Uzbekistan’s centrality to world affairs is not at an all time high. What little you know of it is likely to coincide with that general amorphous mass of Sacha Baron Cohen tinged prejudice that we reserve for all of those nations unfortunate enough to incorporate ‘-stan’ into their names. One of only two doubly landlocked countries in the world (the other being the heroically insubstantial Liechtenstein), Uzbekistan’s location in the arid heart of central Asia makes it seem understandably remote and unforgiving. Add to this a long history of dictatorship and Uzbekistan hardly tops the list of first choice travel destinations in most people’s minds.
And yet to pass up Uzbekistan is to pass up a very significant chunk of the world’s history. Before Vasco De Gama and Ferdinand de Lesseps rendered Central Asia a backwater, Uzbekistan was at the heart of world trade and the cornerstone of many a great empire. Situated squarely between the Chinese silk farms and the Arab markets, Uzbekistan coincided with the main routes of the celebrated silk roads, a state of affairs that brought the region enormous wealth and significance. Understandably this wealth caught the eye of the steppe tribes that have plagued the history of Asian civilisations, and the presence of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane loom large in the region’s history, often with destructive results.
For such a large country with a sprawling history, Uzbekistan can realistically be covered by visiting just four cities. The first will inevitably be Tashkent, the nation’s capital and the location of its main airport. After a storied history that included the inevitable destruction by the forces of Genghis Khan, a period of immense opulence during the height of the silk roads and occupation by the rampant forces of Tsarist Russia in the 1860s, Tashkent unfortunately can now be best associated with the nation’s time under communism, the legacy of which was to leave much of the city a brutalist wasteland. Add to this an equally unfortunate spate of building works in recent years, and the city is hardly an architect’s paradise, and correspondingly the tourist will not want to stay too long. This notwithstanding, the city is not devoid of its attractions. The 16th century Kukeldesh Madrasa is an excellent foretaste of some of the fine madrasas to come, whilst the city’s soviet underground, with its cavernous stations complete with enormous mosaics of communist luminaries is an unmissable portal into the lost world of the Soviet Union.
To spend a night in Khiva is to intrude into a world that one feels ought to be occupied by silk traders, Arabshahid Khans and Russian explorers. Isolated in the city’s far south, surrounded by imposing walls and built almost entirely out of mud brick, the city has changed little over the centuries
The labyrinthine Tosh-Hovli Palace was once the main residence of the Khan of Khiva and his considerable harem, and still contains some of the finest interior mosaics to be found alongside the silk road, spread out over more than 150 rooms. The palace was built as a more luxurious alternative to the nearby Kuhna Ark, a 12th Century edifice that also has its fair share of magnificent tiling and hosts an exceptional reception portico supported by carved columns that once served as an open-air throne room. Aside from its palaces, the city is dominated by a series of minarets, the most audacious of which was the Kalta minor minaret, an unfinished behemoth that unusually for a minaret was built to be completely covered in tiling.
Another high-point is the gleaming dome of Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum, the burial place of a respected 14th Century poet. A more literal high point is the 57-metre Islom Hoja minaret, the tallest in the city, which provides fine views of its surroundings, especially at dawn and dusk. Those seeking to walk in the footsteps of history can do little better than to visit the city’s hypostyle hall, formerly a mosque, that supposedly was used as a stable by Genghis Khan himself.
Upon my visit I was lucky enough to witness the city’s annual gargantuan watermelon festival (a celebrated produce of the region), truly a sight to behold even for those who usually find themselves unmoved by fruit and vegetable produce.
Uzbekistan’s most famous son, Samarkand is dominated by the magnificent Registan Royal, with its three imposing madrasas. The earliest of these is the Ulugh Beg Madrasah, named after the scholarly Timurid sultan who ordered its construction in the 15th Century. The square’s centrepiece is the Sher-Dor Madrasah, significant for its tiled depictions of animals that flout Islamic taboos on the depiction of animals, and represent earlier Zoroastrian traditions. The Tilya-Kori Madrasah rounds of the assemblage, as the newest and most abundantly gilded of the trio. Together they form one of the finest collections of Islamic architecture on the planet, and speak volumes for a time when Samarqand was the beating heart of the civilised world.
Almost as impressive, and in many ways more moving, is the Shakh-i-Zinda mausoleums, an alleyway of gilded tombs that house eight centuries worth of local royals, including some of the relatives of Tamerlane. Another legacy of that all conquering leader is the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, located to the north in the Registan. In its fifteenth century the mosque was one of the largest in the world, but earthquakes encouraged its gradual disrepair. Extensively restored by the soviets, it is once more a sight to behold (although perhaps a little too inauthentic for the purists): don’t miss the huge Koran stand in the central courtyard that once hosted a Koran almost as well-proportioned as the mosque in which it sits.
Closer to the city’s outskirts is the observatory of the aforementioned Ulugh Beg, once the most important in the Islamic world, and fortunately rediscovered by archaeologists in the 20th Century. Its centrepiece is an enormous meridian arc, once used by scholars to create extremely accurate calculations of the length of the year.
With its roots in the Persian empire, Bukhara has a strong claim to being the most interesting of the three great Uzbek cities. The finest sight in the city, and probably one of the finest in the world is the beautiful Kalyan minaret, worth the trip to Uzbekistan all by itself. With a slender figure and beautiful brickwork muqarnas, the minaret has been the centre of religious life in the city since it was built in 1127. The minaret’s beauty also happened to be its salvation, with Genghis Khan so impressed by it that he knelt down before and doffed his cap, ordering that it should be spared the destruction his forces meted out to the rest of the city. It has not been so sparing to others however, with convicts often executed by being hurled to their deaths from its windows.
The minaret is surrounded by the Po-i-Kalyan complex, which contains a mosque and madrasah, and is centred around an enormous prayer courtyard, enclosed by over 200 small domes, that could fit up to 12,000 people at full capacity. Facing it is the equally sizeable mir-i-arab madrasa, one of the largest in the world. Together they form an enormously evocative site that one should seek to visit at dusk when it is almost deserted, and one can almost feel the presence of the countless generations that have inhabited it beforehand.
At the city’s heart is the imposing ark of Bukhara, a raised fortress surrounded by billowing walls. Despite its considerable strength as a fortress it has fallen several times, most recently to the Soviets during the period of the Russian civil war. Somewhat out of the way on the edge of a dilapidated amusement park, but undoubtedly worth visiting, the 9th Century Samanid Mausoleum is one of the oldest attractions in the city, and is topped by an intricate dome that spent much of its life buried under the sand until its eventual rediscovery. A final must see is the Char Minar, the former gatehouse of a now destroyed madrasa, with its four decorated towers, which it is possible to climb for excellent views of the city.