About Uzbekistan

Samarkand: The Outskirts
22 January 2018
Samarkand: The Outskirts

Among the "premier league" landmarks of Samarkand, we still have not mentioned one, lying a couple of kilometers behind Afrosiab along Tashkent street. This is the place to communicate with heavens, but not the temple – this is the famed Ulugbek Observatory:

Now it is hard to believe, but once the trend-setters of world science were the Arabs, whose Caliphate state is a notorious word now. A major intellectual center was functioning in Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age – the so called House of Wisdom, where many well-known scholars met and together thought about unanswered questions and translated scientific, philosophical and religious texts from different languages ​​of the world. At the turn of the millennium Muslims had no equal in mathematics, astronomy, geography, philosophy, medicine, but no less than the Arabs themselves the "Arab science" was enriched by people from the subjugated territories, such as "the king of doctors" Bukharian Avicenna, "father of algebra" al-Khwarizmi (the very words "algebra" and "algorithm" are derived from his name), his fellow countryman Al-Biruni, astronomer al-Fergani, or philosopher al-Farabi of Otrar, known to medieval Europeans ... In 1258 Baghdad was plundered by the Mongols, and the books from its libraries were used to make bridges through the swamps, but some scientific strongholds in the Islamic world existed for the next couple of centuries after that - for example, a steam engine was invented for the second time (after Heron of Alexandria 2000 years ago) in the 16th century Ottoman Cairo. In the east, the last center of scientific thought was Samarkand, overrun by the beginning of the 15th century by the power and wealth of Tamerlane. With his death the empire plunged into turmoil for a short period until 1409, when the stable dual authority regime was established for the next half a century: the son of Tamerlane, the new Emperor Shahrukh retired to the Afghan Herat, whilst in  Samarkand remained his son Ulugbek, who took hold of the whole empire only in in 1447 -49 years with the death of Shahrukh. However, the ruler of the province even though the main one, had much less troubles with political affairs and intrigues than the emperor, and despite the periodic wars with Mogulistan (which Ulugbek, by the way, regularly won) Ulugbek Taragai Gurgan remained in history as a scientist rather than politician. His three madrasahs - in Samarkand’s Registan, in Gijduvan and in Bukhara - were rather universities, famous throughout the whole of Maveranahr as centers of secular education.

But Ulugbek's favorite science was astronomy, which he first came across after visiting the ruins of the Arab Observatory in Maragheh, the opening of which in the 12th century is called neither more nor less than the " Maragheh revolution" in astronomy. A whole galaxy of astronomers and mathematicians rallied around the emir, like Kazimzade Rumi (his mentor), al-Qashi or Ali Qushji, and after their research in 1424-28 followed the construction of an observatory on a hill near Samarkand, modeled from Observatory in Maragheh, but several times larger - 46 meters in diameter and not less than 30 in height. It was not looking like an observatory in the modern sense, rather like a Zoroastrian temple of the times of the Khwarezmian antiquity:

The time of construction was chosen for a reason - the observatory was created under a 30-year scientific program developed in advance, tied to the Saturn’s orbit, and the work began after it passed a certain point of the orbit. Ulugbek participated in the project directly, but still mostly oversaw the project, distracted by wars, conspiracies, embassies, bargains and other mundane bustle. The observatory continued functioning after the murder of Ulugbek, who was replaced by the mentioned Ali Qushji. The rule of Abu Said, the last independent Timurid, lasted just enough to finish the program - Khan died in 1469, followed by Sufi Ishan Khoja-Ahrar, whose huge and very beautiful mazar we showed in the last part. But with him the best days of science were over - now only strict Sharia was honored in Samarkand and the scientists left the city, moving first to Herat to Alisher Navoi, and then to Istanbul, where their works were published. However, the main material of the observatory was compiled during the life of Ulugbek - the so-called  Zij-i-Sultani.

The Zij-i-Sultani is generally considered the most accurate and extensive star catalogue up to its time, surpassing its predecessors, including Ptolemy's work and the Maragheh observatory's Zij-i Ilkhani. It was not surpassed until the work of Tycho Brahe in the 16th century. The Zij-i-Sultani contained information about 1018 stars in 38 constellations, had the most accurate measurements of the stellar year (365 days, 6 hours, 10 minutes, 8 seconds – with the error of 2 seconds only) and the slope of the earth's axis (23.52 degrees – the measurement that the subsequent science only extended in depth after the comma) - in general, the work of scientists has not been in vain and in some way relevant to this day. Abandoned the observatory stood on the hill for several more decades and in the 16th century was dismantled for construction materials.

