About Uzbekistan

Birthplace of Melons
07 July 2017

Uzbek melonsIt is beyond dispute that watermelon is sweet and savory. However, it cannot be compared with "honey", whereas melon has a right to rival honey. As soon as you leave a cut melon, wasps immediately fly to feast on the mouth-watering pulp. They suck the sweet juice so greedily one cannot drive them away.

A ripe melon should give off a sweet smell, be a bit heavy and when gently knocked, should make a "clunk" sound.

Uzbekistan is said to be famous for its melons, reputedly some of the best in the world. Farmers of the Khorezm, Bukhara, Samarkand, Shakhrisabz, Tashkent and Ferghana oases were well known amongst Silk Road travelers for their agricultural skills. Over the centuries local farmers have created different varieties of melons that can vary in size, form, coloration and of course their flavour - from pineapple to vanilla.

The climate of Uzbekistan with long hot summers fit well with such a heat-loving plant. The well developed root system accommodates itself well to irrigated lands. Even the saline soils of the Khorezm and Bukhara regions do not inhibit the growth of melons. Melon cultivation requires much labour. Following the planting of seed it usually takes a three to four month period to maturity.

Central Asia is considered the homeland of melon and is thought to have been grown here for more than two thousand years. From ancient Chinese chronicles it is known that in the beginning of some seeds of the melon were brought to China from the banks of the Oxus and the Yaksart (Syr Darya and Amu Darya) along the Great Silk Road.Melon has been known in Europe since the Roman Empire. Images of melons can be found on frescos within the Vatican. During the Middle Ages melon began to be cultivated in Arabian countries where it was treated with great respect and believed to be a, paradise fruit, brought down to the Earth by an archangel. In the 16th century, firstly the French started cultivation of this plant with the practice then spreading to other European countries including England where farmers used greenhouses to grow melons. In the 17th century Russia adopted the experience. In Moscow, during the reign of the Russian Czar Alexey Mikhailovich, greenhouses were built for the cultivation of melons.

Uzbek melonsToday in Uzbekistan there are more than 160 varieties of melons with the origin of some being traced back into antiquity. Specialists consider the Khorezmian melons to be the best. In the 14th century the prominent Arabian traveler 'Ibn Battuta' wrote, "No melon can be compared with the Khorezmian ones, except, maybe, for the melons from Bukhara and those from Isfagan. Their skin is green, and the pulp is red; they are very sweet, yet hard".

Each region of Uzbekistan is famous for its own sort of melon. In early June almost every city market has the fast-ripening variety Handalyak. An then a little later - Assate. The honey-like Ich-Kyzyl and Shakar-Palak varieties ripen in July. During August one can enjoy the Bekzod variety and then in September the bazaars are filled with the late-ripening winter varieties of melon which keep their taste qualities untill April -May of the next year. These are the more famous varieties of Gulyabi, Kara-Kaun, Koy-Bash, Umirvaki, Kara-Gyz.

Throughout the winter, melons are preserved according to an old method where they are put into straw or thread net bags and then hung from the ceiling of a special warehouse called a "kaun-khana", or buried in dry sand.

To discuss all the known and reputed properties of the melon would take much time. Firstly, melon is appreciated for its remarkable taste and unique diet characteristics. Aromatic, soft melons are the best for desserts. Juicy, sweet-scented melon pulp contain digestible sugar, starch, proteins, vitamins, cellulose, pectin, organic acids, and various mineral salts. Melon contain a range of iron and potassium salts. It is also believed to be beneficial as a medicinal nourishment for the treatment of anemia, cardiovascular disorder, liver and kidney diseases, gout and rheumatism. Melons also contains a lot of vitamin C. Melons are well used in the region as a remedy to rejuvenate your body. Locals say that the "melon makes your hair bright, eyes young, lips fresh, wishes and desires intense, abilities realizable; it helps men to be desired and women to be beautiful".

As a rule melon is eaten uncooked, in its natural state. But one can also make jam, honey, jam, jellies from melon. It can also be stewed and candied. Dried melon is a delicatessen for adults and a favourite for children. It is worth to mention that Venetian merchant Marco Polo wrote about dried melon in his book "Description of the World", which is an account of his travels along the Great Silk Road. "They (pieces of melon) are preserved as follows: a melon is sliced, just as we do with pumpkin, then these slices are rolled and dried in the sun; and finally they are sent for sale to other countries, where they are in great demand for they are as sweet as honey". These thousand-year-old methods of preserving melon are popular to this very day, and sweet slices of dried melon easily melt in your mouth just as they did in the ancient time.

In Uzbekistan every festive meal cannot do without appetizing slices of melon. Anyone who once tried this aromatic sweet dainty will never forget its delicious taste.

Uzbek melons

On a bleak, dusty day in 1333, Ibn Battuta, the great traveler from Morocco, finally arrived at the Silk Road city of Urgench (which he called Khorezm) on the banks of the Amu Darya river. After the grueling 30-day march across the desert by camel-drawn wagons from Saraichiq, on the Ural River near the Caspian Sea, he wandered into a crowded market, and there he tasted the most delicious melon of all his travels.

