At the heart of the Silk Road: Samarkand – Bukhara – Khiva

This is my travel account (and photos) for the Silk Road trip that I did back in 2008, definitely one of the most incredible trips in my life.


“To follow the Silk Road is to follow a ghost. It flows through the heart of Asia, but it has officially vanished, leaving behind it the pattern of its restlessness: counterfeit borders, unmapped peoples.” – Colin Thubron

A few roads can inspire and evoke distant images as the Silk Road does. As Luce Boulnois mentions in her splendid book “Silk Road”:
“The phrase “Silk Road” still conjures up images of romance and mystery; it resonates with names such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, al-Khwarizmi and Marco Polo, and it evokes the human spirit of exploration and discovery of a magical bygone age.”
Place names as Samarkand, Bukhara or Khotan continue to fascinate with the richness of their history, the authenticity of their traditions, and the artistic splendour of their monuments.” – Adapted from the book

This network of overland and marine routes that stretch for over 8,000 kilometres between China and the eastern shores of the Mediterranean through present-day Central Asia, Iran, and parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan bears witness to an unprecedented commercial and cultural exchange, where goods as well as ideas, inventions, arts and beliefs were transmitted through a multitude of merchants, warriors, envoys, monks, refugees, pilgrims, captives, slaves, highwaymen and explorers.

Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shamanism, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, & Islam all co-existed and, at times, intermingled over long centuries.
Funny enough, the term “Silk Road” appeared only later by the German Geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877, long after the actual Silk Road was gone!

I. My Journey Begins: Camel on the Silk Road

One of the world’s only two doubly-landlocked countries, Uzbekistan is –approximately- bound by the Amu-Darya River (Gayhun) to the south and the Syr-Darya River (Sayhun) to the north. The Greek name Transoxiana (which means Beyond the River Oxus) is the same as the Arabic name Bilad ma waraa al-Nahr…Oxus is the Greek name for the Amu-Darya, and Jaxartes the Greek name for Syr-Darya.

What is it about these cities that fascinate people since antiquity?

II. A Tale of Two Cities: Samarkand & Bukhara

“Everything I heard about Marakanda (Samarkand) is true, except that it’s more beautiful than I ever imagined” – Alexander the Great

That was in 329 BC, but the splendor came to a tragic end when Genghis Khan defeated the Khorezm-Shahs, plundering Samarkand in 1220.

A phoenix in every sense of the word, Samarkand was resurrected when Timur (Tamerlane) made it his capital in 1370. The construction of monumental palaces, mosques and madrasas, and the encouraging of sciences, arts and culture by Timur, Shah Rukh and Ulugh Beg eventually gave Samarkand many titles: “Pearl of Islamic World”, “Eden of the Ancient East”, “Rome of the East”, etc.

In the 16th century, the Uzbek Shaybanids moved the capital to Bukhara, eclipsing the glory of Samarkand, which fell into long negligence and oblivion, with its name romanticized only for its skyline of blue domes and its strategic location on the Silk Road.

“By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand” – James Flecker


“Bukhara is a mine of knowledge
Yielding knowledgeable nobles”
– Jalaluddin Rumi

Once the capital of the Samanids in the 9th and 10th centuries, it became Central Asia’s religious and cultural heart, nurturing the likes of Ibn Sina, Firdausi and al-Bukhari.

It suffered the same fate of Samarkand when, in 1220, Genghis Khan sacked it, sparing only the Kalon Minaret which so much impressed him.
It flourished again in the 16th century under the Uzbek Shaybanids, with dozens of bazaars, caravanserais, over 100 medrassas and more than 300 mosques.

III. Samarkand…Flying in a Blue Dream

A beautifully-restored house/caravanserai serves as my hotel. Dead calm night, and rightly so, because 100 meters away rest the mortal remains of a king of kings underneath a breath-taking fluted turquoise dome that I can see from my room terrace: Timur (Tamerlane) sleeps the sleep of death, along with 2 sons and 2 grandsons, including the legendary Ulugh Beg.

