Uzbekistan, 6 – 17 May 2011. Tashkent, Bukhara, Khiva
Uzbekistan has a long, but very violent and bloodthirsty history of conquest by Scythians, Persians, Alexander the Great, Arabs, Mongols and finally Russians. Tashkent is the largest city in Central Asia and its history goes back over 2000 years. Ancient Tashkent or Shash achieved prominence in the 2nd century BC as a major trading centre on the northern route of the Silk Road. It became a Turkic city in the early 7th century, until Islam arrived around 750 AD. Then in 1219 devastation arrived in the form of Genghis Khan and the Mongols. There was a period of recovery under the Shaybanid dynasty with Amir Temur (Tamerlane) and his successors and it became a centre of Muslim culture in Maverannahr (which means in Arabic the land beyond the river Oxus). It continued its trade and administrative influence, but fell to Tsarist Russia in 1865. It became the capital of the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1918 and the city walls and gates were demolished, along with countless mosques, madrassahs and mausoleums. In 1930 it became capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. During the 1941-45 war evacuees from European Russia poured in, doubling the population to a million. It suffered a devastating 7.5-scale earthquake in April 1966, although casualties were relatively low. When the Republic of Uzbekistan was declared independent in 1991, Tashkent remained as the capital. It boasts imposing squares, spacious avenues, public gardens, fountains, monumental architecture and fine museums.
After our overnight flight we went on a guided tour of the city, starting at the massive Soviet-style Earthquake Monument, which shows a man shielding a woman and child from a rift in the earth before them.
We then went on to visit the Old City with its maze of mud-brick buildings.
Our next stop was the 16th century Hazreti Imam complex. Here the Kaffal-Shashi Mausoleum is the tomb of a 10th century doctor, philosopher and poet, and still has 16th century glazed bricks and majolica. The Tellya Sheikh Mosque is large and imposing with two minarets. Near that is the Namazga Mosque, which has a delicately decorated pale blue dome.
The Barak-Khan Madrassah was built in the 16th century by a descendant of Tamerlane. The façade has blue-tiled mosaics and inscriptions from the Koran. It is now the administrative centre of the Mufti of Uzbekistan, the official leader of Islam in the country. Religion was banned during the Soviet period, so most of the religious Islamic buildings were decommissioned. However the authorities did embark on a commendable programme to restore them, as many of them were in a parlous condition after years of destruction, neglect and earthquakes. Most have remained as museums or public monuments and can therefore be visited by non-Muslims.
The next day we had a very early start to catch an internal flight to Urgench, where we picked up our bus and drove to Khiva. Its early history is uncertain, but tradition claims that Noah’s son Shem marked out its walls during a fiery desert mirage. By the 8th century Arab conquest it was an important city, strategically located on the Volga branch of the Silk Road and one of the centres of ancient Khorezm. It is the most intact and remote Silk Road city in Central Asia. It was invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century and was part of the Temurid state in the 14th-15th centuries. In the 17th century it became the capital of a khanate and the 18th century saw a return to tribal anarchy and political disintegration. In 1740 it was conquered by the Persians, who held it for seven years. It then became the centre of a tussle in the Great Game between Great Britain and Russia and fell to the Russians in 1873. The Khiva khan was dethroned in 1920 and the Khorezm People’s Republic was then formed; in 1924 it joined the Republic of Uzbekistan, which was annexed to the USSR in 1925.
The inner city of Khiva, the Ichan Kala, is surrounded by a strong clay wall over 2,200m long and up to 8m high, with four gates and fortified with semi-circular towers. The wall has tombs on the outside as a defensive device, because the Mongols would not go through a cemetery. However it didn’t stop them taking the city.
The Ichan Kala is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has hardly changed since ancient times. There are over sixty palaces, mosques, madrassahs, minarets and mausoleums of architectural interest, one of the most homogenous collections of Islamic architecture to be found.
The Islam-Khodja ensemble has a madrassah and a tall minaret, which is decorated with bands of blue, white and green mosaic. Islam-Khodja was the Grand Vizier of Khiva, until he was assassinated in 1913 with the tacit permission of the khan. The architect was then buried alive by the khan, in the wake of the resulting cover-up. The Pakhlavan-Mahmud Mausoleum was built to honour the 13th century poet, philosopher, healer, wrestler and furrier.
