The Turkic peoples began as steppe nomads, then became soldiers and eventually farmers and city-dwellers.  As they made these transitions they came to dominate ancient centers along the Silk Road.  So they ended up at crossroads and thoroughfares, places where Christian, Muslim, and Jew met with those from farther afield.

Such places seem romantic, but life can be difficult there.  You’re likely to have good food, interesting sights, and a diverse population that knows how to carry on under difficult circumstances.  You’re much less likely to have good government, free public life, or strong civic loyalties.  There will be too much history involving too many peoples.

So it didn’t seem surprising, given the complicated history and demographics of Uzbekistan, that in the three weeks we recently spent there we never saw a newspaper or magazine, and only one bookstore that wasn’t religious in character.  Without common loyalties there’s very little public life, only private concerns, including religious ones.  (We did however run into an informal open-air bazaar in Tashkent selling used books in Russian on topics like cooking and the life of Marshal Georgy Zhukov.)

Independence was thrust on the area in 1991, and the government has been trying to put together a nation ever since.  To keep things running they’ve used patronage, payoffs, suppression of opposing parties, forced labor during the cotton harvest, occasional atrocities, and monument after monument to Tamerlane, a local descendant of Genghis Khan who notoriously hated Uzbeks but made Samarkand his capital.

In Samarkand we stayed in a guesthouse in the old city a hundred yards or so from Timur’s lavishly decorated mausoleum, where he will likely be left in peace for a long time to come.  In 1941 Soviet archaeologists dug him up and two days later Germany invaded Russia, killing as many people as Tamerlane did in his campaigns.  After the Russians reburied him they won the Battle of Stalingrad.  That kind of thing burnishes a man’s reputation in Central Asia.

In the past couple of years the government has supplemented the monuments to Tamerlane with monuments to Islam Karimov, the first president of independent Uzbekistan, who was also ruthlessly effective as the founder of a state.  Government leaders have gestured occasionally toward pan-Turkism, but rely most concretely on Uzbek identity as the basis of nationhood.  The Uzbek language is the only official one; most of the Russians and Volga Germans have found it expedient to leave; the ancient Jewish community of Bukhara has almost entirely emigrated (they now run the barber shops in Brooklyn); the Koreans exiled to Central Asia in 1937 have largely assimilated, although they still sell vats of kimchee in the markets; and the Persian-speaking Tajiks, who were there first and still dominate ancient centers like Samarkand and Bukhara, use their own language in daily life but register as Uzbeks to improve their prospects.

In the face of its often repressive policies, the government vindicates the country’s claim to high civilization by constructing museums—some very good although little patronized, others at the level of a grade-school history project—and by erecting monuments to Ulugh Beg.  The latter, Tamerlane’s grandson and successor, is best known for his observatory outside Samarkand, which produced the best star charts before Tycho Brahe.  He was decapitated by order of his eldest son after a revolt, so he was evidently more successful as a poet and scholar than as a ruler or family man.

Ulugh Beg was not, of course, the only talented resident of what is now Uzbekistan.  The area was once a center for the arts and sciences, and Tamerlane was a cultivated patron of such things.  It’s still known for carpets and embroidery.  The main tourist attraction is the old architecture, especially the tilework, some of it bearing insanely complex patterns that evidently carry forward the mathematical turn of mind that gave the world medieval scholars such as Al-Khwarizmi.  (The word algorithm comes from his name, which means “man from Khwarezm,” a region that includes parts of Uzbekistan.  Algebra comes from the title of his most famous book.)

Islam seems to be making something of a comeback, with more government support than in the recent past.  The call to prayer is heard everywhere five times per day, and the mosques, all dignified and some very beautiful, are well maintained and fairly well attended by visibly pious men and a few women.  There seems to be no animus against Christians, who are quite common, and the people in mosques were polite and often downright welcoming—especially in Samarkand and Bukhara, when they made the apparently rather amusing discovery that I speak Persian.

The emphasis in religious matters seems to be on order, moderation, and personal devotion.  The government is worried about the Taliban and similar groups in neighboring countries, so they’ve gone after anyone who seems pointed that way.  Sufi saints are popular, but the religious authorities have been equipping shrines with fences to suppress folk observances that seem superstitious and often somewhat undignified.  So believers can no longer attain their wishes by a triple circuit of a saint’s tomb.  Nor can women ensure conception by tying ribbons to an ancient plane tree or rubbing themselves against it.

The outcome of all this seems to be a functional and reasonably prosperous country.  It’s orderly—the streets are clean, the cars obey the rules, children salute their elders when they pass on the street, and young people instantly rise for them on public transportation—and no one seems ill-clad or ill-fed.  There are lots of young people, and weddings everywhere.  On a visit to an historical monument you’ll find two or three bridal parties—the brides usually very pretty and wearing identical Western-style wedding dresses—posing for pictures.

Tashkent displays the government’s aspirations.  It’s a post-Soviet city that served as a sort of capital for Soviet Central Asia and is dominated by straight six-lane boulevards crowded with white Chevrolets from a local factory.  An earthquake knocked most of it down in 1968, and the new buildings are noticeably better than the run of recent buildings in Washington, D.C.  The city is very green for such a dry country, with lavishly watered parks, and the Soviet-era public art is surprisingly good.

After Uzbekistan we spent a week in Constantinople, now called Istanbul.  Like Uzbekistan, the place seemed orderly and prosperous by the standards of the area, but ignorance of the language, and a form of society and government that drives even the locals into conspiracy theories, kept us from getting more than the most general impression of what’s going on.  Journalists say there is growing sympathy with radical forms of Islam, and I have no reason to doubt them.  To a casual visitor, though, the general religious situation appeared similar to that in Uzbekistan, a return of a real but moderate and dignified form of a traditional religious faith following the discovery that secular ethnic nationalism isn’t enough to live by.

We stayed in Beyoglu, across the Golden Horn from the old city.  The district was once the habitation of Greeks, Genoese, and other foreigners.  It was ethnically cleansed by the secular nationalism that is now apparently threatened by the resurgence of Islam, but is still dotted with consulates and thronged with tourists and Turkish hipsters.  But Istanbul is multilayered.  Our apartment was two blocks from the largest Catholic church in the city, and two blocks the other way was a spacious old compound housing an order of whirling dervishes.  We obtained admittance and watched the ceremony.  It was entirely traditional and not at all antiquarian or touristic, a graceful and disciplined form of mystical contemplation that is evidently still very much alive.

In Uzbekistan, repeated conquest and the use of unfired brick leave few remains from the most splendid periods of the country’s history, which came before the 15th century and before the Uzbek ascendancy.  In Constantinople the Ottomans left some beautiful mosques, but the most wonderful things also antedate their arrival, and many more of these survive.  In the Archaeological Museum you can see remains from the successive cities built at Troy, and in the old Hippodrome, now Sultanahmet Square, there is a column that was originally a leg from a huge bronze tripod at Delphi that (according to Herodotus) the Greeks made from captured Persian weapons after the Battle of Plataea.  And of course there are the Byzantine churches, now unfortunately converted to mosques or museums.

What can an American say about such an accumulation of peoples and histories?  Goethe thought America had it better, because we didn’t have such things, and The Federalist congratulated us on our homogeneity.  All that’s gone now, of course.  We’re importing the whole world, so Central Asia and the Levant are likely to show something about our future that early observers couldn’t foresee.  If people are really the same everywhere we can’t count on doing better than the Turks and Uzbeks when we deal with similar issues.  We may do worse, since our government is so much more ambitious and the diversity we aim at so much greater.  Only time will tell.