Last April, I arrived in springtime Tashkent. Buckets of tiny strawberries filled the markets and Amir Timur Square thronged with tour groups. I’d stopped to rest a while after travelling for weeks through neighbouring Kazakhstan and it was only when I sat down at popular buffet restaurant U Babushki did I realise it was Easter. Waitresses marched past with display baskets of painted eggs and Russian Easter breads called kulich, a cross between Italian panettone and hot cross buns, but denser than both. The holiday was almost over in the UK but Russian Orthodox churches celebrate a week later so the festivities were still going on. After devouring a plate of pancakes, I set off walking south to the biggest church I knew, carrying a copy of Through Khiva to Golden Samarkand, written by Isabella “Ella” Robertson Christie. A formidable and sharp-eyed traveller, Christie was born in 1861, close to my adopted city of Edinburgh, and she came to this region twice, in 1910 and 1912, publishing her adventures in 1925.
Mynah birds chattered in trees and the unique musky, melon-y smell of Uzbekistan stirred in the warm air. After I’d been strolling for an hour, the Cathedral of the Assumption announced itself, with turquoise paintwork, golden domes – and crowds. Barriers were still up following the previous evening’s midnight gathering. Squeezing past the barricades –pulling a scarf over my head as is required – I entered the courtyard. Tables had been set up displaying kulich for sale, each iced with the words “Christ is risen.” Trays, baskets, buckets and carrier bags were all filled with painted eggs, thin candles and wrapped sweets. Some babushki had decorated their breads with marzipan chicks and strawberries. One seller had set up an entire shed selling kulich; others sold jam. There was a whiff of the farmer’s market about it all.
Stuffed fabric eggs the size of wheelie bins flanked the entrance, where crowds jostled. Eventually, the priest came out, a long plait of blonde hair down his back. Slowly, flanked by his clergy, he began flicking holy water over the congregation. They glowed collectively in their red, orange and gold liturgical robes. Inside, dust motes flickered in the hushed air as sunshine poured through stained-glass windows. Carrying their baskets of cakes and bread, churchgoers lit hundreds of candles and paid their respects to the icons. It was beautiful and moving and it felt a privilege to be there.
Back outside, I sat on a bench and turned to a chapter in Christie’s book entitled “A Russian Easter”. The scenes she described – of Tashkent over a hundred years ago – were not wildly dissimilar.
In church, Christie marvelled at the smart gowns worn by locals, and noted the “elaborate cakes” and “the blessing of bread”, but she also worried that in this crowded place, gauze hats could be set alight by a procession of people carrying wax tapers. Invited into the home of a French-Swiss couple, the Müllers, she is treated to a “deliciously light” Easter cake, made with no fewer than 85 eggs. She gifts their children postcards from Scotland depicting thistles, Highland regiments and “Auld Reekie”. Following an Easter Sunday supper of veal, apple tart and local red wine, there was music. “Caucasian airs, which must resemble Scotch reels, and the picture of the sword dance seemed quite familiar,” she wrote.
What sets Christie’s work apart from better-remembered writers to this region, such as Peter Hopkirk and Fitzroy Maclean, are her everyday observations. Rather than setting out to spy, break records or gain accolades, she noted the domestic and everyday – cooking, clothing and workshops – in great detail. But she was tenacious and tough. Travelling east across the Caspian Sea initially to Turkmenistan, and on by train, cart and even steamer on the Oxus River (today’s Amu-Darya), she arrived in the notorious slave-trading town of Khiva. Some believe she was the first western woman to reach it.
Before she set off, the Foreign Office had issued her a personal warning. Should she contract plague in Central Asia, she ought to “hang a red cloth over the window”. But Christie knew such government advice was iffy. “No thought was given as to where red cloth was to be obtained, or if there would be any windows over which to hang it.” Christie simply made a note of this guidance, and then went anyway.