The Poetry of the Dirt Road

By Jheri St. James

The people of Uzbekistan clair Mr. Nizam al-Din Ali Shir Herawi as their national poet. The Uzbek language is descended from the Chagatai (middle Turkic) language, in which he wrote. Generally known by his pen name Navai or Navoi (meaning “The Weeper”), he was a Central Asian politician, mystic, linguist, painter and poet of Uyghur origin who was born and lived in the area now known as Herat, Afghanistan from 1441 to 1501. He authored many lyrical poems, gazelles (love poems), prose works, scientific treatises — and is considered the founder of Uzbek literature. He was also a statesman-vizier/minister in the court of the Sultan Husain Mirzo Boiqaro -- the patron of scientists, painters and craftsmen. By his order, many hospitals, schools, and bathhouses were created. For more than five centuries the people of the world have enjoyed reading Navai’s books, singing his songs and studying his work.

“May the Earth be an abode of delight, pleasure, songs and orchards,
May peace ascend to the throne of the world,
And let all the peoples gather for its feast”

* * *

Here is some more modern writing from our collector in Uzbekistan:

“I collected soil in Yunus Abad district, which used to be isolated place in the first part of twentieth century. During the Soviet repression times, Soviets used to have this place for executing people whom they considered to be anti-Soviet. Many of well-educated and talented representatives of Uzbek people including poets, writers, scientists were among such people. Nowadays the district is densely populated and is one of the center of Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent. There is a newly built Memorial Complex for the memory of those whos uffered from Soviet repressions. I believe that ‘Common Ground 191’ will be long-standing symbol of people’s friendship, unity and peace. It will be reflection of all positive relations people and nations can have . . . Also I am sending my photo while collecting the soil. Hopefully I will be lucky to visit the place where the fresco be installed and be proud for my nation too. Best regards, Madina” (Musaeva)

So many of our collectors express these sentiments, a feeling of pride for their homeland’s soil, and a sense of history about adding their collection to our Common Ground 191 project. The soil collection from Uzbekistan was an efficient one; the box only got lost a couple of times. The first email is dated September 17, and Madina’s e-mail above is dated October 4th. If only all the shipments were so quick.

Volunteers and boxes get lost going or coming, to Gary Simpson’s personal expense. Did you know it costs an average $200 to ship a small empty box to the country and the full box of dirt back to Laguna Beach, California, home of the project? Multiply that times 191 and you can see this is not an inexpensive hobby. It’s could be called the “Great Dirt Road” . . . the multicultural travels of the soil, on the earth, upon which we all live.

Unus Abad

Great Silk Road
Uzbekistan sits right in the center of the old Great Silk Road, the commerce route between the East and West. Not a single road, it consisted of a network of routes connecting the West (Rome ) to the East (China ). Some of those roads went through Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Silk was not the only merchandise on the Great Silk Road; all kinds of goods were exchanged between the big empires. Traders often did not go from one end to the other, but traveled a short part of the route, trading their goods in the big cities of the Silk Road, then returning.

The Great Silk Road existed more than 2000 years ago, but flourished in the second century. In the middle of the first millennium, its popularity began to decline as sea routes became more accessible. Its importance as a connector between different, distant peoples disappeared, however shorter routes were still used for local trade.

History’s fascination with the Great Silk Road is due to its intercultural importance: People of all cultures and religions met in the trading towns and exchanged, besides goods, also ideas, opinions, attitudes, traditions, philosophies, knowledge and much more. Tolerance was absolutely necessary, of the critical importance. People long for such an open, accepting world right up to today and the Great Silk Road an icon of successful human diversity.

He who stands apart or turns his face
Deserves no place in the human race.

The creations of mankind
Are the fruit of man’s mind.

Good the speech that is graceful and distinct;
Excellent that which is truthful and succinct.

A man who follows virtue’s ways
Hath no need of pay or praise.

*   *   *

Some of history’s most influential and savage conquerors ruled these lands. Alexander the Great set up at least eight cities in Central Asia between 334-323 BC, before the caravans began traveling through the Silk Road. After 138 BC China opened its border to trade. Between 484-1150 AD, Huns, Turks and Arabs came from the west; the latest bringing a new religion--Islam. Many mosques and schools were built in the Uzbeki cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva during this period, which included saving the remaining structures of the ancient Samanid culture. Then, most of these cities were destroyed during the invasion of the Genghis Khan in 1220.

Later Timur, known also as Tamerlane, resurrected the same cities by using the labor of slaves and artists he captured during successful crusades. Timur conquered Persia, captured Baghdad, and led expeditions to Anatolia and India. Most of the architecture that is found in Samarkand was build by Timur and his grandson Ulugbek. These are the well preserved relics from the time when Central Asia was a center of empire, education, and trade. Uzbekistan cities including Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Shakhrisabz and Tashkent live on in the imagination of the West as symbols of oriental beauty and mystery. Here is a short description of some of those cities, interspersed with some generic Uzbekistan architectural pictures.

•  One of the oldest cities of the world is Samarkand, capital of the powerful state Sogd,
the center of Emir Timur’s great empire.

