Parallel Universalisms and Cultural Identities: A Case Study of Uzbekistan

RASHIDBEK MUYDINOV (MArch I 2017)
During my 2015 trip to Uzbekistan, my home country, my brother shared with me images of a newly built mosque in the capital city of Tashkent. Simply known as the White Masjid among the populace (for its white granite surfaces), the Minar (Tower) Mosque can be universally identified as an Islamic religious institution with the checklist of essentials filled: minarets, grand portal, a courtyard, ornamentation, and Arabic calligraphy. Yet some familiarity with traditional architecture in Uzbekistan allows a reading of local references that can be traced to the Persian, Mongolian, and Timurid traditions.
Such oscillations between the universality of Islamic architecture and cultural specificity have been the main subject of my trip to Uzbekistan this summer under the David M. Schwarz Fellowship. I used this trip as a survey to familiarize myself with the architectural and urban heritage of the Timurids, Shaybanids, and khanates, as well as the current “New National Architectural Style.” I also explored the status of preservation and restoration of historic monuments, as well as stylistic varieties across geography and time. More specifically, I examined the essential elements that comprise Islamic architecture: domes, minarets, ornamentation, and portals.
I visited several dozen sites, including mosques, maqbaras (tombs), museums, madrassahs, palaces, citadels, large-scale infrastructure, and commercial buildings. The architectural heavyweights of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva commanded most of my time. The ornamentation and atmosphere in Tamerlane’s maqbara Guri Amir in Samarkand were electrifying—I found it hard to imagine a more fitting resting place for such a great and brutal conqueror, one who once consumed the empires of Persia and Delhi. I viewed the entire city of Khiva from the top of the Islam Khoja minaret, and walked in the notorious winding streets of Bukhara to find the Chor Minar (a madrassah), only to discover the fragments of what photographs usually present as a prominent monument.
My itinerary included smaller towns with less monumental yet equally extraordinary buildings. Khudayar Khan’s Horde in Kokand boasts some of the finest ornamentation, doors and columns, while Navoi has water infrastructure dating back to both Alexander the Great and the Karakhanids of the XI century. In Shahrisabz, the birthplace of Tamerlane, the newly erected statue of the emperor conveniently stood between the two pieces of his ruined palace, Koksarai. Last year the area was skillfully planned and now incorporates nearby monuments and a coherent public promenade.
My twenty days spent traveling to seven cities and over 1,450 miles within the country made evident the importance of fine print under Islamic universalism. This is especially true for Uzbekistan, a newly independent country, which seeks to participate in global culture and to cultivate a unique cultural identity based on its inherited course.