Date of this Version
In the summer of 2007 a team of six people gathered in Tashkent, at the Central Asian heart of the ancient Silk Road. We were two museum curators, three artists and university professors and a photographer. We came from the United States and Japan. We were interested in contemporary textile production, the role of textiles in daily life and the rich cultural heritage of the region. We traveled for three weeks throughout Uzbekistan – from the comparatively lush Ferghana Valley in the east (silk moiré, ikat, silk velvet ikat), to Boysun in the southern mountains near Afghanistan (tent band rugs, goat hair rope, felt-making), through the endless miles of desert that separate the oasis cities of Samarkand, Afrisiab, Bukhara and Khiva and on to the Kyzyl Kum desert and the Karakalpakstan Republic near the vanishing Aral Sea (with its almost forgotten heritage of multi-layered nomadic costume and splendid yurts). We ate in many craftsmen’s homes, slept in a yurt, rode a camel, met museum directors, merchants, farmers/herders, teachers, fashion designers, artists, and many artisans.
Our presentations are not proposed as definitive research papers in the classical sense but are meant to provide glimpses of the rich textile traditions we encountered in Uzbekistan – and perhaps to stimulate future research in the vibrant textile traditions of Central Asia.
We are deeply grateful to Raisa Gareeva, owner and director of Salom Travel Company in Bukhara, and to Azat Fazilov who traveled with us throughout the country. Their extensive network of connections with artisans throughout the country and the esteem and good will accorded them opened many doors.
As Chair, I will use this first paper to provide context for the more focused papers to follow, with an overview of our journey, relevant information about Uzbekistan, and comments on the role of contemporary textile production in the cultural and economic life of the people. I will also introduce a few textile discoveries not included in the other papers.
Situated between the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) and the Amu Darya (Oxus) Rivers, Uzbekistan is a land of steppe, desert and oases, ringed to the east by the ascending foothills of the Tien Shan, Hindu Kush, and Pamir mountain ranges. It stands at the heart of ancient commercial routes (the so-called Silk Road) that linked the Mediterranean, Persian, Indian and Chinese worlds during times of relative peace and stability. Over the course of more than two millennia, conquerors, priests, scientists and merchants traveled these roads, leaving their imprint on the peoples, languages, architecture, ideas and material culture of the region.
Uzbekistan today is emerging from a long history of Russian dominance. Independence in 1991 and the subsequent rapid withdrawal of the Soviet Union – leaving empty factories, half-finished buildings, and deserted industrial towns – has created a new set of challenges for this ancient territory. Craft practices forbidden or forced underground by the Soviets (for being regressive) are being revived with local, national, and international support. Always an important form of cultural expression, textiles today are forging new links with a pre-Soviet past and providing much-needed income for families, communities and the state.