Through Khiva to Golden Samarkand, by Ella R. Christie

Ella Christie, identified on the title page of her books as a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, traveled in Central Asia in 1910-11. The most attractive aspect of her book, for me, were her notes on daily life, such as a rather gruesome description of an outdoor barber extracting a long parasitic worm from a patient’s leg. Christie identifies the parasite as “guinea worm” or “filaria” (p. 128). Other sources corroborate her account of this reportedly common affliction, as well as the treatment.  

Christie’s visit to present-day Istaravshan, formerly Uro Teppa (Christie calls it “Ura Tiubbe” and comments on the wild variations in spelling) caught my attention because of my translation work on the memoirs of Tajik folklorist Rajab Amonov (see that review here: ). We had the opportunity to spend two nights there in 2010, but I have run across few accounts from 19th-century travelers to that city. Christie describes the town’s situation on a mountain slope, the ruins of the fort, and the winding streets of the bazaars. I was intrigued by her report of encountering an “agent” for Singer sewing machines in this rather off-the-beaten-path location (pp. 197-199).

Christie describes a bazaar with a bustling trade in mutton, wool, and sheepskins. By her report, representatives from London, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Moscow and Constantinople come to do business in a two-story building knows as the “Kara-cul” bazaar. Black wool, she says, was most popular. She caught my attention with a report that one sheepskin went at a high price because because it was said to bear the word “Allah” on its side in brown (p. 130-131). It appears to be a perennial occurrence, as a similar claim appeared in a newspaper when we were in Tajikistan in 2002.

Christie quotes, without citing a source, some copy book maxims common to school children. Since they appear almost verbatim in Annette Meakim’s earlier work (see the review of In Russian Turkestan), it is reasonable to assume that Christie obtained them third hand. They include:
“Place not thy confidence in women, even if they appear to be trustworthy.”
“Regulate thy expenses according to thy income.”
“Always avoid extremes.”
“Treat in a becoming manner the guests thou hast invited” (p. 200).

Afrosiab, the ruins outside present-day Samarkand, is said to have been conquered by Alexander the Great. Christie describes the painstaking efforts of an amateur Russian archaeologist who had spent six years accumulating about a thousand pieces of pottery and glass, piecing them together from fragments that he ascribed to the 14th century. Christie reports that most of them were eventually bought by the National Museum at Kiev (p. 161).

I never encountered the ceramic ovens she describes, fired but unglazed, used for cooking meat and bread. Christie says that she came across these in the bazaar in Khokand and describes how a handful of grass and twigs were thrust through an opening in the side and set ablaze. Once they were consumed, the ashes would be swept out,  bread or meat cakes plastered to the inside, and the top and side opening stopped up with clods of dirt until the food was cooked (p. 208).

Additional picturesque or informative details:

  • The prevalence of silver poplar, black elm, and acacia trees in and around Samarkand, as well as a Russo-Chinese bank (p. 137).
  • The existence of “ices” (confirmed elsewhere) sold in the bazaar, made by scraping a block of ice and pouring “raisin syrup” over the shavings (p. 152).
  • A mullah preaching outside a mosque to a crowd of kneeling listeners (p. 153).
  • Musicians performing in the bazaar accompanied by the two-stringed “dutara” (p. 154). 
  • Tea house cots placed across streams (“ditches”), where men would play games (“chess and “dominoes”) (p. 154).
  • A week-long Russian Orthodox Easter celebration in Samarkand, commencing with the firing of guns from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. (p. 156).
  • Trees in Ferghana: walnuts, mulberries, Lombardy poplars (“almost … growing in forests”) and “black-stemmed willows with silvery white leaves” shading the tea houses (p. 209).
  • Travel by isvostchik, or droshky, which Christie describes as a “victoria” with a hood (p. 227). (Click here for Google images of a victoria: victoria carriage).
  • Arbas, “native” carts with two large wheels, being the principal means of transporting women, children and goods (p. 241).
  • Shops lit by petroleum lamps in Tashkent, as well as pottery lamps or dishes with floating wicks ( p. 241).
  • The availability of X-rays at the Russian hospital in Tashkent (p. 241).
  • Christie describes a three-hour wait for the privilege of watching the emir’s weekly procession to a mosque on a Friday. She reports that he rotated his attendance and that his precise place of worship was not divulged in advance, although in this case the secret had leaked out (p. 133-134).
  • Water carriers who bear on their backs an animal skin, from the neck of which they spray water onto cobbled streets to keep dust down (great idea!) (p. 236). Today, too, housewives dampen courtyards and streets with dust before sweeping, to minimize dust.

Christie also includes around fifty photographs, including an arbas stuck in the mud, a droshky, a preaching mullah, the “ice cream man,” large wooden pipes hollowed out from tree trunks,  a scene of the 15th-century Ulug Beg observatory outside Samarkand, a long, flat Central Asia boat with a sail, and a Persian bread shop, hung with long strips of thin bread, possibly three or more feet long.

Christie’s book, published in 1925 (Seeley, Service and & Co., London), is not one of the more oft-consulted travelogues penned by European visitors to 19th- and early 20th-century Central Asia. Her descriptions are often superficial, and she does not seem to be particularly well informed by advance study. She repeats, for example, the misinformation (which I have encountered elsewhere) that the Englishmen Connolly and Stoddart were executed by being thrown from the top of a minaret in Bukhara (actually, they were beheaded) (p. 133).

Nevertheless, those interested in history of the region are likely to find something of interest. Her work was reprinted in affordable paperback form in 2009 and is available online for $15 to $20. I could not locate an e-text.

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