Photo: A tomb for a tyrant
The Gur Emir, with its glorious blue melon-ribbed dome was not meant to house the body of Temur. He wanted to be interred in his home town of Shahrisabz but, just as Samarkand at that time was dominated by his presence in life, so it became with his death and the body of the "Ruler of Half the World" was placed in the crypt below the beautiful cupola with its 64 ribs covered in exquisite turquoise tiles.
He lies there surrounded by two of his sons, his grandson and his spritual mentor. No doubt he died thinking his dynasty would last for ever - in reality it was to fade away in a remarkably short space of time and, in little more than a hundred years, the last of his descendants to hold power over Transoxiana was living in exile in India (where he became the founder of the great Mughal empire) and the golden age of Samarkand's power and glory was gone.
Also in this section of the city you 'll find the Rukhabad mausoleum, built by Temur to house the tomb of a great Sufi mystic. Known as "The Abode of the Spirit", the mausoleum's plain exterior is typical of Sufi shrines and hostels in its unadorned simplicity.
Recent times have seen the vodka factory and other Russian buildings nearby demolished and a new park established as a more fitting surround to these significant monuments.
Also nearby are the statue of Temur and the attractive tree-lined avenue with its central park and handsome faculty buildings that line University Boulevard.
Kunjak bath is from XVI. century. Try it after hours when whole bath is for you! Just talk to an employee (russian needed). It's great experience and price is good. For two persons with private massages we paid approx. 15$.
Soaring high above the ancient buildings of Khiva, the Islam Khodja minaret is actually the newest of all the buildings in this extraordinary place. Completed in only 1910, it was the last of the architectural wonders of all Central Asia's khanates to be built -and it too has a typically bloody history. Commissioned by a man renowned and loved for his generosity, it was not finished before he was assassinated and, in a final barbarous act, the architect was buried alive on the orders of the khan to cover up his own complicity in the benefactor's murder.
Within 25 years of its completion, the world that allowed such barbarity, was gone, the khan deposed and the juggernaught of Sovietisation had rolled over Khiva. Within another 25 years, the walled city had been emptied of all its living inhabitants and turned into an open museum, inhabited only by the ghosts of the past. The end of the 20th century saw the end of Soviet rule and now Khiva is ruled once more by its own people. The inner city has survived all these changes to become the most intact survivor of a world that is gone forever. Trucks thunder along the byways of the Silk Road these days, and those who come here to stay a night or two arrive in air-conditioned coaches but step through the gates and walk in the shadow of the minaret and you can't help but feel you have stepped back in time.
Khiva's khans were a law entirely to themselves even as late in the 19th century when, like other rulers in this region, they became pawns in the Great Game of Central Asian diplomacy as Britain and Russia jockeyed for control over the lands to the north of India. The khanate of Khiva was particularly noted for the cruelty and barbarity of its rulers - tales of unspeakable acts against both their own subjects and foreigners abound. Assassinations and rebellions dogged the dying years of the khanate until it finally became part of Uzbekistan in 1924.
This bloody history seems a million miles away from the hushed streets and exquisite buildings of the little city. An extraordinary minaret, banded with blue and green tiles, soars like a lighthouse stranded thousands of miles from the sea above the turquoise dome of the madrassa, now a museum, below. Glorious blue and white tiles in myriad patterns decorate the iwans and chambers of palaces and the mausoleum of a 14th century wrestler-saint. Intricate lacy carving decorates soaring wooden columns and, in the Jumeh mosque, a silent forest of the same columns, some of them hundreds of years old, stretches into the darkness of the furthest corners. In a quiet courtyard, small boys learn the woodcarving techniques of their grandfathers and in a madrassa-turned -workshop dye bubbles in copper pots on an open fire for the silk that will become a carpet or a suzani embroidered with great skill and a marvellous sense of design and colour.
