Nowhere else in Central Asia is as evocative of the Silk Road as Uzbekistan. Located in the epicentre of the Silk Road, Uzbekistan was the region’s cradle of culture for more than 2,000 years. In terms of architecture and historical sights, Uzbekistan definitely steals the limelight from other neighbouring countries.
Unlike the nomadic Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, the Uzbeks have always been hospitable hosts deeply rooted to their land. Instead of moving from place to place in yurts, they built strong and sturdy monuments that could withstand centuries of earthquakes and Soviet attacks. Thanks to major restoration efforts by Uzbekistan’s government, hundreds if not thousands of centuries-old monuments continue to dot the country.
You’ll find some of the Muslim world’s best displays of architecture in Uzbekistan’s famous trio: Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. Each of these cities has its own distinctive flavour and feel. Samarkand is the biggest of them all and is home to larger-than-life architecture, Bukhara is an entire historical site on its own, while Khiva is small enough to navigate on foot. Regardless, all three are treasure troves overflowing with more ancient monuments than you can handle.
Here’s a look at what’s worth seeing in each city.
Samarkand — home to the Registan
Known as one of the oldest inhabited cities of Central Asia, Samarkand sure has plenty of stories to tell with its centuries-old monuments. Founded in 7th century B.C., the city was ruled by by a succession of Iranian, Persian, and Turkish peoples until the Mongols under Genghis Khan conquered Samarkand in 1220.
The city had its most significant development from the 14th to the 15th centuries when it became the capital of the empire of King Timur. Most of the major monuments here were built during this period. They have also given Samarkand its UNESCO World Heritage status.
The centre of the ancient city is the Registan, an ensemble of medressahs (Islamic schools) immaculately designed with majolica tiles, azure mosaics, and Arabic scripts from the Quran. This was medieval Samarkand’s commercial centre, and the square was the city’s main trading spot. The buildings in the Registan have withstood years of earthquakes and Soviet destruction but have been — some say, indiscriminately — restored to their original glory.
Other interesting sights in the city include:
Bibi-Khanum Mosque — This was once one of the Islamic world’s biggest mosques and it pushed contemporary construction techniques to the limit. The mosque partially collapsed in an earthquake in 1897 before being rebuilt in the 1970s.
Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum complex — One of the most beautiful sights in Central Asia, this stunning avenue of mausoleums contains some of the richest tilework in the Muslim world.
Gur-Emir ensemble — The tomb of King Timur and his family is an impressive complex with azure domes and intricate carvings. The construction of the mausoleum itself began in 1403 but was only completed by Ulugh Beg, one of Timur’s grandsons.
Siab Bazaar — Many years ago, bazaars served as the main strategic points on the Great Silk Road trade development. Today, their markets continue to be a special place where you can feel a live atmosphere of the ancient city.
Bukhara — intellectual centre of the Islamic world
Bukhara has been one of the main centres of world civilization from its early days in 6th century B.C. During the golden age of the Persian empire, Bukhara became a major intellectual centre of the Islamic world, second only to Baghdad. The historic centre of Bukhara, which contains numerous mosques and madrassas, has been listed by UNESCO as one of the World Heritage sites.
The lived-in old centre is compact, with a conglomeration of bazaars, caravanserais (courtyards), and medressahs within walking distance of one another. Restoration work by the Uzbek government is more subtle and indiscriminate than in Samarkand, and the monuments in Bukhara remain authentic and original.
Be warned though, Bukhara is extremely popular, so expect to find large crowds if you are visiting in summer. If you can look past the crowd and touts, the beauty of the city is undeniable.
Here are some of the sights worth visiting in Bukhara:
The Ark of Bukhara — A massive fortress in the historical city built and occupied around the 5th century AD.
Kalyan minaret — Standing at 45m (147 ft) high, the minaret dominates over the historical centre of the city and can be seen from vast distances over the flat plains of Central Asia. To get to the top, you can climb the brick spiral staircase that twists up inside around the pillar.
Ismail Samani mausoleum — Built in the 9th century, this is the resting-place of Ismail Samani — the founder of the Samanid dynasty. The site is unique for its architectural style, which combines both Zoroastrian and Islamic motifs.
Lab-i Hauz ensemble — Along the north side of the pond, you’ll find the 16th century Kukeldash Madrasah, the largest in the city. On the eastern and western sides of the pond are a 17th century lodging house for itinerant Sufis, and a 17th century madrasah.
Khiva — a walled city that transports you through time
What makes Khiva stand out from anywhere else in Uzbekistan is that the entire old town is located within a walled city. All of its mosques, medressahs, and minarets are packed within a walkable, square-walled grid, whose foundations were laid in the 10th century BC. There are more than 94 mosques and 63 medressahs in the old town Itchan-Kala (which translates to mean “within the wall”).
With its hodgepodge of sand-coloured walls and clay houses, desert surroundings, and larger-than-life monuments, this atmospheric town resembles the setting of Game of Thrones. Wandering around, it’s easy to be transported through time and civilization, as you conjure images of traders dressed in turbans and robes sauntering around with their camels and goods, bartering in the bazaars surrounding the mosques and medressahs.
Getting to Khiva is not easy, though. Sandwiched between two major deserts, Khiva is tucked away in the western corner of Uzbekistan, a long way from the other main destinations in the country and you need to go that extra mile to get here — but trust me, it’s well worth it.
Here are some sights you can’t miss when in Khiva:
City walls — A great number of sections of the city walls have been destroyed, but a part 2.2km (1.3 mi) long has been preserved and can actually be walked on. The oldest parts of the city wall date from the 5th to 6th century BC.
Kuhna Ark — This fortress was the royal residence from as early as the 12th century up to the 17th century. The watchtower offers the best view of the historical city, especially at sunset.
Tosh-Hovli Palace — This palace, which means “Stone House,” contains Khiva’s most beautiful interior decoration, including ceramic tiles, carved stone, and wood.
Kalta Minor Minaret — One of the most beautiful minarets in the country, it’s decorated with mosaic tiles coloured with different shades of blue and green.
Juma Mosque — A unique mosque built in the 10th century, it was reconstructed in 1788–89. Its iconic hall still retains 112 columns taken from ancient structures. It’s worth climbing up the minaret for a panoramic view of the city.
For architecture lovers and history buffs, you definitely can’t miss these three cities on your next trip to Uzbekistan.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Uzbekistan encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.
Header image courtesy Eric H.