The artificial Nurek Reservoir in Tajikistan. Not my photograph. I've not been to Tajikistan yet.

If I ever write a book about Central Asia, I will title it Until Death do Us Part. Before I came here (and still now to an extent), I generalize about “Central Asia.” This is similar to talking about East Asia or Western Europe as regions: it masks intra-regional differences and conflicts. But generalizations about Central Asia are particularly insidious because common knowledge about the region is insufficient to mitigate against gross over-simplification. When a comment is made about “The Middle East,” our minds account for differences we know exist between Israel, Iran and Egypt. This does not happen with regards to “the ‘Stans.”

The trouble is that “the ‘Stans” really don’t like the neighborhood in which they are grouped. Turkmenistan does not even consider itself part of Central Asia, preferring instead to associate with the Iranian / Persianate worlds (whatever those are), and the other countries can barely cooperate.

It is therefore unfortunate that there are real, and not merely rhetorical, connections between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that justify – even necessitate – the regional grouping of these countries into “Central Asia” (or “West Asia,” as I understand the Australians now call it). Primary among these ties that bind are shared water resources. Generally speaking, water resources (i.e. water – and rivers in which hydropower dams can be built) are concentrated and abundant in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but sorely needed in the dry agricultural countries of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – and also in Turkmenistan, which is so desiccated that it imports 98% of its water. On the other hand, the upstream countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) have practically no source of power and hardly any exports to speak of beyond hydropower.

The Soviets had a good solution to the division of resources and differentials in demand: the nerve-center of the command economy – Gosplan, based in Moscow – decreed each year that the upstream countries would allow the necessary amount of water to flow through its hydropower stations in the summer even though electricity was in low demand during this months. The goal was to provide the cotton and wheat-growing downstream countries sufficient water for irrigation. So single minded were the Soviets in reaching this goal that the Aral Sea has all but disappeared since the 1960s.

Map of the Syr Darya, which runs east to west through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan (again) and Kazakhstan before "reaching" the Aral Sea.

Meanwhile, the upstream countries need electricity for heating in the winter months and demanded compensation for the power generation capacity foregone by allowing the water to flow through the dams in the summer months. Again, Moscow decreed that the downstream countries, which also happen to be rich in “firm”, fossil-fuel energy resources, would burn oil and coal in the winter to meet demand in the upstream countries.

This complicated system prioritized the uneconomic and highly wasteful agricultural industries in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. To this end, Moscow treated all of Central Asia as one political and economic unit, even though technically the region was composed of five “independent” Soviet republics. And it worked, more or less.

It stopped working, however, when the USSR collapsed and the five countries were in fact independent of each other and fiercely nationalistic to boot. Unfortunately, the two major rivers that run through Central Asia – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya – did not change their course to accommodate the new international borders. The Kyrgyz government wants to store water and run hydropower plants in the winter to provide heat to citizens; the Uzbeks and Kazakhs need water in the summer growing months to support their crops. Tajikistan has essentially the same conflict of interests with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Untangling the mess of demands upon the water and of the states upon each other has proven challenging, time consuming and costly. All the major international donor organizations are involved, but the governments in Ashgabat, Astana, Bishkek, Dushanbe and Tashkent do not see eye-to-eye on fundamental issues: who has priority rights to use the water, how to price water resources, even whether water resources should have a price at all. Islam dictates that water is a gift from God to be shared. This is all well and good if you’re Uzbek and want water, but since the Quran does not say as much about oil and gas, the Kyrgyz still have to buy, at world market prices, their heating energy from the downstream countries.

I must admit to being sympathetic to each country’s claims. It is not a question of absolute right and wrong, and although perhaps not to equal degrees, all these countries are dependent upon each other. With so much at stake, however, it is understandably hard for the governments to cooperate. How this fascinating question gets resolved is undeniably going to shape the future development of “Central Asia.” This set of disputes might be the most likely cause of new war of which you, my reader, have probably never heard. Hopefully, however, the regional governments can keep a lid on things.


A map of Central Asia if it were on the NYC street grid

This morning I was treated (thanks to a link on Alex Kain’s Facebook page) to an interactive map of the world in which longitude and latitude are replaced by a global extension of Manhattan’s grid of streets and avenues. Not only did this make me homesick for the city I love, but by some magic of the cartographer’s art I cannot begin to understand, it also turns out that the “North Pole” in this reoriented map lies in central Uzbekistan. (I live nearby at 46,302nd Avenue and 115,257th Street.)

