An old tradition
The name, Timur, Uzbekistan's all-conquering hero and favourite name for newborn baby boys, means "iron" and metalwork of all sorts has a long and illustrious history all through Central Asia. Beautifully wrought metal grilles and screens can still be seen in buildings, bronze ewers and bowls are for sale in the markets along with a fearsome array of knives and blades of all sorts. Once there were dozens of blacksmiths working in Bukhara, some 40 blacksmiths remain. The master blacksmith at the Museum of Metalwork in Bukhara will proudly show you his work - including stork-shaped scissors of amazing sharpness.
Chased metal is another ancient craft that hase been revived - these metal crafts suffered as much neglect under the Soviet regime as all the other crafts but Government initiatives actively encourage the re-establishment of centres for teaching and craft museums for study so that all these old skills are undergoing a considerable rebirth.
Chaps in chapans
Older Uzbek men often wear a chapan - a long coat - all year round, lightweight in summer, padded in winter, plain for everyday wear and spendidly striped for best. Whilst young men tend to choose Western (Russian) dress for everyday wear , when mornings start to get chilly many of them join their elders and opt for a traditional thickly padded chapan. You'll see piles of them for sale in bazaars everywhere.
They become totally splendid, in velvet encrusted with beautiful gold embroidery, for celebration wear. Again in the bazaars, you'll see mass-produced machine-made versions, but go to the museums and there you will see royal chapans that are worth a king's ransom, so fine and opulent is the bullion work on them. These are known as zarchapan
Old photos show the emir's guards and courtiers respendent in brightly coloured silk chapans - what a sight they must have been.
Embroidery becomes art in Uzbekistan. The wonderfully fine work coupled with an extraordinary sense of design and colour produces work of a vibrancy and beauty that is recognized the world over as unique and very, very special.
The term suzane is often used to cover the whole range of embroidery found throughout the region although, to be correct, a suzane is a large wallhanging of a particular construction - a small wall hanging of the same type is known as a nimsuzane and there are many, many other names and types of wall hangings, bedsheets, prayermats and other domestic textiles.
All this is of interest really only to collectors and students of this craft - for the average tourist, it is enough to know that these are some of Uzbekistan's greatest treasures. Whether they are the magnificent specimens in the museums, part of a young bride's dowry or bought by a tourist in a Bukhara market, they are part of a long tradition that, fortunately, shows no sign of abating.
Age is no disgrace in Uzbekistan -unlike many western nations. Here to be called an aksakal-a "whitebeard" is a mark of repect, a recognition of one's place as an elder of the family and the community, someone whose opinions are considered important and who has earned the right to sit in the sun with friends and contemporaries, to while away the days with tea, conversation, chess and, if the mood takes you, a snooze. Long may the custom last.
Tying the knot
Look beyond the initial kitch appearance of Khiva's wedding palace with its stork over the exit and plastic flowering trees and you will see ancient symbolism here. The little blue tiles inset in the brick walls are ancient Zoroastrian symbols - they were inserted when the palace was built - not as a government building but as the Mohammed Amin Inak Medressah in 1785 - and all around the walls are signs of the Zodiac, astral bodies that carry great weight in this part of the world - nothing is being left to chance in setting each new marriage off on the right track.
The staff of life
Uzbek bread , non, baked in a clay oven called a tandir, looks and tastes wonderful, big round golden-brown loaves, highly glazed and decorated with a variety of patterns and maybe seeds in the middle. Each baker has his own pattern, customers are particular about the bread they prefer and no meal is complete without it.
Every region has its own variations, and every region thinks theirs is the best. It's said that Timur insisted on bread from his hometown, Shakhrisabz, wherever he was and when the Emir of Bukhara was disapointed with the bread baked for him in Bukhara by Samarkand's best baker, the quick-witted baker saved his skin (Emirs were noted for their quickness to send anyone who displeased then for execution) by saying "But the air here is not Samarkand's air"
Bread is treated with great respect, never placed top side down on the table, and never thrown away.
Green tea, or black?
