About Uzbekistan

Gijduvon and its ceramics artisans
06 June 2018

Gijduvan is a small town (pop. 50,000) about fifty kilometers north of Bukhara on the way to Navoi, one of the Seven Pirs - Sufi shrines of the Bukhara oasis, the most important of which I showed in the last part. But most of all Gijduvan is now known not for this: the famous "Bukhara ceramics" is actually produced in Gijduvan, and I managed to visit the workshop of its legislators - Narzulaevs, the old family of potters, and also managed to visit the town of Vabkent with the pre-Mongolian minaret.

Early in the morning, having managed to visit Jewish Quarter and to talk with the last Bukharian Jews, I headed to the bus station near the northern outskirts of Bukhara near the Karvon Bazaar. The day was absolutely insane in terms of the number of places I planned to visit: Vabkent-Gijduvan-Malik-Rabat on the highway and Khazor village, the exact location of which I did not know, then transit through Navoi to the town of Nurata further north, and finally explore Navoi itself before catching the train to Khorezm. Looking ahead, I will say that I succeeded, although it took me some efforts and advice of Bahauddin Naqshbandi (see the last part) to cherish and count every minute of our life. At the bus station, I, of course, took a shared taxi to Gijduvan, and arranged with the driver to stop at the minaret in Vabkent. I'm not sure that this was justified: when passengers heard about such a plan, they immediately ran off to look for another taxi, and it took one and a half hour to fill the taxi - I think it would be faster to go directly to Vabkent first and from there to find a car to Gijduvan.

Present days Vabkent is a small (pop. 16,000) town just outside Bukhara that received its ‘town’ status only in 1981. The city is rather dull and undistinguished with nothing interesting for the tourists apart from the marvelous pre-Mongolian minaret perfectly preserved in its original beauty. Vabkent minaret was built in 1196-99 as inform the inscriptions at its base and the "top".

Under Shaibanids Vabkent was a prosperous settlement that even minted its coin, and under the Karakhanids in 11-12 centuries the city was one of the centers of the Bukhara oasis.

There must've been a mosque attached to Vabkent minaret at the time, but now the minaret is gloriously incongruous between a parking lot and the local branch of the Ministry of Health. It stands just several kilometers away from the highway connecting Bukhara and Samarkand and passing through the Vabkent’s city centre. With the height of 39 meters, 6.2 meters in diameter at the base and 2.8 meters in the "neck" area, it is not as grandiose as the Bukhara’s Kalyan minaret, but it is extremely graceful. Unlike similar Karakhanid era minarets in Kyrgyzstan's Uzgen and Buran, it has been preserved to its full height. It has all the characteristics of well-known decor of the pre-Mongolian Central Asia: belts and ornaments of figuratively laid out bricks and terracotta, forming the whole inscriptions.

The minaret stands a couple of kilometers away from the highway passing through the city center, and after leaving the taxi, I ran around it for about 10 minutes, and then we drove further. Also I noticed in Vabkent a rather interesting Soviet building, perhaps "donated" to the newly-appointed town in 1981:

The traces of some ancient settlement along the highway. In the Bukhara oasis once can find "thousands of them!", and in the north of the oasis the most interesting are the ruins of Vardanzi city, once competing with the victorious Numizhket for the name of Bukhara as the center of the oasis. Aside there were also cities with sonorous Persian names Romitan and Shafirkan, and the native village of Avicenna named Afshona, and numerous villages with mausoleums, khanakas, mosques, necropolises of Sufi sages. Something is shown here, but we keep driving along.

Gijduvan itself is known from the 10th century, but until the 15th century it was in the shadow of neighboring Tavavis, whose name could be translated from Arabic as Peacockcity - supposedly, the city, that was called then in Sogdian as Arkud, impressed the soldiers of the Caliphate with the abundance of these birds, that were kept in houses of its rich merchants. But the oasis has dried since then, Tavavis turned out to be in the steppe and deserted, and the role of the north-eastern gate of the oasis passed to Gijduvan. The highest point of its history was the Gijduvan Battle of 1512, in which the Sunni Uzbeks of Sheibanid defeated the Persian Shiites of the Sevefids dynasty, from which started the gradual decay of the millennial ties of Central Asia with Iran and its "shift to the North". I do not quite understand what was the status of Gijduvan in the Bukhara emirate, it received a status of the town only in 1972, and now it is the second largest in the Bukhara region. Having made a cunning turn on the road with physical separation, we entered the one-story Gijduvan streets:

The first place that you will see upon arriving to Gijduvon would most likely be its bazaar, which also always serves as the main bus terminal in more remote places of Uzbekistan. From here I had to leave for Navoi. I regret that I did not have time to visit the local Ashkhanas (eateries): Gijduvan is also one of the gastronomic centers of Uzbekistan, you can find shish kebab and samsa a la "Gijduvan style" in any major city of the country, unfortunately I never got the chance to try them here or even in other places. Water tank tower from unknown times oversees the bazaar:

I headed to the center and the assortment of the Gijduvan Bazaar looked impressive:

Carpets (not made in Bukhara!), bicycles, cotton, generators ...

