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...named for a 9th century astronomer (al-Farghani - or to give him his full title - Abu'l-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kathir al-Farghani), Fergana (or as the Uzbeks spell it - Farg'ona) was founded in 1876 to be the regional centre for the Tsarist regime that had annexed the Khanates of Turkestan (Bukhara, Khiva and Kokhand) one by one as Russia and Great Britain played out the tactical battles of brinkmanship known now as The Great Game. The collapse of the Soviet empire a century later saw the Russians move out, leaving behind a city built on a Russian model of broad tree-lined streets dotted with Russian-style buildings, some of which have been put to new uses whilst others are left empty and abandoned.
There's not much in Fergana for tourists to see or do but, as the airport is here along with most of the hotels catering to tourist groups, this is where you'll probably end up staying, using the town as a base for exploring this part of the Fergana Valley. Margilan is nominally 11 km away - in reality the two towns are all but conjoined. Kokhand and Rishtan are a comfortable day-long excursion. These three towns together take up most of the time allocated to the area for those on an organised tour - independent travellers can make their own decisions about how long to stay and how to spend their time - even so, in all likelihood, Fergana will only earn itself a few hours of all but the keenest sightseer's time.
Having said that, the centre of town is a pleasant place for a stroll before dinner. Al-Fargani himself has pride of place in the huge park that bears his name, the gardens and fountains around his statue are popular with wedding parties and families out for an evening outing. The grand green building near the park entrance on Mustakillik Kushasi was built in 1877 as the residence of the Russian military governor - now it's the regional theatre. Across the street, the Tsum department store has a style all its own and, if you are a total bazaar-junkie, you could double-dose by visiting both Fergana and Margilan's on the one day.
I don't know what we missed by not visiting the Museum of Local Studies, not a lot if Wanderboy43's comments are anything to go by.
Updated Jan 19, 2012
11 kilometres and a thousand years of Central Asian history divide Fergana and neighboring Margilan. By the 9th century, when Russia's dominance of the khanates of the Silk Road was an unimaginable leap into the future, Margilan was already a thriving trading centre that could trace its name back to Alexander the Great - it's said the meal of chicken -murgh -and bread - non - he ate there is the origins of the name.
If you only visit one bazaar whilst you're in the Valley, Margilan's is the one to head for, and if you can be there on a Thursday or Sunday, so much the better as tthey are the days the market's at its busiest. We managed to be there on Thursday. Our guide told us it was a quiet day at the bazaar, the cotton-picking season was almost at an end and everyone possible - buyers and sellers - was out in the fields bringing in the last of the crop before the sutumn rains started. All I can say is, if what we saw was a quiet day, a busy day must see it packed! One long alleyway was heaped with mounds of melons and the piles of pumpkins of every shape and colour were a gorgeous still life in themselves. All the fruits of late summer were there - apples and pears, pomegranates bursting with ruby-red seeds, yellow figs, black grapes, golden persimmons. Great bowls of prepared salads, old pram chassis- turned bread carts stacked with the distinctive (and delicious) rounds of traditional Uzbek bread, sacks overflowing with jewel-bright peppers and bright yellow carrots, at least 20 different sizes and qualities of dried apricots, mini-mountains of spices, nuts, raisins, dried mulberries ...
Down at one end of the covered market we found stalls selling pots and pans and the utensils essential in the well-set-up Uzbek kitchen - the copper pots big enough to rustle up a feast of plov for 20 people were a bit big for the suitcase but a silky-smooth apricot wood rolling pin soon found its way into my bag and the wood and metal pin stamps used to make the distinctive central patterns on the bread were snapped up as take-home gifts for keen cooks at home.
