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Uzbekistan: From Genghis Khan to Tamerlane

Former dorm rooms at the Ulugh Beg madrassah

Words like ‘Arabian nights’, ‘Silk Road’ and ‘Soviet Union’ may seem like an odd combination, but Uzbekistan manages to package it all neatly.

Located along the legendary Silk Road, Uzbekistan’s ancient citadels like Samarkand and Bukhara conjure up images of Arabian caravanserais and rich cultural deposits in the forms of ornate madrassahs, mosques and minarets. Their vivid blue hues are still a subject of admiration – and worship – by the many visitors that come here.

Archetypal Russian architecture

Fast forward to early 20th century, and the Soviet influence brought them vodka, the Russian language and their archetypal linear concrete architecture. In Tashkent, you can see an odd marriage of blue-hued brick madrassahs that sit next to concrete slab buildings.

But if you can tear your eyes away from the manmade structures, you’ll find that the Uzbek people are just as interesting – and varied – as their cultural artefacts.

A COVETED LAND
If you’re a history buff, you’ll know that Uzbekistan has been coveted by famous generals and rulers over the centuries.

Uzbekistan’s strategic location along the legendary Silk Road that connected Asia to Europe made it an ideal stopover for merchants who traded their goods like silk, spices and tea. Today, the people in Uzbekistan are unanimously tea drinkers – a reminder of the Silk Road trade. What’s more, tea is free at any restaurant.

Roadside apple vendors

Another common practice is the art of bargaining, so feel free to haggle at bazaars, whether you’re looking for nuts, carpets, fruits or goat-hoofed knives. It’s a great way to interact with the locals.

Thanks to the wealth of trade cities like Samarkand and Bukhara, successions of empires – from the Persians to Alexander the Great and even Genghis Khan – took turns conquering the land. Their vast empires stretched into Asia, Africa and Europe, bringing together a melting pot of cultures and ethnicity (Alexander the Great famously made his generals marry locals to unify his land).

Many of their descendants today still carry on their mixed blood, creating that unique ‘Central Asian’ heritage.

Entrance to Gur-e Emir mausoleum

TAMERLANE
Generations after Genghis’ death in 1227, a local chieftain by the name of Timur emerged as the de facto ruler in the 1380s and proceeded to conquer more land – this time reaching as far as Russia, Turkey, Spain and India. He made Samarkand the centre of his empire, and while he may be a hardened general, he had a soft spot for the arts, and gathered numerous artisans and scholars to construct a range of religious and palatial architectural masterpieces at Samarkand and Bukhara.

Thanks to Timur, grand buildings like the Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Gur-e Emir Mausoleum are now on every tourist’s must-see list. The mosque was dedicated to Timur’s favourite of 13 wives and legend has it that he used 95 elephants to haul the materials to build this gargantuan building, which was inspired by his Indian conquest. While hardly any part of the mosque is original today, the bazaar next door has changed little over 600 years.

Shah-i-Zinda necropolis

Another interesting site is the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis, which contains over 20 buildings built over 9 centuries – most of which was built during Timur’s time. This complex of mausoleums houses many of his relatives and military aristocrats, and when you climb the stairs up to the main complex, count the number of steps when you ascend and descend – popular belief is that if the numbers don’t match, it means you’ve sinned and atonement is in order.

Sher Dor Madrassah, Registan

While the central attraction of Samarkand – the Registan Square – was built after Timur’s death, it still bears the signature Timurid trademark of grand entrance arches embedded with bright blue mosaics and buildings topped with azure blue domes. They don’t call it Samarkand – which means ‘blue city’ – for nothing.

If these don’t blow your mind, the interiors feature elaborate domes fortified by muqarnas (Islamic stalactite-like cornices), all adorned with glittering gold.

The golden interior of Gur-e Emir

Known throughout history as Tamerlane (or Timur the Lame, thanks to a limp he had), he died trying to invade China without ever reaching it, and his body was brought back – embalmed by the Chinese – and buried in the Gur-e Emir mausoleum (or ‘Tomb of the Ruler’).

Today, under the richly-decorated central dome of the mausoleum, lies the tomb of Timur himself, which is made entirely of jade and bears the carved inscription (or warning) “When I rise, the world will tremble”. Legend has it that when the Soviets opened the tomb to exhume his remains, WWII began the next day.

TO BE CONTINUED…
Want to read more on Uzbekistan? Read the continuation here.

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