My Orientalist eye before and in progress

Planning a lengthy trip to Central Asia so: continuously looking for a charming boutique hotel with carved wood and beautiful carpets – why? What is wrong with staying in a hotel which looks like one you stayed in in Chicago, replete with tiny soaps? Central Asia is a new geographic and cultural landscape for me so naturally I desire it to be different. Keywords there: naturally and desire – I have already inherently framed a work trip in an exoticized, picturesque, Instagrammable beauty. Is this part of travel or just part of travel to a new place? Admittedly, part of my job is to document the travel as I sometimes do in my neighbourhood in London but when I booked my hotel before moving to London the only criteria were price and location. In Bishkek, I’m also concerned with price and location but for a low price and the perfectly situated (next to my colleagues’ offices) I also desire the perfect pre-industrial décor (but with all the mod cons of course) or a Soviet style socialist realism structure. While it is true I always choose a boutique hotel over a chain (especially in Chicago) I discovered myself spending vast amounts of time flipping through guide books, forums, websites, social media in search of a hotel which would cater to my Orientalist eye so that I could photograph it and perpetuate the myth of an othered East even if I don’t consciously intend or desire to do so.

Upon arrival at each hotel: the inevitable and practical need for WiFi. Along the way I’ve had a variety of situations, from the wonderful former madrasa in the UNESCO protected zone of Ichan-qala in Khiva which with its cell-like cream coloured brick interiors and lovely views of bird-filled trees had WiFi only in the courtyard so each morning following breakfast I sat on a bench in temps hovering around 5-6 degrees until my fingers went numb. Ah, the sacrifices I made to stay connected. It was strangely ironic sitting there trying to work in a space long used to people sitting and working.

Bukhara, along with many other aspects of the old town provided just the right amount of same/difference. It is freshly stocked with numerous cafes serving real coffee – the espresso was as good as anything in London but one particular spot located in a former caravanserai with its underground cold storage fed a superficial(?) need to connect with the past while fully enjoying the present. The town caters to tourists and yet wandering around the small alleyways where people live and especially venturing just out of town to the pilgrimage complex of Naqshbandi I was able to connect with living heritage, with silent prayer in the women’s mosque and the hauz (pool) and tree filled courtyard burial place of Sayyid Bahouddin Naqshband Buxoriy (بهاءالدین محمد نقشبند بخاری‎ 1318–1389). Sitting with Sukhrob BABAYEV and listening to him talk about this place, Baha-ud-Din, Sufiism and reform was a most special afternoon untouched by the need to take notes or photographs or anything outside the moment. It was a chance to reflect upon the role of asceticism and reform and being useful in one’s life.

Our conversation also touched upon practicality and the necessity of taking time before making any judgements. The practical logistics of digitising archives mean looking at both the big picture and the individual page, image or map and making a measured decision about how best to deal with preserving it and using that information. Throughout this trip several people have talked about using architectural records for the purpose of reconstruction and in some places reconstruction is fully evident. I cannot pass judgement on whether these changes have benefited the larger community and whether the sense of place or community identity has been irrevocably altered – the answer to that must lie with the communities themselves and only after time has passed. It is often easy for heritage professionals who jet in for a quick inspection or consultation or survey to miss the nuances of change related to ongoing economic development among complex groups of stakeholders. As those stakeholders themselves evolve and adapt ideas and implementations also progress even when it is unclear just where they are headed.

One of the first conversations with Mavyluda YUSUPOVA in Tashkent revolved around the intimate relationship between politics and architecture at all levels and in all circumstances. While it is often easy to overlook this in my quiet residential neighbourhood in London, I have been unable to see anything else during this trip, in part because of the imposing Soviet or post-Soviet era architecture looming large all around me. But also because of the pace of general economic development evidenced in both the general building boom and in the disagreement among heritage professionals who want to keep the old or traditional neighbourhoods. Full of memory and history, these places are routinely razed in favour of new constructions with new, less chaotic supplies of electricity and all the other amenities of modern life. The dispute rests with whether wholesale rebuilding is also a destruction of living heritage, not a new or uncommon debate the world over but especially prescient in these cities and towns where they know what they are doing and do it anyway. Many voices of dissent go unheeded and I can only imagine that in decades to come much of this craze for reconstruction will result in regret.

The talk in Dushanbe was all archaeology all the time. The teams there are in continual excavation with only a couple of winter months off to write up the reports before heading out for more digging and survey. It’s wonderful to hear how even among professionals who have been working at sites and ancient cities for decades still make new discoveries as their archives are digitised. The records of Alijon Abdullayev (Абдуллоев Алижонare) are currently being scanned and some of these will soon be made public. This is truly amazing as these records were held by him until his death in 2012 and then purchased by the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography named after A. Donish and are only now being looked at in depth again.

This trip is not quite finished yet – there are still people to meet in Almaty where I’ve spent a few quite wonderfully snowy days and then to Bishkek where I will spend time at Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University and meet some new people doing some very interesting archaeology there.

While I am sincerely working on eradicating that Orientalist eye, here I’ll just end by saying a very heartfelt thank you to all the people who have taken time from their schedules and their expeditions to meet with me. Words cannot express my gratitude or the immense honour it has been getting to know these passionate specialists. While I have been in the field, the IoA at UCL, hosted by TrowelBlazers held a Wikipedia edit-a-thon increasing the number of biographies of influential women scientists. We are compiling a list of more fabulous women to add, including some I’ve had the pleasure to meet this month…if they ever put those trowels down! More musings on museums, concrete, architecture, archaeology, landscapes, tourist coffee and tea, colonialism coming soon…


Khiva, Uzbekistan
Along Rudaki Avenue, in front of the Museum of Antiquities and offices of the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography named after A Donish.
Central State Museum of Kazakhstan (sadly closed the day we visited) with the generous and intrepid Dr Amirov, my new friend and UCL team member Saltanat’s father…the best possible way to experience Almaty is to walk the streets in cold weather with a funny and knowledgeable resident.

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