Uzbekistan’s Alisher Navoiy National Library is named after him. So is a metro station in Tashkent, the nation’s capital. Not to mention Navoi International Airport, as well as Uzbekistan’s second-largest province, Navoiy— home to a million people—and even a 41-mile-wide crater on the planet Mercury.
We’re talking here, of course, about 15th-century poet, statesman and scholar Alisher Navoiy—considered the father of Uzbek literature.
On Feb. 9, the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Washington hosted a webinar to discuss the legacy of this famous man, who was born Feb. 9, 1441, exactly 580 years ago.
Ambassador Javlon Vakhabov, 40, said he still remembers, as a young boy in 1989, the day “when the courage and aspirations of the Uzbek people made the impossible possible,” and Uzbek was adopted as an official language, along with Russian.
“This was unimaginable for a country that was then part of the USSR,” he said, adding that statues of Navoiy dot all major cities in Uzbekistan, and can also be found in Moscow, Shanghai and Tokyo.
“Over the last three decades, we have been mobilizing significant resources to rediscover the great legacy of Navoiy, a person—as was written by the Mughal Emperor Babur, ‘who had no match. No one has written so much or so well in Turkic as he had,’” said Vakhabov. He noted that Navoiy’s manuscripts are kept by the world’s most important libraries, in Belgium, England, France, Germany, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Russia and the United States.
In addition, the Uzbek government on Feb. 5 created the Navoi International Public Foundation to promote the great poet’s life and heritage. This year, it also expects to complete restoration work at Navoiy’s carefully protected tomb in his birthplace of Herat, Afghanistan—where he is especially revered.
Central Asia experts recount poet’s immense influence
Navoiy was well known as a literary scholar who supported poets, scientists and artists. He was a great master of fine arts and knew how to handle a painter’s brush himself. He was an exceptionally good architect, and designed many schools, hospitals, inns, bridges, roads and channels.
Interestingly, Navoiy was not the poet’s real name. It was Mir Ali Sher, and Navoiy—which means “melody maker”—was the pen name he used his poems and other writings in Chagatai, a now-extinct Turkic language and predecessor to modern Uzbek and Uyghur (he also wrote under the name Foni for works in Persian).
Navoiy’s poems in Chagatai were collected into four parts, which were called “Chor-Devon” (The Four Divans). His poems in Persian were called “Devoni-Foni” (Foni’s Divans), while his most important work is the “Khamsa” (Quintuple)—five poems written between 1483 and 1485.
Following a warm welcome from Tashkent by Kamola Akilova, Uzbekistan’s deputy minister of culture, other speakers offered their take on the life of Navoiy, including English romantic poet Andrew Staniland; Victoria Laurel Gray, artistic director of the Silk Road Dance Company; Scott Levi, chair of the history department at Ohio State University; Mark Reese, director of the Nashville-based Muloqot Cultural Engagement Program; and Joan Weeks, head of the Near East Section and Turkish specialist at the Library of Congress.
The final speaker was Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
“It was, above all, Navoiy who put Turkic languages on the world map and opened doors between them and the peoples who speak them,” said Starr, a frequent visitor to Uzbekistan.
Navoiy’s legacy has endured for centuries
Mir Ali Sher, as he was then known, came from the wealthy upper elite of Timurid society at the time when the seat of government shifted from Samarkand to Herat. One of his close boyhood friends in Herat was the future Timurid ruler Husayn Boyqaro (1438-1506), who, as sultan, would later launch the cultural renaissance that blossomed in Herat in the 15th and 16th centuries.
According to Starr, “Husayn fully appreciated his friend’s many talents, and made him one his chief advisors. When problems developed in the province of Gorgan, in what is now northeastern Iran near the Turkmen border, the Sultan sent Ali Sher as his ambassador to sort things out. Huseyn Boyqaro also appointed Ali Sher as Keeper of the State Seal, which required him to certify all actions of state, and then Husayn named him vizier or chief minister. Beyond all this, Ali Sher received the title ‘Muqarribi Hazrati Sultoniy,’ or ‘Closest Person to Sultan,’ which enabled him at all times to act in the Sultan’s behalf and in his name.”
Among other things, Navoiy built 17 mosques, 10 centers for Sufi pilgrims to congregate; 40 caravanserais or roadside inns; nine bridges, nine bathhouses, and 20 pools or reservoirs.
“All of these were in Herat itself. Some of these, he proudly confessed, he built with his own money,” Starr said. “Beyond these were several hundred other buildings and public works projects erected throughout the Timurid realm.”
Navoiy spent his last years in Herat and died on Jan. 3, 1501. His works have entered the treasury of world literature and have been translated into many languages.
“As we celebrate the memory of Mir Ali Sher/Navoiy, let us appreciate his contribution to all the arts and music,” Starr concluded. “Let us pay respects to his founding of the Ikhlasiyya complex in Herat, where artists, poets, scholars and students gathered under his patronage. And let us salute his central role in the physical transformation of Timurid Herat into what French scholar Rene Grousset hailed as ‘the Florence of what has rightly been termed the Timurid Renaissance.’ Above all, let us appreciate his grand and rich poetic oeuvre, which lives today in so many countries and languages.”