For most people, Central Asia is a blur. Rarely in the news, it’s a hard-to-define region of five “Stan” nations that sprang up seemingly out of nowhere when the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Then, the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan all gained independence.
It’s an area on the map that fascinated lecturer and Islamic world expert Diana Driscoll who visited the region for the first time in 1998.
At the time, it was the height of summer when she and a friend visited Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan.
“What I found fascinating about being in Central Asia was that it was five separate countries, but it never felt like that,” Driscoll recalls. “There never were five countries. It was people, it was migration of ideas and peoples, Persians and Turks and Mongolians coming down, and ideas were floating back and forth. Empires rose and empires fell — fascinating warlords — and I thought ‘this is really where it is all happening’.”
Driscoll traces the formation of the modern nation states in the region to the Tsarists. The Russians came and took over the region they called Turkestan in the 1860s.
“Everyone identified as being a Samarkandi, or a Bukhari, or Almati — you identified yourself with the city you lived in,” Driscoll says. National identity wasn’t so rigid. Someone who spoke Uzbek could have a mother who spoke Tajik and their father could be a Kazakh.
“It really was a melting pot,” Driscoll says. “But the Tsar came down, and they brought all their ethnographers, they made this map, and then came the Russian revolution, and the Bolsheviks came in. They did not know what to do with this area.”
For the revolutionaries, being a good Bolshevik was most important, and to do that, each group needed its own state. “They drew these ridiculous borders,” she says. “Now you have Kazakh, Tajik, Turkmen, Uzbek and Kyrgyzstan.”
Once Driscoll was accompanying a group travelling from Uzbekistan into Turkmenistan. “There was this lovely little older Uzbek lady sitting there, going on and on. She had a wedding to attend in Turkmenistan because her family is there,” Driscoll recalls. “But the silly border cut through their village, so she lives in Uzbekistan and her family is in Turkmenistan.” The lady wanted to bring a carpet as a wedding gift and the border guard wouldn’t let her. “And she said: ‘Ten years ago I could take a camel over the border, now I can’t even take a carpet.’ So that is how bad it is.”
Today, Driscoll can’t quite remember what first drew her attention to Central Asia, having grown up in the United States. But she remembers watching Lawrence of Arabia when she was 13. “I thought how interesting. I knew nothing about it.” Driscoll has a very large family, lots of siblings and cousins. “Nobody does what I do,” she says.
She moved to London in 1974 and, at the School of African and Oriental Studies (Soas), she studied the ancient Middle East. She thought she was going to be an archaeologist, but ended up studying history and languages. “I didn’t want to get my hands dirty,” she laughs.
Driscoll went on to complete a master’s degree at Soas in early Islam.
“I was always interested in the origin of ideas — especially religions,” she says. “Where do ideas come from? I was quite interested in Old Testament studies, and then Christianity, early Christianity, and it is all about monotheism.”
She worked at Soas for 12 years, and then took up a post as Director of Education with the British Council in Hong Kong, giving her the opportunity to travel across China.
“I thought my goodness, there is Islam up here in China also, and that is when I discovered the Silk Road.” She started taking more courses and reading more with friends who were interested in the area.
Over the years, Driscoll travelled to places such as Jordan, Syria, Libya, Morocco and Egypt. Her fascination grew and she started learning and became very fascinated with Ibn Battuta and Ibn Khaldun.
Around five years ago, after Driscoll retired, she received a phone call from Cox & Kings, a bespoke travel company. They needed a lecturer to accompany travel groups to Central Asia and asked her if she would be interested.
The answer was obvious, allowing her to travel regularly to Central Asia. Those who travel to this region do it for different reasons. She cites one person who toured this part of the world for 12 days after having read the noted poem The Gold Road to Samarkand by James Elroy Flecker.
Others watch a film and become interested. “It is all sort of romantic to begin with. A lot of people have seen this film [Lawrence of Arabia] and think ‘I am going to do that’. They want to ride a camel.”
