An Idea for Now
THE ROAD TO SAMARKAND
We bowled along the road into Uzbekistan from neighbouring Tajikistan, up and over a pass through the snowy Pamir mountains, with me intoning selected verses from Flecker’s “The Golden Journey to Samarkand”:
Away, for we are ready to a man!
Our camels sniff the evening and are glad.
Lead on, O Master of the Caravan:
Lead on the Merchant-Princes of Bagdad.
Have we not Indian carpets dark as wine,
Turbans and sashes, gowns and bows and veils,
And broideries of intricate design,
And printed hangings in enormous bales?
And we have manuscripts in peacock styles
By Ali of Damascus; we have swords
Engraved with storks and apes and crocodiles,
And heavy beaten necklaces, for Lords.
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 . . .
. . . and then we would suddenly hit a pothole with a crash. For the road was long and, in reality, far from golden—two hundred miles or so of cracked grey concrete slabs, each junction making our vehicle lurch violently enough to lift our stomachs into our mouths, the shoulder occasionally adorned with the burnt-out wreck of a truck lying on its side or even upside down. But arriving in Samarkand made the effort worth while. Here we were in one of the world’s dream cities. Dusty, hot and tired, we stood in the central square and marvelled. It is said of the Taj Mahal that, however familiar the photograph, the reality is more breathtaking than one can possibly expect. So it is with Samarkand.
The Registan, the “place of sand,” is one of the architectural wonders of the world. On the west end of a great plaza, where six radial roads, one from each of the ancient city gates, met in the hub of his capital, Khan Ulugh Beg, famed astronomer and grandson of the Mongol ruler Timur-i-leng, Timur the Lame or Tamerlaine, no stately pleasure dome decreed, but a jewel of a madraseh—an Islamic college. Its rectangular façade, pierced by a pointed entrance arch and flanked by stubby minarets like cannon tipped on end to fire prayers at heaven, glitters with sumptuous knotwork decoration, executed in brilliant shades of blue against a background the colour of pale sand, matching the Central Asian sky and the dusty earth. While far off in the West a fifteenth-century barbarian called Henry V of England was fighting the Battle of Agincourt, here, it is said, the noble and wise Khan himself gave classes in mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. A century later, Babur, founder of the Moghul Empire, mounted his command and control post for the defence of the city on the madraseh’s roof.
Another hundred years on, the city governor—the resoundingly named General Alchin Yalangtush Bahadur—commanded the building of a further matching pair of colleges, one on the north and another on the east side of the stone-paved square. Now, though, the decoration was to be different. In the two hundred years which separated the first madraseh from its fellows, the ruling style had moved on. On the central building, which doubles as both madraseh and mosque, leaf and flower shapes in green and yellow are entwined into the crystalline geometry of its mosaic tilework. But it is the third madraseh, the Sher-dar, that catches the eye unawares. For above the entrance is what must be among the most extraordinary designs to be found on any Muslim religious building anywhere.
Sher-dar is Persian for “tiger-bearing.” Over the grand archway through which the students would pass from blazing sunlight into the cool, dim, quiet interior, are depicted a symmetrical pair of tigers pursuing deer across a flower-strewn field. Over the back of each tiger rises an anthropomorphic sun, golden rays of light streaming out around a patently Mongol face. How astonishing on a building dedicated to educating the clergy of a religion which abhors the depiction of any living thing! The vision certainly perplexed our Pakistan-born Muslim anthropologist, the presenter of the series of films about Islam which had brought us and our television crew to Samarkand.
Standing in the middle of the square in trainers and trademark navy-blue shalwar-kamiz, Pakistani national dress, a short stocky figure dwarfed by the magnificence all around, he looked up at the images outraged and nonplussed, his piety affronted. How could decoration like this be applied to a madraseh of all places? Such pictures are strictly forbidden by Islamic law. It must be an error of some kind. Our local minder explained that the buildings had been restored in the 1920s and then again in the 1950s. Well then, the tigers and faces must have been added by the Soviet-era restorers: communist atheists who knew little and cared less about the principles of Islam; perhaps it was even done on purpose, to desecrate the sanctity of the architecture.
