Two of Uzbekistan's Ancient Silk Road Cities - Samarkand and Bukhara
Updated: Jan 12, 2020
In this blog post
We head southwest from Tashkent to marvel at the unique Islamic architecture to be found in ancient silk road cities Samarkand and Bukhara, while taking the opportunity to learn more of the incredibly rich history to this part of Central Asia. Don't miss the stunning images further down the page.
We had a marvelous time exploring Tashkent - the topic of the previous post - but it was time to move on. And it really was time to move on! Our departure from Tashkent on the 14th of November was about six weeks behind my original itinerary, even if that was never set in stone. It's worth briefly mentioning that one of the things we love most about this style of independent travel is precisely that nothing is set in stone. We don't know much in advance where we'll spend most nights. Whilst we stay in apartments, hostels or guesthouses when exploring cities, the huge expanse of unoccupied land between cities across Central Asia means that stopping just about anywhere along our routes to setup an impromptu camp for the night is not only possible, but often a necessity. There are no commercial campgrounds to be found anywhere here, rather we found that in this part of Uzbekistan it's just a short departure from the road into the surrounding desert, or through some trees, and home for the night is established with a few minutes work. At this time of year here it's dark before we're ready to look for a camp spot, which makes it very difficult to see from the road where any suitable locations might exist. As such, I've increasingly relied on a handy app called 'ioverlander'. A community of overland travellers use this app to record GPS coordinates and descriptions of great camp spots they've found, and more. The app has been a huge assistance to us in locating known good camp spots after dark.
The reason we're running so far behind the initial itinerary is mainly due to our spending nearly an extra month in Mongolia earlier in the trip. Readers may recall we explored more there than was originally planned, and also had some downtime in Ulaanbaatar awaiting a replacement suspension spring to be shipped from Australia. Moreover, every country has taken a bit more time than was originally envisaged. For instance, in Kazakhstan I hadn't known at the outset about the stunning Altyn Emel national park set in the desert. Some of the most unique images we've taken this year came from there, so the ability to flex our itinerary at will has been crucial.
But I digress and should return to the topic of this post. As mentioned previously, we headed out from Tashkent with as much diesel as we could carry. 170 litres in the Pajero's two on-board fuel tanks, and a further 16 litres in containers to operate the tent heater. Earlier in the trip not even a jersey was needed in the evenings, let alone the tent heater. But those summer days of Central Asia are long gone and as we ventured across Uzbekistan we were forced to abruptly transition from the seemingly never-ending autumn we'd enjoyed, straight into winter.
With almost all vehicles in Uzbekistan running on gas (propane), even full sized trucks, I was fully aware that diesel (petrol too) would be difficult to find once outside of Tashkent. Thus we set off into Uzbekistan's more remote areas not knowing with any certainty if, when, or where we would next find diesel! The second fuel tank fitted to the Pajero is an essential asset in these circumstances. It doesn't give us enough fuel capacity to make it right through Uzbekistan to the Caspian Sea, but at least I knew it would serve as a crucial reserve to permit our return to Tashkent in a worst case scenario. This so long as I kept a careful eye on our fuel usage and stayed on top of what I call my 'point of no return' estimation - it should be obvious what I mean by this. There's nowhere else we've explored where it has been necessary for me to manage our fuel capacity and touring range this closely; not even in the parts we've previously explored of Morocco's Sahara Desert, nor Mongolia's Gobi Desert. Any readers planning on coming this way be warned.
The 'Registan', which has the meaning of 'sandy place' or 'desert' in Persian, was at the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand. In times long since gone by, local people gathered at this grand public square to hear royal proclamations... and to attend public executions.
While ordinarily it's true that a picture paints a thousand words, the history to this part of Central Asia is just so rich and deep that the pictures alone aren't quite enough.
Samarkand is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities of Central Asia. It is at least 2,500 years old, with some theories suggesting it was founded between the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. Given its location on the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean, Samarkand was ideally positioned to prosper. Over the centuries it has been ruled by Persians, Greeks, Turks, Mongols, Chinese and Russians and at various times has been one of the greatest cities of Central Asia. As for the Samarkand that exists today, as you'll see it in my photos on this page, it is the infamous Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur who is chiefly responsible for its construction. Although the three grand madrasahs (Islamic schools) that surround the Registan were built after his death (1405), Timur's brutal military conquests essentially laid Samarkand's foundations. His wars were waged far and wide, and are estimated to have resulted in the deaths of 17 million people (5% of the world's population at the time!). Timur not only brought back the riches from his conquests abroad, but he also brought back the best artisans capable of building the most impressive monuments. Whereas residents of the cities his armies captured were most commonly massacred, Timur ordered his generals to spare the finest artisans and deport them back to Samarkand, where he could put them to work. Timur declared Samarkand his capital and desired to build it into the grandest of cities, even personally overseeing construction at times.