But the memory remained, and in 1908 it was discovered again by archaeologist Vasily Vyatkin, who was buried here in 1932 (photo below). The pavilion above the excavation with mosaic portals was built in the early 20th century, and the museum was opened in 1964 - on the photo above is the Soviet building, similar to a ventilation shaft with a monument to the astronomer-monarch in front of it before.

In 2009-10 all this was demolished and reconstructed in a more national style:

A new portal was built over the excavated fragment of the observatory itself:

You do not need to go through the doors as view to observatory’s sextant is even better from the back window:

A round platform denotes an observational foundation. But its main detail is a giant protractor (a sextant or a quadrant) that escaped destruction apparently because by the 16th century it had been covered with dust and debris. Its views are really impressive, and from the back window (on the right) it looks even more spectacular than from the front entrance (on the left) where they also charge a small fee:

When in operation the light fell through a special window in the ceiling of the observatory to its arc, which made it possible to accurately determine the location of celestial objects above the horizon. Similar instruments were built earlier, but the Samarkand sextant with a radius of more than 40 meters was almost the largest in history, and since each degree on these arcs has a length of 70 centimeters, it made measurements more accurately than any analogue of past centuries.

Here is a city panorama opening from the hill: in the foreground is the spur of Afrosiab, covered with a cemetery, over it the huge aivans of Bibi Khanum mosque; to the left are the blue domes of Shakhi-Zinda, beyond which Registan can be seen in the distance. Ulugbek madrasah and his observatory were well seen one from each other:

The northeast corner of the ancient city rests on the hill of Chupan-Ata, or Kuhak (826m), composed of unusual for the surrounding steppe varieties of clay and slate. There is a legend that the hill flew here from Syria and collapsed on the heads of the enemies who came to the then pagan Samarkand, whose inhabitants seeing the hopelessness of their situation and the silence of their gods turned their prayers to Allah, and of course believed in him after He had saved them in such a fantastic way. Interestingly, on a mountain that arrived at night the residents met a non-local shepherd (pilot?), in honor of whom the mountain was named Chupan-Ata (Shepherd-father):

In fact, the mountain served as a source of clay for heat-resistant dishes and slabs for construction, which were used for example to construct the foundation of Gur-Emir. At its foot was an observatory of Ulugbek and one of the Gardens of Tamerlane. And on top there is a lonely mausoleum, which according to the rumors was built over the grave of the very Chupan-Ata. Malicious archaeologists, however, did not find the grave there at all, but they established that the mausoleum was built in the days of Ulugbek, in the 1420s and 30s, and could in principle serve anything - a pergola, a landmark, a lookout tower or somehow be related with an observatory. By the beginning of the twentieth century it was completely naked and looked poorly, but not so long ago it was "dressed" in tiles again. Unfortunately, there is active military unit stationed nearby so visits to the mausoleum are restricted:

The hill also forms a kind of gate out of Samarkand at the exit to Tashkent, over which hangs a characteristic "button" on the top of the hill:

These are the remnants of a monument to Russian soldiers, who defeated the Bukhara army on these heights on May 1, 1868, under the leadership of Konstantin Kaufman. Despite occupying the prevailing heights and great superiority in numbers, the Bukharians were defeated in a few hours, and the Russians lost only 40 fighters out of 3,500. After, however, there was still a Samarkand uprising against the Russian garrison, perpetuated by Vasily Vereshchagin, but the tsarist army entered the city here, and of course the degree of its primacy over the troops of Bukhara and Kokand is amazing. And the superiority is not only technical, but also moral: Russians were fighting in remote "Turkestan" excitedly, recouping for decades of fuss in the Caucasus and the lost Crimean war, whilst Uzbeks and Tajiks were not really happy to die for their feudal lords. And only then were they surprised, why did the good white king not cut off a single head?

The monument was erected in 1904, but demolished in the recent past

Behind Chupan-Ata along the Zerafshan river lies border of the city - the railway skirts the hill from the north, and the highway runs from the south through its spur. Modest Zerafshan - strangely enough, is the main river of Uzbekistan: flowing between the much larger Syr Darya and Amu Darya it threads numerous oases, among them Bukhara and Samarkand. The Sogdians called it Daitya, the Greeks -Polytimetus, the ancient Persians and the Chinese - Nami. Because of its role and heavy use Zerafshan (in the translation ‘the spreader of gold’) becomes shallow on the plain and diverges into irrigation ditches without reaching Amu Darya. And if in Samarkand it still looks like a river with a capital bridge, then in the Bukhara and Navoi districts you would most likely not even notice it. 

