Uzbekistan’s prime tourist attractions are the ancient Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. All three grew rich on the back of the trade that passed through Central Asia: gold, saffron, cucumbers, pomegranates, peaches and wine passing from west to east, while ceramics, cinnamon, rhubarb and bronze, as well as silk and the secrets of paper making, printing and gunpowder travelled from China to the West. Indeed, it was the cultural as well as mercantile exchange which made the Silk Road so remarkable – with Buddhism, for example, taking route in Central Asia, China and Tibet as it withered in India, while the ancient art of Central Asia is a fascinating mix of Indian, Persian, Chinese, Arabic and even Greek influences.
In reality, there was never a single, static Silk Road but rather a network of routes that evolved and shifted depending on the season, political considerations, and regional differences in rates of tax, piracy or both. Yet sited around oases at crucial crossroads of the various routes, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva all became mainstays on the various trading routes that passed through the inhospitable deserts of Central Asia.
Samarkand, the most spectacular of the Silk Road cities, is as old as Rome with urban settlements dating back to at least the 6th Century BC, and a history of human habitation going back up to 40,000 years. Until the 16th Century it remained Central Asia’s leading city in terms of population, commerce and culture, with its heyday during the 14th and 15th Centuries during the rule of Timur and his immediate successors. Proclaiming himself Conqueror of the World (though known more commonly known in the West as Tamerlane), Timur led his soldiers as far afield as Delhi and Moscow, plundering Syria, Persia, Asia Minor and Russia in the process, the greatest extent of territory ever conquered by a single leader.
From the areas he conquered Timur carried back to Samarkand not just wealth but also the finest thinkers and craftsmen to create his imperial capital. While just a handful of these buildings remain, they dominate the city with their scale and beauty, their huge vivid turquoise domes standing out against the usually bright blue skies.
At the heart of the city is the Registan, three enormous medrassahs (religious schools) set around a large open courtyard, described by George Curzon, Viceroy of India as the “noblest public square in the world.” It is the combination of the vast scale of these buildings – the portals of the two facing medrassahs are each over 35 metres high – and the delicacy of the tiling and mosaic work that is so breathtaking. The bulk of the structures are the colour of the desert sand, with the walls and minarets decorated with tessellating patterns and inscriptions from the Koran picked out in deep blue, turquoise and green, while the portals are a seething mass of geometric designs, and swirling, floral patterns. And while you might expect so many competing and conflicting patterns to clash, the simplicity of the structure and the limited palette brings instead a beautiful coherence to the buildings, with the endless patterns continually absorbing. We stayed just around the corner from the Registan, and found it wonderful to be greeted by the domes of the Registan every time we emerged from our guesthouse and to see these majestic old buildings at various times of the day and in different lights.
Interestingly, on the facade of one of the portals, two tigers are clearly depicted and above them human faces looking out over the square from behind two rising suns. Although this was the most dramatic example, we were to see similar breaches of the Islamic rule against figurative art on several other religious buildings in Uzbekistan – a sign of the multiple influences on architecture in the region, and the way that only elements of Islam were ever adopted.
Elsewhere in Samarkand, Timur’s own mausoleum and the Bibi-Khanym Mosque he built to be the largest in the world are both stunningly beautiful, and like the Registan are decorated with intricate mosaics and tiling and topped by soaring turquoise domes. The mosque, which is still the largest in Central Asia, with a court once fringed by over 400 cupolas and marble columns has been beautifully restored externally but left untouched inside, giving an insight into how all these buildings would have looked before restoration, with broken lattice windows, cracks developing in the brickwork and only some tiling remaining.
A short walk from the other monuments, the Shah-i-Zinda is a collection of mausoleums dating from the 14th and 15th Centuries. With each monument smaller and more intimate than the grand central buildings it was possible to see the detail of the tiling and frescos much more clearly. . Although at times the mixture of styles was overwhelming, the views along the “avenue” of mausoleums were stunning.
