger destroy it! Because all the inhabitants are Shiites and caliph-cursers. This was the first time in Persia that I heard them—God forbid!—cursing the Caliph Umar. I nearly went out of my mind. But I was weak and tired, not yet in a position to do anything about it. Otherwise I could easily have killed that accursed curser; because when Ottoman envoys come to Persia they have the liberty of killing up to four Kızılbaş (i.e., the Safavids of Persia) cursers for the sake of the Four Companions of the Prophet, no questions asked. For now I bore it patiently.
Evliya calmed down by the time he reached Tabriz, a city with which he quickly fell in love:
Because in the entire kingdom of Persia there is no city and no countryside as fine as Tabriz, the ravisher of hearts . . . It is a large and ancient city with delightful climate, lovely boys and girls, lofty buildings and numerous foundations and institutions. May God vouchsafe that it once again belong to the Ottomans [the Ottomans had occupied Tabriz from 1585 to 1603] . . . may God Most High cause it to flourish forever!
While in Tabriz Evliya apparently witnessed the Ashura ceremony, which as noted commemorates the death of Muhammad’s grandson Husain and his family and supporters at the hands of the Umayyads at Karbala in what is now Iraq. It was this event which cleft Islam into two branches, Sunni and Shiite, the consequences of which we are living with to this day. Evliya:
Another marvelous and noteworthy spectacle is the Ashura ceremony held every year on the tenth day of Muharram [Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar; Ashura means, literally, “the tenth”]. . . . The great event of the day is when the Khan pitches his parti-colored pavilion i[in an open field] and all the Tabriz notables gather round knee to knee to hear the recital of ‘The Martyrdom of Husain’ which is comparable to the recital of ‘The Birthday of the Prophet” in Turkey. All the lovers of the Prophet’s family listen with dejection and humility, moaning and sighing. Finally, at the words, ‘The accursed Shibr, the oppressor, martyred his holiness Imam Husain, the oppressed, in this fashion,’ a curtain opens behind the reciter and a severed head and trunk of a body, with blood flowing, are thrown in front of the Khan’s pavilion. Then they bring mannequins of the Imam’s innocent children, who died of thirst. The audience wail and lament and are caught up in a woeful ecstasy. At this juncture some hundreds of professional barbers circulate among the lovers with razors in their hands. Those wishing to demonstrate their love for Husain on that day have the barbers slash their arms and breasts, shedding so much blood that the verdant green ground turns tulip red. Some of the lovers brand their heads with the Mark of Submission, or brand their arms with the marks of Hasan and Husain . . . or have tattoos pricked on their arms, shedding their blood for the love of Husain . . . What a grand spectacle!
About an hour and forty minutes out of Istanbul we pass into Iranian airspace. I have for some reason gotten the impression that northwestern Iran is scarcely populated, but below a half a dozen or more small cities or towns are visible at any given time as we proceed eastward. Even though it is past three in the morning they are all extremely well lit up. The downtown areas are ablaze with lights; what look like single-house suburbs are illuminated with grids of bright lights; and the roads leading out of town are lined with street lights for many miles. Iran does not seem to be suffered from a shortage of electricity. Just after four local time we begin our descent into Tabriz. The brilliantly illumined city of around 1.5 million—the fifth (some say fourth)—largest city in Iran—appears to stretch from horizon to horizon. 

On the ground at the airport we file out of the plane to a waiting bus. All the women are now wearing head scarves. There are maybe ten people in front of me at the Immigration desk but they are Iranians and pass through quickly. Just as I present my passport a man outside the barrier to the immigration area shouts, “Mr. Corner!” I see that he is also holding a sign reading “Mr. Corner”. The immigration official waves him inside the barrier and the two have a short confabulation. Finally the young man says, “Welcome to Iran, Mr. Corner. My name is Hamid Taraghi. May I call you Donald?” I said my last name was actually Croner and that he could call me Don. “OK, Don. It will take ten or fifteen minutes for them to straighten out your papers and get you registered. In the meantime we can sit in the here in the reception lounge.” 

According to current rules all American citizens visiting Iran must be accompanied at all times by a guide provided by a government authorized travel agency. Mr. Taraghi will be my guide and compulsory companion for the next sixteen days. He appears to be in his early thirties and from what I can gather speaks nearly perfect English with hardly any accent. I ask him about our itinerary for the day. Before delving into Tabriz I had planned to rest for a few hours and then spend half a day visiting the ancient Armenian Church and Monastery of Stephanos, about eighty miles north of Tabriz, hard by the Iranian-Azerbaijan border. Hamid said the trip was still on and we could visit the church grounds, but he was afraid the church itself might not be open, since today was Ashura, one for the most holy of days on the Shiite calendar. Did I come to Iran specifically on this date to witness the Ashura ceremonies, he wondered? Actually I had picked my arrival date more or less at random, and I did not have the slightest idea today was Ashura. Curiously, however, the last thing I had read in Evliya’s travel account before our plane began its descent was his description of Ashura in Tabriz in the late 1640s.  He had also had his dream in which his future as a traveler was foretold on Ashura. Now I was arriving in Iran for the first time on Ashura, the tenth day of  Muharram. Just a coincidence, apparently.