The Muhammad Amin-Khan Madrassah (1852-55) is the biggest in Khiva and could accommodate 250 pupils then or 137 tourists today, as it is now the Hotel Khiva! Next to it is the 19th century Kalta-Minor minaret. This is not tall, but has a massive 14.2m diameter and is covered in glazed tiles. Apparently work was never completed because of Muhammad Amin-Khan’s death, but legend says that the architect displeased the khan and was thrown off the top of the minaret.
Nearby there is a statue of al-Khorezmi, born in Khiva around 780 and a great mathematician, scientist and author. He is considered the father of algebra, his book becoming the standard university maths text in Europe until the 16th century. He also brought the Indian numbering system to the Arab countries and developed the concept of the algorithm (the word derives from a Latin corruption of his name).
The Kunya-Ark is the inner citadel of Ichan-Kala and was originally founded in the 5th century, although most of the current complex was built piecemeal in the 19th century by various khans. The small court of the throne room has beautiful ceiling decoration and geometric tilework.
The Muhammad-Rakhim-Khan Madrassah was built in 1876 and has four partly-tiled corner towers. It is currently a museum displaying a variety of themes. The Djuma Mosque was built in the 18th century, although 21of the 213 carved wooden columns that support its flat ceiling date from the 10th-12th centuries.
The Tash-Hauli Palace was first commissioned in 1830. When the royal architect suggested that the 163 rooms and three courtyards could not be finished in the specified three years, he was promptly impaled. It was finally completed in 1838, but not without the labour of 1,000 slaves! It consists of the khan’s harem, the court of law and the reception room, which has a round brick platform for the khan’s yurt. Again there are beautiful blue tiles and finely decorated ceilings.
On the way to our meal that evening we passed a traditional bread oven beside the street.
We had the meal in a private home and were presented with a sumptuous feast, including of course the round, flat loaves. It isn’t uncommon for families in Uzbekistan to provide meals for groups on request, in order to supplement their income. We had several such meals and they were amongst the best we experienced.
The next day we had a long drive to the fabled city of Bukhara, one of holiest cities of Islam with a 2500 year history. It was conquered by Persian Achaemenids in the 6th century BC, by Alexander the Great in 329 BC and by Islam in the 8th century. In the 9th century Central Asia was freed from Arab domination and in the 10th-11th centuries Bukhara became capital of the Samanid dynasty. A golden age of commercial and cultural development began and the finest minds were attracted there. Bukhara’s library became the most famous in the Islamic world, irrigation networks were expanded and the urban population rose to over 300,000. There then followed a period of decline and conquest by various groups; in 1220 Genghis Khan and his Mongol hoards poured in slaughtering all before them. He is reputed to have told the citizens that if they hadn’t committed great sins, then God wouldn’t have sent a punishment like him! Bukhara became capital of the Shaybanid khanate in the 16th century and had a second golden age, before another decline set in. The last emir was dethroned in 1920, fleeing to Afghanistan whilst abandoning his favourite dancing boys one by one, in a vain attempt to slow down the pursuing Red Army. The Bukhara Republic was then founded and in 1925 it became part of Uzbek USSR and then in 1991 part of the Republic of Uzbekistan. Its historical centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We spent two days there and saw the Lyab-i-Hauz, the largest artificial reservoir of medieval Bukhara (42m x 36m), which is surrounded by madrassahs and a shaded garden, with a broad modern walkway on one side. The reservoir was constructed in 1620 on the orders of the kahn’s vizier Nadir Divanbegi and beside it are a couple of ancient mulberry trees, which date back to 1477.
The Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah was built in 1630 and its portal has a mosaic of two flying simurgh birds or phoenixes with white deer in their talons.
The garden has a statue of Hodji Nasrudin, the wise fool of Central Asia, on his horse. Although he is of Turkish origin, Uzbekistan also lays claim to him and there are many witty stories about him.
The Chor-Minor is the gatehouse of a madrassah built in 1807 and now largely destroyed. It is an unusual building with a dome construction and four closely-grouped, blue-capped towers rising up from it.
