Four Great Religions on the Uzbek land. Uzbekistan Tourist Gems
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Four Great Religions on the Uzbek land

Tourists, who visit Uzbekistan for the first time, take the country as an integral part of the Muslim world, and it seems to them that it has always been like this. Yet this is not the case. For centuries along the Great Silk Road there were disseminated large numbers of various religious and philosophical teachings, and on the territory of Uzbekistan, since ancient times, there coexisted a lot of beliefs: worshiping the forces of nature, Manichaeism, Shivaism, animism. Yet the most influential in the area were Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism. But for all that, Islam, brought by the Arabs in the 8th century, became a religion commonly practiced by the aboriginal population of Uzbekistan.

The earliest known monotheistic religion practiced by the population of Central Asian steppes and valleys was connected with the teachings of Prophet Zoroaster, the teachings that originated in Khorezm about 2700 years ago. For a few centuries Zoroastrianism prevailed on the territory that stretched from India to the Aral Sea and from Xinjiang to the south-west coast of the Caspian Sea.

In the 1st century appeared the powerful Kingdom of the Kushans, which comprised the territories of today's Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India. Six centuries earlier, in Northern India, around Enlightened Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, a Shakia prince, there had gathered many devoted followers, who tried to reach nirvana, or freedom from earthly suffering. At the turn of the Common Era Buddhism attracted more and more devotees, and early in the 1st century Buddhist preachers and monks brought the new religion to Bactria and Sogd. During the reign of the famous Kushan king Kanishka, Buddhism was made a state religion, which did not, however, obstruct the services of Zoroastrian, Hindu and other temples. Thanks to the missionaries from Bactria and Sogd, who traveled with caravans along the trails of the Great Silk Road, Buddhism was brought to Eastern Turkistan in the 1st century, to Korea in the 4th century, and to Japan in the mid-sixth century. In the 4th century Buddhism was also brought to China, where it firmly established in the form of Mahayana. At the same time along the caravan routes the Buddhist teachings were spread to the west, to Merv and Parthia. At the end of the 6th century Buddhism was introduced into the Land of Seven Rivers (today's South-East Kazakhstan) and the Turkic Khanate, from where it reached the peoples of Siberia.

Termez The largest number of ancient Buddhist monuments, dating to the first centuries of the Common Era, has survived in Surkhandarya Province of Uzbekistan. On the bank of the Amu Darya River near Termez, the central city of the province, there is the site of Old Termez, or Termita as it was called at the beginning of the 1st millennium. Termita was a large administrative and religious center in the northern lands of the Kushans. At the end of the 1st century Buddhist monks built a temple complex with a cave monastery on a three-top sandstone hill in the north-west of Termita. Today this site is called Kora-Tepa. Within the last decade Kora-Tepa has been excavated jointly by Uzbek and Japanese archeologists. They discovered monk cells surrounded by an arched corridor, fragments of statues of Buddha and bodhisattvas, statuettes of dragons and of a winged lion, numerous wall paintings. Especially valuable are Indian Buddhist inscriptions made in Brahmi and Kharoshthi scripts on ceramic containers. The complex also contains two stupas – symbolic depository for Buddhist relics.

Buddhist Cult Centers Koratepa and Fayaztepa To the north of Kora-Tepa, in its close vicinity, there was another Buddhist temple and a monastery outside the ancient town's wall. Today this archeological site is called Fayaz-Tepa; it was named after R. Fayazov, an Uzbek scientist from Termez. The most interesting are the remains of a large stupa near the temple. Inside the stupa the archeologists found an immured smaller stupa of earlier times which contained an intact dome with a reliquary.

