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Architecture as a mirror of the age. Part III: pasts condensed, presents constructed

Alex Ulko continues his series of works about Central Asian architecture. Today he will discuss highly important architectural forms as statues and sculptures erected in the past 20 or so years across the region.

Editor’s note: You can find previous parts here: Part 1, Part 2

In my previous notes on modern Central Asian, in particular, Uzbek architecture I discussed the authentic patterns and basic motives for the demolition of certain kinds of architecture and the newly emerging tastes that dictate the architectural forms meant to replace them. Today I would like to discuss how these complex relations between the past and the present can be condensed in such small and yet highly important architectural forms as statues and sculptures erected in the past 20 or so years across the region. This will require a short introduction to the current context.

In all countries of Central Asiathe ‘glorious past’ of titular nations is undergoing an active and almost complete reconstruction. Serious officials in Kazakhstan are writing books asserting that Kazakh (or at least Turkic) was spoken in the Garden of Eden pointing at the word alma which means ‘apple’ and ‘don’t take!’ Tajik historians are reconstructing the true Aryan racial type; the late Turkmenbashi based his entire cosmology on the claim that the term ‘Turk’ had been invented by the Soviet scholars, while, in fact it was supposed to mean ‘Turkmen’, and so on. Although this process of reinvention of the past is by no means confined toCentral Asia, nowhere in the ex-Soviet states it has reached such a scale and recognition.

All this mythology assumes two mutually excluding things: that a certain nation has been able to retain its physical and spiritual core for centuries if not millennia despite all the wars, migrations, ethnic mix-ups, various linguistic, religious, cultural  and political permutations – and yet this very core requires reinforcement and some extra protection from extinction and a range of enemies: unfriendly neighbouring states, Russian and American neo-colonialists, Islamic fundamentalists, foreign values and so on. With the very concept of a nation completely alien to the Muslim population of the region until some hundred and fifty years ago, ‘the peoples… were acquiring new pasts, and with new pasts came a new and different sense of their own present identity and future aspirations’ (Bernard Lewis).

An obvious starting point for the acquisition of any new past is the figure of a founder or founders of the nation, the ultimate heroic figure. For the Kyrgyz it is their epic hero, Manas, whose statue has recently replaced the female figure of Liberty (which had previously replaced Lenin) on the central square of Bishkek.

The Statue of Liberty, replaced by the manly Manas in a telling gesture indicating the shift away from the liberal illusions of the recent past. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (photo: Umida Akhmedova)

In Uzbekistan, Tamerlane was elected for this role and his statues embellish the squares and crossroads of the country, not unlike Ismail Samani’s sculptures in Tajikistan.

Tamerlane is towering above local women looking after flower beds in his native town, Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan (photo: Alex Ulko)

The statue of Ismail Samani, the legendary founder of the only Aryan state in Central Asia. Dushanbe, Tajikistan (photo: Alex Ulko)

In Turkmenistan, the first president famously followed the pattern set in Turkey by idolising the contemporary founder of the nation rather than his previous reincarnation or prototype – himself.

One of the early statues of Turkmenbashi in front of the Monument of Independence, locally known as ‘the Octopede’. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (photo: Alex Ulko)

Kazakhstan had started with figures of some obscure khans but then stuck with the gold-plated armour of a warrior, quickly nicknamed Altyn Adam (‘golden man’) and reproduced across the country. In most recent years, however,Kazakhstan andTurkmenistan moved in opposite directions, with alarming symptoms of beautification of the living First President emerging in the former and interesting iconographic diversification in the latter.

Nursultan Nazarbayev’s high relief in the niche of the Kazak Eli, the Monument of Independence of Kazakhstan in Astana (photo: Erik Khisamiev)

‘Three wise men’ from Turkmenistan’s legendary past holding the late Medieval European hourglass over the modern globe at the Inspiration Boulevard. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (photo: Alex Ulko)

 What is evident however, is that Central Asian authorities don’t really want to restrict themselves with a mere simulation of the mediocre European experience of immortalising their rulers (who can remember a single really memorable statue of any English or French king?). They are aspiring to achieve something altogether more impressive; to replicate and possibly, to overcome far more dashing Soviet efforts to merge a symbolic historic figure with an abstract national idea and to mould this mix in a single, aesthetically captivating image, like the famous Worker and Farmer statue inMoscow or the huge Motherland inVolgograd.

Perhaps, the closest to this monumental synthesis has so far been the notorious revolving golden statue of Turkmenbashi mounted atop a giant tripod (actually quite impressive, especially at night, moved recently to the outskirts of Ashgabat.

The most well-known Ashgabat landmark, ‘the Tripod’ has grown in size after it has been relocated. (photo: Alex Ulko)

Yet sometimes this megalomania is expressed in more abstract, but strikingly similar symbology.

The minarets of this huge mosque named after Turkmenbashi’s Spirituality (or spirit) are decorated with quotations from his Ruhnama (not the Quran) and are 91m high to commemorate the first year of Independence, 1991. Kipchak, Turkmenistan (photo: Alex Ulko)

This column is only a part of the Kazak Eli complex (with Nazarbaev’s statue at its base) erected to commemorate Kazakhstan’s independence and is – surprise, surprise, – 91m high and you already know why. Astana, Kazakhstan (photo: Erik Khisamiev) 

Whether any of the reconstructed pasts and eulogised presents of the current Central Asian states will survive the test of time, remains to be seen. What is beyond doubt, however, is that there will more attempts to achieve the same goal and that some of these will be as monumental and bizarre as the ones which have appeared in the duration of the last 20 years.

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