And with her joining them as a tour historian, the trips are not all about sightseeing. One man told her he felt like he was with the History Channel 24/7. “The sense of history that you can look upon a wonderful building in Samarkand, and think it was built in the 10th century,” she says. “The Samanid mausoleum in Bukhara — there’s a picture of it in the Islamic Room of the British Museum — but you can see the brick building. It’s absolutely exquisite. It is a jewel. It is a work of art.”
After the travel groups return to London, Driscoll takes the participants on a visit to the British Museum to put what they’ve seen on the tour into a historical context. “We look at other Islamic things, tiles, and carpets and metal works and glasswork,” she says.
She also volunteers at the museum’s Asia Department one day a week and gives free gallery talks. She and a friend commit to regular study days as well. The history, places and people of the region continue to fascinate her, and she lists off some of the figures from Central Asia: “The names are Timur (Tamerlane) You have got the Safavids down in Persia, you have the 10th century Samanid, Ibn Sina, Al Farabi, Al Biruni. They are all Central Asians,” says Driscoll.
And while on her tours, Driscoll tries to provide something different. “For instance, not many people know that Uzbekistan has the second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde art in the world,” she enthuses. “There was a man called Savitsky in the 1950s. He went around collecting all the things that Joseph Stalin decided was terrible art. And he hid it. He hid it in Uzbekistan.”
Alexander the Great also came to Uzbekistan. “The walls of the ancient city are there,” she says. “And I always tell them about the people that we don’t know anything about. The Sogdians. People don’t know anything about them. They were the middle men on the Silk Road. These people were hugely intelligent, great accountants, spoke five languages, and they lived around Bukhara and Samarkand.”
The tomb of the Biblical Prophet Daniel is also located in Samarkand. It has an 18-metre sarcophagus. “Supposedly Tamerlane brought an arm of Daniel, a relic, and they put it in this tomb,” says Driscoll. “And it started growing, it is about 5 metres long. No one has ever gone inside to see if it really is there. But that doesn’t make any difference. That is the belief. So it is a pilgrimage centre. It is an arm of Daniel and it keeps growing longer and longer.”
Driscoll also conducts a tour of Morocco where she talks about how Islam spread into North Africa. “Who were the people that were there? The Berbers and the relationship between the Berbers and the Arabs. And it is also looking at their art and architecture. Andalusia. It is not the same as the Middle East, certainly not the same as Central Asia, but trade came through. And the early Islamic silver came from Morocco for coins.”
But Driscoll’s knowledge of history also has importance now. She recently spent a day at London’s Institute of Archaeology, giving lectures on the origins of Daesh.
While at Soas, Driscoll studied the ninth century philosopher Al Farabi.
“My dissertation was actually on what makes a prophet a prophet,” she says. “He wrote a very famous treatise on the wise king. Was he a wise king or was he a prophet? What is the relationship between wisdom and prophecy and religion, they are very subtle. And in the Islamic world, these people were very interested in these subjects. And it is very sad that since the 13th century, they don’t talk about it anymore.”
She notes that at the turn of the first millennium, there were great minds who were writing, they were arguing with each other. “The fine points of philosophy, fine points of religious, ideas, the fine points of Sufism,” she says. “All these things were so interesting. But somehow it is all gone.”
She’s a firm believer in the exchange of ideas, where the finer issues are debated without fears for freedom of speech or expression.
For her, one of the maddening things are the constant questions about safety. “People keep asking me is Uzbekistan safe? [It] drives me mad,” she says. “Because they think it’s a Muslim country, they are going to get blown up.” She thinks the United States could be more dangerous. “I say to people: ‘You probably have a better chance of being shot in the United States, because there are guns all over the place’.”
She thinks its regrettable that people don’t understand their own religion. “I find it sad for everybody. I think it is sad that we are in a world now [where] there is no dialogue.”
So what would Al Farabi say now if he were alive today? “Yes,” Driscoll says. “Never stop questioning and always ask why.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.