It would certainly make it easier to navigate the Central Asian steppe if every few blocks there were a pair of signs indicating the coordinates. Of course, not even these would be sufficient to help a contemporary young New Yorker; s/he would nonetheless still need a smartphone map app to figure out north from south, but it would sure beat navigating by the nearest sand dune or hillock.

Masha at the head of the table, children and Fulbrighters arranged around her.

Last weekend I traveled with four other Fulbright students to the southern city of Taraz. This was my first trip to a smaller Kazakh city, and the experience was eye-opening about the challenges of living outside of Almaty. This is not to say that I didn’t have a fantastic time, however: our hosts and hostesses in Taraz were warm and welcoming, and I am very grateful to Jenna for having invited me.

Contemporary Taraz is a city of about 400,000, give or take, and is the provincial capital of Zhambyl province, to the south and west of Almaty. Having suffered the economic troubles of the 1990s, the city remains a reflection of its Soviet self: several large chemical and metallurgical factories surround a relatively impoverished city center, itself typical of those found in Soviet mid-sized cities. What is most striking about Taraz in the winter, though, is how flat and grey it is. Visually, it was quite a depressed and depressing place.

I only discovered upon my return that Taraz has an incredibly rich history. Based on archeological and written records, people believe Taraz was founded over 1,500 years ago – making it significantly older even the Kiev, native home of the ancient Rus people. Taraz (under a variety of names over time) was a major trade center along the Silk Road for centuries and also the point at which the expanding Chinese Tang dynasty collided with the Arab Umayyads in the 8th century. According to medieval sources, the city was once surrounded by four solid walls and an imposing moat. A scant few architectural remnants of the Perso-Islamic period (in the 12th and 13th centuries) remain.

Masha making lagman

What I most enjoyed about Taraz, however, was the hospitality. Jenna, a Fulbrighter, perviously taught in the city and has maintained friendships there. As a result, we were invited into people’s homes. In general, Kazakhs rightly take great pride in their traditions of hospitality, but like in any other big city, people in Almaty are less likely to welcome people to their homes. Therefore, this was my first opportunity to be a proper guest. In particular, an older woman named Masha treated us to a long, Uzbek Sunday lunch of homemade lagman (拉面 – la mian or “pulled noodles” in Chinese).

Lagman is, to my knowledge, originally a Uighur or Hui (Chinese Muslim) dish, but it is now pervasive throughout Central Asia, reflecting the constant flow and exchange of peoples and traditions throughout this region. The noodles are pulled from dough, buttered so that they don’t stick together, and then stretched and beaten to resemble linguini or, when a bit thicker, Japanese udon noodles, but with more texture and diversity. They are then served under a soup of meat (lamb or beef), peppers (sweet and hot), tomatoes and oil. Other vegetables added to taste or per regional preference. I’ve had lagman in many places, including in western China, but these were far and away the most delicious.

While we ate, Masha produced a large bottle of Kazakhstan-brand vodka, and we drank and toasted for at least 4 hours. After our meal, Masha forced tea and biscuits on us, plumping us up to withstand the cold Kazakh winter. This also provided me a chance to talk with Masha one-on-one.

Masha, her granddaughter and I

Masha, like the lagman, and her family are evidence of the mixing populations and arbitrary – but very serious – borders in this region. She herself was born in Taraz, but is Uzbek; she married a true “Soviet Man” of mixed extraction (Chechen, Kazakh, Tartar), and so her children are pan-Turkic. Her husband and son run a Central Asian restaurant in Moscow, where is it relatively easy for them to gain the right to work as gastarbeiters. She has stayed in Taraz, though, and despite how long she has lived there and how integrated she has become, she told me that people in the new, national Kazakhstan often look down upon her for being Uzbek and “foreign.” A large percentage (perhaps as high as 50%, but at least 30%) of Kazakhstan’s population is not ethnically Kazakh, but this does not stop people from being confused about “the people” to whom the new state belongs.

