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“In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan and Tamarlane”

April 2008

Placing a spiritual offering at the holy tree, Bakhauddin Nakhshbandi Shrine, Bukhara

With recession looming large and menacing on the horizon and the economy rapidly disappearing down the plughole, it is most definitely time to recall a wonderful adventure around the Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan.


Uzbekistan has a unique cultural and architectural heritage that has both flourished and fallen victim to rulers such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamarlane. Uzbekistan’s history is reflected in the wealth of Buddhist, Zoroastrian and Islamic art, and architecture. Situated geographically on the ancient world’s greatest trading route - the Great Silk Road - the cities of Samarkand, Bokhara and Khiva are resplendent with monuments equal to, if not exceeding those of Esfahan, Peshawar or Shiraz.

A Brief History

Uzbekistans’ colourful history dates back over two millennia. Strategically situated in the heart of Central Asia, she has been fought over time and again. Alexander the Great swept in from the west, from the east came Genghis Khan, whilst Tamarlane made the country his base from which he subjugated the largest land empire known in the ancient world. It is Tamarlane’s legacy that is inherited by today’s modern Uzbekistan.

In ancient times the Great Silk Road brought immense wealth and prosperity to the major cities of Uzbekistan. Myriads of merchants plied their trade moving vast camel caravans laden with silk, spices and many other precious commodities. They travelled between the two great trading empires of the day: China and Rome. As well as goods, the Silk Road also provided a route to exchange religious, intellectual and artistic ideas.


Without doubt, Uzbekistan’s most famous son is the nomadic warrior-emperor Tamarlane. His rule spanned from the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th centuries. Tamarlane subjugated an empire that at its zenith stretched as far afield as Moscow and Dehli, and from Syria to China. In his wake, it is estimated that he left some 17,000,000 people dead in a trail of blood, suffering and destruction. The spoils of war, and the riches gained, enabled Tamarlane to turn his capital city, Samarkand, into one of the architectural gems of the ancient world. A vast range of religious and palatial construction projects were undertaken, many continued by and added to by his descendants. Tamarlane also patronised the sciences and the arts resulting in the flourishing of an extremely enlightened society. Today the trademark blue tiled domes of Tamarlane’s Samarkand pay testament to that legacy, making the city the architectural pearl of Central Asia. Upon his death in 1405, Tamarlane’s empire began to fragment. This was exacerbated by family fighting over succession and the gradual demise of the Great Silk Road in favour of more favourable sea routes. Tamarlane’s descendants would eventually travel south to establish the Mogul Dynasty in India, which would ultimately produce as its masterpiece the world’s most enigmatic building: the Taj Mahal.


In more modern times, Uzbekistan was a pawn in the Great Game a war of espionage and stealth played out between the two big world players of the mid 19th century: the Russian Tsarist Empire and the British Empire. Finally, along with other Central Asian republics Uzbekistan fell under successive waves of Russification, Sovietization and modernization. Eventually in 1991 in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Eastern Bloc, Uzbekistan declared its independence. This young republic stepped onto the world stage to trade in 21st century silk, gold, silver, oil and gas.

The Journey

Our touring group arrived in Tashkent.  This is a typical paradigm of a capital city: plenty of statues in the middle of leafy squares and lots of museums to visit. Independence Square is the largest city square in the former Soviet Union. It is flanked by the ubiquitous large public buildings and walls of cascading fountains. The square once contained the world’s tallest statue of Lenin: a whopping 30 metres from head to toe. Since independence Lenin has hailed his taxi and left.


The main site of interest in Tashkent is Khast-Imam Square. It is an ensemble of religious buildings dating back to the 16th century. These monuments give a tantalising foretaste of the sublime architecture that lays in wait in the Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bokhara and Khiva.


The next morning we took a short internal flight to Urgench, which was our base for visiting Khiva. The city of Khiva is the most remote and best preserved of the Central Asian Silk Road sites, and as such the old city is a perfectly conserved living museum. Since 1967 Khiva has enjoyed the status of a “museum city”. This has ensured that it remains the most pristine and homogenous collection of architecture in the Islamic world, effectively frozen in a time capsule. The city is surrounded by a crenellated and bastioned defensive wall 2.2 metres long: parts of which date back to the 5th century. One of the most striking features of the city is the Kalta Minor or short minaret, originally destined to stand at over 70 metres tall (the highest in the Islamic world), but abandoned on its benefactors death at a frustrated 26 metres. The Kukhna Ark, or old fortress, was the residence of the ruling Khans of Khiva. The foundations date from the 5th century but most of the complex has been added to “piecemeal” over the last few centuries.


Every corner you turn in Khiva reveals another mosque or madrassah awaiting your delectation. The Islam Khodja Madrassah is a relatively modern building erected at the beginning of the last century. Its minaret stands 45 metres tall and its tapering bands of green and blue glazed tiles lead up to what is the tallest watch tower in Khiva. I headed to the top: camera at the ready. Countless steps and buckets of sweat later I was privileged to see a view worth every inch of my efforts. The whole of Khiva lay out beneath me: it was one of those views that quite simply, defies description.


The next day we headed out to the arid plain of Khorezm. Our first stop was the 2000 year old ruined fortress of Toprak Kala. The fortress is framed by the brooding Sultan Vais Dag Mountains. This photogenic site just begged to be clambered over and explored. Our next stop at Ayaz Kala was an imposing hill top fortress dating from the 6th century. The stiff climb to the top is amply rewarded by the mountain backdrop and is a must for anyone’s travel itinerary.

