Uzbekistan: Pages from history

By Jim Eagles

Travelling along the Silk Road, Jim Eagles unlocks the secrets of an ancient holy book.

A former medressa, part of the Central Asian Religious Board complex in Tashkent, now used as a handicraft centre. Photo / Jim Eagles
A former medressa, part of the Central Asian Religious Board complex in Tashkent, now used as a handicraft centre. Photo / Jim Eagles

The greatest treasure in Tashkent - in fact in all Uzbekistan - is a book.

It is on display under tight security in an ornate, specially-built museum in Tashkent's Old Town where, as Ramil our Tartar guide said sardonically, "the destructions of earthquakes and Soviet architects means there is not much old that is left".

But the book is there and it is definitely old, probably around 1200 years old in fact, and said to be the oldest Koran in the world.

To see it we had to visit the religious heart of Central Asia, a cluster of magnificent Islamic buildings built in glowing orange brick with mosaic entrances and soaring turquoise domes.

Dominating the scene is the huge Khast Imom Mosque with its towering minarets and lofty domes. Alongside that is a 16th century medressa - originally built as a religious school - which houses the Central Asian Religious Board and the office of the Grand Mufti, the Islamic equivalent of a cardinal for the countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Another beautiful former medressa now provides a home for local craftsmen, most of whom specialise in the delicate painting of boxes and plaques for which Tashkent is famous. I was so fascinated with the brushwork of two brothers, both painting delicate flower designs on plates, that I almost missed my bus.

Finally there is the massive bulk of the Imam Ismail al-Bukari Islamic Institute, one of only two medressas left functioning during Soviet times, providing advanced religious training to around 200 Islamic students.

Inside the rough square formed by these institutions - as though protected by them - stands the newly built museum. There's a metal barrier across the front, visitors have to enter via a metal detector (it wasn't working when I was there) and a couple of security guards keep a close eye on things. And in the centre of the museum's main room, on a dais and protected by armoured glass, is the great Osman Koran.

It is, as befits its status, a giant of a book, each page measuring 53cm by 68cm, written in a huge flowing Arabic script. The writing is a work of art, rather like the superbly handwritten gospels of medieval monks, though without the illustrations they often contain. And it almost exudes power.

The atmosphere in the room is one of reverential silence. Guards and visitors - even non-Muslims - gaze at the Osman Koran, and the other significant Muslim scriptures on display, with respectful eyes. Needless to say, no photos are allowed. It's rather like being in the tomb of an esteemed prophet. But, as I left, the question occupying me was: how did a such an important book that presumably had its origins in the Muslim holy city of Mecca end up 3500km away in Tashkent?

Much of its history is - as I suppose you'd expect, given its religious status - hotly disputed.

The Osman Koran is generally reckoned to have been compiled not long after the death of Mohammed in 632, on the orders of the third Caliph, Osman, who wanted all the prophet's sayings brought together before memories started to dim.

One copy is said to have been taken by Osman's successor, Ali, to Kufa, in modern Iraq, and it remained there after his death.

Six hundred years later the book on display was brought to Central Asia by the ferocious warrior Tamerlane - Emir Timur to Uzbeks, for whom he is a national hero - as part of the booty from his great swathe of conquests across Asia, the Middle East and the Caucasus. Timur gave it a place of honour in his capital, Samarkand, and it stayed there for five centuries.

Then Russian imperial forces conquered the region and around 1868 they, in turn, carried off the treasure to St Petersburg, where it was kept in the Imperial Library.

But following the October Revolution, Lenin ordered it returned to the newly formed Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic as a gesture of friendship. Initially it went to Samarkand, then was brought to the religious centre in Tashkent.

Russian scientists who examined the book before its return apparently concluded that it was probably produced in Iraq about 150 years after Osman's caliphate. Ramil, though emphatically not a Muslim, didn't mention that particular question mark. Instead he told us that it was written in ink made from soot and vegetable oil on vellum (or calfskin). Pages that were missing from the bundle of manuscript when it arrived have been duplicated on silk.

Today it seems to be almost as important as a symbol of Uzbek nationalism as it is a religious icon. And nationalistic symbols are clearly important to the Uzbek regime of Islam Karimov.

During a day-long stopover in Tashkent - in the course of a tour along the Silk Road - our tour group was taken to see a memorial to Stalin's victims, built close to the site where three mass graves were uncovered following the dissolution of the USSR; a Museum of Applied Arts - which contained some magnificent examples of weaving and embroidery - in a mansion originally built for a Russian ambassador; a monument to victims of a massive earthquake which struck on 26 April 1966; a statue of Emir Timur; and the Osman Koran.

All were new and all were clearly designed to celebrate the fledgling Uzbek sense of nationhood. Of course by far the most important of those, especially in a strongly Muslim nation, is the Koran. From a Christian perspective it's as though someone who knew Jesus wrote down his teachings immediately after he was crucified rather than pulling the fragments together centuries later. And this, if what the Uzbeks say is correct, is the only surviving copy of that first compilation.

Indeed, when we left Ramil - who, as I said, made it clear he is not a Muslim - commented: "Now you have seen the most precious thing in Tashkent."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines operates 12 times per week between Auckland and Singapore and then onward to 62 destinations in 34 countries, including China.

Getting around: World Expeditions operates its Silk Road expedition from Beijing to Samarkand via Tashkent in April, May, August and September. Ring 0800 350 354 for further details.

Jim Eagles visited Uzbekistan with help from Singapore Airlines and World Expeditions.

- NZ Herald

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