A visit here takes on a dreamy pace, the heat and the stillness, Uzbek tourists in traditional dress - silk parasols held high against the sun, a bride and groom leading their wedding party through the streets, prayers murmured in the saint's shrine. As you drift from mosque to madrassa, from palace harem to mausoleum, time and the world outside seem so very far away.
The walls of Khiva rise dun coloured out of their equally dun-coloured desert surroundings. They completely encircle this most remote, intact and untouched of all the ancient cities of Central Asia. To enter through the gates of Khiva is to step into a world that remained undisturbed by any form of modernity until late into the 19th century. Even after it came under Russian domination the walled heart of the city remained a mediaeval anachronism, unchanging and frozen in time. Declared a museum-city in 1967, its people were moved out and the city lost its soul for many years. Visitors then spoke of it being fascinating but sterile. Times have changed again and the city is slowly coming to life once more as people move back in to the houses within the walls.
Children play in the streets and old men sit in the sun. The silent palaces are still museum pieces but more and more madressas have been given over to other uses - hotels and restaurants for the tourists but also workshops and for artisans, schools to teach traditional crafts and community uses such as the local wedding palace and library. In the back streets women sweep the area in front of their houses, washing hangs from balconies and grapevines grow on trellisses. Stay the night in Khiva and walk around these streets in the evening after the day trippers have left and again in the morning before they arrive and you will feel and see the old city coming back to life.
Read the guidebooks and you would think Tashkent was a place to miss. Not so!
If you arrive in Uzbekistan by air, you will land here, the only city with an international airport. Do allow yourself a couple of days at the very least to get to know the city. It may not have the allure of Samarkand or the romance of Bukhara, but it is both interesting and attractive with good museums, a huge and bustling market, lovely parks, two functioning madrassas, a cluster of interesting old mausoleums near the University, a library holding what is acknowledged to be the oldest Koran in the world and a charming, unhurried air about the wide tree-lined avenues of the new city. Behind the Chorsu market you'll find the quiet lanes and alleyways of the remnants of the old city and in the streets around the opera house booksellers and newstands have stalls set up under the trees.
The metro system (the only one in Central Asia) makes it easy to get around, and taxis are cheap. Many of the main sights are within an easy stroll of one another, others, such are just a short taxi ride from the centre.
Religion, royal power and trade - the cornerstones of Bukhara's existence - each one of which has left the city a legacy of stunning architecture - so many wonderful buildings in and around the city you could spend a week here and not see them all. What chance then of seeing any more than the highlights in the usual 1 or 2 days most tourists spend here? If you can keep each one you see distinctly in mind without reference back to some sort of aide-memoire (I find photos of signs very helpful for this) your memory is in much better shape than mine , but some will need no such jog to the grey matter, they are just so distinctive.
The Ismael Samani Mausoleum in photo 1 (considered to be the most significant building in the city, both historically and architecturally) stands in isolation, its entire surface an intricate weave of otherwise unadorned brickwork that is quite unique. The Poi Kalon ensemble on the other hand (photo 2) is a group of building - minaret, mosque and medressah that relate perfectly to each other. The minaret, being the tallest in Central Asia affords fabulous views over the city - it was open to tourists back in 2005, now it's off limits.
There's absolutely no mistaking the Ark - the grim fortress-cum-palace whose brooding presence struck fear into the hearts of all in the days when the Emir's will was all-powerful, there's nothing else anywhere in town (or in all Uzbekistan, come to that) like its huge bastions and massive gateway (photo 3). How different then is the Emir's summer palace, set in rose-filled and tree-shaded gardens on the outskirts of the city? Its pavilions are all museums now but there's enough of the gorgeous decoration - a gaudy mix of eastern and western taste - and royal bling (and don't forget the harem) to bring to hint at the life of luxury and excess that was the norm in days gone by. (photo 4)
You're sure to cross backwards and forwards through the three remaining trading domes many times whilst you're in the city. Do take time to look at them from the outside and, if you can, take a very early morning walk to see them before the traders set up shop for the day and the details of their architecture is hidden beneath the plethora of goods that fill them during the day.