That evening we attended a charity rap concert. One of our number is an occasional rapper from West Texas, and he was convinced to headline this concert for local youth: except for us, the majority of the crowd were local Kazakhs and Russians under 18, many of them self-styled “hip hop artists” and dressing the part. Evidently I made quite an impression on the young women, as a pair of twins and a third young woman all expressed their love to me! I had to break their hearts, however, because our train back to Almaty left at 10pm.

I think it worth noting that the concert organizers, a local NGO, provided a TV and DVD player to a local old-folks’ home. I wasn’t much help in this effort, but I was really happy both that despite the dire reports written by international rights groups, civil society does exist at a low level in Kazakhstan, and they are making significant and tangible contributions to the lives of their friends and neighbors. It is also cheering that Jenna and Austin helped make this possible.

Our Fulbrighter performing at the charity rap concert

While in the US, I had a very interesting conversation with a French professor of immigration law and history and a former employer of mine, Patrick Weil. His idea: the US government should take all (or even a significant fraction) of the millions it spends on “public diplomacy” and use that sum to buy books from American publishers and distribute those books to foreign countries. I know, I know, this plan reeks of “redistribution,” “government subsidies” for a flagging industry, and, dare I put it in type, even socialism – but I think it’s genius, and here is why.

Everyone who knows me well knows I have a thing for books surpassed only by some of my friends’ fetishes for books (I’m thinking of my dear friend who enjoys just whiffing the printed page, exhilarated even by the smell). Furthermore, for a while after finishing my BA degree, I worked with Prof. Weil to create the American branch of his Paris-based NGO, Libraries Without Borders (LWB). (I will say now that everyone should stop reading now and go the LWB webpage to donate either books or money… and then return to finish reading this post.) This necessitated still more time spent thinking about books, collecting books and loving them.

I mention my connection to LWB not only to highlight my penchant for books but also because I believe in LWB’s mission. The organization redistribute used books and textbooks from Western institutions to institutions – schools, libraries, universities – in developing countries. I left LWB when I went to grad school in the UK, and in the time since they have done a remarkable job [re-] building libraries and their collections in Rwanda and post-earthquake Haiti, among other places. Patrick’s belief (and mine) is that if you catch a man a fish, he can eat for a day, but if you give a man a book about fishing, he can feed himself for his whole lifetime – as can his neighbors and descendants, provided at least one person in the village can read, even if the original man kicks the bucket before teaching anyone else. Books are therefore the ultimate tool for empowerment and self-actualization.

But books transmit values as well as ideas, and they do so in a non-coersive and un-intrusive way. According to a March 2010 article inThe Huffington Post, The US government budgeted almost $600 million in 2011 for “public diplomacy” efforts with highly dubious and hard-to-measure results; as illustrated in the article and in my personal experience as a summer intern in a public diplomacy branch of the State Department some years ago, US public diplomacy efforts are also often construed as ideological and threatening, despite the best efforts of well-meaning State Department employees to be just the opposite. Books might allow us to communicate our positive values, in all their complexity, without engendering any further hostility.

Moreover, Patrick’s idea solves two real, extant problems – one domestic, one international. First, the American publishing industry, the global leader, is famously faltering. In allowing it to do so in the name of “market principles” (to which we do not subject our agricultural industry, mind you) we are sacrificing a key tool in our global cultural influence. Turning government funds towards our publishing industry might provide it the injection of capital it needs to be re-energized, or at least continue to survive. Second, many countries simply lack books and desire them. Therefore, this plan provides supply where there is a real demand.

The second point – the solution to an international problem – is evident to me here in Central Asia. There are not enough books. At my time at the state university in Almaty, which many students and people consider the best university in the country (although that is up for debate), I have rarely seen any students carrying books. I’ve also asked several times for both students and faculty to show me the school’s library; without fail, they demur, citing one or another excuse. I suspect this is because there are no books in the library. This suspicion, though it perhaps sounds wild, is not without basis: a Norwegian exchange student at the rival “best” university in town complained to me that the “international relations / political science” section of their university library holds only ten books, nine of which are textbooks.

I encountered this problem In Tashkent, Uzbekistan, as well. The center of academia and learning during the Soviet period, Tashkent has suffered a severe brain-drain. Recently the president commissioned a brand new white-tile, blue-reflective-window several-storey national library, but it is not open to the public or to foreigners – again because there are simply no books in it.

