Architectural Jewels Of My Homeland, Uzbekistan

From private homes to major public buildings, the architecture of Uzbekistan reflects its history, and its unique place as a crossroads of cultures. Not surprisingly, Persian Islam is a major influence on the monumental side, but it permeates even into the way homes and villages are structured. In those areas that were under the control of Timur the Great, palaces, mosques, madrassas and domed market complexes were built to demonstrate the political, economic, spiritual and intellectual riches of the empire.
While the largest group of Uzbeks were originally nomadic, most are now settled. When you are travelling through the country by car, all you may see are seemingly endless long walls, but behind those walls are whole neighborhoods. Each home is surrounded by a wall, and inside there is a courtyard (usually with flowers and a grape arbor). Within the home, ceilings are high, rooms are spacious, and sometimes one will see airy outdoor terraces supported by tall, slender columns. This is because traditionally all social gatherings are held within the home, and must accommodate large groups of people. But this particular attractive feature has also been taken up by the newer restaurants and lodging establishments.
Ancient public buildings, on the other hand, are openly visible from most vantage points and are meant to be seen by everyone. Almost all display blue-hued, tiled domes and the large rectangular facades with arched entrances and balconies, leading to gardens and functional interiors. Timur and his successors imported many fine artisans from all corners of the known world to Central Asia to experiment with the tiles that now encrust some of the most impressive madrassas, palaces and mosques. Of particular note, is the tile work within the Shakhi Zinda, a necropolis not far from the equally magnificent Registan in Samarkand. As you walk amongst the various mausoleums you will see not just the usual brilliant turquoise and teal colors typical of Uzbekistan, but unusual glazes, notably majolica! (You will also see a departure from strictly geometric Islamic art in the Registan, where animals and faces are depicted along with flowering motifs.)
Another Uzbek architectural characteristic is the "flat-topped" minaret. Unlike the tapering spires we generally associate with these prayer towers, the Uzbek minaret is usually shaped more like a lighthouse. As a matter of fact, the Kalon Mosque's minaret was actually known as a lighthouse that guided caravans to Bukhara during the heyday of the Silk Road.
Trees are not plentiful in Central Asia, and so the primary building material has been baked brick. An aerial view of any older city will reveal a plethora of walls, rooftops, courtyards and domes all made of these warmly colored bricks, giving the panorama at sunset a marvelously cohesive feel. The Magoki Attori Mosque in Bukhara, which still stands on the same site due to a history of destruction and rebuilding, is a fine example of terra cotta architecture. Although only parts of its original structure still exist (it was a temple to the Zoroastrian religion before it was a mosque) it has been added to and restored over the ages. The trading domes of Bukhara (also of brick) are amazing not just for the fascinating range of fine crafts for sale there, but for a design that provides shade and coolness on even the hottest days. Look up into the vaulted ceilings, and marvel at the ingenious construction.
Although as mentioned, trees are not plentiful, they are still used for supporting columns and decoratively hand-carved doorways. For the most impressive display of wooden columns you will likely ever see, visit the Djuma Mosque in Khiva. The interior is a veritable forest of ornately carved columns, and no two are alike. The symmetry and sense of quiet makes it a place that encourages meditation and tranquility.

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Food and dining out in Uzbekistan

Because Central Asia was a hub of the Silk Road, many of the spices we associate with India, Persia the Middle East or China have made their way into the cuisine, such as coriander, black pepper and cumin. The presentation and the flavors are also blended with a traditional nomadic diet, and the result is something distinctly Central Asian.
Uzbek food is colorful, hearty and healthy. Poultry and meat, (mostly sheep and lamb) are eaten.

Kebabs with fries are practically ubiquitous. Yogurt and white cheese are abundant, and are served up with a variety of fresh herbs like basil and dill.

Noodles and rice are staples. In warm weather, harvest fruits and vegetables abound, and all kinds of lovely salads, cooked, raw and marinated, adorn the table. Bread is important, and is generally disk-shaped with a design stamped into the center, and sometimes a sprinkling of seeds scattered over the top. Because of the esteem in which bread is held, one never cuts it with a knife, but tears it into pieces by hand. Just about every cuisine has a dumpling, and the Uzbek kitchen is no exception; in this case these are called Manti, meat dumplings, and every daughter is expected to know how to make them if she is to be considered good wife material!

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Music in Central Asia

If you are only familiar with western pop or classical music styles, the music of Central Asia can be as exotic as its markets and architecture. Like so much of its culture, it is a fascinating blend of nomadic and courtly traditions, while incorporating elements of the cultures surrounding (and sometimes infiltrating) it. But whether it is bardic, or classical, it is undeniably passionate. Voices are heroic, and could give any western pop star a run for the money. Melodies can seem Asian, Arabic, Indian or even reminiscent of Russian folklore!
The classical Central Asia tradition stems from the great courts that flourished during the heyday of the silk road, and is called muggam, or shashmaqam, (referencing maqqam, an Arabic system of modes and scales not unlike ragas, upon which most Arabic and Turkic music is based). The music is not choral or harmonic, but more about beautiful melodic lines that intertwine. It is stately, formal and somewhat otherworldly. Lyrically, the songs are usually settings of the works of the great poets whose names are legend, and whose poems are taught to children in school.
Both men and women can sing muggam, whereas it is only recently that women have started to sing the Bardic music, which is more associated with the nomadic culture, and has been the province of men. It is an oral tradition, somewhat troubadour-like as it recounts history and news. Of course it also has its classic repertoire, and its great teachers. In either case, this is music to slow down with, and to savor, like a fine brandy.
Instrumental accompaniment can be with Uzbekistan dutar, a long necked two stringed lute that for all its simplicity, can carry powerful riffs and melodic lines, the kemanche, or spike fiddle, which is played vertically, or the doira, a frame drum with small "rings" inside the body, that give it a bell-like jingle. The jews harp is also a popular instrument, particularly within the bardic tradition.
Central Asia folk music by contrast can be downright fun, from humorous songs that are easy to follow with call and response patterns, to energetic dances. Unlike the very formal court dancing, some dances are easy to join in on, and as long as you can keep up, and have a reasonable sense of rhythm you'll have plenty of folks cheering you on.
If you take any taxis or buses, you will hear plenty of the local pop music. This is incredibly infectious, fun stuff, and everyone will be happy to tell you who their favorite stars are. Much of the music retains the melodic structures of the traditional songs, but are fleshed out with Western style harmonies and electric instruments. You'll find your toes tapping to it, and bits of the songs running over and over in your head. During your tours to Uzbekistan or Central Asia be sure to buy some of this music in the market places, it will be a wonderful reminder of your visit, for years to come!

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