In the last few years the city has undergone large scale restoration and even reconstruction. As always we were torn over the merits of such dramatic rebuilding, though it was fabulous to see the grand buildings looking like they might in their heyday. Unlike many of the historic sites we’ve visited on this trip it was also wonderful that the streets around them have been pedestrianised so we could enjoy them without dodging traffic, making the city an incredibly relaxing and easy place to spend time. Yet the decision to build high walls around the monuments and the older, residential areas of town, segregating local people from their history and from tourists, felt sad and utterly unnecessary.
On several occasions we succeeded in finding the small gates that gave access to the warren of residential streets hidden behind the new walls, gaining a glimpse of a fascinating and very different side of Samarkand: quiet narrow alleys lined with houses set round courtyards, where water is piped in through metal pipes laid above ground, passing groups of men visiting the neighbourhood hammam and huddles of women squatting outside their houses talking with neighbours.
None of Bukhara’s buildings have the grandeur of Samarkand’s Registan or other key sites, yet it feels a more coherent city, with a greater number of historical buildings that remain much more integrated within the city than they are in Samarkand. And while there’s certainly been significant restoration here it too feels less ostentatious and obtrusive than in Samarkand. One of the delights of staying in Bukhara was wandering down the streets of the old town, and coming across an old mosque, medrassah or mausoleum, some restored but most in a state of partial decay, intermingled with the ordinary houses, and which we could explore, invariably as the only people there.
In the centre of the old town is Ark, the city’s ancient fortress. Most of the interior is in ruin, destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1920, but the great outer walls remain. Since reaching Central Asia, we’ve both been reading about The Great Game, the 19th Century Anglo-Russian struggle from dominance in Central Asia, and so it was particularly interesting to see the Ark, which was the location of one of the most famous episodes. It was there that two British officers and players of the Game, Charles Stoddart and Arthur Connolly (it was Connolly in fact who had coined the phrase “The Great Game”), were held in a vermin infested pit for 2 years by the then Emir before being publicly beheaded and buried somewhere under the square outside the main gate.
We stayed a short walk away near the Lyabi-Hauz pond, the traditional social heart of the city. In the ancient tradition we spent very enjoyable afternoons and evenings sitting by the pond under the shade of the ancient mulberry trees, drinking tea and people watching. Just south of Lyabi-Hauz we were surprised to find a working synagogue and to learn that Bukhara has long had a significant Jewish population, dwindling numbers of whom still remain and continue to speak their own, distinct language, and look like distinctly different from their Uzbek neighbours.
The absence of Bukharan Jews from the official history of the city is just one aspect of the retelling of Uzbek history that has occurred since independence in an effort by the Government to create a shared culture amongst the population in the absence of the USSR and communism. Timur is now heralded as the father of the nation though he was Persian, not Turkic, and his great-grandson Babur was driven out of Samarkand by the Uzbeks. In fact, historically both Samarkand and Bokhara have long been predominantly Tajik cities (Tajiks are closely linked to Persians, and speak a language closely related to Farsi rather than a Turkic language), and most of the population remains Tajik speaking. It’s another reminder of how the region was carved up by the Soviets (and actually by Stalin as Commissar of Nationalities) in a policy of divide and rule to minimise the risk of a pan-Turkism uprising.
It used to be said that there were enough mosques in Bukhara to worship at a different one every day. While this is no longer the case there are still certainly a huge number. Yet while there remain large numbers of religious buildings in the city, and throughout Uzbekistan, we’ve seen little sign of the practice of Islam. This has been noted too by others, with travel writer Colin Thubron suggesting that while there was an initial resurgence of Islam in the early 1990s, bound up with a post-Soviet nationalism, this declined as people became poorer, not richer, in independent Uzbekistan and began to look back more fondly at the Soviet era. Former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, however, sees a more sinister reason for the apparent decline in Islam, claiming that the government has closed four in five of the country’s mosques, censors the mullahs’ addresses, has banned the call to prayer and discouraged attending prayers and observing Ramadan. Indeed, according to Murray, even possession of the Koran or growing a beard is likely to lead to arrest, detention and torture. Certainly we didn’t hear the call to prayer once in our time in Uzbekistan, despite the profusion of mosques and minarets, and even the working mosques we visited were often entirely deserted.
