I traveled across Uzbekistan to research a biography of Tamerlane, the 14th-century Tatar conqueror known locally as Amir Temur. I hadn't expected to see so many pictures of him. He stared at you wherever you went, from newspaper mastheads to highest-denomination banknotes. A magnificent statue of him on horseback dominated a square that bore his name in the heart of Tashkent.
The clue to his re-emergence from decades of Soviet-sanctioned vilification came on a series of street hoardings portraying Tamerlane and President Islam Karimov together. Styled in the Soviet era as a murderous barbarian -- he cut a swath through Asia, celebrating his victories by building towers from the severed heads of his enemies -- Tamerlane had become the hero of the newly sovereign Uzbekistan.
"It is well known that this dignified and just ruler always dealt with the world with good and kind intentions," proclaimed Khalq Sozi, the official organ of Karimov's People's Democratic party. "And our independent republic, from its very first steps, has announced the very same goals: to conduct itself in the world with kindness and goodwill."
Contemporary sources report Tamerlane's execution of 100,000 prisoners in cold blood shortly before his storming of Delhi in 1398. On taking Baghdad in 1401, he erected 120 towers containing 90,000 skulls. The parallel, then, is not entirely absurd: Tamerlane and Karimov are both butchers, only the Tatar's depredations were on a global, rather than a domestic scale.
In Uzbekistan I found a wildly romantic country of desert, steppe and mountain, with stretching landscapes and architectural treasures of Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva that simmered in the imagination. But it was a beleaguered place, its people downtrodden, its strutting security forces bent on following and, if possible, obstructing your every move. If the police wanted to go though your suitcase every day, there wasn't much you could do about it (Uzbeks call their capital "Tashment," ment being the slang for cop). Local translators risked night-time visits from state-paid thugs in uniform. Who had the foreigner been talking to and why? What was he doing in Uzbekistan? Punch. Slap. Threats.
One evening in the world before Sept. 11, I drank whisky with a senior diplomat at the British embassy. Even then, security around the building was very tight. After interminable checkpoints and identity checks I was ushered into an elegantly furnished residence, a little corner of the UK complete with portrait of Her Majesty, Oriental rugs and a decent library.
The conversation moved swiftly from Tamerlane to politics. Given Karimov's already well-known abuses of human rights and suppression of opposition, I was taken aback by the British line on the regime (government seems too decent a word for it). One had to understand that Karimov had grown up and risen to power under the USSR, when standards were rather different. He wasn't an evil or nasty man; the country was in transition; the UK needed to engage this small nation emerging from the Soviet yoke. The tune I heard at the embassy rang oddly with the ethical foreign policy proclaimed by Robin Cook, the then UK foreign secretary.
Since that time Washington and London have moved far beyond engagement to a close alliance with Karimov's regime, attributing the shift to the changed strategic realities of the post-9/11 world.