Alexander’s feats of ancient engineering in Nurata are all well and good. But it is the hospitality of the locals that is truly impressive.

I first spotted Nasiba as I made my way along a rocky path in Nurata, an oasis town in Kyzylkum Desert.

She stood quietly beside her husband in their dusty mudbrick compound. He struggled to keep their dog on its leash.

Nasiba gave me a shy smile. Her dizzily-patterned halat tunic stood in sharp contrast to the dung-coloured dwellings.

There was obviously more to Nasiba than met the eye.

I was on my way to see an ancient water system built by Alexander the Great. I followed my guide up a slight ridge to the remains of the ancient kariz.

This complex water system was twenty-three centuries old and had brought drinking water from Aktog right into the centre of the citadel. 

‘Look,’ said my guide with a flourish of his hand: ‘The work of Alexander.’

Nurata Chashma (Sophie Ibbotson)
Nurata Fortress (Sophie Ibbotson)
Nurata Fortress (Sophie Ibbotson)

I crouched on the dusty earth and peered into the gaping hole.

The conduit was large enough to hide a man

In Alexander’s time, the underground water channels had been laid with interconnecting wells. The koriz was covered over to stop the fierce heat of Uzbekistan drying out the water channels.

It was a magnificent piece of engineering for a magnificent king – a ruler who’d extended his empire from Macedonia in Greece to Persia and beyond. 

Back on the plain, Nasiba was milking her cow. I asked for a photo. She pointed to her working clothes with embarrassment.

I assured her that her sun-bronzed face and colourful garments looked lovely – and so did the cow she’d named ‘Maston’, the Uzbeki word for beautiful. She rhythmically pulled down on its udders and filled her tin can, before disappearing into the house.

Nasiba soon returned with a large dish of creamy-white yoghurt. She indicated for us to try it as the sun slowly droped and filled the sky with inky blues and reds. As the desert glowed, we savoured the thick buttery yoghurt. There was an offer of more food, but reluctantly we said our goodbyes.

Alexander’s engineering was truly a marvel. But it is Nasiba who left the more lasting impression.

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Main image: Nasiba milking Maston (© Sophie Ibbotson)