Travel to Soviet Central Asia remains difficult. No local emir greets Westerners in the traditional way: summary imprisonment and possible execution. Still, Western tourists must brave Soviet bureaucracy and travel via Moscow to get there. Perhaps the inaccessibility of the region makes it even more a temptation for the adventuresome.
There are several reasons difficulties remain. The area is politically unstable. It straddles Iran and Afghanistan, and residents consider themselves Uzbeks, Turkmen, or any of several other ethnic groups, but never Russians. Each of these groups speaks its separate language. Islam is the single unifying element. Joseph Stalin never managed to eliminate it, and since the 1970’s Islamic nationalism has become stronger.
The prospect of autonomous Islamic regions known as Uzbekistan, Turkmenia, and Kazakhstan fosters distrust of anything Russian or Western. Robin Magowan, an Englishman, and Vadim E. Gippenreiter, a prominent Soviet photographer, present their volume against this background. It appears that they traveled to Central Asia at different times. Possibly this accounts for the unevenness of their published book.
Gippenreiter’s photographs are impressive. They include views of the Dar us-Siadat mausoleum built by Timur (c. 1336-1405), the Mogul warrior better known to Westerners as Tamerlane. There are studies of the Bibi Khanum mosque and the Registan of Samarkand, and Bukhara’s Tower of Death and Royal Dungeons. Photographs of Khiva are less detailed, vistas of the city and whole buildings rather than architectural details and interiors.
Magowan’s text is a disappointment. It is largely independent of the details the photography provides. Written as a novice traveler’s reflections, it contains much irrelevant information and only the barest sketch of the region’s history. Technical terms relating to the architecture and to Islam itself are left undefined when they do appear. There are no ground plans of the cities or of specific sites discussed. In short, FABLED CITIES OF CENTRAL ASIA is a handsome-looking book, well-intentioned, and evocative. Still, it leaves a general reader wanting to know much more than it provides.