One of the most powerful impressions of Uzbekistan, the main reason for its originality is its own urban culture of Greater Iran, that is so different from urban cultures of both Europe and Russia. And that urban culture in old Central Asian cities is centred around mahalla.
Unlike neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan is historically an agricultural country. Of course, there had been Sarts farmers and nomadic Uzbeks with their 92 tribes, but in the twentieth century the nomad way of life practically stopped, and if the Kazakhs and Kirghiz learned to live settled in Russian way, the Uzbeks learnt from the former Sarts with whom they merged into one nation.
Although 2/3 of the country is occupied by deserts and steppes, most of the Uzbeks live in huge oases, and watching typical rural settlement you will see green fields with farmers, big houses with wide darwaza (gates) in the shadow of pyramidal poplars, aryks (irrigation ditches) with spinning chigir (water mill) and brightly dressed women looking after countless children.
Even the name of the settlements often reflects its history: aul in the original meaning is a nomad yurt camp, whilst kishlak is an agricultural village, and therefore auls in Central Asia are usually faceless and with no character, whilst kishlaks are extremely colorful and full of life.
The most colorful villages, which have not changed much since the Middle Ages you will find in Kashkadarya and Surkhandarya regions on the slopes of Gissar mountains.
And you can literally feel the history here not just in adobe houses with tall duvals (walls), but also in people living here
On the other hand, the 70 years under Soviet Union also transformed the life of Uzbeks, especially in towns and cities where people much differ from people in rural regions.
Patriarchy and cosmopolitanism are very intricately intertwined in Uzbek society, and one can say that the borderline between "traditional" and "modern" is completely eroded here. And what brings together the worlds of cities and kishlaks is mahalla, a typically Central Asian phenomenon.
The word "mahalla" is Arabic (in fact the Arabic language in the Islamic world is the same as Latin and Greek in the Christian world), and has many meanings in Arabic, only one of which is the "city quarter". The first mentions of the mahallas in Cairo in the 1040s are related to the Arab world ... but only the author of these mentions was the Persian poet and philosopher Nasir Khosrov, a native of present-day Tajikistan, so apparently the mahalla in its Central Asian meaning is the know-how of Greater Iran. They started as small handicraft settlements and usually included several streets with a total population of 400-800 people. The smaller unit was the Guzar – an artisan quarter with several dozen inhabitants, but now both words are often confused. Over the time each mahalla developed its own cultural code and environment, though several customs were characteristic to any mahalla, for example:
Shafat - a person leaving a mahalla could sell his house to outsiders only if he could not find a buyer in the mahalla.
Khashar is a collective mutual aid, when the whole mahalla was digging irrigation ditches together, building public buildings or even a house for one of its residents, who also helped to build the house for others.
Gap - weekly gatherings in a tea house (for men) or in the yard (for women), arranged by one of the residents for its neighbors in turns: there people discussed common issues, collected money for all sorts of needs and simply communicated.
However, the main idea and the purpose of makhalla has been local self-government, that proved to be very effective in a small and united society. When Soviets came to power in Central Asia they wisely decided that instead of breaking centuries long traditions of makhalla, it is easier to take it under control and use for its own advantage. Thus, mahallas survived the twentieth century and whilst in Kyrgyzstan (Uzgen, Osh) and Southern Kazakhstan (Shymkent, Sayram) they still exist unofficially, in independent Uzbekistan they are an established institution.
So let's have a look and take a walk through an abstract mahalla, collected from photographs of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and Jizzakh. That's how the mahalla usually looks outside, from some big street - one-story houses, each of which hides a shady courtyard behind the high walls. You will find the similar picture not just in cities – this type of architecture is very typical and for suburban settlements, these types of houses are built along all the major roads in the province. Yes, and the bread in the foreground serves as "billboard", indicating that in the nearest house the bread is baked and sold.
Many mahallas have a main entrance, and often the number of entrances are much less than the streets inside the mahalla, many of which end in dead ends. Often mahallas merge one into another absolutely imperceptibly.
