Postcard from Uzbekistan : Desert in Bloom

Every spring the Kyzylkum Desert lives up to its name, which means red sand, by turning crimson. Except it’s not the sand that gives it its vibrant hues, but the wild poppies. Located in Central Asia and shared between Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, it encompasses the region historically called Sogdiana or Transoxiana. Traveling in Uzbekistan for my new research project into the cultural history of aromatics has been full of such discoveries. This land may be associated for many people with its recent Soviet past, but what are 70 odd years of Soviet rule in a place that counts its history in the thousands of years. Even if the recent past left deep scars, from social to environmental, the more ancient traditions and customs remain.

As do the scarlet flower fields of the Kyzylkum Desert. Alexander the Great crossed it. And so did Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. The remnants of Alexander’s fort still stand in the desert, their ancient ramparts still imposing enough. And the lines of the Persian poet Ferdowsi came to my mind.

O you who hold your head up high,
who know the traditions of the thrones of the Great Kings,
behold what remains of those powerful kings.…
Who sings the praises of their justice now?
Heaven has ceased to turn around them,
and no memory remains of these kings except the words of men,
who say that one had nobility of soul
and that the other did not,
who blame one
and celebrate the other.
In our turn we too shall pass away.

Ferdowsi (c. 940–1020), Shah-nameh (Book of the Kings), book 35, lines 583–589.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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16 Comments

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Gosh, lucky you, traveling in such ancient lands! I wish you all the best! May 31, 2019 at 11:32am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! Uzbekistan is a fascinating place. June 2, 2019 at 3:35am Reply

  • Toni: Ah, the Scent of History.
    How wonderful to share your experience! May 31, 2019 at 2:05pm Reply

  • Silvermoon: Wonderful post, Victoria. Especially the lines from Firdausi. It reminded me of my (late) father, who often quoted lines from Firdausi’s Shah Nameh – in the original old Persian. When he was in school, it was normal to learn to recite poetry by heart. I loved hearing him recite it – such rhythms to the words, like music to my ears (even though I never understood the language). Even reading the lines you quote, took me back to my youth and reminded me how I miss him.

    I think poetry is like perfume in the sense that they both invoke deep memories. May 31, 2019 at 2:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s still such a relevant book, and the poetry is beautiful even in translation. As for poetry in general, you’ve put it so well. I remember my grandmother reading Saadi out loud, and I wonder if that early memory was not instrumental in my subsequent studying of Persian and starting to translate Persian poetry. June 2, 2019 at 3:37am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Victoria, the beautiful photo of poppies reminded me of John McCrea’s poem “in Flanders field” from the First World War? Perhaps you know it?

    In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
    Scarce heard amid the guns below.

    We are the Dead. Short days ago
    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie
    In Flanders fields.

    Take up our quarrel with the foe:
    To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields. May 31, 2019 at 3:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, living in Belgium, this poem comes to mind often, especially when we visit the places where the heaviest WWI fighting took place. Thank you very much for sharing it here. June 2, 2019 at 3:38am Reply

  • Annie: What a beautiful poem! June 1, 2019 at 12:47am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree, it’s beautiful and poignant. June 2, 2019 at 3:38am Reply

  • Aurora: This beautiful poem reminds me of Shelley Ozymandias, do you know it, Victoria.

    Enjoy your travels, hoping you’ll discover many aromatic traditions. June 2, 2019 at 4:29am Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t know know of Shelley Ozymandias, will have to look it up. June 9, 2019 at 10:23am Reply

      • Aurora: It really is one of his best poems, quite sure you will enjoy it, and the similitude in subject between the two poets is quite striking. June 9, 2019 at 2:59pm Reply

        • Victoria: That was a beautiful poem! Thank you very much. June 11, 2019 at 11:09am Reply

  • OtherWise: Such a beautiful glimpse of a place I am eager to learn more about! June 2, 2019 at 11:16am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a fascinating country. June 9, 2019 at 10:23am Reply

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