Silk Road 4 – The majestic cities of Bukhara and Samarkand

Bukhara and Samarkand are probably the two most visited and famous cities in Central Asia. And rightfully so, as their mosques and madrassas show a mesmerizing collection of azure mosaics, turquoise domes, rich tile work and tall minarets, Islamic architecture at its most elegant and refined. It is not just one or two major sites, both cities are loaded with vast madrassas, mosques and old markets. But if you visit Bukhara in the summer, remember, it is really hot!! Hard for those muslims who were fasting on Ramadan.

I first visited Bukhara, which already in the 9th and 10th centuries was at the heart of Islamic culture and religion. Scholars such as Avicenna studied in the city. The fortified Ark used to be the residence of the Emir, and also housed a mosque and a prison. Leading to the Ark is Registan, medieval Bukhara’s main square, where, infamously, frequent executions were performed (including two British emissaries in the 19th century).

The Ark

Probably the most well-know landmark in the city is the Kalon Minaret. Even Genghis Khan was impressed by its height and beauty, and he spared it from destruction when his forces razed the whole city to the ground in 1220. A little tilted, it still stands today next to a mosque that was added later (the original didn’t escape Genghis Khan).

Kalon Minaret and Mosque

Opposite the Kalon Minaret is the vast Mir-i-Arab Madrassa, also a good example of beautiful Islamic architecture and turquoise domes. It still works as a madrassa to this day.

Mir-i-Arab Madrassa

After a few days, I left hot Bukhara really impressed by its sheer beauty, and continued my journey to the other highlight in Central Asia: Samarkand. Perhaps no name is so evocative of the Silk Road to Europeans, just hearing it echoes exoticism, grandeur, beauty. Among those who helped spread the legend was Ruy González de Clavijo, a Spanish traveller and writer sent as an ambassador by King Henri III of Castille to the court of Tamerlane. A central street in Samarkand is dedicated to his memory.

The Registan is the most famous square, and the heart of the city. It is surrounded by three awesome mosques and madrassas. There are a few benches outside the square where people gather for watching sunset over this impressive setting:

Registan square

Shir Dor Madrassa in Registan square

Inside the Tillya Kari Mosque you can appreciate the beautiful tile work in gold and blue. There is also an exposition showing photos of how the city used to look pre-1940’s: the buildings crumbling and the Registan full of merchants. Now everything is restored, and some people complain  that too much, losing character.

Tillya Kari Mosque and Madrassah

Also in Samarkand is the mausoleum of several Timurid leaders, including Tamerlane, the great warrior and founder of this vast empire.

Gur Emir Mausoleum

Mausoleum at Shakh-i-Zinda

The necropolis of Shakh-i-Zinda contains a series of highly decorated mausoleums located in a narrow alley.

The original and holiest shrine is dedicated to Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad who is said to have brought Islam to this area in the 7th century. Tamerlane and his grandson Ulugbek buried family members in its proximity, expanding the ancient site.

Shakh-i-Zinda is an important place for pilgrimage, and you can see muslims praying in the shrine.

A little further from Shakh-i-Zinda is Ulugbek’s Observatory. This ruler of the Timurid empire was also famous as a scholar and as an astronomer. He managed to compile a star atlas with over a thousand stars.

Alongside Bukhara and Samarkand, the third highlight of the country is the city of Khiva, but I didn’t reach it because I felt I had had a good sample of Islamic architecture with these two, and time is always scarce. I’ll tell you more anecdotes about travelling in Uzbekistan in the next post.

Hey, after seeing this pictures, any reader added Uzbekistan to his/her travel wish list?

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Silk Road 3 – Iran

I’m back after a couple of months in countries that ban access to wordpress, decided to catch up!

In Central Asia, I’m meeting amazing travellers. Most of them travel over extended periods of time, through several countries. If you ask them about their favourite country in their route, the answer would almost always be: “Iran”. What makes this country so special? Without a doubt, the friendliness of its people. As one traveller puts it: ‘You are never alone in Iran’. And it’s true, people are always striking a conversation with you, inviting you to their houses or trying to help with anything. For some (Americans especially), just the name Iran sounds fearful, but if you travel to Iran, you must forget all your preconceptions and just enjoy how amazing this country is.

After arriving at Tehran I headed for Isfahan, one of the most impressive cities in the country. According to a Persian proverb “‘Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast” (Isfahan is half of the world). This half of the world can be appreciated in the surroundings of Naqsh-e Jahan Square: one of the biggest public squares in the world, with covered bazaars, impressive mosques, palaces, tea houses and an excellent spots for people-watching.

I was really impressed by Masjed Imam. This was my first time to visit a mosque with this elegant Islamic style, in anticipation to what I would see in Uzbekistan. Awesome!

Masjed Imam

After that, I headed south to see the other must-see city in the country: Shiraz. Just as Isfahan, Shiraz is a testament to the grandeur of the ancient Persian civilisation.

Naqsh-e Rustam

In the surroundings of Shiraz is Naqsh-e Rustam, an archeological site that contains four royal tombs from the Sassanid period, excavated on rock.

Just a few kilometers from Naqsh-e Rustam, lies the ancient city of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the great Achaemenid Empire. At the height of its power it included territories from the Indus Valley to Greece or Egypt in the West. The bas-reliefs in Persepolis still show representatives from all nationalities throughout the empire came to Persepolis with gifts for the Persian ruler.

Persepolis

On the way back to Tehran, I stopped for a couple of days in Yadz. This is a city built almost entirely of adobe, so that it gives the impression of merging with the desert. Yadz is also a centre of Zoroastrianism, with major sites nearby. Actually, Zoroastrians today still make up a significant percentage (5-10%) of the population. I didn’t know much about this ancient religion before travelling to Iran, but in Yadz I had the chance to meet a Zoroastrian who informed me about their basic beliefs. Founded by Prophet Zoroaster, one of the most visible characteristics is fire, because they pray in fire temples. The practise of Zoroastrianism is allowed in modern Iran under the regime led by the Ayatollahs, but only in a discreet way and for members of the community. As other people can’t convert to Zoroastrianism (and of course Zoroastrians are welcome to convert to Islam), the community is dwindling slowly.

After a couple of days in Yadz, I went back to Tehran. In this vast city, you can appreciate modern Iranian life. Young Iranians are surprisingly modern and forward-looking. They dress in the most modern (fake) fashion and circumvent the very stringent laws they’re subject to. And so Iran is a land of contrasts: women may comply with wearing a hijab while the make up their faces to proudly highlight their beauty, people may wave anti-American propaganda and yet love the American people and invite them for tea, the most conservative Islamism alongside the most modern western mindset.

Forget all your preconceptions and propaganda and get your own opinion of Iran seeing this country with your own eyes!!