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Silk Road Odyssey: A Future for Islam Lite?

Travels from Stan to Stan to Stan, during the shutdown.

By 10.29.13

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Eighteen days in central Asia leave a visitor with indelible impressions of societies that, while poor by Western standards, are doing far better than many wealthier countries. A central facet of life in the three “Stan” countries I visited — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan — is that they wear their Islamic faith lightly. Their societies survived seven decades of harsh rule under the former Soviet Union, and as a result were to a considerable degree secularized. I saw not a single burqa veiling a single face in nearly three weeks. Other religions need not fear militant jihadist assaults upon their places of worship, let alone their flocks. Over one hundred ethnic groups co-exist in relative harmony. By contrast, Muslims living in Russia, at 15 percent of the 144 million subjects of Tsar Vlad the Bad, are increasingly restive under harsh Russian rule. The remnant of Russian rule as to its Muslim republics is that the Russian language is in most “Stans” the official language for business.

Herewith impressions of each “Stan” visited.

Kazakhstan. Arrival in Almaty Sunday morning September 29 after an overnight British Airways flight, my second overnight in four nights, equally long as the first one to London across “the pond.” We land in a valley, surrounded by the imposing Tian Shan (“Heavenly mountain”) range, with peaks rising three miles — higher than anything in North America. Almaty is the country’s commercial center; during the Soviet era it had been known as Alma-Ata — the name “father of apples” translates the same for either form — and was also the political capital. But after the Soviet Union went out of business, Kazakh President-for-life Nursultan Nazarbayev moved the political capital to more modern Astana, in the north.

Kazakhstan is the largest country in central Asia (I count India as a subcontinent, not merely a country; in the event, India’s 1.3 million sq. mi. area is only 20 percent larger than Kazakhstan’s 1.1 million sq. mi.). It is the ninth largest country in the world; about four times the size of France and eight times that of Germany. Its population of 18 million is one-fourth that of France’s 66 million and one-fifth that of Germany’s 82 million. Islam is the religion of choice for 70 percent of Kazakhs, with 26 percent votaries of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

My room at the Royal Tulip is fit for a palace, elegantly decorated in warm colors. I have a couple of free days to rest up then do a little light touring, and then begins my group travel trip that I take with a boyhood chum. There are 15 travelers in all, and to my delight they turn out to be a convivial, intelligent. and engaged group.

We depart Almaty by chartered train on a sunny Friday, after a brief city tour and lunch. Our next hotel is four days’ train travel away. Saturday finds us in Turkestan, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We visit the mosque of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a celebrated Sufi imam. It was built in part by a human chain that passed bricks one by one over a distance of 45 kilometers (28 miles).

Uzbekistan. Uzbek President Islam Kamirov presides over a lively society, with 29 million Uzbeks making it the most populous Stan, 88 percent of whom are Muslim and 9 percent Eastern Orthodox. Of the 65 million combined populations of the five Stans, 47 million — 70 percent — live in the two most populous.

Sunday we find ourselves in Tashkent. The ancient city was destroyed in a calamitous 1966 earthquake, a monster 9.0 on the Richter scale. Rebuilt within a few years, the modern buildings that dot the new city are partly boxy Soviet Bloc junk, partly attractive architecture that would improve D.C.’s Soviet Bloc downtown fixation. The highlight of our visit is to a music conservatory where students play us an hour of music. Much of it is local folk music, but there are recognizable tidbits — “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, La Marseillaise, La Cumparcita (a legendary tango tune) and Aram Khachaturian’s famed “Sabre Dance” theme, borrowed by ace Hollywood composer Elmer Bernstein for a suspense scene in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven.

Next day we are in a small village, Langar, in the middle of the desert. We are treated to local folk music, and then a re-enactment of a wedding featuring a couple married two years ago. We get to dance with them, and we see their first child. The locals have charm to burn. We pose with them and take photos. They giggle.

On to Shakhrisabz (do not ask me to pronounce this), birthplace of Timur Leng — Timur the Lame (1336-1405) — to us, Tamerlane. A distant relative of 13th century scourge Genghis Khan, spent the last 35 of his 69 years pursuing conquest. He extinguished nine dynasties and conquered 23 countries (as that term was understood in medieval times). He was felled by complications from a fever, en route to an intended conquest of China. There is a statue of the conqueror a few minutes’ walk from our hotel.

Upon arrival in Samarkand, we are reminded of the opening verses from a legendary poem by James Elroy Flecker:

The Golden Road to Samarkand

HASSAN:
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.

ISHAK:
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.

We begin our Samarkand visit with Registan Square, where three towering madrassas (religious schools) stand imposingly over the square, located in center city. The traditional colors for madrassas and mosques in central Asia are azure blue, gold domes, with inscriptions in Arabic depicting Quranic verses verbatim. The Quran is, to Muslims, literally the word of God (“Quran” means “recitation”). The stone of traditional structures is often a sand color.

