For more than 2,000 years, camel caravans laden with textiles, jewels, spices and countless other coveted trinkets traversed the Silk Road between the Mediterranean and China. Harsh deserts and rugged mountains made for exhausting journeys, so traders were always relieved when welcoming, oasis-like cities appeared on the horizon. Our Discover Uzbekistan small-group adventure visits three of them—Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand—immersing you among the nation’s most breathtaking mosques, madrasas and mausoleums.
Khiva: First Oasis in Uzbekistan
A welcome sight to traders after their desert trek from Persia, extravagant Khiva emerges on the horizon like a mirage. Here are just a few highlights of this spectacular city:
- The Ichan-Kala, or inner town, was defended by brick walls that stood 33 feet. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it remains today one of the most remarkably preserved examples of medieval Muslim architecture and urban planning in Central Asia.
- Ichan-Kala’s expansive royal court is encircled by crenellated walls that might remind you of a massive sand castle. Palaces, mosques, minarets and other stunning structures adorned with majolica tiles transport you back to the days of powerful emirs.
- The Kunya Ark dates back 1,000 years. It served as an expansive residence for Khiva’s rulers, complete with harems, stables, a throne room, and a jail that held slaves and prisoners.
- The Djuma Mosque boasts a forest of some 200 pillars carved of wood and decorated with spiraling motifs.
- The graceful architecture and blue tiles of the Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum are etched with age-old proverbs ascribed to the beloved poet and patron saint of the city.
Bukhara: The Holiest City
Bukhara is Central Asia’s most complete example of a medieval city. The urban planning and architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site were unsurpassed in the region. Its historic district is an open-air treasure trove of mosques, madrasas and minarets.
- Within the Poyi-Kalon complex stands the massive Kalon Mosque, which can accommodate 10,000 worshippers. With its luminous blue domes, it proudly stands as a testament to Bukhara’s place as the most holy city in Central Asia. So stunning is its towering minaret, even Genghis Khan spared it from destruction.
- The shakhristan, or Old Town, provides a snapshot of life in Bukhara 500 years ago. Slim alleyways of mud-brick lead to secluded mosques and fanciful residences from the 19th century.
- Home of emirs, the Ark Fortress is an opulent summer palace and a resplendent town within a town.
- The Oriental Bazaar evokes Silk Road traders of old with its shining jewelry, brightly hued carpets, silk clothing and countless other glittering treasures.
- The center of Bukhara, the Lyabi Khauz Ensemble, is where locals gather for tea and conversation. Covered bazaars fan off the square and lead to the city’s religious sites.
Samarkand: A Thriving Center of Uzbek Culture
By some accounts, Samarkand is the most romantic of the Silk Road cities. It was certainly its most resplendent, thanks to the prosperous (albeit vicious) rule of Tamerlane the Great, who made it the shining capital of his empire.
- The city, a stunning collection of architecture and art from the 13th century to today, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Registan Square is celebrated as the symbol of Central Asia. The ensemble of shimmering tiled buildings and gateways, including three madrasas, surround a vast and glorious square.
- Samarkand’s mausoleums are a magnificent tribute to the dead. The enormous Guri Amir is the resting place of Tamerlane. Elsewhere, the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis—where dozens of history’s most notable people were laid—houses intricately decorated tombs surrounding that of Qussam Ibn Abbas, the cousin of Mohammed who is said to have brought Islam here in the 7th century.
- The world’s largest mosque upon its completion in the 15th century, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque was built as a tribute to Tamerlane’s wife.
- Portal to the stars in the 1420s, the short-lived yet fascinating Ulugh Beg Observatory was named for its builder. He and his colleagues used it to study the heavens until it was destroyed by religious zealots in 1449.
Experience these remarkable centers of the Silk Road during our Discover Uzbekistan small-group adventure!