The same is true in Tashkent where every trip to Uzbekistan begins. Located in the northeast of the country, not far from the border with Kazakhstan, the capital is famous for its bazaars including that of Chorsu, located not far from the Koukeldash madrassah. Tashkent also preserves one of the three statues of Amir Timur, better known as Tamerlane (1320 or 1336 – 1405), legendary figure in Uzbekistan and bloodthirsty Turkish-Mongol conqueror, at the origin of the Timurid dynasty. Never defeated, it is estimated that he put to death between one and seventeen million adversaries (i.e. 5% of the world population at the time), sparing only local artists and craftsmen, as long as They will settle in Samarkand.
From Tashkent, a flight to Urgench, an oasis located on the edge of the Amu Darya, then allows us to reach the first highlight of the trip: Khiva. For caravanners, this town was the last stop before crossing the desert towards the Caspian Sea. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Khanate of Khiva was founded and remained, although weakened after the Tsarist occupation in 1867, until 1920 and its attachment to Bolshevik Russia.
The inner city of Khiva
Inside the city itself, the Itchan Kala (“inner city” in Turkish), a formidable fortress covering 26 hectares, was created in the 10th century. The Djouma mosque is one of its most remarkable buildings. Built in the 10th century and rebuilt in 1788, it is a large one-story brick building with a flat roof, supported by 212 wooden columns in seventeen rows. Each elaborate column is different. Some of them were salvaged from the original mosque. As for the summer mosque, it is known for its imposing iwan with six imposing columns as well as its decorated ceiling and its blue ceramics. From the Ak Cheikh Bobo (the White Sheikh) bastion, the oldest building in Khiva (12th century), there is a panoramic view of the old town. The building that marks the city is the Kalta Minor minaret (1852-1855) whose construction was interrupted on the death of its sponsor, Khan Mohammed Amin, after whom the neighboring madrasa (Koranic school) bears the name.
If, like us, you have time to delve deeper into the region, head into the Kyzylkum desert to visit various fortresses in the Khorezmian country, namely Ayaz-Kala and Toprak-Kala, today located in the autonomous region of Karalpakstan. The construction of Ayaz dates back to the 4th century BC. From its walls, we can see the ruins of another, more recent fortress, which was undoubtedly also originally a Zoroastrian temple, a religion of which we still find traces in Sunni Islam specific to Uzbekistan.
Bukhara and its carpets
It’s time to take the road to Bukhara. With Khiva, the beauty bar was already high. In Bukhara, we will reach a higher level. Also two thousand years old, Bukhara, whose name could mean “fortunate place” in old Turkish, was one of the main commercial crossroads of the Silk Road. And, given the dynamism of its trade and its crafts currently, we can say that nothing has changed. We will spare you the desires that this oasis has aroused throughout time to move directly to the most important buildings in the city, starting with… a synagogue, recalling the important role played by the Jews, the only ones authorized to handle money and establish the rate of currencies circulating in the city. They developed a particular society which has almost disappeared today, although two synagogues remain active. From the 10th century, Bukhara was the center of Enlightenment Islam, closely linked to personalities such as the physician Avicenna, the poet Roudaki and the mathematician al-Biruni. No less than 140 Bukhari monuments are listed by UNESCO, starting with the Ark citadel, from the 16th century, built on the ruins of another, from the 7th century. The Bolo Haluz mosque, the Magoki-Akari mosque, built on the ruins of a Zoroastrian temple, the Po-i-Kalon complex and its formidable 12th century minaret, 48 meters high, which also served as a watchtower or , the place from which the bandits were thrown away, after having wrapped them in a bag.
The Kalon mosque, with its imposing proportions of 180 m by 80 m, is the largest in Central Asia. Many madrassahs, each more beautiful than the other, complete this quick overview which we will conclude with the Tchor Minor, from the 19th century, with four towers, all different, a small building which constituted the entrance to a medersa whose there’s not much left today.
Before leaving this city, consider taking a trip to the shopping domes and bazaars. Like us, you risk catching buying fever! Don’t forget to bargain! The mats fold up and fit in a backpack.
On the road to Samarkand, a G’ijduvon stop is essential for its ceramists: (the other center of this craft being located in the Ferghana valley, in the very east of the country, a fertile area where Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan meet confuse (and where it is possible to ski).
In general, it takes at least two days to visit Samarkand. At the end of the first, you say to yourself that you have never seen anything so beautiful, not even the Taj Mahal. And at the end of the second day, you have the impression that what you just saw surpassed the beauties of the day before.
The classic visit begins with the mausoleum of Gur Emir, erected by Tamerlane in honor of his favorite grandson, and where he himself rests, followed by Registan. A crossroads of trade routes, Samarkand, since its foundation by the Sogdians in the first millennium BC, was also a crossroads of cultures and religions, a spirit of openness that its inhabitants have preserved until today.
The Sogdians will control most of the caravanserais on the Silk Road, from China to the Byzantine Empire. Paintings from this pre-Islam era have been preserved, notably the one known as “the ambassadors” (6th century) to be seen in the Afrassiab museum.
As has been said, Samarkand owes its most prosperous period to Tamerlane and the Timurid dynasty which resulted from it. The conqueror brought back to the city the remains of the prophet Daniel, whose tomb can be visited. Tamerlane’s grandson, the prince and astronomer Ulugh Beg, had an observatory built, the foundations of which were found in the mid-20th century. His work and that of his scientific team are considered among the most precise of their time.
The Registan is a vast square surrounded by three madrassahs: Ulugh Beg (1417-1420); facing him, Cher Dor (1619-1635) or “Gate of the lions”; in the background Tilla-Qari, “covered with gold” (1647-1659). Entire pages would be needed to describe the place.
And what can we say about the Shah e Zindeh necropolis, located on the archaeological site of Afrassiab, except that this set of mausoleums and mosques built in the 14th and 15th centuries seems to us to be the most beautiful place we have ever seen . The most remarkable mausoleums, but all are, are those of Touman Aka (1405) and Koutloug Aka (1361), two of Tamerlane’s wives, with their facades richly decorated with enameled and sculpted ceramics, enameled bricks, calligraphic inscriptions in Arabic and Persian, floral and geometric designs. Gorgeous !
And, with all this, we have not even mentioned the problems that the country has to resolve, in particular those linked to the ecological catastrophe that is the disappearance of the Aral Sea, victim of the thoughtless irrigation of these two rivers, the Amu-Darya and the Syr-Darya, during the Soviet era, when the cultivation of cotton, which was very water-intensive, was imposed. Today, Uzbekistan is focusing on fruit growing, which is less “thirsty”, while its researchers are trying to develop cotton that can grow without much water.