About Uzbekistan

Samarkand: in the wilds of old mahallas
03 January 2018

Many tourists who come to Samarkand and inspect the city together with guides, with rare exceptions, explore Samarkand on their own. And besides the main architectural sights of the city, they rarely manage to look at the city from another, little-known perspective. Tourists cannot find such information in their travel guides, travel agencies do not organize such tours, and as a result, a whole layer of the cultural and historical stratum of the city remains unexplored.

In this part we will talk about the Samarkand makhallas and the people inhabiting them, from Uzbeks with Tajiks to Jews and Lyuli Gypsies. We will try to refute the widespread opinion that apart from architectural heritage there is nothing interesting in the ancient city. Yes, the mahallas of Samarkand did not preserve the architectural atmosphere of adobe houses with carved doors, as in Khiva or Bukhara, but kept the cultural environment: the Samarkand mahalla is a virgin urban jungle, the immersion in which is impressive no less than any of the tiles under the blue domes. In addition, not for nothing (though not for that reason) Samarkand was included into World Heritage by UNESCO as a "crossroads of cultures" – you can tell ‘by eye’ what people reside in the local mahallas, whether it's a slightly creepy gypsy district or demure Persian quarters.

The mahallas start right from the center, a few hundred meters from Registan. These are the views that you will encounter from the first steps. The houses themselves on narrow winding streets are new, but is it so important? Pipes and wires entangling them like a liana add similarities to the modern city jungles:

So these streets looked like a hundred years ago (photo by Prokudin-Gorsky) - many travelers noted the unpretentiousness and rough construction of old Samarkand – it never was as spectacular as Bukhara or Khiva:

old Samarkand

But the main property of the Samarkand mahallas is that they have a lot of life in them, as if you are walking not along the streets, but along the corridors of a large communal apartment or hostel:

And waking along these streets you can unexpectedly come across some public buildings, a set of which should be in each self-respecting mahalla. For example, here is the typical for the Samarkand mahalla Kazi-Kalon (Grand Judge) mosque of the 19th century with a screen-like aivan and a tiny minaret, more like a pulpit. Most of these mosques were built in the 19th century, and this one is the first on the way from Registan:

Kazi-Kalon (Grand Judge) mosque of the 19th century

Bath near the synagogue

Small bazaar of mahalla scale, operating only for several hours in the morning.

Photo of Prokudin-Gorsky. Please note that in his time many people wore a turban, which is now extremely rare in Uzbekistan:

But do not think that all the buildings in Samarkand mahallas are new: as nowhere in Central Asia one can often find on these streets solid Russian houses made of yellow bricks. When they were built in tsarist times, there were only adobe houses around in contrast to new Russian part of the city, built by Russians from scratch on the other side of the former citadel after city conquest in the end of XIX century. These houses belonged not to Russians, but mostly to Tajiks, Uzbeks, Jews (depending on the composition of the mahalla), influenced by the new metropolis.

Just before its conquest by Russia, Samarkand slowly emerged from a deep decline. The trade routes from Persia to China fell into decline, routes from Russia to India passed through other major cities of Turkestan - Bukhara and Tashkent, and only the appearance of the aggressive Kokand Khanate again made Samarkand a trade and military outpost of the Bukhara Emirate. They appointed noble governors here, but by economic influence Samarkand did not stand out against the background of Karshi, Shakhrisabz or Kermin (now Navoi). Russian officers stationed here in 1868 estimated its population to be of about 10,000 people, and this when the "bottom" of the decline was reached a hundred years earlier.

And although by the beginning of the 20th century provincial Samarkand was only 5-6 largest city of Turkestan (after Tashkent, Bukhara and provincial Kokand, Andijan and Namangan in the Fergana Valley), yet in 30 years it grew fivefold - up to 55,000 people. Many people moved from Bukhara with its medieval laws and the arbitrariness of the emir - the "business climate", as they would say now, was better in Samarkand, and perhaps the construction of a "Russian" home for a Tajik meant the desire to "live like Russians", who for the local people were Europeans.