Samarkand is the burial place of Tamerlane, so he is locally revered. His depredations were committed elsewhere. Not so Genghis Khan. He leveled Samarkand twice and killed the men whilst enslaving the women and kidnapping their children, as an example to other cities that resisted the Great Khan’s advance.

Our Uzbek guide shares with us a tale of betrayal and divine intervention. We visit Bibi-Khanym Mosque in Samarkand, and learn the legend of an architect who erred. Named for a favorite wife of Tamerlane, it was built around 1400 at his wife’s request, while the great conqueror was on the march. While he is out campaigning the architect approaches Mrs. Tamerlane and she begs him to finish the project before her husband returns, so as to surprise him. The architect has a price: that the missus surrender once to le grand artiste. After agonizing she consents. The mosque is finished. Hubby returns and finds out. He orders the traditional medieval Islamic punishment for female marital infidelity: she is to be tossed off the top of the city’s highest minaret (towers within the mosque from where prayers are called). She jumps before she can be thrown off, and on her way down her Maker arranges for a silk parachute to open. She lives happily ever after, while her husband dies as he heads for China, victim of a fever and complications, plus what passed for medicinal practice in those years (pretty much the same as did in the father of our country nearly 400 years later). We had heard from a Samarkand rug dealer that silk is stronger than steel. So the parachute story lives. In the event it is more plausible than much of the hot air emanating from various personages back home.

Tamerlane’s progeny included the Mughal rulers who, upon the 1526 toppling of the Delhi Sultanate by Tamerlane’s grandson Babur the Tiger, ruled India for 234 years. In the midst of that period was the Shah Jahan, who in 1631, mourning the death of his beloved wife Mumtaz, a Persian princess, commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal as a shrine to his departed. It was completed in 1653.

One potentially ominous development: scholars from Egypt have begun opening schools to teach Islamic doctrine. Egypt’s twin centers of Islamic doctrine are al-Azhar University and the Muslim Brotherhood, both wellsprings of al Qaeda. This will bear watching.

One special episode: We visit a local family bakery and watch bread being baked from scratch; we are to eat it with lunch. One of our group lays a Pied Piper charm on kids; he got a couple of kindergarten-age kids here to high-five him, as their parents looked on, beaming.

On to colder Khiva, where we lunch in the “Taza Bog” summer palace of the Khan. In Bukhara we see more mosques including the world’s only women’s mosque. We dine at a local family’s large home, tandoor oven style. We get to watch the preparation.

Bukhara was a legendary stop on the Silk Road. Known best for its exquisite rugs, it is home to the stately Samanid Mosque and the massive Ark Fortress. The Samanids were a Persian dynasty that ruled the area in the ninth and tenth centuries A.D. Persian dynasties go back 2,500 years, but are rarely mentioned in Western courses. We see the “forty-pillar” mosque, which actually has twenty pillars but if you stand behind a reflecting pool you see each pillar and its watery reflection.

And then there was the palace of the Emir of Bukhara, Nasrallah Khan (“khan” is one form of “king”), who ruled 1827-1860. (Emir means “commander” in Turkish; from this we get “admiral.”) In 1842, two unfortunate British envoys, Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, made the mistake of presenting themselves to the emir without the bows to the ruler that local etiquette required. They were thrown into a deep hole in the ground, languishing there for years with yucky vermin. Then they were pulled out, and paraded towards the palace. They expected to be released but instead were beheaded.

Alas, 1842 was a bad-hair year for the British in central Asia, in the midst of what Rudyard Kipling called the “Great Game” that dominated British-Russian geopolitics from the late 18th to the early 20th century. Lord Elphinstone settled the three-year British-Afghan War in January 1842, and then left with 16,500 for Jalalabad, under safe conduct from Akbar Khan (“Akbar means “powerful”). Alas, promises, promises…. The Brits were set upon and in the end only one Brit reached the city, spared so he could spread news of the massacre.

Kipling offered the best advice for those facing the locals in war, in his 1895 poem The Young British Soldier:

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains
and the women come out to cut up what remains
jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
and go to your gawd like a soldier.

The Russians were to discover in the 1980s that getting captured by the Afghans was not a good idea.

Turkmenistan. If it’s Tuesday, it must be Turkmenistan — well, the second Tuesday of our trip. The least populous of the five Stans has 5 million inhabitants, 89 percent Muslim and 9 percent Eastern Orthodox.

We first stop in Merv and see 11th century battlements; it is a site with more than a dozen fortresses covering 60 square kilometers. Like other parts of central Asia, the Mongols razed it in the 13th century. Then it is on to the “White City” — Ashgabat — a haven for gargantuan buildings in white marble. The city is an hour’s drive from Iran, just over the nearby mountains. The president is named Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Not so easy to remember. But he will long be remembered as the leader for whom Jennifer Lopez did her Marilyn Monroe “Happy Birthday” gig. She earned $1.2 million, but bad publicity from human rights groups forced her to donate the entire sum to charity.

