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Uzbekistan – religious buildings, civic architecture, desert & more!

A large and desert country with the richest history across Central Asia

Capital City Tashkent

With a population of over 2 million people, Tashkent has a strong and rich history, and with some luck on its side it should have a strong and rich future. 

Dating back to between the 5th and the 3rd centuries B.C., this area was settled by the peoples of ancient Persia (now Iran), the Chinese, the Turks, and many others. In early times it was known as the principality of Chach and then went through an Islamic period in the mid-seventh century under the Persian Zoroastrian Samanid dynasty (819–999). In 1219 Genghis Khan, founder and Great Khan (emperor) of the Mongol Empire, found it his duty to destroy the town and kill much of its population. However the city was rebuilt and culture gradually revived and it grew substantially as a strategic town on the ancient Silk Road.  In the early 1800’s it was annexed to the Khanate of Kokan which consisted of modern day Kyrgyzstan, eastern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and southeastern Kazakhstan.

The Russians under Mikhail Grigorevich Chernyayev then felt obliged to conquer the city in the mid 1800’s and Mikhail declared himself  “Military Governor of Tashkent” even though the Tsar was initially against the invasion. Tashkent then became the capital of the new territory of Russian Turkistan.  With the Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, many factories were relocated from western Russia and Ukraine to Tashkent in an effort to preserve the Soviet industrial power.

The city grew substantially under Soviet rule but on April 26, 1966, much of the city was destroyed by a huge 7.5 earthquake. Sadly, due to the earthquake and redevelopment programs by the Soviets, little architectural heritage has survived of Tashkent’s ancient history. Since the breakup of the USSR in 1991 Tashkent has gone through an entire revival and rediscovery of itself. Today Tashkent is a vibrant city with modern buildings, fast cars, glitzy balls, and fortunately a few historical buildings and authentic bazaars are still standing.

Khast Imam complex, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

A stork at the Khast Imam complex, Tashkent

Notable modern buildings in downtown Tashkent include the 22-story National Bank of Uzbekistan, an Intercontinental Hotel, the International Business Center, Xalq Bank, Dom Forum (modern congress hall) and the Plaza Building.  Among the most interesting sights in town are the Khast Imam complex, Kukeldash Madrasah, Telyashayakh Mosque, Yunus Khan Mausoleum, Palace of Prince Romanov, and the bustling Chorsu Bazaar located next to the Kukeldash Madrassa.

Several museums are worth visiting such as the Navoi Literary Museum, Amir Timur Museum, Fine Arts Museum, History Museum, and Museum of Applied Arts.  One of the most beautiful religious buildings is the Holy Assumption Cathedral Church (Uspensky Cathedral) which is not far from the central train station. 

While homestay environment with several rooms arranged around a pleasant inner courtyard outfitted with tables and chairs. Enjoy your stay. Tashkent is a lovely city.

Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Succulent Uzbek figs and grapes at the Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent

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Historic City of Khiva

A rather interesting 19-hour overnight train travels from Tashkent to the town of Urgence from where it is a 30 minute taxi ride to the ancient city of Khiva. The people of Central Asia, including the Uzbeks, are friendly and very hospitable. During long train rides be prepared to act as an entertainer to the entire carriage as people will congregate around a lonely foreigner to listen to stories, see photographs, and to share their food and drinks. While few people speak English across Central Asia, body language with constant smiling opens up the hearts for understanding and for developing fond memories.

Khuna Ark, Khiva, Uzbekistan

The Khuna Ark, Khiva

Modern day Khiva is a city with more than 50,000 inhabitants. The ancient inner city (Itchan Kala) is surrounded by 10-meter-high plastered brick walls whose foundations were laid around the 10th century. The current walls were erected in the late 17th century and have often been repaired and rebuilt since then. In the centre of the city is the Juma (Friday) mosque which was established during the 10th century and rebuilt in the 18th century. However, of the 212 carved wooden columns inside the mosque, several date back to the 10th century while others are from the 15th to 18th century.

While three to four days are enough to explore the entire Itchan Kala with all of its interesting buildings, an additional few days could be spent on exploring the surrounding areas such as the Aral Sea and the town of Moynaq to the north. The Aral Sea was once the 4th largest saline body of water in the world, but over the past 50 Moynaq is about 400 km north of Khiva and is best reached by hiring private transportation.

Khiva has a wide variety of accommodation in Meros which is a lovely old house right in the old city of Itchan Kala, to more grand accommodation such as the Orient Star Khiva and Hotel Malika Kheivak..