Green tea (kok choy) - this is the tea of hospitality - is the first choice for drinking in Uzbekistan. Black tea (quora choy)is always available though and is the favourite of Tashkenters. Spiced teas are also available in some places - the Silk Road Spices Teahouse in Bukhara has a good range. What you won't get is tea with milk, though lemon and sugar may be possible.
Unlike the Middle East, where tea is served in glasses, here it is always served in small china bowls (pyola) from a china teapot 9choynik). The favoured pattern on these is a stylized cotton flower -Uzbekistan's "white gold" - rendered in whilte and gold on a blue background.
Traditionally, chaikhanas are men's territory or for family groups - women don't come on their own but women tourists will have no problems - hospitality always comes first in Uzbekistan.
The chaikhana - a way of life
The chaikhana (tea house) is completely central to the Uzbek way of life. Whether it's a shady, green oasis like those around the Lyab-i Khauz in Bukhara or a couple of carpeted low day beds with tables fixed in the middle (a takhta)out under a tree along a country road, elaborately balconied amid thick trees in Samarkand, a swish affair of tented pavilions in a Tashkent park, set down beside a cool canal in Fergana or set inside the walls of Khiva , no day is complete without some time spent sipping tea, talking over whatever needs talking over and watching the world go by.
If the chaikhana has a takhta, etiquette dictates that you take your shoes (though not your socks) off before you step onto the carpeted platform to sit crosslegged.
When the tea arrives, with small china cups, the custom is to pour some into a cup and then empty it back in the pot and to do this three times -loi, moi, choi - mud, oil and, finally, tea. The pourer always takes the first cup - to show it's not poisoned. Not such an old necessity in this land where murder and intrigue was a reality in the not so distant past!
Bride and groom
As well as the Western dress for the civil ceremony, if there is to be a traditional wedding celebration, the bride and groom will need the elaborate traditional dress seen here. Many of their friends and family will be dressed in this way too - a splendid sight.
The girl here was buying her robe in the market in Tashkent, the "groom" in this instance a tourist inveigled into dressing up for a photo.
The gold embroidery on these robes is machine-made, still expensive but nothing like as cripplingly so as the fabulous work that is produced by the master-bullion embroiderers of Bukhara. Gold and silver embroidery is men's work - it's believed that women's hands cause the precious metallic thread to tarnish!
Whole sections of the bazaars are given over to wedding finery
Weddings are a time for great celebration everywhere in Uzbekistan. Often costing a huge amount of money ( a recent presidential decree has called for a reduction in the spending on weddings as costs , and rivalry to put on a bigger and better "do" spiral), a traditional wedding involves at least two days of celebration. A ceremony at the local Wedding Palace fulfills the legal requirements of civil law. For this, the bridal couple dresses in Western style, a suit for him and an fantasy of white dress and veil for her. After the ceremony the whole party goes walkabout around the town, visiting the monuments and places of note, stopping along the way for photos and impromtu dancing.
Then comes the real party, and out come the traditional gold-encrusted velvet robes, the best of which are worth a king's ransom. Mountains of food are cooked, with special wedding plov the star dish. Music, dancing and traditional games are all part of the fun. The guest list is huge, no-one is left out.
October is the favoured wedding season, the harvest is over and the weather's reliable.
Hats to see and hats to collect
You can buy doppis, wedding hats and some others worn as everyday dress at markets. Hats worn for weddings, by both bride and groom, are particularly elaborate. The bride has a white embroidered and beaded square hat with a long beaded fringe that hangs down her back and she will wear this for some time after the wedding when she is dressed up and going out. The groom's hat is usually a golden turban, which he isn't expected to wear it anywhere but the wedding. The market ones are factory made or, at best, mass-produced
If you're looking for something more special, you'll find Bukhara probably has the best selection spread over a number of traders in different places.
If you're just looking, there are wonderful examples of old hats to be seen in museums around the country - Tashkent's Applied Art Museum and Fine Art Museum both have excellent collections but there are museum quality pieces for sale too - at a price. The shop in Tashkent's fine art museum had some lovely ones - I fell in love with a tiny baby's skullcap, made for a newborn to wear at the cradle ceremony but left it there when told the price! as I did with the fabulous Tajik girl's caps in Photo 5 - they were in an antique dealers in the Cap-maker's bazaar in Bukhara and at a starting price of $1000 for the one I liked best, it stayed in the shop too. Not that I didn't bring some home with me (photo 3).
