Uzbekistan, a millefeuille of civilizations

With its cracked walls and its faded paintings, the premises of the Institute of Archeology of Samarkand do not look like much, but they conceal treasures which, too, hide their game well. At first sight, they are only charred wooden panels, laid flat and protected with a plastic film. You have to examine them carefully to see emerging from the blackened relief the goddess Nana, seated on a lion, brandishing a scepter and a club with the head of a fish.

Around her, a cohort of musicians, Zoroastrian priests, merchants and nobles advance, arms laden with offerings. All of them came to have a makeover before their presentation, with great fanfare, at the Louvre Museum, on the occasion of the exhibition “Splendours of the oases of Uzbekistan” (1).

These six sculpted panels come from the excavations of Kafir Kala, the secondary residence of the rulers of Samarkand. The site is led by Japanese and Uzbek archaeologists, but it is a Frenchwoman commissioned by the Louvre, Delphine Elie-Lefebvre, who has been entrusted with the task of restoring these extremely fragile remains. “The charcoal measures, in some places, barely 5 mm thick, the slightest shock can crack it”explains this seasoned professional who has developed a complex process of 3D moulds, cushions and foam to extract the panels from the floor without any problems.

A more culturally sensitive government

It took an exceptional combination of circumstances for these woodwork from the first half of the VIe century come down to us. When the palace burned down, no doubt at the time of the conquest of Samarkand by the Arab-Muslim armies in 712, this monumental elm door fell face down and continued to burn under the debris, slowly.

“This burning slowalmost without oxygen, protected it from attacks by insects and fungi”, rejoices Delphine Elie-Lefebvre, who has also restored its brilliance to the door of the mausoleum of Timour (Tamerlane), damaged by six centuries of passage of the faithful. Each mission gave rise to a constructive workshop with the Uzbek teams and to the sharing of techniques.

“After their unveiling in Paris, these works will go to Uzbek museums. It’s a win-win partnership between the Foundation for the Development of Art and Culture of Uzbekistan, which funds the restorations, and the Louvre, which “lends” its teams.explains Yannick Lintz, director of the Islamic arts department at the Louvre museum and co-curator of the exhibition (2).

Since the coming to power in Tashkent in 2017 of a government more sensitive to cultural issues, she has noticed a “turning” in heritage conservation. Staff are becoming more professional thanks to international partnerships. Ambitious projects have been launched: creation of a restoration center in the capital, renovation of museums (often dating from the Soviet period), including a National Museum of Art enlarged to 25,000 m2 by Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

3,000 objects stolen from museums

The exceptional loans granted to the Louvre and the Institut du monde arabe are the ideal showcase for promoting the country and developing tourism. “For decades, there was a widespread fear that if the works left the territory, Westerners would make copies and keep the originals. Fortunately, attitudes have changed.greets Yannick Lintz.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirzioev found that the objects were not necessarily safer in his own institutions. Last April, he deplored the theft – and sometimes the replacement by copies – of nearly 3,000 objects in museums since independence in 1991, for an estimated amount of 322 million euros! A digital inventory of public collections has just been launched.

Most of the pieces exhibited in Paris (3) have never left Uzbekistan, such as the monumental Painting of ambassadorsdated VIIe century. Discovered in 1965 during the construction of a road near Samarkand, this fresco, originally made up of four panels of 11 meters each, was installed in 1980 in a small museum built nearby. A recent restoration operation, carried out in collaboration with a French association, has given back its colors to the incredible parade of kings and dignitaries on the backs of elephants or camels.

Another exceptional piece unveiled at the Louvre, the Koran by Katta Langar, one of the oldest in the world, many of whose pages, dispersed over the centuries, are now kept at the Institute of Oriental Studies. from Saint Petersburg. The 14 pages still present in the Uzbek collections had suffered from poor conservation conditions. The cracked and warped parchment had to be rehydrated for a year before the pages were pressed, gaps filled with Japanese paper and delicate ink touch-ups applied.

The splendor of the royal courts in the 19th centurye century

At the Institute of Fine Arts in Tashkent, around fifteen statues in raw earth, dating from the first centuries of our era, involved ten restorers from the Louvre. “A fairly standard work of consolidation and cleaning, to remove the layers of resin applied by Soviet restorers in the 1970s. But the main challenge lay in the monumental size of the works and their polychromy”explains restorer Anne Liegey.

Combining Greek influences – since the passage of Alexander the Great – but also Iranian, Chinese and Indian, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, princes and warriors with expressive faces testify to the cultural mix that the region has known for centuries (read below). “The caravan routes, nicknamed in the 19th centurye century Silk Road, were used since Antiquity »recalls archaeologist Rocco Rante, co-curator of the Louvre exhibition.

These fruitful exchanges have enabled the development of virtuoso craftsmanship, of which the Arab World Institute offers a flamboyant panorama through 300 textiles, jewelery and equestrian harnesses. The splendor of the 19th century royal courtse century shines in a parade of sumptuous coats, such as this silk and gold caftan of the Emir of Bukhara, carefully restored in the workshop of the citadel Ark, according to a know-how transmitted from father to son to our days. Unable to embroider the gold, which they were supposed to tarnish with their breath, the women deployed their talents in needlework and carpet making to decorate the interiors.

The famous embroidered suzanis, intended for brides’ dowries, offer a rich repertoire of symbolic motifs. Here, glowing stars; there, trees of life and intertwining plants that offer us a delicious walk in the gardens of paradise.


Uzbekistan in dates

329 BC. J.-C. Campaigns of Alexander the Great.

250 BC J.-C. Introduction of Buddhism by the caravan routes.

230 AD J.-C. First establishment of Christianity in Central Asia.

IIIe-Ve century. Invasion of the Huns.

VIIe century. Invasion of the Turks.

712. Muslim conquest.

1220. Genghis Khan’s first foray.

1370-1405. Reign of Timour (Tamerlane), great conqueror, builder and patron of the arts.

1599. Creation of the Bukhara Khanate.

1785. The khanate becomes an emirate. At the beginning of the XIXe century, the Emir Shah Murad relaunched artistic craftsmanship. A common aesthetic repertoire is constituted to unite a composite population (Uzbeks, Arabs, Turkmens, Afghans, Persians, Indians, etc.).

1868. The Russian Empire imposes its protectorate.

1924. Creation of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan, within the current geographical borders.

1991. Independence of Uzbekistan, which will be governed until 2016 by an iron-fisted president, Islam Karimov. His former Prime Minister, Shavkat Mirzioev, succeeds him.


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