Karakalpakstan: A Hidden Gem of a Land

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Uzbekistan  ,
Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Environmental nightmares, banned avant garde Soviet art, Amazon warriors, and Zoroastrian Temples of Silence mixing with Islamic graveyards combine to form the compelling story of Nukus and its surrounding landscape.

Central Asia always seemed to play the backyard corner of the Soviet Union's turf. It was where Russia's industry moved during World War II. It was where Germans and Jews and dissidents were shipped for exile. It was where the military could stockpile and test nuclear missiles and chemical weapons, and store the toxic waste afterwards.

But it was also a place to escape the glaring eye of the Soviet technocrats and to discover a culture then less affected by Communism, with sunny desert skies and semi-nomadic people wearing beautiful handcrafted clothing.

In the 1920s and 1930s, just after the Revolution, painting in western styles was forbidden--too bourgeois. The only art permitted was patriotic Soviet art that forwarded the Revolution. Still, painters applied oil to canvas with their hearts and found inspiration with artists such as Cezanne and Picasso.

A couple decades later, an artist and archaeologists, Igor Savitsky decided to collect this art and keep it hidden. He chose Nukus as the hiding place, well away from Moscow. To do this, he tracked widows and estranged wives and family of artists, visited their attics and basements and took everything, one artist at a time, back to Nukus, a small administrative city with experimenting chemical weapons scientists.

Savitsky was also an archaeologist and collected local handicrafts, jewelry, and clothing, seeing that the Soviet Union was set on destroying these "backwards" ways of life. He also collected local modern artists and sculptors and worked with them to develop local artist guilds.

Today, the Savitsky Museum exhibits this art, handicraft, and archaeology, telling a story of the land, the people, and the power of art. Mirgul was my amazing guide. As I was the only one in the museum for the entire day, we stayed for hours, talking about the environment, culture, and analyzing paintings.

"People see they eyes as bullets and the colors on the horn as flags of the states in the Soviet Union," she said speaking of V. Lisenko's The Bull (see photographs). Another of Lisenko's paintings seemed to predict fascism leading to war, she noted about the visionary artist.

Two striking pieces of art, carved by J. Kuttimuratov, focused on water, its ties to spirituality, and more. I took a couple pictures of them for you. Kuttimuratov was driving near the Amu Darya River with friends when he saw a piece of large driftwood: "That is her, that's the Amu Darya." The medusa-like hair adds to the face he carved, as indeed just north of Nukus, the Amu Darya's delta slithers like snakes into the Aral Sea.

That is until the Soviet Union began growing cotton in vastly unsustainable quantities in the desert, sucking the life from the Amu Darya and shrinking the Aral Sea until it became too saline to support its native fish. Now fishing boats are stranded in the erstwhile thriving port of Moynak, with the sea 150 kilometers away.

Murmur of Water
, Kuttimuratov's other piece I photographed for you, shows the Zoroastrian goddess of water with a fish. She is crying, but the tears are not the doing of the artist--they are a natural part of the rock.

Zoroastrian and other ancient cultural remnants abound in the Nukus landscape, as Mirgul showed me on a museum diorama. Two thousand five hundred or so years ago, the Amu Darya delta was full of cities, fortresses, temples, Towers of Silence, and agricultural fields. At this time, the Aral Sea was much larger and the climate would have been moderate, compared to today.

Back in these times, this culture, known as Massagetae, was a matriarchical society, with Amazon warriors fighting the Persian men under Cyrus and both cultures speaking an Aramaic language. Queen Tomyris, beheaded Cyrus, saying: "I live and have conquered thee in fight, and yet by thee am I ruined, for thou tookest my son with guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give thee thy fill of blood." ~History of Herodotus.

When I entered into Karakalpakstan, the name of the people and the autonomous Republic, the marshrutka passed a hillock with a buttressed summit. I wondered what it was until seeing a photograph of it in the museum: it was a Temple of Silence, a dakmah, Chilpuk Dakmah, where Zoroastrians placed their dead, for the vultures to remove the unpure flesh and leave the pure bones. They then placed the bones in osuaries for burial; excellent examples of decorated earthenware osuaries were in the museum.

It didn't take long to also realize that people here consider themselves a separate country. Earlier I asked a man if we were in Uzbekistan: "No nyet, Karakalpakstan." For thousands of years they have been separate, even if for much of the time, nearby nation-states claimed one another, each taking their turn as the more powerful: Persians, Bukharans, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Ghengis, Timur.

On the next day, I said goodbye to Mirgul and the people at the Savitsky Karakalpakstan State Art Museum and visited a Temple of Silence, a hilltop called Mizdakhan, now covered with Muslim tombs and crypts, showing a continuity of the culture of death despite a change in religion that swept the land. Surrounding the hilltop were rusty, abandoned industrial sites, symbols of a changing environment and culture. On a distant hillside were fortress ruins dating to the fourth century B.C.

What Karakalpakstan will be in the future is uncertain, but now it is a hidden cultural gem pretending to be part of Uzbekistan, at least when you look at a political map.
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