•  The settlement of Bukhara dates back to the 8th century when it was for 200 years the center of an expanding Islamic kingdom and prospered as a trade and intellectual center for Central Asia.

•  Once one of Islam’s most sacred cities, Bukhara contains many examples of fine Islamic architecture.

•  Khiva is known as a museum city under the open sky. Important spiritual and cultural values came from the large scientific enters of astronomy, mathematics and medicine that existed in this area centuries ago.

•  Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, was probably settled around the 1st century.

Royal Palace at Tashkent

•  Baysun keeps alive the memory of Greek, Baktrian and Kushan kingdoms that brought obliterated the heathen fire-worshippers and shaman cults. Trade caravans traveled here through iron gates in narrow mountain canyons for thousand of years; also the armies of Alexander the Great, Chengiz Khan and Tamerlane.

Mind, ye peoples of the Earth,
Enmity is an evil state.
Live in friendship, one and all -
Man can have no kinder fate.

(A page from the divan of Nava'i, from the library of Süleymân the Magnificent.
Nava'i's best-known poems are found in his four divans, or poetry collections,
which total roughly 50,000 verses.)

*   *   *

Russia conquered Uzbekistan in the late 19th century. Stiff resistance to the Red Army after World War I was eventually suppressed and a socialist republic set up in 1924. This was probably the period when our collection site Unus Abad was in operation. Also during the Soviet era, intensive production of “white gold” (cotton) and grain led to overuse of agrochemicals and the depletion of water supplies, which have left the land poisoned and the Aral Sea and certain rivers half dry. Independent since 1991, the country seeks to gradually lessen its dependence on agriculture while developing its mineral and petroleum reserves. Current concerns include terrorism by Islamic militants, economic stagnation, and the curtailment of human rights and democratization. Along with Liechtenstein, Uzbekistan is one of the only two doubly landlocked countries in the world. The terrain is mostly flat to rolling sandy desert with dunes; broad, flat intensely irrigated river valleys. Fergana Valley in east is surrounded by mountainous Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with the shrinking Aral Sea in the west.

The population of Uzbekistan is very young—34.1 percent of its people are younger than 14. Uzbek is the only official state language, however Russian is the defacto language for interethnic communication. Uzbekistan has a high literacy rate with about 88 % of adults above the age of 15 being able to read and write. Its universities graduate almost 600,000 skilled workers annually.

Haste leads to stumbling and delay;
Patience clears the most encumbered way.

He who shows patience and thoughtful design
Turns flowers into honey and grapes into wine.

* * *

Navoi was a builder who is reported to have founded, restored or endowed some 370 mosques, schools, libraries, hospitals, caravanserais, and other educational, pious, and charitable institutions in Khorasan. In Herat, he was responsible for 40 caravanserais, 17 mosques, 10 mansions, 9 bathhouses, 9 bridges and 20 pools. Among his most famous constructions were the mausoleum of the 13th century mystical poet, Farid al-Din Attar, in Nishapur and the Khalasiya madrasa in Herat. He was one of the instrumental contributors to the architecture of Herat, which became, in Rene Grousset’s words, “the Florence of what has justly been called the Timurid Renaissance.” He was a promoter and patron of scholarship and arts and letters, a musician, a composer, a calligrapher, a painter and sculptor, and such a celebrated writer that Bernard Lewis, the distinguished English historian of Islam called him “the Chaucer of the Turks”.

Uzbek classical music is called shashmaqam, which translates as six maqams—six sections in different musical modes. Interludes of spoken Sufi poetry interrupt the music, typically beginning at a low register and gradually ascending to a climax before calming back down to the beginning tone. This type of music is drawn from poetry, with performers fluent in both Uzbek and Tajik languages; in some instances the two languages are mixed as one in the same song. Although banned in the 1950’s from the radio stations, folk groups continued to play music in their own ways and spread it individually as well.

Dance of a bacha in Samarkand between 1905 and 1915

These days, Uzbekistan has 81,600 km of roadways, 71,237 of them paved and 10,363 km unpaved. Was the Great Silk Road paved or just mud (soil)? People of all cultures, religions and ethnicities once traveled the Silk Road, exchanging poetry, music and trade goods.

Just so, a much appreciated and varied assortment of people have contributed to the Common Ground 191 project, a project that makes poetry out of the mundane medium of soil--the soil upon which the Great Silk Road lay, upon which all wars were/are fought, all the poets and participants live, and from which an exciting new art expression will be forged. Thank you to the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan and to Madina Musaeva for her soil and picture.

The word for peace in Uzbekistan is unknown at this time, but we repeat the words of Navoi: may peace ascend to the throne of the world.

Navoi’s Memorial

When justice is the corner-stone of power,
A ruined land will soon be made to flower.

He who digs a hole for others as a snare
Himself will find entombment there.

Words can avert calamitous strife,
Words can restore the dead to life.

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Photos were obtained from: and Also

Most of the Navoi materials came from and pictures--with some small portion from Wikipedia.




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