I was surprised that a man claiming the title Professor and nursing aspirations for high diplomatic office didn’t recognise the device. For the sun rising over the back of a lion was the familiar symbol of both the nineteenth-century Qajar and the twentieth-century Pahlavi dynasties of Iran—not to mention the Mojahedin-e-Khalq terrorists of today. This version, with tigers for lions and faces on the suns, could only be an earlier expression of the same motif.
The images are certainly as old as the Sher-dar madraseh itself, the work of a certain Muhammad Abbas, whose signature peeps discreetly through the tilework tendrils, and whose praises are sung in the self-congratulatory dedication executed in stylised Arabic script around the archway. “The sky bit its finger in amazement,” gushes the building of itself after a great deal more in the same vein, “thinking there was a new moon.”
What the design actually means is another matter. Muslims and scholars disagree. Locals guess that the tiger and deer motif refer to the king’s pursuit of his enemies or perhaps to some Samarkandi legend. The orthodox interpretation is that the tiger stands for a lion, a reference to the Caliph ‘Ali, the “Lion of Islam”—the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and, in Shi‘ite eyes, his only rightful successor—while the sun stands for the light of Islam.
But the sun-rayed face, seen on other buildings in the region too, actually belongs to another and older tradition than Islam. For the ever-rising and unconquered sun was always one of the symbols of Mithra, in Zoroastrian belief the intermediary between God and humanity, guarantor of contracts and fair dealing, who bestows the light of his grace on the lawful ruler. Tradition led Iranian kings and emperors down the ages to see themselves as Mithra’s representatives on earth. In this tiger-and-sun design, the governor was glorifying his feudal master with the mandate of heaven. The Sher-dar madraseh is yet another sign that Islam in the Iranian world is like a woman’s plain chador worn over party finery, a cloak that covers, disguises, or incorporates much traditionally Iranian, pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian belief. This time, General Alchin Yalangtush Bahadur had let the veil slip and revealed his real religious underwear.
To this day tiles decorated with elegant sun-rayed Mithra faces, not Mongolian now but Aryan, are on sale in Iranian markets. Ask what they represent and you will likely be told, as I was: “Just a face.”
My two earlier journeys to the East had led me to stumble many times across the traces of the Persian prophet and the religious ideas developed by his later followers. Often dismissed by pious Muslims as mere folklore, or falsely condemned as foreign influence, or even blankly denied even in the face of overwhelming evidence, the traces of Zarathustra’s teachings refuse to fade away. In spite of everything, Zarathustra lives.
Before travelling south to the Pamirs as the Soviet Union sulkily retreated into history—this was the beginning of the 1990s—we had spent time in Moscow, talking to experts on the region, acclimatising ourselves to both the culture of Central Asia and, as we quickly discovered, its climate. Moscow apartments in winter must be among some of the hottest places in the world; the Soviet high-rise housing blocks that line the Prospekts, the great grim thoroughfares leading out from the city centre through the suburbs, all stained cement and peeling plaster, don’t allow you to adjust the savage central heating. But sitting sweating in shirtsleeves seemed an appropriate way to learn about life in the desert cities of the Soviet deep south; to hear Dr. Lazar Rempel, octogenarian Jewish architect and historian, give an outsider’s view of Central Asia as he reminisced about his fifty-six years of exile in Bokhara and Samarkand.
Dr. Rempel’s fate was not unusual in Stalin’s USSR. Many of those unlucky enough to attract the attention of the Father of the International Proletariat found themselves expelled from home and condemned to live thousands of miles away, among people with a different language and a different culture. Most went back as soon as they could. My own uncle in Prague had been in the Czech army before the war and had led a band of Partisans into the Bohemian forest during the Nazi occupation. In 1946 he and his men were absorbed into the Red Army and sent to the steppelands of Soviet Kazakhstan, ostensibly to help guard a “disinfection station” to which victims of smallpox and other epidemic diseases were spirited away. One day a convoy of trucks arrived. Soldiers jumped out and began unloading bale upon bale of barbed wire.
