On Working with Documents

In the 1880s, a group of Mennonites migrated from southern Russia, now Ukraine, to the Khanate of Khiva in present-day Uzbekistan. Motivated by a number of factors, including the impending loss of their exemption from Russian military service, the wave of millenarian fervor then sweeping through Europe, and the prophecies of the dynamic preacher, Claas Epp, Jr., this small group of travelers undertook a grueling journey into unfamiliar territory and established a village that lasted for fifty years.

About five years ago, I became fascinated by these events for simple, personal reasons. As an early encounter between Mennonites and Muslims, this story called out to me, since I belong to a family that is Mennonite on one side and Muslim on the other. I began to research the history of the Mennonite village in Uzbekistan, known as Ak Metchet, which means "The White Mosque." The resulting book, my current work-in-progress, The White Mosque, is a hybrid text that blends perspectives from scholarly histories of the trek, travelers' memoirs, and other archival materials with personal reflection.

What does it mean to work with documents? It is a project of cherishing. Since there is no way to include all of one's research, this kind of work involves selection, which means assigning value. You decide, over and over, to honor a particular word, record, or memory. As your own work is constantly revised, you go over the elements you've lifted from other texts again and again, as if rearranging objects in a museum. You are the lone curator of this work. You decide what to display, what to relegate to the basement of endnotes, what to consign to the dark. Eventually, a sort of permanent collection emerges: items you've chosen so many times, decided to keep on display so many times, that the mere sight of them, of a single word or phrase, is enough to call up a host of associations, perhaps an entire history. These word-objects, polished with your repeated cherishing, are your touchstones. Perhaps, if your work appears in print, you will succeed in publicly honoring the voices of the past, making them more accessible to future readers. But even if the work remains private, it will radically alter your relationship to history, expanding your memory and infusing musty old books and blurry PDFs with a glow. I am most interested in those documentary projects that manage to communicate not only the facts, as far as they can be known, but also the glow of the researcher's personal regard. For to cherish is to be transformed.


The Journey

Their names: Franz Bartsch, Herman Jantzen, Jacob Jantzen, Jacob Klaassen, Elizabeth Unruh.

What they recorded: the desert, Kaplan Bek, Samarkand, Ebenezer, the road to Khiva, Lausan, Ak Metchet.

The Desert

Wanderers. They left their farms in Russia, the valley where their villages nestled safe from winter blizzards, and the bubbling Creek Tarlich. The journey began in the shadow of a child's death: Franz Bartsch and his wife lost their little girl to a sudden fever. The event delayed the caravan. An unusually large number of mourners attended the child's funeral, no doubt including all those departing for Asia. "Then we went to the cemetery where we took leave of our little one," writes Bartsch in his memoir. Later, on the journey, as other children died, he would come to see the timing of his own child's death as a blessing. "My wife and I were deeply grateful to God that we had been able to bury our little daughter in Hahnsau instead of on the desolate steppe without a cemetery."

Several friends accompanied the first wagon train out of the valley. A woman left them some fresh pancakes on a stump. Goodbye. Goodbye. They were going into the east. On the first Sunday of the migration, in the shade of a great tent, Claas Epp, Jr. preached a sermon called "Shadows and Essence." Their fellowship, he told them, was a shadow of the heavenly tabernacle. For these forms are only meaningful insofar as they are signs. In his sermon, Epp used Hebrews 8:5, a text on the "shadow of heavenly things": for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern showed to thee in the mount.

After his sermon, Epp bade the travelers farewell; he would follow in the fifth and last wagon train. Franz Bartsch writes: "After he was gone I felt like Elisha must have felt when Elijah ascended into heaven." As if Epp had driven off in a chariot of fire. Bartsch, a schoolteacher, had been skeptical of Epp's prophecies the previous year, but had since been swept up in migration fever, becoming one of Epp's most loyal followers. He was in the first wagon train, the core. The horses fresh and eager. His little daughter newly laid to rest. Epp's sermon, he writes, was so moving that the place where it was delivered, at the three wells, remained deeply engraved in the travelers' memories.

A fine, dry road. Long ox caravans bearing pink salt to Orenburg. Kyrgyz nomads riding their camels to market. At Karabutak, the Mennonites buried two more children, and picked up a number of slates to use in lithography. At Irgisen, the last town before the desert, they hired a camel caravan and several Kyrgyz drivers. The camels would carry feed for the Mennonite horses across the desert. For their cooking fires, the travelers would burn animal dung and the brittle desert shrub, saxaul.

Kara Kum: "Black Sands." Kizil Kum: "Red Sands." The names of deserts. Earth blistered and parched with the sun, encrusted with salt crystals. Blinding glare, and the camels' feet plodding, leaving barely a trace. In the evenings, the wagons drawn into a circle, a wagonburg.

