Contradictions of urban preservation practice

How then does contemporary Central Asia negotiate these partially forgotten ‘thick histories’ of the past, and interpret its past through the current practices of architectural and urban conservation in its cities? On this front, the approach of the Stans to heritage has been piece-meal with no sustaining policy over the decades. Beyond the general structure of what constituted preservation in the Soviet era, two cases demonstrate the effect of these various policy shifts concerning architectural preservation between the 1920s to the 1980s, and its extension into present day.

The first is the city’ of Tashkent — the present-day capital of the Republic of Uzbekistan and undeniably the nerve centre of the Stans since the 1920s. Tashkent — the abode of the Uzbek elite — was characterized by its explosive expansion and subsequent industrialization between the 1920s and 1930s. It was the site for architectural and urban experimentation, the point of first contact between the partially surviving world of the steppe, and the Socialist ideas of change. Employed as a setting for the relocation of factories from western Russia to preserve Soviet industrial capacity from the invading Nazis during the second World War, little of Tashkent’s dramatic industrialization occurred in the historic old town. Additionally, the city received the bulk of Central Asia’s incoming Russian population of war evacuees following the Great Patriotic War (1941-45). These two factors consequently boosted the Russian population of the region to well over a million, and by the 1950s, Russians and Ukrainians made up more than 50 per cent of the total residents of Tashkent (Allworth 1990).

Even beyond these social changes, Tashkent underwent irreversible modifications following the 1966 earthquake. This cataclysmic event effectively destroyed the city and left more than 300,000 people homeless. The 'heritage status’ that Soviet urban planners were able to apply to the historic core of the ruined city, also provided them with a momentary window to create a model Soviet city outside of the dense old town — the virtual urban antithesis of the historic core and its constituent mahalla (Raab 2014). More significantly, while these new interventions in Tashkent were collateral to preserving the past, several important Islamic buildings in Tashkent’s historic core, were also carefully restored between 1960 and 1980s. The kosh-ensemble created by the Barak Khana Madrassa, the Tilya Sheikh Mosque and the Kukeldash Madrassa remain a good example of Tashkent restorations. Restorations in Tashkent were Uzbekistan’s first experiment to create what would later be called as ‘a museum in the open’. In other words, this was a ‘choreographed, museum experience’ that displaced the viewer to heterotopic time, versus any continuity of the original atmosphere that pervaded in centuries past. Similar ‘museums’ would also be developed in Bukhara and Khiva in the decades to come. Continuing urban development between the 1970s and 80s further increased the sprawl of Tashkent, and by the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, it was the fourth largest city in the USSR with a population in excess of 2 million inhabitants. Thereafter, since independence, Tashkent has undergone significant economic cultural and architectural change, with character-changing urban projects now conceived for the core of the city. Tashkent’s definition of heritage was and has always remained quite removed from historic cities such as Bukhara and Samarqand.

In similar vein as Tashkent but on a different scale, the Registan Square kosh-ensemble at Samarqand also documents the trials and tribulations of urban heritage practice. Its progress document the actions of a regime that transitioned from the Soviet past towards becoming a Stan yet held on to several unresolved issues of statehood. The Registan — an urban space popular with local and foreign tourist groups — was framed by three medieval madrasas — the Ulugh Beg Madrasa (built 1417-20 CE); the Shir-Dar Madrasa (built 1619-36 CE); and the Tilla-Kari Mosque and Madrasa (built 1646-60 CE). While this ensemble remains critical towards understanding Central Asian medieval urbanity and is one of the region’s most spectacular sites, a combination of time, neglect and seismic activity had left these majestic buildings in an almost ruined condition just a few centuries after their construction. Domes and portals were damaged, the minarets dangerously inclined, and the facades in some places had lost up to 80 per cent of their ceramic tilework. To their credit, starting in 1875, Russian authorities used local craftsmen and builders to shore up some of the most dangerous sections of the madrasas. However, once under Soviet control, the government’s prohibition on religious activity meant that theological schools still operating with the Registan madrasas received no preservation attention.

The Ulugh Beg Madrasa, located on the west side of the Registan, remains by far the oldest structure within this ensemble. Historians also claim that it is the only one built by the Timurids, while the other two were built by the Shaybanids. In the 1920s, the Turkomstaris Committee is reported to have sponsored substantial structural preservation on the Ulugh Beg Madrasa, essentially putting up a framework to stop the domes and arches from total collapse, while also shoring up the leaning minarets. In 1932, additional emergency repairs were done, followed by the start of major restoration work on all three madrasas within the policy shift towards heritage preservation in the 1960s, (Serageldin and Grabar 1989). Furthermore, between 1967 and 1987, more careful restoration work was carried out based on extensive studies, including archaeological excavations, probing and the assessment of foundations and facades, archival research, and epigraphic studies. To counteract the seismic damage to the ensemble caused by its shallow foundations, Soviet engineers substantially rebuilt the interior and the exterior of the buildings, ad employed salvaged brickwork, tiles and majolica gathered from mounds of rubble. This impressive restoration was completed just before the fall of the USSR in 1991. Benjamin suggests that despite the many changes in Soviet policy towards preservation over the decades in Central Asia, it is truly the Soviets whose restoration of the Registan, preserved it for posterity (Benjamin 2018).

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