Discovering Uzbekistan – blue cupolas and dreams of 1001 nights in Samarkand

In September/October 2019, I was in Uzbekistan. Our tour ended with the city of Samarkand, where the blue cupolas seem to have come from the tales of 1001 nights. As a matter of fact, some of the tales of 1001 nights, it is said, originated in Samarkand (first told in Persian, later translated into Arab).

The city centre has been shaped by Timur who made Samarkand the capital of his large empire and by his successors, above all Ulugh Bek.

Source: “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag 2019, my own photos


Samarkand is the capital of Timur around 1400

Timur (1336-1405) made Samarkand the capital of the large empire that he had conquered (see my history blog). His statue stands at the border between the old city centre and the Russian new city that emerged at the end of the 19th century. Busy traffic surrounds Timur, while he sits majestically on his throne.

Not far from here, Timur is buried in the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum with the graceful blue fluted cupola (around 1400). It is a double layered cupola (note: Petersburg has a copy of this cupola! – see the post scriptum).

Inside, the bottom of the walls is covered with onyx slabs, the dome is decorated with gilden papier-mache and the niches are filled with stalactite pendentives. Blue banners with inscriptions all over.

Timur is buried in the crypt; the black coffin is his cenotaph. Around him are members of his family and some close companions.


Bibi Khanym has her own mosque.; she was Timur’s main wife and a descendent of Genghis Khan

Timur was proud of his main wife, Bibi Khanym, because she was a descendent of Genghis Khan, which allowed him to base the authority of his throne on Mongolian descendance. He convinced the Imams to dedicate the Bibi Khanym mosque to his wife (that was not easy, as mosques are usually dedicated only to men).

The Bibi Khanym mosque is reflected in the window of one of the shops in the pedestrian alley that connects the Registan (see below) with the Bibi Khanym ensemble. The fluted cupola resembles the cupola of the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum.

Around 1400, the Bibi Khanym Mosque was a large scale project of Timur’s. The mosque should be larger than any other Friday Mosque in his empire. Sitting in his sedan, he cheered his workers to hurry up. In 1404 the mosque was completed.

First signs of decay appeared soon, and 200 years later, the Bibi Khanym Mosque was in ruins.

It was reconstructed in the 19th century, after the Russians had conquered Central Asia.

The charming blue cupolas of the Bibi Khanym Mosque made me dream, when sitting on the terrace of the nearby restaurant. Just magnificent.

This is the portal of the mosque in day light…

… with more details – incredible harmony.

The plants are unusual in Islamic architecture.

Behind the Bibi Khanym Mosque is a charming bazar.

My friends buy this jacket (Susani embroidery) for me. It is a thank you for me having guided them through Moscow. Thank you!


The Registan, the most elegant square I have ever come across

The Registan ensemble of madrasas is just breath taking… wauuu! This is the most elegant square I have ever seen. The perfect symmetry is called “Kosh principle”. It is interesting to note that the three madrasas have not been built at the same time; there is a difference of 200 years.

To the left is the oldest madrasa, built by Ulugh Bek, the grand-son of Timur. It is from the early 15th century. Ulugh Bek was a scientist, and he was of the opinion that schools are important for his empire.

To the right, the Shirdor Madrasa, has been added in the early 17th century. It shows two tigers chasing does – on their backs are something like suns and heads. This is a rare example of animals and people represented in Islamic architecture.

Last, the Tilya Kari Madrasa was added in the mid 17th century. Both the Shirdor and the Tlya Kari Madrasa are more colourful than the older Ulugh Bek madrasa, as the techniques of producing glazed tiles had improved. The leaders of the local empire of the 17th century were called Janids, and I believe that their vision of this gorgeous symmetric arrangement of buildings was simply ingenious.

The Tilya Kari Madrasa had to be used as the Friday mosque of Samarkand, as after 200 years, the former main mosque, the Bibi Khanym Mosque, was in ruins. This is the golden cupola of the mosque in the Tilya Kari Madrasa.

Also the Shirdor Madrasa has a beautiful cupola.


Ulugh Bek, more a successful scientist than a successful ruler

Ulugh Bek was a grand-son of Timur. His empire was much smaller than Timur’s empire and he was more a scientist than a ruler, an excellent scientist.

He assembled the best scientists of the time and they studied the night sky in the observatory, remains of which have been discovered by a Russian archaeologist in the beginning of the 20th century: The sextant was cut into the rock. Its orientation is strictly north-south.

The attached museum shows a model of the former observatory building with the sextant inside.

The sextant allowed Ulugh Bek and his team to determine the exact position of many stars and his unprecedented astronomical map was used by seamen for many centuries, since the 17th century also by Europeans. Ulugh Bek in addition determined the length of the year to be 365 days, 6 hours, 10 minutes and 8 seconds, which is about 20 minutes too long (actually: 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds).

The sextant is in this black “tube” and a museum has been added that informs about the achievements of Ulugh Bek and how his scientific work has been received in the world.


Shor-i-Sinda – where noblemen around the Timurids have been buried

Shor-i-Sinda is a necropolis or a “city” of mausoleums. It is an amazing maze of blue glazed tiles woven into raw bricks and adorned with muqarna niches as well as with elegant cupolas. Legend tells that a cousin of Muhammad continues to live in a cave under the necropolis; he was decapitated, when praying and retreated to the cave while continuing to pray. Shor-i-Sinda means “the king who lives” (Dumont, p. 213).

The entrance gate has been built under Ulugh Bek, in the early 15th century.

From here, stairs lead up to the centre with the mausoleums.

The mausoleums form a shady small “street”, a charm in blue.

Now I am at the end looking back at the shady small street…

… with the so-called octogonal mausoleum.

Let us look at some details. This cupola is in the Shirnin-Beka Mausoleum.

This is the Muqarna niche decoration of the Shodi Mulk Mausoleum.

This is the entrance to the Kutlug Oko Mausoleum.

And this is the cupola of the mosque at the back of the ensemble of mausoleums.

All just too beautiful!


Good-bye Samarkand

In the evenings, I return to the city centre and the Registan, once all alone and later again with some of my friends.

