Tashkent in Uzbekistan is home to Central Asia’s oldest subway. This masterpiece of decorated platforms, shimmering tunnels, and glazed columns is capable of surprising even the most jaded visitors. Built back in 1977, Tashkent’s three metro lines served as a designated military site and nuclear bomb shelter necessitating strict safety measures and banning civilians from taking pictures. But once the 40-year-old ban was lifted in July 2018, commuters have been capturing the gorgeous artworks on camera for the whole world to see. The unexpected gleam of these never-before-seen images of Tashkent’s metro is a good enough reason for tourists, both foreign and local, to visit Uzbekistan’s capital city and delve underground.
Photographer Amos Chapple was awestruck by the confluence of styles adorning the platforms’ walls. Soviet elements commingle with ancient Islamic designs of angular shapes and sharp edges, representing the rigidity, majesty, and power symbolic of the Russian empire, blend with the sinuous lines and seductive cobalt and emerald hues of the Arabic style.
He said,“[It’s] the variation; there were different flavors to the art”.
Historically, in the first millennium B.C., Tashkent was one of the most celebrated cities along the Great Silk Road, a crucial port on the ancient trade route from East Asia to the Roman Empire. It’s standing as a cultural crossroads led to waves of regime changes. When Arabs conquered the province in the 7th and 8th centuries, they presented a wave of Islamic conversion whose influence lasted for more than a millennium. But when Russia occupied the city in the late 1800s with Bolsheviks conquering the adjacent territories in 1917, the country moved toward a more secular stance, as religious practice was banned under Soviet rule.
During this secularist campaign, many mosques and shrines were closed while many religious ministries persecuted. Moreover, large portions of Islamic buildings were reduced to rubble by a 1966 earthquake, never to be rebuilt. This layering of historical events, sovereignty, religions along with corresponding artistic values generate the stylistic discontinuity of Tashkent’s metro.
In spite of unassuming concrete entrances and plain handrails, the view inside is mesmerizing. The decorations crafted by local artists of glass, ceramic, plastic, marble, metal, and alabaster, have their own unique style and themes. Several stations were renamed as part of a “decommunization” process when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
Chapple observes, “Maybe because of the distance from Moscow and the distance from the communist bureaucrats, there wasn’t that sort of chest-thumping glorification of communism in the air. It was more a glorification of the people, of Uzbekistan, and that was quite unusual for a Soviet project like that.”
A particular station boasts the bas-relief of a majestic bird crowned by an Arabic-style pointed arch to celebrate the 2,200 years of Tashkent’s existence. The Paxtakor stop is adorned by a sky-toned mosaic highlights fluffs of cotton blooming from orange stems, one of Uzbekistan’s primary industries. Another station is decked with majestic floral arrangements of stucco and enamel decorate panels from floor to ceiling.
Kosmonavtlar Station considered as Tashkent’s most famous celebrates the country’s scientific achievements with portraits of famous astronauts in bas-relief from tinted walls representing the depths of outer space. But the astronauts are devoid of the characteristic somber traits; in its place, their features’ dream-like aura portrays their triumph as if in a fairytale. Here, Soviet subject matter combines with Islamic influences to create a uniquely Uzbek aesthetic.
The recent lifting of the photography ban signifies a shift away from former President Islam Karimov’s “iron fist.” Nowadays, the administration of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, elected in 2016, hopes to encourage the world to appreciate Uzbekistan’s cultural richness and extravagant history.
Mirziyoyev’s recent reforms epitomize a promising new phase after decades of isolationism and authoritarian rule. The government views tourism as an opportunity for growth, and its new visa program that facilitates visas from both Western countries and neighboring regions is testament to It.
The bulk of Tashkent’s visitors come from within Uzbekistan along with two million foreign tourists visit the country each year. These numbers are presently still small, but as more are encouraged and expected to visit, Tashkent’s underground metro might be the best place to start.