Travel to Uzbekistan to find the missing pieces of my family history
Everywhere in Uzbekistan I felt a sense of déjà vu: under gilded domes; at beautifully laid tables with tandor nons and meat-filled samsas that reminded me of the naans and samosas I had at my grandmother’s house in Hyderabad; in the folds of textiles; and amid volleys of words that were both alien and recognizable. Standing in front of Bolo Hauz, an 18th-century mosque in the ancient city of Bukhara, I felt as if the country also had a sense of where I came from. I was trying to photograph the reflection of 20 wood-carved pillars in the Hauz – pond – which gives the mosque its name, when an elderly man stopped my guide, Abdulaziz Isomov, for a chat. They gave me looks and grins, so I put my phone down and joined them.
“He says you look like Babur’s descendants,” said Abdulaziz.
I smiled. I may not count a Mughal ruler among my ancestors, but there was a grain of truth in the man’s testimony: Babur did indeed pave the way for my ancestors when he conquered Delhi to establish India’s Mughal Empire.
In the Sitorai Mokhi Khosa Palace in Bukhara
Poi-Kalyan, an Islamic religious complex in Bukhara
The term Silk Road evokes caravans on the horizon, weaving a colossal web across the desert, with mountains of gossamer fabrics, ideologies and discoveries being transported from China to Europe and back. But when I hear the words, I don’t think of ancient thoroughfares, but of a lofty, elusive branch of my family tree. My father, a tireless historian of our ancestors’ migrations across the Muslim world, can trace our roots back 40 generations, from Arabia to Andalus, the Ottoman Empire, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Central Asia, India, and finally Massachusetts and Manhattan. I grew up in the Middle East, have traveled to Spain and Turkey and regularly visit India. But the Uzbek intermediate station from the 15th to the 17th centuries remains a mystery of my family’s wandering history.
For years I have longed to follow in the footsteps of my family’s five generations who lived in Samarkand and Bukhara. A simple tour couldn’t really contextualize the life they led during the heyday of the Silk Road, so I reached out to Zulya Rajabova, founder of Silk Road Treasure Tours, which has created itineraries across Central Asia, as well as Mongolia, China and the Caucasus since 25 years. Over several months of calls, I shared an ad hoc array of details and desires – the names my father had analyzed from yellowed records, as well as every landmark I had ever read of of Samarkand’s majestic Registan, an ancient public one Square full of monuments , to grandiose metro stations hollowed out under Tashkent. My father concluded that a Syed Adham Rifaai landed in Bukhara from Jerusalem around 1470, and several generations later Khaja Abdullah Khan Rifaai traveled to Delhi in 1680 at the invitation of Emperor Aurangzeb. Zulya made sense of my desires and weaved around her a six-day journey that took me from Tashkent to Samarkand, and then by train to Bukhara.
When silk became as valuable as gold – and sometimes even more valuable – a network of prosperous cities sprang up along this 2,200-year-old route. When the famous Moroccan adventurer Ibn Battuta visited Samarkand in the 1330s, he described it as “one of the largest and most beautiful cities, and the most perfect of them in beauty”. Later that century, the legendary Mongol conqueror Timur waged relentless campaigns from the Mediterranean to India, carting back riches and thousands of craftsmen to erect towering tributes to his greatness. Mosques, madrasas, and mausoleums were adorned with teal and indigo mosaic tiles and topped with azure domes, which became the hallmark of Central Asian architecture.