Muslims Celebrate Cooperation with Christians

John, Museum Exhibit in Khiva, Uzbekistan.
Muslims Celebrate Cooperation with Christians

Early this month (October) a Mennonite TourMagination group arrived in Khiva, Uzbekistan, to view a museum exhibit that may be a unique event in world history. The museum exhibit, opened to the public early this year, celebrates cooperation between Muslims and Christians. In a world where hostile religions compete against and destroy each other, this celebration is worth noting.
The Muslims of Khiva decided to celebrate the existence of a Mennonite community that lived nearby for fifty years, from the 1880s to the 1930s. In 1884 the Khan of Khiva, Muhammad Rahim II, invited a group of Mennonite pilgrims to come 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 the soon return of Jesus at the end of time.
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, Claas Epp II was virtually unknown. The Muslims of Khiva knew of the Mennonites for their economic contributions, technological innovations, and agricultural productivity. (By 1903, after the failure of Epp’s prediction that he would ascend into heaven, the Mennnonites removed Epp from their church.)
The Muslims offered the Mennonites autonomy, including their own German-language school. In return, the Mennonites contributed to modernization of the Muslim economy. The new museum exhibit will help to correct the flawed reputation of this community among Mennonites.
Mr. Azat Karimov is the creator of the new Mennonite exhibit and the “Keeper of the Funds” for multiple inner city museums of Ichan Kala in the walled old silk road city of Khiva. Karimov tells visitors that the Mennonite exhibit is located in a “trade house” originally built in 1905 by a wealthy Uzbek businessman, named Palvan Kari. Mr. Kari employed local 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 the Mennonites in 1884 built an extensive parquet floor for the harem of the Kahn. 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 new hospital and a new post office in the city of Khiva. The new architecture represented a transformation of traditional local Muslim styles that featured very thick walls and open spaces for windows.
Another Mennonite innovation, radical for its time in traditional Muslim Khiva, was photography. Wilhelm Penner, school teacher at Ak Metchet, formed a friendship with a bright young Uzbek lad named Khudaybergen Divanov. Divanov was fascinated by Penner’s camera, and eagerly learned to take and develop photographs. The traditional 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 Ichen Kala museum exhibit of photography.
Uzbek scholars today are taking special interest in the Mennonite settlement of Ak Metchet. Dr. Dilaram Inoyatova, a professor of history at the University of Uzbekistan, has recently completed a book on the Ak Metchet community. According to Inoyatova, who spoke to the TourMagination group in Tashkent, 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 the special form of protected citizenship status for non-Muslims, the “dhimmis.” For half a century, the Muslims and Mennonites shared a mutually beneficial relationship.
The new museum exhibit in Khiva is especially rich in artifacts, in part because of the way the Ak Metchet community was dissolved in 1935. When the Soviet Communists came to power in the region, they demanded that Ak Metchet be reorganized as collective—the same sort of coercive change carried out elsewhere in Russia. When the Mennonite leaders absolutely refused to collectivize, local Soviet leaders violently transferred them hundreds of miles away to a new location in Tajikistan south of Dushanbe. They had to leave almost everything behind. Local Uzbek villagers helped themselves to abandoned chests, tools, clothing, school desks and other things. Museum 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.
Today at the original Ak Metchet site, seven miles south of Khiva, there is little left to remind visitors of the vibrant community that was once there. At the time of dissolution, there were fifty-two small farms on 138 acres, and more than a hundred head of cattle. Now the only buildings on the site are some abandoned houses of a Soviet youth camp. But the members of the October Tourmagination group met a local Uzbek businessman who said he has purchased the land, and that he intends to build a welcome center and other facilities there for tourists. Also present was a twenty-something young man who displayed his rudimentary collection of old artifacts from the Mennonite community. These local folks say that a number of tourists already show up every year. They expect more to come.
The cultural exchange between Muslims in the Khiva area and the Ak Metchet Mennonites is worth further exploration. These people did not try to convert each other, although the Mennonites who served as diplomats in the Khan’s court were required to study the Koran and other Muslim literature there. None of the Mennonites, including Emil Riesen and Herman Jantzen, admitted to being influenced by their reading. It is notable that these Mennonites accepted an Uzbek name for their community (Ak Metchet), unlike Mennonite settlements elsewhere that took German language names, such as Gnadenfeld and Koeppental.
John Sharp, TourMagination tour leader, since 2009 has led four group tours along the route of the so-called Great Trek and the Great Silk Road City of Khiva. “At long last,” Sharp writes, “we see what Uzbeks remember about the Mennonite community of Ak Metchet—and their long journey through the desert.” It is an inspiring story of Muslim-Christian cooperation.
--James Juhnke