Silk Road Oasis of Samarkand Ages Fast

Pedestrians walk past Bibi Khanum mosque in Samarkand. (c)Reuters
By Shamil Baigin

SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan (Reuters) - Time flies in Samarkand. This weekend the ancient Silk Road city marks its 2,750th anniversary in grand style, a mere 11 years after celebrating its official 2,500th anniversary.

That quirk is due to recent archaeological finds that caused a revision of its age, but the city of mosques, madrasahs and tombs listed as a UN World Heritage Site is also ageing faster than it should do in the present.

Academics fear that a rush by Uzbek officials to prepare Samarkand for its anniversary has done more harm than good and a four-lane road built next to its archaeological heart has drawn criticism from the United Nations.

Once the seat of Tamerlane's empire stretching from Turkey to India, Samarkand is now the second city of Uzbekistan and birthplace of its president, Islam Karimov, who will attend weekend festivities to mark the anniversary.

The rush to prepare Samarkand for its anniversary has done more harm than good.

"Restoration techniques have been lost," Nina Nemtsova, a renowned archaeologist in her 80s who lives in Uzbekistan and specializes in Central Asia and Samarkand, says.

"The people doing this have no deep historical knowledge. In my time the idea of re-construction would have been shunned whereas now it is the norm. It's hard to justify."

A trip to Shakhi Zinda, a necropolis on the Afrosiyab hill that is a site of Muslim pilgrimage and one of Samarkand's main tourist sites, illustrates her point.

A line of mausoleums snakes up the steep hill. For centuries pilgrims to what is rumored to be the tomb of Qusam ibn Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohamed, gazed on its faded blue and yellow tiles and mosaics decorating the mausoleums. 

That was before the restoration. Now the majolica tiles sparkle in bright sunshine and bricks darkened with age have been ground down to reveal lighter stone. One mausoleum has a new portal that was not there before restoration.

"It's a big event, but why should that mean spoiling our architectural inheritance?"

Heads Would Fly

"Of course this is an important anniversary for the republic (of Uzbekistan), it's a big event, but why should that mean spoiling our architectural inheritance?" Margarita Filonovich of Uzbekistan's Institute for Archaeology, said.

"I always say that if Tamerlane were still alive, many heads would fly."

Another controversial decision by the authorities has been the building and extension of a road that runs very close to Afrosiyab, Samarkand's chief archaeological site.

"The World Heritage Committee has made a very strong recommendation to the government of Uzbekistan to close this road to through traffic," Francis Childe, the chief of unit of UNESCO's Asia and Pacific World Heritage Centre, told Reuters.

"You cannot do this under the rules of the World Heritage Convention. You cannot build a great big road right through the middle of your city," he said. "I am not sure that the Uzbek authorities understood this."

He said that Shakhi Zinda's status as a place of pilgrimage complicated arguments about its restoration.

"I remember going there 15 years ago and it was in a really bad state," he said. "You cannot apply the same exact strict rules to living monuments that you apply to monuments that are no longer in use." 

Fidraus Naberayev, a representative of the Samarkand Region Inspectorate for Conservation, said Uzbekistan used standard techniques for restoration work.

"If a certain restoration was unsuccessful we certainly would allow for some elements to be dismantled and corrected," he said.

He also defended the Afrosiyab road as a way of guarding the site from encroaching urban sprawl in a city that has plenty of Soviet and post-Soviet buildings to compete with its monuments.

"We should use town planning to cut off the site, to mark it clearly," he said.

Related Links:
Vienna, Provins and Samarkand Added to UNESCO World Heritage List

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