... and as an apotheosis - a whole mountain of second-hand sewing machines and tables of lacquered wood chipboard:

I forgot to ask locals about this, but as I understand it old residents speak mostly Tajik in Gijduvan as in Bukhara, and moreover, Sadriddin Aini, the greatest Tajik writer of the twentieth century was born here in 1878, his quotes about the life of the Bukhara Emir I cited in previous posts several times. In general, from my Bukhara posts there is probably an impression that in every second city of Uzbekistan there are pre-Mongol monuments, and that more Tajiks than Uzbeks live here. But the fact is that there are even less pre-Mongolian monuments in the whole of Central Asia than in the three countries of ancient Rus. And the second fact is that the Tajiks in Uzbekistan are like Germans in the Baltic States before their exile - the former elite, the people of old cities, where the foreign traveler usually arrives.

Meanwhile, the bazaar ended and I reached the civilized Gijduvan center with rather pleasant examples of Soviet architecture:

Palace of culture and mosaic panel opposite it. And chimes like in Tashkent :

From here you can already see the historical center of Gijduvan around the big hauz (pool). Actually, these are only two buildings - the local Madrassah of Ulugbek and the memorial of Abdulkhalik Gijduvani, a Sufi theologian of the 12th century, who created his Tariqah Khwajagan based on the ancient Persian Tariqat(Order) Bistamiya, among whose adherents were Samusi Romitani, Amir Kulal and Bahauddin Naqshbandihimself, who in turn created on the basis of Khwajagan one of the largest Sufi orders - Naqshbandi. In general, under a wooden pergola with a blue dome rests a very honored local saint, forerunner of another even much more honored saint from the same region. The large building on the right also is part of the memorial of Abdulkhalik:


Madrassah of Ulugbek (1417-33) in Gijduvon is the smallest of the three, but the other two the famed khan-scientists built in Bukhara and Samarkand, so the very fact of its presence here indicates that Gijduvon was a very important city. Typical Samarkand geometric ornaments on the walls are very good, and the minaret (like most minarets of the Bukhara oasis imitating Kalyan) was built along with the madrasah:


A tiny medrese courtyard with a second aivan. "Sparkling" majolica here is typically Bukharian and look like more of the 16th-17th centuries, maybe it is even modern replicas:


The corner of the madrasah and the fountain for ablutions. There are a lot of pilgrims near the grave of Abdulkhalik:


Someone else's grave is at a distance:

And the colorful old beggar, who stands here, judging by appearance, at least since the last emirs:

Then I decided to look for the workshop of the Narzulaevs, but it turned out not to be that easy - only from the tenth attempt from all the people in the square I managed to find a person speaking Russian. This, by the way, is a sign that the information about Tajik-speaking Gijduvan is out dated, since in places where people speak two different languages, they also usually know Russian as the lingua franca. The workshop of Narzulaevs is very close to the park, on one of the surrounding streets, if you stand with your back to the aivan of Ulugbek madrasah it would be on your right:

... There are two main centers of pottery in present day Uzbekistan - Rishtan in the Fergana Valley and Gijduvon near Bukhara. And Khorezm used to be as well, but nowadays practically no one makes pottery there. Rishtan chose to go way of mass production by producing a cheap and same type Fergana pottery that is very pleasant to the eye. Most of Uzbekistan is using their pottery that can be even found in large markets of big cities in former USSR.

The potters from Gijduvon chose a different path, and their ceramics are still not mass produced and rather an art than business. In the time of the Bukhara Emirate there were 41 workshops functioning here, of which 5 workshops belonged to the Narzulaevs' ancestors - the brothers Narzi and Tosh, the sons of Ergash Kulyal (Potter) and the grandchildren of the Sharifiddin Gijduvansky dynasty, who was born in 1790 and died in 1885. Their main rivals were the family of Umarovs, but the Soviet authority, dispossession and prohibition of entrepreneurship made them reconcile: Tosh disappeared in 1937, and Narzi died a few years earlier, leaving a widow with a 5-year-old Ibadullah, and soon impoverished Usman Umarov married her. When Soviet power handed out Uzbek names with Russian suffix, Ibadullo became Narzulayev as the son of Narzi, and, having grown up, managed to preserve and unite the craft secrets of his father and stepfather.

Folk crafts became popular and even fashionable at the times of USSR much later, and as the result by the middle of the 20th century Bukhara ceramics remained only in museums and old houses. And the ups and downs of life led Ibadullo to the other end of a large country - to Riga, where was a huge ceramic factory founded in the 19th century by the Russian Old Believers Kuznetsov family. Then by chance he met Constantine Simonov, who was imbued with the knowledge of the potter from Orient, and under his patronage Ibadullo Narzievich began to revive Uzbek ceramics in the Latvian factory. Times began to change, Ibadullo had 11 children, whom he also passed on his secrets, and two of them - Alisher and Abdullah - themselves became eminent potters and revived the ancient art already in their homeland. Their children are now 7th in generation who keep the family business and ancient traditions alive.

