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Katta Langar: anchor of Faith and Hope

At the foothills of the Zarafshan ridge, in seventy kilometers southward from Shakhrisabz, in Kamashin district, there is a unique Katta Langar memorial complex. Here, about 500 years ago, a Sufi brotherhood Ishkiya settled down, and on mountain spurs, sloping down in deep canyon cut by the Koksu river, there appeared a big settlement Langar. In Old Uzbek the word Langar means ‘anchor’. Yet there are also other meanings of the word: ‘Anchor of Salvation’, ‘Last Hope’; and most often it is interpreted as ‘Abode’, or rather 'God’s abode on earth'.

As legend goes, many centuries ago, a pure-hearted youth Muhammad Sadyk, a son of a Sufi and a grandson of a Sufi, became a disciple of one of the well-known Sufis. Quickly enough he perceived the inner essence of things and attained perfection in the power of his faith. Once, the juvenile Muhammad Sadyk took a kumgan (narrow-necked jug), sat in a shady place and clasped the kumgan to his bosom in order to warm the water for his teacher. While waiting for the prayer time he unexpectedly fell asleep and woke up because of great heat coming from the kumgan. The water in the kumgan was boiling. He showed the kumgan with boiling water to his teacher and asked: “What does it mean?” “It means”, the teacher answered, "that you have perceived the truth and are marked by God. There is nothing more I can teach you. And there isn’t much to do for two Sufis like you and me. Mount a white camel and start on a journey. Once the tired camel kneels down to the ground, dismount and settle down, as this is where your journey ends, where you should make clear for the people the light of faith."

So Muhammad Sadyk set out riding his white camel. Long was his journey through deserts and mountains. Al last his camel stopped and knelt down on the ground. The great Sufi understood that in this mountain gorge he should perform his mission and he uttered his prayer. For years the disciples would come here to perceive the truth from the Master of the Way. Later they themselves became teachers and new disciples came to them. Centuries passed. All the Sufis of Langar abode were buried on a high secluded hill, next to the first teacher – Muhammad Sadyk.

Since olden times the Kashkadarya river valley and the surrounding mountain slopes have been an attractive site for human habitation. Far and near one can notice rounded hills – the remains of former settlements and farmsteads, which in antiquity were abandoned by the residents due to some natural or historical disasters. This is the land where large cities of Nasaf (Karshi) and Kesh (Shakhrisabz) developed 2700 years ago. Shakhrisabz, located at the foothills of the Zerafshan Range, is the hometown of the great statesman and military leader Amir Temur.

For centuries, the memorial complex (ziyarat) – a Sufi place of worship that appeared here, is inseparably associated with this place. On one of the hills, already from afar, one can make out a well-proportioned silhouette and the dome of the mausoleum. The adjacent hill hosts an ancient mosque.

The drive up the hill where the mosque stands turns into narrow path leading through the peach garden to the inner courtyard of the mosque built in 1515-1516, as the mosaic inscription above the entrance states, on orders from Sheikhzade Muhammad Sadyk, who at that time was the leader of Ishkiya Sufi brotherhood. In the later period, in the 17th - early 19th centuries, there were attached to the main mosque some premises including a spacious prayer hall.

The southern entrance to the mosque is decorated with a wide aiwan, in the old times decorated with lacunar ceiling (some wooden cross beams and bars survived to the present day). Here and there one can see undamaged ancient brickwork with decorative terracotta panels. Well-proportioned carved columns, made of plane-tree and elm and placed on stone bases, support the ceiling of the aiwan. There are no identical columns here: each has a unique carved pattern and cap – mukarnas; yet an amazing harmony is easily traced in their rhythm. The mosque main hall is decorated with ornamented frieze and majolica panels. In the courtyard of the mosque there lie two stone bases of ancient columns. According to popular belief, those who manage to put such a column in vertical position can expect their little sins to be forgiven.

