Stunning 3-Month Exhibition Brings Kyrgyzstan’s Cities of the Dead to Life

Date: 20 May 2015
Other languages: Русский язык |
Death is rarely thought of as a beautiful thing. However, when photographer Margaret Morton travelled through Kyrgyzstan, she became captivated by the beauty and majesty of the unique cemeteries she encountered.
Morton’s photographs brought more than 175 people to the Ismaili Centre, Toronto on 9 May 2015, for the opening of a three-month exhibition and launch of the book, Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan, authored by Professor Margaret Morton (Cooper Union) with texts contributed by Dr Elmira Köchümkulova and Altyn Kapalova (University of Central Asia) and Professor Nasser Rabbat (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The exhibition is open to the public, from Tuesday to Sunday at the Ismaili Centre, Toronto until 30 July 2015.
More than 175 people attended the Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan exhibition and book launch in the Ismaili Centre, Toronto Social Hall.
“We were traveling on a deserted road, along the windswept south shore of Lake Issyk-kul, when a magnificent miniature city suddenly came into view. But as we drove past, the majestic forms compressed and flattened. I was transfixed by the illusion,” said Morton, who returned to the mountainous former Soviet republic for three summers to photograph the unique sites.
She was accompanied on much of her travel by anthropologist Köchümkulova, Head of the Cultural Heritage and Humanities Unit at the University of Central Asia (UCA) and a specialist in Kyrgyz nomadic customs. Köchümkulova contributed the book’s introduction on Kyrgyz funeral traditions.
“Dr Köchümkulova travelled with me to several of the cemeteries and our on-site exchanges greatly enriched the project,” said Morton, “Her introduction to the book provides readers with a deeper understanding of nomadic traditions and Kyrgyz funeral customs, as well as an explanation of the complex cultural references that are visible in the photographs.”
The event included a lecture by Köchümkulova, who discussed her recent work, Respect Graces the Living, Lamentations Grace the Dead: Kyrgyz Funeral Lamentations and Lamenters. She also performed several Kyrgyz songs on the traditional Kyrgyz three-stringed instrument, the komuz. Her final song was a poem composed for her grandmother in the days preceding her death that was then sung as a lamentation at her funeral.
UCA Head of the Cultural Heritage and Humanities Unit Dr Elmira Köchümkulova discusses the
findings of her recent book on Kyrgyz funeral lamentations.
“Morton’s photographs provide evidence of how culture is a living, evolving concept,” Köchümkulova explained. “These photographs are an invaluable record of the co-existence of multiple cultures, including nomadic, Muslim and Soviet, and the construction of complex identities over time.” 
Dr Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor for Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and fellow contributor to the book, delivered the closing lecture on diverse architectural traditions surrounding death and burial within Muslim culture.
The evening event followed a multidisciplinary symposium at the Aga Khan Museum focused on cultural heritage, identity and the implications for diversity and pluralism in modern-day Kyrgyzstan, co-presented by the Global Centre for Pluralism. In addition to presentations by Morton and Köchümkulova, Carleton University professor Dr Jeff Sahadeo presented his research on History and Memory: Implications for Pluralism in Kyrgyzstan and the Ferghana Valley, a study commissioned by the Global Centre for Pluralism that explores how historical narrative has shaped and reshaped national in Kyrgyzstan and continues to influence perceptions of diversity and identity today.
Highlighting the regional and generational diversity of Kyrgyz cemeteries in Morton’s work, the Cities of the Dead events provoked discussions on the intersection of religion and cultural practices in contemporary Kyrgyzstan, where the rise of fundamentalist religious practices is influencing concepts of identity and tradition. 
“When we arrived here, to attend an event called the ‘Cities of the Dead’, I wondered how you would make it come alive,” said Sheherazade Hirji, President of the Aga Khan Council for Ontario, in closing remarks. “I have to say, you have exceeded all our expectations.” 
The University of Central Asia supported Morton’s travel across Kyrgyzstan when she was photographing the cemeteries. Cities of the Dead is an important addition to the University’s Cultural Heritage Book Series, a growing collection of works by regional and international scholars aimed at preserving Central Asia’s unique and diverse cultural heritages through research, documenting, archiving and supporting regional scholarship. A key component of the University’s mission is helping the different peoples of the region to preserve and draw upon their rich cultural traditions and heritages as assets for the future. The book was published by University of Washington Press with support from The Christensen Fund.
“It is my hope that the book and traveling exhibition of photographs of these unique cemeteries will contribute to the architectural, visual and cultural record of Central Asia and the Kyrgyz people, who left behind a compelling architectural legacy when they buried their dead,” Morton said.
The events were co-sponsored by the University of Central Asia, the Global Centre for Pluralism, the Aga Khan Council for Canada, the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre, Toronto. They are part of Cities of Arrival, a programme curated by Dr Zulfikar Hirji (York University) of lectures, symposia, roundtables, exhibitions, performances, workshops and activities being held throughout 2015 at the Ismaili Centre exploring the pasts, presents and futures of cities and urban life, and critically imagines how humanity will share the most densely populated spaces on our planet.  
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