Fergana in eastern Uzbekistan is a fertile valley fed by two rivers, Naryn and Kara Darya, and flanked by Tien Shan in the North and Gissar mountains (part of the Pamir Range) in the South. As I travel south-east from Tashkent, the city’s Soviet-style architecture gives way to expansive fields, the Angren River rushing past, and beyond the snow-capped peaks of the Kuramin Mountains. We zip through a tunnel and arrive in Fergana valley, Babur’s beloved land “situated on the edge of the civilised world”, with its hills and dales, orchards and gardens.
Lasting legacyBabur was born Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad on February 14, 1483, in Andijon (Andijan), then the capital of Fergana.
Today, it is an industrial city with all manner of industries, with very few traces of Babur. Part of this could be blamed on the 1902 earthquake that levelled large parts of the city. I’m keen to see where Babur grew up, so my guide drives me to the madrasa that was built by Babur’s father, Umar Sheikh. It’s run down and there’s a noisy hardware market at its doorstep. We navigate the stalls and step inside the quiet courtyard of the madrasa. There seems to be some attempt at restoration, considering the scaffolding lying around.
There’s a museum of sorts in the madrasa, mostly paintings and miniatures of Babur, his life and times, and his conquests. Despite its shabbiness, it’s worth visiting the place, where the king spent his formative years.
Later, I visit sprawling Babur Memorial Park, opened in 1993, full of fruit trees and decorative plants spread over the Bagishamol hillside that Babur was fond of visiting. In the centre stands a larger-than-life statue of Babur. He appears pensive, looking less a conqueror and more the poet that he was at heart.
The park also contains a house-museum with colourful wall paintings depicting Babur’s life, and a display of literary works by him and his descendants. Perhaps the most poignant part is a symbolic tomb that contains a piece of earth brought back from Babur’s grave in Kabul.
Fergana was an important stop on the Silk Road and passing caravans brought more than just goods. Local artisans learnt the art of ceramics and silk weaving from the Chinese, and Fergana eventually became a flourishing centre.An hour’s drive west from Andijan brings me to Margilan, a small town supposedly founded by Alexander the Great. It is known for its high-quality silk. Today, the Yodgorlik Silk Factory is the largest traditional silk factory in Uzbekistan, where everything is done by hand — from spinning to dyeing to weaving colourful ikat fabric. Ikat is known as atlas in Uzbekistan, and the coveted ikat-patterned 100% silk fabric is called khan atlas or the king’s silk.
Another hour further west lies Rishtan, the region’s oldest ceramics centre dating back to the 7th Century. At the workshop of Rustam Usmanov, I watch fascinated as a mere lump of clay is transformed into intricately patterned blue-and-white ceramics.
Each piece of pottery is fired twice — the first time to set the clay, after which beautiful floral motifs are painted, which emerge as vividly-coloured designs after the second firing. Many of these crafts disappeared or were suppressed during the Soviet era. However, now local artisans have set about reviving them. The Silk Road may have disappeared, but its legacy lives on.