A narrow path runs down from the Mosque to the foothills and then up the adjacent hill directly to ziyorat - the sepulcher of the Sufi sheikhs from Ishkiya brotherhood. This stern, somewhat ascetic construction made of baked bricks, is almost void of decoration: only arched niches of little depth enliven the wall surfaces. The main entrance is lined by a rather massive portal. An aiwan abutting the mausoleum slightly disturbs the architectural symmetry of the structure. The dome placed on a high drum is topped by a spire with four spheres symbolizing the achievement of four stations of divine experience of the Sufi buried in the mausoleum. The first station is Shariat - study of the precepts and rigorous adherence to Islamic norms. The second station is Tareeqat, self-purification and total dedication to achieving of this goal. The third station is Maarifat - extrasensory perception of integrity of Universe in God, perception with soul and heart of excellence, concepts of good and evil. The fourth station is Haqiqat – comprehension of ultimate truth, unity with God, self-dissolution in divine consciousness, the highest point of life destination to excellence.

The interior of mausoleum dome and walls is decorated with a frieze containing Koranic quotations and intricate paintings made in old Arabic techniques. In the sepulcher there were buried the founder of the Katta Langar abode Sheikhzade Muhammad Sadyk, his father Sheikhzade Abdul-Khasan II and his son Abdul-Khusein Akhund.

Consequently, with the lapse of time, around the sepulcher and on the hill slopes, which served the foundation for the mausoleum, there developed mazar (graveyard). According to the inscriptions carved on well-preserved stone tombs, the mazar became the eternal resting place for several generations of murids – disciples of Sufi sheikh, noble warriors and representatives of the dynasties once ruling the area.

The history of Ishkiya brotherhood is closely linked with the history of Sufism origin. This mystic doctrine in Islam developed in Moslem countries more than 1200 years ago. Within several centuries following its origin Sufism spanned the territories from Middle East to Central Asia and India, and from northern parts of China to Indonesia. The term Sufism, or tasawwuf, comes from the Arabic word ‘suf’ meaning ‘wool’, as the early Muslim ascetics wore simple woolen cloaks. The philosophic essence of Sufism is all about comprehension of mystic way to draw closer the God and to achieve Divine Truth. The key notion of Sufism is achievement of ecstatic condition bestowed upon the follower from heaven and manifested as momentary illumination which fills the soul of the follower with divine love and knowledge.

Within the 9th-14th centuries, in Central Asia there appeared many Sufi communities which gained adherents and disciples all over the world. These communities had an invaluable influence on the development of philosophic views and theology in the whole Moslem world. As legend goes, Ishkiya brotherhood (‘ishk’ means ‘love of Allah’) is a branch of noted Taifuriya Sufi brotherhood. It got its name in the 8th century after its founder Baba Ishki, a noble resident of Mecca. He supposedly owed the genuine Osman Koran and suffered the persecution of Emir of Mecca, who also sought possession of the holy book. Having hidden his infant son and the Koran in a saddlebag, Baba Ishki left the country. Later, in the 13th century, his followers, led by Sheikh Abdul-Khasan al-Ishki, settled down in Movarounnahr and founded Sufi community Astana-ata in the north-west of Samarkand oasis in the Nurata mountains, in Kohinur locality. In 1472 a misfortune befell the community – cholera burst upon the abode. Obviously, this fact made the Ishkiya sheikhs move to the Kashkadarya Valley.

Actually, no place could be better for the abode than this one. Its remote location off beaten caravan trails, austere beauty of the mountains, purling of mountain streams, and aloofness of worldly vanity disposed to goodness, meditation and mystic search of divine truth. The locality of Katta Langar seems to have had magic attractiveness for the local people from ancient times. Thus, even before the Arabic invasion in Movarounnahr, people used to gather in this place to perform the rites which date back to the Zoroastrian beliefs – celebration of spring festival Navruz, ceremonies and chanting during Sayil and Guli Surkh holidays. In Katta Langar, until present time, there exists the tradition of lighting lampions in special small structures called 'chirogdon'.