On the terrace of the Bibi Khanym hotel, we had a good glass of wine from Samarkand, just across the blue cupolas of the Bibi Khanym mosque.

The young personnel of the restaurant was optimistic and full of ideas about how to improve their restaurant; together with them I thought about how to improve the English and French menu list that they had translated from Russian to English and French using google translate. The results were interesting and the guests from France and England were happy to get additional explanations, before choosing their dish. I enjoyed the hospitality of this place and I laughed with the personnel and with the other tourists.

Yes, Samarkand IS worth the trip to Central Asia. I am happy to have fulfilled this dream of mine – maybe I will return one day to enjoy the blue cupolas once more and to explore more of the Afrosiab (where ancient Marakanda was located) as well as the Russian new city and the wine culture. May there soon be opportunities again to travel and to enjoy travelling!


Post-Scriptum: Samarkand in Petersburg?

Samarkand is also present in Petersburg! The fluted cupola of this mosque, built from 1909 to 1920, has been designed after the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum in Samarkand. Always, when in Petersburg, I visit the mosque (see my blog of 2017).

The architect Wassiljew has designed this mosque and the workshop of P.K. Vaulin has produced all the tiles and the cupola using the Central Asian technique that is called “Majolika” in Russia (DU, Heft Nr. 12, 1998, p. 56). NOW I understand, why the Russians built this mosque reminding them of Samarkand; Samarkand was part of the Russian empire and the Russians invested a lot to renovate Samarkand.

It is coincidence that the grand daughter of P. K. Vaulin, Anna Vaulina, was my Russian teacher at Basel – for more than 30 years (until 2008). Samarkand is completing the circle.

Sources: “Der grosse Plötz – Atlas zur Weltgeschichte”, Komet Verlag, Köln 2008; Isa Ducke and Natascha Thoma, “Usbekistan”, Dumont Reisehandbuch, Ostfildern 2017; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag, Berlin 2019; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Reise durch Usbekistan”, Stürtz, Verlagshaus Würzburg 2018, Sanjeev Mehan, “Ein vergessenes Land holt auf”, Tagesanzeiger 21. September 2019 and various wiki entries.

Discovering Uzbekistan – the gorgeous city centre of Bukhara

In September/October 2019, I was in Uzbekistan.

From Tashkent, we take the night train to Bukhara.

We stay in a friendly hotel outside of the city centre, and our driver, Firouz, took us to wherever we asked him for. The city centre of Bukhara as a whole is on the list of UNESCO world heritage and there is a lot to see within walking distance.

Source: “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag 2019, my own photos

Bukhara, located advantageously on the river Sherafshan, was an important hub on the Silk Road and, again and again, it was the capital of one of the changing empires in Central Asia. For example it was the capital of the empire of the Samanids in the 9th/10th century. Let us start with them.


The charming Samanid Mausoleum from around 900 – Ismail I is buried here

The founder of the Samanid dynasty was Ismail I, and he is buried in this graceful mausoleum from around 900 AD.

This lady has unfolded her chair and is enjoying the charm of the Samanid mausoleum. I feel like her. I cannot stop looking at this harmonic cube with the small dome on top, decorated with the amazing “weaving” pattern of unglazed bricks.

Inside the weaving brick patterns continue. The cube is translated into an octagon and then into an exagon…

… which carries the cupola that seems to swirl around the small top hole.

The weaving like arrangement of the unglazed bricks is called hazarbaf (in Persian this means: hazar=thousand and baf=weaving; first only raw bricks were used (like for the Samanid Mausoleum). Later, in the 12th century, glazed blue and white tiles were added to alternate with the unglazed bricks (example: Kalon Minaret below); finally after the 14th century, the tiles became multi-coloured. Mixing unglazed and glazed tiles is called “banna’i”, see Dumont, p. 60).

The Samanid Mausoleum survived the destructions by the Mongolians, when they conquered Central Asia. Some say, because the Mausoleum was in the middle of a cemetery, some say, because it was hidden under sand.

It is interesting to note that Ismail I, the founder of the Samanid dynasty, was of Persian origin. He is the national hero of Tajikistan, but the Tajiks have to live with the fact that the tomb of their hero is in Uzbekistan. Had the Russians drawn the frontiers differently, Bukhara would have ended up in Tajikistan and as a matter of fact, a high percentage of the inhabitants around Samarkand and Bukhara are Tajiks with a Persian background.


The source of Hiob

We walk to this place, where Hiob is said to have uncovered a source. Hiob? From the Bible? Yes, it is true, the Islam and our religion have the same sources. I would have never expected Hiob to have gone that far east.

Inside is a small museum and the pilgrims can take some of the holy water.


The Ark citadel with the Bolo Haus Mosque

The Ark citadel was where the leaders of the empires around Bukhara resided, the pre Mongolian dynasties from the 9th to the 12th century, the Shaybanids of the Uzbek Khanates in the 16th/17th century and their more local successors, the emirs of Bukhara (the Janid dynasty), until the Russians conquered Central Asia in the 19th century. The Red Army destroyed the citadel in 1920. Some parts have been reconstructed. The defensive brick wall surrounds the palace and a small town.

Nearby is the Bolo Haus Mosque where the emirs of Bukhara used to pray. The mosque was built around 1700 and has been rebuilt again and again. I like the wood carvings…

… and we are allowed to see the winter mosque inside.

We enter the mighty citadel, the Ark.

Inside we find another mosque with a finely carved wooden ceiling…

… and the throne hall that is actually a “throne courtyard”. This is the entry gate with separating wall. From here visitors were not allowed to show their backs to the emir sitting on the throne at the other end.

The elegant lion, unusual in an Islamic environment, watches the entry gate.

Many tourists sit down on the throne at the other end of the courtyard. The throne is a copy, the original is in Saint Petersburg.


The Kalon Complex

The Kalon Complex, not far from the Ark, is a magnificant example of the symmetry or Kosh concept in Central Asian architecture. Two pishtaks (gates) are facing one another: The pishtak of the Kalon Mosque and the pishtak of the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa. Both are from the early 16th century, when the dynasty of the Shaybanids ruled (the founders of the Uszbek Khanates).