Hymns on the air. As the day cools.

Without the Kyrgyz drivers, who led them to the wells, the travelers would have perished. Franz Bartsch recalls the names of these wells: Utsch Kuduk, Bish Kuduk, Kup Kuduk, Kara Kuduk, Kap Kara Kuduk. Three Wells, Five Wells, Many Wells, Black Wells, All Black Wells. The water of Kap Kara Kuduk was actually black. When his wife held the lantern close to the samovar, Bartsch recalls, they saw that the water was dark before they had added the tea.

As the sands grew deeper and the journey more demanding for the horses, the Mennonites devised a relay system. Five horses would pull a wagon over a stretch; then men would ride the horses back, hitch them to another wagon, and pull it forward. Three weeks like this, back and forth over the sand. It's appalling to think of, heartrending, the slowness of that journey, the steps constantly retraced, the same ground traveled over again and again, the stupidity of using horses and wagons, the lack of water, the heat. My sources do not agree on the number of children who died in the desert. In his history of the trek, Fred Belk says eleven. Bartsch says twelve. He quotes a letter from Epp, received by the community once they had crossed the desert, which compares these twelve lost children to twelve stones. "When Israel entered Canaan through the Jordan, God commanded them to lay down twelve commemorative stones in the Jordan. We, the spiritual Israel, also had to leave twelve stones—the twelve bodies of little children—of which the biblical stones were but prototypes."

Words of—what? Comfort? Why these prototypes? Why these stones, preceding the deaths of children, reflecting them in advance? Signs before things—shadows before essence—very well, but why these signs? Every child under the age of four died before the end of the trip.

Jacob Jantzen, who was a teenager at the time of the trek, recalls the thickening atmosphere of death. "The children became poorer and poorer and finally died," he records in his memoir, written years later in Oklahoma, when he was seventy-five years old. "Many a mother had to lay her dear little ones beneath the ground." Sometimes they traveled with corpses, hoping to find a town, to buy wood for a coffin. Sometimes they gave up and buried the bodies in sand. This was the case with the Kopper children, three little siblings who died within three days.

Lay your stones in the river. Three little children in three days, slipping away, chasing each other as in a game. They were buried together in the sand. Bartsch, the bereaved father, writes of them tenderly. "Surely the resurrection morning will find them there."

At last the Aral Sea. The famished horses, which had been gnawing the wagon shafts, tore up greenery, careless of how the harsh reeds cut their mouths. The Aral was a sea without banks, Jacob Jantzen remembers. "Where the water stopped the sand began."

Kaplan Bek

They moved into forested country, following the Syr Darya River. There were orchards now, and they found pheasants, deer, and berries in the woods. At Kaplan Bek, near Tashkent, they settled for the winter and were joined by two more wagon trains from Russia. Among the newcomers were three young people, all around fourteen years old, who would one day write memoirs: Hermann Jantzen, Jacob Klaassen, and Elizabeth Unruh. They remember the beautiful countryside and the snowy peaks of the Tien Shan mountains that "glistened," Hermann writes, "in a bluish haze." These young people have nothing to say about the end of the world. They remember how hard it was to get up on the cold mornings, mornings on the road when the soaked laundry froze into chunks of ice. They remember the stray dogs stealing meat right out of the camp. By the time he reached Kaplan Bek, Jacob Klaassen could count and swear in Kyrgyz. As for Elizabeth, her memoir concentrates on food, it's as if she's starving, she describes all the fruit: apples, pears, plums, cherries, peaches, apricots, strawberries, grapes, "some we knew no names for." There were dates, she writes, figs, olives, melons. "Oh, it was lovely here," she continues, "if only a severe sickness had not befallen us." That winter was so warm, tulips bloomed on the roofs. The unseasonable heat contributed to a typhoid epidemic. Nearly a fifth of the company died that year.

They died, or worked themselves to death. The men worked in the stone quarries. Instead of stopping work between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., as the local workers did, the Mennonites worked through the heat of the day. "The result of this mistake," writes Belk, "was that many strong young men contracted what the Russians call 'climate typhus.'" Due to the crowded conditions at Kaplan Bek, the travelers in the third and largest wagon train, including Elizabeth Unruh's family, had settled in Tashkent, but it was no better, mired in mud. The buildings leaked so badly, it was useless to set out pans to catch the water. Several homes collapsed altogether. When spring came, and the steppe turned green and blossomed with sedge lilies, the "climate typhus" among the Mennonites grew worse. "In a short time," writes Hermann Jantzen, "my Uncle Heinrich Jantzen had lost his two older sons, the very handsome Abram, 25, and Heinrich, age 21. What that meant to the stricken parents one cannot utter in words."

One cannot utter in words. One's mouth takes a different shape. One utters a cry. A howl.