The Ismael Samani Mausoleum is an architectural masterpiece built at the beginning of the 10th century. It is in the shape of a cube crowned by a cupola with four little domes round it. Its decoration is intricate with basket-weave brickwork, drawing features from early Sogdian architecture and Zoroastrian fire-worship (i.e. circular brick suns). These elements are combined with the latest geometrical designs and internal four-arch system, to create a revolutionary artistic style. It is rich in symbolism with the cupola representing the heavens, whilst the cube shape represents the earth and also refers to the sacred Kaaba stone at Mecca. It is the oldest dried-brick construction in Central Asia, as well as the most original and best preserved building in Bukhara. It is located in the attractively laid-out Samani Park.
The Chashma-Ayub Mausoleum is an austere building with an unusual conical dome. It dates from the 12th century and has four domed chambers. Legend says that the Prophet Job once visited this spot during a great drought and produced a spring of sweet water by striking the ground with his staff. Chashma means ‘spring’ and the water is still pure.
The Ark Fortress is as old as Bukhara itself and housed the ruling dynasties. This included their retinues and eventually all government departments, in a complex that covered palace, harem, throne room, reception hall, office block, treasury, mosque, gold mint, dungeon and slave quarters. All the present buildings date from the 18th to 20th centuries, but 80% of the Ark was destroyed in 1920 following a Bolshevik bombardment. A stone ramp leads to the entrance and into a winding arcade or dolom, past a row of cells and torture chambers known as the khanah khanah. The court mosque is now a museum and the reception hall or salaam khana was for the emir's daily public audience. On the left of the courtyard is the emir’s domed viewing pavilion, from where he could look down on the crowds in the Registan Square below and witness the executions that took place there.
The mediaeval Bolo-Hauz Mosque has one of the highest and most beautifully decorated covered porticos in Central Asia, with its elegant wooden pillars and their stalactite capitals.
The Magok-i-Attari Mosque is the oldest mosque in Bukhara and was constructed in the 12th century. It is brick-built and the southern portal includes ganch or alabaster carving, terracotta plaques and glazed tilework. During excavations in 1935 heathen shrines, a Buddhist monastery, a Zoroastrian temple and the original mosque were discovered underneath.
Mediaeval Bukhara was a famed business centre and domed, vaulted bazaars were constructed in squares and crossroads to facilitate trading, each one for a separate trade and entered through an arch high enough for a laden pack-camel. One of the most impressive ones still standing is the Tok-i Telpak Furushon or cap maker’s bazaar. It has a complicated structure with an irregular layout and also shelters the tomb of a holy man.
The impressive Kalyan Mosque dates from the early 16th century during the rule of the Shaybanids and is the Juma or Friday mosque of Bukhara. Exquisitely decorated arched galleries with 288 domes on 208 columns surround the courtyard. The mihrab has striking, coloured and gilded tilework. It is the second biggest mosque in Central Asia, capable of accommodating 10-12,000 men. The Kalyan Minaret was built in 1127 and at over 48m high and 9m in diameter it towers over the city. A number of bands of patterned brickwork and a final band of coloured majolica tilework lead up to a 16-windowed rotunda gallery. Apparently a special mortar was used, consisting of camel’s milk, egg yolk and bull’s blood, so that it would be especially tough. Also Genghis Khan spared it from his orgy of destruction, because it particularly impressed him. Apart from providing the call to prayer, it also served as a look-out post, a beacon to guide the caravans through the desert and, more gruesomely, a convenient place to hurl convicted criminals to their death. This last practice didn’t stop until the second half of the 19th century.
The Mir-i-Arab Madrassah is one of the most revered Islamic educational establishments in Central Asia and was built in the 16th century during the rule of the Shaybanids. Today it still has around 125 resident students. It is an attractive building with a façade of coloured tiles and twin blue-capped towers.
The Ulug Beg Madrassah was constructed on the orders of Ulug Beg, one of Tamerlane’s grandsons and finished in 1420. The majolica facades were added in 1585. The Abdul-Aziz Madrassah was built in 1652 opposite the Ulug Beg Madrassah. It is larger and more decorated.
The Sitorai Makhi Khosa Summer Palace was built by the Russians in 1911 and was the emir’s country residence. It combines an uneasy mix of both Central Asian and Russian architectural features. Bukhara also has a colourful and thriving covered food market, as well as a gold market. Our hotel, the Mosque Baland, was a charming and attractive family-run establishment. The whole family, grandmother, father, mother, son and daughter, came out to wave us goodbye, when we left the next morning.
