Of Mausoleums & Minarets

With its magnificent buildings, expansive squares, lip-smacking dishes and relaxed societal norms, Uzbekistan offers a unique experience to travellers of all ages, sex and bent of mind. Saurabh Kumar Shahi reports from Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

One winter morning in Samarkand, ages ago, poet Hafiz Shirazi was sort of semi dragged in the court of Tamerlane. Tamerlane—or Amir Temur as Uzbeks like to call him—was a feared conqueror, and being dragged into his presence was not particularly something anyone would have looked forward too, Hafez included.
A few days ago, Hafiz had penned a new verse. “Agar aan Turk-i-Shirazi ba dast aarad dil-i-maaraa, Ba khaal-i-Hindu-esh bakhsham Samarqand-o-Bukhara” it said in the original Persian. “If that Turk girl from Shiraz agrees to put my heart in her hands, I will squander all the glories of Samarkand and Bukhara for her black mole.” Temur was peeved. Hafiz was asked in a curt tone, “I have strived to make Samarkand and Bukhara as the most magnificent cities in the world, and you fool want to squander it over the mole of a girl?” Hafiz quickly answered, “But Amir it is because of this spendthriftness of mine that I am in such a poor state now,” bringing a smile on Temur’s face.
Jokes apart, even if the mild me had been on the throne instead of Temur, I would have taken an exception. For that is what Samarkand and Bukhara do to you. Quite frankly, this is the epitome of grandeur that the medieval world can offer.
The journey to these magnificent cities— and further to Khiva—starts a bit further East at Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Tashkent was always a magnificent city even during Soviet Union’s time. However, it has added several jewels to its crown lately. What benefits an Indian traveller is that it is less than three hours flight from Delhi to Tashkent via Uzbekistan Airways that boasts of one of the most modern of fleets in Asia. The tickets are understandably cheaper. For such a short flight-time, it is sort of a shame that you don’t find as many Indian tourists as it should have.
Travelling to Uzbekistan is a wholesome experience. There is just that correct mixture of past and present, grandeur and swankiness, history and nightlife that a traveller from India generally looks forward to. From history buff to the party-animal, there is more than a handful for everyone wishing to make a trip here.

buildings in tashkent prepare you for what you are about to see in samarkand and bukhara: amazing masonry and geometrical layouts

In itself, Tashkent remains a modern city. As in a lot of things that were of ancient value was destroyed in the massive earthquake of 1966. While the city was rebuilt in the typical swankiness of Sovietstyle, there are few other attractions that are worth watching. The most important among these are Kukeldash Medressa and Barat Khan Medressa. Both of these are in the old town metres away from the historical Chorsu Bazaar. These buildings sort of prepare you for what you are about to see further in Samarkand and Bukhara: amazing masonry, intricate works on the roof and walls and magnificent geometrical layouts. Equally magnificent is old but recently rebuilt Hast Imam Ensemble. The campus, as the name suggests, is a collection of mosques, library and medressas built in various centuries. This campus also contains the fragments of world’s oldest copy of Quran, compiled by Caliph Usman. Needless to say, this draws lots of tourists—both Muslims and non-muslims.
The adjoining Chorsu Bazaar, as the name suggests, is a magnificent old bazaar that has been active since the days of the magnificent Silk Route. In the league of the Grand Bazaars of Tehran, Damascus and Istambul; Chorsu offers a myriad platter of colour and smell that will leave you overwhelmed. Keep enough space for dry-fruits, daggers, decorative plates and what not. Avoid tourist traps in the other parts of the city and shop at Chorsu. It is important to bargain hard here.
Away from the medieval beauties, Taskent offers an amazing nightlife at the fraction of the cost that one pays in India. It has some really hip pubs, discotheques and restaurant that rubs shoulders with the best in Asia. A more culturally inclined might also like to catch a show at Alisher Navoi Theatre, which was one of the three great theatres of the Soviet time (the other two being in Moscow and Minsk). Tickets are affordable and performances are top-notch. Away from the performances, do spend some time soaking in the architecture and the layout of the theatre itself.

this “broadway” street boasts of scores of street artists, performers and the likes, and is worth taking a stroll in the early evening

