March 19, 2004 - April 03,2004


      by  Fred Ploeger

Sometimes you get lucky…

 In October of 2003 I sent a blind e-mail to Professor Daniel Waugh at the University of Washington requesting information about a possible tour of the “Silk Road” of Central Asia where I could be exposed to the culture, history and specifically, 9th-15th century Muslim Architecture.  His response was immediate, unequivocal and unqualified.  He suggested I contact Mehlika Seval of Melitour based in Turkey.  After a few weeks of e-mail conversations I found myself committed to the second half of a tour that covered Turkmenistan in the first week and Uzbekistan in the second.  Meli was able to make all of the necessary bookings that allowed me to join the group in Tashkent on March 25th without a hitch.

The first day in Tashkent went by in a jet-lagged blur…we visited a Madressa (Islamic School for young men) and the Grand Bazaar.  A quick tour of the bazaar brought me back to the Madressa to rest and wait for the bus. Being an American in a predominantly Muslim country I expected to be treated with benign neglect…if not simply ignored.  Much to my pleasant surprise I was treated with deference and respect by all those who approached me for casual conversation (in English) while I waited for the group to return.  Questions about where I lived were most common…I queried their studies and plans for the future.   The language barrier being what it is kept us from any deep and meaningful discussion, but the intent for such was evident and left me feeling ill prepared and inadequate.  I was impressed by their openness, their inquisitiveness, and most of all by their integrity.  No gratuitous amenities here, a simple, honest attempt to communicate.  Something that held true for the rest of the journey.

 Bukhara…2500 years of civilized history, only the vestiges of which remain.  Destroyed and rebuilt by every passing conqueror that came north out of Iran or west from the Asian Steppe, Bukhara suffered countless indiscretions.  What remains of her heritage can be found in the “old city” a complex series of mausoleums, mosques, and madressa’s dating from the 9th to 18th century.  Many of which have been rebuilt many times.  150 pictures later and a thousand left to take, Bukhara awaits another visit. 

 Sometimes you get surprised…

 I’m an artist, a painter…at the hotel in Bukhara I met Abdulleav Muzaffer an Uzbekistan artist who had a small studio in the hotel lobby where he displayed his work.  Between his English and my Russian we didn’t talk much but with gestures and simple words we could communicate.  At the end of it all I purchased two small paintings and he gave me a catalog from a recent exhibition he participated in, in Tashkent.   The next morning I showed the catalog to Meli and discovered that another artist who was featured in that show was a personal friend of hers.  A phone call and that afternoon we were on our way to his studio.  Gracious and dignified barely cover the bearing of the gentleman who greeted us. Saidjanov Zelimkhon a quiet, sensitive and self possessed man of few words…with much to say.  We spent the afternoon perusing all of the work in his studio….current work as well as paintings that were made in the seventies. Portfolios of watercolors, drawings and studies for larger compositions…his work is international in scope, shades of Picasso, Kandinsky, and Miro with classical undertones were blended into a mature style of his own, noteworthy and remarkable given the isolation in which he lives.

 Certainly, an unexpected and enlightening experience that can be attributed to Meli’s sensitivity to the interests of her clients and her willingness to share a broad range of resources that she has developed over time.

 Across a gray rolling plain with complexes of gray concrete boxes concentrated around tilled fields with irrigation canals, a product of the collective agricultural policies of the Soviets, we wend our way from Bukhara to Samarkand.  On a whim the bus stops at a farmhouse, unremarkable in its drab exterior.  We are met at the bus with an exuberant welcome from the head of the household, a man in his fifties of obvious authority.  Lean and muscled from a life of physical labor, his demeanor is confident and relaxed as we are invited into his house to break bread and soak up the ambiance of this marvelous place. By Western standards his household would be construed as one of poverty; lacking the amenities of the modern world.  There are no conspicuous indications of material wealth…it becomes clear that his wealth is based on traditional values and what his family can produce through the application of traditional handicrafts as well as the fruits of their labor in the cotton fields that abut the property.  His pride is found in is children, his strength in his heritage. 

As we returned to the bus to continue our journey it occurred to me that the West needs the friendship of this man more than we need the potential commercial market he represents. Warm, unpretentious and happy the lives of these people seem more complete than my own.

Samarkand…Alexander the Great sacked it in the 5th century BC, Genghis Khan leveled it in the 13th AD and Tamerlane made it the queen city of Central Asia in the 15th.  Uleg Beg, Tamerlane’s grandson established the city as a focal point of higher education in the known world.  His observatory and the Medressa’s built at has direction established the architectural standard for the Muslim world.  Rich in history, it speaks to the contributions to science and the arts made by Muslim scholars at a time when western civilization was stagnant.  A treasure trove of exploration and innovation in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine, Samarkand was the home of some of the greatest minds of the 15th century
The Arts in Uzbekistan are no longer supported directly by the state…artists and their work is subject to the vagaries of a market economy.  Traditional handcrafts are supported by a growing tourism…the fine arts are less visible and more difficult to market. Artist’s cooperatives are beginning to emerge that provide meaningful exposure for those who are willing to seek them out.   Again, Meli rises to the occasion.  In a small Byzantine church which serves as an art gallery for local contemporary artists, Meli arranged for a classical concert by a group of local musicians to celebrate the birthdays of two members of the tour.  Yours truly being one.  Comprised of a pianist, cellist, soloist, and a remarkable indigenous reed instrument called a Nay (sp) the group played a selection of compositions by classical composers as well as some local folk pieces.  It was obvious from the start that this performance came from the souls of the performers.   The ambiance of the room, the passion of the performance and the antiquity of the place combined to provide an experience that moved me in ways that few things have over my 59 years.  Producing a memory I will cherish till the end of my days.

 All things end…where one thing ends another begins.   There are several things that  have omitted here…most important of those is the acknowledgement of our in-country guide  Utker, a wonderful man of infinite patience and resources whose presence allowed for seamless transitions from one venue to another.  And whose personal insights were thoughtful and informative. 

 A final word…seven days, 500+ photographs, and countless memories of a proud and dignified people eager to share their traditions, heritage and history with those of us who are willing to take the first step on a truly remarkable journey.


                                Fred Ploeger


                                         Spring  2004