I’m so glad I decided to stay an extra day in Samarkand. The historical center was jaw-droppingly gorgeous but no one actually lived around the imposing mosques and mausoleums. I wanted to see old residential areas.
I got an early start and decided to follow Lonely Planet’s advice and explore the Jewish quarter in Samarkand’s Old Town.
It didn’t take too long to find the entrance to the neighborhood which, true to lonely planet advice, was hidden away not too far from the tourist office on Registan. No sign marked the entrance.
My goal was to find the old synagogue. I first stopped by the Furlat guest house to ask for directions. The manager couldn’t have been friendlier and the guest house looked attractive with a strong ambience of old Samarkand. I would have been happy staying there.
I wandered down the winding streets which seemed mostly deserted. The once thriving quarter had clearly been allowed to fall into ruin. Many facades were crumbling yet some of the massive entrance doors seemed to be in good shape. Peeking behind the few that were open I saw tidy, shady courtyards.
I got lost looking for the synagogue but people were happy to point me in the right direction. Finally, a stocky middle aged man kindly led me through the winding streets directly there.
I was pleased to find that the rabbi was there and happy to show me around. He explained that the population of 350,000 Jews in the old quarter was now reduced to about 250. When I asked why, he mentioned Uzbeki police. As the postwar government was known as a tough police state, one can easily imagine it would have been worse on the Jews. So they emigrated to Israel and New York as part of the expatriated Bukharan Jewish community.
There was an Ashkenazi section and a Sephardic section both of which were beautifully maintained.
There was a carefully preserved section of old books and photos of past rabbis.
As I walked slowly back through the quiet streets I felt profoundly sad that this community that had played such an essential role in Samarkand’s wealth had been driven out . Yet, amidst the ruins there were still some who had persevered. The remnants of the Jewish community seemed to live in some sort of harmony with the Muslim Uzbekis even though it appeared that they lived in different parts of the tiny town. With a few guesthouses, a couple of little grocery stores, a synagogue and a mosque they had managed to cobble together a shared life.
For lunch I headed to Bibi Khanoun restaurant which was jam-packed with tourists. I don’t think the locals here in Uzbekistan can support a thriving restaurant scene. So pretty much everything is for the tourists.
Lunch wasn’t very good. I ordered dumplings which I couldn’t finish but the salad was okay.
After lunch I decided to head to the Afrosiyab museum. It was a long long walk but it was quiet and peaceful with no traffic. The museum is located in the midst of ancient Samarkand which dates back to the 5th century BC.
The museum was a moderately interesting tour of Samarkand’s ancient history before Genghis Khan swept through and destroyed everything. The highlight was a 7th-century fresco excavated nearby.
I strolled back and stopped at the Siob Bazar to pick up some provisions for the train ride tomorrow. The dried fruits and nuts were fresh and tasty, perfect to nibble on. Then I hung around for a while people watching.
There was a lot of work being done everywhere around Registan. Painting, polishing, planting, smoothing the walkways–I wondered what was going on. I found out later that a major Uzbekistan-South Korean summit was to take place in a few days.
I had to wonder if all of them are working freely or if it was forced-labor as in the notorious cotton harvest. Under fire for years over its cotton harvest, the government is supposedly “making progress” in “phasing it out”. By the way, don’t try researching that question in Uzbekistan. The search results are there but the websites they point to are blocked. It seemed like grueling work under a hot sun.
One thing that I have not seen since arriving in this country is a newspaper. There were no newsstands, no newspapers on sale and no one reading newspapers or magazines. Eyeglasses were also extremely rare.
I had very much admired the tunic and loose pants outfit that women were wearing and I asked the b&b where I could buy a set. He told me that around the bazar they would actually make it to order but it seemed too complicated for me to work out in such a short stay.
I took one last long look at incredible Registan, happy to drink it in once again, and headed back to my b&b.