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The Tranquilized Ruins of Samarkand

It can require many years of reading to clearly recognize what one wants to write as having already been written – often often – over the years. Illiteracy of such history helps of course to make writing much easier, fresher, “new” and satisfying. This is dismaying “news” for serious writers, but less so for most – human conditions continuing to be what they were.

I like…no, I prefer, ruins. There is a German category for such (sick?) souls: Ruinen-Romantiker: a romantic of ruins. Unfortunately for me, and others like me, most ruins are restored; but even more unfortunate – even ancient ruins are not enough to restore the longings of the soul.

In whatever language a ruin-romantic muses (a cliché of what romantics do at ruins), such souls tend characteristically, and this too is old, to melancholy, to dismay, to Byron’s sorrow is knowledge,…

Alone... A dark, cloudy day, or moon-lit night… Ruins... Silence and solitude – or better the company of storm and wind… Deep and/or dire thoughts… A moment in life and time which if not critical, one wishes or dreams (perhaps also with fear) were at least auspicious, perhaps decisive… And the ruins as well.

This is a common picture of what romantics of ruins often want to be an uncommon experience. And here is a crucial question: which is more, the romantics or the ruins?

Ruins – real ruins: neglected, isolated, decaying – the kind I prefer – are unpopular, for they remind most humans who prefer to forget, that this [and they] too shall pass. A popular amnesia. Perhaps I might summarize this short essay by saying – is this formulation “new”? – that restored ruins are like an anesthetic, a kind of external tranquilizer. I imagine how Emerson – if in a rare dark mood – might have considered the inner man or woman who finds outer reflections, echoes of inwards, psychic architectural mind and moods in ruins. But even ruins are not enough – those that are restored being the most inadequate, even dishonest. A restored ruin is – to connoisseurs of melancholy, longing, etc – like a refaced skull that has been forced to smile.

In the neglected, poor, unattended central Museum of the History and Culture of Uzbekistan (est. 1924) in the large entrance hall there are “before and after” photos of many of the most famous mosques, mausoleums, caravanserais, to be seen in 2750-year old Samarkand. Below are large photos of the restored structures, above late 19th century or early 20th centuries photos of them “in ruin”. There are two kinds of people in the world…I am one of those who was depressed – because really unimpressed – by the restored ruins. I doubt the exhibitors had my kind in mind, but it was part of the richest, more impressive part of my tourism in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva in Central Asia to see and feel a bit via these photos the unrestored, collapsing ruins. But while the remaining ruins of Greece and perhaps the locus classicus of European ruin rumination, Rome, are there to see, to feel, to muse on…those I most longed to see in Samarkand had mostly been destroyed not only several centuries (human have tended to count in centuries since about the 1600s), but several “civilizations” (empires, khanates,…) past. If the Samarkand of today could be labeled perhaps S7 or S8, then the Samarkand I longed to see was S1, 2 or 3.

Scientists (of one of the latest empires engulfing Uzbekistan, those of the USSR) did find and dig up some of these older, abandoned and ignored sand-covered ruins near Khiva (e.g. Khoresm civilization); and tourists can go to view them. But it is the easier, convenient, latest “ruins” restored that are the prime tourist sites for tourists to see – I won’t say experience – in Samarkand and the area.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 19th century home in Concord, Mass had something to it when I visited in the 1980’s which was lacking in Samarkand: atmosphere. Something perhaps almost intangible from his time which the restoration of the ruins of Samarkand had removed, hidden or buried. Removed by adding on; cleared away by cleaning, ruined by repairing, repainting. The ruins were, to this romantic of ruins, just not real enough…though most seem not to notice.

Man remakes ruins in his own image: clean and safe, but too superficial and undisturbing for the likes of me.

And whether there be more in the romantic or in the ruins, there seems to me to be little in restored ruins.

Samarkand, Bukhara, cities with long histories. Great conquerors…great, often enough brutal times (by our standards to day at least, and likely by those brutalized then), great epochs lived, ruled, conquered, died. Samarkand will in August of this year (2007) celebrate a perhaps overly convenient 2750. But there have been many Samarkands in fact. And several were simply completely destroyed, erased, razed, rebuilt – from at least Alexander the Great, there was the Arabic attack, Ghengis Khan’s destruction, a Persian assault in the 18th century. (The Russians arrived in the mid-19th century.)

I doubt it is at all new to say that ruins – real ruins…the kind that silence you, perhaps even frighten you a bit – are like the skulls, memento mori, of civilizations. Easily touristed, restored “ruins” are more in the direction of theme parks – in the case of Samarkand, a kind of understandable Tamerlane theme park (“Tamerland”?), though at least they are a kind of civilized civilizations’ “cemetery”.

Yet ruins are not enough – be they in Rome, Athens or Samarkand – or Concord. Though to my taste the first “discoverers” of ruins are the lucky ones (that is, if their souls were not too pre-deadened by science), for the ruins hold…the realities of ruination, age and death, of secrets to discover, of prior times and lives… Restored ruins – however necessary and understandable the restoration is (if only for the “tourist sector” of economies) – are to my mind a kind of fake reality. Re-beautified, to me they lose their beauty – their impression. But I am a romantic after all.

And this too is not new: The Samarkands, the Bukharas of time – amidst the life in the current city of Samarkand – have all passed away, like invading and passing desert sands. All the people who lived, believed, warred, loved, etc, etc, and died in those some 2750 years, are dead and gone. Most forgotten (aside from famous, now rebuilt mausoleums from various centuries and civilizations); the “cemetery” having been tranquilized, has to me lost its romance too.


First published in the magazine English, #17, 2007.