Crossing Zerafshan by train look to the right (if you go from Tashkent), where you would see a medieval bridge (1502) that is not directly reachable from the road. Rather only one arch survived from the bridge remaining on the side of a river that had moved slightly to the right and eventually destroyed other spans of the bridge - the Timurid time school of engineering by that time had gone into oblivion, and there was simply no one to support the bridge in an adequate state. Somewhere there the river was crossed over by the Russian soldiers, and there is a legend that coming out of the water in wet boots, each line was making a handstand to pour water from the boots, that Bukharans took for some ritual of victory and tried to repeat it in their last battle on the Zerbulak heights ...

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Did you know?

Uzbekistan is one of only two countries in the world to be ‘double landlocked’ (landlocked and totally surrounded by other landlocked countries). Liechtenstein is double landlocked by 2 countries whilst Uzbekistan is surrounded by 5!

Did you know that Uzbekistan lies in the very heart of Eurasia, the coordinates for Uzbekistan are 41.0000° N, 69.0000°

Uzbekistan is home to the Muruntan gold mine, one of the largest open pit gold mines in the world! The country has 4th largest reserves of gold in the world after South Africa, USA and Russia

Uzbekistan is the world capital of melons. They have in excess of 150 different varieties, which form a staple part of the local diet, served fresh in the summer and eaten dried through the winter.

It is Uzbek tradition that the most respected guest be seated farthest from the house’s entrance.

Tashkent’s metro features chandeliers, marble pillars and ceilings, granite, and engraved metal. It has been called one of the most beautiful train stations in the world.

The Uzbek master chef is able to cook in just one caldron enough plov to serve a thousand men.

When you are a host to someone, it is your duty to fill their cups with for the whole time they are with you.  What you must not do, however, is to fill their cup more than half-full.  If you do that as a mistake, say it is a mistake immediately.  Doing it means you want them to leave.  Wow!  Amazing, right?

To Uzbeks, respect means a whole lot.  For this reason they love it if, even as foreigners, you endeavour to add the respectful suffix opa after a woman's name; and aka after a man's.  Example: Linda-opa and David-aka.  You could also use hon and jon respectively.

Having been an historic crossroads for centuries as part of various ancient empires, Uzbekistan’s food is very eclectic. It has its roots in Iranian, Arab, Indian, Russian and Chinese cuisine.

Though identified with the Persia, the Zoroastrism probably originated in Bactria or Sogdiana. Many distinguished scholars share an opinion that Zoroastrianism had originated in the ancient Khorezm. Indeed, today in the world there were found 63 Zoroastrian monuments, including those in Iran, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thirty-eight of them are in Uzbekistan, whereas 17 of these monuments are located in Khorezm.

One of Islam's most sacred relics - the world's oldest Koran that was compiled in Medina by Othman, the third caliph or Muslim leader, is kept in Tashkent. It was completed in the year 651, only 19 years after Muhammad's death. 

Tashkent is the only megapolis in the world where public transport is totally comprised of Mercedes buses. And due to low urban air polution it is one of the few cities where one can still see the stars in the sky.

You would be surprised to know that modern TV was born in Tashkent. No joke! The picture of moving objects was transmitted by radio first time in the world in Tashkent on 26 of July 1928 by inventors B.P. Grabovsky and I.F. Belansky.

Uzbekistan is the only country in the world all of whose neighbours have their names ending in STAN. This is also the only country in Central Asia that borders all of the countries of this region

Uzbeks are the third populous Turkik ethnicity in the world after Turks and Azeris (leaving both in Azerbaijan and Iran)

Did you know that there was silk money in Khiva? Super interesting right? Of course, but the best part of having silk money was that it could be sewn into your clothing.

Famous Islamic physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna in the Latin world) who was born near Bukhara was the one of the first people to advocate using women’s hair as suture material – about 1400 years ago.

Uzbekistan has a long and bloody history. The most notorious leader of Uzbekistan was Timur (or Tamerlane) who claimed descent from Genghis Khan. His military campaigns have been credited for wiping out some 5% of the world’s population at the time.

If you have thought that some of the Islamic architecture in Uzbekistan resembles that from Northern India, then that is because Timur’s great great great Grandson, Babur Beg, was the founder of the Moghul Empire that ruled much of India for almost four centuries! Babur’s great great Grandson was Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal.

Uzbekistan was once a rum producig country. There is still a real arboretum in Denau (city near Termez on the border with Afghanistan), grown from a selection station that studied the prospects of plant growing in the unusual for the Soviet Union subtropical climate of Surkhandarya region: only here in the whole of the USSR sugar cane was grown and even rum was produced!

Uzbekistan has been ranked one of the safest countries in the world, according to a new global poll. The annual Gallup Global Law and Order asked if people felt safe walking at night and whether they had been victims of crime. The survey placed Uzbekistan 5th out of 135 countries, while the UK was 21st and the US 35th. Top five safest countries:

  • Singapore
  • Norway
  • Iceland
  • Finland
  • Uzbekistan
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