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  • Jerome Kocher

83. Uzbekistan's Light Show

I bought a beautiful watercolor in Uzbekistan showing a caravanserai overnighting half way between its two iconic cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. They were at the epicenter of the Silk Road. The original route starts in China and ends in Istanbul at the Grand Bazaar. But Marco Polo may differ with me upon his return to Italy with silk and maybe pasta from the Far East. I have journeyed the middle section of Central Asia and the Caucasus. It's a network of routes, not just one interstate like Highway 80 across the U.S. In the ancient world it may have been a prototype for the first world wide web of commerce and communication. Merchants would not necessarily go the whole route but maybe travel half way to Samarkand or Bukhara in Uzbekistan and do business with their counterparts from the other half.

The architecture of mosques, madrasas and mausoleums is stunning. Even Ghengis Khan legendarily bowed his head in awe. He said these human creations accomplished what no military could, his gesture of submission to something greater than he. They are characterized by the ever present geometric patterns in Islamic art since human representation or depiction of nature is not allowed.

One highlight was an extraordinary Light Show with these magnificent structures as background. It recounted the story of the Silk Road and an Islamic Renaissance giving credit to the genius of Avicenna and Averroes as well as to the seeds of culture planted by Alexander and his teacher, Aristotle. It went all the way to modern aviation and contemporary science. You were given the impression that if human evolution were a plant, then this was the green house which nourished it. The show catered to an international audience. Next to me was a couple visiting from Russia. We shook hands. That’s what ambassadors do.

The show gave a panorama of history. The “Light” became animated as figures emerged from these ancient walls. Persian Zoroastrianism was at home here. Alexander the Great brought Hellenic cuture this far. Later Islamic expansion exploded upon the scene with the Golden Age of Islam, a scientific, economic and cultural renaissance from the 8th to the 13th century. The development of Al-gebra, Analytic Geometry, the invention of the “0” (zero placeholder) and advanced medicine took over from where the Greeks ended. It made me feel like I was at the center of creation, if not the world. But that’s what good storytelling should do. Don't forget that we use the Arabic numeral system in the West, you know, 1 through 9 with the magic 0. Nobody uses Roman numerals to calculate their Amazon packages. Except the Super Bowl!

Believe it or not, an entourage of black security vehicles with the Prime Minister of Malaysia pulled up behind us before the show and whisked him into a special viewing area. This show was actually planned for him, a diplomatic gesture of Uzbekistan showing off its cultural heritage. Being an open air venue, the rest of us, by the thousands, were also welcome. And we loved it. 

The Prime Minister had actually been following me since he was in one of the other “stan” countries when I was there. Here Malaysian flags lined the street by day as a welcome. At first I was puzzled because they looked like the US Stars and Stripes. They were, except there was no blue field of stars, instead a crescent moon and sun. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery. Thank you Malaysia for inviting us to your Light Show, and you’re welcome for borrowing our flag!

Here the Silk Road met High Tech. And it was a Feast for the Eyes. But massive monuments were not the only public artwork. Playful statuary was tucked into street corners.

Two characters enjoy a laugh midst all the serious surroundings. And a famous storyteller on his donkey keeps the people honest. Thank God for playfulness! Below two women steal the show at the madrasa. And I share a moment at the local mosque.

Being ancient doesn't mean you can't be young at heart. A smile is universal across time.

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