I tremble as I remember what I have been told. When the Soviet anthropologists opened Timur’s crypt, the curse hit hard and Hitler attacked Russia the day after. An Uzbek version of the Tutankhamen Curse?

The blue dream continues at Bibi-Khanym Mosque with its deep blue domes, named after Timur’s Chinese wife, Bibi-Khanym. Timur wanted it to be the biggest ever, and eye-witnesses claim 90 elephants from India were used to move stones around. Legend has it that the architect fell in love with Bibi-Khanym and refused to finish the construction unless he kisses her!

Then came Shah-i-Zinda (The Living King) which –supposedly- houses the grave of Qusam ibn Abbas, a cousin of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that brought Islam to the area in the 7th century. It’s arguable, but what’s unquestionable is the stunning collection of blue facades and domes and some of the finest mosaic tiling in the world!

Three awesome monuments, but the best was yet to come: The Registan Square (overed in part IV below).

The Jewish Quarter and Old Samarkand reward the curious with a synagogue and a handful of mosques where I came to encounter a truly “Islamic Column” for the first time ever! It’s not a recycled column, but rather, a slim carved wooden column that resembles a slim tree trunk. Minarets are –usually- free standing, separate from the mosque. From Hazrat Hizr and Aksakal (White Beard) Mosques to Imam and Hoja Nisbaddor Mosques, all was so beautiful.

Timurid architecture (14th and 15th centuries) lends Samarkand its glory as Timur’s capital: Free-standing pishtaks (monumental arched portals) flanked by tower-like columns…gigantic fluted azure domes, oblong with calligraphic bands adorning their drums…tons of majolica in every floral, geometrical, and even animal motif ever imaginable against a background of blue…a blue dream…

IV. Samarkand’s Showpiece: The Registan

Samarkand is the heart of the Silk Road and the Registan is the heart of Samarkand. Does that give you any idea about just how awe-inspiring the Registan is? No it doesn’t! You have to see it for yourself to believe it.

Funny enough, the Registan -which is the site of the largest religious ensemble in the world- used to be a plaza for public executions: Registan means Sand Place in Tajik, because sand was strewn to soak up the so much blood that was shed there.

In 1420, the Ulugh Beg medrassa was completed, a masterpiece by Kovamiddin Shirazi who did the job in 3 years. Adorned with enough majolica to embellish a city, the star motif on the portal is a tribute to Ulugh Beg, an astronomer who, instead of burning cities like his grandfather (Timur), shifted his attention to a more graceful realm: The night sky.

In 1636, a second medrassa was completed by Abduljabbar opposite the Ulugh Beg medrassa for the order of the Shaybanid ruler Yalangtush Bakhodur. One look is enough to tell that it was meant to be a mirror image of Ulugh Beg’s medrassa except for 2 domes and a change in motifs: Instead of stars, there are 2 lions chasing deer with the sun (a Mongol face) witnessing the scene, and hence the name: The Sher Dor medrassa (The Lion medrassa).

This medrassa took 17 years to build, but still, didn’t quite match Ulugh Beg’s medrassa in splendour and solidity. Yalangtush ordered another medrassa: The Tillya Kori medrassa (Gold-covered medrassa) finished in 1660, dominating the rear space between the 2 other medrassas, forming a U shape with them.

I can spend ages talking about the tricks of composition, the linear and aerial perspectives, the very fine ornament, the hues and shades of blue, the exquisite motifs, the phenomenal grandiosity, the flowing calligraphy, the exuberant tilework mosaic, but the photos can do better.

V. In the Court of Samarkand’s Astronomer-King: Ulugh Beg

You must have heard of Poet-Kings like al-Maamun of Baghdad and al-Mutamid ibn Abbad of Seville, but what about an Astronomer-King?