To the east from Old Termez, just on the road leading to Termez - the province centre, there stands "Zurmala Tower" – the largest stupa in Uzbekistan. Yet even more famous are the Buddhist complexes of Dalverzin-Tepa site in Shurcha District, which is situated in 60 kilometers to the north from Termez. Once there was a large town of the Kushans kingdom, the center of historical Saganian Province. In the suburbs of the town the archeologists discovered ruins of a Buddhist temple. Judging by the coins found there, the temple dates back to the 1st century. It is probably the oldest Buddhist building in Uzbekistan. Another temple, which is in the center of the town, dates back to the 2nd -3rd centuries. It is also decorated with clay and plaster sculptures of Buddha, bodhisattvas, and other Buddhist characters. Buddhism was also widely practiced in other regions of today's Uzbekistan: in Ferghana Valley and Samarkand.

Following the fall of the Kushans Empire, the life in the above-mentioned monasteries and temples at one moment came to a standstill, whereas at another its signs started to appear again. But after the destruction of Old Termez by the troops of Genghis Khan in 1220, sands and oblivion buried the ruins of these constructions.

While Buddhism in Uzbekistan is now a thing of the past, Judaism and Christianity still have their followers in the country.

Jews started to move to Central Asia in the 2nd century as a result of severe suppression by the Romans of their uprising, when they had to abandon Judea and seek refuge in other countries. Another mass migration of Jews, this time from Iran, took place a hundred years later, when the dynasty of Sassanids came to power. Jewish communities settled along the Great Silk Road, in Khorezm, Sogd and Bactria. Soon they successfully competed with Sogdians in trading with China and Byzantium. Besides, they engaged themselves in textile dyeing, glass manufacture, and steering of caravans. Jews brought Judaism to Central Asia. It is known that during the times of Turkic Khanate a large number of local people were converted to this religion. Everywhere, up to Eastern Turkistan and China, there appeared Judaic communities.

The Ark FortressEven after establishment of Islam in Central Asia, Judaic communities continued to exist. The biggest of them was in Bukhara. At the end of the 14th century Amir Temur ordered a few Jewish families of weavers and textile dyers to move to Samarkand. It is believed that since those times Central Asian Jews got the name "Bukhara Jews".

The Jewish migrants had to adapt to the local conditions. Within fifteen centuries of life on the Central Asian land, Bukhara Jews assumed many of the local customs. They spoke the Yiddish-Tajik language, which had a lot in common with Persian. Yet there were many words from Hebrew, as well as Afghani and Uzbek words. In ancient times they used Hebrew script, but later they changed it to Arabic. Their dress did not differ much from that of the local population. Among them there were numerous musicians and singers; some of them were so famous for singing traditional Uzbek makoms that they were invited to perform for the emir.

The religious activities of the Bukhara Jews differed from what Orthodox Judaism required. For a long time they knew only the first three books of the Torah. They neither practiced kabala nor kept the Sabbath. Instead of kosher meat, they ate the same food the local Muslims ate. This lasted until the end of the 18th century, when Judaic missionary Rabbi Yusuf Magribi came to Bukhara. He lived with local Jews for 30 years, providing them with religious literature and propagating among them the rituals and traditions of Orthodox Judaism.

After Turkistan was annexed to Russia, Ashkenazi Jews began to migrate to Uzbekistan. They were merchants, exiles, and ex-servicemen, who did not wish to come back home, to "the Jewish pale". Large Jewish communities appeared in Tashkent, Chinaz, Kokand, Margilan, and Andijan. In 1885 Henry Landsdell, an English priest and explorer, published a two-volume book about his travels in Central Asia. In his book Landsdell described local Jewish holidays and what he had seen while visiting synagogues and Jewish houses in Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. He noted that local Jewish women, similar to their Uzbek countrywomen, would never leave homes without yashmaks and face-hiding chachvan coverings; yet unlike Uzbek houses, Jewish homes were not divided into men's and women's halves. Local Jewish men, according to Landsdell, followed the Moslem tradition of shaving their heads clean, but left two long locks on the temples; while visiting synagogues elderly Jews wore huge turbans and kaftans.

For the past 25 years many ethnic Jews from Uzbekistan and other CIS countries have immigrated to Israel, the USA, and Australia. But those who remained in Uzbekistan are equal in rights with the rest country's residents, whatever ethnic communities they are of. There are several Jewish cultural centers in Uzbekistan today.

