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Some 300km east of Tashkent in the northern part of the Fergana Valley, not far from the border with Kyrgyzstan, is Namangan, the second-largest city in the country. The confluence of the Karya Darya and Naryn rivers, two tributaries of the Syr Darya (or Jaxartes), lies just outside the city's confines, and the local area has been populated at least since Sogdian times, as is attested to by the remarkable ruins of Aksikent, Namangan's biggest draw.
Being the second largest city in Uzbekistan, yet it appears a relative newcomer to this eastern cradle of Ferghana civilization. Nearby are the ancient graves of Munchak Tepe and the ruined towns of Kasan and Aksiketh, capitals of the valley from the 7th to 11th centuries. By the 17th century Namangan had emerged as a large settlement close to the confluence of the Naryn and Kara Darya rivers, source of the Syr Darya. It takes its name from local salt mines, namak kan (namakmeaning salt), longtime suppliers to the kitchens of Tashkent. At the time of the Russian occupation, the Namangan district had developed into a bastion of Islam, with over 20 madrassah and 600 mosques. The tsarist and Soviet eras russified the centre and industrialized the suburbs, spawning a rise in population to 330,000, but never tamed the people.
The religiosity of the local population, which was never fully suppressed during the Soviet period, has been a cause of concern since independence. Wahhabism, an extreme Islamic sect from Saudi Arabia, took root in the area, and in the mid 1990s it was the heartland for the now banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. After independence, Namangan made headlines in the religious half of the Great Game Mark II, as unorthodox Islamic beliefs slipped across Ferghana's jigsaw borders and took root in its eastern regions. Armed with cash and Korans, missionaries from Saudi Arabia's Wahabbi sect built mosques and inspired followers like Junta Namangani, an agriculture student who fought for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
From the mid-'90s, he led the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to fight for a Muslim state and the overthrow of President Karimov. Nearly assassinated by Namangani in 1999, Karimov cracked down on all perceived opposition groups, and purged foreign involvement.
While the lack of a beard invited trouble in Taleban-ruled Afghanistan, young men in Uzbekistan could be jailed merely for growing one. Namangani was killed in 2001 in Afghanistan, where he commanded a Taleban division. Loudspeakers no longer amplify the call to prayer across his hometown, though women remain more veiled than elsewhere in Uzbekistan, and some return to the black horsehair paranja, the traditional veil attacked and publicly burnt in female liberation campaigns of the 1920s.
In common tsarist style, the streets of the Russian town lead to the central park (now called Babur Park), founded in 1884 as the governor's garden. Later renamed Pushkin Park and installed with requisite Lenin statue, it now enjoys Babur's sponsorship. If you arrive in the late afternoon you'll see Namangan's elders gathering in the dappled shade beneath the Chinor trees to drink steaming bowls of tea and play games of chess or nards (a Persian board game similar to backgammon); it's an unexpectedly civilised haven of calm.
The Square to the northwest has dropped Lenin for Peace and a carved display of provincial monuments. Nearby at 25 ex-October Street, the Namangan Natural History Museum houses many archaeological discoveries, but poor presentation hampers understanding. To the east is the pedestrian avenue Uychi, leading to the heart of the Uzbek town, the crowded bazaar. Beside stalls of meat, fruit and vegetables, craftsmen offer brightly painted wooden cradles, complete with convenience hole, while women sell embroidered skullcaps and woollen shawls.
Just east of the bazaar on Uychi is the work of a talented local architect Usto Kyrgyz - Mullah Kyrgyz madrassah, built in 1910 by a local cotton magnate. It is said that one day the architect sat in the middle of the madrassa building site drinking tea and watched a particularly useless apprentice trying (and failing) to build a wall. Exasperated, Usto Kyrgyz hurled a brick at the young man from across the courtyard but, not unsurprisingly given the distance, missed him. The brick hit the top of the wall in exactly the right place, just as if Usto Kyrgyz had carefully placed it there by hand.
There is some attractively carved woodwork, including both ceilings and columns, and the main portal is decorated with a fine mosaic depicting flowers in blue, green, yellow and white. A scramble up the steep and rather uneven steps inside brings you up onto the rooftop, from where you'll catch a pleasant breath of fresh air, even in the sticky heat of summer, and also get good views across the bazaar.
The madrassa, which is an irregular pentahedron in shape due to the local topography, is surrounded by evenly placed hujras. It was closed by the Soviets and spent much of the 20th century operating as a literary museum, but it was restored by local residents following independence and briefly served as a madrassa again before being closed by the Uzbek government. It is now a museum, and named in honour of the craftsman responsible for its construction.
Five minutes south along a lane that rings and sparks with the striking of metal sheets and bars in tiny workshops is the Khodjamni Kabri Mausoleum andneighbouring Khodja Amin Mosque, which is under much-needed renovation. Both of these buildings date from the 18th century and are the work of architect Usto Muhammad Ibrahim. The portal-domed mosque, open on all four sides, is typical of local mosque architecture of this period. The ornate carved terracotta facade is a striking example of Ferghana decoration. The intricate terracotta tilework on the front of the mausoleum is particularly interesting as the tiles were produced using a method revived from the 12th century that had more or less disappeared in Fergana. You should note that only men are permitted inside these particular buildings. Extensive reconstruction will restore the adjacent Soviet anti-religious museum into the mosque and madrassah Khojamni built.
East and south of Uychi is Namangan's Jummi Mosque, proudly announced by towering Turkish-style minarets. Further east along Uychi is the Atavalikhonture Mosque (Ota Valikhon Tur Mosque), with its unusual stripes of blue mosaic, star-shaped carvings in the entrance way and cylindrical monumental drums illuminated with Arabic calligraphy. The Mosque is easily recognizable by its immense dome, a ribbed construction with a diameter of 14.1 metres, one of the largest in Central Asia. First built in 1915, it housed Namangan's Wahabbi fraternity in the 1990s, until the mosque was closed and reopened as a madrassah with students from the shut Mullah Kyrgyz. To look inside a newly restored mosque, try the Mullah Bozor Akhun on Akhunbabaev St. Behind a flurry of fresh domes and minarets is a shady courtyard, hauz and the mausoleum tower of Mullah Akhun, the 17th century teacher of Sufic poet Mash rab. The poet himself has been commemorated in a theme park six kilometres west of the city centre. Babarakhim Mashrab Namangani was born in Namangan in 1640. By 16 he was a dervish heading for Kashgar and a life of creative itinerancy. He was hanged in Afghanistan in 1711, either for inciting the people to revolt against illiteracy or for being the object of desire of a prominent imams wife. His heartfelt poetry has survived Soviet censorship to enjoy contemporary revival:
In my dream I saw the candle of thy elegance,
Circling around it, I became distraught.
This body of mine died away for the wine of thy love,
Both the cupbearer and goblet did I become.