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The Return of the Prodigal: A Turk visits Central Asia

The Return of the Prodigal: A Turk visits Central Asia

Nagihan Haliloglu is an assistant professor at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and a resident of Istanbul.

In his introduction to Mehmet Emin Efendi’s 1877 travelogue on Turkestan, Ahmet Mithat Efendi says that anyone interested in Ottoman history and culture ought to visit Central Asia ‘to appreciate how much a tribe that is originally Turkmen has changed in the six intervening centuries.’ It is indeed difficult for a Turk to visit Central Asia and not to feel like the prodigal offspring who has consorted too long with strange folk too far away. I was able to visit Uzbekistan in April, with a group of friends and their families a few months after the visa was lifted for Turkish citizens, and two weeks after Turkish Airlines added Samarkand to its Uzbek destinations. You could say that as Turkmens of Ahmet Mithat Efendi’s description we missed the target by a couple of hundred kilometers and landed in the wrong –stan. But we did make it to Khiva, the seat of the Turkmen state of Khwarezm, at the end of the journey. Before the trip I was telling myself that these borders in what used to be called Turkestan – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan combined – did not mean a thing. However, in Samarkand, Bukhara and even in Khiva shop owners kept asking me ‘Turkmenistan?’ when I tried to speak Turkish with them, and I thought there might, after all, be something to these distinctions.

It is, more than anything else, language that equally welcomes and alienates me, and shapes my experience in Uzbekistan. There is a certain directness to Uzbek – their word for ‘speed’, for instance, literally means ‘fastness’ in Turkish. ‘Security’ is spelled out as ‘being without fear’. I pick up these words in Latin script on signboards as I wait for my very early flight to Samarkand from Tashkent, and am woken from my semi-stupor by the ground staff shouting ‘Samarkand! Samarkand!’ with an intonation, urgency and a particular stress on the syllables I have heard used only by minibus operators in Istanbul. Uzbek is, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, like a familiar tune sung with different lyrics to uncanny effect. You feel there must be something fundamentally wrong with your comprehension apparatus when a face that looks like yours says words you recognize but you can’t make head or tail of it.

I am travelling in the opposite direction to Mehmet Emin Efendi. His travels take the reader from the shores of the Caspian Sea to Khwarezm, and he ends his narrative with the exhortation that he will speak of Samarkand and Bukhara in another volume if this one proves popular. Sadly, there is no second volume to compare with my own Samarkand and Bukhara notes. 1870s Ottoman readers seem not to have had too keen an interest in the lands of their Turkic forefathers – a lack of interest that continues on to the republican period. Despite the fact that the Turkish Republic emphasized the supposed Turkish roots of their citizens in order to minimize Arabic and Islamic influences, interest in Central Asia has never really taken off in Turkey. But of course much is expected from Uzbek-Turkish relations now, after the death of Islam Karimov. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is supposed to visit soon, for the second time since Shavkat Mirziyoyev has come to power. And so, in the words of George Curzon visiting in 1889, after the construction of the Caspian Railway ‘the moment is unique’ to observe what kind of international alliances Uzbekistan will forge in the near future. ‘It is the blank leaf between the pages of an old and a new dispensation; the brief interval separating a compact and immemorial tradition from the rude shock and unfeeling Philistinism of nineteenth century civilization’ writes Curzon. Plus ça change.


Registan Square


My reconnection with medieval Turkic architecture starts with the Registan Square in Samarkand. I’ve only had 4 hours of sleep and there’s nothing to wake you up like what seems to be star-studded porticos of the three madrassas facing one another in this magnificent square. The tiles are so dazzling in their brightness under the sun, and the geometrical patterns so intricate, it is as if you are looking at the stars in broad daylight. They look like gates to different galaxies in their expansive glory. And that is hardly an exaggeration, for the madrassa on the left is the Ulugh Beg (Uluğ Bey in Turkish transcription) Madrassa, founded by the Timurid astronomer king, whose calculation of the solar year in the 15th century is over only by 25 seconds. The more you read up on Ulugh Beg the more it sounds like Prospero was modelled after him, a king spending all his time studying astronomy rather than honing his politicking skills – which cost him his kingdom and alas, his life.

It’s still only 9 o’clock in the morning, and tour groups keep pouring into the square. There are several school expeditions from Namangan, Katta Kurgan and Fergana. It’s like the floodgates have been opened and Uzbeks are visiting all the sites the country has on show. Our guide tells us that this is partly due to the fact that travelling on the roads has become less of a hassle with the number of police checks going down. There’s scarcely a European tourist around, and me and another Turk from my group prove attraction enough. We are asked to pose with Uzbek tourists over and over again with the backdrop of Registan. This is a repeating pattern that I observe also in Bukhara where there are more European tourists to collar. I love the Uzbeks for turning the thing on its head and making the European tourist become the photographic object and make them pose this way and that. ‘Qayerdensiz?’ they keep asking us. It helps little when the only bit I understand of the question is ‘siz’, the pronoun for ‘you’. Then they try Russian and I answer ‘Istanbul’, and become determined to pay more attention and not to let Russian be the middleman in my conversations with Uzbeks.