This is the entry gate (pishtak) of the Kalon Mosque (16th century) with the bottom part of the Kalon Minaret (12th century, pre Mongolian).

The Kalon Minaret has been built by the successors of the Persian Samanids, the Kara Khanids that were from Turkish origin. It is another great example of the hazarbaf technique where unglazed bricks are “woven” into one another.

It is interesting that at the very top, there is a narrow band of blue glazed tiles. This is an early example, where the unglazed and glazed terracotta techniques have been mixed.

In the Kalon Mosque, glazed tiles interact with unglazed bricks. The courtyard is bordered by four galleries called “ivan”. The winter mosque marks the end of the four ivan courtyard, opposite of the entry gate.

Looking back from within the winter mosque, we can see the Kalon Minaret behind the courtyard. The  blue cupola in the background belongs to the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa.

The Mir-i-Arab Madrasa has also been built by the Shaybanids, just after they had appointed Bukhara to be their new capital in 1533.

The tiles of this pishtak are not just blue and white, but also contain yellow.

It is a working Madrasa that is closed to the public. Through this iron lattice we can look into the courtyard.


The Ulugh Bek Madresa with its kosh (symmetric) counterpart, the Abdulasis Khan Madrasa

A walk of about 150m, and we admire the Ulugh Bek Madrasa (from the 15th century) with the glazed blue and white tiles woven into the structure of unglazed bricks. The calligraphic writings are called “Thulut” and the technique of combining geometric patterns is called “Girih” (Dumont, p. 64). I like the swinging frame surrounding the gate.

Inside the madrasa shows the signs of decay – sad. It is no longer a working madrasa, but a collection of souvenir shops.

Across is the Abdulasis Khan Madrasa from the late 17th century. It is 200 years younger and much more decorated than its earlier and more modest counterpart, the Ulugh Bek Madrasa (some say, it is almost too much decoration).

Inside we find more souvenir shops.

Nearby we admire this artful architecture of the local storks. My friend, a physicist with the mind of an engineer, frowns at it: “Well the stork took a suboptimal approach when starting to build the nest, but then it corrected the design cleverly.”


The Bazars

We are now in the very city centre with various bazars covered by cupolas. This is the view of the cupolas of the Toki Sagaron, the bazar of the jewelers, taken from the terrace of a nice coffee bar. In the background we can see the Kalon Minarett and the blue cupola of the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa.

Each community of traders had their own bazar, but now the bazars are more or less across the board souvenir shops.

Even scooters are on offer.

My friend buys a carpet at Magic Carpet. The carpet will be sent to Switzerland and will arrive safely.

Almost unnoticed by tourists the Magoki Attari Mosque appears between the bazars. It is from the 12th century, built in the joyful weaving technique of unglazed bricks and shily adorned with a first band of glazed blue tiles (like the Kalon Minaret). My Dumont (p. 305) says that this is a carpet museum, but it seems to be no longer safe enough for that.


Around the Labi Haus with Kukeldash and Nadir Divan Bek Madrasa

The heart of Bukhara is the Labi Haus with the water pool, restaurants,…

… the Kukeldash Madrasa to the north (late 16th century, this is another mosque built by the foster brother of Abdullah Khan),…

… and the Nadir Divan Bek Madrasa to the east (early 17th century) – interesting are the birds and the sun with the face. This i s an unusual decoration program in the Islam.

Nadir Divan Bek’s Chanaka to the west of the pool is under renovation.

The water pool (or Labi Haus) reminds of all the pools that once existed in the centre of Bukhara, and they seem to have been a problem, because the worms that lived in them, attacked men endangering their lives. The barbers were able to pull out the worms, but not always successfully (Dumont, p. 301).

Not far from Labi Haus is the charming Chor Minor Madrasa. Only the gate is left. It has been built by a rich merchant who had four daughters – hence four towers (early 19th century).

Hodscha Nasreddin rides on his donkey next to the Labi Haus. He was very wise, something like a jester.

I found a booklet with his stories in French (Mourodkhon Ergashiev: Un jour de Nasreddine, Tafakkur Bostoni, Tashkent 2011) – here is an example: One day, Nasreddin goes to the market to buy a donkey. The market is busy, there are many, many farmers. A well dressed man is angry and says: “What a jostling, there are just farmers and donkeys here.” Nasreddin asks him: “Are you a farmer?” “No, obviously not”, he replies. “Hm”, Nasreddin answers, “I would not buy you, I look for a donkey with longer ears!”


Jewish area and puppet maker

To the south of the Labi Haus is the old Jewish city. We enter the solemn synagogue.

Also here, Nasreddin is popular.

We see quite a few boutique hotels – perhaps an idea for staying overnight, in case we will return to Bukhara one day.

Iskandar Khamikov has a small workshop in the Jewish city, where he produces and sells puppets in traditional costumes.

He shows, how the dolls can dance driven by his hands.

There are also smaller puppets that make a good souvenir. I acquire two of these.


Good-bye Bukhara

We have a farewell dinner at the Labi Haus with a good glass of Uzbek wine. I do like the Plov (rice dish) that they prepare in this country.

Bukhara is a gorgeous place to see. It provides insight into the history and architecture of Central Asia from the 9th century on. In addition the bazars offer good opportunities for shopping. Whenever I return to Bukhara, I will select a hotel in the Jewish city centre south of the Labi Haus to be in the middle of it all.


Sources: “Der grosse Plötz – Atlas zur Weltgeschichte”, Komet Verlag, Köln 2008; Isa Ducke and Natascha Thoma, “Usbekistan”, Dumont Reisehandbuch, Ostfildern 2017; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag, Berlin 2019; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Reise durch Usbekistan”, Stürtz, Verlagshaus Würzburg 2018, Sanjeev Mehan; “Ein vergessenes Land holt auf”, Tagesanzeiger 21. September 2019; Markus Ackeret: “Usbekistans Ambitionen in Zentralasien”, NZZ 5. März 2020; Mourodkhon Ergashiev: Un jour de Nasreddine, Tafakkur Bostoni, Tashkent 20 and various wiki entries.