Below you will have a chance to have a brief excursion along the entire production chain in this long building from a picture above. The workshop itself:

Examples of pottery and some sketches - Narzulaev family has about 80 standard forms and more than 200 ornaments:

And as already mentioned, the Narzulaevs did not follow the path of large-scale production to reduce costs, but decided to preserve traditions as much as possible. They have modern technology, like this mechanical potter's wheel, but whenever possible the Narzulaevs, like their ancestors, use an old kick wheel:

The main material is a mixture of clay extracted from a depth of one and a half meters (80%) with river clay (20%):

Some reed fluff is also added there - hence the reeds at the 3d picture from above 

Gijduvon craftsmen use an engobe - special clay paints, each color is extracted from different deposits located far away from Gijduvon: red ones from Mount Karnab in the Nurata Range, yellow in the Kyzylkum Desert near Gazli, white comes from the deposit in the vicinity of Tashkent.

Engobe is painted and the drawing is raised up, you can even feel it with your eyes, but at the same time it is so thin than can fit into the several layers of the glaze, and all this makes painted dishes look very lively

By the way, the actual potters (kulal) and masters of painting (nakkosh) are traditionally different artists, and the best potter dynasties were those, where both these arts were in the hands of one person or even one family:

In the next room is a mill, which is usually rotated by the donkey. The glaze is melted here from kaolin, quartz and other components, the most exotic of which is ishkor - the coal of the grass of the same name, which can’t be cultivated and is collected in the desert. The composition of the components can vary, resulting in the change of color, for example, the ishkor glaze is blue (however, it is more typical for Rishtan, the Gijduvan colors are earthy). You can grind 40 kilograms of glaze at a time on such a mill:

Clay, paint and glaze must dry before each next step, so the complete cycle of creating the product (not counting the procurement of materials) is about 10 days.

The next room is apparently just a utility room:

And at the end of the chain is a baking oven. It is heated with gas mainly, but for especially valuable products they use in line with the tradition mulberry and waste products of cotton production:

Here is the furnace, where heat is pumped up to 1050 degrees, with the temperature rising for 20 hours and falling for 30 hours:

That’s how the pottery looks like before baking - the glaze is white and under its layers you can notice three-dimensional colors. Pay attention to clay "paws" - they are used so that things do not come into contact with each other and with the furnace floor:

That’s how they put them in the furnace – they assure it's safe:

The glaze becomes transparent under 500-600 degrees, under 700-900 it gets its glisten, and when the temperature reaches 1050 degrees drops appear on it, which on one side show that it is time to cool, and on the other hand drops serve as some kind of "business cards" of Narzulayev ceramics, a symbol of happiness and prosperity. And that’s how the waste looks like - overexposed plate that was deformed and stained from the heat:

On the other side of the workshop courtyard is a cafe for visiting tour groups. There are a lot of quails in small separate cages. These awkward birds make very strange sounds, not like bird singing, but still very beautiful and even mind-bending. In addition, each quail has its own sound and rhythm, and therefore a dozen quails ‘singing’ create a completely special atmosphere:

Opposite it is a museum where you can see the standards and masterpieces of the local art

One of Narzulayev's symbols is abr patterns (abr - in translation, cloud).  These type of pottery is warm and lively. Gijduvan ceramics also "sings", emitting characteristic sonorous crackles when drying after washing. Gijduvon ceramics is not delicate and strong enough for the daily use, that is, not only a decoration to hang it on the wall, but to be used for its original purpose. 

There are also other schools of ceramics of Uzbekistan that you can see in the museum: the right half on the photo above and on the photo below. In the photo below the top row is the blue & white ceramics of Khorezm, which once was famous far beyond its borders, but now it has become extremely rare as Khorezm masters prefer to make tiles; in addition, the Khorezm pottery is the most fragile, as the clay is too salty. The lower row is the pottery from Rishtan, and not the mass produced plates for souvenir shops, but the creation of local ustos (masters), covered with the "heavenly" ishkor glaze: on the right are two plates of the Nazirov dynasty, on the left there is a large lagan (dish) of the famous nakkosh (master of painting) Sharafidin Yusupov. What is not represented here is the pottery from Afrosiab, which ancient tradition the masters in Bukhara are trying to revive, and its feature is Arabic inscriptions and hadiths (quotes and episodes of the life of the Prophet). In general, the differences between regional schools are quite obvious:

In the next room everything is locally produced in Gijduvon by Narzulaev family:

The prices for Narzulaev ceramics vary, for example a large lagan (dish) costs 45 dollars, plates and pialas on average 20-30 dollars – quite a reasonable price for top-class handmade pottery.

Finally Narzulaev gave me a clay toy similar to the one shown at the picture above on the left, treate me with a tea with pancakes, bread and butter and sweets, and then gave me a lift in his old Lada and dropped me at bazaar, where he found me a car for Navoi, and did not take a penny for all this. It seems to me that this world is holding only thanks to people like him.  

With this we leave the blessed Bukhara region and go to the Navoi region. In the next part we'll explore pre-Mongol monuments near Navoi: well-known to tourists Malik Rabat and remote Khazor.

Narzulaevs have their own web site (outdated, but they say a new on will be launched soon) and the page at Facebook

Address: Gijduvan Street. Kimsan, 24
Tel: (+998 6557)27-412, 22-412, 21-098

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