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Mirror of the Orient.

Two beautifully illustrated art books from British publishers focus on the lands of Central Asia. Samarkand and Bukhara is an excellent introduction to the monumental buildings of the two great historic cities of Turkestan. They are explored in detail here showing why they deserve to be singled out, as the high point of civilisation for the region in the medieval era. Strong features of this book are its fine colour photos and the many quotations from contemporary sources. The rise and fall of mighty empires in the region is traced in brief, with clear descriptions of all the main monuments.

The author explains how the atmosphere of the two cities is remarkably different. Samarkand is more grand, with the imposing buildings of its Registan Square, built under Timur Lang (Tamberlaine), having an impact comparable to the magnificent Maidan e Shah complex of mosques and palaces of Isfahan, built by Shah Abbas, the greatest ruler of Safavid Iran.

He dwells on the fine glazed tilework of the Timurid mosques and mausoleums, notably the Shah Zenda royal tombs on a hillside overlooking Samarkand, still a living place of pilgrimage.

However, Samarkand has become incorporated into a large and ugly modern city, while Bukhara retains much of its original flavour, forming in Lawton's words, "a pleasing and harmonious whole". Bukhara's main religious buildings range over a much longer period than Samarkand's, from the tenth-century tomb of the Samanid rulers, with fine decorative brickwork in amazingly good condition, having been buried for centuries until rediscovery in 1930.

Bukhara has a range of religious and secular buildings going right up to our own century. Many of Samarkand's religious buildings are preserved as museums. In Bukhara, however, atheist authorities utilised madrassas and mosques alike as warehouses or galleries.

Though making no claims to original scholarship, Lawton makes many interesting observations. A final section on "Glasnost and Samarkand" has a useful discussion of the changing social and political scene in contemporary Uzbekistan, an the issues facing architects and restorers working in Central Asia. Among the most topical issues is control of mosques, madrassahs and shrines, and the relative merits of preservation and reconstruction of historical monuments.

Until very recently, Soviet policy in Central Asia was to make painstaking reconstructions of important buildings or entire complexes. Buildings have been well looked after, and preserved for posterity under Soviet rule, but a growing number of critics maintain it would be best to be less ambitious, and instead to preserve them as they stand.

About Khiva, the third most famous city of Uzbekistan, Lawton pointedly remarks, "the craftsmen employed to rebuild Khiva's old buildings have done an excellent job. But it is a replica and it has no soul." The choice seems to be having a noble ruin or a dead imitation of the real thing.

Mirror of the Orient by Roland and Sabrina Michaud, is an extraordinary album containing remarkable images of great beauty. It is an English language paperback edition of a French book.

The Michauds are a formidable gifted partnership who have produced a number of notable photographic books about Asia and Islam, on Turkey, Afghanistan and India.

Here, the traditional miniature paintings from Central Asia and Afghanistan are artfully juxtaposed with photos drawn from scenes of life in those and other Muslim lands.

The attempt might have failed if done with less sensitive eyes, but here the effect is startling. In his introduction to this book, the writer Najm ud Din Bammat remarks: "The past and present gaze at each other: permanent truths of Muslim civilisation emerge."

He draws heavily on the Sufi heritage. But he goes on to warn that these photographs "must not be seen simply as beautiful, noble, or humble (although they are most often all three at once)"

They rather recall, through their reflection, a permanence, a quality which, so Bammat claims, somehow guarantees the Islamic cultural identity of the various peoples of the Central Asia region - Uzbeks, Tajiks, Afghans, Persians and Turks.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Samarkand and Bukhara.
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