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september 4, 2003 -> Uzbekistan's Silk Road Cities

The Silk Road was not one road, but many, and it carried far more than silk. From China to the Mediterranean the growing east-west trade saw small oasis caravanserais mushroom into rich, powerful cities. Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand - now all located in modern day Uzbekistan - were three of the most important of these Silk Road cities.

Like cathedrals in Europe, or temples in Thailand, the mosques, madrassahs (Islamic colleges) and minarets (towers) of Uzbekistan's Silk Road cities are often the supreme expression of period architecture and artistry - not to mention royal patronage. Rich khans and emirs ordered the construction of ever more elaborate mosques, larger madrassahs, and taller minarets. In some cases, it was difficult to say if they were built more for the glory of God or for the prestige of local rulers. In Bukhara, the Kosh ("twin") Madrassahs had been built by Abdullah Khan. One was built for his mother, and the other for himself. His was far more grandly decorated, and bore his name and other family members' in Kufic script (rather than the usual Koranic verses). "He loved himself more than his mother and God," our guide opined.

On the entrance gate of his mammoth White Palace in Shakrisabz, Timur (Tamerlane) had written "If you doubt our strength just look at our buildings." Though many had been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries, his claim still carried force. The buildings were powerful, in both their physical dimensions and their ability to stir the spirit.

This was our first time seeing Islamic architecture; it required a new vocabulary to explain, and a new way of seeing. With each fact learned or observation made, our appreciation of the buildings and their differences grew. The interwoven geometric designs that covered many minarets were actually stylized Kufic script for "Allah" or "Muhammed." In Khiva, a unique blue-green tile covered mosque domes and minarets. The stunning blue dome above Timur's tomb had 66 ribs, the age at which Muhammed died. Some travelers found the buildings wearily similar, but an unhurried mind saw manifold differences.

* Samarkand Samarkand appeared suddenly, and moments later we exclaimed with wonder at the sight of the blue-tiled, ribbed dome of the Bibi Khanum Mosque, soaring above the bazaar. This was Timur's city, and it contained the most splendid example of Islamic architecture in Central Asia: the Registan.

The Registan comprises three massive madrassahs facing onto a common square. Each madrassah has a towering, pointed arch - known as a 'pishtak' - that opens to a courtyard beyond. Each pishtak is flanked by two tiers of student's cells, and finally by a towering minaret. But these are only architectural details. Two things make the the Registan amazing. First, is the space the three madrassahs define and command. The feeling is not unlike walking into the nave of a European cathedral; the air has been mysteriously sanctified, as if holiness rushed out from the open mouths of the madrassahs and filled the square.

Second is the incredible fineness of its tilework. Flouting Islamic proscription of the representation of animals, the range above one pishtak shows two tigers chasing birds. Another shows a starry sky. We could have sat for hours and gazed at the majesty of these buildings - if guards hadn't hurried us out. Hundreds of singers and dancers were practicing for Samarkand's International Music Festival the next evening.

But the Registan is only the brightest of Samarkand's treasures. The inner chamber of Timur's mausoleum (Gur Emir) made us gasp - the walls resplendent with layer upon layer of stone and tilework that rose to a magnificent gold cupola. Earlier in the day, I sat on the steps outside the Bibi Khanum mosque (Bibi Khanum had been Timur's favorite wife) and marveled at the complex geometric designs on the range above the pishtak. For a small fee, we were able to climb to the top of Bibi Khanum, where reinforcement bars sprouted from the walls; the reconstruction was far from complete. The view was stunning; a series of sky blue domes rested atop a boxy, light brown city.

In Samarkand, we met Sanjar, a cheeky Tajik-Uzbek who showed us around the city and invited us to his 16th birthday party. The next evening, he met us at our hotel and we took a taxi to his house, where his mother had prepared a feast. Sanjar would end up accompanying us for most of the rest of our time in Uzbekistan. He made life much easier for us (speaking Tajik, Uzbek and Russian, and being exceptionally shrewd) and we gave him an adventure in his own country.

Nearly 80% of Samarkand's population is Tajik, just one example of the incredible mess created by Central Asia's apparently random, Soviet-drawn borders. A finger of Kyrgyzstan pokes in between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Within that finger are several (completely surrounded) enclaves of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - and one of the Uzbekistani enclaves is full of Tajiks!

* Bukhara Bukhara had nothing to rival the size and grandeur of the Registan or the beauty of Timur's tomb. Apart from the 48-meter Kalon Minaret - the tallest in Central Asia - its charms were quirkier, more intimate. Narrow streets snake away from the Labi Hauz, a leafy, central plaza built around a dirty, yet still picturesque pool. Insistent, but friendly merchants sold 'suzannas' - bright embroidered wall-hangings - in covered bazaars that linked the Labi Hauz to the most important sights.

Inside the Kosh ("Twin") Madrassahs, the student's rooms had been converted into workshops where master craftsmen and their apprentices were creating beautifully etched copper plates and tea sets. Just outside the city was the kaleidoscopic Summer Palace, a grand but unsuccessfully attempt to marry Russian interior design with traditional decorative elements of Islamic architecture. Although I did enjoy the raised pavilion from which the ruler would admire the women of his harem bathing in the pool below. When one caught his fancy, he would toss an apple down to the femme du jour. But our favorite building was the rather forlorn looking Chor Minar ("four towers") a sort of mini-mosque whose tall minarets were so out of proportion to its central structure that it looked like an upside-down bedside table.

* Khiva Many criticize Khiva as being "too restored" or "soulless" - and therefore not worth the hot, monotonous, six-hour desert crossing from Bukhara. But we loved it. Certain buildings have an anachronistic perfection, and new tilework is obvious (they don't shine like the old tiles still do), but the romance of this 'museum city' remains intact. There are no cars on the maze of cobbled streets, and the tumult of the bazaar is kept outside the walls. Beyond open doorways, and in narrow alleys, wonderful crafts were being created: hand-knotted silk carpets, carved wooden doors, and "aged" replica tilework.

Nearly all Khiva's interesting sights lie within the Inchon Qala - or walled city - a very compact collection of the four M's: mosques, madrassahs, minarets and mausolea. The most famous building in Khiva is the Kalta ("short") Minaret, a squat, truncated cone of blue-green tiles that was meant to be much taller. Legend says that the builder had secretly agreed to construct an even taller tower for arch-rival Emir of Bukhara. When the Khiva khan learned of the architect's duplicity, he had him executed before the minaret was completed. One of our favorite places was the Tash Hauli palace, where the harem walls were decorated in intricate white and blue majolica tiles; it looked as if a hundred splendid carpets had been cast up to the walls and ceilings.

Evenings in Khiva were magical. We climbed to the top of the Ark (a fortress within the Inchon Qala) and watched the golden light of sunset illuminate the bands of green, blue and white tiles on the Kalta minaret. At dusk, the local workers and souvenir vendors disappear, leaving a ghost town of silent minarets and empty mosques. The air cools, and walkers are rewarded by spangled skies.