Mar­garet Mor­ton’s Cities of the Dead: The An­ces­tral Ceme­ter­ies of Kyr­gyzs­tan

BOMB Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Claudia Steinberg

Mar­garet Mor­ton re­ports that on her first long drive through the moun­tains of Kyr­gyzs­tan she was de­lighted when a skyline of minarets and domes ap­peared out of the sil­very- blue, thin, stone- dry air, like a mi­rage. It had taken more than an hour un­til the or­nate city—so ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated af­ter the end­less ride from Bishkek (the coun­try’s dreary, Soviet- style cap­i­tal) through the aus­tere and ut­terly un­pop­u­lated land­scape—re­vealed its se­cret. “When we came nearer, the build­ings seemed sud­denly smaller than ex­pected, and then they mys­te­ri­ously con­tracted: they turned out to be com­pletely flat, noth­ing but façades,” writes Mor­ton, who had been in­vited to Kyr­gyzs­tan to pho­to­graph lo­ca­tions that ap­pear in fa­mous na­tional po­ems. With the dis­cov­ery of this lonely ne­crop­o­lis near the south­ern shore of cobalt blue Lake Issyk Kul, she found her true call­ing for this re­gion: to doc­u­ment the many elab­o­rate ceme­ter­ies all over Kyr­gyzs­tan. Af­ter her ini­tial trip in 2006, the New York- based pho­tog­ra­pher, who also teaches at Cooper Union, re­turned for three more sum­mers, meet­ing with the scholar Elmira Köchümkulova, who en­light­ened her about the burial rites of this Silk Road coun­try with its many cul­tural in­flu­ences.

Cities of the Dead: The An­ces­tral Ceme­ter­ies of Kyr­gyzs­tan cap­tures the in­trigu­ing panora­mas of sprawl­ing, life­less cities whose in­hab­i­tants rest in un­der­ground cham­bers while the ed­i­fices above send re­minders of their pres­ence into the far dis­tance. Up close, the houses for the de­ceased—most of them sim­ply made of un­fired mud—seem al­most as un­ap­proach­able as a Rachel Whiteread mon­u­ment, with mock win­dows and sealed doors. In­deed, af­ter the fu­neral, no one en­ters them or even vis­its the site. These minia­ture mosques were, for cen­turies, the only struc­tures erected by a no­madic peo­ple—un­til Stalin in­sti­tuted set­tle­ment plans along with a sec­u­lar­iza­tion cam­paign. Many of the tombs are crowned with an­i­mal horns, rep­re­sent­ing an an­i­mist tra­di­tion that has co­ex­isted with Is­lam; the re­li­gious prac­tices of a coun­try with just five mil­lion, widely dis­persed peo­ple couldn’t be easily mon­i­tored by ei­ther the cen­tral gov­ern­ment or by imams. Other, newer graves lie un­der round me­tal cages that sym­bol­ize the yurt: these skele­tal ver­sions of the tent be­came a pop­u­lar, airy habi­tat for the soul when Rus­sian-pro­duced iron was cheaply avail­able in the ’70s. Di­rect Soviet in­flu­ences can be seen in the pho­to­graphs of the de­parted—kiln-fired onto porce­lain and at­tached to or­na­mented gran­itemark­ers or ste­les built from dried mud. In one strik­ingly mul­ti­cul­tural im­age a shaman­is­tic ea­gle sits on top.

What orig­i­nally at­tracted Mor­ton to these weed­cov­ered mau­soleums was their frag­ile and si­mul­ta­ne­ously vir­tu­osic qual­ity. Ever since she was in­tro­duced to Bernard Rud­of­sky’s sem­i­nal book Ar­chi­tec­ture With­out Ar­chi­tects in col­lege, she has been fas­ci­nated by the in­ven­tive­ness of the am­a­teur: in the four books she has pub­lished in the last twenty-five years, she has lent her deep re­spect for the makeshift and her gen­tle eye for the per­sonal to the ar­chi­tec­ture of shan­ty­towns, the dark and dan­ger­ous quar­ters of out­casts in a New York train tun­nel, the im­pro­vised shel­ters of squat­ters, and even the short- lived gar­dens of the home­less. Only dur­ing her last visit to Kyr­gyzs­tan did she re­al­ize that the ephemeral qual­ity of these tombs was not only due to nat­u­ral de­cay; re­cently, the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of the dead have helped to re­in­force it. Re­turn­ing rad­i­cal­ized from their jour­neys to Mecca, a few mem­bers of the younger gen­er­a­tion have be­gun de­stroy­ing their an­ces­tors’ burial sites (which had even been spared by the oth­er­wise strictly anti- re­li­gious Soviet gov­ern­ment), be­liev­ing that pure Is­lam per­mits, at most, a sim­ple stone as a grave marker. Mar­garet Mor­ton’s hal­lu­ci­na­tory, fine-toned im­ages may soon be the fi­nal re­mains of Kyr­gyzs­tan’s silent cities. — Claudia Steinberg is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in New York City. She writes about cul­ture and so­cial is­sues for a va­ri­ety of Ger­man and Amer­i­can publi­ca­tions.

Univer­sity of Washington Press, 2014

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