DUSHANBE -- The US Embassy in Tajikistan has funded the restoration and renovation of the historical Oim Madrassa, the first educational institution for women in Tajikistan.
US Ambassador to Tajikistan John Mark Pommersheim on June 25 joined local authorities to celebrate the opening of the 19th-century site in Konibodom.
The embassy awarded the NGO Imdodi Ghayrat $77,154 (727,000 TJS) to restore and renovate the madrassa as part of the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) programme.
The Oim Madrassa will now serve as a museum overseen by the Ministry of Culture.
The Tajik people, "who possess a rich cultural heritage, should have the opportunity to make this heritage an asset of the next generation", Pommersheim said at the opening ceremony.
The United States has provided almost $620,000 (5.8 million TJS) to preserve Tajikistan's unique cultural heritage under the AFCP programme, the embassy said in a statement on June 25.
Previous projects have included "the preservation and protection of the 9th century Khoja Mashhad Madrasa, the Mausoleum in Shahrituz, murals from the Lower Palace of Ancient Panjakent, the 16th-century Madrasai Kuhna of Hisor [Gissar] and the restoration and protection of a collection from the State Museum of Antiquities," the embassy said.
"In 27 years of collaboration, the United States has helped Tajikistan to restore 18 cultural heritage sites in 17 districts. And I had the opportunity to visit several of these sites, which are distinguished by their unique architecture," Pommersheim said later in an interview.
Helping renovate the Oim Madrassa "is our small bit of help ... in restoring a cultural legacy to the people of Tajikistan, and it isn't the last", he said.
A historical site
Built in 1824-1825 by local craftsmen, the Oim Madrassa is a unique historical site. The Tajik government has registered the cultural monument in its Catalog of Historical and Architectural Sites.
In the 1820s, Mullah Mir Alim, who was enduring persecution by the khans of Kokand for his progressive views, found refuge in Konibodom, according to locals.
The local population took the scholar under its protection along with his 10-year-old daughter Bibi Oim.
"Mir Alim 'infected' the people with ideas of education, and through 'khashar' [joint efforts] they built a mosque where not only did they recite prescribed prayers but also their children received spiritual and religious training. One wing was devoted entirely to girls," said Rakhmon Ismoilov, director of a local museum.
The site was one of just two in Central Asia that operated as a seminary for girls, according to Ismoilov. The other was founded in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, one of the major centres of science and culture in the region.
The museum stands as a rejection of extremists' urge to deny women an education.
The Oim Madrassa represents freedom, defiance, generosity and justice, as well as the yearning for education of residents of certain areas of Tajikistan, according to locals.
"The local residents have carried these traditions through the centuries. Maybe that's why a woman's place in the family has differed from the start in this corner of Tajikistan: they are freer in their views, choices and way of life," said Ismoilov.
"For a long time after the death of Mullah Mir Alim, the seminary was headed by his daughter, Bibi Oim, who dedicated herself entirely to the sciences. She lived 85 years," he said.
"After her death, the madrassa was named Oim in her honour," Ismoilov added.
Though not a site of ancient history and culture, the Oim Madrassa reflects socio-political processes that took place in local society, said Konibodom historian and art scholar Muyassara Ibrokhimova.
It is important for today's generation to know about them, she said.
The madrassa saw "times of enlightenment and the blossoming of traditional Islamic culture -- as evidenced by the activity of the seminary for girls -- and Bolshevik rule and atheism, when the madrassa was converted to a juvenile detention centre, and times of expectation, when funds were needed for restoration," she said.
"And this humanitarian step was taken by our friends the Americans, who distributed a grant for repairing and restoring a cultural legacy," Ibrokhimova said.
Importance of US assistance
"The US funding support let us fix the roof, renovate the rooms well, remove stains and dust from the brick walls, and perform considerable restorative work to restore the madrassa's historic appearance," said Mavluda Bokhirova, director of Imdodi Ghayrat.
The restoration and renewal of sites of historical and architectural significance are an integral part of development programmes in the cities and villages of Tajikistan in the next three years, according to local authorities.
Such efforts not only lend a special hue to towns but become a force that draws in tourists.
"This is especially important for a city like Konibodom, which in its own way is Tajikistan's gate in the northwest, from which there has been a growing stream of tourists into our country after the border with Uzbekistan opened," said Ismoilov, the local museum director.
"American assistance is important to us in that it can help attract foreign tourists who are interested in the historic sites along the Silk Road," he said.
"Konibodom, which is situated between ancient cities such as Fergana ... and Samarkand, could become its own sort of crossroads with its small but ancient historical and cultural sites," said Ismoilov.