Khiva, Uzbekistan

The historic city of Khiva

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Bukhara

There is no train line between Khiva and Bukhara, but a shared taxi takes about five hours to cross the 450 km. Its a lonely and boring road which crosses the desert and half-desert terrain not far from the border with Turkmenistan. Bukhara, with a population of about 270,000, is one of the larger cities in Uzbekistan and certainly also one of the oldest. While settlements in the area were founded in the 6th century B.C., most of the current buildings date back between the 15th and 17th century while some were built during the 9th and 10th century.

Being part of the Persian Empire for many years, many of the current inhabitants can trace back their roots to the Persians. Located on the ancient Silk Road, the city was not only well known for its trade in copper, but also as the intellectual centre of the Islamic world. As such, the city is dotted with numerous mosques and madrases, most notably the Kalon Mosque and Minaret, Ulugbek Medrassa, Abdul Aziz Khan Medressa, Chashma-Ayub Mausoleum and the Bukhara Fortress (the Ark). Bukhara lost some its most precious and ancient structures during the Arab invasion and again when conquered by Genghiz Khan in 1220.

Shaybanid town walls, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Shaybanid town walls, Bukhara

Unlike Khiva, several notable sights are away from the old city of medressa in 1807, its architecture is more Indian in style than Uzbek. In 1998 UNESCO restored one the towers which had collapsed.

The Fayzulla Khojaev house belonged to one of Bukhara’s most famous and  styled as the “House of a Wealthy Local Merchant”.

The Bolo-Hauz Mosque was built during the early 18th century and was a place of prayer for the Emirs and their entourage. The pool in front of the mosque is the oldest part of the ensemble and is one of the few remaining in Bukhara. In honour of this pool the mosque is called Bolo-Hauz, which means “children’s pool.” Its slender, 40 elegantly carved wooden pillars hold up a beautifully restored painted ceiling.

Fayzulla Khojaev House, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Fayzulla Khojaev House, Bukhara

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Samarkand

Close to the border with Tajikistan, with a population of over 300,000, Samarkand is the second-largest city in Uzbekistan after the capital city Tashkent.  Along with Bukhara (and a few other Middle Eastern cities), Samarkand is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Situated on the Silk Road, Samarkand was described by Marco Polo as a “very large and splendid city…” and Marco also wrote interesting tales about Christian churches in the city. 

Just like other great cities in the region, Samarkand was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 B.C. period it recovered and even flourished thanks to the Greek’s superior methods of masonry and other creative initiatives. Then came the Mongols and the fearless Genghis Kahn, followed by another Mongol conqueror named Khan Baraq so it took many decades to recover from these disasters. Fast forward to more recent times: Samarkand city came under Russian rule in 1868 and since then has been under the Soviets for much of the time.

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Ulugbek Medressa (left), Tilla-Kari Medressa (middle), Sher Dor Medressa (right), in Samarkand

Thanks to its rich history, some interesting architecture has been preserved. While the city’s main sightseeing areas are a lot more dispersed than those in Khiva and even Bukhara, they are still within walking distance for travellers who don’t mind the legwork.  Arguably the most interesting is the Shah-groups indicating the city’s cosmopolitan history.

The Russian section, in particular, has some of the most impressive gravestone complete with brilliant stone carved busts and full figure statues. Another highlight in the city is the ensemble of three major buildings in a U-shape arrangement: The Ulugbek Medressa, Tilla-Kari Medressa, and the Sher For Medressa. Also, don’t miss the impressive Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum, as well as a few smaller sites such as the Rukhobod Mausoleum, Bibi-Khanym Mosque and the Bibi-Khanym Mausoleum.  One of the best markets in Central Asia is the bustling Siob Bazaar. Stock up on fresh herbs and spices, breads, and fresh fruits and vegetables. The grapes, peaches and both the yellow and red figs are locally grown, succulent and very affordable.

Shah-e-Zinda, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Shah-e-Zinda, Samarkand

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A few more photos of UZBEKISTAN

Holy Assumption Cathedral Church (Uspensky Cathedral), Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Holy Assumption Cathedral Church (Uspensky Cathedral), Tashkent

Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent

Khuna Ark, Khiva, Uzbekistan

The Khuna Ark, Khiva

Old city walls, Khiva, Uzbekistan

Old city walls Khiva during sunset

Ceramics, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Ceramics on sale in the old city of Bukhara

Smoke blowing woman near Kalon mosque and minaret, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Smoke blowing woman near Kalon mosque and minaret, Bukhara

Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum, Samarkand

Shah-e-Zinda, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Shah-e-Zinda, Samarkand

Further reading: Uzbekistan by Globerovers blog