A taste of the ancient Silk Road The Asrlar Sadosi Festival in Khiva, Uzbekistan

The Asrlar Sadosi (Echo of the Centuries) Festival is an annual event dedicated to the preservation of traditional culture in Uzbekistan. It all started in 2008, when the Fund Forum, a public NGO set up by Her Excellency Gulnara Karimova, permanent representative to the UN and other international organizations in Geneva, Ambassador of Uzbekistan in Spain, organized the first festival promoting traditional culture in the city of Kitab, the homeland of Tamerlane, the fourteenth-century Central Asian statesman.
The aim of the festival is to maintain the unique and rich Uzbek culture. During the time of the Ancient Silk Road, Uzbek cities like Taskhent, Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand were the main intellectual centres of the world and hosted scholars who made tremendous contributions to the development of modern science — one of them was the famous philosopher Avicenne, often called the father of modern medicine.
In May 2010, in partnership with the UNESCO Office in Uzbekistan, this festival took place in the historic city of Khiva, which was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1990. The city is divided into two parts. The outer city, called Dichan Kala, was formerly protected by a wall with eleven gates. The inner city, or Itchan Kala, is encircled by brick walls whose foundations are believed to have been laid in the tenth century. The present-day crenulated walls date back to the late seventeenth century and rise to a height of ten metres. The old town comprises more than fifty historic monuments and 250 old houses, mostly dating from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, when the city prospered as a trade depot and fortress along the caravan routes, often called the Ancient Silk Road. Khiva contains some of the best-preserved examples of Islamic architecture in Central Asia. It was in this historical setting that the Asrlar Sadosi Festival 2010 took place. For two full days the city of Khiva was in effervescence. From early in the morning, the first sight that met the visitor was the inhabitants dressed up in their traditional costumes preparing themselves for the big concert taking place that evening. The narrow streets within the fort were filled with people wearing colourful national dress, who had to share the narrow thoroughfares with stalls selling local handicrafts. It was impossible not to feel the history of the place while walking around in the city blessed by the lovely sunshine.
Local craftsmen presented their crafts, ranging from traditional doll making to carpet weaving. Young girls embroidered traditional cloths; young men showed off their wood-carving skills; fur makers sold traditional hats, etc. But this was not all. In different parts of the city musical groups were performing. The day’s musical offerings culminated in the evening with a fantastic concert where all of the diverse ethnic musical cultures of Uzbekistan were represented. Each region of the country has its own characteristic costumes, particular kind of music, dancing and manner of singing. Although they originated in the distant past from ritual acts tied to religious beliefs that are largely forgotten, the cultural aspect lives on and it is obvious that people are proud of their cultural heritage.
While walking through the small streets of Khiva, among the monuments that make up the unique beauty of the place, one is invited to attend a traditional cock fight — the roosters are specially bred and conditioned for this event. It’s an old tradition in this part of Central Asia, as well as another one — the famous ram fight. In ancient times, the ram was the principal wealth of the herdsmen. The owners of rams came from all parts of the country to take part in this event. The fight takes place in a large open space and it is amazing to observe its popularity — the winner receives a huge carpet.
Inside one of the traditional buildings one can see a Kurash contest, the national form of wrestling. Although it was mainly an amateur sport, it has now received international competition status. The silence around the ring is amazing when the two middle-aged fighters start to wrestle — the red team against the green one.
Further down the street, there is a mausoleum where the local mufti is praying. He will pray for you too — if you ask him nicely. And people do. While sitting there we see lots of people coming and going.
The next event is the auction of historical pieces and the fashion show. The Uzbeks not only encourage traditional dress, but the Fond Forum also encourages local fashion designers to make clothes using local fabrics. The show is magnificent. Tash-Hovli Complex hosted the National Dress Festival which brought together 15 fashion designers from Tashkent, Khorezm and Bukhara. The fashion show which kicked off with a theatrical improvisation from an eastern fairy-tale, presented 13 collections of ethnographic and stylized models. Each collection illustrated colourful historical traditions of Uzbek costumes and demonstrated the broad range of national fabrics. The charming female models from Khiva sashayed across the catwalk in designer clothes, bright gowns, embroidered boots, paranjas (an enveloping outer garment worn by women), silk scarves, atlas tunics, which glittered against the backdrop of the palace’s austere walls. Asrlar Sadosi Festival also included a conference titled “Uzbekistan’s Cultural Legacy: the Art of Calligraphy and Architectural Epigraphy”, which brought together roughly 100 eminent scholars of Uzbekistan and foreign countries in Khorezm’s Mamun Academy, one of the oldest spiritual centres of world civilization. Among the participants were Jorge Espinal, UNESCO Representative in Uzbekistan, and Gulnara Karimova, the Chairperson of the Fund Forum’s Board of Trustees.
The conference focused on the presentation of the book “Samples of the Eastern Art of Calligraphy and Miniature”, published by the Fund Forum. Participants also made speeches on the results of research projects to create an “Archeological Map of Uzbekistan” and a “Catalogue of Archeological Monuments in Uzbekistan”. All these are a maiden effort in Uzbekistan to systematize and catalogue the historical legacy in this field and have drawn increasing interest from many specialists. Also, presently groups of scientists in Bukhara, Samarkand, Termez and Karshi have, under a project, joined forces to study and decipher inscriptions on medieval architectural monuments in Uzbekistan. Another project has been launched in Tashkent to study the origins and principles of Khoresmian tambour notation.
The festival closes at night with a tremendous show that could have graced the stage of any of the world’s major metropolises. The winners of the traditional competitions perform together with local pop artists — the performance is a mixture of modern and traditional music combined with dance.