Architecture and art, Middle East, Sightseeing, Trekking

The cradle of Central Asian civilization – a short guide to Uzbekistan

Shah-e-Zinda, Samarkand, Uzbekistan (Unesco world heritage) by Frans Sellies

Shah-e-Zinda, Samarkand, Uzbekistan (Unesco world heritage) by Frans Sellies

It’s the cradle of culture of Central Asia – all infused with history, from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Itchan Kala at Khiva to its capital city Tashkent. Wandering around and getting lost in the local atmosphere means discovering new things every time: that Uzbekistan is one of only two doubly landlocked countries in the world (along with Liechtenstein); that Tashkent’s metro features chandeliers, marble pillars and ceilings, granite, and engraved metal, it’s been called one of the most beautiful train stations worldwide, and each of the three metro stations has its personal design and theme; that turning bread upside down is going to bring you bad fortune, or that handshakes here are only acceptable between two men. 

The people

Despite (or maybe because of?) the extreme poverty in this country – more than 90% of the population have to deal with it – you don’t need to lay eggs here to understand that Uzbeks are amazing people. They’re very warm and always happy with tourists. It’s absolutely adorable how the locals help you make the most of your trip, and unlike in most of the developing countries, people who sell touristic products aren’t aggressive and annoying. On the contrary, the population of Uzbekistan is the 4th happiest on Earth according to Forbes Magazine and despite not making too much money you’ll find them always smiling. It’s true, they’re not experts in English linguistics, but optimism and joy don’t need a Chomsky of their own.

People from Uzbekistan via avantour.com

The mixture of cultures that have made their mark didn’t make them cold and distant, nor skeptical and quiet – Uzbeks have learned that happiness isn’t something that can easily be stolen, they certainly offer it with every occasion instead.

You’ll find that there isn’t phone reception everywhere, but nobody finds it a tragedy. In addition, if you decide to stop somewhere on the countryside where you’ll have to walk some good kilometers to reach a phone booth, you’ll see that it’s all worth it. The views of the villages are stunning, not to mention the mountains surrounding the locals’ settlements – it’s really hard to think of a better spot to chill at the end of a long day.

Two strong ladies in Uzbekistan via Frans Sellies

Two strong ladies in Uzbekistan via Frans Sellies

What to drink? The chai (green tea) is the national hot beverage taken throughout a day, and a must – as it is in most of the Central Asia. It’s the most pleasant means to socialize with the locals. They all seem to open as easily as a teabag when there’s chai involved. As I was mentioning, most of them don’t speak English, not even basic conversations. But since you’ve got technology on your side, it mustn’t be very difficult to talk through an online translator (if you’ve got phone signal).

 Kumus  is fermented mare’s milk and it’s commonly taken on ceremonious occasion for absolutely no reason. It doesn’t contain more alcohol than a beer, and it’s thought to have therapeutic effects.

Uzbek man in traditional clothes by Frans Sellies

Uzbek man in traditional clothes by Frans Sellies

If you thought you’re not capable to profoundly relax and blend in, it’s time you reconsidered this. Sharing the Uzbek’s rhythm of life may mean to lose track of the latest world news or posts on social media – but it’s not worth it to spend your trip to Uzbekistan uploading selfies on Snapchat. Hiking’s one of the best ways to understand the core of this culture, and there are numerous organized tours to choose from. If you opt for the individual wandering, you’ll see that the traditional water-mills and waterfalls perfectly complete the extraordinary panorama even when you’re not very high above their village.

The country

Imagine a state that’s not much larger than California. And now imagine it under communism since until 22 years ago. Although there are still lots of problems the government needs to sort out concerning the public security, on the areas that a tourist has to deal with it’s a very accessible country that should raise no particular problem.

Being part of the Silk Road is another very popular argument when it comes to the culture of this state as well as the historical relevance. Bukhara, Khiva, Tashkent, Termez, Urgench or Fergana could prove you in an instant that being a land beacon along the Silk Road tells a story of cultural exchange and perpetual inducement.

Uzkeb Architecture by Ben Smethers

Uzkeb Architecture by Ben Smethers

There are many places to be visited, and the capital’s no exception. Tashkent is becoming more and more popular for its cosmopolitan life style. If you ever get here, don’t miss the cultural events – they’re not only very cheap, but also spectacular. Most of the cultural representations are high-quality productions. But since the theater isn’t the main reason why you’d visit a country, what’s of really major cultural relevance are Samarkand and Bukhara, the living proof of the national complex identity.

One of the greatest pragmatic advantages is the very cheap accommodation you’ll find at every turn. Hospitality is a very important value of Uzbeks and that’s why you’ll find all the services from the most expensive hotels to the cheapest B&Bs impeccable. The stay’s authentic and if you’ve decided to visit the authentically cultural areas, you’ll still have some money for accommodation in Tashkent for a couple of nights. The food can become repetitive if you stay for more than one week in a single place, but most of the travelers decide not to – diversity, cultural as much as gastronomical  – is easily found when you’re on the road as much as possible.

Uzbek Architecture by Ben Smethers

Uzbek Architecture by Ben Smethers

The Architecture

Itchan Kala the inner town of the old Khiva is inscribed in UNESCO in 1990

The town, protected by brick walls, was the last resting-place of caravans before they crossed the desert to Iran. The old Khiva oasis is one of the most coherent, well preserved and stunning example of Muslim architecture in the entire region of Central Asia. Many of the 51 ancient structures are magnificent, and the Djuma Mosque, the mausoleums or the madrasas and the two great palaces from the 19th century are a must for every visitor.

