Osh (pop. 300,000 people) is Kyrgyzstan’s second-biggest city and the administrative centre of the huge, populous province that engulfs the Fergana Valley on the Kyrgyzstan side. It is one of the region’s genuinely ancient towns (with a history dating back to at least the 5th century BC) but few souvenirs remain. It proudly celebrated its 3,000th birthday in October 2000.
An important regional centre, around 1,000 metres above sea level, it is only five kilometres from the Uzbek border and retains a distinctly international feel; you'd be forgiven for thinking yourself, if not quite in Uzbekistan, then certainly not entirely in Kyrgyzstan either, yet is already physically and spiritually closer to Kashgar than to Tashkent. It is a lively city that despite its smaller size can seem busier than Bishkek. It has the largest mosque in the country and one of the largest and most crowded markets in all of central Asia. Although the Soviet legacy of town planning and architecture dominate, a sense of ancient Central Asia still pervades, especially around the bustling bazaar. A market town to its very heart, its bazaar has apparently occupied the same spot on the banks of the Akbura river for 2,000 years. The rich history of the oasis, much of it unknown, lies hidden beneath the avenues of socialism and little remains to be seen. History's cultures, religions and wars have disappeared from memory.
Locals maintain that ‘Osh is older than Rome’. The founding of the city is variously attributed to Alexander the Great, the Prophet Suleiman and even Biblical Adam. The most enduring tale is of Suleiman, who when he reached the blade of rock, shouted 'khosh' ('that's enough').
Although 3,000 years of history may be an exaggeration, the settlement dates back at least to the 5th century BC. It was known as early as the 8th century AD as an important centre for silk production and as a trade centre at a crossroads on the Silk Road. Legend states that Alexander the Great visited the city on his way to India, but there again most legends make some sort of claim for the Macedonian warrior king. King Solomon is also said to have visited and slept on top of the hill that still bears his name - Taht-i-Suleiman (Suleiman Mountain or Solomon's Throne). What is more certain is that the founder of the Indian Moghul Dynasty and descendant of Tamerlane, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, who was born nearby just across the Uzbekistan border in Andijan, came to Osh to visit Solomon's Throne before venturing on to India. Of Osh, he wrote in his memoir, the Baburnama:
There are many sayings about the excellence of Osh. On the southeastern side of the Osh fortress is a well-proportioned mountain called Bara-Koh, where, on its summit, Sultan Mahmud Khan built a pavilion. Farther down, on a spur of the same mountain, I had a porticoed pavilion built in 902 [AD1496-97].
Certainly it must have been a major hub on the Silk Road from its earliest days, rewarding camel caravans who survived the journey over the high passes of the Pamir Alay to the south and of the Central Tien Shan to the east. Their cargo of exotic items included silk from China, lazurite from modern Tajikistan, sweets and dyes from India and silver goods from Iran. Nothing remains of the palace, courts and academies destroyed in the 13th century by the armies of Jenghis Khan, but in the following centuries it bounced back, more prosperous than ever. In 1496, Babur, passed through on his way to India and commissioned the mosque on top of Suleyman Too, which even today is still referred to as Babur's House. The Solomon connection led over the years for Taht-i-Suleiman to become a holy place for central Asian Muslims, and it is even believed that the Prophet Mohammed prayed here. Between the 10th-12th centuries it was the third of the great cities of the Fergana Valley, but in the 13th century the Mongols came and did their level best to destroy the place. Slowly Osh recovered and rebuilt itself over the next few centuries and the city went on to become part of the Kokand Khanate in 1762.
Russians first came to Osh in 1876 during the height of the Great Game era between Tsarist Russia and Britain, when Russian forces overpowered the khanates that hitherto had controlled the city. Before the Russian revolution, Osh was the largest city in Kyrgyzstan, the population numbering 34,200 people, five times that of Pishpek (modern Bishkek). Following the October Revolution in 1917 the Soviets made their mark on the city and some of this legacy remains today, including a large statue of Lenin in one of the city parks. In the post-independence period the city became a byword for the inter-ethnic conflict that erupted in 1990 between Uzbek and Kyrgyz factions, although the worst of this took place at the town of Ozgon, 50km to the northeast. Happily, there appear to be no outward signs of such ethnic tension today and most of the city's inhabitants rub shoulders well enough, despite frequent dissatisfaction with the Kyrgyz-dominated Bishkek government.
The centrepiece of Osh is Suleiman's Throne, a rocky mountain spine that juts out of the plain, seeming to have taken one step too far from its mountainous friends. Kyrgyzstan's second biggest city flows around the base of the hill. Sultan Babur (1483-1530) nostalgically described the city in his memoirs:
Orchards follow the river on either bank, the trees overhanging the water. Pretty violets grow in the gardens. Osh has running water. It is lovely there in the spring when countless tulips and roses burst into blossom. In the. Fergana valley no town can match Osh for the fragrance and purity of the air.