Christianity came to Central Asia almost concurrently with Judaism. Having arisen in the 1st century in Palestine, an outlying district of the Roman Empire, the new belief became the religion of slaves and the poorest layer of the society. The Romans cruelly persecuted the followers of the new religion and Asia Minor became the center of formation of Christianity in the first centuries of the Common Era.

In Central Asia the first Christians appeared in Merv, where at the beginning of the 4th century there was set up the episcopate, and from where Christian missionaries traveled to the eastern lands. Historical sources and archeological discoveries prove that in the 6th century Christian churches and monasteries existed not only on the territories of today's Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan but also in Eastern Turkistan and China.

The exodus of Christians from Asia Minor to Khorezm, Sogd, Bactria and Chach coincided with denunciation of Nestorian teaching as heresy at Holy Synod in Ephesos. The followers of Constantinople's patriarch Nestor did not share the official concept of Christ's divine nature and so they moved east, to preach in the very heart of Asia. Soon they converted some Sogdians and Turks to their religion. According to Byzantine historian Theophylaktos Simokatta, they had tattoos of a cross on their foreheads. In the 6th-10th centuries, along the trails of the Great Silk Road, Christianity was brought to Kashgar, Turfan, and then to China. Since the 7th century there has been a metropolitan's office in Samarkand.

Among the numerous archeological discoveries in Uzbekistan there are many kayrak gravestones with engraved Nestorian cross of four equal limbs, as well as coins minted in Sogd, Chach, Ustrushan and Khorezm in the 4th-8th centuries and containing cross impression and inscriptions in the Sogdian language. On the left bank of the Zerafshan river in Samarkand Province archeologists also discovered a Nestorian cemetery of the 10th-11th centuries. Near the town of Urgut there still exist the ruins of Kosh-Tepa site of the 6th-7th centuries, where Christian settlement Vazgird once existed. The ruins of ancient Christian temples were also found in Jizzak and Tashkent Provinces.

Armenian Gregorian Church has also been present on the territory of Uzbekistan since ancient times. After his victories in Caucasus, Amir Temur brought a few dozens of craftsmen and a Gregorian priest to Samarkand from Armenia.

Local Muslims were quite tolerant towards Christianity. Christian terms were used by Islamic theologians in their works. In Islam Jesus Christ is believed to be one of the prophets named Isa.

As the colonial policy of the Russian Empire intensified in the second half of the 19th century, landless peasants from Russia began to migrate to Turkistan (then Russian Central Asian Territory). Most of them were Russian Orthodox Christians. At the same time Ural Cossack rebels were exiled to the region. A considerable number of Russian Old Believers, Molocans, Adventists, and Baptists also began settling here. Among Russian officials employed for work in Turkistan, as well as among craftsmen and merchants, who moved to this area, there were a lot of Catholics and Lutherans. No wonder that at the beginning of the 20th century there appeared Catholic and Lutheran parishes in Tashkent. Russian Orthodox, Armenian and Lutheran churches were built in Tashkent, Samarkand, Termez, Andijan, Ferghana and other towns of Turkestan. A nunnery was opened, too. In 1914 there was started the construction of a Catholic cathedral in Tashkent.

During the years of Soviet power the churches in the region fell into neglect; many of the churches were either used for non-religious purposes or just demolished. Many clergymen were persecuted. After the declaration of independence of Uzbekistan, cathedrals and churches in big cities of the country were reconditioned, there was constructed Spiritual Administrative Center under Russian Orthodox Svyatouspenskiy (Holy Assumption) Cathedral, whereas the construction of Catholic cathedral, neglected for years, was finally completed. Today Tashkent and Central Asian Eparchy of the Russian Orthodox Church alone has 40 parishes, a monastery, a nunnery, and a theological seminary.

