Monday, September 6, 2010

Uzbekistan | Khoresm | Khiva | Shaxrizoda Hotel

The entire inner city of Khiva, an area covering seventy-five or so acres, is one vast open-air museum. At least fifty historic buildings—mosques, tombs, palaces, caravanserais, etc.—and several hundred domestic dwellings have been refurbished and restored. Admittedly, this creates somewhat of a sterile atmosphere, but if you accept the place as a museum—which indeed is what it advertises itself as—then it has to rank as one of the world’s more intriguing museums. Reportedly some 3000 people live within The Walls of the Inner City—that is to say within the museum—and most visitors also stay in guesthouses in the Inner City, making them live-in patrons of the museum. Most of the guesthouses are either refurbished eighteenth and nineteenth century merchants’ houses or replicas of merchants’ houses. And these old Silk Road merchants liked to live in style. Many of their homes qualified as mansions; today they make extremely comfortable guesthouses. Most of the guest houses seem to be run by single families who live on the premises. I stayed at the Shaxrizoda Hotel, right inside the south gate of the Inner City. Shaxrizoda is a Uzbek rendering of Scheherazade, the story-teller from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights
Entrance to the Shaxrizoda Hotel
Lobby of the Shaxrizoda Hotel
Dining Room and Balcony
Display Case in Dining Room
Second Floor Hallway
Silk Wall Hanging in Dining Room showing Shahryar, the King to whom Scheherazade tells her stories in the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights
 The hotel is managed by the wife in the family and her daughters. The daughters speak English. The husband is a wood carver and furniture maker. Here is one of his beds. The price is $50,000, not counting shipping to your home country. Within the past year he has sold three of these beds to European and American businessmen. 

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Uzbekistan | Khoresm | Khiva | City Walls

Wandered on out to Khiva, near New Urgench, on the lower Amu Darya River, the Oxus of Antiquity, (do not confuse New Urgench with Old Urgench, which was largely destroyed by the armies of Chingis Khan in the 1220s; the ruins of Old Urgench are in the current-day country of Turkmenistan). The city of Khiva itself, which according to legend was founded after the Flood by one of the sons of Noah, he of Ark fame (the city celebrated the 2500th anniversary of its founding in 1997; this date based on archeological and not Biblical evidence), is divided into the two parts, the old Ichan Qaia or Inner City, which has has been preserved more or less as it was at the end of the nineteenth century, and the modern Outer City. The Inner City is completely contained within the old city walls, which have repaired and restored. 
Section of the Old City Walls
One section of the Old Wall contains the Konya Ark, or Old Citadel, built in the seventeenth century.
Another view of the Old Citadel
Tombs on one section of the Old City walls; they were placed here to turn back the superstitious Turkmen tribesmen who were forever investing the city. 
View of the city walls from the Citadel, with the new city to the left
The west-facing Ata Darzava, or Master Gate, just to the right of the Citadel. This is the main entrance to the Old City. 
 View of the Inner City from the Citadel
 View of the Inner City looking west, with the Eastern Gate in the foreground

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mongolia | Töv Aimag | Bürkhiin Gol | White Russian Battle

I have traveled up the Bürkhiin Gol, which flows into the Kherlen River near Möngönmort in Töv Aimag, several times while on my way to Khagiin Khar Nuur, a well known resting place in the Khentii Mountains; Asralt Khairkhan Uul, the highest mountain in the Khentii Range; Yestiin Rashaan, a hot springs complex frequented by Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia; the ruins of the monastery founded by Zanabazar, Saridgiin Khiid, and other places in the Khentii Mountains.
Valley of the Bürkhiin Gol
Near where the Bürkhin Gol emerges from the mountains out into the valley of the Kherlen Gol I had often taken note of a monument which seemed to indicate that the great revolutionary Sükhebaatar fought a battle here again Baron Ungern-Sternberg’s White Russian army back in 1921. 
Monument on the Bürkhiin Gol 
I was never, however, able to find out any details about this battle. Now comes word from Dr. S. L. Kuzmin in Moscow, who has already written at length about Ungern-Sternberg and is now preparing another book about the notorious Bloody Baron, that the battle took place here on August 21 or 22 of 1921. According to Dr. Kuzmin, after the Baron had been captured by the Bolsheviks two brigades of his former army fled eastward toward Manchuria. They fought a short and inconclusive battle here with Red partisans and finally managed to break out and continue on eastward.  Apparently they were shown a route through the mountains by a lama who was following the secret orders issued by 8th Bogd Gegeen which instructed his followers to help Ungern-Sternberg’s men retreat safely to Manchuria. Expect more details for Dr. Kuzmin’s upcoming book. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Uzbekistan | Samarkand | Sarai Mulk’s Mausoleum

Although concerned mostly with the remnants of the city which survived the sack of Samarkand by Chingis Khan in 1220 I would be remiss if I did not wander by other Mongol-related sites in the city. Perhaps the most famous of these is the mausoleum and tomb of Sarai Mulk, also known by the title Bibi Khanum, the Mongolian wife of Amir Timur (Tamurlane). Whether Amir Timur (1336–1405), was related to the Chingisids by blood is a matter of some dispute. He was a member of the Turco-Mongol Barlas tribe and thus may have been part Mongolian, but it seems unlikely that he was actually a member of the royal line of Chingis. In any case he never dared to take the title of Great Khan, which according to the unwritten laws of the steppe could only be held by a Chingisid, a lineal descendant of Chingis Khan, but instead took the title of “Amir”—military commander. In order to further legitimize his rule he married the Mongolian princess Sarai Mulk, the daughter of Khazan, the last ruler of the Chagatai Khanate founded by Chagatai, Chingis’s second son, and thus a legitimate Chingisid. Sarai Mulk was a legendary beauty, to say nothing of willful and domineering, and she eventually became the favorite wife of Amir Timur. 

At some point she ordered the construction of a madrassa, an Islamic school, and a mausoleum for herself and immediate family. Little else is known about her life. There is a legend that the architect who was building what became known as the Bibi Khanum Mosque, near her Mausoleum, fell madly in love with her and was constantly seeking her favors. Trying to dissuade him, she pointed out forty dried gourds used as water containers which were lined up against a wall. “See those gourds?” she said, “they are all filled with water and are all the same. Women are like the gourds. They are all the same. It matters not which one you use to slake your desires. Choose any of my servant girls you want and spent the night with her. That should be enough to satisfy your needs.” The architect replied, “Thirty-nine of the gourds are filled with water and one is filled with wine. You are the one filled with wine and I must drink from your gourd.” She still refused him entry to her Jade Gate, but finally she did let allow him to kiss her on the cheek. Amir Timur was in India at the time leading a military campaign. When he returned to Samarkand he somehow found out about this kiss (the legend states the kiss was so passionate that it left a mark on her cheek) and in a fit of jealousy he threw Sarai Mulk off the top of a minaret. She was then buried in her Mausoleum. This is the legend anyhow. As far as I know, history does not record any other version of Sarai Mulk’s death. 
Sarai Mulk’s Mausoleum. Her Madrassa, which was directly in front of the Mausoleum, no longer exists. 
Inside the Mausoleum. Sarai Mulk and her relatives are entombed in the basement crypt.
The Caskets of Sarai Mulk (left), and her Mother and Sister

The Casket of Sarai Mulk
Caskets of two of Sarai Mulk’s servants, perhaps the very ones which the architect unwisely spurned.
Another view of Sarai Mulk’s Mausoleum

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