Nurata, Yangikasgan Yurt Camp and Lake Aydarkul
Today we were heading for Yangikasgan and a night in the yurt camp. Our first stop was the Chashma at Malik Sardoba, a gigantic brick reservoir buried in the ground, and covered with a terraced dome in brick, to provide a cool and secure water source for travellers. It was filled via a subterranean canal with water from the River Zerafshan. We continued to the small 11th century Mir-Said Bakhrom Mausoleum in Karmana, which has a portal and dome in patterned brickwork and a mosque which is completely unadorned except for shaped wooden pillars.
Nurata was our next destination. This is an ancient town strategically located between the cultivated lands and the steppe. Dominating the town are the ruins of a hilltop citadel, which was rebuilt by Alexander the Great, whilst he prepared to besiege Samarkand. Immediately below the citadel are two mosques by a pilgrimage site, the Chashma Spring, miraculously formed when Hazret Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law, struck the ground with his staff (like Job in Bukhara).
We arrived at the yurt camp in Yangikasgan early evening, having transferred to an aged 1950’s bus with a crankshaft start and minimal comfort. We had a short Bactrian-camel ride before the evening meal (with vodka provided) and the night in our yurt. Air-conditioning was provided by lifting up opposing sides of the yurt to allow a through-draught! There were wild tortoises and dung-beetles around the camp. We then drove to Lake Aydarkul to relax, swim and observe the hordes of goats that arrived to drink in the lake. The lake covers an area of 3000sqm, with a length of about 250 km and a width from 8 to 15 km.
This is one of the oldest cities in the world and its history stretches back over 2500 years. Afrosiab, the ancient part, was founded in the 8th century BC by the Sogdians, but was destroyed by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. Hellenic and Kushan dominance saw a revival of the city, but by early Christian times it had fallen into disrepair. It rose again between the 4th and 8th centuries AD with the importance of the Silk Road. It became a Sogdian stronghold with Zoroastrian fire-worshipping beliefs until the Arab invasion in 712 under Qutaiba ibn Muslim. In the 9th century under Samanid rule Samarkand enjoyed another renaissance. Protected by a moat and a wall it offered lush trees, glittering castles, canals, markets, bathhouses and caravanserai. It declined over the next centuries and then fell to Genghis Khan in 1220 with great destruction and loss of life.
In 1370 Tamerlane chose Samarkand as his capital and provided it with new walls, gates and moats. He also brought in the finest minds in all fields and crafts, to work on squares, fountains, mosques, madrassahs, mausoleums, caravanserai and trade galleries. Samarkand continued to flourish under Tamerlane’s grandson Ulug Beg, but the rise of Uzbek nomads spelt the end of Timurid power, except for a brief period in 1512 under Babur, who was chased out by the Uzbeks and went on to found the Mogul empire in India. From the 16th to the 19th centuries Samarkand had mixed fortunes and was then captured by Russia in 1868, which led to further development. In the Soviet era industrial progress raised the city’s population to the current figure of 400,000, with the arrival of factories, institutes, apartment blocks and public transport. Centuries of neglect were also reversed and Samarkand was also brightened with parks, gardens and fountains.
Our tour of Samarkand began with the Astronomical Observatory of Ulug Beg, which was built between 1424 and 1429. Renowned scholars and scientists joined Ulug Beg over the next three decades to study astronomical data. They plotted the coordinates of 1,018 stars, devised rules for predicting eclipses and measured the stellar year to within one minute of modern electronic calculation. The observatory included a huge sextant, 40 meters in radius and embedded in the ground to lessen seismic disturbance, and an astrolabe ran along its length to make the calculations. The top of the arc ended in a three-storey building, of which nothing survives. Religious fanatics, who were deeply suspicious of science, destroyed the observatory in 1449 and the only surviving remnant is an underground section of the sextant.
We then visited the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis, a truly remarkable ensemble of stunning Islamic architecture and ceramic art. According to legend Kusam ibn Abbas, the Prophet’s cousin, was mortally wounded and hid underground at Samarkand, where he continues living. Hence the name Shah-i-Zinda – ‘the king is alive’. However he was actually beheaded in 676 by Zoroastrian fire-worshippers and buried here. By the 10th century he was considered a martyr and between the 14th and 15th centuries a complex of mausoleums and mosques was built along the path to his mausoleum. Chronologically it was developed from the north to the south or down towards the entrance. The steps up from the entrance portal (built by Ulug Beg in 1434) are called the Staircase of Sinners and should be counted on the way up and on the way down. If the numbers are different, the penance is to climb them a further 40 times on your knees!
