The long summer in Central Asia has barely begun.
The sun rises over the horizon. It reinforces the golden cross of the eight-branched cross of the Orthodox Church of St. Alexei and the green of the trees on the Avenida da Universidade.
It has been 21 years since Uzbekistan seized the opportunity given by Gorbachev and freed itself from the yoke of the Kremlin. Many Russians chose to ignore the flow of history. They stayed where they were.
Like all over the country, in Samarkand, they took advantage of the social and economic advantage previously gained by their families and filled vacancies in the best businesses and jobs. We see proudly beautiful young women walking along the sidewalks on their way downtown, on high heels, in tight dresses.
And men of haughty bearing concerned with making their investments profitable, whether they are Soviet misfits or the recent ones of the new era of the almighty President Karimov.
The Old Warehouse of Cultures and Commerce of Samarkand
Samarkand has always been seen as a crossroads of cultures. It welcomes people from all over, starting with national visitors who take advantage of the short summer vacation periods to pay tribute to the city.
We reach the northeast end of the avenue and find the imposing black statue of Timur, the emir of Mongolian-Turkish lineage who, in the fourteenth century, conquered one of the greatest empires in the world and founded an ambitious Islamic dynasty.
We take it unhurriedly as three Uzbeks get out of a taxi and cross the surrounding roundabout incautiously.
For one of them, a street photographer, the morning had started better than he expected. The two compatriots were about to leave town.
They rescued him from his work place so that they could take as a souvenir an image of companionship and veneration, at the feet of the great monarch, terror of the Mamluk enemies, the Ottomans and even the Knights Hospitaller.
Registão Square, the Monumental Legado Timurida de Samarkanda
Registão Square, less than a kilometer away, celebrates the splendor of the Timurid era. When we find her, she receives the caress of a battalion of dedicated gardeners and the promiscuous supervision of several “cucumbers”, as the Uzbeks call their nation's policemen, for wearing all-green uniforms.
We see colorful groups of Muslim pilgrims arriving, excited to be at last in front of the most emblematic madrassas of the mystic Turkestan. We follow their solidary movements until they disappear through the imposing porticoes.
The Ulugh Beg (1417-1420) and the Sher-dor (1619-1636) were the first to be built. They face each other and dispute the architectural prominence of the square with the youngest, Tilya-Kori (1646-1660) who appears in front of whoever arrives.
They once functioned as prominent Islamic schools to which the population was called to hear royal proclamations and attend public executions.
And the Astronomical Legacy of Emir Ulugh Beg
Ulugh Beg, the last of the emirs of the dynasty, had much more to convey. In addition to being a leader, he proved himself a master mathematician and astronomer. It turned its madrassa into one of the best universities in the Muslim East.
It also built a pioneer space observatory.
Nowadays, the authorities have turned it into a museum, complete with open gardens that the city's inhabitants have adapted to their earthly uses.
The Uzbek Social Urgency of Marriage and Procreation
We join the entourage at a wedding. We have fun accompanying the photographers on duty as they position the couple against a sky painted on a wall and rehearse poses as passionate as they are saturated with the bride's veil hovering supported by an illusory absence of gravity.
Marriage and families without end are sacred in Uzbekistan. Native women ask us again and again if we are married and how many children we have. The answer almost always leaves them shattered. Some cannot even conform.
Raifa Egamnazarova moved from Fergana Valley to spend the weekend in Samarkand. He wears a white handkerchief that frames the worn face of slob tender.
It allows us to photograph it and shows off its steel irises and gold teeth.
The photo session generates some apprehension in the lady: “You see there! My husband still sees this in magazines and he's going to ask me if I went shopping after all or dating to Portugal".
He ends up adopting us as children and, for a good half hour, insists that we have to give him his first grandchild the following year.
The importance of marriage and family ties came out unscathed from the communist experiments, but during the Russian colonial era and, later, in the Soviet era, several sacred buildings of Islam were destroyed and its influence on society nullified.
President Karimov's Absolutism and the Control of Islam
President Karimov has adopted part of the Soviet recipe and keeps the religion under control. There are few madrassas in the country that continue to serve the old purposes.
Those in Samarkand are no exception. In several, they house different families and occupy the students' former ground floor rooms with handicraft bazaars and other memorabilia.
Inside Sher-dor, a salesman with a portentous look from Nikhita Mikhalkov approaches Nilufar – the young guide who accompanies us. In Russian, he tries to foist him a visit to his photography shop first.
Soon, dusty video tapes that he claims to illustrate the glory of the city to which he has remained faithful: “Tell them there that they are of great interest to them.
No need to have so much work with these huge machines! It only costs 20 euros…”. Infected, therefore, other Uzbek-looking sellers try to summon us to their mini-markets and shop windows.
The Prosperous Era of the Silk Road
In Silk Road times, commerce must have flowed much better than it does now.
Samarkand was halfway between China (Xi An), and the civilizations of the Mediterranean, especially Rome. Valuable products from Asia and Europe traveling in both directions on long camel caravans, finding buyers on the way and at their final destinations.
The exotic silk justified the long journey of the Venetian Polo family, who came to live in neighboring Bukhara, until they continued to the east and fell into the goto of the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. Years later, Kublai khan he appointed the Polos ambassadors for his messages to the Pope. He made them his diplomats for other missions.
According to Marco Polo, sometime after his father and uncle's second visit to the China – Marco's first –, the three Poles asked the Emperor several times to return to Europe.
The Khan so enjoyed their company that he would have postponed their departure time and time again. With no alternative, the Polos resigned themselves to respecting his will.
Stalin and other Soviet leaders pursued different whims.
The Age of Cotton, the White Gold that Takes the Place of Silk
At the time of the Stalin, cotton was known as Ouro Branco, it had an enormous commercial value. Attracted by the fortune they could cultivate in the then Uzbek colony, Kremlin politicians decreed the diversion of water from the Aral Sea and from the country's main rivers to irrigate endless crops in the Kyzyl Kum and Aral Kum deserts.
The experiment proved to be as catastrophic in environmental terms as it was profitable. Cotton is, even today, the main production in Uzbekistan and in the Samarkand region.
But not all Soviet heritages generated such controversy. A fleet of Lada cars continues to circulate in Samarkand and resists replacement by newer Chevrolet models.
We soon learn to value this longevity. The city's secondary roads prove to be destructive like few others, and Uzbek men – usually calm and courteous – are often enthusiastic behind the wheel of your aged bolide.
For some reason we can't find out, they seem to generate more adrenaline and testosterone – and, as a result, a lot more honking, arguments, collisions and dents – in Samarkand than in the rest of the country.