After all the Iranian passengers had cleared Immigration an official appears and leads us to his office. Here all ten of my digits were electronically finger printed. Apparently this is mandatory for all American citizens entering Iran. Various paperwork is exchanged between Hamid and the official and finally we are free to leave. Just as we approach the door to the public arrival lounge an elderly woman yells at me and points to an x-ray machine. She gives my small carry-on bag a cursory inspection on the x-ray screen and then waves me on. Outside my hired car is waiting for me. My driver’s name is Masud, and he will be accompanying me for the entire trip.
 Pars El Goli Hotel In Tabriz
Twenty minutes after leaving the airport our driver deposited Hamid and me at Pars El Goli Hotel, an eleven story pile of glass and concrete perched atop a small knoll on the outskirt of the city. It was, Hamid assured me, a five-star hotel, the best in Tabriz. The guide, the car and driver, and the up-scale hotels were all part of a package that I as an American citizen had to buy in order to get an Iranian visa. Initially I had been irked by these requirements, but I had finally decided to bow to the unavoidable. Unless the travel agency was misleading me I had no choice if I wished to visit Iran.

The hotel is a standard five-star (OK, maybe four star) business and upscale tourist venue with all the usual amenities, plus a supposedly revolving restaurant at the very top. I am quickly checked for a three night stay. The receptionist says he would keep my passport until I leave. Before going to my room Hamid warns me not to step outside the hotel without him. If I am discovered outside I would probably just be taken back to the hotel and given a light reprimand. He, however, was my authorized guide and responsible for my actions in Iran. If I broke any of the rules, like leaving the hotel without him, he could be fired from his job, lose his guiding license, or worse. I assured him I would not leave the hotel unaccompanied. Otis elevators (apparently pre-Sanctions) whisk me up to the fifth floor. The room was certainly sufficient, with a sitting area and table and a desk. There was even an adequate reading lamp by the bed, the lack of which is one of my pet peeves with hotels. The internet connection was reasonably fast. Blogger.com I soon discover is blocked but all the major news sites work (with the curious exception of dailybeast.com). Finally I collapse on the huge double bed and sleep for three hours. 

Around nine I head down to the huge dining hall. The place probably seats well over a two hundred but only a dozen or so people were having breakfast at this hour. There are two Chinese and two Africans, apparently businessmen, and the rest are besuited Iranian men each eating by themselves. The usual breakfast buffet items are available, including omelets cooked to order, but I quickly decide on comb honey, clotted cream, dates, and flat bread. A better breakfast could hardly be imagined. There was no brewed coffee, so I had to settle for Nescafe. There was an assortment of teabags, but I, a Tea Cognoscenti, could hardly be expected to drink tea made from bags. At ten I met Hamid and Masud in the lobby for our trip to the Church of St. Stephanos.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Jewish Quarter

Just south of Trade Dome #1 is Bukhara’s Jewish Quarter. There had been a big Jewish community in Bukhara for centuries and during the nineteenth century it seemed to have flourished, considering the luxurious mansions which many Jewish traders built at the time. After the fall of the Soviet Union many members of the Bukhara Jewish community emigrated to Israel, the U.S.A. and other countries. A few stayed behind and some have renovated the mansions of their families into Guesthouses. Others sold their properties to individuals in Bukhara who have either turned them into guesthouses or use them as private residences. Some were sold to gadabouts and adventuresses seeking second homes in Bukhara. While in Bukhara I visited one of these second homes which is now under renovation. 
Street in the Jewish Quarter (click on photos for enlargements)
 Entrance to mansion in the Jewish Quarter
 The extensive quarters of the mansion are built around a courtyard. This is the main part of the compound, including the big dining room on the first floor. 
 Some of the other buildings surrounding the courtyard
 The Dining Room, always a prominent feature in the homes of the Jewish merchants of Bukhara
 Entrance to the Dining Room 
Decoration in Dining Room
 Decoration in Dining Room
 Decoration in Dining Room
 Decoration in Dining Room
 Decoration in Dining Room
 Decoration in Dining Room
 Decoration in Dining Room
Mausoleum of a Sufi holy man in the Jewish Quarter
This photo of Jewish boys and their teacher was taken in 1910 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii in Samarkand, but presumably the Jewish people of Bukhara looked much the same at the time.

See Illuminating Jewish Life in a Muslim Empire for an intriguing story about the Jewish community a thousand years ago in Afghanistan, just to the south of Uzbekistan.