Centuries before the Soviet Union developed the planned industrial city of Navoi on the cold desert steppe of central Uzbekistan, the Medieval city of Karmana was already thriving. Located 8km from the Navoi train station on the brand new high-speed line between Tashkent and Bukhara, Karmana was only first recognized by the USSR as an urban settlement in 1968, which was 10 years after the founding of Navoi, built from scratch in the middle of nowhere.
In the Timurid era and well before, Karmana was actually one of the most important cities of Central Asia. According to 10th century historian Abu-Nasr Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Kubavi, the city was known as the birthplace of many writers and poets. As a stopover along the silk road located 110km northeast of Bukhara, Karmana also featured many caravanserais for weary travelers, including the particularly noteworthy 10th century Rabati Malik which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in 2008.
Karmana was also home to 16th century religious figure and Sufi master, Mohammed Kasim-Sheikh Naqshbandi. Kasim-Sheikh rose to prominence during the reign of Abdullah-khan II, the most successful khan of the Shaybanid dynasty, also known for the Tim Abdulla Khan covered bazaar in Bukhara. Kasim-Sheikh was famous for his role as a mediator during the Khan’s efforts to unify the Uzbeks under a single Khanate. When Kasim-Sheikh died in the year 1579, he was laid to rest in a khazir (tomb under the open sky) next to an earlier religious complex which he had constructed himself to serve as a mosque and madrassa for him and his followers. The khazir is marked today by a large marble tombstone which is still visited as a pilgrimage site by followers of Kasim-Sheikh’s religious order.
A large cathedral mosque was built adjacent to Kasim-Sheikh’s tomb by the end of the 16th century. The dome of the structure is unique for it’s lofty design mounted on a drum lined in turquoise tiles with Arabic inscriptions. The four sides of the mosques’ facade contain simple vaulted brick iwan portals, typical for Islamic architecture of that time period. Notably absent compared to monumental architecture of the earlier Timirud era are ornate muqarnas, decorative tile facings, or even minarets. The highlight feature for the mosque is the colorful dome, providing sharp contrast to the baked brick construction of the majority of the structure.
Karmana maintained its status as an important city of the Bukhara Khanate, and then Emirate of Bukhara, well into the 19th century. The religious complex of Kasim-Sheikh was an important site for the Emirs of the Manghit Dynasty who ruled Bukhara from the late 18th to early 20th century. The final two Emirs of Bukhara, Seid Abdul Ahad Khan and his son, Sayyid Alim Khan, both maintained summer residence in the city. Abdul Ahad was also born here in the year 1859, so as his hometown, Karmana held special significance.
Abdul Ahad assumed the throne in the year 1885. When he received news of his father’s death, he rode from Karmana with 1,000 horsemen to attend the funeral of his father, the Emir. The late 19th century was a time of transition in the Emirate of Bukhara. It was under the reign of Abdul Ahad’s father that in the year 1868 the Emirate became a protectorate of the Russian Empire, and as the new Emir, he became the first to rule in total cooperation with Imperial Russia for the duration of his reign.
For the duration of his time in power, the Emir rarely spent more than six months in the capital of the Emirate. So beloved was his hometown of Karmana that on the 9th year of his reign, in 1894, he settled back in Karmana and never returned to Bukhara. His extensive travels took the Emir across the Russian Empire, and his philanthropy was legendary. The Saint Petersburg Cathedral Mosque was built thanks to the Emir, at the time the largest Muslim house of worship in Europe. When the Emir died in 1910, he was buried next to the tomb of Kasim-Sheikh in a simple brick khazir which was later encased with marble. Abdul Ahad’s son, Mohommed Alim Khan, was the last Emir of Bukhara before the Bolsheviks took power, and was forced into exile in Afghanistan.
The Kasim Shiah Complex was expanded in the years before the Bolshevik revolution to include the stone courtyard (which can accommodate up to 2,000 worshipers), and the complex’s wall and entrance portals. Well removed from the Uzbekistan tourist trail, visitors can appreciate the total absence of infrastructure typical of Samarkand and Bukhara. There are no souvenir stalls or guides waiting for paying customers, only a friendly resident imam who will proudly show visitors around the complex. On our visit in February 2016, we had the place to ourselves. The settlement of Karmana, which was such an important city during the Middle Ages and the time of the Khanate and the Emirate of Bukhara, lost prominence following the Russian Revolution, and then became only a dusty suburb to the planned city of Navoi after 1958. Despite being a Soviet industrial utopia, Navoi will never live up the historical significance of Karmana which enjoys a rich 500+ year history as not only the favored city of the Emirs of Bukhara, but also the final resting place of one of Sufism’s most revered masters.