Another interesting place to visit is the avenue linking Temir Square and Mustaqlik Square. This “Broadway” street boasts of scores of street artists, performers and the likes, and is worth taking a stroll in the early evening. You can buy some good oil-oncanvas paintings from up-coming Uzbek artists if that is your thing.
Museum lovers will find a handful too. History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan and Amir Temur Museums are worth visiting. While the former gives a detailed view of the history of Uzbek people and the nation, the latter one deals with Tamerlane and his Timurid Empire. It is important to understand here that Uzbeks consider Temur to be their national hero, and take a wholesome view of his exploits, unlike people from those regions that he conquered.
And that also brings us to his capital, Samarkand. While there are many ways one can reach Samarkand and Bukhara from Tashkent, the best and by far the most comfortable way is to take the fast train Afrosiyob from Tashkent Railway Station. Afrosiyob is basically Spanish Talgo Trainset that has the dominance in the world market for trains running at 200-250KM/ Hour. The tickets are very affordable, and the journey is quick, with Afrosiyob hitting 230KM/Hour at its fastest. And Samarkand’s grandeur is felt even before setting the foot inside the city proper. The waiting area of the Samarkand Railway Station gives a glimpse of what’s to come. Lines with trees of pomegranate, apricot and what not, with fountains on all sides, the waiting area looks more like a garden that part of a train station.
As far as the city is concerned, there are very few cities in the world that stand up to the hype they create. Samarkand does that and then some. Like Tashkent, this is a big city, and only parts of it can be transversed on foot. Luckily, taxis and buses are aplenty, and persistent bargain brings down the fare substantially.
As far as hotels are concerned, try and book something closer to the old city. This can save additional cost on taxis. The old city and some parts around it are perfect for walking. There are pedestrian only roads lines with magnificent gardens, which are a delight to walk on.
It is also important to understand here that the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara have an old civilisational relationship with India via Emperor Babur, who is also a local hero here. This civilisational relationship can be seen in language, architecture, cuisine and culture. While Uzbek—a Turkic language—is the lingua franca of Tashkent, it is Tajik—a Persian dialect—that runs Samarkand Bukhara. If you are attentive and have an ear for such things, you will find scores of words that we use in Hindi and Urdu in India. The number of such words is substantially more in Tajik.
The heart of Samarkand is the Registan Ensemble. Registan—guessed it correctly— means desert. It is named so because there used to be a river flowing through this place centuries ago. The reviver dried up leaving a sandy riverbed behind. Hence the name.
As far as the architecture goes, there are very few sights in the world as magnificent as Registan Ensemble. It also serves as the city squares with wide open spaces amidst towering buildings. This ensemble has been rebuilt several times, and are hence in pretty good shape. It also helps that Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva all UNESCO declared World Heritage Sites.
Registan Ensemble consists of three medressas: Ulugbek, Shirdor and Tilla Kari. While they look similar in architecture from the outside, there are small details that separate them from each other and give them character. Shirdor Medresse has images of two lionlike animals (basically a mix of Lion and Tiger) with the rising sun on their backs. This insignia was adapted as the insignia of Timurid Empire and was also used on the flag of the Mughal Empire.
Inside the building, one can see exemplary wood carving and inlaid works. This is a sight to hold and absorb. Set aside enough time to enjoy this wonder. Bang in front is the Ulugbek Medresse made by Amir Ulugbek, grandson of Temur. The Tilla Kari Medresse sits in between with a mosque inside. There are some magnificent examples of marble carving and mosaic work here. The use of glazed and unglazed bricks gives them the colour that they are known for. The minarets, in various stages of decay, are worth a close watch.
Not very far is the crown jewel of Timurid Empire: Bibi Khanum Mosque. Constructed following Timur’s raid of Delhi, the mosque is by far the most imposing building not only in Samarkand but in whole Central Asia. The wide courtyard, tall minarets and a massive dome give it the grandeur that it deserves. Although not in service anymore, the mosque remains an example of Islamic Golden Age in Central Asia.

the cities of samarkand and bukhara have an old civilisational relationship with india through emperor babur, who is sort of a local hero here

For those interested in tomb architecture, Gor-e-Timur or Tamerlane’s Tomb is a great starting point. Built on the concept of Charbagh, this tomb and the layout of Registanultimately became the inspiration for TajMahal in India. And then there is Shah-e-Zindanecropolis that is filled with tombs and mausoleum, each different from the previous one.
Nearby is the tomb of Prophet Daniel. A biblical prophet revered by all the three Abrahamic Religions, this tomb is unlike any. The simplicity of this tomb and its very position over the hill offers visitors a serene and soothing experience. The more religious-minded ones can offer prayers here. Architecturally, there is nothing significant here; except the grave itself which is the longest in the world. Another place of similar interest is the tomb of Imam Bukhari, one of the most important compilers of Hadith, or Prophet’s sayings. This is a must visit for those with a religious bent of mind.
A few minutes’ walk will take you to Hazrat Khizr Mosque. This was the oldest mosque in the region, which was destroyed by Genghis Khan during his conquest of Central Asia. A new mosque was rebuilt centuries later on the old design and is a sight to behold. This place also gives a bird’s eye view of Bibi Khanum Mosque, Siyab Bazaar and the hills around.
However, for me personally, the most interesting place in the city was the Observatory of Ulugbek. Ulugbelk, as mentioned earlier, was the grandson of Amir Temur. However, he was more interested in science than kingship and spent hours working on the problems of mathematics and astronomy. His observatory, now in ruins with only a small part of the extent surviving, was the most advanced in its time. Ulugbek was himself a genius of the first order and his books of stars remains the pride of human history. His measurements were so correct, bot about planetary movements and positions of stars, that even when modern instruments were started to be used, they could only improve his readings by a minuscule fraction. There is a museum outside of the ruins that are worth visiting.
A walk amidst the ancient city of Afrosiyob is highly recommended as well. It is said that the legendary Persian wrestlers, Rustom and Sohrab, were residents of Afrosiyob. There is much to admire here as well, especially the pre-Islamic layouts that were used.
But Samarkand is not only about magnificent buildings. It is an experience worth soaking in. Do set aside ample time to walk through its numerous bazaars. The city is also known for some really good Turkish Baths or Banyas. Service is topnotch and prices are very competitive. However, like everything else, bargaining skills are to be used to the maximum.

