We have a small staff and field office in Tashkent so we went for a couple of days to check in with the staff and have some crucial meetings with several Uzbek Ministry officials. This would be my first time traveling in the region and leaving Kazakhstan. I was both excited and a little nervous at the same time. After three months time, Almaty has started to feel very comfortable and familiar. Boarding a plane to leave the country felt a little strange, which was surprising to me. This is especially true since my original assignment has been extended another month. I’m not scheduled to return to the States until just before Christmas now.
Unfortunately, my guide book only covers Kazakhstan so I have very little history to offer on Tashkent and Uzbekistan in general. It is my understanding that Tashkent is a very old city, with the first settlement dating back to the third century B.C. Although the city has gone by many names over the various millenia, the word, “Tash” is Turkish and means, “stone.” “Kent” is a Persian word meaning, “city,” so Tashkent essentially means “city of stone.” While one can see the vestiges of the Soviet era in terms of the architecture and feel, modern Tashkent is very different from Almaty. It is much more spread out and there are fewer trees. It also sits on more of a plain and is not at the base of the mountains like Almaty. The avenues of Tashkent seem wider and more open, feeling less hemmed in. It’s also twice the size of Almaty, so there are many more people and much more energy to the place.
While we had a pretty packed schedule during our stay, I did manage to block out a few hours in the afternoon to take a tour of the city. Our local office manager kindly arranged a local tour guide and driver to take me around and see some of the sights. The tour guide picked me up back at my hotel and our driver whisked us through the city. My tour guide was a lovely and kind ethnic Russian woman who was a retired university professor and spoke excellent English. She essentially started her own tour company after retirement and works her own schedule. As we were chatting, she mentioned that not many people requested this particular tour of Tashkent. That comment seemed odd to me, who wouldn’t want to see the sights of the city? She then continued, saying that she had only given this tour a handful of times. Ok, I thought, this seems a little weird. She then said that I must be a very devout Muslim to want to see some of the obscure sights we were going to. At this point, I said, “What?!” She said that I had requested the “Historical and Holy Islamic Tour of Tashkent.” I told her that I thought I was seeing the general tourist sites of the city. She said no, that’s not what was requested and she had already purchased tickets for the Islamic Library Museum. Despite the obvious mix-up, I decided just to go along with it. I told her that while I wasn’t even Muslim, and I didn’t know much about the religion and have never been to a mosque before, I would still be very interested in learning more. She seemed relieved and I admit that I really enjoyed the tour. She gave me a lot of useful background on Islam and I learned a great deal. Overall it was a very enjoyable afternoon! Funny how things happen sometimes!
Our first stop was the Monument of Courage, dedicated to the rebuilding of the city after the 1966 earthquake that completely leveled the city and killed thousands. It was not far from my hotel, so we stopped to take a few pictures on our way to the Muslim sites.
The next stop on our tour was what is know as the “Old City.” Here sits the Khast-Imam mosque. The mosque is actually part of a complex of buildings. There is the newer and large Khast-Imam mosque, which is the largest in Uzbekistan. Also on the site is the original mosque dating from the 16th century. There is also a Islamic Library Museum, the Kaffal-Shashi mausoleum, and the Imam Al-Bukhari Institute, which is a training center for Muslim clergy.
Behind the mosque sits the Barak-Khan Madrassah, an Islamic Library and Museum. This library holds the oldest complete copy of the Koran in existance. It is the Osman Koran from the 7th century. It is a very large book with pages made from deer skin and Osman was the first to attempt to compile the Koran from various scrolls into a single volume. What is more significant about this copy is that Osman was murdered one night while reading it. His blood stains still appear on some of the pages! This is a very sacred book and as such, pictures were not allowed.
Across the plaza behind the mosque sits the Khast-Imam Madrassah. It now serves as a training school for local artists who rent out the rooms to sell their wares and demonstrate their craft.
Continuing across the plaza sits the Ensemble Khazret Imam (I think!). I was told it was the tomb of one of the first Imams of Tashkent. I’m a little fuzzy on whether this is the correct mausoleum, as I didn’t take any notes at the time.
After this visit to the Old City, we headed to the mausoleum complex of Zangiata that actually sits a half-hour outside of Tashkent. This Sufi site is considered very holy by area Muslims and many travel here from all over the country. It is said that a pilgrimage here may substitute for one to Mecca if one is not able to afford or make that journey. Zangiata’s real name was Sheikh Ay-Khodja. Zangiata means “black,” possibly referring to his skin color, and it may be that he traveled and settled here from North Africa. The complex contains his mausoleum and that of his wife, Ambar bibi.
The final stop on the tour was back in central Tashkent. It was the Kukeldash Madrassah, built in the 16th century and never restored, it gives one a better picture of the original construction. Today, the building houses another craft guild, where one can find all sorts of traditional Uzbek crafts and souvenirs.
This entry’s final picture is of an elevated table for sitting, where one can just picture a group of imams taking their evening tea in the quiet of the courtyard. It was a lovely tour and I feel much more educated and enlightened about Islam than when I started the tour. Given the fear and ignorance that plagues much of America when it comes to this religion, I wish more Americans could take a tour like this and learn to respect and appreciate another of the world’s great religions.