Here is the center of the next Mubarak mahalla with its own square with a fountain and a mosque decorated with a pre-Mongolian brick minaret ornaments. "Mosques are generally a favorite place for gathering people, because every smallest mosque has a pool and a garden, and in the shade of trees it is nice to relax from the heat of the open streets (...). The crowds of brightly dressed men occupy every place protected from the sun. The merchants sit here talking loudly about some important matters, not far from them a lot of listeners gathered around a dervish or a mullah telling sacred legends, between them different groups enjoying a simple breakfast of fruit and bread. A constant movement here, and one would have easily thought to be in a tavern unless there were not prayers between these groups ... Those people who several days ago were ready to kill any infidel who dared to enter the holy city, now invited me to the mosque to have breakfast, and I did not notice a single person who looked with horror at the kafir; on the contrary, the people joined our conversation, which we had in a rather cheerful tone"- from the notes of Russian officer made just several days after Russian conquest of Samarkand.

 Mubarak mahalla with its own square with a fountain and a mosque

And as you can see, a little has changed since that time. Opposite the mosque is the Mubarak mahalla committee, nearby is small store. 

Mahalla Committee is also a teahouse (chayhana) - after all, this word originally meant not a Central Asian analogue of the restaurant, but a place in the center of the mahalla, where people come to talk over the tea. This mahalla is occupied mainly by Tajiks - they are generally simple and direct people, making the majority of Samarkand population now and a hundred years ago (36,000 people out of 55,000).

From here you can quickly get to the center, to the Bibi-Khanum mosque and Tashkent street:

But since the latter is the "showcase" of the city, it is fenced off from unpretentious mahallas by a wall with a gate:

Nearby - perhaps, the most beautiful of the quarter mosques - Aksakal Karabay mosque:

Aksakal Karabay mosque

The chipped decor is a sign of respectable age, 18th century or older.

Opposite, there is another committee of Hudjum mahalla:

Hudjum mahalla

But it is more interesting to go the other way from Mubarak-mahalla (where the "first" committee was). From there it was not far from the synagogue - a large proportion of the population of the old Samarkand were Persian-speaking Jews, who were traditionally called Bukhara Jews. Check the article here devoted to the Jewish quarter with many photos depicting the life of Samarkand Jews in XIX century. 

If very briefly, the Jews in Central Asia arrived in several waves from the 6th century BC, when Turan and Babylon were part of the empire of Cyrus the Great. Bukhara Jews isolated from the Persian Jews in the 17th century with the disruption of the ties between Sunni Turkestan and Shiite Iran, and at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries they switched to the previously unknown prayer canon of the Spanish Sephardic Jews introduced by a visiting rabbi from Morocco. In the Middle Ages, local monarchs treated Yahoods fairly good, they even say that medieval Turkestan was the safest place in the world for the Jews. But in the 18th century the Khiva Khan and the Bukhara emir of the new Turk dynasties sharply changed their approach, imposing huge taxes, banning Jewish services and simply engaged in overt racketeering: when the emir urgently needed money, he began to threaten the Jews with carnage, and having no choice they they immediately corrected the financial affairs of the emirate - they were still quite rich, engaged in trade, craft and distillery - even the Muslim nobility were buying alcohol from them. The Jews left impoverished Khiva and those persecutions, and by the beginning of the 19th century the only community remained in Bukhara that was moving between Bukhara and Samarkand depending on political situation. 

The heyday of the Jewish community of Samarkand was in the era of Tamerlane, who brought a lot of Jewish craftsmen from the Middle East, including fabric dyers - the latter remained a specialty of Bukharian Jews until the 20th century, and to Bukhara the dyers evidently moved from the impoverished Samarkand. And in the 19th century - on the contrary, Jews actively moved to Samarkand from Bukhara, mastering trade with Russia here. Perhaps, it was the Jews that contributed to the economic revival of the city: the Russian officers, studying the "pacified Samarkand", met here Jewish merchants who reached even Germany. In turn, Jews were the first people from Samarkand who began to learn Russian and apparently moved here even more actively after Russian conquest. It was quite a unique case in Central Asia: Jews were happy with Russians who put an end to Emir's tyranny, and Russians were happy with Jews: in diaries and memoirs of officers, travelers and merchants, "beautiful, neat, modest and hospitable" Yahoods are always praised and favorably compared to local Muslims and their fellow tribesmen from the sad Yiddishland. By the beginning of the 20th century, several thousand Bukharian Jews and about a thousand Ashkenazi lived in Samarkand.