“It seemed to me,” my uncle told me long afterwards, “that when barbed wire starts going up, no good ever comes of it.” So he ran away, to become, years later, a stalwart of the Czechoslovak military establishment.
But, unusually, Lazar Rempel had decided to stay in Central Asia. He had been sent to Uzbekistan in 1937, in the course of one of the great Soviet anti-Jewish purges. He was lucky to be alive. Stalin, who had once studied for the priesthood, had remembered his early Bible lessons well. The best way to make a nation like the Crimean Tatars or the Tribes of Israel disappear, he had learned from the ancient Assyrian despots, was to carry them off to faraway places, where they would eventually disappear into the general population.
Rempel made a new life for himself among the Muslims: “What did the prophet Jeremiah say? ‘Build houses, plant gardens, take wives and beget children. For in the peace of the city where you are captive, you will find peace.’ That was my way.”
And how did the Jewish exiles get on with the locals? In all his fifty-six years of banishment, Rempel couldn’t recall a single instance of being badly treated because of his race or religion.
“But then,” he told me, “the Muslims of Central Asia are of a special kind; whatever they call themselves: Sunni, Shi‘ah, Isma‘ili, that is only on the surface. The first religion of these people was Zoroastrianism, the religion of Iran before Islam, and underneath they are still Zoroastrians through and through. If you don’t believe me, go and look at their religious monuments. There are Zoroastrian symbols everywhere.” He suddenly thought of something. “Wait, I will show you a picture.”
Rempel jumped up and went rummaging among the piles of books, folders and papers which reduced the floor area of his flat to a rabbit run. He brought back a brown and faded photograph and waved it in front of me. “Look at this. Do you normally expect to see something like this in a mosque? I found it soon after I arrived in Bokhara. It was in the district of Juibar which, when I arrived, had just been emptied of its people—executed, expelled, I don’t know. I rubbish, of manuscripts, just lying in the yard. At that time, in the late 1930s, it was too dangerous to possess even an ordinary document written in Arabic characters, let alone a religious text like the Qur‘an. But people could not bring themselves to destroy the Holy Word, so they would secretly come and abandon their religious books in the courtyard of a mosque. I went through the top layers and set aside just the most interesting things I found. These are now preserved in the Tashkent museum. The rest, including manuscripts going back to the tenth and eleventh centuries, were all destroyed. And, you know, this happened in the very city about which the great philosopher Ibn-Sina had written that nowhere else in the world had he seen such books as he was able to read in the libraries of Bokhara.”
Rempel’s photograph showed a wall plaque bearing the icon of an Islamic saint, robed and turbaned, hands held out palm upwards, the Muslim gesture of prayer. The figure stood in front of a stylised Islamic cityscape of domes and crenellations. From around the head streamed rays of light. Whom did it represent? “Maybe the Prophet, maybe ‘Ali. I am not sure. All I know is that this does not represent orthodox Islam. See the light rays? This is typically Zoroastrian. It is from this that Christian icon-painters first took the idea of the halo.”
“Where is the original?”
“The mosque is long gone,” Rempel admitted gloomily. Then he brightened up. “But the people haven’t changed. The Soviets couldn’t destroy their religion, only the evidence of their unorthodoxy, so the fundamentalists should really thank them for it. Go to Central Asia, see how the people still celebrate their marriages, how they mourn their dead. You will find their beliefs and rituals far richer, deeper and older than the Islam which conquered the area only in the seventh century.”
Rempel’s words were unexpectedly confirmed by another of our Moscow sources. Davlat Khodanazarov didn’t look like the stereotype of an Islamist. He was rather handsome, clean-shaven with short dark hair, refined features, well dressed in a smart safari outfit and blue shirt—a film-maker as well as an Islamist politician. He made notes to himself as we talked, in meticulous handwriting. He had a sense of humour and knew how to play to the camera. When we commiserated with him for having only just failed to win the Tajikistan presidency for the Islamic party, he smiled wryly.
“You should congratulate me. I am relieved I lost.” On the piece of paper in front of him he drew a stick man. “If I had won, I would have had to be assassinated.” On the word assassinated, he heavily crossed the stick man out.