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.