Under the rule of Bukhara Samarkand Jews were satisfied with a secret prayer house, and for the whole of 19th century the community was let by the Rebbe Kalantar Moses dynasty, who met the Russian army, and his son Raphael, who built this synagogue in 1891, but shortly before the opening died of cholera:

The entrance to the synagogue has a stunningly beautiful carved door.

Inside is a courtyard, much more spacious than the two synagogues of Bukhara, perhaps even combined. The synagogue simply stands in the depths, and justifies its name Gumbaz-Dome:

This is certainly the most beautiful synagogue in Central Asia:

Below is the wooden carving, at the top is ganch. The decoration is quite authentic - the synagogue did not close in the Soviet times:

Theoretically, somewhere there is another Great Synagogue (Kalon) of the 1860s, which in the 1920s served as a hospital (then it was nicknamed Kalkhona - Bald House), and now used as a Jewish cultural center. And there is also the New Synagogue in a modern center. There were about 30 synagogues in prerevolutionary Samarkand and maybe even some of their buildings were preserved ... but there are hardly any Jews left here, and even the elderly caretaker is not Jew. In a city with half a million population only several dozen Jews left, in the old Jewish quarter there were only one or two families, and most of those who did not moved to Israel left for Tashkent.

Another synagogue in the same yard during the Soviet era belonged to the Ashkenazi, whose community began with evacuation during the World War II:

Now mainly Tajiks live here who occupied the deserted Jewish quarter:

Behind the Jewish mahalla begins an even more isolated Gypsy mahalla, separated by a deep ravine:

Lyuli Gypsies are in fact Indians living in Samarkand since Tamerlane, who brought them as slaves. Locals despised them even more than the Jews, as they were engaged in usury, but that community in the twentieth century dissolved almost without a trace. "Samarkand Indians" now are none other than the Lyuli Gypsies and the very fact that this people came from India is reminded by mahalla dump with naked children playing in it:

Roma Gypsies living mostly in Europe have a legend that when Christ was brought to Golgotha, gypsies stole a nail, and for this the Lord allowed them to steal. Central Asia gypsies have their own legend about them: long ago their ancestors, members of the lowest and most despicable Indian caste, descended from Persian captives, left India in search of historical homeland, where they were long forgotten. On the way two children strayed from the caravan – brother Lyu and sister Li, and trying to catch up with adults they lost even each other. But both survived, grew up, after many years of wandering met again, and not knowing about their kinship, but irrationally loving each other, got married. Then, somehow the incest had been revealed, and the mullah of the mosque where they married cursed them and all their descendants – that’s how this traveling people, the nation of lost children, appeared in Turkestan.

There is something true in the legend is - gypsies really left northern Indian subcontinent about 1500 years ago and originated from Untouchable Dalit community composed of descendants of foreign prisoners of war. They left for Persia but separated from each other into three directions - to Byzantium (Roma Gypsies), Egypt (Dom people) and Central Asia (Lyuli). Modern scientists have established that each of these groups comes from several hundred families belonging to one people. Gypsies speak different languages, profess different faiths (if the Dom and Lyuli are mostly Muslims, then Roma Christians of all three branches), but still share "gypsy way of life" and appearance: still gypsies rarely marry outsiders, so they kept the purity of the archetype.

In everyday life, Russians and Turks (Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kirghiz) call all Central Asian gypsies "lyuli", but Tajiks (Gypsies here themselves all speak a special Tajik dialect) call them "dzhugi" - in fact it is a multitude of either tribes, or castes, all with their own specialty and their own argot, which distinguishes first of all their languages ​​from both Tajik and from each other. Lyuli in the narrow sense were a people of stray artists, beggars and fortune-tellers, kavols were traders, chistoni were stealing, sogutarosh were carving ​​wooden dishes, and parihas raised tobacco in the mountain villages (having dropped out of the gypsy lifestyle, they kept the Indian language). Members of the foreign castes gypsies called "mazangs", and they didn’t find common ground with Roma Gypsies, perceiving each other as completely alien people: they say that Roma people despise Lyuli in the same way like sedentary people despise Roma. The capital of "Russian Gypsies" has traditionally been the Moldovan Soroca, while Samarkand is the capital of Central Asian gypsies:

Some photos from the gypsy mahalla you can find here

Courtesy to varandej

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