One chooses other words, shadows instead of essence. One says: "Twelve stones in the Jordan." Claas Epp, Jr. writes to the community from Russia. He compares them to the "woman clothed with the sun" in Revelation 12.

You see. One does not utter in words. One changes direction. As Abram, 25, and Heinrich, 21, are laid to rest.


One thinks of others, of those who were saved: Jacob Jantzen who recovered from typhoid, or the men who survived bone-shattering accidents in the quarry. Elizabeth Unruh's mother was a bone-setter, and there was, in her family, a stone with healing properties called a Bloodstone. Sister Unruh healed a man who had been badly crushed in the quarry by rubbing the Bloodstone with vinegar and giving the patient the liquid to drink. "That made him vomit," Elizabeth explains, "and all the blood he had in his lungs was vomited up."

Safe. "He later moved to South Dakota and lived to a ripe old age there."

I am working from a worldly definition of "to save." It is not the definition used by the Bride Community, as they gathered at dusk each Sunday to share the evening meal, the "love feast." They were concerned not with shadows but with essence. Claas Epp, Jr. wrote to them of Samarkand. He believed that they should not stop where they were, but go on, that their true home was farther east, in a valley south of Samarkand called Shar-i-Sabs. "Valley of the Carrots," they thought it meant, but this is a mistranslation: Shakhrisabz means "Green Town." In his letters, Epp quoted Revelation 3:8: "Behold, I have set before thee an open door."

An open door, and no man can shut it.

Conflict rocked the community: they quarreled over leadership, over Epp's letters, over what to do. An atmosphere of bitterness and distrust. People drew together in groups, whispering, falling silent at the approach of a neighbor's footsteps. All this while the boys were riding to water the horses at the river, taking every opportunity for a race, exploring the forest, the meadows, the great shadow under an overhanging rock where shepherds sheltered from the storms. And the steppe, the glorious steppe. "A veritable flower-carpet far into the hills," writes Jacob Klaassen, "with every kind of flower imaginable, a splendor of colors that cannot be described." Still, they were not children, and they were encouraged to notice their elders' indecision and distress. It was at this time that one of their leaders, Johannes K. Penner, who was much loved by the young people, took Hermann Jantzen aside. "Every day," he told the boy, "you must go to a place alone, close your eyes, and pray: 'Lord, show me my own heart.'"


To stay, or to go? And where to go? They decided to press on to Shar-i-Sabs, but this meant crossing the border into Bukhara, and they were told the emir would not let them in. "It is impossible to describe," writes Franz Bartsch, "the days which followed this devastating report: days of vacillation, of intense inner struggle and prayer, not only in our meetings, but also in quiet places behind buildings. In the expanse of forest planted alongside Kaplan Bek one heard both muted voices in prayer and loud entreaties." He compares the scene to Revelation 12:2: "she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery." Voices in the wilderness, in the still places, in the forest, shaking the trees. "Lord, show me my own heart."

The Emir of Bukhara had told them the east was closed. Some of them listened. Others did not.

July 28, 1881. 99 degrees Fahrenheit. "Still," writes Fred Belk, "the train of 48 wagons carried 153 hymn-singing Mennonites resolutely forward along the dust-choked roads."

Unser Zug geht durch die Wüste. "Our Journey Leads Through the Desert." Their favorite hymn.

They entered the lunar landscape of the Hunger Steppe. "The name," writes Jacob Jantzen, "caused a feeling of horror to come over us." For fuel they used dry, shriveled branches of narthex asafeotida, which gave off a strong, oniony smell when lit. They encountered a terrible poisonous spider, the falange, its leg-span as wide as a man's hand, its body covered with dirty yellow hair. Later they found tortoises, and "cave salamanders" which, Bartsch says, "terrified our women with their screams." I have searched in vain for evidence of these screaming salamanders—I can only find references to those that hiss or squeak—but Elizabeth Unruh supports Bartsch, describing a salamander whose screams woke shepherds in the night, and which was "the size of a native cow."

An atmosphere of wonder and terror, as in the Book of Revelation. Behold a great red dragon.

And then the streams, rushing, violent. They hired skilled horsemen to help them cross. In the deafening roar, writes Bartsch, "Revelation 1:15 came to mind: 'And his voice was like the sound of many waters.'"

Elizabeth Unruh is less erudite, less eloquent perhaps, but her account has the same sense of weird, excessive experience, of the indescribable. "So many things happened on our journey, which I saw and heard, was witness to, that I cannot write all here for it would fill books."

At Dishak they ate their first Sart bread: large, flat rounds called sarcherni lapushai. At Samarkand they admired the tomb of Tamerlane. Courtyards, shade trees, cupolas, barrels on wheels that sprinkled the streets, irrigation canals gleaming in the sun. They stayed, writes Elizabeth Unruh, at a "palace." "One thing we girls were sorry about," she recalls wistfully, "the high walls surrounding the palace, where we stayed, we could not see out and no women dare go outside the wall."

