Ella Maillart in Bukhara – A woman travels through the Soviet Union in 1932

Why Ella Maillart visited Central Asia

At the beginning of her book ‚Turkestan Solo‘ the famous sailor, skier and traveller Ella Maillart (1903-1997) asks herself and her readers why she travels. Above all, she believes that travelling should first and foremost awaken a feeling of solidarity. That by travelling we can learn more about what connects us with other people in the world and ideally become more compassionate about the choices people make in life and the fates of others. She agrees with the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who warned against searching for a new world in the outside world, as new worlds can only arise from one’s own self. One must be open to embrace the new within oneself.

The vastness of the horizon must be within us, must only come from us. Only those who can grasp and understand vastness can acquire it. And only those who have found a way to express it can understand it.

Ella Mailart, Turkestan Solo (1934)

What Maillart found in Central Asia, she writes, was above all a serenity that distinguishes people who live in a world where speed does not play a significant role and where people are not lonely individuals who have to fight the rest of the world at all times. That the human being there is carried by a greater totality such as the family and the tribe and thus lives more calmly, because everything is sure in the environment.

However, one could suspect that Maillart, in such a formulation, falls back into the gaze from outside, the European eye that interprets and shapes the ‚oriental other‘. However, Maillart is conceivably precise in her descriptions. She encounters a world in upheaval. With enormous energies and great positive effects, such as the liberation of women from an entrenched patriarchal society, but also with a massive power of destruction, the Soviet system carries out its re-education of people to become Soviet people. Ella Maillart faithfully bears witness to what she sees and what women, in particular, are telling her.

Bukhara in times of drastic change

When Ella Maillart arrives in Bukhara, she is shocked to discover that once glorious Bukhara has fallen into disrepair. One must not forget that Bukhara was extensively bombed by Soviet planes in 1921. Besides, the Soviets had closed down the madrasahs, where around 20,000 eager students from all over the world had studied at the heyday of Mohammedan science.

The old city in 2008.

In the Bukhara of the 1930s, the conversion to a cotton economy took its toll. Grain is scarce, and the food stamps that the workers receive for working the hundreds of kilometres of canals are barely enough to feed their families, Ella Maillart discovers.

I live in the centre of the city, surrounded by dirty, crooked narrow streets, on the first floor of the ‚tourist base‘ in the courtyard of a former Medresse. […] Food has become so scarce that the hunt for bread is the most important activity of each day. […] I regularly go to the cooperative to wait for the arrival of the loaves of bread with about forty people. When it is my turn, I have to discuss with the man who sells them, and often he gives me nothing.

Ella Mailart, Turkestan Solo (1934)

The workers report that the daily rations have now shrunk to 300g bread per person. From February 1934, Canadian grain is to be flown in. If someone comes by with a Lipioschka, no matter how small it is, everyone immediately asks where he got it from, and everyone runs to the street corner. Ella Maillart tries to find out where others eat. Near the ‚Ark‘ she finds a small restaurant, but it is reserved for the workers of the electricity station. All ordinary workers have to be content with very little, but nevertheless, they work hard on the cotton fields every day: Because it is more important than anything else to meet the target figures.

Pictures from the propagandistic anniversary volumes on the development of the Central Asian Soviet Republics

Traces of the Soviet era: The roads around the dome bazaar and the fortress were straightened and widened to make it easier to exercise military control. The former parts of the old town, which Maillart probably still saw here, were torn down for this purpose. Soviet devotional objects are sold in the bazaar at the beginning of the 2000s.

The city centre’s narrow streets are always full of people trying to buy and sell something – often they just want to buy food in exchange. Ella Maillart loves to watch all the hustle and bustle, writes that she often sits leaning against a wall and cannot get enough of it.

The central dome bazaar in Bukhara in 2008.

An indescribable jumble of objects is offered. If Chinese faience or a Turkmen tekim appears anywhere, they are sold within minutes to one of the connoisseurs I see roaming around here every day. […] I am told that the geometric patterns of these carpets are always the stylised depictions of a yurt in the middle of vast pastures, with the pattern of an arik flowing through it, flowers and a horse. Small street boys squat and warm their hands in front of the fire hole of a chai khana. […] When an Arba passes by, everyone falls after it to get through the crowd.

Ella Mailart, Turkestan Solo (1934)

Ella Maillart is most captivated by the Poi-Kalon ensemble in Bukhara, which was built according to the Kosh principle. However, the strict symmetry implemented at the Registan of Samarkand is broken here, as the Kalon mosque is lower than the Mir-Arab madrasah opposite it on the same main axis. However, it has a greater width. Both buildings have a high pishtak, but the khanaqa is much narrower, lacking the two-storey ogival arcades of the madrasah, and the corner towers are right next to the pishtak.

The Kalon Mosque, ‚the Great‘, has no equal in style. From the fifty-two meter high ‚Minaret of Death‘ flanking it, one can see its vast courtyard, its turquoise dome over the holy of holies and its central pediment opposite the small pavilion for the ritual washings. On feast days, a single enormous carpet covered the tiles. What a fairy-like picture it must have been, with all those robes of silk brocade in which the greats of the earth showed themselves here. Around the courtyard, there is a triple vaulted portico with massive cubic pillars; it is gloomy underneath, and a heaviness weighs on my shoulders like in a Romanesque cathedral. […] The light here is so beautiful that the building was limited to pure, simple lines.

Ella Mailart, Turkestan Solo (1934)

The Kalon Mosque in 2008.

In Soviet Turkestan, however, all this beauty, Ella Maillart concludes her visit, is no longer relevant. Now it is all about cotton, and the mullahs who preach against the removal of veils get a beating from the women. But will cotton be able to bring Bukhara back to life? An answer to this question remains open in Ella Maillart’s travelogue.

To be continued…

Text: Stefan Applis (2020)

Photos: Stefan Applis (2008)


Ella Maillart (1934). Turkestan Solo: A Journey Through Central Asia.

Photography of Ella Maillart via http://www.ellamaillart.ch/index_en.php

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