Day 4: Ming O’rik

Today the Ming O’rik Sogdin Palace is protected by a metal awning, and a gate that for some reason stays locked in the middle of the morning.  The 5th to 6th century ruins are built over the remains of a much older original structure likely dating from the Han Dynasty, when the oasis of Tashkent was a key stopover on the original trade network developed by the Sogdins which eventually became known as the Silk Road.

With such an impressive history dating back to the very dawn of humanity, Uzbekistan’s smaller, but nonetheless significant architectural sites are often forgotten in favor of the three big silk road highlights.  The Khiva, Samarkand, and Bukhara travelers see today represent only a fraction of the thousands of years of history worth exploring in this fascinating country, but unlike sites further afield such as the Golden Ring of Ancient Khorezm and the spectacular excavated ruins of Alexandria Oxiana, there’s also plenty of ancient civilization on display right here in and around the heart of the Uzbek Capital, Tashkent.

Ming O’rik was known for well over a thousand years as a series of small hills just east of the old city of Tashkent, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that excavations were carried out.  What archeologists discovered under the grassy hillsides, which at that time were surrounded by groves of apricot trees along the lower reaches of the Salar Canal, was actually the remains of a Sogdian palace complex complete with a Zoroastrian fire temple.  After the excavations which revealed many outstanding cultural artifacts from the 5th and 6th centuries, the area around Ming O’rik was developed as part of the new Russian Tashkent.  During the Soviet period, especially after the 1966 earthquake, development of large concrete panel apartment blocks took place directly next to the archeological site so that all that remains today is a covered pavilion with the excavated historical remnants of the Sogdian palace protected underneath.

Tashkent during the Sogdian period was known as Chach.  The Ming O’rik site is not alone in the city which has existed as at least a series of smaller settlements since at least the 2nd and 1st centuries BC at a strategic oasis at the mouth of the Chirqiq river valley.  Tashkent in these early years was well known to the Han dynasty when the Sogdians, in partnership with their Chinese trading partners, established a trade network that became what we know today as the silk road.  At least 20 other sites in the city date from the Sogdian peroid, but none are as well preserved as Ming O’rik, which has been well researched and protected from development, and from the elements, right in the middle of modern Tashkent.

Being located in such a central location, it’s actually quite surprisingly easy to miss.  Located just one street off the main thoroughfare “Nukus”, this ancient Sogdian palace is just 600 meters from Toshkent Vokzal (Central Station), and just one city block from the Soviet Train Museum.  Three years in the city and we had never heard of Ming O’rik, other than as a reference point based on the name of the nearby metro station.  As it turns out, we often take the Nukus route to work almost every day and completely missed it.  Thankfully, the driver who we introduced to the existence of the Chapel of Saint George the Victorious decided to return the favor.  On our way back across town, she happily introduced us to Ming O’rik.

Tashkent experienced major growth in the years following the Muslim Conquest, the 20 known Sogdian settlements consolidating to form a large city.  The city was destroyed in the year 1219 by Genghis Khan, and slowly rebuilt into the “old” city of Tashkent behind formidable walls during the Timurid era.  The old citadel which was located within what is now Independence Square was fortified and built up over the centuries, but the remaining ancient palaces and temples that found themselves outside the city walls were not maintained.  Like Ming O’rik, these sites fell into ruin, eroding into hills of rubble which eventually became overgrown and forgotten.

Ming O’rik, first discovered in the late 19th century, has been extensively restored and covered with a metal awning to prevent further deterioration.  Currently maintained as a museum, the exhibits among the partially restored ruins offer visitors a look at what life was like in Tashkent before the Islamic era.  If you manage to find the gate actually open, the experience is surreal.  Walking the corridors of a Sogdian palace while surrounded on all sides by 20th century Soviet concrete apartment blocks, the ruins of an ancient civilization seem out out of place.  It’s incredible to think about the 2,000 plus years of history visible in one spot.

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