Uzbekistan aspires to become a destination for pilgrims

- A Monitor Report 1 Oct, 2018  |    -      +
Tashkent : Uzbekistan has aspirations to become a destination for pilgrims from all over the world. Central Asia's most populous country boasts a wealth of well-preserved mosques and shrines in famous silk road cities like Samarkand and Bukhara.

For millions of Uzbeks these are sacred places. But for the Uzbek government they also represent an opportunity to boost tourism as the country opens up after decades of isolationist, authoritarian rule.

Samarkand is home to dozens of magnificent tombs. Notable figures like the emperor Tamerlane, the astronomer Ulughbek and Kusam Ibn Abbas, the cousin of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who brought Islam to this land in the 7th Century, are all buried here.

But there is one grave that is unlike any other. Every morning hundreds of people climb a hilltop on the outskirts of the city to visit an oddly shaped, elongated tomb, surrounded by pistachio and apricot trees among the ruins of the old city.

The air is filled with birdsong and the murmur of prayers. Families share lunch on the benches and young couples take selfies nearby.

But among the pilgrims are not just Muslims, because this tomb is believed to be the last resting place of the biblical prophet Daniel, or Daniyar as Uzbeks call him.

"Muslims, Christians and Jews come here and say their prayers according their own religion," Firdovsi, a young guide explains. "St Daniel was a Jew but our Muslims respect him as he was the prophet of Allah."

"I often come here and pray for his soul," a woman called Dilrabo tells me. "He was not only a Jewish prophet, he was sent to all humanity. I even called my grandson Daniyar in his honour."

Dilrabo has come with her daughter Setora and a granddaughter. After prayers led by a mullah they join the queue to take a closer look at the tomb.

It's an extraordinary edifice, more than 20m (65ft) long and made from sand-coloured bricks in the medieval Islamic style with internal arches and a domed ceiling.

Inside the mausoleum or maqbarah, there is an 18m long sarcophagus covered in dark green velvet cloth embroidered in gold with verses from the Holy Quran.

This place is one of just a few in the world where people from different faiths come together to worship.

Even over 1,200 years of Islamic presence have not erased these ancient traditions as people simply mixed their old beliefs with the Muslim faith. No wonder then that places like Daniel's tomb are full of legends.

As to why the tomb is 18m long: Many people believe that St Daniel was either a very tall man or his tomb grows a little every year.

Uzbekistan boasts hundreds of shrines across the country, many of which were neglected or closed during the time of the Soviet Union.

Political Islam has been something the Uzbek government has long feared. Under the 26-year rule of the late autocratic President Islam Karimov, thousands of independent Muslims were jailed.

Now Uzbekistan says it is changing.

Current President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who came to power after Karimov's death in 2016, promised more religious freedom.

"The government is releasing those who have truly repented," says Shoazim Minvarov, the head of the newly founded Centre of Islamic Civilisation in the capital Tashkent.

Minovarv believes that Uzbeks who lived in the atheist Soviet Union lacked knowledge and orientation once communism disappeared.

For now, the bulk of visitors are from Uzbekistan itself.

At the St Daniel's shrine in Samarkand, Dilrabo and her daughter have completed their pilgrimage under the curious eyes of Setora's little daughter.

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