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History of Tashkent

The Tashkent oasis lies on the Chirchik river, within sight of the foothills of the western Tian Shan. Mountain meltwater feeds the river, in turn feeding the Syr Darya on whose middle reaches once lay the principality of Chach. In ancient times, this area contained Beitian, probably the summer "capital" of the Kangju confederacy. An oasis on the Chirchik River, Tashkent began its life as a staging post for Silk Road merchants, missionaries and mercenaries en route between the Tian Shan Mountains in the east and the Kytylkum Desert to the west.

Archaeologists battling myth and legend call its first capital Kanka, a square citadel founded between the fifth and third centuries ВС, eight kilometres from the Syr Darya. Tashkent’s earliest incarnation might have been as the settlement of Ming-Uruk (Thousand Apricot Trees) in the 2nd or 1st century BC. The archaeological site of Kanka, 80km southwest of the modern city, was already thriving in the 4th century bc, so much so that it can be identified even in ancient Greek sources (recorded there as Antihiey Zayaksartskoy). It was the capital of the principality of Chach and, for the next thousand years, its citadel flourished as the ccntrepiece of a network of more than 30 towns, 50 irrigation canals and numerous caravanserais.

In pre-Islamic and early Islamic times the town and the province were known as "Chach". The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi also refers to the city as Chach. Later the town came to be known as Chachkand/Chashkand, meaning "Chach City". The principality of Chach, whose main town had a square citadel built around the 5th to 3rd centuries BC, some 8 kilometres south of the Syr Darya River.

By the seventh century AD, after the Sakas, Sassanians and Hephthalites, prominence shifted to the fertile Chirchik valley, focus of trade between Sogdian settlers and Turkic nomads. Over 50 irrigation canals nurtured more than 30 towns as Chach blossomed into an exporter of cattle, horses, gold, silver and precious stones. The seventh century remains of the ruler's fortress were found at Mingur-yuk, 'thousand apricot orchard', now deep in the Russian quarter of Tashkent. In 751, invading Chinese troops executed the prince of Chach, provoking the Arab invaders to crush them at Talas. Thereby the supremacy of Islam was established and Chinese hopes of Central Asian hegemony were terminated. By the time the Arabs took it in AD 751 it was a major caravan crossroads.

Under Samanid rule (ad819-ad999) in the ninth century the capital became known as Binkath, Arab pronunciation turned Chach to Shash and city walls fortified its mosques. Merchants rested their caravans here after the hazardous journey from China over steppe and mountain, before continuing to Samarkand and Bukhara. Arab visitors described a verdant place of vineyards, bazaars and craftsmen. Karakhanid rule from the late tenth century maintained such prosperity and bequeathed a new, Turkish name: Tashkent, 'stone village'.

Tashkent became a wealthy and cosmopolitan city on the back of the trade passing through between Kashgar, Samarkand and Bukhara. Its wealth made it an inevitable target for looters, however: the city was sacked in 1214 by the Khwarazmian ruler Ala ad-Din Muhammad, and then again just five years later by Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde. Tashkent was utterly destroyed, and it would not recover until the time of Timur in the mid 15th century. The city's oldest remaining buildings (found in the Sheikhantaur Mausoleum Complex) date from this period, but it was still not a time of stability: Tashkent fell time and again to violent invaders - Kazakhs and Kalmyks, Persians and Uzbeks, Mongols and Oirots. They frequently levelled parts of the city, resulting in a fragmented architectural legacy from the period.

The history of modern Tashkent really starts in the late 18th century, again with a rise in trade, but this time from tsarist Russia. By the 18th century growing trade with Russia had expanded Tashkent into four quarters with a common bazaar. Behind crenellated walls, 25 km long wall with 11 gates (of which not a trace remains today), lived a wealthy population of over 100,000 people served by some 300 mosques. In 1780, Yunus Khodja, the chief of the Sheikhantaur quarter, ended internal strife by conquering the other three, Kukcha, Sibzar and Besh-Agach (the names survive today). He repelled Kazakh attacks, but his son lost Tashkent to the Khan of Kokand in 1809. Drawn by the city's wealth and size, the Khan of Kokand annexed Tashkent in 1809, adding it to his ample territories in the East. When the Russians advanced on Kokand 60 years later, Tashkent was still the jewel in Kokand's crown, and therefore the first major target for General Chernyayev and his troops.

Major General Mikhail Chernaiev's first assault was beaten off, but the threat of the Bukharan emir stealing this prize and the prospect of Great Game glory back in St Petersburg persuaded him to try again in May 1865. Ignoring orders not to attack, he advanced his force of 1,900 men against the city's 30,000 defenders. On the night of 14 June, the Russians crept up to one of 12 city gates. Felt wrapping deadened the noise of gun wheels. Just before dawn, a diversionary attack lent the main party time enough to scale ladders and use a secret passage to open the gate from inside. Chaplain Malov led the charge, holding his Orthodox cross out high (and winning a military cross for valour). After two days of fighting, city elders chose surrender to save Tashkent from destruction by superior firepower. Chernaiev had lost only 25 men. For his daring, locals christened him Shir-Naib, Lion Viceroy. More importantly, Tsar Alexander's reaction was favourable. Chernaiev's disobedience had secured with little cost a key foothold in the imperial underbelly and British protests could be ignored. To avoid further rushes of blood, Chernaiev was soon recalled.

