Uzbekistan – The Silk Road



From March 5 through 14 I traveled through Uzbekistan with my wife and youngest son. We spent 9 days discovering the treasures of the ancient Silk Route and the remnants of the empire Tamerlane (Amir Timur) built in the 14the and early 15th century. Our first stop was Tashkent the capital of Uzbekistan. Overall we had a great holiday thanks the excellent organization by the tour company we used, Novotours. We ended up having great guides in each city we visited, our hotels were located in the center of the tourist sites and we enjoyed traveling the country in a comfortable car with a local driver. This post does not have the ambition to be an extensive review of the various sites in Uzbekistan. It merely is an opportunity to share some of the sights that most impressed us.


Monument commemorating the earthquake  (click to enlarge)There is not much “historic” left in Tashkent as the city was rebuilt after a devastating 7.5 earthquake in the early morning of April 26, 1966.


Diplomat Alexandrovich Polovtsev's residence (click to enlarge)The Museum of Applied Arts is well worth a visit as it has a nice collection of exhibits introducing visitors to the Uzbek culture. The setting is beautiful as it is housed in the residence built by the Tsarist diplomat Alexandrovich Polovtsev who had it built with master craftsmen from Bukhara, Samarkand, and other cities in Uzbekistan.


Khast Imam Square (click to enlarge)A must in Tashkent, from a historic perspective is a visit to the Khast-Imam Square with its 16th century Barak Khan Madrassah. Most Importantly opposite the madrassah is the Tellya Sheikh Mosque which contains the huge Osman Koran, supposedly the oldest in the world and reputedly carrying the blood stains of Caliph Osman who was murdered in 655 while he was reading the book.


Chorsu bazaar (click to enlarge)A visit to Tashkent would however not be complete without a visit to the huge Chorsu bazaar. Here you find fresh fruits and vegetables, dried foods and nuts, bread, meat and shashlik, herbs and spices in all colors and smells, fabric, clothing, shoes, etc. And today of course all the latest imports of cheap Chinese manufactured products. It’s always bustling with activity and it’s a perfect place to practice haggling for a better price.

Khiva

Khiva is a little jewel, a time capsule. This oasis town was a very important watering stop on the Silk Road. It was the capital of the Khorezm region for a very long time. It proved to be a real challenge for the tsarist Russians to subjugate this part of Central Asia to the authority from St Petersburg. May attempts failed. The charm of Khiva lies in its excellent preservation allowing the visitor to sense its nostalgic part. Yet in spite of its appeal to long gone travelers and adventurers due to the challenge to reach it in the middle of the desert, there was nothing romantic to the rule of this place. In addition to being a watering stop for caravans it used to be an important slave trading market where Turkmens would offer their “goods”, often captured ethnic Russians. Today it deservedly holds UNESCO World Heritage status and any visit to Uzbekistan and to the Silk Route would be incomplete without a stop in Khiva.


High walls providing protection against invaders and brigands alike (click to enlarge)The Itchan Kala or old town is surrounded by a 10 meter high mud brick wall which has remained mostly intact. As a visitor one does get the sense it must have been a mighty sight when coming out of the desert and it has proven to provide resistance to any invaders for the longest time. Khiva surrendered to Tsarist Russia only in 1873.


The Kalta Minor and Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah (click to enlarge)When entering the Ichan Qala through the Ota Darvoza west gate, the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah with its unfinished Kalta Minor minaret is an impressive sight. The minaret was commissioned in 1852 to stand at over 70 meters but it remains unfinished at a mere 26 meters. Is it because the patron khan died before it was finished or as the story goes because the architect had agreed to built an even larger one in Bukhara and was thrown off the tower for his treachery?


Kokhna Ark or Old Fortress (click to enlarge)The Kukhna Ark or Old Fortress was the main residence and seat for the ruling khans for the longest time. It also has a platform above the city walls bastion that offers the highest elevation and some great views of the city. The Ark contains the throne room, a mosque, the harem, the visitors quarters. A lot of these spaces have walls decorated with beautiful blue tile work.


Friday Mosque (click to enlarge)The Friday or Juma Mosque in the center of the town exudes peace and silence. It is large supported by 213 beautifully pillars, each about 3.15m apart. The oldest pillars date to the 10th century.