When you think there could not be room for another shop or carpet seller in Bukhara, or another little girl selling her wares outside a mosque - remember that trade has been the lifeblood of this city for centuries. Sitting fair and square at the crossroads of the great trading routs of the Silk Road, caravans from every city from China to Constantinople passed through here and while the scholars in their madrassas bent their heads over their texts, others in the city were wheeling and dealing from dawn till dusk and the city's khans were always full with the caravans of traders laden with goods from all points of the compass.
Just as they are today, the bazaars and arcades to the north-west of the Lyab-i Khauz were stuffed with goods for sale. Only 3 trading domes remain of the dozens that once were here. Then each was dedicated to one particular trade - nowadays they are all much the same with an assortment of goods aimed at the tourist trade - suzanis (embroidered wall hangings), carpets, jewellery, silk scarves, etc. Replacing the markets that have gone, medressas and khans throughout the Old City have become today's bazaars, suzanis are pegged on washing lines under shady trees and carpets hang outside doorways everywhere.
'Huh!' said a woman in Khiva. 'Bukhara - it's a supermarket!' and I suppose it is, of a sort. It's much more fun shopping here though than in any supermarket at home.
Situated at the very centre of Bukhara's Old City, the Lyab-i Khauz is a cool green oasis of ancient mulberry trees surrounding a large pool where ducks swim and teenage boys ocassionally show off by diving in. This is where the life of the ancient city continues as it has done for centuries. Old men sit in the shade with their friends watching and talking the days away. Children play on the statues of camels and have rubbed the ears and hooves of Hoja Nasruddin's ( the wise fool of Central Asian folk tales) donkey down to shiny brass. The chaikhanas are busy all day and into the evening with locals and tourists alike, drinking tea and eating plov. A cobbler sets his outdoor workshop up in one corner while in the shade of a madrassa wall an old man waits on a carpet to play chess with anyone who has an hour or two to spare. Little boys with mobile phones turn the tables on tourists by sneaking off photographs of them.
Give or take an odd intrusion of the 21st century such as this, the daily life of the square has changed little since it was built in 1620 and, just as the locals do, visitors find themselves gravitating here again and again during their time in Bukhara.
Thirteen such khauz's are to be found around the city. Once they were the cisterns in which water brought from the mountains and distributed around the various quarters by a network of canals was stored. The Lyabi-khauz is the central cistern and it, and the small khauz in front of the Emir's Mosque are the only ones that are filled these days. Take a walk around the back streets and you'll find others.
With hundreds of mosques and, at times, just as many madrassas in the city, Bukhara was once the most important religious centre in all Central Asia. Today, although just one madrassa remains open to students and few of the mosques function as places for prayer, Bukhara still holds its place as the spiritual heart of Uzbekistan with the country's most important religious shrine, the Bakhauddin Nakhshbandi complex (photo 1), drawing a constant stream of pilgrims .
The Soviets barely tolerated religion and certainly discouraged religious observance and practice. Their response to the problem of such a large religious presence was to simply let the old city sit undeveloped and neglected in the hope that it would crumble back into the earth from which it was built. Just as the city survived and outlived the depredations of the invaders of the past, so too it has survived and outlived the Soviet regime, with the result that a wonderfuly preserved mediaeval city lies at the heart of modern Bukhara.
Since independence there has been a resurgence of religion and Uzbekistan is nominally a Muslim country. The fervour with which observance to Islam has returned in the east of the country is not matched in the west however, and whilst the prayer halls of some mosques are closed to non-believers there is a generally benign welcome to be found for visitors.
The Emir's Mosque (photo 2) is one such place. Situated across the road from the Ark, it's not always open to visitors but, whereas in 2005 we were made welcome to sit in the shade of its high pillared portico and the guardian was very courteous as he opened the (very clean) ablution room for us for a most necessary stop, on our return in 2009 a young mullah waited patiently whilst we looked inside before he locked the door and hurried off.
