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Uzbekistan: Ulugh Beg and beyond

Registan Square

From Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, Uzbekistan has long been ruled by mighty generals who conquered vast lands that stretched from Asia to Africa and Europe.

The last great conqueror was Tamerlane (Timur), who died suddenly during a military campaign to China – at a ripe age of 69 – before he could appoint his successor. Needless to say, his military-minded sons fought for control and it was his grandson, Ulugh Beg, who brought power back to Samarkand. He was only a teenager at the time.

Tilya-Kori madrassah, Registan

Ulugh Beg succeeded Timur, but unlike the great conqueror, Ulugh wasn’t a military man. He was a math genius, and a rare combination of a ruler who was also a teacher, astronomer and mathematician.

It’s thanks to him that Samarkand became a capital of learning. He built – and sometimes lectured at – the Ulugh Beg Madrassah (or ‘school’), which was a centre for astronomy and maths. Today, the madrassah stands in the restored Registan Square, and houses numerous souvenir and craft shops that occupy the former students’ dorm rooms. These days, the only maths you’ll practice is in honing your bartering skills.

Ulugh Beg madrassah

As an astute astronomer, he also built the Ulugh Beg Observatory – one of the finest observatories in the Islamic world at the time – and compiled one of the greatest star catalogues. He also determined the length of the year, which remains the most accurate measurement to date.

Unfortunately, geniuses don’t make great rulers, and in the end, he was beheaded by order of his own son. Today, you can still see Ulugh Beg’s tomb, buried at the foot of his granddad, Timur, in the Gur-e Emir mausoleum.

The iconic Hotel Uzbekistan

It wasn’t until the early 19th century that some semblance of a unified rule came over Central Asia, this time in the form of the Russian Empire.

By the Russian era in the late 19th century, plenty of Western-influenced buildings mushroomed around Uzbekistan. A new style – the Turkestan Colonial – was born, featuring bricked frontage, stucco mouldings and iron ornaments.

Tashkent replaced Samarkand as the capital, and in addition to vodka and the Russian language, iconic buildings like the Men and Women Gymnasiums, the Navoi Theatre and the Hotel Uzbekistan dominate the ‘new town’ area. If you like architecture with lots of geometric ornaments and concrete colours, Tashkent won’t disappoint.


Another Russian influence is the construction of subways – until a few years ago, Tashkent is the only city in Central Asia with a subway network, the stations of which are all lavishly and thematically decorated (one of the stations is designed after a local cosmonaut).

Even after their independence in 1991, Uzbekistan still retains much of its beloved architecture.

With this much history, one of the best places to experience Uzbekistan’s diversity is at Chorsu bazaar – the largest and oldest in the region. This spot has been a trading post since the time of the Silk Road, and today is a hodgepodge of cultures, foods and peoples over the centuries.

Vendors at Chorsu bazaar

People from neighbouring countries – Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan – settled here. Perhaps the strangest addition to the cultural heritage are the Koreans, who arrived here in the early 20th century and are more at home in Russian than Korean. Even their traditional foods – like kimchi – has been adapted into local Uzbek cuisine.

No matter who you meet – from Koreans to gold-teethed Uzbek ladies or blond Russians – a simple “Assalomu alaykum” is the universal greeting, a sign that while the people are varied in their backgrounds, their identity remains unanimously Uzbekistan.



3 Responses to “Uzbekistan: Ulugh Beg and beyond”

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