There is no city in Uzbekistan more central to Silk Road history than the ancient capital of the Temurid Empire, Samarkand. This city, located southwest of the modern capital of Tash-kent, boasts some of Uzbekistan’s greatest cultural heritage from medieval times and earlier. Mosques, madrassahs, and stately courtyards, preserved in Samarkand since the 13th and 14th centuries, mark the height of the great Temurid Empire, which in its heyday controlled most of the Caspian Sea and the surrounding areas of Central Asia.
Temir, also known in the West as Tamerlane or Temir the Lame, was the most successful ruler of the Muslim Temurid Empire. He controlled a territory that stretched from the Black Sea to Delhi, India. However, he placed his capital in the small, little-remembered city of Samarkand. Temur’s rule revived the Silk Road trade in the whole of Uzbekistan, leading to a cultural golden age. This empire, rooted in Samarkand, influenced Muslim empires from the Safavids in Persia to the Moghuls in India.
Samarkand’s cultural heritage goes back much further than the Temurid rule. Scientists and archaeologists have been able to retrieve an impressive array of finds that include Sogdian and Hellenic art, weaponry, coins, ceramics, and glass, which one can view today at the Afrosiab History Museum. These artifacts recall the city when it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC, for its strategic value as the then-capital of the larger state Sogdiana. Archaeological sites in the historic district also contain artifacts from the ancient city of Afrosiab, which was founded in the 7th century AD. Afrosiab flourished till its destruction in 1220, when Ghengis Khan’s armies ravaged the city.
The historic center of Shakhrisyabz, a city which lies less than fifty miles South of Samar-kand, formed an essential part of Temurid culture as well. It contains the Dorus Saodat, an enormous burial complex for the Temurid rulers and the final resting place of Temur. The white marble facade is one of the finest surviving burial sites in Central Asia, not to mention one of immense historic significance. This small city also contains the Ak-Sarai Palace. While Samarkand may have been the capital of Temur’s empire, the conquerer spared no resources building this enormous castle—marked still by towering stone gates adorned with blue motifs characteristic of the era.
Heading northwest along the Silk Road, travelers encountered Bukhara—a city filled with the monuments and markers of the Silk Road to this day. The historic center of the city is “an exceptional example of a medieval Muslim city of Central Asia,” according to UNESCO, in no small part due to the total preservation of a number of its historic quarters. Many of the buildings in these areas date to an era of Silk Road history following the Temurid Empire. However, according to UNESCO, “The real importance of Bukhara lies not in its individual buildings but rather in its overall townscape, demonstrating the high and consistent level of planning of architecture that began with the Sheibanid dynasty.” Today, the well-preserved ancient parts of Bukhara are a fully-integrated part of this vibrant city and well worth a visit.
Westward still lies the city of Khiva, the inner fortress of which is named Itchan Khala. Itchan Khala served as the final destination for caravans heading south to Persia across the desert. It contains no less than 51 monumental structures recognized by UNESCO for their authenticity and cultural significance. However, the most important name among these is the Djuma Mosque. This 18th-century building, with its characteristic covered courtyard designed for the
the scorching heat of Uzbekistan’s summers and adorned with 212 columns—not all of which are essential supports—is the pride of Khiva.
There are countless cities in Uzbekistan once traversed by merchants and travellers on the Silk Road, but something which all of them share is the legacy of the bazaar. Uzbekistan has exceptionally well retained the culture surrounding these fascinating cultural and commercial hubs. While vendors can enjoy the perks of a refrigerator in 2019, their stands boast many of the same foods common in the region 2,000 years ago. Visitors should be sure to sample the traditional Uzbek treat of peanuts boiled in sugar syrup and sprinkled with sesame seeds or a hot loaf of Samarkand’s famous bread, known for its soft, light inside and gold-brown crust. Potters in any Uzbek market still sell traditional blue and white lyagan dishes and kosa bowls, as well as locally-made clothing and textiles. An Uzbek idiom used commonly used today, “uzun kulak,” or “long ear,” derives from the loud, social culture of the bazaar, where shoppers and sellers still haggle daily.
The Silk Road bazaar has left its legacy in the very fabric of Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities. Many towns and villages across the country are named for the day of the week when their ancient bazaars traditionally convened. For example, there is a small town not far from Samarkand named Juma, or “Friday.” The names of passageways in Bukhara’s historic center reflect their role in the Silk Road Bazaar: “Toki Zargaron” or “Jewelers Dome”; “Telpak Furushon,” or “Headgear Salespeople’s Dome”; “Toko Saraffon” or “Money Changer’s Dome.” The trades have changed, but passersby can still buy goods in these passageways and reflect upon the travel-ers who stood there centuries ago.
These many attractions make Uzbekistan an essential destination on the Silk Road for many modern travelers. However, credit is also due to the Uzbek government, which has over the past two years become a leader in the Central Asian tourism industry. The number of foreign nationals who visited Uzbekistan in 2018 increased by 2.3 times from the previous year, in part be-cause Uzbekistan introduced electronic visas in July 2018. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan also launched their “Silk Road Visa” in February 2019, which hopes to invigorate travel among Central Asian states. Acting Chairman of the State Committee of Uzbekistan Abdulaziz Akkulov explained, “This is an analogue of the Schengen visa, only between the countries of Central Asia. This measure will allow all of us to target a specific audience willing to discover the Silk Roads cities—such as Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara.” Visitors will certainly have plenty to explore and discover when they reach Uzbekistan.