Updated Nov 17, 2009
Rasuljon Mirzaahmedov is the fifth generation of his family to practice the skilled craft of ikat design and, like his father, Turghunboy Mirzaahmedov, before him, he is dedicated to ensuring the traditional crafts of Uzbekistan are passed on to future generations. With the support of UNESCO, he founded the Centre of Handicraft Development at the newly restored-Sayyid Ahmad Huja Ishan Medressah in Margilan in 2007. The student cells of the old medressah have become artisan's studios, the water channel is used to wash the freshly dyed hanks of silk and the prayer hall is a showcase-cum-shop of the centre's work and Rasul's collection of historic textiles. The aim of the centre is to teach the handicrafts of the Fergana region, skills that were largely lost in the Soviet era when men like Rasul's father were gaoled for secretly carrying on the banned tradition of individual masters and their workshops.
Currently the arts of silk and wool carpets weaving, ikat weaving, block-printing and embroidery are being taught and produced at the centre. Using natural dyes and traditional techniques the young people studying and working here are producing textiles of a quality comparable to the best their great-grandparents created.
As well as this important work, Rasul has also revived the completely lost art of silk velvet ikat, the most luxurious of all the splendid textiles produced in Uzbekistan. When he set himself the task of recreating a'lo bakhmal, none had been woven for a hundred years. He has also revived weaving techniques unique to other Uzbek regions. Examples of all these can be bought at the centre - my choice was a silk stole woven in Khorezm-style, not cheap (well, not by Uzbek prices) but very beautiful.
Updated Nov 18, 2009
Address: Sayyid Ahmad Huja Ishan Str., 1. Margilan
The production of silk has been, and still is, Margilan's main industry for centuries. There's no record of just when the jealously guarded secrets of the laborious processes of sericulture arrived in Uzbekistan but it is well-documented that the industry was thriving in mediaeval times and at the beginning of the 20th century century there were more than 900 workshops in the city, and some 2-3000 people were employed in producing silk - almost all of it still woven by hand. There were silk workshops in other cities right across the country, but Margilan was indisputably the main centre.
By the 1930s, the hand looms had all but disappeared as the Soviet penchant for centralised state control took over and the whole country's silk industry was concentrated in just two huge factories in Margilan. One of those factories still exists, employing 1,000 people and Churning out about 25 kilometres of silk cloth each day.
You don't have to resort to archival films and old photos to understand how the beautiful silks you see in the country's museums were produced however. Back in 1972 a group of enterprising local silk workers established the Yodgorlik factory - then a state-owned enterprise but privatised today and the only place in in Central Asia where original handmade methods of silk production are practised by some 450 employees, most of them young women. A visit here is on the itinerary of virtually every visitor to the Fergana Valley, and rightly so - it is quite fascinating.
During a visit, every step of the production process can be observed, from the laborious (and very smelly) process by which the mile of silk filament on the cocoon is unwound, through various stages of spinning. carding, dyeing and finally weaving, or knotting if a carpet is the final object. Moving from building to building around the complex you get to meet everyone from the women whose very unpleasant job it is to deal with the smell and steam of the cocoon room to the master ikat ti-er and his assistants, the dyer, the man whose skill and care keeps the old wooden looms repaired and working, the weavers at both traditional hand and historic early mechanised looms, the girls knotting the lustrous carpets that take months to produce and finally, inevitably, the salemen in the factory shop.
Still to come - maybe - a travelogue giving a more detailed look at this fascinating craft
Updated Nov 17, 2009
Margilan ikat designer, Turghunboy Mirzaahmedov was acknowledged as a supreme master of his craft, not only in Uzbekistan but all over the world. A visit to his home was both a privilege and a pleasure.
The fourth generation of his family to practice the art, for years Usto (Master) Mirzaamedov defied Soviet prohibitions on individual craftsmen working independently of the State. For this, in 1983 he and 75 other dyers, designers and weavers were sent to prison for 5 years. When he was released he worked both for the Yodgorlik Silk Factory and from his own home until his death. Not only did he leave a legacy of beautiful examples of his work but, much more importantly, he also left a complete archive of the details of his designs - their patterns and names and how much yarn they required. That is why I was able to buy a length of ikat tied and dyed exactly to the Usto's specifications.