One night they lit the lamps after supper, to hold communion. In an instant the air was filled with thousands of bats. They must have swept down from the rafters of the building, disturbed by the light. Elizabeth Unruh describes the ensuing panic: "Of course the lights were put out immediately, we were all quite stirred up, whether we had communion I do not remember."

The "palace" was in fact a former prison.


Sad comedy of the border. They spoke to Russian and Bukharan officials, received conflicting orders, crossed into Bukhara, were turned back, crossed again. As the weather turned colder, some brought their samovars into the wagons for warmth; one family lost consciousness from the fumes and had to be carried out. The Bukharan side of the border looked exactly like the Russian side: November. They begged to be allowed to stop somewhere for the winter. They held up faith like a lamp against the chilly bureaucracy of the modern nation-state and its arbitrary lines.

This is one way of looking at it. It's possible to see these travelers loading their wagons, weeping in the cold mud, turned away from Bukhara again, as part of the family of all those who are now termed "illegal people," the ones who languish in camps, who are outcast, detained, deported, shot. It is also possible to see them as simply stubborn, fanatical. All of my sources stress that they were repeatedly told not to enter Bukhara. "When I think of it now," writes Elizabeth Unruh, "how befogged a person's mind, even a Christian's, can get, when we do not want to listen to reason, but only think of ourselves."

At last they were sent to a valley on the Bukharan side, eight miles from the town of Serabulak. There they built a village called Ebenezer, the "stone of help," so called for the stone set up between Mizpah and Shen by the prophet Samuel, after the Lord had delivered Israel from the Philistines. There were mulberry trees in the valley, and food and other supplies were cheap. In a sentence that bears a chilling resemblance to her earlier one about Kaplan Bek, Elizabeth Unruh writes: "It really was prosperous country, if only the blackpox had not been."

"It wiped out nearly all the children. Although our youngest three had them, only my youngest brother died. Those that got well had so many pox marks on their bodies, their faces so scarred, they hardly looked like themselves."

How did they bear it? Death after death, and this seemingly boundless resilience. They built homes of sod, with wooden doors and glass windows. Elizabeth Unruh was strong enough to dig sod, and after working she hiked with her friends in the hills, for "even though we had some hair-raising experiences, we still wanted to see more of the country." In the gullies they encountered the salamander the size of a cow, and were followed by "a type of owl-like birds." "Me being the inquisitive one," Elizabeth writes, "I spotted their nest so I crawled up the cliff to see their young." The grown birds attacked the intruders; Elizabeth almost fell, and one of the hikers was struck by a bird's wing, "hurting her back, it got all blue." Terror and wonder. In the caves, "veins of gold and silver all a-glitter with all kinds of colored stones . . . like precious stones lying on the ground."

As for the boys, they watered the horses, rode them to market for supplies, and cheered the "devils-chase," in which mounted men fought to seize the carcass of a goat. "It was very amusing for us boys," Jacob Klaassen writes in a breathless rush, "standing on the roofs, watching the chase when the whole band would come pounding into the village and roar over donkeys loaded with bags, over bags of wheat, rice, and raisins, over tables of meat, grapes, apples, and baskets of apricots, and finally become thoroughly entangled in a ball, fighting one another with whips whistling over their heads making the dust fly from the hair, until someone would, at last, extricate himself without paying any attention to the shouts and curses of the sellers who sought to rescue as much of their wares as possible and who had the damage, but no amusement out of it all." They were learning the country, its time, the call to prayer, the days of fasting when men sat ready for nightfall with food laid out before them and pipes in their hands, the houses, the rugs, how to sit with your legs folded, the taste of camel meat, how to eat rice neatly and easily with one hand. Jacob Jantzen was invited to the home of a local boaster, almost a bully, the tallest man in the village. No, he thought, I won't go alone into that dark room. But in the end he went, and there was a little oil lamp burning, and soup, and silence. "I will never forget it," he wrote.

Here I raise my Ebenezer,
Hither by thy hope I'm come.
And I hope by thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home.

Thinking of these travelers, I recall the lines of the beloved hymn. They had come to Bukhara by hope, but in the end, they were not safe. They had settled in defiance of the emir, who sent his bek with a carmine tent, and smartly dressed soldiers the Mennonites called "the many-colored ones." The soldiers dammed the water supply. They tore down the sod houses. "The glass windows," writes Belk, "which Mennonite housewives had painstakingly wrapped in linen before their departure and which had been brought so carefully along on their journey, were first shattered by the troops." After they broke the windows, the many-colored ones tore off the roofs. Hermann Jantzen, who stood in their way, was bound and thrown onto a cart. "It was a tumult," writes Elizabeth Unruh. "Camel's cry, the children crying—So ended our Place of Peace."