Although infrastructure for tourism is missing in many places – bus rides between sites take forever because of what one hopes are ongoing road works rather than abandoned heavy machinery – the Turkish group I am travelling with is very impressed by the hospitality of the people and the non-pushy ways of the shopkeepers. ‘I thought them a far less extortionate and rascally lot than their fellows in the marts of Cairo or Stamboul’ says Curzon. We should know, we’ve all spent time in Sultanahmet. ‘These people have not yet been barbarized. Wait till tourism takes off here’ is the group’s general verdict. When we manage to get to Shah-i Zinda after what seems to be a ‘road trip’ within Samarkand, we see that the compact tomb complex can barely hold the throng of domestic tourists who have come dressed in their Friday best, in their brightest and shiniest to do ziyaret. Many (but not as many as I’d thought) of them are dressed in atlas, a batik-like pattern with preferably clashing colours, which, after a while, our urban, puritanical eyes get used to. ‘In Bokhara Joseph would have been looked upon as the recipient of no peculiar favour in the gift of a coat of many colours’ says Curzon.

Shahi Zinda Complex

This sense of occasion and pomp is, in effect, what religion has been reduced to during Soviet times. Islam has become a kind of ancestor worship, with a sense of God as an authority who will grant you things, rather than a being of some cosmic importance. I decide against pushing my way through the mass of humanity towards the mausoleum of Kusam ibn Abbas, the holiest personage buried there, and sit at the entrance of the cordoned-off prayer space, watching the school children file dutifully past. But then one of them notices me, salams, I salam back, and they all come scuttling towards me and ask to have their pictures taken. They ask where I am from and when I say ‘Turkey’ there is a flurry of conversation of which I understand little ‘I speak Turkish, I don’t speak Uzbek’ I say. One of the girls understands and translates it into Uzbek, and then repeats the sentence in Turkish and giggles unstoppably. She clearly thinks I butcher our common ancestors’ language in a most charming way. I wonder if my Turkish sounds Dutch to their German Uzbek.

We dine in ‘modern’ Samarkand that evening, and after dinner we ask the manager if they can show us a room where we can do our evening prayers. We are told that they can’t allow it. Some road checks still remain in place, then. We make it to the vokzal (I, in turn, shall never stop finding this word hilarious) and at the gates our Uzbek guide’s bag is checked thoroughly. The guardswoman goes through his four-volume collection of Rumi’s poetry in the Cyrillic script, caressing the index pages. I have a strange sense of déjà vu, of either someone showing me these books, or someone telling me that in Uzbekistan even Rumi is double-checked for ‘terrorist content’.

The Oxus, or Amu Darya

We take the evening train to Bukhara and the train, too, is full of children. But these are ‘sporty’ kids in jeans and the class distinction is clear. We learn that they were away on a gymnastics championship, and they show some of their numbers to the curious Turks. When we arrive at the train station, which was built outside Bukhara not to scandalize Bukhariots’ traditionalist sensibilities, and about which Curzon reports at length, there are families waiting for their children. The road to Bukhara seems interminable. It is impossible to drive at more than 30 km/h because of roadworks which make the outskirts of Bukhara look like another Genghisite army has just paid a visit. We then arrive in what seems to be the old town, domes and arched doorways leading into dark alleyways, with a very starry sky overhead. We learn later that much of this has been built recently on the old model with UNESCO money, in the spaces between the ‘real’ historical sites. It is, regardless, a setting for 1001 Nights, what I imagine what Baghdad must have looked like in Haroun al Rashid’s time (I’m on the other side of the Oxus and still can’t let go of my Levantine analogies) before it was flattened by the wars of 20th and 21st centuries.

New Bukhara Market

In his account of his travels, after giving the reader to understand that the Turkmens made a living out of capturing Russian and Iranian slaves, and selling them in the markets of Bukhara, Alexander Burnes comes across a Turkmen by the name of Allaverdi who was ‘of the tribe of Salore, the noblest of the Toorkmuns; and he used to declare that his race had founded the empire of the Osmanlis in Constantinople’. We do not come across any members of this benighted tribe. Instead, Uzbeks walk past us labeling us ‘Turks’ in the most friendly manner. Each time this happens we smile and say ‘Yes, Turkey’, but what I really want to say is ‘What are you, then, Swiss?’ In Bukhara we see that ‘foreign’ tourists have materialized out of somewhere. Russians, naturally, and then some French, and then… Greeks! When I hear them and see them interact with the sellers I am filled with a strange nostalgia. It’s only three days since I’ve left Constantinople but my senses of belonging get complicated and I feel I have bumped into long lost relatives. I immediately walk up to them and start speaking with them in English – there seems always to be a third party in my conversations with my relatives – and we exchange the usual ‘Oh I love Athens, oh I love Istanbul’