Today his wife and daughter continue his work - or some of it. Working to his patterns (traditionally, ikats are designed by men and woven by women) they produce the fabrics and open their house to visitors. The house is worth a visit in itself. Begun in 1990, it took 7 years to complete, a substantial and traditional house showing nothing of itself to the outside world beyond blank walls and a large gate. Wide verandahs and a lush garden planted with fruit trees create tranquil outdoor living spaces. The ikats and suzani on the walls are not for sale, they are museum pieces, the ikats the work of Usto Mirzaahmedov himself.
Updated Nov 17, 2009
50 kilometres west of Fergana, the town of Rishtan sits on a bed of red clay so fine and pure it can be worked just as it is, without any further refinement. It's no surprise then to learn that potters of Rishtan have been stacking their kilns for a thousand years, producing pots of such delicacy and refinement that they are famed all over Central Asia. The surrounding countryside provides the raw materials for some of accent colours in the palette they used but the predominate blues and aquamarines are derived from imported lapis lazuli and the soft sheen of the finished pots comes from the use of ash in the glaze. Known as ishkor, the colours and quality of this glaze made the ceramics of Rishtan instantly recognizable and demand was such that, by the end of the 19th century, the whole town was involved in ceramic production - all of it in small family-owned and operated workshops and studios.
Then along came the Soviets, and before they really knew what was happening, the family workshops were closed and the workers of the Rishtan Ceramic Works were churning out utilitarian wares with lead-based glazes. Ishkor glazes became almost a memory as those who knew their secrets died without successors to their tradition.
Times change, the Soviets left, the Ceramic Works closed and the Rishtan Art Ceramics Factory opened, producing the blue and green ceramics found all over Uzbekistan; you can buy them everywhere but if you want to see or buy really fine work, you need to come to Rishtan.
Rustam Usmanov is a master ceramicist who opens his home studio to visitors. They are made welcome with tea and fruit served in the garden, there's a small museum of old and the best of the new pieces to consider, a tour of the studio explains and demostrates all the processes and materials used, and of course you can buy something to take home with you -anything from a tiny dish big enough for a few olive pips to an enormous platter or bowl - or maybe you'd prefer a spotted teapot like the one your tea came in, only your wallet - and your ability to keep it safe until you get home, is your limit. By the time you leave, you'll have met all the family - just another example of Uzbek hospitality.
Updated Nov 18, 2009
Wise and holy men known as Khodjas are revered in Central Asian Muslim culture and here in Margilan, a city where years of Soviet supression of religion never broke the faith of the local people despite the enforced closure and neglect of their mosques, medressahs and mausoleums.
Khodja Magiz lived in Margilan in the 16th century, teaching and guiding the people of that time with great wisdom. As with the tombs of other such holy men all over the Muslim world, Magiz's tomb became a venerated place, somewhere where people came to pray and, ultimately to be buried near the khodja. His blue-domed mausoleum forms part of the recently restored Kaftalik ensemble, along with the entrance portal to the cemetery that stretched out behind the mausoleum and the iwan beside the mausoleum. The pigeons that flutter around the domes are called the Khodja's birds, their presence ensured by a large pigeon loft in the cemetery.
Updated Nov 18, 2009
The Kokand khanate was both the newest, the largest, and the shortest-lived of the three khanates that dominated the region that is now occupied by Uzbekistan and parts of its near neighbors, Kyrgistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Founded in the early 18th century, it rose to its greatest power in the first half of the 19th century but was swept up in Russia's push into Asia in the 1860s. Left on his throne but in reality a Russian puppet, Khudayar, the last Khan of Kokand, continued to build the grand palace he had started in 1863. It took ten years to complete but when it was done, Khudayar only lived in it for 2 years before he was forced to flee into exile. 1876 saw the khanate renamed the province of Fergana in the region known to the world as Russian Turkestan.
