It is not easy to travel to Uzbekistan from Brussels. Unfortunately, Brussels airport doesn’t have any direct connection to Central Asia. One who aims to travel to Uzbekistan needs to travel through Paris or Frankfurt. Another inconvenient point is that flights are only available every four days. You really need to conduct an exhaustive research in order to match your calendar.
I have been four times to Uzbekistan. First time to Tashkent, followed by Samarkand and Bukhara – two inspiring cities part of the epic silk road. This time, I had a more challenging destination. Shakhrisabz.
Why challenging? In order to travel to this city, you need to take a train in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, towards the South. If you are lucky and arrive before 10:00 am to Tashkent you can still take the Afrosiab train – the local TGV – and the trip will take 4:00 hours. If you arrive after 10:00 am, which was my case, you’ll embark on an unforgettable train trip for 8:00 hours.
I decided to visit Shakhrisabz in order to attend the first international festival dedicated to the Maqom music. This music genre is of great importance for the Uzbek people but not exclusive to them. The maqom term is originated from the Arabic language and means “place” and, in the music perspective, “melody”. The Uzbek government decided to promote, throughout 4 days, the Maqom music and culture by inviting 73 bands from 73 countries. In total, about 300 participants. Not all of them were maqom musicians. The aim was also to exchange best practices about this music genre – which, by the way, is UNESCO world heritage since 2003. That was the case of the Portuguese band coming from Porto that I met during my 8 hours travel to Shakhrisabz. What are the odds to find fellow citizens in a train in the middle of Uzbekistan? As I said, they were from Porto, but sang multiple times a lovely song about Lisbon: “cheira bem, cheira a Lisboa” – translation: “it smells good, it smells like Lisbon”. Pardon my chauvinism, I’m from Lisbon.
Shakhrisabz is located approximately at 80 km south of Samarkand. An important city for the history of this country. Back in 328-327 BC, Alexander the Great chose to spend his winters there. In fact, it was in Shakhrisabz that he met his wife, Roxanna. Alexander the Great married Roxanna in Shakhrisabz despite the strong opposition from all his companions and generals. This fact is still very present in the Shakhrisabz collective memory.
During my first day in Shakhrisabz, I had the chance to visit the city before entering into “festival mode”.
When you reach the main square of Shakhrisabz, rapidly you understand that the legendary Amir Temur played an important role here. In fact, Shakhrisabz (also known as the city of Kesh) hosts a magnificent palace, behind today’s statue of Amir Temur. The Ak-Saray Palace is one of the most emblematic monuments of the Timurids from the XIV and XV centuries. Amir Temur directed the construction himself. After Temur had already built a great number of palaces and fortresses in the capital of his land, in Samarkand. He wanted to beautify his hometown Shakhrisabz with a palace, which has not been seen in all his empire yet. He called the most skilled architects and craftsmen from all over his possessions. Also, about 50,000 slaves took part in this large-scale construction. Ak-Saray Palace was planned as the most grandiose of all Temur’s constructions.
On the next day, after sleeping for 10 hours, I came down to the hotel lobby and was surprised by the noise. I was hearing at least 30 different languages. The international guests had arrived with their instruments and were jamming. We were told that the official inauguration would take place that same day with the presence of Uzbekistan’s President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Later on, a mix of civil servants, international guests, musicians, scholars, and journalists were welcomed by President Mirziyoyev followed by a specular Uzbek concert. This was my first introduction to the Maqom music. I thought that most probably it would be a formal concert. I was wrong. After 5 minutes, the entire crowd started dancing. Men and women of all ages.
Throughout the last 3 days, I had the opportunity to attend all the concerts and even forgot this was a competition. Azerbaijan’s Mugham ensemble won the contest of the First International Maqom Art Forum.
Now that I’m finishing my piece, it is time to raise my glass of vodka, that I got in Shakhrisabz, and cheers to the Azerbaijani victory and to Shakhrisabz for the organization. Well done.