Tasting an Ancient Culture
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan, Oct. 6, 1997 Envoys, attaches and delegations on hand for CENTRAZBAT '97 not only observed the Central Asian Battalion training but got a first-hand look -- and taste -- of the region's history and culture.
From the moment it arrived Sept. 13, the DoD delegation led by Katherine Kelleher was treated to a rich tapestry of exotic locales and tantalizing treats by the enthusiastic hosts in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Kelleher, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, the Ukraine and Eurasia, graciously accepted the hospitality. By the end of her week-long visit, however, she and everyone had that plaintive look in their eyes that seemed to say, "Please, no more food."
The venues were as tantalizing as the menus, ranging from the mayor's mansion in ancient Samarkand to urtas (large shepherd's tents lined with colorful silk and wool carpets) in a Kazak village.
Modern buses whisking the delegates from place to place shared the narrow highways with herds of cattle, goats, even camels. Sometimes, it appeared entire communities turned out to see and greet the visitors. At one stop, an American lieutenant colonel with a Polaroid camera took pictures of the children, then parceled them out to the eager youngsters with outstretched hands.
Entering Samarkand on the ancient Silk Road in Uzbekistan, the entourage passed the ruins of a mountaintop fortress built by Alexander the Great and learned about Ulugh Beigh, a 15th century scientist and Islamic heretic who developed the world's largest sextant. Earlier this century, an 11-meters long section of the sextant was discovered in the ruins of the scientists' observatory and now is on display.
Here also the group viewed the splendor of Bi Bi Hanym, a 15th century mosque also called the Big Friday Mosque. Uzbek Muslims consider the site a second Mecca -- two visits in a year count as one sojourn to Islam's holiest city, at far less expense to economically strapped Uzbekies. Eleven of 24 mosques built in Samarkand between the 14th and 17th centuries remain standing, punctuated by an 11th century mineret.
Even the events surrounding the exercise itself exposed the delegations to the Central Asian culture. At opening and closing ceremonies, first in Kazakhstan, then Uzbekistan, musicians performed and young men and women displayed their prowess on horseback.
More than once, they showed off a favorite game called "Catch the Girl." In the game, a young woman gallops off upon her horse, chased by a young man also on horseback. The object is for the boy to catch up with the girl and kiss her while both remain at full gallop. If he doesn't accomplish the feat in a quarter mile, the girl becomes the pursuer. Catching up to the boy, she then beats him on the back repeatedly with a stick.
Leave it, however, to the Americans to steal back the show. At one military ceremony, exuberant Uzbek paratroopers broke ranks to dance to music a band was playing in front of the reviewing stands. Not to be outdone, members of the 82nd Airborne ran from their file across the field to join in, and the attention in the reviewing stand soon shifted from the stage to the field.
Toward the end of the show, hundreds of soldiers from the United States and several Central Asian republics stood arm in arm, swaying slowly to the music in a gesture of friendship and mutual respect. The spontaneous display of camaraderie underscored the deepening relationships between the United States and the burgeoning republics of this ancient land.