And not just any astronomer, and not just any king: Mirza Muhammad ibn Shah-Rukh ibn Timur, aka Ulugh Beg, is the grandson of Timur (Tamerlane). He ruled over most of present-day Uzbekistan and sponsored a golden age: He patronized poets, miniaturists, scientists and scholars from all over Central Asia and Iran, and built 3 medrassas (schools), inviting scores of his age’s best minds to lecture there. He also standardized the coin, stabilizing a medium of exchange that helped trade flourish.

More than just an astronomer, he was a mathematician, a poet, and a lecturer whose astronomical tables were described as ‘the greatest ever till Tyco Brahe’. I visited the remains of his 15th century observatory, known as Gurkhani Zij, dominating a hill in Afrosiab, Samarkand, and was stunned by its scale. It comes as no surprise given the legacy he inherited: The works of astronomers and universal men like al-Biruni, al-Sufi, al-Khwarizmi, Ibn Sina, Thabit ibn Qurra, to the end of the list.

Sadly, this noble scholar met a cruel end: Killed by his own son, Abdul-Latif, who -in turn- got massacred by his own people later on. But the legacy of Ulugh Beg survived: A crater on the moon was named after him in 1830, and thus his memory lives on among the start that he watched night after night

VI. My Name is Bukhara…Call me Splendid

I am the pride of Central Asia…the Jewel of Turkestan…
I am a holy city of antiquity…I’m the Pillar of Islam…Buxoro Sharif…
I am the closest you can get to experiencing One Thousand & One Nights…
I am the dream of caravans and pilgrims…
I so much impressed Genghis Khan that he spared my minaret…
I so much enchanted seekers of knowledge that they flocked to me…
The splendour of my medrassas and minarets is exceeded only by the richness of my fanciful and fragrant bazaars selling everything under the sun…
I am the earthly Eden with heavenly grace and a fancy skyline…
My name…is Bukhara.

From the moment I set foot in Bukhara, I became a ‘muree’ (devout follower), and I knew it would be in great sorrow that I should part with this gem of a city. No wonder Avicenna (Ibn Sina) spent his childhood here, while al-Bukhari and al-Zamakhshari studied among others in its 100+ medrassas.

From the 9th century Magokhi Attar Mosque with its mysterious Zoroastrian symbols to the 19th century Chor Minor with its compact elegance, Bukhara’s monuments span over ten centuries. Wandering around its bazaars is a sensual pleasure and an “aromatic” experience where the smell of spice fuses with that of grilled shashlik (chicken / mutton kebabs on skewers).

A maze of alleys with the occasional Chai-khanas (tea-houses) leads you from one taqi (covered market) to another: Taqi Sarrafon (moneychangers), Taqi Telpak Furushon (cap-makers) and Taqi Zargaron (jewellers)…and it gets even more labyrinthine in the Old Jewish Quarter.

The exquisite colourful peacocks adorning Nadir Divanbegi Medrassa’s façade are no less hypnotic than the sound of water flowing into the tree-lined Lyabi Hauz (Tajik for Around the Pool), which is even more charming at night, when hundreds of people sit cross-legged on tapchans, all-waiting for a hearty dinner in the plaza dominated by the shimmering pool.

My favourite places in Bukhara have beautiful stories…here we go.

VII. Tales of Pain & Passion from Bukhara

A spacious and impressive plaza in Bukhara has an intense memory, a tale of Pain and Passion…

PAIN: It’s the 13th century. Genghis Khan and his savage army (some say 100,000 warriors) sacked Bukhara, killing thousands and demolishing every building except for a mammoth minaret that so much impressed him that he spared it: The Kalon Minaret (Great in Tajik), built by an architect named Baku in 1127 for the order of the ruler Arslan Khan, both to serve as beacon to caravans and minaret to call for prayer. It was part of a complex called “Po-i-Kalyan” which means Foot of the Great, but its mosque was demolished by Genghis Khan who spared only the free-standing minaret.

The impressive brick and mortar minaret is earthquake-proof! It has a foundation 10 meters deep, padded with wood and reeds to absorb any shockwaves.

Shockingly, the minaret that Genghis Khan spared eventually came to be known as the “Tower of Death”, since it was used to execute criminals who were thrown from its top only to dash against the ground of the plaza.