Islam Khodja Madrassah and Minaret (click to enlarge)One of the last additions to the town is the Islam Khodja Madrassah and Minaret. It was commissioned by the Khan’s Grand Vizier at the beginning of the 20th century. Bothe the Grand Vizier and the architect got murdered and never lived to enjoy the beauty of the monument. The minaret tower stands at 45 meters, second only to the Kalon in Bukhara. It’s quite a challenge to climb the narrow and dark staircase to the top. Yet the breathtaking views from the top are an appropriate reward.


Prayers for the wedding couple (click to enlarge)The Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum is a favorite with local wedding couples who on weekends tour the Itchan Qala in processions and stop at the Mausoleum to offer prayers. The blue tile decorations in multiple shades inside the mausoleum are a feast for the eyes.

Bukhara

Bukhara has a long history with Persian origins before Alexander the Great took it in 329 BC. It also suffered from the Mongol invasion. It’s heydays came in the 19th Century when it was thrown into the Anglo-Russian rivalries and had its most famous emir Nasrullah, “the Butcher”, who had British officers beheaded as well as his wife and daughters on his deathbed.


Ark Fortress (click to enlarge)The Ark Fortress was for centuries the home to the ruling khans. It suffered many times devastation from invasions to be rebuilt again and again. The current structure dating to the 16th century. Not much of it is left after it suffered from a fire in 1920. But it remains an ever imposing building and one can imagine the brutal emir Nasrullah responsible for the savage death of so many ruling from here.


The Ismael Samani Mausoleum (click to enlarge)The Ismael Samani Mausoleum is the oldest original building in Bukhara. It’s a very well preserved structure that reveals a refined art of brick work. It’s a perfect cube shape reminiscent of the kaaba in Mecca. The brickwork has a lot of complex patterns and Cleary has a subdued beauty to it not requiring any ceramic color tiling to show its magnificence. It serves as the mausoleum for Ismael the founder of the 9th and 10th century Samanid dynasty.


The Poi Kalon ensemble (click to enlarge)The Poi Kalon ensemble is one of the highlights of Bukhara with its Kalon Minaret and Mosque to the right and the Mir-I-Arab Madrassah to the left. The highlight is the 48 meter high minaret built in 1127 with foundations 13 meter deep. it served for the call to prayer but in addition it would also be used to throw criminals off to a certain death below. Genghis Khan was so impressed with its towering height he spared it from destruction.


Kalon Mosque or Friday (Juma) Mosque (click to enlarge)The Friday mosque was built to house over 10’000 people for prayer. It has a beautiful blue dome, Kok Gumbaz, over the mihrab niche. Genghis Khan after using it to fed his horses in had it burned and razed to the ground like the rest of the city.


KMir-i-Arab Madrassah (click to enlarge)Opposite the Kalon Mosque is the Mir-i-Arab Madrassah, for centuries one of the most prestigious education centers. Still today the madrassah functions as a religious educational institution. Over a 100 students learn Arabic, theology and the Koran over a 4 year course.


Ulug Beg and Abdul Aziz Madrassahs (click to enlarge)The Ulug Beg Madrassah (1417) and the Abdul Aziz Madrassah (1652) face each other. The former hastily restored to celebrate Ulug Beg’s 600th anniversary in 1994 while the latter remains unrestored hinting inside and outside at its former glory.


Carpet Shop (click to enlarge)Still today the bazaars and various handicraft shops selling carpets, suzanis, paintings and metal works hint at the glorious past. Bukhara’s history on the silk road can be traced to its strong heritage as a trading center and home to many crafts traditions. Then as now customers and traders would have lengthy discussions to settle on an agreeable price.


Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah (click to enlarge)The Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah forms an integral part of the Lyab-i-Hauz ensemble centered around the 1620’s hauz or pool fed by the Royal Canal (Shah Rud) and which was at the time the largest reservoir. The Madrassah dates from 1630, yet was initially designed and built as a caravanserai by the Grand Vizier Nadir Divanbegi. It was hastily converted to a Madrassah when the Khan passing the building commented on it as a madrassah and he could not be told he was wrong.


The Kukeldash Madrassah (click to enlarge)The Kukeldash Madrassah (1568) to the north of the Lyab-i-Hauz is reputedly the largest madrassah in Central Asia.