The question of ‘What did Timur ever do for us?’ has very different answers in Uzbekistan and Turkey. He is the national hero under whose leadership Uzbekistan had its most fluorescent age, and for the Turks, well, he is the man who laid waste to parts of Anatolia. But then again, he is the man, it appears, in whose entourage Nasreddin Hodja came to Turkey, to become the Turks’ epitome of folk wisdom. We see his statue in front of Madrassa of Nadir Divan Beghi, and one of the children in our group says ‘But he doesn’t look like that!’ having been raised on a completely different stylization of the Hodja’s figure, with a large turban. This one’s wearing a tubeteika and is much leaner than the food-loving hodja we love in our stories. ‘Well, we fed him much better when he came to Anatolia, that’s why he looks different here’ one of the older members of the group assures the young Turk.

The statue is close to the Lyabi Hauz, a big public pool which used to provide water for the town, and around which now there are several cafes where you can while away the day and the evening under mulberry trees. Around dusk, the synthesizer in one of the cafes starts, and the atmosphere is exactly the same as you would find in the ‘havuz park’ in many Anatolian towns. Curzon recognizes Bukhariots as great drinkers of tea, it ‘being a constant beverage here as it is in Japan, or as coffee is in Constantinople’ He would have been surprised to see tea become a serious point of contention between the Constantinopolitans and the Bukhariots. Every time a pot of green tea is placed on the table there are loud grunts from the group, and when it is replaced with black tea the Turks still complain it is not strong enough.

Ladies of the Ark

In Bukhara’s fort, the Ark, we visit the reception hall where we fall into conversation with elderly Uzbek women from Namangan. They are the sort whom language barriers will just not stop. After taking several photographs with us they take a shine to me and ask after my husband and children. They are thoroughly disappointed at my laziness at acquiring either and tell me I should stay and let them find me a good Uzbek husband. It’s turning into an orientalist’s dream conversation! I tell them I should like to go back to Istanbul. They acquiesce, but tell me I should come back, visit them in Namangan, but this time with husband in tow. Yes, and all this happens in that grey area between Turkish and Uzbek. In Poi Kalyan another child from our group reads a short surah in front of the mihrab which no longer serves its purpose (prayer spaces have been allocated for men and women elsewhere). Uzbek tourists gather round with wide eyes to see this blond child recite the Quran. When it’s over they are in tears, and more photograph taking ensues. They give her a blue, glittering headscarf that I admire so much I go find and buy one from the market.

It is also in Bukhara that I give into the ancestral impulse and buy an atlas pattern jacket – playing it safe with beige, black and red – because next day we will be crossing the Kyzylkum desert towards Khiva, and I think that atlas must be the magic coat that protects one from the drastic changes of temperature from one hour to the next. Mehmet Emin Efendi, too, wears local clothes by the time he gets to Khiva, because, he tells us, he has not really enjoyed being taken for a Russian earlier in his travels around the Caspian Sea because he wears ‘European style clothes’. ‘Because I spoke Chagatai as well as the Khivites, one could not tell me apart from the locals’ he says proudly. We too seem to have more intelligent conversations with the Khivites. When we climb up one of the buildings to take in a magnificent view of the old town, a young woman caresses the head of one of the children in our group and says ‘Göz değmesin’ a phrase against the evil eye which in modern Turkish we have transformed into ‘Nazar değmesin’- replacing the Turkish ‘göz’ with the Arabic ‘nazar’.

Kalta Minar

Going in circles around the streets so I can approach the mesmerising thick blue Kalta Minar from all angles, I come across two elderly men trying to decipher the writing – Uzbek in Cyrillic and Arabic scripts – on four rather undistinguishable ceremonial graves. They seem both to have bad eyesight, and I correct them when they misread a date. One of them is writing it all down on the postcards he’s bought. It seems a pointless exercise in the age of photography, and one of them clearly has had enough of it and leaves, leaving me to help the hapless scribbler. He tries to hand the pen and the postcard to me to copy it all down but I tell him I can only write in Latin script. Between my knowledge of Cyrillic and Arabic, I manage to read out the text for him in an Uzbek that is very close to Turkish.

Deciphering script

In Khiva, finally, the land of the forefathers enters my unconscious and after having visited madrasa after madrasa, I finally dream of students’ cells, yurts and caravanserais. For now, the Turk can still treat Uzbekistan as a Freudian couch that takes him/her to foundational memories. However, soon the prodigal may find that the ‘home’ they mean to return to is too busy entertaining other guests, and has little time for the self-indulgent musings of this long lost relative.



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