My understanding is that many of the books that had been in Soviet Central Asia had belonged to Russians; indeed, Russians have a wonderful literary culture and, by tradition, cherish books and libraries much more so than Westerners. The story goes that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when many Russians emigrated “back” to Mother Russia, they took their books with them. As for books in state institutions, it is likely that these were insufficiently cared for or sold during the tough economic times in Central Asia in the 1990s.

Therefore, there is a real need for books in post-Soviet Central Asia, and in Kazakhstan, at least, many people really want English-language books in particular. Therefore, with regards to American national interests, it makes both political and economic sense to reorient America’s considerable budget for public diplomacy towards the export of our many wonderful academic, artistic, literary and cultural publications. What better way to illustrate our diversity of interests and views and the accomplishment of our academics and cultural figures than to ship their books abroad?

Monument to Gagarin in Tashkent

I have written before about the fact that, after independence in 1991, the new government in Kazakhstan changed many street names to commemorate Kazakh heroes and, equally, as an act of cleansing the city of its Soviet history. What hadn’t fully appreciated at the time, however, is that as many street names were preserved as were changed, and the names that survived independence were overwhelming those that evoke Russia’s Soviet and pre-Soviet literary heritage: Pushkin, Gogol, Gorky. While even Peace Street (у. Мира) became “December” (in Kazakh: Желтосан) in honor of the December 1986 nationalist uprising here against Moscow, decidedly Russian artistic luminaries retain their honors.

This observation speaks to a major paradox facing post-Soviet Kazakh “nation-building” (the project of reviving or fabricating a national identity for the benefit of social, economic and political cohesion and loyalty). While there is no dearth of national heroes here, these tend to be military figures – batyrs (батыры, meaning “warrior” in Kazakh) who variously defended or vanquished enemies of the Kazakh nation. But pre-Russian Kazakh history is lacking in artistic and scientific figures. There are of course a few: for instance, Korkut-Ata, a legendary figure credited with inventing the kobuz, a traditional stringed instrument. However, Kazakhstan’s histories of fine arts, as this term is understood in the West, and science are by and large coterminous with Russian occupation of the region. Russian’s brought with them artistic and scientific sensibilities, traditions and techniques that had a penetrative influence upon nascent Kazakhstan. Therefore, while Kazakh nation-building attempts to define itself in opposition to over a century of Russian subjugation, it cannot deny wholesale Kazakhs’ debt to some Russian figures lest it also repudiate its shared artistic heritage and ancestry. Doing so would make it difficult to explain artistic and scientific advances in the region.

Portrait of Sergei Kalmikov by Leonid Leontiev, 1946

But the result is that it is difficult for Kazakh nation-builders at all levels to draw clear lines between where Kazakh identity ends and where the Russian begins, especially when one is talking about fine arts in the last century. This is particularly evident in the Kasteev Museum of Fine Arts. Even in the organization of the holdings, the lack of clear boundaries is evident. Some works by artists of Russian ethnicity, such as those of Pavel Filonov (b. 1883 in Russia) are held in the Russian art collection, despite the fact that Filonov lived and taught in Almaty for several years; others, such as those by Sergei Kalmikov (b. 1891 in Samarkand, in present-day Uzbekistan) are under the purview of the Kazakh painting department. There may be a logic to this; I will have to ask some of the administrators at the museum. Even if there is a rational explanation, it nonetheless illustrates the point that contemporary Kazakhs are confronted in many ways with having to (and having the opportunity to) chose what to consider their own and what to discard.

The task of selection is more complicated, however, when what is being selected is not an object, like a painting, that can be sorted, but a sensibility or a style. The heyday of Kazakh painting is in the 1960s when the first generation of young Kazakh painters trained in Moscow and Petersburg returned to Almaty to apply techniques learned from Russians (who were, in turn, by and large part of European artistic development) to national events and landscapes. Almost all art historians here acknowledge, therefore, that Kazakh painting owes its existence to the Soviet Union. Having acknowledged this fact, should contemporary Kazakh artists engaged in nation-building abandon the styles and lessons absorbed from Russia? Some have, preferring to use traditional applied arts techniques such as textile crafts, but many persist to paint with oils using historically “European” techniques.

