Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbeks Seek Answers at Ancient Site

The poor and the sick are flocking to a medieval shrine - much to the annoyance of Uzbekistan's Islamic leaders.
By Artur Samari

Every Wednesday morning, droves of people head for the ancient sacred site of Daniarbek, near the Timuride crypt in Samarkand, south-west of Tashkent, to pray for better health or a bigger pension.


These modern day pilgrims are Uzbekistan's poor, sick, desperate or just plain curious, and they are looking for answers that the authorities and their mullahs seem unable to give them.


Orthodox religious leaders frown on the pilgrimage and have denounced it as a moneymaking exercise, but the worshippers keep on coming. "Most of the people who visit here have nowhere else to go. They don't know a lot about God, but they trust Him more than they do the government," human rights activist Komiljon Ashurov told IWPR.


The site features a sacred spring and several tombs, each attracting a different type of supplicant. The most popular is the grave of Bibi mushkul kisho (the woman who fulfils wishes), where people come to ask for help with their finances. The deceased's identity is unknown, but she has acquired saintly status over the years.


Infertile women and the hopelessly ill go to the burial place of Daniarbek - the biblical prophet Daniel, whose relics were brought here by Tamerlane, the founder of the Moghul Empire, some time in the Middle-Ages.


The worshippers include many people who simply come as an escape from the stresses and tensions of everyday life. "The sanctuaries help people in distress. By praying here their faith and hope are rekindled," said psychologist Zeboniso Ibragimova.


After praying, all pilgrims are expected to drink from the holy spring and put money in collection boxes.


The tombs began to attract large numbers of visitors around five years ago. Local religious leaders have since developed a ritual in which groups of up to 30 worshippers enter the inner courtyard to pray.


"I came here to pray for a better pension - my current one is minuscule," said 70-year-old Bobomurod Rahmatov of the Chelek municipality. A middle-aged woman from Samarkand, who did not want to be named, said she'd gone to the Daniarbek tomb to pray for her infertile husband.


Official mullahs, who are appointed by the Uzbekistan National Committee for Religious Affairs, are not happy. "The people who run those so-called sanctuaries make money out of suffering," said Imam Makhmudjon Ibodullaev of Samarkand. "This is a sin before God. It is also wrong to worship Allah's creations rather than Allah Himself.


"If I had my way, I would close down all those places where people pray blindly to the spirits of the dead to deliver them from misery. This is against Sharia law. A Muslim must pray only to Allah."


However, the pilgrimage organisers deny they are breaking the law, and claim the mullahs are angry because their followers no longer have faith in them.


Local government has given its full backing to the pilgrimage, as a substantial chunk of money from the collection boxes goes into the public coffers. The windfall has already paid for a new gym in Samarkand's Navoi municipality.


Pilgrimages such as these are not a new phenomenon - there have always been shrines to worship at, even under the Soviets. But independence in 1991 brought a new sense of religious freedom, which in turn led to an upsurge in interest in Uzbek heritage - and the recent restoration of the Daniarbek site.


Professor Timur Shirinov, director of the country's institute of archaeology, told IWPR that he has observed many rituals from Zoroastrianism - the ancient religion of Persia, founded about 3,500 years ago by the prophet Zarathushtra - and even pre-Zoroastrian beliefs performed at the shrine.


These include lighting candles on the graves, worship of human relics, tying little wish knots on tree twigs and kissing sacred stones. "All these rituals existed in Central Asia before the Muslims arrived," he said. "The Arabs strove to suppress them for 200 years with marginal success. People converted to Islam but preserved Zoroastrian rites regardless."


Artur Samari is an independent journalist based in Samarkand