Despite the city's antiquity it is startlingly, relentlessly Soviet. Nevertheless, it is also a city of irrepressible Central Asian colour: flower stalls line the streets, the rainbow patterns of atlas silk are visible everywhere and luxuriant mountains of fruits and vegetables fill the bazaar in summer. It is well worth pausing in Osh a couple of days for its rich history, eclectic mix of peoples and to visit the best bazaar west of Kashgar. There are also some impressive cave formations in the nearby valleys.
Osh suffers a kind of demographic schizophrenia, being a major centre of Kyrgyzstan but with a strong (40%) Uzbek population more in tune with Uzbekistan and the rest of the Fergana Valley but isolated from it by one of the world’s more absurd international borders, created by Joseph Stalin. His plan to divide and conquer the region still has consequences – ethnic strife rocked it in 1990 and again in 2010. While Osh remains a highlight of Central Asia, it will be some time before the city can get over these fresh wounds.
Osh is a transit point for those travelling to or from Uzbekistan and a jumping-off point for Sary Chelek, the valleys north of Osh and for trekking and mountaineering in the mighty Pamir Alay.
Orientation - Osh sprawls across the valley of the Ak-Buura (White Camel) River, flowing out of the Pamir Alay mountains. The most prominent landmark is ‘Solomon’s Throne’, a craggy mountain that squeezes up to the river from the west. Along the west bank run two parallel main roads – one-way south-bound Kurmanjan Datka and one-way north-bound Lenin. Osh’s old bus station (stary avtovokzal) is on Alisher Navoi just east of the river, while the new, long-distance one (novyy avtovokzal) is about 8km north of the town centre. The airport is about five minutes by bus from the new bus station.
Osh carried an overwhelming sense of the Soviet Union. The roads were wide, often four-laned, bordered by ugly concrete government offices, dreary shops and tenement flats that climbed grey and charmless against the hazy sky. Outside one large administrative centre stood an imposing black granite statue of Lenin; above the rooftops of the western town rose a huge metal-cut of the same bearded icon. I'd been lead to believe that the independent states of Central Asia had jettisoned their Soviet past as soon as the central hold on them was relaxed. But not Kyrgyzstan, if their statuary was anything to go by
Dirty Ladas, old trucks and diesel buses bought cheaply from East Germany - often with German companies still advertised on their sides - spewed black smoke onto the busy streets. Suspended from the street lights, banners celebrated the town's 3000th year. This seemed rather a spurious anniversary, marked, I suspected, more for current commercial reasons than any serious relevance to history, as no one knows how old the town really is. Some say Osh was founded by King Solomon, others Alexander the Great, and it was certainly from here that Emperor Babur came to found his Afghan Mogul dynasty. Most of the residents claim it's been around longer than Rome. Sited as it is on the northern end of the rich and fertile Ferghana Valley, it was certainly an important crossroads on the old Silk Road and today still boasts one of the largest bazaars in Central Asia. The town obviously harbours some wealth. As we stopped at a set of traffic lights, a large black Mercedes swept arrogantly by.
To my surprise few of the men I saw plying the streets wore the traditional Kyrgyz kalpacs. Instead their shaved heads were covered in embroidered blue skullcaps, and over their shoulders hung the three-quarter-length Uzbek velvet cloaks, known as chapins. Though we were still in Kyrgyzstan, Murat explained that eighty per cent of the town's population was in fact Uzbek.
Before the 1917 revolution and the Bolshevik's bloody subjugation of Central Asia, when the area was governed by local leaders in much smaller Khanates, most Central Asians simply described themselves as Muslim, Turk, or Tajik, meaning of Persian origin. The Soviets believed that this left the region highly vulnerable as a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism and Pan-Turkic nationalism. In the 1920s and '30s Stalin therefore created - some say personally — Central Asia's national boundaries and imposed on each nation its own specific ethnic profile, history, language and territory. Where these didn't exist — or were not considered suitably distinct from others - they were invented and supplied by Moscow. Islam, perceived by the politburo as a threat to Soviet domination, was excised from each national make-up and suppressed. The legacy of this is that today each of the newly independent republics has inherited ethnic 'grow-bags'. Thus there are Kyrgyz villages in Tajikistan, Tajik communities living in the cities of Uzbekistan, Kazaks grazing cattle on the Kyrgyz steppes and Uzbek towns, such as Osh, in Kyrgyzstan.
"Silk Dreams, Troubled Road" by Jonny Bealby