In Bukhara’s central Lyab-i-Hauz, a tree-shaded water tank surrounded by teahouses, stands a larger-than-life-size bronze statue of a bearded man riding a comically smaller donkey.
Children climb it, families take photos in front of it and passing elders rub parts of the statue for luck.
This is Nasruddin, the ancient philosopher who is said to have once lived in Bukhara but who was famous all along the Silk Road.
His stories were told around campfires and hearths from Istanbul to China. The tales combine seeming foolishness with a twist that can convey a different wise message with each telling.
One day, a man came to borrow Nasruddin’s donkey. Nasruddin laments that he has already lent it to someone else. But the visitor points out that he can hear the donkey braying behind the house. “Whose word are you going to take?” asks Nasruddin. “Mine or a donkey’s?”
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Famous all along the Silk Road
The spelling of his name varies in English from the more common Nasreddin to Nasr Ed Dine. He is given the title of Hoja (Teacher) in Turkey and Mulla in Afghanistan, with other honorifics throughout the Islamic world and beyond.
For example, he is known in China by the Uyghur name Afanti and said to be from Xinjiang. Turkey also claims he was born there, in 1208.
He is said to have died in the town of Aksehir, Central Anatolia, in 1285 and a festival is held there in his name every July.
Iranians, however, say that he is Persian because his stories have obvious roots in Sufi mysticism and the works of Persian poet Rumi. He bears great similarity to the Arab character Joha al-Rumi, to the extent that the two characters have really merged into one.
One day, Nasruddin was asked about the exact location of the centre of the world. “It’s just under the left leg of my donkey,” he replied. When asked for proof, he said: “Just measure it and you’ll see I’m right.”
The history of the Silk Road - the world's most famous trade route
The Inner Self
Sufism is the philosophical heart of Islam, whose students follow a master who can trace a direct line to other teachers who studied with the prophet Mohammed.
The term itself owes more to British Orientalists than Muslims themselves. The familiar five pillars of Islam refer to externals – the profession of faith; ritual prayers; paying alms; fasting during Ramadan; and pilgrimage to Mecca – but Sufism is about the inner self.
It thrived between the 13th and 16th centuries, with a central belief that Islam is a guide to living in this world as well as the next.
One day, Nasruddin was standing on a riverbank when a man shouted to him from the far side: “Hey! How can I get across the river?” “You are across!” replied Nasruddin.
The most famous Sufis are the so-called “Whirling Dervishes” of the Mevlevi order who use their dancing to put themselves into a meditative state.
Meditation is known to many religions, particularly in the East, and Sufis see it as a way to turn one’s full consciousness towards God.
One day, Nasruddin was invited to a banquet. He lost track of time while working in his vineyards and rushed there in his everyday clothes. The other guests and the host ignored him, so he went home to change. When he returned to the banquet in his finest robe, he was put into a place of honour. He was served the best of the food but he put it into the pockets of his silk coat and offered some to his sleeve, urging it to eat. When asked what he was doing, he replied: “Oh, I thought it was my coat that was the guest of honour.”
A hint of Greek?
Classical scholars will recognise the roots of Nasruddin in the Greek "scholastikos”, a wise man who is so clever that he's stupid.
He uses his brain to reach exactly the wrong conclusion, such as the scholastikos who goes for a swim and nearly drowns, He declares that he won’t go near water again until he has learned to swim.
Others may see some echoes of the Sophists, who believed that there is no such thing as absolute truth.
One day, Nasruddin was asked to judge a dispute between two men. He listened to the first and said: “You are right.” Then he listened to the second and said: “You are right.” A bystander complained that both men could not be right. “You are right,” said Nasruddin.
Although there are some 600 or more stories attributed to Nasruddin, it is impossible to say which are original and which have been added to the canon over the centuries.
The total is now more like a joke book, the sum total of tales told throughout central Asia and beyond – to China and the coast of India. The most authentic ones, however, are those that bring authority figures down to earth.
Academics claim this as a reaction to the spread of the many conquerors who swept through Central Asia, leaving the ordinary person feeling powerless, with their only refuge in bitter humour.
Many stories tell of confrontations with Timur (Tamerlane), who defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Ankara in 1402.
One day, Nasruddin was summoned to meet with Timur the Great, who had heard of his wisdom. “What is my true worth,” asked Timur. “I have conquered the world, defeated armies of men and made mountains tremble. What is my value?” Nasruddin studied the Emperor carefully before replying: “Twenty gold pieces.” Timur laughed: “Why, this belt I am wearing is worth 20 gold pieces alone.” “Yes, I took that into account,” said Nasruddin.
It’s no coincidence that the name Molla Nasraddin was taken for a satirical magazine published in Azerbaijan from 1906 to 1917, when it ceased publication rather than submit to Bolshevik censorship.
With its cutting cartoons and provocative poems, it is still considered an inspiration to radical journalism and political thought throughout Central Asia but particularly in Iran.
One day, Nasruddin saw a banquet being prepared and went in, taking the best chair. A guard approached him and told him the seat was reserved for the guest of honour. “I am more than a mere guest,” said Nasruddin. “Are you an ambassador?” asked the guard. “I am more than an ambassador,” said Nasruddin. “Are you a minister,” asked the guard. “I am more than a minister,” said Nasruddin. “I suppose you must be the king,” said the guard, sarcastically. “Oh, higher than that,” said Nasruddin. “Nobody is higher than the king,” said the guard. “Exactly!” said Nasruddin. “I am nobody.”
The stories have been absorbed into daily life such that many sayings in various languages arise from Nasruddin tales. For example, one can describe “drying flour on the clothes line” as an unconvincing excuse for not doing something.
One day, a neighbour asked to borrow a clothesline and Nasruddin went to check with his wife. He returned to say: “Sorry, but we’re using it to dry flour.” “How can you dry flour on a clothes-line?” asked the neighbour. Nasruddin replied, “It’s easier than you think when you don’t want to lend it.”
Nasruddin may have been poor, but he always refuses to be a victim.
One day, Nasruddin was fixing the holes in his roof when a stranger came along and asked him to come down. Once he was on the ground, the stranger asked him for alms. Nasruddin asked the man to climb back up on the roof with him. Once he was there, Nasruddin said: “Sorry, I have nothing to give you.”
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One of the most acclaimed collections of Nasruddin stories is by writer Idries Shah (1924-1996), father of the travel writer Tahir Shah and broadcaster Saira Shah.
He believed that Sufism might even predate Islam and saw it as a form of universal wisdom, always adapting to the world around it.
The stories have echoes in the world of Cervantes – Sancho Panza rides a donkey and continually pricks the inflated fantasies of Don Quixote.
Cervantes spent five years as a prisoner of the Turks after being captured by pirates off the Barbary Coast in 1575, so may have heard the stories there.
One day, Nasruddin was boasting about having fought in a great battle. “With one terrible stroke of my sword, I cut off the hand of one of the enemy!” he said. “Did you also cut off his head?” someone asked. “No,” said Nasruddin. “Somebody had beaten me to it about an hour before.”
A final story contains words of wisdom for all travellers, whether on the Silk Road or anywhere else in life.
One day, Nasruddin was standing in his field when a passing stranger asked him what the people in the next village were like. “How did you find the people in my village?” asked Nasruddin. “They were unfriendly, rude, stupid and lazy, to be honest,” said the stranger. “Yes, that’s what the people in the next village are like as well,” said Nasruddin. Later, another traveller came by with the same question. Again, Nasruddin asked him about the village he had just come from. “They were welcoming and generous,” said the stranger. “Yes, that’s exactly how they are in the next village too,” said Nasruddin.
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