Hermann Jantzen writes of his journey on the cart. In Bartsch's and Belk's accounts, this is a brutal moment; in Hermann's own words, it's stranger and more nuanced, in fact oddly brotherly. "We had hardly begun to travel when I became numb with cold. I begged the soldier who was with me to untie me. It was obvious that I could not escape in the deep snow. He ordered a halt, untied me, and allowed me to run beside the wagon until I was out of breath and of course also warm. Then he stretched out his hand and pulled me up onto his horse beside himself. He threw his long wide fur coat over my head, which covered me completely. I stuck my head out behind his neck so that I could get air, and on the warm horse, under the warm fur, I was not cold anymore."

Later Hermann describes this soldier as "my protector." Delivering the boy to the Aksakal, or head elder, of Serabulak, the soldier said: "This is the son of the Aksakal of the frontier-breakers." He requested that the elder take care of the boy, give him a warm bed, and watch him carefully, in a manner becoming to a Muslim.

The "frontier-breakers" stayed in Serabulak. Four families found shelter in a mosque: the Kyk Ota or Blue Grandfather Mosque, surrounded by elm and poplar trees. During their stay, they were granted leave to gather in the building on Sundays, for church.

In that mosque, Johannes K. Penner preached a vehement sermon against Claas Epp, Jr. and his prophecies. Some were so moved and disturbed by his words they went to pray in the wilderness. Hermann Jantzen spent the entire night outdoors in a valley: "I agonized in prayer until dawn." And later, in that same mosque, Epp himself preached to the community, having arrived at last, with the final wagon train from Russia, two years after the first. He read from the book of Daniel, from Isaiah, the Gospels, and Revelation.

Who was he—this man known as "the prophet"? How did he manage to achieve such power? In fact, only a minority of the travelers considered him their leader: the five wagon trains that set out on the Great Trek consisted of groups from different Mennonite colonies in Russia, temporarily united in their search for a place where they could live in peace. In the series of calamities that characterized the trek—the Kaplan Bek fever, the struggles with border officials, the destruction of Ebenezer—great swaths of the group peeled off, leaving for America, remaining in Tashkent, or settling at Aulie Ata in present-day Kazakhstan. Claas Epp didn't gain followers; he lost detractors. As the group dwindled, those who remained were the ones committed to his vision. His influence grew as other, perhaps even more popular leaders despaired, stayed behind, emigrated to America, or died.

Among these leaders, Epp was the visionary, the interpreter of signs, the poet. He wrote hymns as well as sermons. His book, The Unsealed Prophecy of the Prophet Daniel and the Meaning of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, is a blistering tract that occasionally erupts into verse. Printed in Russia in the 1870s at his own expense, the book was widely read and reprinted several times, and its tangled exegesis, cabalistic reckonings, and scalding rhetoric played a significant role in convincing some Mennonites their way led east. Apparently he's not a great writer: "Epp was not a learned man," his translators say; his German is often confused, his syntax hard to follow. But his images are vivid, frightening. "Already," he declares, "horrible lightning illuminates the abyss which shall swallow up everything." In the midst of his bewildering calculations, which somehow prove that Russia is the eagle in Revelation and Napoleon the Antichrist, he groans: "Ach, Lord." He seems overcome. He bursts into song: "Oh, let us quake before this day / Which like a snare appears." The Unsealed Prophecy reveals Epp's style: it gives a hint of the sermon he delivered at Serabulak, its weight, its tone. He had come, like the others, through deserts, trials, snow, and he was unshaken. His firmness held the others up.

He stayed with them for less than a week before he set off to meet with the Khan of Khiva.

Here, at last, was their open door: a friendly khan, and a promise of land on the Amu Darya river.

Not everyone would follow through that door. Among those who stayed behind was one of my historians, Franz Bartsch: he and his wife joined the ten families who dug in their heels at Ebenezer. Yes, though the buildings had been destroyed, they pitched their tents on the site. They were excommunicated by Epp for staying behind, and at last forced out by Bukharan soldiers. "While we were singing Psalm 23 and praying, the tent poles of our worship sanctuary fell away under attacks by the 'many colored ones.'" In the aftermath of the assault, a woman suffered a "hysterical seizure," crying out: "Turn back! But not to the mountains!" She spoke the names of the children who had died on the journey. She had seen them, she said, in celestial clarity. She had heard the angels sing.

Defeated, the stragglers rejoined the larger group, meeting them at Serabulak. But Bartsch would not go on to Khiva. For him, the trek was over. "And so I left—an apostate. Lightly? Let him judge who has discarded an ideal for which he lived and which he had loved because it had melted away under his feet like softened ice."

