This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Uzbekistan Muslims celebrate Christian neighbors

KHIVA, Uzbekistan — Early in October, a Mennonite TourMagination group viewed a unique museum exhibit that is an inspiring story of Muslim-Christian cooperation.

The exhibit, opened to the public early this year in Khiva, celebrates cooperation between Muslims and Mennonites. In a world where religious rivals compete against and even seek to destroy each other, this celebration is worth noting.

Tour leader John Sharp, left, and participant James C. Juhnke stand outside the Ak Mechet Mennonite exhibit in Khiva, Uzbekistan. — John Sharp
Tour leader John Sharp, left, and participant James C. Juhnke stand outside the Ak Mechet Mennonite exhibit in Khiva, Uzbekistan. — John Sharp

The Muslims of Khiva decided to celebrate a Mennonite community that lived nearby for 50 years, from the 1880s to the 1930s. In 1884 the Khan of Khiva, Muhammad Rahim II, invited a group of Mennonite pilgrims to live at a royal garden seven miles south of Khiva.

This “Ak Metchet” community had come to the Khiva area in quest of social autonomy, exemption from Russian military service and the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return.

In North America and Europe, the Ak Metchet community today is remembered almost exclusively for the millenarian leadership of Claas Epp Jr. Among the Muslims in Khiva, however, Epp was virtually unknown. They knew Mennonites for their economic contributions, technological innovations and agricultural productivity. (After the failure of Epp’s prediction that he would ascend to heaven, by 1903 the Mennonites removed Epp from their church.)

The Muslims offered Mennonites autonomy, including their own German-language school. In return, Mennonites contributed to modernization of the Muslim economy. The new exhibit helps to correct the flawed reputation of this community among Mennonites.

Azat Karimov — creator of the exhibit and “keeper of the funds” for multiple museums in the walled old Silk Road city of Ichan Kala in Khiva — told visitors the Mennonite exhibit is located in a “trade house” originally built in 1905 by a wealthy Uzbek businessman, Palvan Kari. Kari employed Mennonite craftsmen from Ak Metchet to build the windows, doors and floor of his new trade house.

The Palvan Kari house is strategically located on a main street leading to the west gate of the city, near the massive Kalta Minar Minaret. Just west of the Palvan Kari house is the Kunya Ark complex, where Mennonites built an extensive parquet floor in 1884 for the harem of the khan. Only in Khiva can one find Mennonite-built decorations in a former royal palace.

The same Mennonite carpenters and craftsmen built the windows and floors of a hospital and a post office in the city of Khiva. The new architecture represented a transformation of traditional local Muslim styles.

Introducing photography

Another Mennonite innovation, radical for its time in traditional Muslim Khiva, was photography. Wilhelm Penner, schoolteacher at Ak Metchet, formed a friendship with a bright Uzbek lad, Khudaybergen Divanov. Divanov was fascinated by Penner’s camera and eagerly learned to take and develop photographs.

The Muslim authorities in Khiva forbade image-making — a prohibition that some Old Order Mennonites and Amish can understand today. But times were changing. The Khan of Khiva, Muhammad Rahim II, came out in favor of photography and sat for a photo himself.

According to Walter Ratliff, author of Pilgrims on the Silk Road, the story of Penner and Divanov is “a microcosm of the role the Mennonites played in the khanate.” They were the technological innovators. Divanov went on to become the “father of Uzbek photography.” Photos of Divanov and Penner are featured in the new Mennonite exhibit, as well as in a separate Ichan Kala museum exhibit of photography.

An exhibit about Mennonites who lived in Uzbekistan from the 1880s to the 1930s is now open after years of delays in the historic old city of Ichan Kala in Khiva. — John Sharp
An exhibit about Mennonites who lived in Uzbekistan from the 1880s to the 1930s is now open after years of delays in the historic old city of Ichan Kala in Khiva. — John Sharp

Uzbek scholars today take interest in the Mennonite settlement of Ak Metchet. Dilaram Inoyatova, a professor of history at the University of Uzbekistan, has recently completed a book on the Ak Metchet community.

According to Inoyatova, the primary meaning of the new Mennonite exhibit in Khiva is to lift up the ideals of tolerance and ethnic diversity.

The Muslim majority could have refused to welcome this culturally different German-speaking religious group. But they made a comfortable, protected home for their guests, even offering them a special form of protected citizenship status for non-Muslims, the “dhimmis.” For half a century, Muslims and Mennonites shared a mutually beneficial relationship.

Defiance, dissolution

The new exhibit is rich in artifacts, in part because of the way the Ak Metchet community was dissolved in 1935. When the Soviets came to power in the region, they demanded Ak Metchet be reorganized as a collective — the same sort of coercive change carried out elsewhere in Russia.

When Mennonite leaders refused to collectivize, local Soviet leaders violently transferred them hundreds of miles away to Tajikistan, south of Dushanbe.

They had to leave almost everything behind. Villagers helped themselves to abandoned chests, tools, clothing, school desks and other things. Exhibit builders have been able to buy, borrow and barter from local people for artifacts to accompany the photographs, reconstructed miniature village and the four-language (Uzbek, German, English, Russian) captions in the exhibit.

Little is left at the Ak Metchet site to remind visitors of the once-vibrant community. At the time of dissolution, there were 52 farms on 138 acres and more than 100 head of cattle. Now the only buildings are abandoned houses of a Soviet youth camp.

But the members of the TourMagination group met a local Uzbek businessman who said he has purchased the land and intends to build a welcome center and other facilities for tourists.

Also present was a young man who displayed his rudimentary collection of artifacts from the Mennonite community.

They say a number of tourists already show up every year.

Unique relationship

The cultural exchange between Khiva-area Muslims and Ak Metchet Mennonites is worth further exploration. These people did not try to convert each other, although Mennonites who served as diplomats in the Khan’s court were required to study the Quran and other Muslim literature. None of the Mennonites admitted to being influenced by their reading.

It is notable that these Mennonites accepted an Uzbek name for their community, unlike Mennonite settlements elsewhere that took German names, such as Gnadenfeld and Koeppental.

Tour leader John Sharp has led five groups along the route of the so-called Great Trek and the Silk Road city of Khiva since 2009.

“At long last,” Sharp wrote, “we see what Uzbeks remember about the Mennonite community of Ak Metchet — and their long journey through the desert.”

James C. Juhnke is professor emeritus of history at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan.

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