But the number of surviving monuments is merely one of the many reasons to qualify Itchan Kala as a proper touristic destination. What gives the entire architectural heritage and such great importance is the crucial contribution of the Khorezmian master builders. The enclosed houses with their specific courtyard, the reception room with portico or avian supported by sensitively sculpted wooden posts are a compose a truly unique representation of the domestic architecture of Khiva.The private apartments and their layout are a proper field of study for the distinguishing characteristics of the property in its 18th and to 20th century morphological versions.

Architecture in Uzbekistan by Jose Javier Martin Espartos

Architecture in Uzbekistan by Jose Javier Martin Espartos

What makes the town extraordinary is the manner in which all these elements form a very harmonious urban composition, by the way the new contrstructions are integrated with the traditional structure of this town. The testimony to the lost civilizations of Khorezm is kept with literal integrity. The monuments of Itchan Kala are the living proof of the evolution of Islamic architecture from the 14th to the 19th century. Along with its undisputed authenticity, the town is a textbook example for the study of Central Asian settlements when it comes to belonging to a broader genre as well.

Tashkent Khast Imam Mosque contains the Uthman Quran considered to be the oldest extant Quran in the world dating from 655

The entire Khazrati Imam Architectural complex is worth a visit, so whatever plans you’ve got for this country should include this splendor of a historic site. It consists of the ‘Barakhan’ madrassah, the tomb of Kaffal Shashi, ‘Namogzah’ mosque, along with the recently elevated ‘Hazrat Imam’ mosque. Over 20 craftsmen are going to lure you with their offer in hand made products inside the court of Barakhan Madrassah – from ikat fabrics to jewelry, there’s not much you won’t find here.

Architecture in Uzbekistan via Jose Javier Martin Espartos

Architecture in Uzbekistan via Jose Javier Martin Espartos

You can’t decide what, between the overwhelming sense of calm and the blue mosaics, impresses you most. The gardens, as if taken out from fairy tales, are crawling with storks and fruit trees with cherries, apricots and white mulberries. The spiritual feeling surrounding the entire complex is spectacular, as for the people – they always make this experience even more personal. The oldest Holy Quran in the world, the manuscript you’ll find in Tashkent dates from the 8th century, and it’s believed to have belonged to the third Calph, Uthman ibn Affan, according to the local Uzbek Muslims.

Telyashayakh Mosque (Khast Imam Mosque), Tashkent by Imran

Telyashayakh Mosque (Khast Imam Mosque), Tashkent by Imran

The mosque in the complex is best visited as part of the tour of the complex including the more ornate Hazrat Iman Mosque (elevated in 2007). Here you’ll find the Muy Muborak Library containing the world’s oldest Koran, the 16th century Barak Khan Madrassa, along with the tomb of Kaffal Shashi. You’ll find the artisan workshops as well worth a look – the quality of the workmanship is excellent, they’re really exceptional even for the locals.

“Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells When shadows pass gigantic on the sand And softly through the silence beat the bells Along the Golden Road to Samarkand”

The entire historic center of Samarkand is declared as a UNESCO world heritage site since 2001. It is one of the oldest inhabited cites in the world ( 2750 years). There are very few names to invoke such romance and Bohemia as this place. From scholars to tyrants, from travelers and poets, everybody’s been chasing this place as if it was some kind of legendary place. And they were right – the evidence of the city’s extraordinary history of over two and a half millennium reveals itself with every step from the decaying remains of Marakanda – the old Greek city – to the imposing monuments of the Islamic Renaissance.

The Registan by Carol

The Registan by Carol

Registan, Samarkand’s main square, is one of the most magnificent sights in Central Asia, so frenzying with culture. The Mausoleum of Gur E Amir (Timur) is an glorious place in the history of Islamic Architecture, as the precursor and the model for Humyan’s Tomb in New Delhi and Taj Mahal’s Agra.

The best thing to do here is take an afternoon stroll throughout Registan Square, just to walk aimlessly while admiring the buildings which have passed into legend – the atmosphere you’ll feel now somehow manages to reflect the same opulence and grandeur that have attracted so many visitors over the years.  And if you’re really in the mood for roaming around, the small town of Shakrisabz is what you’re looking for: being the birthplace of Tamerlane, history has made it a symbol of this tyrant’s colossal power.

Ak-Saray Palace, the former summer palace of Timur by Kelly Cheng

Ak-Saray Palace, the former summer palace of Timur by Kelly Cheng

Located just South of Samarkand, acrodd the Zerafshan Mountains, the remains of some of the former gargantuan buildings still guard the town. The 45 meters high portal of the Ak Saray Palace will welcome you with its old, rusty Kufic inscription still proclaiming that ‘The Sultan is the Shadow of God’.

Bukhara: The entire ancient and historic center is inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1993. About 140 protected buildings spanning a thousand years of history. Visiting the oldest Hammam (Turkish Bath) in the world and it is continuously used since over 1000 years is an experience by itself.

The city museum is located on the Silk Road, and it’s the most outright example of a Central Asian medieval city: its urban fabric has remained intact and the monuments of largest interest include the famous tomb of Ismail Samani – a masterpiece of the 10th century Muslim architecture – as well as a large number of 17th century madrasas.

The Ark, by Carol

The Ark, by Carol

Except for a few remarkable vestiges dating from before the Mongol invasions in the 13th century, the old town bears witness to the most complete forms of urbanism and architecture, perfectly integrated with the monuments from the 16th century onwards.

Of all the monuments, the Ark Citadel of the emirate stands proud from the Resigtan Square, and it’s Bukhara’s oldest structure, since it was their home for over a millennium. Rebuilt in the 16th century, it represents the jocund nature of the locals, and their probity in harder times.  The city museum of Bukhara is most likely going to impress any visitor with its opulence and splendor – an Ark that is said to be as old as the province itself. Fallen and rebuilt time after time, the structure’s the symbol of the national integrity.

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