Another shot of the Gagarin Monument in Tashkent

Interestingly, this problem does not exist in the new Central Asian states only in relation to Russia; it also exists between the new states. I realized this while I was visiting Tashkent, where I saw the monument to Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Gagarin was ethnically Russian, born in Russia, but was launched into space from headquarters of the Soviet space program, Baikonur, which is in Central Asia. Presumably, therefore, the Tashkent monument was constructed after the first cosmonaut’s April 1961 space flight in the region’s then-largest city to mark Central Asia’s contribution to Soviet scientific accomplishments. However, Baikonur isn’t in Uzbekistan – it’s in contemporary Kazakhstan. Thus, Kazakhstan is now left sharing (and making a competing claim to) its heritage of the Soviet space program with its southern neighbor.

Similar competing claims exist not only with regard to Soviet figures, but also to historical figures that pre-date defined borders between the Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajik people (which is to say, before the 1920s). Thus multiple Central Asian nations claim the legacy of Babur, Timur (Tamerlane), Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and others. In more than one instance, there are mausoleums to the same person in two different countries, each claiming to be authentic.

In light of the lack of clear boundaries between national histories and heritages, it is understandably very difficult and contentious to revive nations and create national identities in post-Soviet Central Asia. Exclusive claim to certain historical figures is important to demonstrate, for example, Kazakhs’ historical supremacy relative to Uzbeks at the musical arts. The solution, in my eyes, is to reduce the importance placed on exclusive claims and to instead acknowledge the complicated history of this region and the fluidity with which people moved through this land – and therefore the dynamic nature of “nations” in Central Asia. This would mean sharing historical figures, landmarks, artworks and events in cultural narratives, which would be relatively unprecedented and attack the concept of “nationalism” at one of its roots. If they do not do this, however, and refuse to recognize the mutual, and often equally valid, claims to national icons, Kazakhs are going to spend the next fifty years imagining complicated and implausible circumlocutions to explain how self-evidently (because of their surnames) Russian painters belong in the Kazakh painting holdings of the national art museum.

Exiting a subway station in Tashkent

As anyone who has visited Moscow or Petersburg may know, the Soviets put high stock in their municipal subway systems both as public monuments and fall-out shelters. Thus, the subway systems are buried deep underground and the station interiors were designed and decorated by star architects. The Moscow and Petersburg subway systems are therefore included as “sights” in most guidebooks, and the same is true of the Tashkent subway system – the only subway system in Soviet Central Asia and the pride of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.

The "Cosmonaut" subway station in Tashkent.

Begun in 1973 and opened in 1977, the Tashkent subway system connects the various ends of what is a surprisingly large and sprawling city. The most famous stations are “Ozbekiston (Uzbekistan)” and “Kosmonavtlar (Cosmonaut).” In the latter, pictured, the walls are textured with undulating ceramic ties and the blue fades from light to dark as it moves up the wall. This is, presumably, to suggest the change in light as one leaves the atmosphere and enters space. The columns are made of a bubbled glass, evocative (in my American, capitalist mind) of the type of decoration used to create “alien planets” in the original Star Trek episodes. Embedded in the walls are roundels of black-and-white images of spacemen. These elements add up to a trippy ensemble. The purpose, doubtless, was to remind the citizens of Tashkent of the USSR’s considerable accomplishments in the space exploration and, though this, instill appropriate Soviet patriotism in the citizens of this far-flung socialist republic (from Moscow’s point of view).

But, not to be outdone, Almaty will soon join Tashkent as a second Central Asian city with a subway system. Work on the Almaty system began in 1988, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Construction halted after the state became independent on 16 December 1991 due to lack of funds, began again in the late 1990s, halted for a second time in 2000 and was begun for a third – and presumably final – time in 2005 when President Nazarbayev set aside a special fund for its construction between 2006 and 2008. The first line is now finally set to open on, not coincidentally, 16 December 2011, a monument to the 20th anniversary of independence.

The showcase station in the new Almaty subway system

Indeed, in keeping with Soviet tradition, the designers of Kazakhstan’s subway have seized the opportunity to create didactic, patriotic show-pieces. The pictured station is a lesson in Kazakh post-Soviet national identity: the “rams-horn” pattern in the circles on the floor is typically Kazakh and the ribbing on the walls is supposedly evocative of yurt construction. These designs are both part of Kazakhstan’s attempt to celebrate the people’s “pre-Russian nomadic” heritage” – but more on this later.