The following day it was up early for a long day’s driving to reach Bokhara where we will spend the next two days exploring  the city. Bokhara has the same historical legacy to relay as the rest of the region, having endured “visits" from the Persians, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamarlane, and finally the Russian and British Great game players. The city has been laid waste and rebuilt over the years. Most of Bokhara’s main sites are scattered around the old town and as such are all eminently walkable.


The Ark Fortress was home to the rulers of Bokhara for over a millennium: originally built around the 7th century. Its present form dates back to the 16th century.  At its height the complex housed over 3000 inhabitants and contained a palace, harem, throne room, mosque, treasury, prison, and slave quarters.


The ‘Registan’ in the past was the main square of the city, today it is home to an ensemble of mosques and madrassahs. Facing each other across an open square are two schools of learning: these are called the Kosh Madrassah. Built in the mid 16th century by Abdulla Shaybani Khan, the violet, green and white facade tile work is a delight.


The Kalon Minaret, adjacent to the mosque of the same name, is the most visible of Bokhara’s landmarks. Towering at over 48 metres, I was drawn to and up it like a magnet. Built in the year 1127, it was the tallest free-standing tower in the world at that time. The minaret rises skywards: the honey coloured bricks glow golden, girdled by ten individual bands of delicate lacy brickwork which taper elegantly to a windowed rotunda gallery, culminating in a band of blue majolica tiles. In times gone by the minaret was known as the Tower of Death, where many an unfaithful wife was led up the 105 steps, then unceremoniously thrown off into oblivion.

Bokhara boasts over 900 historical monuments and the two days I spent here merely scratched the surface, and will most definitely leave you wanting more.


The next couple of days were a little more relaxing: a break from the constant onslaught of culture and architecture. The Sarmysh Gorge offers a rich taste of scenes etched in the rock that have survived for over 3000 years. Thousands of these petroglyphs dating back to the Bronze Age are engraved into the dark shale rock. Scrambling amongst the rocks I found some remarkable images of primitive man and animals, such as bulls, deer and goats: I also found images of hunting scenes and ritual dance. Our overnight stop, out in the desert in a Kazak Yurt, was one of the real highlights of the entire trip. This is in a traditional felt tent still used today by the nomads of Central Asia. Even though we were in the middle of nowhere and the temperature had plummeted, the yurt was surprisingly warm and comfortable: unfortunately no mixed yurts are available!


The next day began with a camel trek: pretending that I was “Florence of Arabia” whilst hanging on for dear life. The second half of the day was spent relaxing and swimming in Lake Aidarkul … tough day!


Back on the road, our next destination was probably the most famous of the Silk Road cities: Samarkand. The city claims equity with Rome and Babylon: archaeologists have dated urban settlement here as far back as the 6th century BC. This city was Tamarlane’s capital and trademark fluted domes and sky blue mosaics adorn a multitude of magnificent buildings.


The Registan ensemble at the heart of Samarkand is without doubt Tamarlane’s masterpiece. Now restored to its original splendour it is amongst the greatest of all the glorious works of the Islamic world - a vast complex of voluptuous domes, elegant minarets, mosques and madrassahs. Mosaic and majolica panels shine with floral motifs and kufic calligraphy. Geometric patterns adorn the walls and climb gracefully skywards up the minarets that flank the monument’s facades.


Whilst in the Registan we were invited, by a local soldier, to climb the main minaret by a special secret entrance.  After a promise of secrecy and the exchange of a fist full of dollars, the deed was done. The view from the top was more than impressive. I felt quite nauseous as I poked my head out of the minaret’s roof and leaned over the edge: wouldn’t want to be an unfaithful wife at that moment.

Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand, a necropolis of mausoleums dating from the 14th & 15th century

Built in 1398, the Bibi Khanum Mosque was to be Tamarlane’s creation without parallel in grandeur throughout the Muslim world. The mosque’s portal soars to over 35 metres with flanking minarets over 50 metres high and a gallery of 400 cupolas supported by 400 marble columns. The mosque is adorned with: carved marble, terracotta, glazed mosaic, blue and gold frescoes. The voluptuous fluted blue domes that are Tamarlane’s trademark, are banded and embellished with quotations from the Koran in elegant elongated kufic calligraphy.


Adjacent to the Bibi Khanum Mosque is the central bazaar.  Just follow your nose as the exotic smell of spices wafts through the air. Sacks of spices are piled high, roundels of freshly baked bread and a multitude of varieties of local halva lay beautifully presented. Fruit stalls are overflowing with apricots, peaches, figs and pomegranates.  Tourists are encouraged to taste produce at every individual stall – I stagger out of the bazaar, overfed and carrying bags of goodies.


The Shah-I-Zinda is the holiest site in Samarkand. It is a necropolis of mausoleums, a street of the dead and perhaps the most visually striking sight in a city of superlatives. The sheer vast prolific array of enigmatic monuments is quite astonishing. This is without doubt a total assault on the senses and the most photogenic experience of the entire trip.


The last day of this wonderful trip was spent back at the starting point in Tashkent. This was a last chance to try to catch up on a few things previously missed before heading off to the airport.


An Overview

This trip was a truly extraordinary experience. An adventure far exceeding any expectation I have had in the past. Monuments in abundance, friendly people and delightfully free from the entrapments of mainstream tourism. This is one of those holidays where, unless you see the photographs, it is impossible to appreciate the sublime splendour of these ancient trading cities. The beauty of the architecture defies description, and even with my passion for photography, I struggled to do it justice.


Fancy somewhere different for a holiday, this should be right up there near the top of your “must see” list.

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