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Kyrgyzstan: Ancient Silk Road City, Osh, Celebrates 3,000 Years

Kyrgyzstan's second largest city, Osh, is celebrating its 3,000th anniversary. The ancient Silk Route city continues to occupy a unique place among Central Asia's ancient towns, and RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier, who visited Osh last week, tells us why it is such a special place.

Prague, 4 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A celebration begins today in Kyrgyzstan's second-largest city: Osh. This year, say city officials, Osh turns 3,000 years old. Although there are some who question the claim, Osh is undoubtedly one of the oldest cities along the fabled Silk Road and one of Central Asia's most interesting commercial centers.

Osh lies almost in the middle of the Fergana Valley, the richest agricultural land in Central Asia, which spreads across three countries -- Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as well as Kyrgyzstan. In fact, the word "Osh" means "food" in many Central Asian languages.

Osh lies on a small plain surrounded by low hills. In the middle of the city, a great rock formation rises and the streets of Osh radiate outward and around the rock. Nearly on top of it is the House of Babur, the great Central Asian conqueror who eventually took his army as far as India. In the early 16th century, Babur spent time on the rock performing his "Chilla," or ritual meditation, before he departed for lands to the south. Nearly two millennia before that, foraging parties from the army of Alexander the Great roamed the area.

Osh has survived a number of invasions, most notably from Arabs, Mongols, and Russians. The city was a key prize for their armies and for those of regional khanates and emirates. Its strategic location in the Fergana Valley brought a wide variety of goods from all over the Silk Road.

Osh today remains a great commercial center, with one of the largest bazaars in all of Central Asia. Originally three separate markets that eventually grew into one massive bazaar, there is almost nothing which cannot be purchased in Osh. Fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy products, car parts, radios, televisions, clothing, soap, livestock, and much more are on sale here. The bazaar bustles with activity, innumerable smells filling the air.

Osh is also perhaps the most heterogeneous city in the Fergana Valley, with a mixture of Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz. Everywhere, the square, black skull caps -- or tebeteikas -- worn by the Uzbeks and Tajiks mingle with the conical caps -- or kalpaks -- of the Kyrgyz.

Osh is very different from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. A high mountain range separates it from Bishkek, a far more recent city which is fairly Russified and contains a large percentage of ethnic Slavic inhabitants. Osh probably never had a large Slavic population. The city is also far more religious than Bishkek. There are many impressive mosques in Osh and, especially at night, calls to prayer are sounded throughout the city.

Some say it is impossible to know just how old Osh really is. The most common answer people in Osh give for believing the city dates back three millennia is the archeological discovery of a human skull several years ago. Carbon tests showed the skull was some 3,000 years old.

Whether it dates back more or less than 3,000 years, Osh certainly is old. Today the city has been cleaned up and prepared for its anniversary celebration, which brings together national leaders and other notables to pay tribute. For the next five days, the citizens of Osh and their guests will be celebrating its longevity and its unique stature among Central Asia's great cities.