I went to visit Timurlane’s grave today.
Historical note: he was a late 14th-early 15th century guy born near Samarkand who rose to rule a huge empire. In these post-Soviet days, with Lenin and his menagerie gone the way of the dinosaurs, Timur has been resurrected (so to speak) into the symbol for the greatness that Uzbekistan used to represent, and the icon for nationalist pride.
There is something vaguely unsettling about visiting graves. Especially those of people you do not know. It is a sort of sense that this is not entirely appropriate behaviour. Like rubber-necking at a car accident, going to a funeral just because you are walking past the church, or popping your head around the door to listen to someone’s last rites. Should you really be doing this? Will anyone come to tell you off? Would your mother approve?
For all that, there was a certain atmosphere about the place. The cool silence (once the French tourists had gone), the dazzling splendour of the mausoleum decoration, the simple dark beauty of the crypt, and the indecypherable Arabic script on the gravestone all gave me the impression of being in the presence of some kind of greatness. Like visiting Lenin or Mao, but less gruesome (without the body).
In Samarkand you can also visit an entire street of mausolea, mostly devoted to Timur’s relatives. Their elegance and opulence (but remoteness and distance) is a great contrast with the simplicity of the resting places of the ‘normal’ people in the ordinary graveyard that surrounds the street.
Speaking of voyeurism, the effect is even stronger in this graveyard because there are photos of the deceased on the headstones. They are actually somehow printed on the stone. It is somehow unsettling to have so many dead people looking at me (accusingly? jealously? why do I ascribe negative emotions to those beyond the grave?) as I walk around.
Not only that, but none of the people are smiling. I would think that if I were to have my picture on my headstone that it should be a picture of me smiling and happy rather than sombre and with perfect hair. Or perhaps that is just an indicator of my general lack of tonsorial elegance.
While we are on the subject (or at least in the city) I should just say a few words about Samarkand. Excellent. Amazing. Spectacular. There you go. Come and see. Pass through Bukhara. Spend a few hours in Khiva. But come visit Samarkand. The monuments are better. The prices are lower. There are more ordinary people living out their lives (so you don’t feel like a mouse in a maze). And the people are friendlier.
Changing cities does not change some things about Uzbekistan though. There will always be someone to let you climb the minaret, descend into the crypt, or take a walk on the roof – so long as you don’t tell anyone. You can always get in after hours by paying a bit more than the admission price to the guard. The first price is always ridiculous and offered more in hope than in reality (even for hotels). There will always be a guy in an old Volga (a seriously cool car) who will drop you home for a few hundred sum. You will always be able to buy cold Baltika (Russian) beer. And the internet cafes will always be run by nerdy looking guys who do not see enough sun.