Last weekend, I had the opportunity to visit an older part of Tashkent, the Hazrat Imam Complex (sometimes written as Khast Imom Square) with a few embassy colleagues, including our ambassador, led by local historian, author, scholar and inventor Boris Anatolevich Golender.
The trip was organized by the PLP (Post Language Program) and was conducted all in Russian, so unfortunately I probably missed some of the names and significance of what we saw. I gamely tagged along, listening and trying to balance a wish to understand everything with a stronger urge to just let it all wash over me. There were also some areas and items where photography was not permitted; in the meantime reading my Lonely Planet and Brandt guides has helped me fill in some of the gaps.
The main mosque on this square is the largest mosque in the city, and contains sandalwood columns from India and dark green marble from Turkey. The interior of its blue-tiled domes are adorned with genuine gold leaf.
We also saw the Muyi Muborak Library, which is said to contain a hair from the Prophet Mohammed himself. The library displays many rare manuscripts, including Korans in dozens of languages (it was amazing to see Korans translated into Swedish, Urdu, Portuguese, and Thai, just to name a few.)
The library also purportedly contains the world’s oldest Koran, which is stained with blood of Caliph Uthman who was reading it at the time of his assassination in Medina in AD656. This Koran, sadly now incomplete, was produced just 19 years after the death of Mohammed. It was written on real deerskin and is now displayed in a glass-fronted vault. Attendants roamed alertly around the platform, halting us from photographing this beautiful piece of history and the gorgeous dome above it. I tried to commit it, and everything in the museum, to memory.
In an ironic and frustrating twist, all of the smoke detectors in the museum needed their batteries changed, beeping intermittently as we moved from room to room, the only harsh sounds in such a tranquil place.
On the western edge of the square, visitors can see the Al-Bukhari Institute (once called the Nomozgoh Mosque), one of the few Islamic centers that was permitted to operate during the Soviet period. Currently more than one hundred scholars study there.
During this day, I experienced: wonder, at the beauty and cultural significance of things we saw; embarrassment, at disrupting the prayerful ambiance of apparently barren or widowed women while we gaped around sites (I took my cues that it was OK from our local guides who indeed, seemed to think it was OK, and the reactions of the faithful which seemed to support this); carsickness, while riding from place to place; and delight, at our late lunch of plov with lamb, quail eggs and raisins, topped off with a cool beer.