As I climbed the 109 steps inside this claustrophobic minaret, I was haunted by visions of poor men and women dragged all the way up the 48-meter minaret, knowing exactly the fate that awaited them. Once up, the splendid views of Bukhara, that clay-brown city with its blue domes, washed my exhaustion away. It makes every sense that this minaret served as a watchtower too in times of peace.

PASSION: It’s the 16th century. At the age of 22, Prince Said Abdullah al-Yamani rejected the throne of Yemen and went to Samarkand in search of knowledge. He became known as Mir-i Arab (Arab Emir or Prince).

He was accepted among students of the Naqshabandi Sufi Order, and eventually became a well-established teacher himself. Later, he was introduced to the emir of Bukhara, Ubaydullah Khan, who was impressed by his wisdom. He appointed Mir-i Arab as his spiritual teacher, and Mir-i Arab’s fame grew, and so did the admiration that people, rich and poor, had for him.

Not only did he promote the Naqshabandi school of thought, but he also embarked on a series of construction and urban development projects, the most famous of which is the Mir Arab Mardasa, started in 1530. He died before its completion and was buried there, with Ubaydullah Khan buried at his foot.

VIII. Khiva: At the Heart of Ancient Khwarezm

Khiva…the heart of ancient Khorezm (Khwarezm)…
The horror of caravans…the slave trade empire…
The fortified city that is now an open-air museum and a UNESCO site…
The tranquillity of evening strolls and the soaring minarets by daylight…

Crossing the ruthless Kyzylkum Desert (Kyzylkum means Red Sand) and the ancient Amu-Darya River (Nahr Jayhun), we finally reached Khiva.

We arrived in the evening, and walked with gaping jaws as we contemplated the well-lit minarets and gates. From one medrassa to the next, and finally meditating the superimposing Kalta Minor (Short Minaret) which stands like a fat tower, covered with ornamental bands of blue, turquoise, green and white in every shade and hue. Legend has it that Muhammad Amin Khan, a 19th century ruler of Khiva; wanted a minaret high enough (some 70 meters) for him to see the road to Bukhara! Obviously, that would have been the highest minaret in Central Asia, but work stopped at the height of 26 meters with the death of the Khan. A beautiful monument and a tribute to vanity.

Daylight brings even more splendours into sight, as you wander around some 60 monuments packed inside Ichon-Qala (Old Town): From the exquisite tilework at the Tosh Khovli House to the even more stunning majolica at Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum, and from the 212 ancient wooden columns of Juma Mosque to the splendid views of Khiva from the top of Islam Hoja Minaret (57 meters), it’s all so beautiful…except that Islam Hoja was executed for his liberalism!

No wonder Ichon-Qala became Uzbekistan’s first UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site in 1990, while the Historic Centre of Bukhara and Samarkand made it to the UNESCO list in 1993 and 2001 respectively.

Three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, too much beauty, too much to digest, too many memories, too many emails, then came the capital: Tashkent.

Tashkent is famous for…a book…but not any book…it’s one of the holiest books on this planet, or so thinks at least one fifth of the world’s population!

IX. Revelation in Tashkent: The Blood-Stained Quran of Uthman

Tashkent is a typical capital…just another big city…
But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find yourself trembling before a holy book with no parallel, with blood stains of no parallel and a story with no parallel: the Khast Imom…the Holy Quran of Uthman ibn ‘Affan.

Barefooted, contemplating the huge book (53 cm x 68 cm), a shudder ran down my spine as I remembered its history of blood and fire:
In the 7th century, Uthman ibn ‘Affan, the third Rightly-Guided Caliph; decided to compile a standard text for Quran and burn all the other versions that existed. He made 5 copies of this Quran and sent them to the capitals of the Islamic Empire at the time.

