4, 2003 -> Uzbekistan's Silk Road Cities
The Silk Road was not one road, but many, and
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,
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
On the entrance gate of his mammoth White Palace
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
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 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
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
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
Nearly 80% of Samarkand's population is Tajik,
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 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,
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")
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.
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
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.
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