That’s how look a "life in the mahallas" (common expression in Central Asia), a very typical picture:
One of the features of eastern urban planning is that the cities are turned inside out, the facades into courtyards and backyards to the streets. Therefore, the appearance of streets in mahallas is often terrible - this is not a place for strolling but rather trenches for communications:
In general, the mahallas look very colorful, and besides the big streets there are also infinite number of nameless side streets playing the role of entryways:
Most of the old mahallas were built mainly in the twentieth century, rarely older than in the end of the 19th – this is due to the fact they houses were built from clay and adobe, therefore couldn’t last ling. The most durable are wooden elements - beams, columns, doors, and they were moved from house to house for centuries. But (here, though the door is modern), there is one more tradition that is often kept - "male" and "female" knocking bells: the "wooden" knock of the ring on the door is addressed to women of the house, the metallic knocking of the beater - respectively, to the male inhabitants.
The architecture of the old mahallas is best preserved in Bukhara and Khiva, but the most lively and vivid pictures you will find in Samarkand. The main population of the mahallas are Uzbeks, Tajiks and Persians, and before their exodus were also Bukharan Jews, that is, sedentary peoples of Greater Iran, and their mahallas are very similar to each other. But here and there, especially again in Samarkand, there are mahallas of other nationalities - Korean (these are mainly in Tashkent), Gypsy and even Russian, and you can differ them from the first look.
And throughout Uzbekistan there are a lot of mahallas built up already in the Soviet era and they already look less traditional, something like this - not so colorful. Pay attention, that here self-management has agreed to maintain the street tidy and in order - therefore outside is very clean, asphalt is repaired, and there is not a single gas pipe along the walls.
People living in mahallas are different from those living in high rise residential complexes, and for the tourists the medieval appearance of these streets is complemented by the "ethnographic" appearance of passers-by. In addition, the people in mahallas are friendlier, calmer and kinder. It's interesting to just walk around and watch the patriarchal way of life, locals would be happy to show you around, organize an excursion in the area or invite you for a tea.
But admiring the friendliness of Uzbeks, do not forget that there is a strong tradition of formal courtesy in the East, in comparison with which the European ethics is straightforwardness itself. So, if you are invited to visit, especially not "now", but "in the evening" or "tomorrow" - you must first refuse at least once, as the invitation can be just a formal expression of respect for a guest.
Here and there you can come across some workshops. Its amazing abundance of crafts, Uzbekistan is indebted to this urban culture, which for centuries has been formed in artisan guzars. In our time, "workshops in the mahallas" can be, for example, car service or a photo studio.
Tandoor at home – they can bake the bread and samsa both for themselves and for sale. Pay attention, by the way, on the logs sticking out of the clay walls - they absorb moisture and thus give it away to the outside not letting the moisture to accumulate in the clay.
Approaching the center of the mahalla, which ideally should contain a set of public buildings and its own small bazaar with most essential goods ... however, it operates usually only in the morning, and by the middle of the day there would be none of the sellers left.
But the heart of every mahalla is a mosque, where people gather for daily prayers (5 times a day) - unlike the Juma mosque, where the whole city went on a Friday. They say that in some languages the word "mahalla" means roughly the same as a "parish", and the borders of the Central Asian mahallas were determined by how far the azan (call for a prayer) can be heard.
In the old days, the makhalla could be led by an aksakal (old man) (although most often the individual leadership was attributed to Guzars) or the council of aksakals.
In Uzbekistan, there must be a Makhalla Center (mahalla markazi) everywhere playing the role of councils of tenants. These are official establishments, with its own elected leaders and committee. Inside the Mahalla Centre looks like a teahouse
Mahalla imposes a social control and is fundamentally a "democracy from below." This is a well-established system of self-organization existing in Central Asia for centuries, and local people are able to solve common issues with their collective efforts perfectly well - what about the "collective taxi" system working like clockwork that completely replaces municipal transport? There are almost no street children and homeless people, as each mahalla will find a shelter for them; there are almost no group muggers (but Kazakhs and Kirghiz have), because the whole mahalla watches over those who grow up in its streets; the old people live with dignity, surrounded by care and honor; for many things - from emergency assistance to someone on a rainy day to excursions around the country for the elderly - general funds are being accumulated. But at the same time they still can’t reach the level "as in Europe" or even "as in Russia", whether it is welfare, political security or even just the urban amenities. So what is the recipe then?
courtesy to varandej
What city you you should visit if you travel to Uzbekistan only for a short period of time. Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva: which one is more interesting to take a tour? Check our detailed report and make your own choice