From SMU to Samarkand: Bridwell Director Visits Central Asia

August 24, 2022

By Anthony J. Elia, Director of Bridwell Library

Elia poses with Peruna, SMU’s mascot, in front of Gur-i Amir Complex and mausoleum of Timur in Samarkand.

During the month of May, I spent three weeks traveling through the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan, in what is often considered the center of the ancient Silk Road.  While this historical confluence of markets, trade routes, and nodes of transcontinental commerce reaches deeply into the past, the term Silk Road is relatively new in comparison.  It was first used in the work of the German geographer Ferdinand von Richtohofen (1833-1905), who employed it to describe the expansive human networks across Central Asia, which were known for their particular commerce in silk, hence Seidenstrasse or Silk Road(s).

My travels took me more than 2,000 miles across the geographically and culturally diverse terrain of this economically burgeoning country, from its very modern capital city Tashkent to the ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva; from the dried-up Aral Sea in the far northwestern autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan (and its towns of Nukus and Moynaq), where a thriving fishing industry once dominated the region, to the lush, fertile, and agriculturally vibrant Fergana Valley.  In this region you will find cities like Andijan, Margilan, and Kokand, which offer wide selections of fresh produce, regionally specific cuisines, unique artisan wares, and major historical sites.  This includes a museum devoted to the life and history of Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire and author of the Bāburnāma.

The country is dynamic and diverse in its ecology, terrain, people, society, and culture—there are expansive deserts, towering mountains, mighty rivers, and breathtaking valleys.  Across the country people from almost every regional background come together and share in all aspects of social intercourse.  Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Kazakhs, Russians, and of course, Uzbeks, among many others populate city and country alike.  And people practice a variety of religions, participate in numerous social, cultural, and political activities, speak any number of languages, and eat an impressive array of delicacies.


Left: Khiva old city at night. Center: Ships in the dried up Aral Sea in western Uzbekistan. Only a fraction of the inland sea remains. Drought is one of many similarities between this Central Asian nation and Texas. Right: Nukus, Karakalpakstan, western-most region and autonomous republic, Uzbekistan.

One of the most distinct observations about my travels in Uzbekistan was how rich its historical culture was and how influential that long legacy has been on a global scale.  From antiquity and the medieval era nearly a thousand years ago, some of the most radical and influential individuals in history populated these hills, plains, and cities, including the father of modern medicine, Ibn Sina; the polymath and mathematician Al-Khwarazmi, after whom we get the word algorithm; Al-Biruni, the father of geodesy (the study of the earth’s shape); and astronomers like Al-Kashi and the most renowned, Ulugh Beg, who had one of the world’s largest observatories in medieval times; and not least of all Timur, grandfather of Ulugh Beg and the founder of the Timurid Dynasty, who is often cited as one of the most significant military strategists in world history.  The swath of historical space and time reaches far into the antique past, earlier than the conquest by Chinggis Khan and even the Sogdians who occupied Afrosiyab in present-day Samarkand, all the way up through the rich, complex, and contested histories of modern Uzbekistan.

The country’s literary culture is vibrant and proud.  The pinnacle of classical Chagatai literature and poetry was exemplified by the Hanafi mystic ‘Ali-Shir Nava’i (d. 1501).  And in subsequent centuries a flowering of writing has ensured a prosperous climate of reading, writing, and literacy.  Today there are bookstores everywhere in both the larger cities and smaller towns.  Many parks are replete with promenades, fountains, lawns, and snack kiosks, and almost never absent of book sellers in temporary booths or on curbsides.  In one major park in Tashkent, there were no fewer than twenty book shops along a thoroughfare, with dozens more individual book sellers pushing their wares on old carpets along the sidewalks.  The selections are bountiful, varied, and sometimes uncommon—in one bookstore in Khiva, I found several books that I’ve not seen anywhere else in the world, nor have I since been able to find them online or in any library catalog.  The richness of a place like Uzbekistan is enhanced by such discoveries and the realization that there’s much more to be found when we travel to places that are off the beaten path of traditional travel.  And we are lucky, if we can find something that connects us to our interests or to new friends and colleagues in another place on the other side of the world.


*Upon my return, I penned another piece for the Dallas Morning News comparing the environments of North Texas and Uzbekistan.

The piece is available on the SMU blog without a paywall.

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