Discovering Uzbekistan – Tashkent, the spacious, modern city

In September/October 2019, I was in Uzbekistan. Our tour started in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. After the earthquake of 1966, the Soviets rebuilt Tashkent to become a model city, with spacious squares. There is even a metro decorated with luxurious stations. Modernisation continued after Uzbekistan had become independent in 1991. In addition, old mosques and madrasas were renovated and new ones were built, all in the traditional style with mostly blue tiles and cupolas. The city benefits from water canals fed by the Chirchiq river which touches Tashkent in the south.

We spend half a day in Tashkent and collect a few impressions:

Source: “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag 2019, my own photos


Timur and our Hotel Uzbekistan welcome us

Coming from Moscow, we land in Tashkent in the early afternoon and get to our hotel Uzbekistan, a Soviet style building made from precast slabs, beautified by oriental style ornaments. My Dumont says that this hotel is for “Ostalgiker” (people with a nostalgy for (east) soviet style tradition). Yes, the hotel reminds me of that.

The hotel is comfortable and the rooms are spacious and well renovated.

At the hotel bank, we change money. I lose control of the huge pile of bank notes that I have received for 200 Dollars. We come across a street singer and give him some 1000 Som… one THOUSAND looks like a lot of money to us. We sit down on a bench and reflect, and now we blush: 1 Dollar is around 10’000 Som – and 1000 Som is just 10 Cents. A meal that costs 30’000 Som is equivalent to 3 Dollars. The easiest way to cope with these huge numbers is to just take four “0”s off the price in Som and then we understand, what the price really is in Swiss Francs, Euros or Dollars (which are all pretty close to one another). I prepare two wallets, a slimmer one with a few bank notes in the “10’000 and more Som sizes” for direct use and a fat wallet with the rest of the pile of bank notes as a reserve. And I keep some 1000 notes separate for those useful public places – this is what you are asked to pay for there.

I find out that in many Turkish languages “som” means “pure” which alludes to “pure gold”.


We meet Timur, the national hero

The Hotel Uzbekistan is located at the spacious Amir Timur Square, and Timur rides a horse here.

Timur is the national hero of Uzbekistan; he counts as the founder of the nation (see my blog about the history of Uzbekistan). We will come across him and his successors again and again in Uzbekistan.


Strolling around and to the Independence Square

We cross a busy alley and walk to the Independence Square. We are surprised to find lines and lines of fountains. Tashkent derives water from the river Chirchik and uses some of it for all these water games.

It is an endless line of water games, here with galleries of columns.

Storks are on top of the galleries. Various modern buildings appear behind the trees and the water games. This is a business center with an oriental touch.

Behind the water line, there is another park with the Independence Monument. The sun is setting.

On our walk back to the hotel we join the Uzbeks strolling in their commercial centre that is also spacious and green.

We have dinner near our hotel – we need time to get used to these horrendous looking prices of 20’000 to 50’000 Som for a dish – which is only two to five Dollars. We sleep well in our comfortable Hotel Uzbekistan.


The patron of Tashkent, Hazrati Imam, and the ancient copy of the Koran

At the next morning we first visit the Hazrati Imam Ensemble.

The Imam Abu Bakr Kaffal Shashi (903-976) was a metallic worker (shashi) that became Imam and the saint patron of Tashkent. It is said that he convinced the then ruling Kara-Khanids to convert to the Islam. Abu Bakr Kaffal Shashi is buried in this mausoleum built in 1542.

Abu Bakr Kaffal Shashi is the Hazrati (holy) Imam that gave the name to this ensemble of mosques, madrasas and Islamic administrative buildings arising around his mausoleum.

The newest mosque of the ensemble is the Hazrati Imam Mosque. It was completed in 2006. It is a modern mosque built in the “traditional” style with blue cupolas and glazed tiles mixed into the raw brownish bricks.

The small building in front is the library museum that holds the Osman Koran from the 7th century which is said to be one of five existing copies. Timur  took it from Irak to Samarkand, then the Russians transferred it to Moscow, and Lenin returned it later.

The entrance to the new Hazrati Mosque is beautifully carved. Under this roof, men are now rolling out their carpets to pray.


Strolling through the Chorsu Bazar

South of the Hazrati Imam Ensemble, we visit the Chorsu Basar, another blue cupola. It looks a bit like a spider with too many legs.

The disposal of vegetables and fruits is enticing.

I believe that this man rents out the trolleys, what a hard job!

The market under the blue cupola takes place on two levels. From the upper level I take the photo of the meat department – “go’sht” means “meat” in the Uzbek language, and it is written in the Latin and in the Cyrillic alphabet.

Uzbekans are multi-lingual. This round box contains a selection of spices, and they are labeled in Russian (набор) and in English (mixed). Each of the spices has two names on the label, the Russian and the English one.


The foster brother of Abdullah Khan – Kukeldash

The foster brother or “kukeldash” seems to have been an important concept in Uzbekistan: One woman feeds two boys from different mothers, and they become foster brothers. Adullah Khan (ruler in the late 16th century) had a foster brother, just called Kukeldash. Various madrasas in Uzbekistan are called after him such as this one in Tashkent. It is a working madrasa that is closed for visitors.

In the background, the Hodscha Archrar Mosque has opened its gates. The Friday service is over. It has been well visited.


Tashkent is proud of two monuments, one for the earthquake, one for the mourning mother

We have lunch in the restaurant Полянка (Poljanka), where this joyful old man welcomes us.

Not far from the restaurant is the earthquake monument. In 1966, the epicentre was  exactly here, some 3 to 8 kms below surface. With 7 to 8 points on the Richter magnitude scale, the earthquake devastated much of Tashkent. The memorial reminds of the hour: It happened at 5:23 in the morning. This is a Soviet style monument, and the Soviets seem to have supported the reconstruction of the spacious city that we experienced.

Another monument reminds of the mothers that lost their sons in the Second World War. “You will always be in our hearts” (Ты всегда в наших сердцах), the inscription says and adds that the memory of the compatriots that have given their lives will always remain alive. I am not aware of Second World War fights in Central Asia, but I believe that the Uzbeks fought in the Soviet army.


