The Heart of the Silk Road
A trip through the ancient trading hubs that connected East and West
The Silk Road has always fascinated travellers from all over the World. The ancient network of trading routes connected the East and the West for centuries, making possible the trade between lands like China and Europe. The Silk Road is certainly the biggest trading network from the ancient era, and its importance didn’t decline until just a few centuries ago. Even today countries like China want to revive it, with projects like the One Belt One Road Initiative.
Such a vast network attracted huge amounts of people. The major trade hubs soon became wealthy and known all over the globe, with modern-day Uzbekistan as the heart of the Silk Road. Cities like Khiva, Bukhara or Samarkand were for centuries synonymous with wealth, prosperity and trade. Today some are modern cities where we can still find the traces of the past. However, others manage to transport the traveller back in history, to the time of their prime.
The Walled City of Khiva
The city of Khiva is located at the west of Uzbekistan, very close to the border with Turkmenistan. It’s not as ancient as other cities from the Silk Road, being mentioned for the first time around the 10th century, and with archaeological evidence of inhabitants in the 6th century.
Khiva is split into two parts. The outer town, called Dichan Kala, and the inner or walled town, or Itchan Kala. The inner town is one of the places where you can breathe the spirit of the Silk Road. This area, completely surrounded by a 10 meters wall contains hundreds of old houses and historic monuments. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking through the streets brings you back in time, to the days of the Khanate of Khiva when the city thrived thanks to the slave trade. Turkmen tribesmen would capture slaves in the steppes, and travel to Khiva to sell them there. It was the biggest slave market in Central Asia. So much that one of the reasons why the Russian Empire conquered it in the 19th century was the increasing amount of Russian slaves being sold there.
Despite the dark history of the city, it is a beautiful place, where no matter where you go you will find madrasas, mausoleums, mosques and palaces. The old town is like a huge museum. One of my favourite buildings was the 18th-century Djuma mosque, built with 212 wooden columns, giving it a dreamy look. 21 of these columns are really old, from the 10th-12th centuries, and decorated with Arabian inscriptions, while the moderns ones have floral patterns.
Bukhara, the Pearl of Uzbekistan
When I was in Bukhara a young local woman in charge of a shop told me that people go to Uzbekistan to see Samarkand but always end up liking Bukhara more. And while that’s up to the traveller, I can definitely see her point. Bukhara or Buxoro has many similarities to Khiva. The old town is also a UNESCO Wolrd Heritage Site and a museum city. It is fairly big, with a population of 250,000, and famous for its large amount of historic buildings. It even has its local celebrity, the Emir of Bukhara, who ruled before the annexation of the Emirate by the Russian Empire. Today you can find his image everywhere, and even buy keychains or small figurines of him.
Founded in the 6th century B.C., the town is filled with historical buildings, some of them dating back to the 12th century. One example is the Kalyan minaret. This 48 meters building was built in 1127, and it impressed so much Genghis Khan that when he conquered the city, he spared it from destruction, unlike everything around it. Other buildings, like the Chor Minor, built in the 19th century, are more recent. This one is one of the most famous buildings, especially for being the cover of the Lonely Planet Central Asia guide. Like most mosques and madrasas in the country, it has a souvenir shop inside, something that I found very funny after a few weeks in Iran, where that would definitely be frown upon.
Lyab-i Hauz, the old square in the middle of the city can be quiet and peaceful, with people gathering around the pond to eat or play games. In the evening the atmosphere changes when people go there to hang around, the street markets open and the kids run around playing. The pond is surrounded by two madrasas and a khanaka, which is some kind of lodge for Sufi travellers. The buildings date back to the 16th century and make it one of the most beautiful areas of the city. Apparently these kind of ponds were everywhere in Bukhara prior to Soviet rule, acting as a source of water. Sadly they also spread diseases through the city, including an infamous episode centuries ago when the Plague infected a large number of people.
Samarkand, Crossroad of Cultures
The city of Samarkand was one of the greatest cities of Central Asia, already famous in the 4th century B.C when Alexander the Great conquered it. Alexander himself said ‘Everything I have heard about the beauty of the city is indeed true, except that it is much more beautiful than I imagined’. Sadly we will never see the same city as Alexander, as the city was part of many empires after that and even conquered by the Huns. By the 3rd century, Samarkand was just a shade of its former glory and wouldn’t recover until centuries later.
The city flourished again during the Golden Age of the Silk Road, after Genghis Khan conquered most of Eurasia. The massive Mongol Empire meant that, for a long period of time, there was peace all along the Silk Road. This peace, and the protection of the caravans under the Khanate, attracted traders, merchants and travellers from all around the world. This was the time of travellers like Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo. They described Samarkand as ‘one of the greatest and finest of cities, and most perfect of them in beauty’ and ‘a very large and splendid city’ respectively‘.
150 years later Timur built his empire over the ashes of the now divided Mongol khanates. He made Samarkand the capital and became a patron of the arts, bringing artists and builders from his conquests to reshape the city. After the Timurid empire fell, the city started declining again and switching hands between local rulers. As the Silk Road lost its importance, Samarkand became more and more irrelevant in the global trade. In the 19th and 20th century, under Russian rule, the city changed at an even faster rate, especially during the time it was under the USSR.
Modern day Samarkand
Today Samarkand is a big and modern city, very different from Khiva and Bukhara. In order to visit the sights, you have to either walk long distances or take a taxi or local bus. Despite the lack of an old town, the historic buildings are stunning, especially the Registan, a huge square with three madrasas surrounding it. Another impressive sight is the Shah-i-Zinda, the necropolis where the relatives of Timur are buried.
There are many remarkable mosques and madrasas too, and of course, you can also visit the mausoleum of Timur himself. Other notable people are also buried with him, including the famous astronomer Ulugh Beg. He built an observatory in Samarkand and created what is considered the greatest star catalogue until Tycho Brahe. Another of his achievements was measuring the length of a year with an error of just 58 seconds.
A personal note
The Silk Road has always fascinated me. Reading the tales of travellers like Marco Polo always made me wonder how these places actually were. After finally visiting Uzbekistan I can agree with the merchants from ancient times. The cities are beautiful, splendid and very different from anything I’ve seen before. The unique Central Asian culture captivated me in a very special way. If you have the chance of going here take it! I promise you won’t regret it.