An early morning walk found us being guided through back streets to an as-yet unrestored but active quarter mosque (photo 3). The old man who took us there was clearly very proud of the mosque as he pointed out the details of the architecture.
An interesting adjunct to this note on Bukhara's religious life, is the presence in the city of the last Jewish congregations of Central Asia. Two small synagogues serve the last remnants of what was once a large and influential community who first made Bukhara their home in the 12th century. One of these synagogues (photo 4) is to be found right in the centre of the Old City, near the Lyab-i Khaus ( take the lane out of the south-west corner), the other is further to the south-west, near the Jewish cemetery.
Bukhara's position at the crossroads of the great trade routes of Central Asia, has kept the city alive, if not always thriving, through the centuries and of all the cities of Uzbekistan , this is the one with the most layers of history waiting to be explored.
The 19th century British stateman and Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, called Bukhara "the most interesting city in the world" and among Muslims it was known as 'the Holy, the Noble, the Dome of Islam".
Those days of glory are long gone, but there can be no doubt that Bukhara remains one of the most romantic cities anywhere in the world. From the massive walls of the old citadel - known as the Ark, to the fabulously tile-bedecked and domed buildings standing cheek by jowl all around the old city, centering on the lovely mulberry-tree ringed pool of the Lyab-i Khauz where the old men still gather to while away the days with talk and maybe a game of chess, Bukhara quietly holds on to the ways of life that have prevailed here through invasion, decline and its latest incarnation as the restored trading centre of the country as tourism brings new customers to its ancient trading domes and the small shops that fill the cells of the madrassas where once young men studied the Koran. The city's importance as a religious centre is renewed as well, with the biggest of Central Asia's seminary attracting students and Muslim visitors alike.
2009 update It was in Bukhara that we really saw the impact of Uzbekistan's burgeoning tourist industry. Several new hotels and B&Bs have appeared in the old city since we were there in 2005, some of them sympathetic restorations of old houses, others newly built to harmonise with the historic architecture all around. There were certainly more fellow-tourists here than anywhere else we went, nowhere near enough to impact on our enjoyment of the city but Bukhara was definitely the most tourist-oriented of all the places we visited.
Uzbekistan's bazaars are a delight. The market hall is packed with stallholders selling everything from the dried fruit, nuts, bread, sweetmeats, fruit and vegetables that are the backbone of markets everywhere in Central Asia to wedding clothes, thick with gold embroidery for both the bride and groom and stack after stack of the black and white skull caps (doppis) that are worn by men of all ages. Huge piles of folded chapans (the long padded coats worn by young and old in the cold winters here) are stacked waiting for sales that must be hard on a hot summer's day, but the stall-holder will unfold one or two for you so you can see how they are made and warm they must be.
As you walk between the rows you are offered a handful of nuts, sugar-coated dried mulberries (delicious), a sun-dried apricot bursting with flavour, sugar candy of excruciating sweetness and dentist-visit-inducing stickiness. The open area outside the hall is a sea of sacks of dried goods and piles of fresh fruit and vegetables, the meat section not quite so appealing.
Late summer sees more melons than you can imagine piled in long rows and pumkins tumbling in great heaps. County women sell bunches of dried wild herbs and young men play backgammon. The smell of grilling shashlyk is a lot more tempting than the huge bowls of thin foamy yoghurt-soup filled with herbs or apples and green peppers, but the locals seem to enjoy them both.
The scene is repeated in every city and town you visit but there's always something different to enjoy - a travelling circus in Tashkent, bargaining with local women for suzanis in Urgut, in Sharisabz a smiling woman explains how an Uzbek cradle works - no need for nappies here. In Margilan we watched as calico covers were carefully stitched into place over the goods at the end of the day, in an early morning visit in Shahrisabz was chilly enough to make buying one of those chapans seem quite tempting (we didn't).
Far older than the tomb of Temur, and much more a place of pilgrimage still for Uzbek people, is the Shah -i-Zinda - the tomb of the Living King - the centrepiece of the mausoleum complex in Samarkand that also houses the tombs and mausolea of several members of Temur's family - mostly women.