it is said that the legendary persian wrestlers, rustom and sohrab, were residents of afrosiob, the ancient persian city that predates samarkand

Bukhara is a quick hour and a half Afrosiyob train-ride from Samarkand. It used to take several hours in the past. Novices would believe Bukhara to be similar to Samarkand in terms of texture and feel. Quick answer, it is anything but.
Except during the rule of Temur himself— and a few of his successors—Bukhara has been the capital of this region for a far longer time than Samarkand. And it shows. Bukhara defies expectations. It breaks preconceived notions. In terms of scale, it might not match Samarkand, but it definitely outdoes it when it comes to variety. It is only natural for Bukhara was the centre of this region for a much longer time than Samarkand. That is why it contains much more cultural amalgamation.
Bukhara’s old town is breath-taking. There are plenty of hotels integrated into this old town, and it is advisable to rent one here than in the new town. There are very few cars in the old town areas, which is otherwise lined with fabulous restaurants and cafes, many of which run in the old buildings.
The Khanate of Bukhara had a rather elongated lifetime and it is evident in the architecture. Also evident is the fact that it was here in Bukhara that the East-West route of the Silk Route used to crisscross North-South alignment of the same. This made Bukhara a melting pot of culture in the real sense. And it shows as well.
Labi Hauz Ensemble is the heart of Bukhara old town where you have a Hauz or pond in the centre surrounded by two magnificent Medrasses on both sides. Kukeldash Medresse was the biggest Islamic seminary in entire Central Asia at its time. Nadir Divanbegi Medresse started as a caravanserai but was soon changed into another seminary. The third side is occupied by Nadir Divanbegi Khankah or the resting place of Sufis and Dervesh. Unlike Samarkand and Tashkent, there is a visible Persian influence as well on the architecture here. The use of sandstone is also prominent here.
A quick 50 metres walk takes you to Taqi Sarrafon or the market of the Moneychangers. A network of allays and a canal passing underground gives it a very different texture from anything that you had seen by now. Nearby are Taqi Furushon and Taqi Zaragon that used to serve historically as markets for cap-sellers and jewellers respectively. All these markets are connected with each other through allays that offers great opportunity to stroll while soaking in the history of the city.
Nearby is the Manghoki Attar Mosque built on the cite of a Persian Fire Temple of the yesteryear. This mosque is the oldest surviving mosque in the Central Asian region and has a distinct Sogdian feel in its architecture.
An interesting aspect of Bukharan life is the presence of the Bukhara Jewish community. There is a functioning Synagogue and a Jewish School nearby where around 5000 Bukharan Jews still reside. Rabbi is very welcoming. The history lesson is of course free.
A few hundred metres walk will take you to what is considered as many as the crown jewel of Bukhara: Kalyan Ensemble. This complex includes Kalyan Minaret, which was the tallest minaret in Central Asia at the time of its construction. It gives a magnificent view even now considering Bukhara is still surrounded by flat Central Asia steppe offering an unhindered view of the surrounding. This minaret has a shape that is very distinct from the Persian minarets, or the later era Ottoman minarets, that populate the Islamic World. In due course, this minaret became the go-to design for several other mosques and minarets that were constructed in the region.
The complex also contains Toqi Zargaron Mosque, which has a curious mixture of Persian and Turkic architecture. The medresse nearby is the most prestigious seminary still running in Central Asia and has several dignitaries as its alumni including the President Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya.

tomb of ismail samani gives a glimpse of the oldest form of islamic architecture before turkic and persian styles had an impact on it

