The graveyards are scattered throughout Kyrgyzstan’s countryside, flanking mountains and standing sentry on deserted plateaus. Tombs built like giant bird cages and mausoleums topped with delicate stars and crescents appear like mirages against the jagged landscape. It’s a spectacular sight, but few are there to witness it: it is not Kyrgyz tradition to visit cemeteries. In 2006, photographer Margaret Morton became fascinated with the earth-colored structures, which blend Islamic architecture with nomadic and Soviet influences. Over three summers in Kyrgyzstan, she traveled to more and more remote places to uncover their stories. Her book, “Cities of the Dead,” was published in November. We met her at the Cooper Union in New York, where she works as an art professor.
Roads & Kingdoms: Was this your first time to Kyrgyzstan?
Margaret Morton: Yes, and it wasn’t a country I would ever have thought to go to. The director from La Mama theater company had applied for a grant to do a research project on a Kyrgyz epic about a female warrior. She was planning to turn it into a play here in New York. As part of the research aspect of the trip, she asked me if I’d like to go to Kyrgyzstan and be the photographer on this project. It sounded really intriguing and I was up for an adventure so I said yes. I didn’t even know what she was talking about really in terms of how to spell it and where it was exactly on a map. Four months later, she called me and said: we got the grant. It was a real spontaneous trip. For six weeks, we traveled all over the country with a local theater group. As I was photographing the sites of this Kyrgyz epic, I started seeing these cemeteries and asking to stop the car. I did that as much as I could get away with, but I realized that I needed more time devoted just to the cemeteries. The night before we were to fly back, I asked if she could change my airline ticket. One of the Kyrgyz actors, who’s actually the stage manager, said I could come live with her aunt and her, so I moved into this household of women all cramped into this tiny Soviet-era apartment block. I hired a Ukrainian driver because he wasn’t hesitant about going near the cemeteries—the Kyrgyz are very superstitious, they don’t visit them. After four weeks, I came back and applied for my own grant, which supported me for two more years.