Gazgan, city of stone. Appearing to be little more than a settlement, well off the main Road between Navoi and Nurata, Gazgan is a treasure so far off the beaten path, even the cliche seems generous. An ancient walled city with a preserved historic center, Gazgan doesn’t even get a mention as a footnote in the history books. Despite having survived in the dusty wastelands of Uzbekistan for centuries, Gazgan only came to the attention of Soviet planners in the 1930s thanks to its substantial deposits of marble which is the only reason for this city’s existence.
The polished stone this city is famous for adornes the facade of the medieval mosque slightly up the slope just outside the city walls. Here, according to local tradition, lies Ali, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad. A shrine with a mozulem of Ali is known as Shahimardan. Hence the so called shrine of Shahimardan of Gazgan. In February 2016, we were privileged to be included in a small ceremony at this shrine where a family from Navoi introduced us to the Imam, and keepers of the shrine.
Unlike other more spectacular architectural monuments of Uzbekistan found in Khiva, Samarkand, and Bukhara, the Shahimardan shrine in Gazgan has remained largely undisturbed since the 13th century. Here the visitor can appreciate a shrine exactly as it would have appeared 800 years ago. The main building lacks any elaborate facade or colorful tiles and instead preserves a unique aura of authenticity which is especially appreciated after being subjected to modern “perfect” reconstructions of other more prominent Uzbek architectural wonders.
Gazgan doesn’t need to pretend to be anything more than it is, adding to its authenticity. The cult like status of Ali is surrounded in the more mystical and spiritual branch of Islam, Sufism. As Gazgan is only a minor pilgrimage site in Central Asia, it attracts adherents of the Faith who believe that Ali battled dragons in Samarkand province, despite there being no evidence that he ever even visited Central Asia, or evidence of dragons for that matter. Gazgan isn’t even the only shrine supposed to contain Ali’s remains, yet each shrine is believed to be just as authentic as the next. The ideology and mysticism surrounding Ali has origins in the pre-Islamic religions of the Central Asian people, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism being predominant prior to the arrival of Islam around the 8th century.
The tomb itself is contained within a nondescript stone building adjacent to the mosque, all contained within a walled complex. The chamber supposedly containing Ali’s remains is about what you would expect from a tomb-chamber, only according to the caretaker the tomb itself has been lengthened several times over the past 800 years to allow the body to continue to grow. This story is consistent with the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Daniel located in Samarkand which has also been extended due to the supposed growth of the body over time. To pay our respects we circled the tomb seven times as the Imam chanted a prayer.
Wood columns playing such a key role in Uzbek architecture, not to be outdone, the Shrine of Shahimardan also has such columns which are said to have special powers. According to legend, by weaving between the pillars, a woman will be blessed with fertility. As the older women in our small group presumably successfully gave birth to many children after performing this ritual in the past, they all demonstrated how it should be done, then urged the younger, childless women in the group to do the same.
Having been given a proper tour of the entire complex, as the only westerners to have visited in recent memory, we were presented with a small rectangular piece of polished stone to take home as a momento. The group was then split between men and women and we all went into separate rooms of the gatehouse to drink tea before our departure.
Gazgan is an example of an experience we could only have had thanks to meeting locals. No tour company brings groups here, and the shrine is only accessible by narrow sandy streets which wind their way through an ancient walled city. No tour busses make their way to the shrine of Shahimadran, and it isn’t on any itinerary. Only ancient ritual and tradition keep people coming back thanks to a shared faith which has been passed down through the generations over a thousand years.