Good-bye – whenever I return, I will visit some of the museums

We leave Tashkent. Whenever I return, I would like to visit the museum for history and archaeology to learn more about the country or to see some of their arts museums, and perhaps the puppet theatre is an additional idea.

Sources: “Der grosse Plötz – Atlas zur Weltgeschichte”, Komet Verlag, Köln 2008; Isa Ducke and Natascha Thoma, “Usbekistan”, Dumont Reisehandbuch, Ostfildern 2017; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag, Berlin 2019; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Reise durch Usbekistan”, Stürtz, Verlagshaus Würzburg 2018, Sanjeev Mehan, “Ein vergessenes Land holt auf”, Tagesanzeiger 21. September 2019 and various wiki entries.

Discovering Uzbek history mirrored in world history: Uzbek Khanates until today

End of September/beginning of October 2019, I  am in Uzbekistan. I want to find out about the roots of the Uzbeks and identify the following six highlights in their history mirrored in world history (note that I am not a professional historian):

  1. Around 300 B.C.: Alexander the Great conquers Central Asia and marries the Sogdian princess Roxane in Samarkand
  2. 8th-12th century: The Islam expands to Central Asia conquering Samarkand in 712; the Islam is adopted by local leaders
  3. Beginning 13th to mid 15th century: The Mongols invade Central Asia and the Timurids are their successors
  4. Mid 15th to mid 18th century: Uzbek Khanates – the name “Uzbekistan” takes shape
  5. 19th century to 1925: The Russians conquer Central Asia and install the colony Turkestan
  6. 1925-today: Uzbekistan becomes a Soviet Republic in 1925, and it has been an independent nation since 1991

After having discussed the first three highlights in my former blog, I now intend to look at the second three highlights, (4) the Uzbek Khanates, (5) the Russian colony and (6) Uzbekistan as a Soviet republic and a nation up to today.


4. Mid 15th to mid 18th century: Uzbek Khanates – the name “Uzbekistan” takes shape

Muhammad Shaybani (1451-1510) is originally a subaltern leader in the army of the Timurids. He is of Uzbek origin (a tribe that belongs to the Golden Horde). He fights his way to power unifying the Uzbek Khanates and establishing the dynasty of the Shaybanids. To justify his authority, he claims to descend from Uzbek Khan (1282-1341), a grand-son of Batu Khan who was a grand-son of Genghis Khan. With the Shaybanids from the Uzbek Khanate, the name Uzbekistan takes shape. First Samarkand remains the capital of the Shaybanid empire, and in 1533 the capital is moved to Bukhara. The Shaybanid dynasty lasts until about 1600.

Source: “Der grosse Plötz”

After 1600, the Uzbek Khanates disintegrate into various principalities. Until 1750, the principality of Bukhara is ruled by the Janids, also tracing their origin back to Genghis Khan.

In the early 18th century and after various wars with the Ottoman empire and the Russians, Persia rises again under Nadir Schah. Persia then loses their eastern regions to Afghanistan that now is taking form.

With the discovery of the world by the Europeans, trade moves from the Silk Road to the oceans and the silk road of Central Asia loses importance.


In Bukhara, the capital of the 16th century Shaybanid empire, we find mosques and madrasas from that time. Three examples are the Kalon Mosque with the Miri-Arab Madrasa, and the Kukeldash Madrasa.

This is the Kalon Mosque with its blue tiled entry gate or pishtak (built in 1514).

Just across is the blue tiled pishtak portal of the Miri-Arab Madrasa (built in 1536). The principle of mirroring architectural structures is common in Central Asia and is called “kosh” or “kash” (which means “mirror” or “across” in Persian). The mirroring of similar buildings conveys a monumental impression and harmony.

In 1568/69, the Kukeldash Madrasa, is built by the foster brother(=kukeldash) of Khan Abdullah II. It is the largest madrasa of Bukhara. Khan Abdullah II (1583-98) was one of the best Shaybanid Khans giving Bukhara years of cultural and economic heyday.

After 1600, the Uzbek Khanates disintegrate into various principalities, and the governor of the Samarkand principality, Yalangthush Bakhodur, completes the Registan. He adds two more madrasas: The Tylia Kori Madrasa in the middle and the Sher-Dor Madrasa to the right. The two new madrasas join the Ulugh Bek Madrasa from the 15th century, and, 200 years later, the Registan becomes this magnificent example of the kash/kosh mirroring architectural structures.


5. 19th century to 1925: The Russians conquer Central Asia and install the colony Turkestan

In the 19th century, the Russians and the Britains fight the “Great Game” for predominance in Central Asia. In 1895, they define the Amudarya (ancient Oxus river) as the border between their areas of influence – the Russians will stay north of the river Amudarya, the Britains south of it.

While the Britains focus on India and Myanmar, the Russian troops conquer Central Asia or what is now Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. In 1867 they install the governorate Turkestan with the capital Tashkent. Today’s Uzbekistan is part of Turkestan.

Source: “Der grosse Plötz”

“Russian new towns” arise around the old towns. The Russian colonists plant cotton in the steppes of Turkestan. That requires irrigation, as this view of the dry steppes around Samarkand illustrates (taken from the Hazrat Daud Cave, the Cave of David, an important Usbek pilgrimage site).


6. 1925-today: Uzbekistan becomes a Soviet Republic in 1925, and it has been an independent nation since 1991

In 1924/25 Uzbekistan becomes the Uzbek Socialist Soviet Republic, the borders of which are finalized in 1963. Since 1930, Tashkent has been the capital. More Russians move into Uzbekistan, some not voluntarily. Education and industrialization are promoted. The irrigation of the cotton plantations leads to the drying out of the Aral Sea. Buildings are made with Soviet style precast concrete slabs; they are decorated which gives them a somewhat Asian charm. Tashkent is destroyed by an earthquake in 1966 (7 to 8 on the Richter scale) and the Soviets rebuild it with large open spaces – it should be the showcase for a modern Soviet city.

In September 1st 1991, Uzbekistan becomes independent. Islom Karimov, already president of the Soviet Republic since 1990, remains until 2016, strict and distrustful. Then Shavkat Mirziyoev takes over. He brings a fresh wind, including currency liberalization and abolishing tourist visas. We benefited from that, when traveling to Uzbekistan and we wish the country all the best to successfully progress with the reforms.