Unfortunately, many Almaty residents have already told me that they would not use the subway after it is up-and-running because they are afraid of what would happen if there was an earthquake while they were underground. As I’ve said before, people here are very afraid of the massive earthquake everyone expects to happen at any moment. In my opinion, the bigger safety risk is that the floors are all polished marble and are going to be very slick and slippery in the winter months when subway riders are tracking snow and slush through the station.

Mir-I-Arab Medressa (16th c). It is still a working institution of Islamic learning.

To many in the West, the most notable aspect of Islamic art is the ban on figurative depictions of people and animals. This ban is, I believe, based upon passages in the Qu’ran warning against the creation of false idols. In truth, however, the rigidity with which this ban has been enforced over the centuries has varied – especially, for reasons unknown to me, in the Shi’a Persian world. After all, Persian culture is famous for its miniatures and illuminated manuscripts.

The "aiwan" at the Bolo-Hauz Mosque (1718)

Although belonging predominantly to the Hanafi Sunni branch of Islam, culturally Central Asia has belonged more to the Persian world than to the Arab; hence, it is not unusual to find figurative depictions of animals even in pre-Soviet Central Asian arts. Uighur carpets supposedly (although I’ve never seen this) occasionally even contain images of people or faces.

But Bukhara’s architecture testifies to the fact that, exceptions to the figurative ban aside, Islamic art does not suffer even in its non-figurative forms. Whether visiting the large civic and religious institutions – the mosques, medressas and bazaars – or former and current private homes, I was struck again and again by the complexity of geometric forms, the incredible use of color and the transformation of the materials of construction themselves into art. For example, the patterned brickwork on both the exterior and interior of the otherwise unpainted Samani Mausoleum (a picture of which is included in my last post about Bukhara) creates an ingenious play of shadow and form that animates the surfaces of what otherwise would be an undecorated domed cube.

Tile detail

It is not uncommon for Western art historians (primarily prior to the 1950s, although arguments have long shadows) to deride such things as mere “ornament” and applied arts, suggesting that these are lesser forms of artistic expression. Of course, Islamic art historians contest this disparaging attitude, and the vast majority of art historians and art lovers have evolved past this contemptuousness.

Robert Byron book The Road to Oxiana, which details his art historical and archeological adventure through Iran and Afghanistan in the early 20th century, both educates the reader about how one might appreciate Persian-Islamic “ornament” as art objects in themselves (and therefore not just for their historical value) and eloquently captures his emotions upon beholding the finest examples of Persian architecture and applied art. Tile patterns have color, rhythm, movement; buildings have weight, proportion, volume. Moreover, he evaluates buildings of different styles with a relatively even hand, recommending some structures as fine examples of the ornate, fulsome tastes that predominated in some centuries and praising others as exemplary of refinement and succinctness. This is not to say that he finds virtue in all buildings – the passages in which he derides some buildings are among the most enjoyable – but that he spots the best of contrasting ideals.

19th century door detail

I have not yet acquired either Bryon’s depth of knowledge nor his evident discernment, but it was certainly very enjoyable to walk amongst Bukhara’s many buildings comparing the woodwork on one door to the patterns on another and, with the help of a knowledgable friend in Bukhara, begin to understand the historical progression of certain motifs or artistic habits. Once again, I cannot shed any more light on the subject than this but am happy to share with you some of my “details” pictures.

What I think makes this art so compelling in its best instances is the ease with which the craftsmen and creators seem to tackle designs of the most incredible geometric complexity without sacrificing proportion of the natural elements that often serve as the base form. In the example of the door, for instance, the design’s unit is a three-petaled flower that is repeated in every direction, sometimes embellished (as might be a motif in a fugue) and linked by stems. The units are then composed into a set of vertical, off-set “X”s that might be represented: x+x+x. This is visually pleasing because of the repeated geometry provides symmetry and rhythm, but the “organic” shape of the unit masks the underlying patterning. There were many other, and often much more complicated, examples of this principle in other forms – but I couldn’t get good pictures of everything.

Two adjacent, contrasting wood panels on the roof of the Ark. The panels repeat along diagonals, like squares on a chessboard, creating a similar visual effect.

Details of tiling inside a mosque courtyard.