The Road to Samarkand

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(June 2, 2007) We spent all day Wednesday in transit from Ukraine to Uzbekistan. We spent the day Thursday touring Tashkent. An earthquake in 1966 destroyed much of the old city. This meant that many structures of interest to us (the Russian garrison, Governor-general Kaufman’s residence) no longer exist. However, we were able to visit some sites in the Muslim quarter that were around during the time of the Great Trek in the 1880’s, and get some nice video of the canals, etc.

In the central square of the city is a large statue of Timur (don’t call him Tamarlane here). The first statue to stand in this square was of Gen. Kaufman – the mastermind of the Russian conquest of Khiva, and the key Russian figure for the Trek Mennonites. Kaufman’s statue was replaced by Stalin’s during the Soviet era. The Uzbeks took down Stalin after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now the good ol’ Timur rears his horse and holds out his hand as if to stay ‘stop it already.’

In the evening, a couple of professors from the local university joined us for dinner. One was an expert in ancient religion in Uzbekistan. The other, Deloram Inoyatova, was doing research on Germans who once lived in the country.

She had much to say about the Mennonites who passed through here on the Great Trek. Some information we had never heard before. This includes the fact that the Mennonites did not report the troubles (including as murder) they suffered from their Turkoman neighbors to the Khan of Khiva. A traveling vizier happened to learn about these things  from a young Mennonite boy – Herman Jantzen . When the news reached the Khan, he did a great deal to ease their troubles, including the relocation much nearer to the capital city. She also told the group about a Russian officer who passed through the settlement after the Communist revolution, and described it as “Little Germany,” with everything clean and in proper order. The report also said the Mennonites had pictures of Kaiser Wilhelm and the Khan of Khiva in their homes, but not Vladimir Lenin (a snub to the new communist government). We videotaped an interview with Deloram for the documentary.
On Friday, we spent the first half of the day traveling from Tashkent to Samarkand. The original trekkers in 1882 passed through what was known as the “Hunger Steppe,” named for it’s seemingly endless barren plain. Today the steppe beyond the Syr Darya river is well irrigated, and there are miles of wheat fields and other crops. Once we arrived in Samarkand, we spent the afternoon at the Registan (town square) gathering video of the many historic mosques and madrassas.

After supper, Jesse Nathan, the documentary co-producer, and I went out for ice cream with Norman and Charlene Epp, descendants of Claas Epp Jr. The descendants told us how the Great Trek is still a very sensitive subject in Beatrice, Nebraska‚Ķeven generations after the episode. We discussed “incendiary” subjects, like the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Epp and his wife. Apparently there continues to be some family members who descended from the Great Trek that suffer similar shame and persecution their forefathers experienced after migrating to the United States from Khiva more than a century ago.