Kokand became a vassal state of Russia, and in 1867 General Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufmann became its first governor general. He constructed a military cantonment across the Ankhor Canal from Tashkent's Old City, and this became the centre of the city's Russian community. The newly installed Governor was to gradually widen the imperial net around the other Central Asian khanates. His grand palace stood at the heart of the canal- and poplar-lined Russian town with the radial layout of St Petersburg, founded to the east of the old, mud-bricked districts. Initially the population comprised military men, merchants and the occasional diplomat or spy (the number of which would increase exponentially with the Great Game) but the arrival of the Trans-Caspian railway in 1889 brought with it railway workers and their families who, a long way from home and with little money, decided to settle in Tashkent. Tashkent also became the tsarists’ (and later the Soviets’) main centre for espionage in Asia, during the protracted imperial rivalry with Britain known as the Great Game.

The American diplomat Schuyler, visiting Tashkent in 1873, observed a clique- ridden, military society: "the officers have little resource but gambling and drinking, and in many instances young men have utterly ruined themselves, some even having to be sent out of the country-and a man must be bad to be exiled from Tashkent."

Electric trams connecting old and new Tashkent greeted English writer Stephen Graham in 1914. He delighted in this "fresh, fragrant city", where "cherries ripen by the 1st of May, and strawberries are seven copecks a pound", yet colonialism had its downside:

With the coming of the Russians, the angel of death has breathed on all that was once the grandeur of the Orient at Tashkent... as the fine Russian streets were laid down, and the large shops opened, and the cathedrals were built, and the gardens laid out, the old uphill-and-down dale labyrinth of the Eastern city changed to a curiosity and an anachronism. It faded before the eyes. . . Poor old Tashkent, slipping into the sere and yellow leaf, passing away even as one looked, always decreasing whilst the new town is always increasing-there is much pathos in its destiny ... Now Turkestan and Russian Central Asia are extremely loyal, peaceful and happy colonies.

Like most travellers, Graham was shielded both from Muslim anger at the neglect of Islam and the encroachment of Russian infidels, as well as from the seeds of revolution growing among the latter. The railway workers whose sweat had done so much to establish the Tsarist regime were among the first to respond to the Bolshevik clarion in November 1917. The provisional government was overthrown and Muslim opposition crushed! In April 1918, Tashkent became the capital of the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, yet Soviet suzerainty remained under threat from White Russians and Muslim basmachi. In January 1919, Bolshevik commissar Ossipov shot his fellow commissars and declared for the counter-revolution, but drunkenness and poor organization gave him but a single day in power. Four thousand executions followed and pools of blood lay frozen on the winter streets. At this time, Britain's last Great Game player was hiding in the Chimgan mountains outside Tashkent. Colonel F.M. Bailey had been closely watched ever since his arrival from Kashgar in August 1918. The feared Cheka (secret police) even set spies on his dog Zep and Bailey only escaped death and fled to Persia by his mastery of disguise and remarkable nerve. At one point the Bolsheviks assumed him dead for he had left his toothbrush behind, as no Englishman would (in fact he had two). During Bailey's stay, the city reverted from farce-"an Englishman passed through with a troupe of performing elephants he was taking to Kashgar"-to terror-"one man who had his piano nationalized lost his temper and broke up the piano with an axe. He was taken to gaol and shot." The face of the city suffered too: "You were given a coupon for fuel on your ration card. When you asked for your share of fuel you were shown a tree standing in the street and told to take it. Fortunes in paper money were made by the lucky owners of saws and axes."

In time the trees were replanted, but architecture was less lucky: city walls and gates were demolished along with countless mosques, madrassah and mausoleums. In 1930, the city won from Samarkand the capitalship of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Russian settlers, institutions andindustries flooded in, particularly during the waryears (1941-45), when evacuees from European Russia doubled the population to a million.

As a Soviet capital, huge sums of money were invested into Tashkent's growth and industrialisation, a process which rapidly increased with the relocation of factories away from the Nazi advance in western Russia during World War II. The city's population swelled with migrant workers, evacuees and exiles: Tashkent would ultimately become the fourth-largest city in the Soviet Union, and more than half of its population was of Russian or Ukrainian origin.

Physically, Tashkent was changed forever on 25 April 1966, when a massive earthquake levelled vast areas of the town and left 300,000 people homeless. "Like living on the back of a beserk camel" was how one journalist described the earthquake (7.5 on the Richter scale) and over 1,000 subsequent tremors that devastated Tashkent. Casualties were relatively low, but 300,000 were left homeless. The whole Union rushed to the task of reconstruction and the result is today's Tashkent, both the concrete grandeur of Moscow's 'beacon of socialism in the East', and the old quarter to the west, alive with Uzbek tradition. As new construction gathers pace, its citizens brave the challenges and seize the chances born of capitalism and independence, while their mayor promises to rebuild those 12 city gates, symbols that this ancient caravan town is open for business once more.

Since independence in 1991, the face of Tashkent has continued to change. The demographics of the city have shifted notably with the mass exodus of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Germans and Poles, and an influx of Tajiks and Afghans Hi ring their respective civil wars. President Karimov has actively encouraged ambitious building schemes, and Soviet symbols and statuary, notably what was nine the world's largest statue of Lenin, have been slowly replaced with images more closely aligned with the identity of the modern, independent republic.