The Bibi-Khanum Mosque was constructed in 1399 by Tamerlane, who had just returned from the sack of Delhi. It was intended, as the city’s main mosque, to be without parallel in grandeur or décor, using the best craftsmen from the conquered countries and 95 elephants from India to haul marble-laden wagons. In 1404 he had the portal rebuilt, considering it too low. The mosque is named after Tamerlane’s senior wife. In the centre of the courtyard there is a massive marble lectern made for the huge metre-square Koran made during Ulug Beg’s time.
The Afrosiab History Museum houses the finds made in the 1880s from the ruins of Afrosiab and shows the city’s evolution through the centuries. Objects include ceramics, coins and swords from Alexander’s visit, plus Zoroastrian altars, solar symbols on bricks, and ornamental ossuaries for the bones of the dead, after they were picked clean by birds and animals. Then there are bone chessmen, jewellery and cosmetics, alongside the museum’s star feature, which is a series of 7th century AD coloured murals over 2m high. These murals depict a bridal procession led by a princess on a white elephant with horsemen, camel-riders and foreign envoys. The central mural shows the ruler of Samarkand in magnificent robes and jewels. The last scene shows a princess being rowed in a boat to the harem, whilst horsemen chase a leaping leopard.
The Gur-Emir Mausoleum is Tamerlane’s burial-place and was built in the early 1400s for his grandson Mohammed-Sultan. He was expected to succeed Tamerlane, but died at the age of 27. It was finished during the reign of Ulug Beg, another of his grandsons, who is also buried there. It is another beautiful blue-tiled and brick building with a magnificent gold decorated chamber under the dome.
The Registan, the central square and most famous place in Samarkand, is among the greatest works of the Islamic world and foremost in Central Asia. It consists of three madrassahs around three sides of the square, almost as if they are facing up to each other across the fountains.
The Ulug Beg Madrassah was built between 1417 and 1420 and its portal has a 15m high arch and a panel with a symbolic sky and stars. In the courtyard there is a bronze statue of Ulug Beg with fellow scientists around a globe. The Sher-Dor Madrassah was built two centuries later from 1619 to 1636 and replaced a khanagha or hospice for dervishes. It imitates the other madrassah, although it has higher ribbed domes either side of the entrance portal; Islam did not allow an exact mirror-image. Each madrassah has twin minarets flanking the façade. Above the arch of the Sher-Dor portal is a tympan with two lions chasing white deer. ‘Sher-Dor’ means ‘lion-bearing’, although the animals look much more like tigers. A sun with a human face peers over the back of each lion against a bright blue background with floral decorations. There is no one theory to explain this break with the Islamic taboo on figurative art.
The Tillya-Kari Madrassah faces the space between the other madrassahs and was built between 1646 and 1660 as a mosque and madrassah with small corner turrets instead of minarets, although the dome remained unfinished until the 20th century. The walls and dome of the building inside show a riot of coloured and gilt decoration with an especially spectacular mihrab. The hujra, or student cells, around the courtyards of all three madrassahs are now home to gift shops.
Overall Impressions of the Tour
Uzbekistan was a revelation and totally different from a drab Soviet-influenced country we had expected. Although desert occupies much of the country, there is great colour and life in the towns and cities. Parks, gardens, fountains, trees and flowers abound, providing a cool and refreshing atmosphere, as summers are very hot, although winters can be very cold.
Uzbekistan lies at the centre of the Silk Road and its history is redolent of the centuries of tradition and trade, albeit with violence and cruelty erupting at frequent intervals. The Islamic architecture is amazing, both in quantity and quality, and is amongst the finest anywhere. The people are exceptionally friendly, always wanting to make contact with foreigners and be photographed with them. Foreign tourism is small-scale and it is difficult for Uzbeks to travel abroad, especially for whole families, in case they decide not to return. This is one reason why they are so keen to meet foreign travellers. The hotels are of a high standard and the food is good, especially the interesting and varied salads provided as starters. The trip offered a variety of experiences and a great insight into Central Asia and into life along the ancient trading routes. The main language is Uzbek, which is closely related to Turkish, and everyone speaks Russian. There are also Kazakh and Tajik minorities, who have their own language, and English is becoming more and more widespread.