A decade after its opening was canceled, a historical exhibit about a band of Mennonites from Ukraine who migrated far eastward in the 1880s to avoid military service and meet Christ’s return will finally go on public display in early March in Uzbekistan.
The exhibition on the “Great Trek” by Mennonites into Central Asia is based on a partnership between Ichan Kala Museum in Khiva, Uzbekistan, and Kauffman Museum in North Newton, Kan.
“In 2009 we fully prepared the exhibition,” said Maqsudbek Abdurasulov, deputy director of Ichan Kala, in Russian by email. “But the government of that time forbade its opening on the last day.
“We tried for 10 years to open the exhibition, and now we have been allowed. It has become possible thanks to the new president and a change in the management of the museum.”
Abdurasulov said Uzbekistan has become a more open country since 2017, after Shavkat Mirziyoyev was elected president in late 2016. (He replaced Islam Karimov, who led the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic from 1989 until it ended in 1991, and then was president of Uzbekistan from its formation in 1991 until his death in 2016.)
On Dec. 17, 2018, the minister of culture issued a statement including “establishment of a historical district of the village of Ak-Metchet — where the German Mennonites lived.”
Anabaptist historian John Sharp, who has visited the region four times, said he was informed in 2010 by a cultural administrator at the U.S. embassy that the government was so concerned about religious extremism that it did not want exhibitions that touch on anything of the sort. Things have changed.
“It was such a delightful bit of news, because we’ve been hoping for all this time, thinking it probably would happen, and finally it did,” Sharp said. “We had been assured by the director of the museum that it would happen, that in the meantime he would file things away or put artifacts in other museums.”
Some of those artifacts have been held in storage since 2009. Men’s and women’s clothing, cameras, dishes, clocks, chairs, ornate wooden furniture decorated with Cyrillic script and even a model of a Mennonite settlement have been waiting for a decade.
The artifacts are joined by photographs about the Ak-Metchet settlement from the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College.
“We want to recreate the historical place where the Mennonites lived in the village of Ak-Metchet,” Abdurasulov said. “If you have investors, we will be happy to work together.”
The end was near
The Mennonites who lived at Ak-Metchet, nine miles from Khiva, from 1884 to 1935 fled what was then Russia in 1880 to avoid military conscription — even rejecting alternative forestry service — and to find new land to farm and await Christ’s return. The area today is near the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
According to the Mennonite Encyclopedia, Claas Epp Jr. began stressing “the imminent end of the age” in the 1870s. While many Mennonites fled conscription to points west in North America, Epp proclaimed their deliverance would be among Muslim populations in the east, where he said they would meet Christ on March 8, 1889.
A group of 80 families — about 900 people in all — traveled roughly 2,000 miles from the Molotschna community in Ukraine by wagon and foot. Eventually they were joined by other families from the Trakt colony in Russia’s Volga region. Children died on the 18-week trip. Disease took the lives of some adults.
In spring, a group of 23 families left the trek to emigrate to America. At one point, Epp and fellow leader Abraham Peters had a falling out over where to settle, and Peters’ followers from Molotschna — joined by most of Epp’s — went instead to the Talas Valley of present-day Kyrgyzstan.
The group that ultimately settled in the Ak-Metchet settlement numbered a little more than 200 people in 39 families.
“The climax came when Epp claimed to be the Son of Christ, the fourth person of the Trinity,” records Mennonite Encyclopedia. “By this time most of Epp’s followers, disillusioned, had left him, but a handful remained steadfast almost to the end. Finally the remnant excommunicated him.”
The Mennonites introduced numerous advancements and foods, including potatoes and tomatoes.
“They applied their European experience in the fields of woodworking, technology, photography, business and agriculture,” said Abdurasulov of the ways they transformed the region.
They found favor with Sayyid Muammad Raim Bahadur II, the Khan of Khiva, who gave them land and exemption from military service. Mennonite craftsman installed ornate parquet wood floors in his palace and constructed its windows and doors, along with a four-poster bed for the Khan that he occasionally used as a throne.
No buildings remain from the settlements after Joseph Stalin’s agricultural collectivization movement in the 1930s claimed the land and exiled the Mennonites.
Instead of remembering their apocalyptic theology, local villagers recall the Mennonites as hardworking and honest people who paid good wages and were skilled at raising crops.
See it yourself
Those who have an interest in seeing the exhibition will have a chance to do so this fall.
John Sharp is leading Tourmagination’s “Central Asia: Crossroads of Faith and Culture” tour Sept. 22-Oct. 3. Following the Silk Road, the tour includes interactions with local Muslims and retraces some of Epp’s Great Trek migration trail.
The museum itself is located within Khiva’s Ichan Kala historic inner fortress — a UNESCO World Heritage site. Originally planned to take up four rooms on the second floor of a former Russian school in the complex, the exhibition is now in a single-story building in what Sharp says is a better location.
“This had been a place where Mennonites sold merchandise,” he said. “It’s closer to the gate when you walk in and really is ideal.”