Source: “Der grosse Plötz”

Uzbekistan is a multicultural nation. 70% of the population are Uzbeks of Turkish origin and 5% (perhaps more) are Tadjiks of Persian origin. The coat of arms, though, is a bird that belongs to the Persian mythology: Xumo/Humo or Simorgh. The share of the Russian population diminishes (in 2019 about 5%), but Russian is still widely spoken. The alphabet used is a mix of Latin and Cyrillic and what you see, is a mix of languages between local, Russian and English.

The primary religion is sunnite, not only among the Uzbeks and the representatives of the other Turkish peoples, but also for the Tajiks that are of Persian origin. Sufism has a long tradition here; for them, the relation of individuals with God is central. One of the most important ordens are the Naqshband the founder of which is Bahauddin Naqshband of Bukhara (14th century, Dumont, p. 334).


A good example for Soviet style precast concrete slab buildings is the Hotel Usbekistan in Tashkent. The square with Timur illustrates the open spaces that should make Tashkent a Soviet showcase, in particular after the earthquake of 1966.

In 1976, the earthquake memorial is unveiled directly above the epicentre which was in the very city centre.

The business centre Poytakht (Бизнес центр Пойтахт) is a good example for the “Asian touch” of modern buildings in Tashkent.


Let us next look at the blue oasis cities Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand in more detail.


Sources: “Der grosse Plötz – Atlas zur Weltgeschichte”, Komet Verlag, Köln 2008; Isa Ducke and Natascha Thoma, “Usbekistan”, Dumont Reisehandbuch, Ostfildern 2017; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag, Berlin 2019; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Reise durch Usbekistan”, Stürtz, Verlagshaus Würzburg 2018; Sanjeev Mehan, “Ein vergessenes Land holt auf”, Tagesanzeiger 21. September 2019; Markus Ackeret: “Usbekistans Ambitionen in Zentralasien”, NZZ, 5. März 2020 and various wiki entries.

Discovering Uzbek history mirrored in world history (Alexander the Great, Islam and the Mongols)

End of September/beginning of October 2019, I  am in Uzbekistan. I want to find out about the roots of the Uzbeks and identify the following six highlights in their history mirrored in world history (note that I am not a historian by profession):

  1. Around 300 B.C.: Alexander the Great conquers Central Asia and marries the Sogdian princess Roxane in Samarkand
  2. 8th-12th century: The Islam expands to Central Asia conquering Samarkand in 712; the Islam is adopted by local leaders
  3. Beginning 13th to mid 15th century: The Mongols invade Central Asia, and the Timurids are their successors
  4. Mid 15th to mid 18th century: Uzbek Khanates – the name “Uzbekistan” takes shape
  5. 19th century to 1925: The Russians conquer Central Asia and install the colony Turkestan
  6. 1925-today: Uzbekistan becomes a Soviet Republic in 1925, and it has been an independent nation since 1991

Let us start with the first three highlights, Alexander the Great, Islamic expansion and the Mongols.


1. Around 300 B.C.: Alexander the Great conquers Central Asia and marries the Sogdian princess Roxane in Samarkand

After having defeated the king of Persia, Dareios III, in Issos (333 B.C.), Alexander the Great invades the Persian empire of the Archaemenids which comprised the Middle East (including Egypt) and Central Asia up to the river Indus and to the Hindu Kush. What is Uszbekistan today belonged to Sogdia (mainly located beyond the river Oxus (now Amudarya), the area was called Transoxiana). In Marakanda (today: Samarkand), Alexander marries Roxane in 327 B.C.. She is the daughter of the local chieftain. When Alexander dies in 323 B.C., his empire is divided into four parts, whereby the eastern part becomes the empire of the Seleucids. Roxane and her son are murdered in the successor fights.

Source: Der grosse Plötz

Today, no monuments are left from this time, though Greek culture and art made a long-lasting impact here.

About the marriage of Alexander and Roxane, Händel has composed an opera called “Alessandro” that was premiered in 1725.


2. 8th-12th century: The Islam expands to Central Asia conquering Samarkand in 712; the Islam is adopted by local leaders

Muhammed, based on his monotheistic religion, unifies the (formerly competing) Arab tribes. Muhammed dies In 632.The Arabs rapidly expand not only to the west (invading Spain in 711 and being pushed back in France at Poitiers in 732), but also at the same time, they expand to the east. In 712 they definitively conquer Marakanda (later: Samarkand) which becomes a cultural and intellectual centre of the Islam.

Around 800, the Samanids take over power in the area of Transoxiana (or where Uzbekistan is today). They are of Persian origin and claim to be the successors of the Sasanians who had ruled over Persia from 224 to 651 AD. The Samanids report into the caliphate of the Abbasids in Baghdad. In the 12th century the Kara-Khanids succeed the Samanids. The Kara-Khanids are of Turkish origin. Until today Persian and Turkish heritage have cohabitated in what is Uzbekistan now.

Source: Der grosse Plötz

The capital of the Samanids is Bukhara. Trade and culture at Buchara thrive. Under Mansur I (961-976) and Nuh II (976-997) Buchara is the centre of Persian culture and contributes to the rise of the new Persian language. Rudaki (858/59-941) was an important Persian poet (his master piece was “Kalila wa Dimna”, a collection of fables; note that Persian/Farsi is an Indo-Germanic language).

We find monuments from the area of the Samanids and the Kara-Khanids in Bukhara.

This is the Samanid mausoleum where Ismail I is buried. It is the oldest Islamic building in Central Asia that still exists. Raw terracotta bricks make the magnificent patterns – just charming.

The elegant Kalon Minaret (12th century, also a pattern created by raw bricks, adorned with one narrow band of blue tiles)… and

… the Magoki Attari Mosque are from the times, when Bukhara was the capital of the empire of the (Turkish) Kara Khanids.

This is cultural heritage from pre Mongolian times.


