The Road Once Travelled

Following in the footsteps of a fifteenth-century ambassador to Samarkand

01 February, 2017

IN 1404, THE SPANISH AMBASSADOR Ruy González de Clavijo travelled to Samarkand, a city located in modern-day Uzbekistan, on the then flourishing Silk Road trade route. Clavijo represented the Spanish king Henry III of Castile and visited the court of the emperor Timur, who conquered vast stretches of central and western Asia. His diaries from the journey, translated by the scholar Guy Le Strange, speak effusively of Samarkand as a “wonder to behold,” to which Timur had “carried off the best men … bringing thither together the master-craftsmen of all nations.”

The photographer Aitor Lara visited Uzbekistan in 2005, backed by the Spanish ministry of foreign affairs, on a grant conceived of as a homage to Clavijo. But while the fifteenth-century ambassador wrote of the region as a thriving centre of trade and culture, Lara found a country suffering from political and economic instability. Still, he was intrigued by the “historical and monumental Uzbekistan” he saw, in which “you can see the remains of its glorious past in the days of the Silk Road.” Lara captured the echoes of this history in Tower of Silence, a series published as a book in 2008, comprising photos that range from landscapes to portraits.

At first, Lara “was focussed on developing the project from the perspective of a Christian traveller who would discover a native Central Asian country, its culture and tradition.” But Lara soon found that Uzbekistan has always been “a melting pot of cultures” that is “mixed by its history,” he said. Clavijo had remarked on this diversity as well, writing, of Samarkand, “Of the nations brought here together there were to be seen Turks, Arabs and Moors of diverse sects, with Christians who were Greeks and Armenians, Catholics, Jacobites and Nestorians.” The city’s population was growing so rapidly, he noted, that people had to be “quartered temporarily for lodgment even in the caves and in tents under the trees of the gardens.”

The population Lara encountered was similarly in flux, though not growing as quickly. With the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and Uzbekistan’s resulting independence, many of the country’s elite professionals and businesspeople left the country for Russia. At the time of Lara’s visit to Uzbekistan, he noticed that many people were migrating to the country from nations such as South Korea, Turkey and Tajikistan. Lara captured this diversity by taking portraits of many of the individuals he met as he travelled on foot through varied localities. “The way to see the diversity of a country and its people,” he said, “is to walk through the different places such as markets, religious shrines or places of entertainment, where things happen every day.”