Most of the sites here operate a rather flexible approach to ticketing. At times it’s been unclear whether the person collecting our entrance money was even officially employed at the monument, while at most sites the price seems to depend on your interest in going in and the number of other tourists around. The concept of opening times also doesn’t seem to exist and we’ve been able to visit several sights early in the morning, or when they were officially closed, by paying the guards direct, enabling us to explore at leisure, the only people around. Inevitably this means that some of our entrance fees have gone direct to the guards and ticket office staff, rather than to the State, yet in a country where official corruption remains endemic and most staff badly paid we felt ok about this.
Khiva is the most remote of the Silk Road cities, situated close to the Oxus River and surrounded by the Kyzylkum desert to the east and the Karakum desert to the west,. Whilst this isolation meant a bumpy eight hour car journey for us from Bukhara, its continued remoteness has contributed to ensuring that Khiva is the most complete and intact of the three cities as well as having some of the most homogenous Islamic architecture in all of Central Asia.
Unlike Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva is a complete fortified city. The Inner City, or Ichon Qala, is wrapped in a one and a half mile belt of city walls, some of which date back to the fifth century. Inside the walls and set around the main street linking the east and west gates are a remarkable collection of original mosques, madressahs, palaces, mausoleums and the town fortress, while to the north and south run a maze of narrow alleyways with small mud brick houses and hammans. Particularly impressive is the Kalta Minor. Commissioned by the Khan in 1852 to stand at over 70 metres high, the biggest in the Islamic world, it was abandoned in the wake of his death at 26 metres. Though not the tallest minaret in Khiva, its great breadth and the glorious head-to-toe tiling mean it dominates the city’s skyline. Elsewhere, in the two palaces, the blue and white tiling was more intricate than we’ve seen anywhere else in the country.
Modern day Khiva feels a world away from descriptions of the town in even the 19th Century. Then, as capital of the Khanate of Khorezm, Khiva was a desert hideout for slave traders, brigands and thieves with a reputation for wanton cruelty, violence and sexual depravation. There were many Russian slaves who had been abducted and sold into slavery in the city, the release of whom became a frequently cited pretext for Russia’s involvement in the Great Game and expansion into Central Asia. Russian men were reportedly the most valuable slaves fetching a price of up to four camels, though Persian women were more sought after than Russian women. Amazingly slavery only ended here in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Khiva was designated a ‘museum-city’ in 1967 by the Soviets, which has led some to describe it as lifeless. However to us it felt very much alive. There are many houses within the city walls, which have apparently been re-occupied following Independence, and immediately outside the walls are a great many more houses as well as a bustling bazaar.
There is a remarkable consistency in the architecture of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. The main mosques and medressahs are fronted by enormous portals, usually decorated with mosaic and tiling but sometimes with frescoes, and surrounded by high walls. At the corners of the compound there are usually minarets, and inside, set around an open-air courtyard, small recessed doorways lead into small, plain cells, which in medrassahs housed the religious students. Above the doorways to each cell there is an arched window, echoing the shape of the main arched doorway, with more decorative tiling above, and at the back of the courtyard is usually a mosque, again fronted by a tiled portal. Many caravanserai we saw also had a similar layout. This consistency of structure is mirrored by a consistency in the colours used in decoration, which is largely limited to deep blue, turquoise and green, with occasional touches of yellow and orange. Yet the buildings are so beautiful, and so varied their decorations that they’re continually absorbing.
Now that the majority are no longer used for worship or study, most of the grand mosques and medrassahs now host tourist stalls selling carpets, ceramics, Soviet memorabilia and other trinkets, as well as the odd restaurant. In Khiva the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah – the city’s largest - is now the Hotel Khiva with student cells converted into luxury rooms. We treated ourselves to a night there and loved staying in such a beautiful and historical building. Whilst we were sad that like so many of these ancient buildings, the medrassah is no longer in use, we were glad that at least the cells continued to provide accommodation – albeit to a rather different clientele.