Trans Eurasia travel

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These lands of Uzbekistan saw the wax and wane of countless empires, mounted nomad versus settled farmer. Islam came this way to flower and outshine anywhere in the Muslim world. The Uzbeks themselves emerged from Turco-Mongol tribes in the 14th century. Polarized into the warring khanates of Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand, they provided the most exotic, perilous and coveted playing fields of the Great Game, the 19th century war of stealth between the tsarist and British empires.

A glance at a map seems to belie Uzbekistan's role as ethnic and cultural melting pot. Surely Central Asia's vast expanse kept apart the civilizations at its edge? Those barriers were broken by the greatest trade routes in history, the fragile threads of the Silk Road. Wending their way over mountain and wasteland, myriad teams of merchants braved this key stretch of the long haul from China to Rome. Camel caravans laden with silk, spices and news searched for the guiding minarets of oasis paradises, light houses for I heir ships of the desert. Convening in bazaar and caravanserai, nomad met settler, Persian met Turk and Chinese met Sogdian in a fertile exchange of goods and ideas-religious, intellectual and artistic.

Nature has bestowed this harshly arid land with two channels of hope; the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, sweeping down from the Roof of the World, the high Pamirs and Tian Shan to the east, bringing the desert to life up to Khorezm and the Aral Sea. The Greeks knew them as the Oxus and Jaxartes; between their middle reaches lay Transoxiana, the Arab Mawarannahr, the land beyond the river'. Its illustrious centres, Samarkand and Bukhara, arose beside the Zerafshan, the aptly-named 'gold-strewer', for water is the most precious commodity in the region.

This part has always been different from the rest of Central Asia – more settled than nomadic, with patterns of land use and communality that has changed little from the time of the Achaemenids (6th century BC) to the present day. 

Wherever one treads in Uzbekistan, one follows the footprints of some of the greatest travellers in history-from Chinese pioneers seeking blood-sweating horses or enlightenment from India, to Arab scholars like ibn-Battuta, the Marco Polo of the Muslim world. To Tamerlane's court in 1404 journeyed the Spanish ambassador Clavijo; the English merchant Jenkinson also survived the trials of Transoxiana in the 16th century. But this remained remotest Tartary. It took the Great Game players to carve out western Turkestan and fill in the huge blanks on the map. Growing awareness of the exotic dangers on the road to Samarkand spurred the adventurous and the eccentric; in 1898, Robert Jefferson rode his bicycle 6,000 miles from London to Khiva, "because so many people said it was impossible".

The Uzbeks have not yet lost their love of reading of the high deeds of Iskander D'hulkarnein1 (Alexander of Macedonia), who as legend says founded Marakanda. The great conqueror reached this spot in 334 B.C. There he slew his friend Clitus, then wedded Roxana, daughter of the Iranian chief of the region, and married his warriors to the women of the country. His intention was to unite Europe with Asia by the ties of legitimate marriage, and in one common descent.

Alexander did not meet with any Turks in Turkestan, then known as Sogdiana or Transoxiana. He encountered Parthians, and Bactrians, whose country was the original home of the camel. The principal religion, Mazdaism, followed the precepts of Zoroaster, and was founded on the conflict between light and darkness. Later Mithraism would continue to make adepts even into the Roman era, while Nestorian Christianity spread in the contrary direction from Roman Syria as far as China. To the north, beyond the land of the unknown Scythians, innumerable hordes of the unsuspected Huns dwelt.

Alexander's great international ideal crashed down with his death; he died in Babylon at the age of thirty-three, as the result of a fever caught after a too copious banquet. The terrible Roxana assassinated her rival, the daughter of Darius and second wife of Alexander, and gave birth to a son who was to be assassinated later with her.

After which the general, Seleucus, took over the direction of affairs, and founded the Seleucidan dynasty in Persia which endured for nearly three centuries.

Then the Sassanids dominated Iran for four centuries, finding little to disturb them in the inroads of the first nomads, the hephthalite Huns who in 475 conquered and took Gandhara in Afghanistan.

But with the coming of Islam in the seventh century the kingdom of the Sassanids fell into the hands of the lizard-eating Arabs. In 643 a conqueror named Samar begins to make himself heard of, and it is possibly thanks to him that the city was named later Samarkanda.

From 873 to 1004 the Iranian dynasty of the Samanids was established at Bokhara, and defended Iran against the Turan and the Turki-Mongol hordes who were beginning to raise their heads. In 980 was born at Bokhara Ibusina—Ibn-Sina, or otherwise pronounced Avicenna—the prince of healers, celebrated throughout the Arabian universities.

In the eleventh century the Seljuk Turks, issuing from the Kirghiz steppes, invaded the country, establishing petty states, becoming dwellers of houses and Sunnite Moslem. Soon they were powerful enough to go to the aid of the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad.

But the terrible thirteenth century approaches. In the distance the son of Jesugi Bahadur, the Inflexible Emperor, conquers China with the aid of his four sons. What magnificent crowded hours these five men must have lived together! Then he sets about recreating the empire T'ou Kiou as it existed in the sixth century. In the eyes of Jenghiz Khan, the Shah of Kharezm and Bokhara, Mohammed the Seljuk is a mere Turkish baron converted to Islam. But the Shah gets into a panic, refuses to offer submission, no longer protects the caravan routes, and in 1220 Jenghiz Khan ravages Samarkanda and Bokhara. The country is laid under the yoke of the Mongol terror—the yassak—outlawry. The generals of the Khan come up with the expiring Mohammed on the shores of the Caspian Sea and conquer every Turkish stronghold between them and the Black Sea.

Six centuries of Islam have been wiped out. Hulagu the Mongol, who reigned over Persia, slew the last Abbasid caliph in 1258.

In the fourteenth century Timur welded Turkestan together once more. In place of the Persian tongue he substituted Jagatai Turkish (which comes from the name of Timur's second son). Massacres took place on such a scale that pyramids were built with the victims' skulls, and only the poets, scientists, and dervishes were spared, to do him service in his court. From very birth his hair was white, and it was said he had never shed a tear. He limped, and yet could have struck down the hero Rustum, so great was his strength. Beyond all things he loved truth, and whoever lied to him was killed.

The Tajik Timurids were driven out by the Uzbeks in the sixteenth century, and the latter, starting a reign of terror, put themselves at the head of the Khanate of Kharezm (Khiva). They were descended from Jenghiz' eldest son Juchi, who had reigned over the Kipchak, and from Uzbek Khan, the eighth and celebrated Khan of the Golden Horde.

In 1717 the expedition sent by Peter the Great to discover a route into India was massacred at Khiva. The Emirs of Bokhara from 1784 to the date of their extinction belonged to the dynasty of Mangites who issued originally from the mountains of Tajikistan.

The Russians under the leadership of General Perovsk began to penetrate into Turkestan in 1839. Tashkent was conquered in 1865. General Tchernaief defeated forty thousand Bokhariots with three thousand six hundred men. Samarkand was taken, and the Emir bought his peace for a sum of ?75,000.

In 1920 it was the Republic of Faisulla Khodjaief. Later, in 1924, with the aid of the Reds, it was transformed into the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan. This was a new marriage of Asia with the West, Russian however this time, and Macedonian no longer. What will its issue be?

"Turkestan Solo" by Ella Maillart