PHOTO: detail of the plaque to Nicholas II at Tamerlane Gate. 1898
The Trans-Caspian Railway follows the path of the Silk Road through much of western Central Asia. It was built by the Russian Empire during its expansion into Central Asia in the 19th century. Construction on the railway began in 1879, and originally served a military purpose of facilitating the Imperial Russian Army in actions against the local resistance to their rule.
The railway had a huge impact on the Russian economy, permitting a massive increase in the amount of cotton exported from the region. This increased from 873,092 pudy in 1888 to 3,588,025 in 1893. Also sugar, kerosene, wood, iron and construction material were imported into the area. These rising trade figures were used by Governor-General Nikolai Rozenbakh (1836-1901) to argue for the extension to Tashkent.
In 1895, Emperor Nicholas II issued an Imperial Decree, ordering that the line be extended to Tashkent and Margelan. Thus, the Tashkent Railway connecting the Tran-Caspian Military Railway with the network of other Russian and European railways was completed in 1906.
PHOTO: Alexander Ivanovich Ursati posing next to the plaque to Nicholas II. 1898
Alexander Ivanovich Ursati (1848 -1918) was appointed to the post of the head of the construction of the Samarkand-Andijan line. Ursati was a hereditary nobleman, a graduate of the St. Petersburg Institute of Railway Engineers, and outstanding engineer-tracker of pre-revolutionary Russia.
The new railway line passed along the ancient caravan route through the Nurata mountain range, along the narrow part of the Ilan-Uta gorge through the Jizzakh passage or through the so-called Tamerlane Gate.
PHOTO: plaque to Nicholas II at Tamerlane Gate. 1898
Upon completion of the construction of a highway which ran parralell to the railway track, Ursati ordered a commemorative bronze plaque and mounted with a double-headed eagle from one of the Ural factories. The inscription read: “Nicholas II in 1895 ordered construction of the railway. 1898 completed.” Both the text on the plaque and the double-headed eagle were gilded. It was installed on the steep northern slope of the Nurata rock, directly above two Arabic inscriptions carved into the rock: the first dates back to 1425, and the second to 1571.
In 1899, for the successful completion of the construction of the railway ahead of schedule, Ursati was promoted to acting state councilor. Thus, according to the Table of Ranks, he became a general.
In recognition of Alexander Ivanovich in Central Asia, one of the stations was named Ursat’evskaya (renamed Khavastsince in 1963, ). In 1899, Ursati left his mark in Tashkent, with the construction of one of the most beautiful churches of the city – the Church of the Annunciation, popularly called the Railway Church, on the station square of the city. Following the 1917 Revolution, the church was closed, and demolished in the 1920s.
PHOTO: Tamerlane Gate as it looks today
While the two ancient Arabic inscriptions carved into the rock at Tamerlane Gate have survived to the present day, the bronze and gilded plaque to Nicholas II was destroyed by the Bolsheviks. The railway became one of the most important means of communication in the area, and the workers on the railway became key activists during the Russian revolution. Both railway and workers also played an important role in the Russian Civil War. Troops of the British Indian Army participated in some of the battles along the railway line. Tashkent was an important bastion for the Red Army.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, vandals have repeatedly defaced the historic rock face at Tamerlane Gate with graffiti, including anti government slogans and profanity. Truly, a very sad example of the troubled times we live today.
© Paul Gilbert. 23 January 2021