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“Two Places, One Heartbeat: Cambridge and Uzbekistan” – article by Professor Siddharth Saxena, Chairperson of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum

Notion of parallel universes has intrigued academic minds for long and the search is always on, but if in the medieval period, Cambridge colleagues had a chance to gaze upon the spires of Bukharan Madrassas they would have discovered, long ago, an almost identical parallel universe to their own, both in architectural magnificence and intellectual pre-eminence.  Discovery, though did take place, and many a times over. Traditionally, Uzbekistan was the centre piece of the Silk Road which is signified as a route for trade, especially silk and spices as it is also often called the Spice Route. But it is as important in the memory and imagination of academics as a means of travel for scholars and people that enabled the exchange of ideas, increased knowledge of ‘foreign places’ and proved to be the gateway for transmission of cultures across regions. In the past, the contact between the east and the west was between empires. Today, Cambridge students and scholars with a rekindled interest in Uzbekistan are moving along swiftly on the Silk Road armed with projects on academic ideas, people to people contact, a passion for learning and the desire to increase access to knowledge that Uzbekistan and its surrounding region has long represented, through collaboration with local scholars and communities.

A linear narrative of history serves only a few unless it is enlivened by imagination and vision of what that was and what is to come! The excitement of this intellectual opportunity is what that fuelled a new initiative in the form of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum in 2001. Its efforts were, and remain, concentrated on promoting research within established disciplines, as well as encouraging new multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research on Uzbekistan. The Forum seeks to be inclusive, not only interacting with academics and students with research interests in the region, but also with those involved in other professions (Government, Business, Media and Non-Governmental Organisations) and collaborate with colleagues in Uzbekistan.

Cambridge now has the most wide-ranging programme on Uzbekistan, covering everything from science and technology, environmental and development projects to Islamic and Judaic studies and social and political analysis. In doing so we have found both the academic and government bodies in Uzbekistan most forthcoming and exemplary in cooperation and collaboration. The Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan in London is not only efficient and warm but possesses an amazing depth of technical knowledge, be it political, social, mathematical or engineering in nature. This has led to a wide array of live projects in which Cambridge not only partners with formal institutions, but also with Civil Society organisations and individual citizens in Uzbekistan.

Cambridge boasts well over eighty Noble prizes in all fields of enquiry; however a large proportion of these would not have been possible if it weren’t for the works of Uzbek born Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi, who formulated the notion of Algorithm and mathematics of Algebra. Equally important are the works of Abu Ali Ibn Sina, popularly known in Europe as Avicenna, who authored the Qanun, or the Canon, a medical and physiological treatise which was written in the eleventh century and was used as a standard text till the 1800’s across the world. These scientific giants found their peers in scholars of Islamic law and philosophy like Al-Bukhari who consolidated the most authoritative book of Islam, together with Koran, the Hadith. This confluence of science and religion probably led to the development of the first Islamic educational institutions, the Madrassas, in Bukahra, Samarkand, Khiva and Tashkent. These institutions continued to produce and train figures like Ulugh Beg the Astronomer King, grand-son of the great Amir Temur, whose works were published in Oxford in the seventeenth century as the most accurate astronomical tables and the Persian poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam who had a scholarly sojourn in Samarkand and whom we know through the translations by the Cambridge scholar Edward FitzGerald. 

This production of people and knowledge of eminence continued in the Cities and institutions of Uzbekistan, just as in Cambridge and Oxford. And in the spirit of one of the first Scientific Academies in the world which was established in the tenth century in Khiva, the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences was established in 1943. Today the Academy  is not only a place of academic and research excellence, but also a focal point of technology innovation of world standard.

In recognition of this, a joint team of Cambridge and Oxford colleagues have initiated a new project on establishing a High Tech Park in Tashkent in collaboration with Uzbek Academy of Sciences, Ministry of Foreign and Economic Relations and a number of other partners put together by the Embassy of Uzbekistan in London. This project has potential to not only serve the industrial and academic interest, but will bring technology to bear for the betterment of daily lives of people and more directly will provide new employment opportunities.

When discussing technology we must consider sustainability and the environment, one of the most interesting projects Cambridge has led in the region has been on documenting local environmental knowledge systems in the Ferghana valley. This geographically interesting place in Uzbekistan has the highest population density in Central Asia, it is also intensely farmed and industrialised, yet, intriguingly it supports a very bio-diverse ecosystem.  This unique situation points to an unprecedented level of synergetic co-existence between man and nature. This study is proving to be an excellent test case for situations all over the world.

The mystical nature of such coincidences has its own history in Uzbek lands and mysticism itself has deep roots in Uzbekistan. One of the largest Sufi (Mystical Islam) orders in the world, the Naqshabandiya, was started by Baha ud-Din Naqshaband, a fourteenth century saint from Bukhara and its message of harmony and culture of plurality has been one of the most stabilising forces for communal harmony in places as far apart as India and Cyprus. Cambridge has a strong interest in the study of history and anthropology of such traditions a number of scholars have been combining these intellectual enquiries with practical issues like health and wellbeing, social cohesion and education.

Due to the excellent research culture and intellectual wealth that Uzbekistan has to offer, UK and Cambridge have been able to develop strong partnership in many areas. Together we have organised three international conferences on Physics, Technology and Sustainability in Bukhara, Khiva and Tashkent, which each attracted well over hundred academics from more than forty countries. Flow of scholars, students, experts, community leaders and government officials in both directions is a vibrant feature of our collaborative landscape.  We have a growing number of excellent students from Uzbekistan coming to Cambridge and recently the student-led Cambridge Uzbekistan Society was established.  Our cooperation is not limited to academic activity and together with Fund Forum and the Embassy we hosted a photographic exhibition of Tashkent spanning some hundred years. Musical retreats are common and if you were to pass by the Jesus College Chapel don’t be too surprised to find some heart warming Uzbek tunes emanating from its hallowed surrounding!

Prof Saxena speaks at the opening of the Photo Exhibition ‘Tashkent
– The History of One City’ in Jesus College in March 2010


31 August 2010


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