I was invited to the Asrlar Sadosi (Echo of Centuries) Festival, a celebration of traditional culture in Uzbekistan, with just six days’ notice. But this is the kind of opportunity you can’t turn down in life, and I was at the Uzbek Embassy in London collecting my visa like a shot.
Organised by the Fund Forum of Uzbekistan in partnership with UNESCO, the festival is held annually in a different city and promises the full diversity of Uzbek art, cuisine, customs and oral traditions. For although modern-day Uzbekistan is a ‘young’ nation, only independent from the former Soviet Union since 1991, this is truly an ancient land, with a rich culture that deserves to be recalled and restored.
This year – the third since Asrlar Sadosi began – the historic city of Khiva played host to the event. There’s a clear tourist route in Uzbekistan consisting of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva; of these four, Khiva is the least well-known. It was once the capital of Khorezm – the most powerful state in Central Asia during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries – and a major stop on the Silk Road, which in ancient times linked Europe and Asia and served as a vital means of trade and cultural exchange. Likened to an open-air museum, Khiva abounds in madrasahs and mosques with minarets covered in beautiful blue ceramic tiles, and it also boasts a number of historical architectural marvels including Ichan-Qala, a walled town inside the city which has been declared a World Heritage Site.
I stayed in the madrasah of Muhammad Amin Khan (who ruled between 1845 and 1855), the largest of its kind in Khiva and situated opposite the Kunya-Arkat Ata-darvaza gates. In days gone by, the building could accommodate up to 260 pupils in its ‘cells’, which these days function as hotel rooms. The minaret is 14.2 metres wide but only 26 metres high, having been left incomplete on Amin-Khan’s death; even so, it is one of the city’s most distinctive architectural landmarks.
On arrival at the ancient city gates, guests were greeted by folk music groups from all regions of the country, as well as horsemen and a camel caravan. These performances continued throughout the weekend. Meanwhile, craftsmen were dotted about the city selling their wares: handmade ceramics, embroidery, jewellery, carpets and Siberian fox-fur hats that captivated visitors by virtue of their original designs, patterns and bright colours.
My experience kicked off with a charitable ‘pilaf event’ held on 9 May to mark Memory and Honour Day, on which Uzbekistan’s Second World War veterans are commemorated. Pilaf, often described as ‘the King of Uzbek meals’, is cooked differently in each region of the country, and accordingly the competition featured chefs from all over the country. They set to work in the main square, preparing their own variations on Uzbekistan’s national dish in giant cauldrons – after all, there were some 800 attendees to feed! To sit on the panel of judges was quite an experience, since my colleagues got quite heated when choosing the winner. Guests went into raptures about Khorezmian pilaf, Namanganian golden pilaf and Bukharan saffron pilaf, as well as the flat Uzbek bread known as somsa and gumma. The food was outstanding, and by far my best meal in Uzbekistan.
Tournaments of Kurash, a form of wrestling central to Uzbek tradition, were also held throughout the weekend. These were held on elaborate carpets in the inner yard of the madrasah of Allah Quli Khan (ruled 1825-42), and proved to be quite a spectacle. Even more unusually, rooster and ram fights were also included in the schedule, and while the former admittedly left me a little queasy, the ram fights exceeded all expectations. The hotly contested fights, which have a history dating back several centuries, were held in a massive square and drew hundreds of cheering and shouting spectators. Owners of winning animals were sent away with a carpet. Meanwhile, I was reassured that the competing roosters and rams had been specially bred for increased stamina and strength.
Those interested in archeology and history had an opportunity to attend a series of educational events, including master classes and new research projects. Khiva, one of the true ‘cradles of civilisation’, holds great importance for historical and archaeological research, with ongoing excavations taking place there. A conference entitled ‘Cultural Legacy of Uzbekistan: the Art of Calligraphy and Architectural Epigraphy’, held at the ancient Mamun Academy (circa 1004), was attended by some 100 prominent scholars from Uzbekistan and abroad.
At sundown, a national dress festival was held in the ‘Yard of Entertainment’ at the Tash-Khauli (Stone Palace) of Allah Quli Khan. Guests were treated to a display – put together by 15 fashion designers from Tashkent, Khiva and Bukhara – of how historical fashions have developed over centuries into modern trends; it was remarkable to observe firsthand the influences of ancient Uzbek prints on the designer stores of Bond Street in London. The stunning architectural backdrop is worth a mention, for it was once the home of the Khan’s harem, which, as legend has it, comprised numerous concubines – many of whom had been gifted by foreign embassies – dedicated to the pleasure and relaxation of the Khan after his exhausting work for the sake of his people.
The evening ended with a spectacular gala concert at Kohna-Ark Palace. The atmosphere was electric, and performances by folk music groups, dance groups and famous Uzbek performers – as well as laureates of the Fund Forum’s youth and children’s projects – all drew uproarious applause. An explosive light show completed the evening, with participants in national dress carrying flaming torches along the fortified battlements of the square.
Chair of the Fund Forum Professor Gulnara Karimova also introduced herself. Often associated with western style social, cultural and charitable projects in Uzbekistan, Karimova is also the country’s Ambassador in Madrid and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva – as well as being the President’s daughter. She spoke of the importance of working with young people, who are the future of the country.
The work of the Fund Forum certainly interlinks Uzbekistan’s heritage with its youth and their future. For although this year’s event was attended by more than 100 international guests from 13 different countries, it was clear that the festival is first and foremost intended for the Uzbek people, being designed to foster respect for shared history and traditions and to preserve national identity in an increasingly globalised world. Moreover, by providing a balance between the past, present and future, the festival hopes to preserve this precious heritage for generations to come.
Indeed, what struck me most was the importance that is given in Uzbekistan to preparing young people for the modern world while at the same time teaching them a respect for their national heritage. And this applies not only Uzbekistan’s ‘historical’ heritage – its ruins, walls, fortress, castles, palaces and madrasahs – but also to its ‘living’ heritage of customs and traditions. For several days the city of Khiva served as an arena for the best, the brightest and the most exciting aspects of national Uzbek culture. It was a spectacle I shall remember forever.