Inside the old town, but a bit outside is Ark Citadel. Ark Citadel was the fortified winter palace of the Emirs of Bukhara. A magnificent citadel made of sandstone and clay, this place also gives an expansive view of the entire old town of Bukhara. There are several sections of this citadel including, pavilions, residences, mint, stable, mosques and what not. Across the road is another ancient mosque with an open pavilion and magnificent woodcarving work on the ceiling.
Inside the old town, there is the mausoleum of Ismail Samani of the Samanids. This tomb gives a glimpse of the oldest form of Islamic Architecture, years before Turkic and Persian architectural elements got amalgamated. Mausoleum of Mohammad Ali Jinnah in Karachi, the Father of Pakistani, is based on this architecture. The garden layout here is not in the Persian Charbagh concept, retaining the flavour of the early Islamic Architecture style.
Outside of the old town are two great complexes. The first one is the Ensemble of Bahauddin Naqshband Bukhari. Naqshband Bukhari was the founder of the Naqshbandi Sufi Tareeqa or order, which is one of the four Sufi orders popular in the world. The complex is expansive with several buildings, tombs and mosques in the campus.
Similarly expansive and magnificent by some magnitude is Sitara-e-Mah-e-Kosa or the summer palace of the emirs. This is more Persian in its texture than Turkic with fine gypsum inlaid work and wood carving visible everywhere. This ensemble also has several buildings including reception and residences for the guests, harem, and residence for the Emir as well as several pavilions and towers. The campus also has several different varieties of trees from all over the world. In summers and springs, this complex has a very soothing feel to it.
Like Samarkand, Bukhara is also a city of Hammams or Public Baths. There are some very affordable ones, including a few unisex Banyas too. The bazaars here are famous for its fruits, especially several varieties of melons and pomegranates. Don’t miss to taste a few.
Next stop after Bukhara is Khiva, the heartbeat of Khwarzem region that is nestled between the cold deserts of Kyzylkum and Karakum. An oasis town that was once the centre for slave trade in this region, this Silk Route city became the bastion of Khiva Khanate later. Khiva is very distinct from Bukhara and Samarkand in every way possible. Although Afrosiyob Fast Train has not yet reached Khiva, it will do so by autumn this year. Till then, one can either take a slow train or cheap flights to the provincial capital of Urgench. From there, Khiva is but an hour drive.
Khiva is divided into two parts: Ichan Qala and Dichon Qala, which is the city within the wall and outside the wall respectively.
Ichan Qala is a walled city surrounded by 6-8metreshigh and 6 metres wide walls. Inside is probably world’s highest concentration of tombs, mosques, residences and madrassas. It will take a day and a half if one decides to visit every one of them. The city itself was destroyed and built several times, and it is worth spending time here amidst magnificent buildings. Particularly impressive are several minarets and Darwazas or gates that lead to the city.
Other important buildings include Juma Mosque, Pahlwan Mahmud Mausoleum, Kalta Minaret, Kuhna Ark, Ismail Khoja Minaret, Shirgiz Khan Medressa and the likes.
Outside of the walled city is Tash Chauli or the first palace of the rulers of Khiva. This recently restored complex has old and new buildings ranging from 14th to 19th centuries. The magnificence of this complex is unparalleled. The receptions, pavilions, harem, residential complex, mint and stables are all extremely impressive. While there is some clear architectural connection with Timurid Architecture, there is a substantial level of independence too.
Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva offer a dazzling experience in totality. Trust me, it will take you days, if not weeks, to get over this experience. However, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are not about old buildings. It has a charm, an energy that stays with you.
One of the things Central Asians pride themselves on is their cuisine. There’s an array of dishes with a regional variation that one can try. While dishes are meat-heavy, there are enough veggies and greens to go with it. Not to mention several types of cheese, curdled-milk and the likes. Uzbekistan’s national dish is Plov or Osh. This is the forefather of our own Pulao and is served all over the country with regional variations. Its close companion is Kazan Kabobs, which is a dish made of sheep’s rib stewed in its own fat and is often accompanied by baked potatoes. Other dishes include Samsa, the meaty brother of our own Samosa. Main dishes are accompanied by various varieties of soups and salads, which are available aplenty. Samarkand is also popular for its wine and cognac. Do buy a bottle or two for back home.
With its devalued currency, Uzbekistan offers a great opportunity for shopping. It offers a wide variety of handicraft, especially decorative plates, each one of which is different from the other. The same goes for exquisitely designed daggers that come in all shapes and sizes, and are legal to be bought and exported. However, the pride of Uzbekistan is its Silk Carpet work which is locally known as Suzzani. While they are expensive, they are still cheaper than what you have to pay for comparatively inferior stuff in India. Keep enough space to buy a few.
Uzbekistan offers something unique, something that you cannot get from your beaten path destinations. A safe and secure country that is very liberal in societal norms, Uzbekistan offers people of all age, sex and bent of mind an experience worth remembering at a price that is jaw-dropping. It would be a shame to miss this
opportunity.