The end. As if, suddenly, after so much traveling, it had become impossible to move. I wonder at it. I wonder at the memoir of Franz Bartsch, the way he inserts a domestic scene into the chaos. He writes of a certain Sister Gräve, who, noticing something dark in her rising dough, put her hand into it and was stung by a scorpion. The sting caused "dreadful pain," he writes, but surely not more than the deaths of the children, surely not more than the ruin of Ebenezer. Yet he chooses to describe the scene in detail. This ordinary, daily moment. The swelling dough. And then the sudden sting.

Bartsch and his wife left for Tashkent alone. "We were childless again." They had lost a baby boy in Kaplan Bek, and another in Serabulak.

The Road to Khiva

On the narrow trail to Khiva, the men were forced to ride so close together their legs rubbed against the horses, making the blood flow. They crossed the foaming Zaravshan River and its tributaries several times, where the wagons sank to their boxes in quicksand and had to be hauled out. The cliffs above the streams were dangerous, too: Jacob Klaassen, walking behind his family's wagon, saw the vehicle topple over into a gully. "I cried out in horror, for the wagon carried everything dear to me on earth, my mother, brother, and sister. I was sure they were all killed." Somehow, though, the horses kept their footing, hurtling down the slope to arrive at the bottom with all the passengers unhurt, and the gully proved wide enough for them to avoid the water—a miracle, Jacob writes. "Only my overcoat was lost."

Miracles, and loss. At the edge of the desert, a young girl died. They mourned for two days, then took the wagons apart and loaded them onto camels. Aided by Kyrgyz and Turkoman drivers, they made boxes out of bedframes and secured them to the camels so that the women and children could ride.

The howdah, covered with linen to shield the riders from the dust. An image familiar to me from classical Arabic poetry. Imru' al-Qays leaping into the howdah with a woman, and the erotic rocking over the desert sand. In his great poem, the Mu'allaqa, he conjures a scene of richness: he remembers women gathering around a freshly slaughtered camel, the meat so abundant they tossed it about in play. The marbled fat, he says, was like the fringes of a shawl. And now these Mennonites enter, dogged, tenacious, spurred by faith, with a certain spirit that's hard to define: a blunt practicality not without humor. Here's Belk on the Mennonite howdah: "Johann Jantzen loaded food supplies and a goat on one side and his wife and three children on the other and achieved perfect balance."

Swaying over the sand. Elizabeth Unruh: "We went real slow, what a train! What a sight!"

But the road, she remembers, was "near unbearable": their conveyances "swayed, jarred, shook and cracked. We had only gone a few days when many got sick from all that shaking. Axles and tongues broke, daily a repair job." She recalls how hard it was to stay in her seat as the camel rose: her fingers got pinched, and her head crashed against the frame "so that I nearly lost my hearing and seeing. Yes, we had troubles without end."

Amidst all the troubles, the irrepressible eagerness of this young girl. "I was so interested in everything, some had their curtains closed; but I always had mine open, so I could see all there was to see." She would have seen ruins in the desert, and dunes nearly two hundred feet high. All in a pale and ghostly light, for the travelers journeyed by night to avoid the heat. "I had rather seen the desert in the day," Jacob Jantzen writes, "but the moon was shining." And there was, as well, the Great Comet of 1882, fair as manna, so brilliant the travelers could read by its light.

They stopped to rebuild the wagons on the far side of the desert. Soon the horses smelled water and raised their heads. This was the scent of the Amu Darya, which watered the orchards of Khiva. The Mennonites reached it at the beginning of autumn.

At the village of Ildshik, they rented the long, shallow boats called kujaks, and went on by water. Some slept on the boats, others in the forest on the shore. Those in the forest kept fires going all night against tigers and leopards and the jackals which, Elizabeth writes, "cried like little children."

A child was born on the river. "Just how this could all be in such crowded boats, I do not know; but he grew up and later lived, married in Nebraska, USA."

She places a comment about women in parentheses. "(How my tiny frail mother, or any of the women could endure that long, hard journey.)"


In Khiva, the Mennonites first settled at Lausan. The location did not impress Elizabeth Unruh: "But—oh, my! What a place!" she writes. "No trees, no grass, only some small brush with thorns . . . We had come out of the land of plenty, into a desert."

Thorny country. Wild animals lived here—hyenas, wild pigs, peacocks, "jackals by the hundreds." The dirt was rust-colored and full of tough licorice roots. Elizabeth, now seventeen years old, helped make bricks and dig cellars and wells. The Mennonites built a water wheel and planted potatoes and corn. "Yes, all these hardships that we had to go through and all for nothing," Elizabeth writes. It seems impossible, after everything the community had already endured, but Lausan, bleak Lausan of the red soil, was to be the scene of some of their worst trials. Lausan, where they whittled Christmas trees and painted them green, as there were no pines or spruce. Lausan, where half their homes flooded the first year. They moved to higher ground. And after the floods, like a series of biblical plagues, came the grasshoppers, the wild hogs, and the thieves.

