IN 1420, THE TIMURID RULER and astronomer Ulugh Beg completed construction on the first madrasa in Registan Square, Samarkand—then a bustling trade intersection on the Silk Route—and hoped that it would blossom into a centre for education. Dotted with caravanserai, or roadside inns, the square grew into a space where science was celebrated. Massive darskhonas, or lecture rooms, formed an integral part of the square’s surroundings.
The square is one of the locations shown in “New Year in Uzbekistan,” a compilation of photographs by the Pakistani photographer Aun Raza, published as a book in December 2016. Between December 2013 and January 2014, he visited Uzbekistan and documented his time in the capital, Tashkent, as well as cities such as Samarkand, Khiva and Nukus. Raza had early associations with the landlocked former Soviet colony: he recalled reading about djinns, magicians and fortresses in the One Thousand and One Nights, and also the Hamzanama, an epic about the exploits of Amir Hamza, a relative of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Having seen the array of cultures that have influenced the country, he likened it to a painting where “the base coat seems to be of the Silk Road and one of the heaviest washes is that of the Soviet times.”
The Russian Empire advanced into Central Asia in the 1800s, and Russian power held sway in the region for over a century. The Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1991, when it declared independence. Raza’s images of Christmas and New Year’s in Samarkand bring out part of the legacy of the Soviet period. Despite the Gregorian calendar not having particular significance in some Islamic countries, the Soviet tradition of celebrating New Year’s is entrenched in Uzbek culture. Christmas is also marked, but with faint, if any, religious overtones, as in the Soviet habit.