In Paris: The Road to Samarkand

The Arab World Institute in Paris (Institut du Monde Arabe), IMA, together with the Uzbekistan Art and Culture Development Foundation, invites us to step inside mysterious and fascinating world of Samarkand and discover its treasures. Their exhibition “Sur les routes de Samarcande. Merveilles de soie et d’or” is open until June 4 2023. Sumptuous caftans, headdresses and gold-embroidered accessories from the emir’s court, hand-painted wooden saddles, horses equipment, carpets, paintings, costumes from the nomadic culture and jewelry are being displayed for the first time outside the country’s national museums.

At the crossroads of civilizations, the place where the peoples of the steppes, India, Persia and China came together, Uzbekistan is the heir to powerful kingdoms and empires that grew out of this unique strategic political and intellectual situation. It was a land of knowledge and cultures, of Zoroastrian and Muslim practices, following the Arab conquest and the advent of Islam in the 8th century. These coexisting currents left a lasting mark on the symbolism of the region’s artistic creations. The birth of global trade has strong roots in the nation, with cities like Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva serving as central points on the Great Silk Road, which was once simply referred to as the “road to Samarkand.” The cities were adorned with masterpieces of Islamic architecture, in particular during the reign of the great Timur, known as Tamerlane. In the 16th century, three rival khanates – Bukhara, Khiva, and Kokand – were gradually structured in what is generally considered the new Uzbek space.

“Kaltacha”, outer garment. Early 1880s, Bukhara. Velvet, gold embroidery. Tashkent, State Museum of arts of Uzbekistan © The Art and Culture Development Foundation of the Republic of Uzbekistan © Laziz Hamani

The art of gold embroidery has a very long history and Bukhara is considered to be its traditional and renowned center, with its high point being in the 19th century. Known as zardozi, a term derived from the Persian zar, meaning gold, and dozi, meaning embroidery, the craft was practiced exclusively by men in a society where it was said that gold would be tarnished if it was touched or breathed on by a woman. It was also feared that the secrets of this craft would be divulged as she passed from one family to another via marriage. As well as being forbidden from touching gold, women were also banned from wearing it in an ostentatious way. So gold embroidery appears only on women’s accessories.

The most important item in men’s costumes was the kaftan, a loose-fitting, long coat, in a single cut, worn over several layers of clothing. At the emir’s court, the finest chapans were made on a base of silk velvet and were decorated with gold embroidery. The material used was either soft-spun gold, known as kolobutan, or drawn thread known as sim; the quality of the embroidery was proportionate to the weight of the gold.

The only means of transport, the horse was an integral part of the Uzbek lifestyle and identity. A veritable extension of the rider, the horse was given lavish, luxurious accessories. Saddle blankets made of gold-embroidered velvet, wooden saddles hand-painted using natural dyes, and saddlecloths were supplemented by a luxurious panoply of harnesses, veritable pieces of jewelry made of silver set with turquoise, cornelian and enamel.

Horse harness, 19th century. Silver, turquoise. Bukhara, Bukhara State Museum-Reserve, The Ark Citadel – Museum of Local History (4th–3rd century BC – 20th century) © The Art and Culture Development Foundation of the Republic of Uzbekistan © Laziz Hamani

Jewelry former an essential part of a woman costume in Central Asia. It was an integral part of the traditional costume and indicated the age and social, economic and marital status of the person wearing it. Rich people were able to commission an entire set from a jewelry master. Less wealthy people could only afford to have a limited amount of poorer quality material and roughly made. Pieces should not be considered individually, but rather as part of an ensemble whose form, material and aesthetic conformed to local traditions.

Each ensemble was generally made up of several pieces: diadem, forehead, temple, pectoral, necklace, bracelets, earrings, rings and nose rings sometimes. Its important prophylactic role explains the abundance of amulets and talismans in girls’ jewelry. The younger the woman, the more, and more flamboyant, jewelry was worn. An ensemble could weigh up to ten kilos.

“Tadj-duzi“ pectoral ornament, late 19th century, Khorezm. Silver, coral, coloured glass, filigree, inserts, Tashkent, State Museum of Arts of Uzbekistan © The Art and Culture Development Foundation of the Republic of Uzbekistan © Laziz Hamani

One of the most impressive jewelry was a breast ornament called Haykel, generally made of silver with carnelian or coloured glass inserts. It was worn by the bride at the beginning of the wedding ceremony, before moving away to the house of the groom. She continued to wear it for festivals and family celebrations up to the birth of her first child. Another noteworthy ceremonial wedding adornment at the exhibition is the tobelik, a headdress of a Karakalpak woman. It has a cylindrical shape made of silver plates adorned with turquoise and coral. The headdress revealed only a tiny part of the face. It is an extremely rare piece: only three items of this kind are conserved in Uzbekistan’s museums.

“Tobelik“, married woman’s headdress, 17th–18th centuries, metalwork (silver, coral, turquoise, bell) and fabric, Nukus, State Museum of Arts of the Republic of Karakalpakstan named after I.V. Savitsky © The Art and Culture Development Foundation of the Republic of Uzbekistan © Andrey Arakelyan

“Haykel“ pectoral ornament, late 19th–early 20th century. Metal, stones, Nukus, State Museum of History and Culture of the Republic of Karakalpakstan © The Art and Culture Development Foundation of the Republic of Uzbekistan © Andrey Arakelyan

The exhibition is open until June 4 2023 and is organised by the Arab World Institute in Paris in partnership with the Uzbekistan Art and Culture Development Foundation, which advocates international cooperation and promotes Uzbek culture worldwide.

The Arab World Institute:

1 Rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, Paris