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