Silk Road Sights Lure Eye and Mind

Markets, minarets, and dungeons tell tales of the ancient, magical trade route linking Europe and the Orient

It seemed somehow disrespectful to jog around a minaret that had struck such awe into Genghis Khan that he spared it from destruction.

In the icy dawn air, I had taken my morning run through the narrow winding streets of this ancient way station of the Silk Road, between mud-plastered walls, past white-whiskered gents in turbans, striped quilted dressing gowns, and kidskin boots selling milk from small churns, and through clouds of fresh-bread fragrance from a bakery that warmed me simply with its aroma.

But it felt downright rude to treat the Kalyan minaret, a 157-foot-high masterpiece of 12th-century ornamental brickwork, as just another milepost. I walked around it deferentially.

When Genghis Khan, at the head of his all-destroying Golden Horde, reached Bukhara in 1220, he laid waste to the city with his customary vigor. But as he looked up at the minaret - certainly the tallest building he had ever seen - local legend has it that he was obliged to tilt his head so far back that his hat fell off.

Stooping to pick it up, he declared, "If such a great man as Genghis Khan bows before this minaret, let it stand."

It would be surprising if a man such as Genghis Khan had not also marked the minaret as an impressive structure from which to throw people - a use to which it was put until the 1920s. Indeed, judging by the stories that travelers to Central Asia have told through the ages, minarets were employed as much by local emirs as a gruesome way of imposing the death penalty as by muezzins calling the Muslim faithful to prayer.

Minarets also served a more peaceable, practical purpose in cities such as Bukhara and Khiva, a fortified city on the Oxus River between the Kara Kum and Kizyl Kum deserts, which grew fat on the business of the Silk Road. For if camels were the ships of the desert along this magical trade route linking Europe to the Orient, minarets, fires burning by night in their lanterns, were the lighthouses that guided caravans traveling through the darkness.

In reality, the Silk Road followed not one single path but many routes along which merchants carried goods to and from Europe and China, India, Persia, and Turkey, from as early as the 2nd century BC until as late as the 19th century.

Lying astride these routes lay mythical oasis cities such as Samarkand and Merv, Bukhara and Khiva, that at different times over the course of more than 1,000 years became bywords for wealth and magnificence. The architectural monuments remain - Islamic religious schools and mosques boasting towering walls of blisteringly blue tiles and exquisitely carved wooden doors, palaces decorated with the extravagance beloved of minor oriental royalty. But it is hard today to find a trace of the humanity and commerce that once enlivened these places.

Khiva, for example, once notorious for its market in Russian slaves and teeming with shaggy-capped horsemen trading in everything from animal fodder to some of the most beautiful carpets in the world, has had its soul torn out by Soviet restorers.

Almost uninhabited since residents were evicted 30 years ago, the mud-walled fortified town - a warren of paved alleyways among the canyon walls - has been rebuilt to film-set perfection. The silent streets evoke the two-dimensional unreality of a Hollywood fantasy.

Between the cracks, however, human life is slipping back into Khiva, five years after Moscow's heavy hand was lifted with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Activity is centered on the gorgeously tiled and domed mausoleum to Pahlavan Mahmoud, a riot of intricately painted majolica in shades of cobalt and turquoise. Pahlavan Mahmoud, a 13th-century wrestler and dressmaker who is remembered for the mildly lascivious verse he wrote as well as for his generosity to the poor, is still a popular figure in Khiva.

Today, a mullah kneels on the carpeted floor of the mausoleum - his ginger cat curled up beside him - and recites blessings in return for alms. Sometimes people bring a few morsels of food in token of the feast they want blessed; others lead in the sheep they intend to slaughter. Newly married couples, uncomfortable in their unaccustomed finery, pick their way in tight shoes through the columned courtyard between bleating animals to ask for a prayer for their future.

Just up the road, the Friday Mosque - a twilit forest of 213 intricately carved wooden columns - hosted a religious service for the first time since 1920 at the end of last year's Ramadan fast. Ten thousand people are said to have squeezed in to witness the rebirth of Islam in a town once renowned for its religious learning.

Outside the walls, in the everyday mosque, the carpeted floor is packed on Friday at noon prayers, but the walls are bare, for decorative art has long since deserted this town. And the degradation of the present is apparent in the bazaar, where the historical museum exhibits the delicate porcelain from China, enameled glassware from Europe, and exquisitely illustrated books from Persia that found their way here along the Silk Road. Those countries today flood the market with washing powder, polyester trousers, and plastic plates.

Not that history was always presented to visitors in the mythical terms that the words "Silk Road" conjure in the Western mind. Noila Khazijanova, who used to work as an official Intourist guide to Bukhara, recalls how she was obliged by the Soviet authorities to put a negative spin on everything that had happened in the 2,000 years of the city's magnificent past before the Bolshevik Revolution.

She will never forget, she says, the Russian tourist who asked at the end of her tour one day, "Was there not one bright page in your history?"

Today, political correctness is imposed from another direction. There is the city dungeon, a notorious pit prisoners shared with specially reared rats, ticks, and other vermin. A glass case holds a sole-leather purse, with no explanation and no context. As an illustration of the things people used to steal, explains Ms. Khazijanova, it is all that is left of a former display about crime and punishment.

But the exhibit showing how miscreants' hands were cut off has been deemed "compromising" to Islam by the post-Soviet authorities, so it has been dismantled.

Genghis Khan would have had no such compunctions.

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