The first president, Sapamurat Niyazov, and his family are in a huge mausoleum as well; it is modern and lavish, with the caskets displayed a floor below ground level down, viewed from above as with Napoleon’s casket in Les Invalides, Paris. The president was orphaned at age 8 when a monster earthquake struck Ashgabat on October 6, 1948, now a day of mourning in Turkmenistan. The temblor killed 176,000, including his mother and two brothers; his father had been killed in World War II, a tragic part of the immense toll the “Stans” racked up fighting alongside Mother Russia. Turkmens are superstitious, and they think that because the late president commissioned the building of the mausoleum while still alive it hastened his death.

Our hotel is a Sofitel, and is a 5-star palace, best on the tour. Our tour bus, made in South Korea, is the most luxurious such conveyance I can recall in 51 years of overseas travel. The president’s edifice complex is evident everywhere. Independence Monument is almost like a rocket. A new 7-star hotel is being built, probably for VIPs visiting the president and perhaps a bunch of movie stars. We see a lovely family with several smiling children in the square dedicated to horses, within sight of our hotel. We see a 3rd century BC Parthian fortress, Nisa, but the national museum is closed despite promises to open it for us on a holiday. Faith triumphs over tourist dollars.

We are warned about photography. One of our chaperones tells us that on a prior trip two tourists snuck photos of the train station. The police boarded, found them and confiscated film and the cameras. Police-state etiquette means no photos of officials, public buildings, military or transport facilities. Ask the guide or shoot at your own peril. No impromptu, chaperone-free constitutionals either, unless the guide OKs. We visit without incident.

The Silk Road is generally dated to the Han Dynasty in China, late in the 2nd century BC. Its heyday was during the celebrated Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). It served as a two-way transmitter for not only trade in silk and many other commodities, but for technology and culture and religion as well. Its demise is generally given as the end of the Mongol years, in the mid-16th century. But the concept survives. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of a 21st century Silk Road during her tenure.

For this observer, more than the monuments the memorable aspect of the tour was the people. They are uniformly lovely, dignified, dressed well despite economic limitations — Turkmenistan does not even have oil and gas, as do Kazakhs and Uzbeks --gregarious, and almost no one obese. Billboards depicting seductive models are commonplace in big cities; we even enjoyed a sassy fashion show in Samarkand. Coloration is predominantly Asiatic, with a Russian mix and black hair. They look healthier than many Americans despite a harsh climate, marginal quality produce, iffy sanitation, and lives of hard labor. In all, they are an impressive bunch.

A final footnote to my Silk Road experience. I boarded an Air Dubai flight departing Ashgabat on a sunny day, and found myself, within minutes, flying over… Iran. Yes, that Iran. The one whose quest for nuclear weapons seems to worry Israel more than it does that charming fellow at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Over an hour flying over 700 miles of Iranian airspace brought to mind not a missile shootdown — I was on a regularly scheduled commercial flight — but rather, possible mechanical failure forcing an emergency landing. Of the three dozen or so passengers aboard, I believe I was the only American. If we land and the Iranians decide to board and check passports, the prospect that I might be pulled off the plane ere it resumed its journey was, though probably small, likely not zero.

The Boeing Company builds sturdy craft, but I always wonder about the mechanics. In any event, I made it to Dubai without incident, and spent half a day between flights in that modern non-petrodollar Mideast finance and trading entrepôt. A visit to the soaring Burj al-Khalifa, whose needle-like spire is, at 2,721 feet, more than half a mile above the Earth, finds me stepping out on the 124th floor platform, 1,483 feet above the ground (higher than all America’s structures save the newly-minted Freedom Tower). After the heights of master builders and architects, I sample the heights of French cuisine, a lovely, leisurely culinary coda to my Asian adventure.

Then it was time at long last to return to Washington, enjoying for my first — I hope not my last — time the sumptuous first-class in-flight cabin service on Emirates. While I saw burqas galore in Dubai, contrary to online humor there were none among the flight attendants. I am one of two first-class passengers, with four in staff to cover us. My video screen is a huge 22-inch diagonal, and I decide after a good sleep that with breakfast I will watch an in-flight movie for the first time in perhaps 40 years. In the onboard film library, to my surprise, are three gems from the golden era of Hollywood: the zany 1937 Marx Brothers classic A Day at the Races, the Bette Davis 1950 classic bitch-goddess back-stabber All About Eve, and the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn 1963 romantic comedy thriller, Charade. I opt for Charade.

Oh, did I hear while I was away, of some sort of ruckus inside the Beltway? Tamerlane surely would have known how to deal with this, and prevent a repeat of the dismal “shutdown/default?” carnival. He would have made Beltway locals forget all about waterboarding.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author

John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.