Monumental Blunders in Uzbekistan

Samarkand’s fabled buildings patched up in thoughtless effort to bring tourists.

Monumental Blunders in Uzbekistan

Samarkand’s fabled buildings patched up in thoughtless effort to bring tourists.

Monday, 14 November, 2005

French architect Jean Rota is no stranger to Samarkand. Nor is he unfamiliar with the Uzbek authorities’ attempts to restore the city’s historical monuments to their former glory.

“This is not the first time I have been in your city and seen your restorers throwing away old tiles that have fallen off, and sticking on modern enamelled porcelain in their place,” said Rota.

But he was still shocked when he saw the extensive reconstruction job which modern builders have done on the fourteenth century mosque complex of Bibi Khanum.

“I was amazed by the beauty of your monuments, but what your architects have done is simply barbaric. It can be compared with the Taleban’s treatment of Buddhist statues,” he said.

Until recently, visitors to the mosque complex would have found large parts of it in ruins. But this year, a new improved Bibi Khanum was revealed in expectation of an upsurge in the tourist industry. Four renovated mosques were unveiled, some of them built almost entirely by modern architects and engineers.

Experts complain that many of the Samarkand buildings being passed off as restored medieval ruins have been so thoroughly reworked that any historical value they once had has been lost.

The foreign tourists at Bibi Khanum for whose benefit the work was undertaken do not seem fooled.

“We spent a lot of money to get a sense of the atmosphere of the ancient orient, the age of Timur, and instead we get shown modern bricks and enamel,” a party of French tourists told IWPR.

Bibi Khanum was built by craftsmen brought as captives to Samarkand, capital of the medieval Central Asian conquerer Timur – better known in the West as Tamerlane. Historians of the time recorded the effort that went into the complex, which Timur named after one of his wives. Five hundred stonemasons cut the rock out of mountains in what is now Tajikistan, and it was then transported to Samarkand on the backs of 95 elephants.

The main mosque and other buildings were badly damaged by an earthquake in the nineteenth century, and over time more and more of the building fell into ruin until only about half the original structure remained.

All over the city, similar sites are being targeted for restoration. Many old mosques have shiny new domes, and two complete minarets have been built for Gur Emir, the mausoleum where Timur’s sarcophagus lies.

Khodikhon Akobirov, the main engineer for the restoration work in Samarkand, supports the government’s decision to order wholesale rebuilding. If Bibi Khanum had not been completely restored, he said, it would have collapsed further and would have been lost forever.

“There were a lot of debates about this, meetings with UNESCO members and foreign scholars who were in favour of preservation, but I thank our president, because it was mainly his idea to restore the monument,” he said. “I also thank the government for paying more attention to our history and our monuments since Uzbekistan became independent.”

Many scholars in Uzbekistan are unhappy about the facelift given to old buildings. They believe it is best to preserve the ruins as they are, rather than alter their appearance on the basis of guesses about what they might have looked like.

Muhammed Ahmedov, an architect and academic from Samarkand, said, “When the restoration of Bibi Khanum was discussed, I said that if it happened it would not be a historical monument, but a model, because no one knows what it looked like originally.”

He questions the use of concrete and metal reinforcements in the restored structures. “It goes against international restoration rules,” he said. “The metal rusts with age and the concrete becomes weaker. Who knows how this concrete block will behave at a height of 40 metres above the ground? What will happen to Bibi Khanum then?”

The reconstruction is gathering pace despite strong opposition from local and foreign historians and architects. Critics say this the government is keener to boost tourist revenues than to seek or preserve historical truth.

Tashpulat Rahmutallaev, a historian who has written a number of critical articles about the policy, told IWPR, “Restoration of old monuments takes place because the government does not have a historically sensitive approach. They don’t know that not everything of historical value looks beautiful and brilliant.”

Other critics say there is another reason why these schemes are being pursued with such vigour – they represent a windfall for the construction industry, which receives a portion of the 400,000 US dollars the state treasury sets aside for restoration every year.

Artur Samari is an IWPR contributor in Samarkand

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