3. Beginning 13th to mid 15th century: The Mongols invade Central Asia, and the Timurids are their successors

Genghis Khan (1206-1227) unifies the peoples of the steppe of Central Asia and conquers a large part of Asia and Northern China. His son Ögedei (1229-1241) takes over and his grand-son Batu invades Asia Minor and conquers most Russian principalities, except Novgorod. In 1241 Batu wins battles in Hungary and Poland, but then Ögedei dies and struggling for a successor halts the advance of the Mongols in Europe. In 1259, Möngke, the last Khan of the united Mongolian empire, dies. Now, the Mongolian empire disintegrates into four khanates:

  • China: Kublai Khan, a grand-son of Genghis Khan, founds the Yuan dynasty that last until 1380. It is the Mongolian emperors from the Yuan dynasty that Marco Polo (1254-1324) tells us about, when visiting in China.
  • Khanate of the Ilkhanes: Founded by Hülegü, a grand-son of Genghis Khan, it includes Persia, and the rulers adopt the Islam.
  • Khanate of the Golden Horde: Founded by grand-son Batu, the Golden Horde governs the Russian principalities until 1505. The Golden Horde converts to the Islam in the 14th century.
  •  Khanate Chagatai: Founded by Chagatai, a son of Genghis Khan, it includes, what is Uzbekistan today.

Source: Der grosse Plötz

However, borders of the Khanates change in the late 14th century. The green line on the map shows the empire of Timur (1360-1405). Timur was a lower level noble man from Transoxania (from today’s Uzbekistan). He gains control over the western Chagatai Khanate and the Empire of the Ilkhanes. Timur is a successful warlord. He weakens the Golden Horde (which marks the beginning the liberation of Russia that will be completed in 1505). In addition Timur defeats the Ottomans near Ankara in 1402 which gives Europe and Byzantium a break from the Ottoman attacks. Timur’s empire thrives economically due to internal peace, free trade routes and the post system based on messengers.

Timur believes that he needs Mongolian heritage to justify his authority, and he marries Bibi Khanym who is a descendent of Genghis Khan. Timur makes Samarkand (formerly Marakanda) the capital of his empire.

His grand-son, Ulugh Bek (1394-1445), is not only the ruler, but also an excellent mathematician and astronomer. His astronomic maps were used for centuries to navigate the world oceans. He is murdered by his own son.

It is interesting to note that Babur (1504-1530) was another descendent of Timur. In 1525, Babur conquers Delhi and founds the Mogul Dynasty in Northern India.

We meet Timur all over the country. He is venerated for being the founder of Uzbekistan, for instance riding his horse at Taschkent…

… or sitting on his throne, surrounded by traffic in Samarkand.

Timur is buried in Samarkand, in the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum. This is Persian for “Tomb of the King”.

Inside are the sarcophagi of some Timurids and some close companions.

For his main wife, Timur builds the Bibi Khanym Mosque (he has to get permission from the Imams to devote a mosque to a woman).

Ulugh Bekh establishes his center of mathematical and astronomical research in Samarkand from which the sextant of his observatory remains.

In addition Ulugh Bekh promotes education in his empire; the Madrasa of Bukhara tells about that.

Also Samarkand has its Ulugh Bek madrasa at the Registan Square – it is the building to the left of this beautiful place.

The two other buildings at the Registan will  be added in the 17th century.

Sources: “Der grosse Plötz – Atlas zur Weltgeschichte”, Komet Verlag, Köln 2008; Burchard Brentjes: “Die Araber”, Ex Libris Zürich 1977; Isa Ducke and Natascha Thoma, “Usbekistan”, Dumont Reisehandbuch, Ostfildern 2017; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag, Berlin 2019; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Reise durch Usbekistan”, Stürtz, Verlagshaus Würzburg 2018; Sanjeev Mehan, “Ein vergessenes Land holt auf”, Tagesanzeiger 21. September 2019 and various wiki entries.

Discovering Uzbekistan: Impressions from landscapes

In September/October 2019, we were in Uzbekistan. On the  tour we explored the landscape which is mainly desert and half desert: We saw the Chimgan mountains, touched the Kyzylkum desert, stopped near the Aydarkul Lake  and stayed at Sentyob in the Nuratau mountains.


As it was autumn, the landscape was dry and dusty. To see flowers, we are told, we should rather return in spring.


The Chimgan mountains

North east of Tashkent is a small strip of Uzbekistan that reaches into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. We spend two days here doing a bit of walking in the dry and rough landscape.

In winter, Beldersoy is a skiing resort. The Beldersoy chairlift is currently being renovated.

There is a second chairlift that we take up, with many more Uzbeks. At the top, some wait to take photos of those who want a souvenir.

It must be an old Russian “light-weight” chairlift. At the top, there is a small edge to walk on, and it is not allowed to move off it. “Strictly forbidden to cross the border of the path”  or “за предел строго запрещено”. STOP!

The view is beautiful, to the west and down into the valley in the direction of Tashkent…

… with the sandy hills dotted with some green trees…

… and to the east to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan that have been covered with snow during last night.

The mountains in Kyrgyzstan are higher and perhaps more spectacular, but we loved our small metallic green chairlift.


The Yurt camp in the Kyzylkum desert

From Bukhara, our driver Firouz takes us to the red sand desert Kyzylkum where we stay overnight in the yurt camp Sputnik Navoi. (I am later told that “Firouz” is Persian and means “the victorious” or “the intelligent”).

It seems that in this area, the Uzbeks no longer live in yurts, but they want to give their tourists an interesting experience of the Central Asian way of life. In the evening we sat at the camp fire singing songs with other tourists from France, from Germany, from England… not really an authentic Uzbek experience, but nevertheless it was fun.

The desert has its charm and really looks somewhat reddish, covered with scrubs. I enjoy the atmosphere…

… and a small ride on the camel Bumba. I stroke its neck, while it carried me through the desert.


The Aydarkul Lake

The Ayarkul Lake emerged accidentally, when after a heavy rainfall the Chardarya irrigation dam in Kazakhstan had to be opened which resulted in the Arnasay basin in Uzbekistan to be filled with water. The lake adds to the scarce water supply of Uzbekistan. We eat excellent fish from the lake in this “restaurant” – I remember that the fish was called Wobla.