Grasshoppers "like a dark thundercloud." They were nearly as big as sparrows. Why, why? Elizabeth runs with the others, banging two pans together. She runs in the corn, in the peas and barley, shouting and choking on the smoke that rolls over the fields, for noise and smoke are the farmers' only defense. These are agricultural people; their pride is in their farms. At Kaplan Bek, it humiliated the men to work in a quarry. (And who knows, perhaps that's why they worked so hard there, pushing themselves toward death.) Now they have land at last, and this cloud rushes over them. Why?

No reason. Or, I might say, an abstract reason, something to do with feeding patterns, with weather: a natural event, without malice. I realize this view depends on a world that is, in a certain way, dead. A world of shadows without essence.

"The next morning early before sunrise," Elizabeth Unruh writes, "father went to see—not one green leaf was left, they had eaten all, right into the ground, the gardens were black. And at the edge of the small ditches, the grasshoppers sat in large clumps."

In clumps. And they burned them. They burned everything. They started over.

Over. And over. The green plants grew. And the wild hogs came and devoured them. They were creatures of preternatural intelligence, their solid bodies melting into the night, their movements absolutely soundless. Jacob Jantzen, determined to stop them, sat up with a friend all night, guarding a melon field, ready to attack the hogs with a dung fork. The boys never closed their eyes, but in the morning the field was trampled, the melons gone. "Again, as often before, a little more hope and joy was buried."

They plowed and planted again. What else could they do? They started over.

The relentlessness of spring. It comes every year.

Let us recall the reason behind these struggles. The choice of Central Asia, it's true, is based on prophetic visions, but the original reason for leaving Russia is peace. Peace: the refusal of violence, even in self-defense, the refusal to enable the violence of others. In this shining absolutism lies the great honor and dignity of Anabaptist life. This is their gift to the world, and it is the reason the world needs them: these travelers are not just a quaint German-speaking cult, but the stewards of a precious ethics. Back in Russia, they refused the option of forestry as a replacement for military service, because Russian foresters would become soldiers in their place.

So exacting. Fanatical, one might say. Or one might say: exemplary. Moral.

But now this moral certitude is given another test. Thieves come at night. They steal the horses. When no one attempts to stop them, they come again, and in greater numbers. They steal in the middle of the day. The cherished horses, bought with money from the farms that were sold in Russia—the thieves take them. They walk into homes. They steal clothing, utensils, whatever they like. Who, they wonder, are these strange folk who stand so still while their possessions are taken away? The Mennonite farmers look at the ground, they don't raise a hand.

Fifty horses are stolen. Thirty cows. It's unbearable. The victims' submission seems to fill the thieves with cruelty. At night they shoot the windows and break them, they scream for the families to come outside. They search the houses for money, then cut up the bedding and smash the clocks. They break the chairs and tables and set them on fire. They strike the crowd with their bayonets. "One woman was hit so bad on her back that she could not walk," writes Elizabeth Unruh. "My mother often had to set bones and massage their muscles. One old man they chopped off half his one ear, another they cracked his skull."

Through all this—no attempt to defend themselves? Not once? Were they so steadfast?

No. The younger men could not endure it. A few of the older men gave in, too. They faced the thieves with homemade swords. One of these was Hermann Jantzen.

The pain of sin. Of betraying oneself, God, and the tribe. So much fear, rage, and shame.

"During such times," writes Jantzen, "the older men were on their knees with Ohm Epp in prayer. When I came home in the morning, somewhat wounded, I would have to listen to Father's reprimand."

And still it went on, to the point of death. One day some men in the town joked with Heinrich Abrams that they would like to buy his wife. That night, intruders broke into the young couple's home. They shot Abrams dead and stabbed the body. Hearing the noise, Elizabeth Abrams escaped through a window. She took refuge in a neighbor's house, where she hid underneath the bed. She was pregnant. She must have known, from the sounds, that her child's father was dead. According to Belk's account, she was almost too terrified to speak, and could only whisper: "Be quiet! They are coming."

It was the end of Lausan. The Khan of Khiva, hearing of the Mennonites' troubles, offered them a more secure settlement, a "big garden" surrounded by walls. Many refused to go, deciding that they were through with Claas Epp, Jr. and with the east; they would move westward instead, to America. Among these were the families of Jacob Jantzen, Jacob Klaassen, and Elizabeth Unruh. A cruel separation, marked by bitterness and grief. "Especially our beloved mother," writes Jacob Klaassen, "who had been through so much hardship in the last two years in addition to the death of her husband and sister, found the parting very difficult." It was hard to bid farewell to those with whom they had suffered so much, harder to see old friends turn against them for abandoning the true way. "But now," writes Elizabeth Unruh, "they called us, that wanted to migrate to America, 'Outcasts.' How harsh they were towards us."