The legend about Baba Ishki - the founder of Ishkiya brotherhood and the owner of Osman’s Koran, has evidence behind it. Katta Langar mosque still keeps a chest with an Arabic inscription which states that it was made in the second half of the 19th century by order of Emir from Bukhara – Muzaffarkhan, and was meant ‘for keeping hirka - the Prophet’s mantle’. It is well known that during the initiation to Sufi brotherhood the followers had to observe the ritual that dated back to the tradition established by Prophet Muhammad for his disciples: the teacher shook the disciple by the hand and robed him in dervish’s garb - hirka and kulokh (dervish’s headgear). This garb was the symbol of spiritual succession; they say that the hirka was given by Prophet Muhammad to his spiritual successor and through many generations came into possession of Ishkiya Sufi brotherhood. The local people are convinced that the same chest contained the famous holy Osman's Koran.

It should be recalled that originally the Koran was spread verbally, from listener to listener; when there were attempts to write it down, it was fragmentary and unsystematic, in spite of the fact that the Prophet urged to cherish and preserve “each word of Allah”. The second caliph, Osman, initiated the compilation of Koran. This pious work was entrusted to Zeid ibn Sabit, who was Prophet Muhammad’s scribe. The final consolidated text of Koran was completed in 656; then the book was rewritten in five copies and delivered to different centres of caliphate: Mecca, Medina, Damask, Kufa and Basra. Caliph Osman kept the original version for himself and this unified text of Koran was accepted as canonical.

It is said that Osman was reading that very book of the Koran when the mutineers came and killed him, leaving stains of the righteous caliph’s blood on its pages. For centuries, the fate of this version of holy book was unknown. But in the late 15th century, Amir Temur brought the Osman’s Koran to Samarkand from his military campaign to Syria and Iraq. The book was placed in Timur’s royal library. It is a historical fact that in 1868 this Koran was kept in the mosque of Hojja Ahrar, sheikh of Sufi order. After the Russians came to Samarkand, the Koran fell into the hands of Russian general Abramov, who forwarded it to Tashkent; then the holy book was delivered to Saint- Petersburg. Later, the valuable relic was brought to Ufa, where Muslim Spiritual Council of Russia was then based, and in 1924 Osman’s Koran was brought to Tashkent in a special railroad car. In 1941, Osman's Koran was for long placed in the History Museum of Peoples of Uzbekistan in Tashkent. In 1989 Osman’s Koran was handed over to the Spiritual Council of Muslims of Uzbekistan, and now it is kept in a special chamber of the Council’s library. In 2000, UNESCO issued a certificate which attests that Osman’s Koran kept in Tashkent is the only survived genuine Koran re-written at the time of Caliph Osman.

However, in Katta Langar, there actually was kept one of the most ancient copies of Koran. According to old residents of Katta Langar settlement, in 1941 the manuscript consisted of 143 pages, from which there survived only 12 pages, and these are kept at the Spiritual Council of Muslims of Uzbekistan. Katta Langar Mosque hosts well-done copies of these pages. The researchers found out that copy of Koran, hand written on parchment and kept in Katta Langar, was made not earlier than in the mid-eighth century. As fate willed, about 80 pages are stored at the depository of St-Petersburg branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies under the Academy of Sciences of Russia, one page is kept at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan, whereas some pages of this valuable manuscript are missing. Unfortunately, the location of hirka (Prophet’s mantle), which for a long time was kept in Katta Langar settlement, is also unknown.

Ishkiya Sufi brotherhood had had many followers in Kashkadarya region and in Bukhara until the 20th century. By now, the holy relics are long lost, sufi rituals are long forgotten, but in Katta Langar, time seems to stop, and it continues to be the abode of piety and faith.

The Katta Langar phenomenon is still waiting for its researchers. Far from enticements of civilization and worldly vanity, in harmony with primeval nature, the residents of Langar live their quiet life observing ancient rites, celebrating the festivities with dancing and chanting in which there can be discerned the imprints of Sufi traditions of the past. Like their ancestors many centuries ago, they till the fields and cultivate gardens, graze the cattle, build the houses and raise children. They are friendly and openhearted and always welcome a guest from a Big World. To the present day the pilgrims from neighbouring villages and remote cities come to visit this place. Here, standing by sacred tombs and offering up a prayer, they ask the God for abundant harvest, good luck in their business, recovery from diseases … Here, in Langar – God’s abode on earth, all those who suffer can acquire the anchor of salvation and last hope.