We then go for a small walk on the shores of the lake…

… meeting a herd of Karakul sheep, a race that originates from Central Asia and is used to produce Persian fur. As I learn, the fur is made from newly born lamb – a scary idea for me.

There are some hills in the background.

We continue our way to Sentyob in the Nuratau mountains.


Uzbek hospitality in the Nuratau mountains and at the village Sentyob

Sentyob is a village in the Nuratau mountains, located on 600-700m above sea level.

Sobek picks us up near the main road and takes us to his shady guesthouse Manzaralari; he has just finished building his guesthouse in summer 2019.

We sit in the shade on this sofa and we enjoy delicious meals under the trees near the creek.

Once they serve a delicious Plov which is the national dish of Usbekistan: Rice, meat, carrots, onions and dried fruit.

The village Sentyob stretches along the creek originating in the mountains.

At the end of the village is the mosque. Today the people from the village celebrate the circumcision of three boys (we are told that the cirumcision took place in the hospital).

We are invited to have lunch (hotpot with meat, potato and vegetables) and to drink vodka. We join the community dancing.

Then we continue our way into the valley…

… climbing up to a deserted village…

… with some hens (one house between the ruins is inhabited).

We come across some petroglyphs with Farsi text.

Along the creek we see cows…,

… sheep,…

… fields and gardens.

Behind the valley barrier is a lake, but that is now too far – some 10 km more going there and another 15km to return back to Sentyob.

We watch some sheep climbing up the rocks…

… and get back to our comfortable guest house.

The next day we walk along this lush creek…

… with mulberry trees…

… up to this huge platycladus (arbor vitae) that is said to have been planted by soldiers of the army of Alexander the Great. May be that the age of the tree is exaggerated, but surely it IS old.

The girth of the trunk measures 24m, as a plate explains.

A tree planted by Alexander the Great? In 300 B.C.? Has Alexander really been that far in Central Asia? Yes, he was here where he found his wife – let us explore the history of Uzbekistan as part of Central Asia. It has been invaded by various peoples from the west and from the east to become this mix of ethnics that it is today.

Sources: Isa Ducke et alii: “Usbekistan”, Dumont Reisehandbuch Ostfildern 2017, Irina und Bodo Thöns, “Reise durch Usbekistan”, Stürz Würzburg 2018, “Der grosse Plötz”, Herder Freiburg 2008

Discovering Uzbekistan – geographical location

From September 26th to October 10th 2019, I was in Uzbekistan discovering the country and visiting the oasis cities Samarkand and Bukhara with its blue cupolas that has always been a dream of mine. Let us first explore the geographical location of Uzbekistan.


Uzbekistan touches the north western mountains of the Himalaya

Uzbekistan is in Central Asia, touching the last north western mountains of the Himalaya massif.


Uzbekistan is far, far away from the oceans – it is a double locked country. That is, it only borders countries that also do not have access to the oceans. Though benefiting from rivers originating in the mountains, about 75% of Uzbekistan are desert or half desert and only about 10% can be cultivated.


Uzbekistan is a “Mesopotamia”

Zooming in Uzbekistan, we can see that it is located in the Aral Sea Basin between the rivers Syrdarya and Amudarya.


In a way it is a “Mesopotamia” or a country “between two rivers”, and there are even more rivers coming from the north western mountains of the Himalaya massif, one of them being the Serafshan, where Samarkand and Bukhara are located. They were important oasis cities on the old Silk Road from China to Europe. The Amudarya and the Syrdarya both supplied the Aral Sea with water – the past tense is correct here!


Water has become a problem in Central Asia

On the topographical map above, the Aral Sea still is large and blue. But today, the Aral Sea has diminished dramatically and the Amudarya now drains away in the desert, while the Syrdarya still feeds the Aral Sea – or what is left from it. This is an environmental catastrophy caused by the cotton cultivation that has been intensified since the late 19th century.

There are more issues related with water, as the rivers originate in the neighbouring countries of Uzbekistan. The neighbours have built dams which deviate water before it reaches Uzbekistan. I do hope, the Central Asian countries find peaceful ways to manage their water supply. In one case, Uzbekistan benefited from the Chardarya irrigation dam in Kazakhstan. In the late 1960-s, there were heavy rainfalls, the dams had to be opened in Kazakhstan, and the water filled the Arnasay lowland in Uzbekistan. The Lake Aydarkul north of Samarkand and Bukhara emerged. On our tour, we stopped here to eat fish and to enjoy the birds and the sheep near the water.



Uzbekistan is a multi-ethnic nation

Looking at the frontiers of Uzbekistan, I suspect that there must have been political reasons for this layout. The country looks like a man with “two legs” reaching into the neighbouring countries. While Tajikistan is mainly of Persian origin, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and the Uzbeks belong to the Turk peoples. Uzbekistan is a multi-ethnic country, whereby about 70% are Uzbeks, 5% are Tajiks and another 5% are Russians. The other ethnics are Kazakhs, Uigurs and many more. We noticed in the Nuratau mountains, in Bukhara and in Samarkand that many people are bilingual Persian and Turkish-Uzbek, besides speaking Russian and now more and more English. When looking into history later, we will see that Samarkand and Bukhara were important cradles for the Persian as well as for the Uzbek culture. Our tour guide said, yes, we are multi-ethnic, but we accept and integrate them all. I do wish success to Uzbekistan – as a Swiss I am used to our four languages and many, many self-confident “individual” dialects.


Our tour through Uzbekistan

On our tour through Uzbekistan we visited the Chimgan mountains in the small strip between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan north east of Tashkent, the desert Kyzylkum (red sand desert), the Nuratau mountains south of the Lake Aydarkul, the capital Tashkent and the blue oasis cities Bukhara and Samarkand. I will talk about impressions from the landscape, about the history of Uzbekistan mirrored in  world history, and about the cities that we have visited – with their blue cupolas.

Bibi Khanym Mosque in Samarkand.

Sources: Isa Ducke et alii: “Usbekistan”, Dumont Reisehandbuch Ostfildern 2017, Irina und Bodo Thöns, “Reise durch Usbekistan”, Stürz Würzburg 2018, “Der grosse Plötz”, Herder Freiburg 2008 and Wiki entry about the Aydar Lake.