The latest of the region that penetrated into the territory of present-day Uzbekistan was Islam. Although today most of the population of the country practice Sunni Islam, for this religion the road to people's hearts and souls was long and hard. When Mohammed the Prophet began to preach the new religion in Arabia in 610, few people expected his teaching to win a milliard of followers on all the continents.

In the mid-7th century the Arabs conquered Khorasan and made Merv their main base from where they continued their eastward expansion. Arabian tribes continually harassed Movarounnahr. They would foray into towns and villages, would kidnap local people to hold them to ransom, and then would return to Khorasan.

The conversion of some inhabitants of Movarounnahr to Islam began in 689, after Termez had been captured. However, total conversion of the region's population to Islam and subjection of Central Asia to the Arab Caliphate became feasible only when Kuteiba ibn Muslim, a talented yet rather cruel military leader, had become commander of the Arabian army. He imposed Islam on Movarounnakhr by sword and fire, ruthlessly putting down the local people's resistance, destroying their temples and building mosques on their ruins. By the mid-8th century the whole Central Asia was subjected to the Caliphate. Since the 9th century Islam has become the predominant religion on the territory of Uzbekistan.

Almost every ruler tried to build a mosque or a madrassah (Muslim school) to glorify Allah. Thanks to their efforts the ancient cities of Uzbekistan boast such masterpieces of the medieval architecture, such as Kukeldash Madrassah in Tashkent, Juma Mosque in Khiva, three madrasahs on the Registan Square and Bibi-Khanym Mosque in Samarkand, Kalyan and Bolohauz mosques in Bukhara, Kok Gumboz Mosque in Shakhrisabz, Juma Mosque in Kokand and many others.

Bahouddin Naqshbandi Complex Though Islam was born in Arabia, it reached its full bloom in the Uzbek land. Bukhara, which deserves the honorary name "the Dome of the Faith", such centres of world Moslem civilization as Samarkand and Khiva, made a great contribution to the theological understanding of the teaching of Mohammed the Prophet. The works of outstanding Uzbek theologians of the early Middle Ages, such as al-Bukhari and at-Termezi, helped the Muslims to properly understand the Koran and hadis collection. The teaching of Imam al-Maturidi had a great influence on the formation of one of the main schools of Sunni Islam – khaniphism, which is professed not only by the Muslims of Uzbekistan but also by 70% of all the Muslims of the world. The works of Islamic theologians Burkhanuddin Marginoni, sheikh Bakhauddin Naqshbandi, Hajji Abdulkhalik Gijduvani, and Kaffal al-Shashi have become the subject of studies of theologians, historians and language and literature specialists alike.

Miri Arab MadrassahIn the Soviet times it was impossible to freely perform religious rituals, to worship holy places; mosques were either shut down or destroyed. The situation fundamentally changed after Uzbekistan got its independence. Dozens of ancient mosques, madrasahs and mausoleums have been restored and thoroughly overhauled. There have been built over two thousand new mosques and memorials to outstanding thinkers of the past. Before 1991 there was only one functioning madrassah (Miri Arab) in Uzbekistan, whereas today hundreds of young men study at 10 madrasahs established in the country. Every year over four thousand Muslims from Uzbekistan have the opportunity to make Hajj and Umrah - minor hajj.

Under the Spiritual Board of the Moslems of Uzbekistan there was formed Tashkent Islamic Institute which admits students from the CIS countries, Europe, Asia and Africa. The graduates of the institute can continue their studies at the Islamic University. It is noteworthy that among them there are both young men and women.

The outstanding contribution of Uzbekistan to the history of Islamic civilization has been recognized by the International Islamic Organization for Education, Science and Culture, which in 2007 declared Tashkent the capital of Islamic culture.

Uzbekistan is one of those few countries of the world which is free of ethnic and religious conflicts. During its long history the Uzbek people have been showing tolerance towards and respect for other peoples and faiths. Many centuries ago this land became the place where four great religions met, and today in Uzbekistan 16 various confessions coexist in inter-religious harmony and peace.