Chor Minor madrassah (click to enlarge)The Chor Minor is the entrance gate to a Madrassah built in the beginning of the 19th century by a rich merchant. The four minaret like towers are topped by domes with different ceramic tile work patterns to reflect his four wives.


Emir's Summer Palace (click to enlarge)The Emir’s Summer Palace just outside the city was built by Russians for the last emir as a blend between Central Asian and Russian cultures in which he was educated. In the gardens are a guest house for visitors and the harem building adjacent to a hauz (reservoir).

Sarmishsay

Sarmishay typically does not feature on the traditional Uzbekistan Silk Route tours. Yet it is not less deserving. The Sarmysh Gorge offers a rich variety of ancient Central Asia rock art. Around 4’000 petroglyhps have been identified mostly dating from the Bronze Age (3000 – 900 BC). There are some that are even older. It is listed on the Tentative UNESCO World Heritage list and would in my opinion deserve to be listed on the fully list. The location is about 30km north of the city Navoi. The site however lacks any infrastructure and protection and “new” copy petroglyphs can be found mixed with the old ones, probably from children who spent their summer holidays at a nearby children summer camp.

Dancers (click to enlarge)One of the more interesting depictions is that of two people dancing with delicate bended limb features and faces turned to each other. At least our interpretation is that they were dancing. We have no idea however what the “artist” was trying to communicate.


The 'cosmonaut' (click to enlarge)One drawing in particular seems to have been a prediction of future cosmonauts with its big round head. On the other hand if these artists were merely rendering what they say one could almost propose they must have seen some men from outer space 😉


Bulls (click to enlarge)The majority of drawings is however about bulls, lots of bulls besides deer, goats, horses and human figures. The latter mostly well-endowed men indicating the importance of fertility in these very early cultures.

Shahrisabz

Shahrisabz, or Green Town, the birthplace of Amir Timur, Tamerlane, was originally called Kesh. While Samarkand would become the capital of his empire, he spared no effort to turn Shahrisabz into a beautiful city. It was mostly destroyed in the 16th century by the emir of Bukhara, Abdullah Khan II. It is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.


Ak-Saray Palace (click to enlarge)The remnants of the entrance to the Ak-Saray (White) Palace leave little to the imagination of what must have been a grand entrance to an immense palace. The 40 meter high portal arch was flanked by two 65 meter towers. leading into a 100 meter wide courtyard. Today only 38 meter high towers are left standing.


The Khazrati Imam Complex with Tamerlane's tomb stone(click to enlarge)The Khazrati Imam complex houses the Dorus Siadad Mausoleum built by Amir Timur for his oldest and favorite son Jahangir who died young at 22. It also contains a crypt for Tamerlane himself although he was never buried there but in Samarkand instead.


Dorut Tilovat Madrassah and Kok Gumbaz Mosque (click to enlarge)The Kok Gumbaz or blue domed mosque was built by Ulug Beg, grandson of Amir Timur, in honor of his father Shakhrukh, as a Friday (Juma) mosque and part of the Dorut Tilovat Maddrassah complex. It also houses two small mausoleums.

Samarkand

Samarkand is the best place the end a tour of the Silk Route sights. It is a ‘grand finale’ of architectural beauty is conceived by the Timurids to make their capital unequalled in the then known world. They pretty much succeeded! It has a long history dating back to the 5th century BC when it was a fortified walled city. It exceeded Alexander the Great’s expectations when he took it in 329BC. At the turn of the 12th to the 13tth century AD it boasted a population of up to 400’000, about 7 to 8 times the populations of the European capitals at that time. Like many of the big cities of its time it also suffered the wrath of Genghis Khan. but its height came when Amir Timur established it as his capital. Without a doubt it rightfully owns a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list.


Registan Square (click to enlarge)The Registan square is one of the most beautiful sites to behold in Central Asia. An architectural marvel with an overload of colors, blues, tiles and designs. I visited it four times and could not get tired of it. It consists of three madrassahs. To the left is Ulug Beg’s Madrassah, the oldest of the three. In addition on the square Ulug Beg had a khanagha (hostel) but opposite his Madrassah and between the two a caravanserai. The Registan fell into disrepair over the centuries until the Soviets started restoring it with the Uzbeks completing it to its former glory in the 1990’s.