Painted in the late 16th century by an unknown artist, Abdullah Khan Uzbek ii, penultimate Shaybanid Khan of Bukhara, is shown slicing melons in his home.

There are no melons like Khorezmian melons,” he wrote, “maybe with the exception of Bukharian ones, and the third best are Isfahan melons. Their peels are green, and the flesh is red, of extreme sweetness and firm texture. Surprisingly, they cut melons into slices, dry them in the sun, put them into reed baskets as it is done with Malaga figs, and take them from Khorezm to the remote cities in India and China to sell. They are the best of all dried fruit.”

Uzbek melonsThe sweet melons of Central Asia have a convoluted and complex history that continues to confound taxonomists and botanical experts. According to the book Melons of Uzbekistan, which was based on a scientific survey by the Uzbek Research Institute of Plants carried out in 2000, Cucumis melo is thought to have come from the sub-species agrestis Pang, a bitter, sour-tasting melon still found growing wild in Central Asia.

It is unclear exactly when sweet melons were first developed in Khorezm, an area encompassing much of modern Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and northern Iran, as well as ancient Persia, which included part of northeastern Iraq. These two areas are likely the source of all sweet melons grown throughout the world today.

The earliest written mention of the sweet melons of Khorezm appears in Paradise of Wisdom, written in 850 ce byAli ibn Sahl al-Tabari, who mentioned long, sweet melons in his chapter on vegetables. In the Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ first-century ce De Materia Medica (On Medical Matters) produced around 990 in Samarkand by Al-Husayn ibn Ibraim al-Natili, there is an illustration depicting the vines and ripe yellow fruit of Cucumis melo. The caption names it qawoun; in modern Uzbek, the word for sweet melon is qovun. Writing a bit earlier, in 955, Muhammad Abu al-Qasim ibn Hawqal, who traveled widely in Khorezm, described a long melon that was qabih al-mandar(ugly), but ghaya fi al-halawa (highest sweetness). He also mentioned that the melons were cut up, dried and “sent to numerous places in the world.”

According to descriptions in the 11th century by Abu al-Khayr, sweet melon seeds, most likely of the casaba variety, made their way from Khorezm to al-Andalus around that time as a result of Islamic territorial expansion, trade and agricultural development. The seeds were conveyed along the maritime trade route linking the western Indian subcontinent to Egypt via the Red Sea and from there across the Mediterranean to Muslim Iberia—al-Andalus. Around the mid-15th century, Armenian merchants brought melon seeds overland to Italy. Sweet melons’ wild popularity there is evidenced by the fact that in 1471 Pope Paul ii died from eating too many of the sweet melons from the papal gardens of Cantalupo (from which we get the name “cantaloupe”).

In his 1895 book Travels in Central Asia, ethnologist and British spy Arminius Vambrey described the melon route from Khorezm east to China and northwest to St. Petersburg, in which melons were carried by caravans of 1,000 to 2,000 camels. Vambrey wrote: 

....and fruits, the superior merit of which not Persia and Turkey alone, but even Europe itself, would find difficult to contest … but above all, to the incomparable and delicious melons, renowned as far as even in remote Pekin, so that the sovereign of the Celestial Empire never forgets, when presents flow to him from Chinese Tartary, to bring some Urkindji [Urgench] melons. Even in Russia they fetch a high price, for a load of winter melons exported thither brings in return a load of sugar.

Researchers have identified more than 160 varieties of melons in Uzbekistan, but no one had given much thought to exactly which one Ibn Battuta had described.

Captain Frederick Burnaby, in his 1876 book A Ride to Khiva, made similar observations: 

Melon traders would shovel up snow and ice during winter and store it in deep underground cellars. Then in summer the most succulent melons were packed with ice and placed in large lead containers. These were then heaved onto camels to journey across the deserts to the banqueting tables of the Tsar of Russia, the Emperor of Peking and the Mogul rulers of Northern India.

Uzbek melonsBurnaby had the good fortune of tasting an aged Khorezm melon in the middle of a Khiva winter. “Anyone accustomed to this fruit in Europe,” he wrote, “would scarcely recognize its relationship with the delicate and highly perfumed melons of Khiva.” He added that “throughout the winter, melons are preserved according to an old method where they are put into straw or net bags and then hung from the ceiling of a special warehouse called a kaunkhana [qovunxona, or melon house].”

Today, Central Asia and in particular Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan (where Melon Day is a national holiday) are considered to grow the world’s best aromatic, sweet dessert melons. Of the older varieties, the Gurvak of Khorezm in Uzbekistan, the Gulobi of Turkmenistan, the Asqalan of northern Afghanistan and the Jharbezeh Mashadi from Iran are legendary among experts. The farmers of Uzbekistan, in the areas of Khorezm, Karakalpakstan, Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Surkhandarya, Kashkadarya, and Fergana Valley have been developing and improving sweet melons for thousands of years, and these types of melons are just now beginning to appear in specialty and ethnic grocery stores and farmer’s markets in California. 

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