The "Living King" is Qasim ibn-Abbas - a cousin of the Prophet, who came to Samarkand in 676 to convert the people to Islam. He was killed here, and his tomb has been a place of pilgrimage ever since.
The whole complex has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sadly, the rather over-enthusiastic restoration work that has taken place over recent years is putting that status in jeopardy. Certainly some of the work being done is somewhat heavy-handed, but you can't help thinking that, like so much in Uzbekistan, it won't be long before the new rapidly begins to meld in with the old and the spirit of the place, with its ancient aura of devotion and holiness will prevail.
2009 update The scaffolding that clad much of the Shah-i-Zindar on our first visit is gone and the restoration work is done for the time being at least. There no doubt some of it is less than satisfactorywith crude brickwork the result of untrained workers being used to get things done to a deadline and a budget we were told. There is still much that is very beautiful though, especially on the interior walls and domes, and visiting, as we did, at the every end of the day when all was still and silent, no-one else around, you cannot help but be struck by the extraordinary genius of the master ceramicists who created these beautiful houses of the dead.
The Registan - Place of Sand - is Samarkand's great open sided square where three exquiste madrassas vie with each other for which is the most beautiful. Built at different times from the 15th to the 17th centuries, each is subtly different from the other in its decoration and domes, together they create a wonderfully harmonious whole. Today the vast square is paved and empty of all but small knots of tourists and parties of school children - once it was a teeming market place, and the place where public executions were held.
You will find yourself coming back here time and again during your stay, to venture inside each of the madrassas, perhaps to climb the impossibly narrow and dark minaret and pop your head out at the top for a precarious photo, to watch the effect of the changing light and shadows, to sit on one of the benches and simply gaze in awe at this impossibly grand and beautiful complex of buildings, one of the truly unforgettable sights of the world.
Whilst you're in this locality, you might enjoy a break from sightseeing at the Labi-Gor chaikhana opposite. This is a traditional Ferghana-style chaikhana with a wide upstairs balcony with a great view of the square. It's more enjoyable during the day than at night, when the music belting out from the nearby function centre will knock any thought of quiet contemplation out of your head.
The little Cap-makers dome behind the Sher Dor is often closed and not really worth more than a photo or two even when it is open. By the time you're reading this, the Samarkand Museum that stood across the road from there will be nothing more than a pile of rubble - whatever the reason behind its demolition, there seem to be no plans for a replacement anywhere in the city and the fate of its treasure house of artifacts is currently unknown.
The most extraordinary building in Samarkand is not one of the great madrassas or mausoleums. All there is as you approach it is a low circular platform of brickwork and a small, unassuming portico, all that remains to indicate that here was once the observatory of Temur's grandson, Ulug Beg - Uzbekistan's astronomer-king - who was the greatest astronomer the world had seen since the time of Ptolemy. From this place over 1000 stars were plotted and mapped, eclipse tables drawn up and the stellar year measured with an accuracy that is barely bettered by the most sophisticated modern technology.
A deep narrow chamber in the ground reveals the underground section of the huge quadrant that formed part of the astrolabe used to take the measurements that enabled these calculations to be made. A small museum sets out information about the observatory and Ulug Beg's life and nearby there is the grave of the Russian archaeologist whose dedication to the task led to the rediscovery of the observatory in 1908.
Not far from the observatory, the mud-brick remnants of ancient Afrosiab - the Sogdian city that predates Islamic Samarkand - lie silent and mysterious under a grassy hill. You need an archaeologist's eye to really appreciate the site but, in the company of a good guide and a with a preliminary visit to the Afrosiab museum, it certainly adds another dimension to your appreciation of the city's long history.
Even more mysterious is the 18 metre long tomb of the Old Testament prophet, Daniel. You'll find that shrine on a hillside on the northern side of Afrosiab, hidden away in a steep sided ravine cut by the River Siab, about 15 minute's walk from the Afrosiab museum.
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