Two things stand out for me: (1) the incredible amount of human history to this part of the World; and (2) just how barbaric much of this history has been, with repeated invasions and wars waged. While some invaders were intent on destruction, Timur - though equally brutal - desired to construct his perfect capital city, and ultimately he did.
The first of the three grand madrasahs that surround the impressive Registan was built by Timur's grandson, about a decade after Timur's death in the early 15th century. The other two were constructed in the 17th century. Today this site is doubtlessly one of the most impressive in what is today Uzbekistan, and moreover in my view is one of the highlights of a trip to Central Asia. By the late 19th century this site had fallen into disrepair. First the Soviets and more latterly the Uzbeks have worked hard to restore the site to its former glory. It's very impressive indeed to wander here, camera in hand, marvelling up close at the thousands of glazed mosaics that adorn these impressive structures.
Further images from various other sites around Samarkand
Consider this: In 1839 Britain sent Colonel Charles Stoddart to reassure the Emir of Bukhara over Britain's invasion of Afghanistan. But it would seem the British failed to appreciate just what a megalomaniac Emir Nasrullah Khan actually was - for reference, among his many brutal acts he seized the throne in Bukhara by killing all of his brothers and 28 relatives! Colonel Stoddart broke local custom and caused offence by (1) riding up on his horse rather than walking up, (2) he brought no gifts, and (3) the official letter he delivered to the Emir was not from the Queen herself, but rather penned by the governor-general of India. The insulted Emir ordered that Stoddart be jailed and thrown into what was known as the 'bug pit', a truly awful dungeon filled with spiders, scorpions and rodents. Two years later, in 1841, Britain sent Captain Arthur Conolly to attempt to negotiate Stoddart's release. But Conolly too suffered the same fate and soon joined Stoddart in the 'bug pit'. The Emir wrote to Queen Victoria, but is said to have received no reply, and thus he ordered the executions of both Stoddart and Conolly.
On 24 June 1842 both men were marched from their dungeon cells before a large crowd gathered before the 'Ark' - seen in the photo to the left. They dug their own graves to the sound of drums and reed pipes, and were beheaded. Back in England, furious friends and families of the murdered men raised enough funds to privately send their own emissary to Bukhara to confirm the news. It's beyond me who would agree to take on this third mission, however a clergyman named Joseph Wolf agreed to do so. It is believed that Wolf escaped a similar fate to that of Stoddart and Conolly only because the Emir thought he looked hilarious dressed in his clerical outfit.
It's certainly not my intention to turn this into a history lesson, and I wouldn't be the right person to do so in any case. It's just that the history here is so incredibly rich, across the centuries... indeed across millennia! I simply felt inclined to tell one tiny piece of it here that had intrigued me.
Further photos from the Bukhara's Ark:
Despite Bukhara's brutal rule and past, even as late as the 19th century, we found that today it's another wonderful and visually rich site to wander around. There are old madrasahs and mosques to explore and other fascinating sites to see. It is touristic, with plenty of hotels, guesthouses and restaurants catering to all travellers budgets.
A site that we all found very interesting was the former home of a wealthy Bukhara merchant family, as seen in the following group of images:
Coming up Next!
In the next installment we venture out into Uzbekistan's desert in search of what remains of ancient fortresses built out there as much as 2,000 years ago! My research managed to produce a number of sets of relevant GPS coordinates, and by navigating to these isolated sites we were presented with the opportunity to explore without restriction. These fortresses were long since abandoned to the desert sands and exist today in varying states of ruin. Overall I think they've managed to age extraordinarily well, this given the favourable climatic conditions prevailing in this part of Uzbekistan - this you'll see for yourself when I present the best of the images I managed to capture in the next post. Also in the next post we explore Khiva - another ancient silk road city - and venture out into the now largely vanished Aral Sea.