Approached through the small park that is the last remnant of the extensive gardens that once surrounded the palace and up a long ramp, the entire facade covered in tiles, it is an impressive sight but only a handful of the palace's original 113 rooms have survived, among them the throne room where a glass case holds a model of the palace as it was. A visit here and to the nearby Juma mosque can only hint at the splendour that once existed. No expense was spared as master craftsmen carved and painted the wood and the plaster that decorate every surface that wasn't covered by exquisite tiles. Light from large windows floods over carved and painted plaster work, known as ganch, reflects off tiles and illuminates the beautiful designs painted on the coffered ceilings.
Most of the rooms were empty when we were there; guide books mention a natural history display did we not go into that room or were they just that forgettable? One thing that was not forgettable was the display of photos in one of the courtyards. I love old photos and these were an honour roll of portraits of the heroes of the short-lived autonomous Muslim Government of Turkestan who rose up against the might of the Red Army in late 1917. Doomed from the start, the rebellion was crushed in February 1918, the palace bombed, the city burned. 14,000 people died and the yoke of Communism descended but the heroes of those days were not forgotten and when independence came in 1992 old photos were unearthed and this tribute installed (photo 5).
Updated Nov 27, 2009
Silken robes fit for khan, coral- and pearl-encrusted jewellery for his wives and concubines, weapons and armour, documents signed and sealed by the khan - who held the power of life and death over all his subjects, a collection of historic photographs, wooden carts (how uncomfortable must it have been to ride in the one in Photo 2?!! This is a carriage for a royal woman - I think if I'd been her I would have rather stayed at home in the palace any day!) - these are just some of the artifacts on display in some of the rooms in the museum at the Khudayar Khan's palace. It's the sort of museum I love - cabinets full of the minutae of life in days gone by, some basic signage in English so I know what I'm looking at (Uzbek and Russian are the other languages used) and no-one else there to get in the way of what I'm looking at.
The museum's exhibits also tell of the Russian and Soviet eras that followed the fall of the Khanate, and life since the demise of the Soviet empire and there are valuable collections of the myriad applied arts of the region as well - more than enough to keep the keen museumophile happy for an hour or two. When you've finished and you go looking for the museum shop, instead of the usual reproductions and "collection-inspired" souvenirs that are the bread-and-butter of most museums, you'll find yourself surrounded by local women with piles of suzani for sale or find yourself being escorted into a fusty book-lined room that would bring a smile to any flea market habituee's face. There are treasures to be found too - some of the suzanes have real age to them, and the bric-a-brac on sale included items that wouldn't look out of place in a collector's cabinet.
Updated Nov 19, 2009
Kokand's Amin Beg medressah is being restored - a visit there was a chance to watch the young men working high above us, meticulously painting the intricate patterns on the ceiling, to weave through the maze of scaffolding and carved wooden pillars that filled the great iwan, to watch the plaster workers carefully carving the intricate patterns of the traditional ganch onto the panelled walls of the medressah and to carefully pick our way through the rubble that was strewn all over the courtyard led by the the keeper of the key who opened the door of the minaret so we could peer up the tight spiral staircase into the darkness above.
The elderly ladies enjoying their tea on a takhta waved us towards a door in the corner; we entered to find a small museum - some beautiful suzanes on the walls, costumes, domestic stuff mostly including an Uzbek room , complete with covered cradle - beshik by the hearth. Lift the cover and there's the baby - complete with Uzbek nappy (a wooden catheter sort of thing - I never found out the name - that channels the pee into a bowl that sits in a hole in the base of the beshik). Poor babies - they spend the almost all the first two years of their lives tightly swaddled, lying in the covered beshik - no wonder rickets is so common - but I digress ....
Having declined the offer to climb the minaret, it was time to leave. This was when the whole thing became very odd indeed. Instead of going out the way we came in, we went through a door and found ourselves in ... a furniture shop. The whole street side of the medressah has been converted into shops - not really the use the man who endowed thie medressah back in 1830 had in mind.
Updated Nov 22, 2009