The Ulug Beg Madrassah (click to enlarge)The Ulug Beg Madrassah is a legacy to a great academic. Ulug Beg’s reputed to have taught the 100 students in his madrassah himself. The students lived on two levels of dormitory cells. The tile work on the portal and the minarets is exquisite and radiate under the deep blue Samarkand sky.


The Shir Dor Maddrassah (click to enlarge)The Shir Dor Madrassah opposite Ulug Beg’s was build on the khanagha Ulug Beg had built. The facade has similar dimensions. The key difference is in the floral patterns and animal depictions which are absent from Ulug Beg’s madrassah. This is quite surprising as figurative art was forbidden in Islam. It lacks a mosque and has side entrances indicating that it may have been intended as a caravanserai just like Nadir Divanbegi’s madrassah in Bukhara.


The Tillya-Kari Maddrassah (click to enlarge)The Tillya-Kari Madrassah built between the two others was constructed on the site of the caravanserai by the Uzbek governor Yalangtush. It contains a domed mosque and the decoration is full of colorful floral patterns.


Bibi Khanum Mosque (click to enlarge)The Bibi Khanum Mosque named after Tamerlane’s favorite Chinese wife was supposed to be the biggest mosque in the Islamic world. The marble clad inner court was 109 by 167 meters. The gallery fringing it had 400 cupolas supported by 400 marble columns some remnants of which can still be seen. The decoration was without equal with glazed mosaic, gilding, carved marble, etc. Yet it was built in such haste that it rapidly fell in disrepair.


Shah-i-Zinda (click to enlarge)The Shah-i-Zinda is a magnificent collection of small mausoleums commemorating Timurid descendants, family members and favorites. It also houses the mausoleum, the oldest there, of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed and who is said to have brought Islam to the region. All mausoleums are covered in the finest majolica tile work of deep blues.


Gur Emir mausoleum (click to enlarge)The Gur Emir Mausoleum houses the crypts of Amir Timur, Ulug Beg, Tamerlane’s favorite grand son Mohammed Sultan and others. It was fronted by a madrassah of which only the portal remains. It’s topped by a beautiful sky-blue ribbed dome. Inside the dome and walls are overflowing of intricate gilded designs. Tamerlane’s tombstone is a recognizable 1.8 meter dark green jade slab, once the largest piece of jade ever.


The sextant of Ulug Beg's observatory (click to enlarge)Ulug Beg built a large 3 story observatory with inside an almost 50 meter curved sextant of which 11 meter remain today. Ulug Beg measured the length of a year to within 60 seconds from what we consider today the length of a year. The building and instruments were destroyed shortly after Ulug Beg was beheaded just outside Samarkand on a pilgrimage to Mecca and with the approval of his son Abdulatif.


Afrosiab fortification (click to enlarge)Afrosiab, the 300 acre citadel is based on the original site of the founding of Samarkand in the 6th century BC. Not much is left except some of the defensive ramparts to testify of its former glory. The site now houses a museum detailing the layers of history of the Afrosiab. One of the highlights is a room showing colorful 7th century frescos from the walls of the royal palace.

Khodja Ismail

Khodja Ismail is the small village which boasts the mausoleum for Imam al-Bukhari. He was born in 810 in Bukhara. At 16 he went for Hajj to Mecca and from there started a 16 year journey to collect the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Mohamed, the 2nd most important book to Islam after the Koran). He created a 97 book masterpiece with thousands of hadith collected from many people. He died in exile in this town after he had refused to provide special tutoring to the sons for the emir of Bukhara.


Imam al-Bukhari mausoleum. (click to enlarge)The mausoleum undergoes on-going renovation and is a busy attraction for pilgrimage.




Last Updated: 22-03-2010



Copyright © 2012 Hans Dewaele – All rights reserved











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2 Comments to “Uzbekistan – The Silk Road”

  1. By American Muslim, December 18, 2013 @ 10:20 pm

    AWESOME!! ma sha Allah

  2. By Ol Rappaport, October 18, 2015 @ 1:25 pm

    I’m travelling out to Uzbekistan next month and have be searching the web for information. This is a superb thumbnail sketch/overview of a fascinating region. Thank you!

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