Of my historians, only Hermann Jantzen remained. He was one of those who helped dismantle the Lausan settlement, taking the logs, the door frames, and the unbroken windows from the houses, loading them onto the wagons, and setting out.


The mother of Heinrich Abrams, the man killed by the thieves, had already left the community, and was living at the Mennonite settlement in Aulie Ata. Before she died, she cried out: "Heinrich, come now!" Her last words. Her son had been killed two hours earlier in Lausan.

Ak Metchet

Thirty-nine families moved to the khan's "big garden." They built their houses in a square inside the wall. In the center they placed the school, the teacher's house, and the church, scrubbed with whitewash, which gave the settlement its name. Ak Metchet: The White Mosque.

There was not much farmland. The men found work as carpenters for the khan, the women as seamstresses and crafters of decorative boxes. They grew vegetables, melons, and rice, and harvested fruit from their peach and apricot trees. Every three days, they went to the local bazaar to sell butter and fruit. Perhaps it was painful to give up farming again, but it would not be for long. They expected Christ to return in 1889. They built extra homes for the refugees who would surely come streaming out of the west, fleeing the flames and terror of the last days.

Claas Epp, Jr. excommunicated one of his ministers, Jonas Quiring, referring to him as the dragon in Revelation.

He declared Christmas and other holidays unbiblical. In 1886, he took a trip west—with the prophet Elijah, he said—to confront the Antichrist.

In 1889, the Ak Metchet community fasted and prayed, dressed in white, waiting for their Bridegroom, but Christ did not return for them. At once Epp blamed the position of his clock: the clock leaned, so that its hands, which ought to have pointed to nine and one, appeared to be pointing to eight and nine instead. Eight and nine, nine and one: 1889, 1891. This second date, he announced, was the true one. Many deserted him, including his own son, who sailed for America, but others stayed for a second disappointment two years later. Such passionate faith, dauntless. Such desire. After his prophecies failed, Epp began to call himself a biblical "prince." He opened his statements to the community with "Thus saith the Lord." He declared himself the Son of Christ, fourth member of the Quadruple Godhead: from now on, baptisms would be made in the name of the Father, Sons, and Holy Ghost. He signed his letters "Elijah of the New Testament, Melchizedek of the New Earth, formerly Claas Epp." How much can a person take? "Father had sold his three farms," writes a furious Hermann Jantzen, "and sacrificed it all to this 'Irrsinn' or heresy."

It was too much. In 1900, Claas Epp, Jr. was forbidden to preach. He continued to hold Sunday afternoon service in his home, addressing a handful of loyal families. He was often seen sitting outside in a white robe, staring at a chicken coop. He died on the couch in his meeting room on January 6, 1913, shortly after the death of his wife Elizabeth.

"We can say with Ezekiel," writes Franz Bartsch, remembering the Bride Community, "'The wall is no more, nor those who daubed it.'"

The historians were scattered. After leaving the trek, Bartsch sold bibles for a missionary society in Tashkent. Eventually, he returned to Russia. Hermann Jantzen became Chief Forester of Aulie Ata, and then a missionary in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Dressed like a Kyrgyz, speaking fluent Uzbek, he was told: "In spite of your blue eyes, you must be a Tartar." He was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks as a counterrevolutionary, emigrated to Germany on his release, and died in the Netherlands. The others went to America, where there were prairies as far as the eye could see, farms, churches, families, and long lives. Jacob Klaassen and Elizabeth Unruh started out in Nebraska; by the end of their lives, both had settled in Saskatchewan. Jacob Jantzen, too, began in Nebraska, but then bought a homestead in Oklahoma, a broad and dusty region, in fact a kind of steppe, a place of extreme temperatures in the middle of a continent, where the Indians with their tents reminded him of the nomads of Turkestan, and where, as an old man, he decided at last to write his memoirs, beginning: "As I sit here in my little house I often feel lonely."

In 1935, the Soviet government informed the Ak Metchet community that they would be exiled to Siberia for refusing collectivization. In the end, however, they were only moved a hundred miles south, to a barren stretch of steppe where they were expected to starve. Several survived, against the odds. But it was the end of the Bride Community. Strangely—oh, so strangely!—the site of the group's dissolution, the final stage of their journey, was the place Claas Epp, Jr. had originally designated as their refuge in his prophecies: the valley of Shakhrisabz.

About the Author

Sofia Samatar

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, the short story collection, Tender, and most recently Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. Her works have received several awards, including the World Fantasy Award. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she teaches literature at James Madison University.