An “anti-Uthman sentiment” had been brewing for much-disputable reasons, including accusations of nepotism, as well as the greed of some opponents (among other scenarios). The house of Uthman in Medina (Saudi Arabia) was besieged and, eventually, the rebels made their way into the house, and struck Uthman on the head while he was reading the Quran. His blood spilled on it (Surat al-Baqara) and Naila, his wife; tried to defend him, but a sword blow cut her fingers off. The ordeal ended in the assassination of Uthman.

Naila took the Quran that had Uthman’s blood on it to Basra (Iraq) where it remained till Tamerlane (Timur) came in the 14th century. Timur learned that one of the original copies was burnt in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and that the personal copy of Uthman was in Basra (some say Kufa, where Ali ibn abi Talib took it). He besieged the city, demanding that the Quran of Uthman be delivered to him, or else!

Obviously, his demand was fulfilled, and he went back to his capital Samarkand with the book, where it demonstrated that “Timur was the spiritual leader of the Muslim World”!

It remained there until the 19th century, when the Russians besieged Samarkand, demanding that the Quran of Uthman be delivered! They got what they wanted, and exhibited the book in Saint Petersburg (some say Moscow).

In 1924, Lenin gave it back as a gesture of good intention towards the Muslims of Central Asia, and it was deposited in a library museum in Tashkent where I now stand.

This is a holy book that transcended its definition as a book and became a time capsule spanning over 13 centuries of history: It’s a book over which swords were raised, cities besieged and blood shed between Medina, Basra, (Kufa?), Samarkand, Saint Petersburg, (Moscow?), and Tashkent…

X. Environmental Issues: The Aral Sea Tragedy

Apart from pollution, poaching (Snow Leopards, Marco Polo Sheep, Musk Deer) and over-grazing, the Aral Sea Crisis is the most shockingly profound…a case study in what humans can do to destroy the environment. The Aral Sea was once the world’s fourth largest lake. It is now recognized as one of the world’s worst man-made ecological disasters!

This sea was fed by the Amu-Darya and the Syr-Darya Rivers, and was famous for its clear water, beautiful beaches and plenty of fish to support a big fishing industry. Then came the USSR’s central planners with a plan to boost cotton production in Central Asia to feed the Russian textile industry. The cotton cultivation used much water from the 2 rivers, and by the 1880s the annual flow into the Aral Sea was less than a tenth of the 1950s supply.

Between the 1960s and the 1990s, thanks to excessive use of water and the construction of dams, water level fell by 16 meters, while the southern & eastern shores receded by 80 kilometres. The receding water, rising salt level & residues of pesticides & fertilizers from cotton fields killed the fish & the fishing industry as all 600,000 people who lived off fishing left.

Moreover, the Aral Sea’s shrinkage has devastated the land and habitat around it:
– The climate has changed, the air is drier, and the average number of rainless days went up from 35 in the 50s to 150 today!
– A new desert is forming around the exposed seabed, and dust-salt sandstorms are expanding this desert
– Salt, sand and dust are causing respiratory illnesses, cancers of throat and oesophagus, poor drinking water is causing typhoid and hepatitis
– The area has the highest mortality and infant mortality rates in Central Asia, as well as high rate of birth deformities.
– Of the 173 animal species that used to live around the Aral Sea, less than 40 survive.
– The degradation of the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya River deltas is causing the loss of an entire range of flaura and fauna.
– Of the 20 odd-indigenous specious of fish in the Aral Sea, the last disappeared in 1985.
– One of the islands used as Soviet biological warfare testing site (where Anthrax and Plague were released) is now connected to mainland, thanks to the exposed seabed.
– The Aral Sea is effectively two seas now. The southern one is doomed to disappear, while efforts focus on the northern one.

Catastrophe? Well, another one is in-the-making in the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest enclosed body of water: The oilfields have contaminated over 2,000 sq km of land, not to mention the marine pollution. A simple example: The Caspian Sea used to produce 90% of the world’s caviar, thanks to the beluga which can grow up to 6 meters and produce 100 kg of the world’s best caviar, which can sell for quarter of a million dollars. Now, this is history given the pollution!

Camel – Central Asia, May 2008

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