Friday, 10 April 2020

Imagine ... the Golden Road to Samarkand - by Lesley Downer

We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the golden road to Samarkand.

Hassan: The Golden Journey to Samarkand by James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915) 

Imagine ... Khiva, the plaza in front of Kalta Minor Minaret ...
Now we're under lockdown and worried about the future, perhaps it's time for a little escape. Jump on my magic carpet and let me whisk you away to the Silk Road, with the help of James Elroy Flecker. He himself travelled as far as the Eastern Mediterranean but he never reached Samarkand and died at the age of thirty. His poem is one of the most powerful evocations there is of the mystery and allure of the east, of Central Asia and of travel. Ah, travel!

For a couple of thousand years, until the middle of the 18th century, a network of Silk Roads linked Europe to China, crisscrossing Persia and Central Asia and the lands that lay north of India. One of the main highways led through Khiva on to Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent and points east.

These days these cities are in Uzbekistan. The very names still hold an irresistible allure.

Silk Road Tales I: Khiva 

Imagine ... the Mohammed Rakhim Khan Medressa ...
Once upon a time there were various ways in which you might find yourself passing through the great gates of Khiva, between its mighty mud-walled battlements. You might arrive there in a caravan of merchants accompanied by a train of horses and camels laden with goods, though you would have to make it across the Karakum desert without being robbed or killed by the legions of bandits and tribesmen who infested the vast wastes. If you were unlucky, you might be captured and end up in Khiva’s famous slave market, a fate particularly prevalent among Russians from towns at the edge of the no-man’s land where the Khan’s lands crossed those of the Tsar.

In 1717, as Khivans will gleefully tell you, the Russian Prince Alexander Bekovitch was sent by Peter the Great to negotiate an alliance. Bekovitch was a Muslim prince from the Caucasus who had converted to Christianity and Peter thought he would make the perfect intermediary. Bekovitch struggled across the Karakum at the head of an army of 4000 infantry, cavalry and artillery plus several Russian merchants and 500 horses and camels. But as far as the Khan was concerned tiny Khiva and massive Russia were territories of roughly equal size and importance, and Bekovitch’s apostasy meant he was an infidel. Tricked into dividing up his troops, Bekovitch was killed alongside most of his men, with the few survivors being sold as slaves. Bekovitch’s head was sent as a gift to the Emir of Bukhara who hastily returned it. It ended up hanging above the gates of Khiva, adorned with a sign saying ‘Infidel’.

Grand old days - the Khan on his throne 
judging miscreants (reenactment) 
The first westerner actually to pass through those gates and see the bewitching rose pink city with his own eyes (apart from the thousands who were taken there as slaves, of course) was the Russian Captain Nikolai Muraviev a hundred years later, in 1819. ‘The city presents a very beautiful appearance,’ he wrote. He admired the palaces and well-tended gardens and the great mosque rising above the city’s forty foot walls, its blue-tiled dome topped with a massive golden ball that shimmered in the sunlight.

He met the Khan, who was six foot tall and of ‘a very striking appearance. ... His beard is short and red, his voice pleasant and he speaks distinctly, fluently and with dignity.’ He wore a turban and red robe and sat cross-legged on a Persian rug in a yurt.

Grand old days - the Khan in his palace
Muraviev’s task too was to negotiate an alliance and in that he had more success than Bekovitch. He also took a good look at the city and its defences and concluded that it was ripe for the plucking. While he was there some Russian slaves smuggled him a note, begging him at least to ensure that the Tsar knew of their plight.

The first Englishman to attempt the daunting journey was Lieutenant Arthur Conolly in 1831. He was intercepted by robbers in the Karakum desert and barely escaped with his life. It wasn’t till 1840 that the first British expedition rode through the gates, led by Captain James Abbott. By then the Russians were threatening Khiva and the Khan hoped for British help. Abbott explained that the best ploy would be to free the Russian slaves, thus depriving the Tsar of any excuse for attacking. Abbott in his turn came to grief in the desert and in the end it was left to Lieutenant Richmond Shakespeare to free them, including a beautiful nine-year-old girl whom the Khan had been hoping to keep for himself for his harem.

As you’ll know the Russians did finally succeed in occupying Khiva, which became part of Uzbekistan when the country was given its independence after the break up of the Soviet Union.

These days it’s no longer such a daunting task to get to Khiva, though if you choose to go by land it’s a good six hour drive through the desert. You enter through the West Gate where Bekovitch’s head once hung. Dominating the walled city is a glorious blue-tiled truncated minaret, intended to be the tallest in the world until the Khan who had commissioned it died. At the East Gate is the long corridor where the slaves were kept and the slave market took place and the bustling domed caravanserai where merchants traded their goods. It’s thrilling to see this small and perfect city wreathed with stories. 

Isfandiya Jurji Bahadur Khan
circa 1911 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin Gorskii
You can also visit the palace with its towering open air throne room walled with exquisitely-patterned blue and white tile work. The 163 rooms include the harem where the Khan kept his 4 wives, 10 eunuchs, one taster, one female chef and a changing congregation of forty concubines, whom he traded in every two or three years. Their lives were every bit as constrained as ours are! The concubines carried their worldly wealth - their jewellery - on their persons because they might be dismissed at any moment and there would be no question of going back to pack. Once a concubine was dismissed she went back to her family with her children, including her sons, many of whom later became advisors to their father, the Khan.

In another building there are photographs of the Khans with their woolly hats and big beards. Not that many made it into old age. The last, if I remember rightly, ended his days in St Petersburg.

From Khiva the Silk Road traveller went on to Bukhara and Samarkand. I’ll take you there in my next couple of posts. Hopefully we'll be out of lockdown by then.

A few of the Khan's concubines
We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea ...

For the whole thrilling story of the opening of Central Asia, please read The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk - a wonderful, gripping and absorbing book and perfect for lockdown reading.

Lesley Downer is a lover of all things Asian and an inveterate traveller. She is the author of many books on Japan, including The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale of love and death, out now in paperback. For more see

The photograph of Isfandiya Jurji Bahadur Khan by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin Gorskii is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. All other pictures are mine. 


Ann Turnbull said...

Thanks for this, Lesley, which has certainly opened a window on the world outside lockdown! Around 1959 or so I read a Soviet novel set in Tajikistan, which I think is also on the Silk Road. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the country and its people and culture. It seemed so remote back then, before the internet made everything accessible.

Sue Purkiss said...

Fabulous! Thanks so much for this ride on your magic carpet!

Lesley Downer said...

Thanks so much, Ann and Sue! Before lockdown Tajikistan was also accessible by plane, of course ... Alas, it was high on my bucket list. Maybe later. So nice to have the magic carpets of our imaginations, at least.