My last few days in Uzbekistan were supposed to be spent in Termez, a place bordering Afghanistan where Alexander (considered not so great in these parts of the world) founded a town. But after learning about the tragic earthquake in Afghanistan, and for the peace of mind of those I love (not that I’ve given them so much of that), I decided to be practical (yes, I can be, sometimes) and come back to Tashkent to be closer to the airport. Termez will have to wait; and perhaps, it is a romantic idea to leave something to come back for.
It is risky to travel these days, and it is crazy how the fate of some dreams and travel plans hang in the balance between two words — Positive or Negative. And when I asked my niece who works in a bank to change some currency for me, she reported that the bank declined upon learning of my destination, “Kay duol sa na-ay gyera.” (It is close to areas of conflict.) She had to go out of her way to another money changer. If one looks at the map, the bank is not wrong.
But here I am. Because when something feels right, it feels right. I booked my ticket with so much faith, and the itinerary that has been ready since 2020 finally came in useful.
“But I thought you wanted to go to Iran?” friends asked. I am in what used to be part of Persia. “Stan” is a Persian suffix that means “place of”. This is the place of the Uzbeks that was once of Persia. When the Achaemenids expanded their empire, they sought not to Persianize whomsoever they conquered but allowed different peoples and cultures to thrive — as long as they paid tribute, of course. And since we know borders are all but manmade, I am in the region of which I have been reading and dreaming for a long time… and it is intoxicating, and beautiful, and enriching.
The books I have been reading did not end on their last pages. The best books never do. They only give the reader a deeper yearning to continue the journey and the learning beyond the pages. They give one an urgency to live.
The temperature is significantly higher in Bukhara that you can feel your skin baked into the color of a lepyoshka as soon as you step out of the caravanserai. Yes, I am staying in a caravanserai! Isn’t that the most natural thing to do when traversing desert cities?
In contrast to Samarkand that can only be depicted in golden blues and vibrant shades of dreams, Bukhara wears the colors of the desert.
But that’s not to say that this important stop on the Silk Route is monochromatic. For as we know, the desert yields surprises; and thousands of years of history have stamped their mark and bled their hues on this oasis city.
I made two friends today who know their history! One endearingly encouraged me to look it up on my phone because he says it’s all there, and the other is an imam who saw me taking pictures of the architecture while trying my best to be unobtrusive at a site sacred to Muslims. He must have appreciated this because he beckoned to me and invited me to take closer pictures of the mosque and its interior, and afterwards, for tea. It was the best tea I’ve had on this trip!
“I found in this library such books, about which I had not known and which I had never before seen in my life. I read them, and I came to know each scientist and each science. Before me lay the gates of inspiration into great depths of knowledge which I had not surmised existed.” — Ibn Sina (Avicenna)
Avicenna (980 – 1037) — philosopher, poet, astronomer, mathematician, physicist, the father of early modern medicine, among many other things — has been known to us as a Persian polymath. But he was, in fact, born in Uzbekistan. His early education began here in Bukhara.
The library in the Ark of Bukhara has not survived the many conquests that Bukhara has been through, although this enormous structure that dwarfs me continued to be a fortress from circa 500CE until it fell to the Red Army in 1920.
Sadly, there is no way for me to find the books of which Avicenna wrote, but the book wide open before me now is Bukhara… and I am savoring every line.