Wild and woolly
The huge sheepskin hats that are seen for sale in Uzbekistan are telpek , the traditional head gear of the Turkmen of western Central Asia. Looking at them, you can't help but wonder how they could wear such a hat year-round - in the depth of winter, yes - but on a baking summer's day ? In fact, it's claimed that these hats create their own micro-climate for the head, warm in winter and cool in summer. They also say they're light to wear and that they improve the posture and encourage a slow and graceful demeanor. They also indicate status and demonstrate the wearer's pride in himself.
Young men wear white telpeks while older men wear black or dark brown telpeks.
More than any other item of clothing, it is the vast array of little skull caps that are the most recognizable thing about Uzbek dress.
Virtually all men over the age of 35 or 40 wear the square black, brown, grey or blue doppi or tyubiteika trimmed with white embroidery - satin or velvet for best, cloth, leather or even printed card for everyday. Wearing the the doppi could be taking on a new meaning also - recently a law was passed forbidding the sale of white skull caps - the government considers them alien, an undesirable manifestation of Arabic-influenced Islam, anathema to this determinedly secular state. Although not exclusive to Uzbekistan, wearing a doppi signals an allegiance to Central Asian traditions.
Many of the very old men still wear a loosely wound turban, particularly in the countryside.
Married women mostly wear a head scarf tied at the nape of their neck these days for everyday use, widows wear a big white scarf draped loosely over their head, newly-wed brides signal their status with a white hat, and the prettiest and brightest embroidered caps are those of unmarried girls.
We noticed some women wearing their headscarf hijab-style - firmly anchored under the chin and spreading across the shoulders - on our most recent visit, a sign perhaps of a growing Arab-style observance of Islam. What will be the government's reaction to trhat if the trend continues, I wonder?
Different regions have different styles and use different stitches to embroider the hats. You'll find them for sale everywhere, some mass=produced and costing avery little, others are museum pieces and will cost a fortune, but more of that in the shopping section.
...this is now
Although many women wear standard western dress these days, others choose a charming mix of the traditional and the modern. For high days and holidays, the wonderfully colourful Ikat silks that the country is famous for are greatly favoured, whilst everyday wear often features a synthetic version of the same patterns. A long tunic ( kuljak) over trousers (ishton)is the norm, the fit and flare of the kuljak depending greatly on the figure beneath, and the owner of that figure's self-confidence or modesty - some choose an extremely figure-flattering style whilst others opt for something more concealing. Whatever the shape of what's on top, the trousers beneath sometimes reveal the ankle and are trimmed with a little tassle on the inside seam. It's a lovely touch, and more than a little flirtatious.
2009 update Autumn was coming when we visited Uzbekistan this year, and most women had exchanged their silky ikat prints for more wintery velours and velvets, gaudy florals mostly with added embellishments of sequins and gold. The bazaars were full of it - home dressmaking is obviously still all the go in Uzbekistan.
That was then ...
This is what the well-dressed Uzbek woman used to wear when she went out. A heavy velvet cloak with long, impossibly narrow sleeves that served only for ornament known as a chevtan and a thick face-covering veil made of woven horsehair ,paranji, turned her into a stiff cut-out shape that bore absolutely no resemblance to the human form. Whilst looking out through the veil was no different from looking through fly-wire mesh, the cloak was incredibly restricting and in the intense heat of an Uzbek summer it must have been suffocating.
Photos 1 and 2 show the chevtan and paranji as worn by wealthy women.
Photo 3 dates from the late 19th century whilst photo 4 dates from the 1920s and shows how ordinary women worn the paranji but not the chevtan. It was taken in Tashkent by photographer Max Penson and is reproduced here under the conditions imposed by the website www.maxpenson.com. The website is a wonderful archive of photos of Uzbek life from the 1920s to the 1940s.
Public veil-burnings were staged by the Soviets as late as the 1960s and, although at the time this was fiercely resisted by menfolk with traditional attitudes, there is no sign of the veil returning across most of the country.
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