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Top ten sites in Uzbekistan

Samarkand and Bukhara, two of the great cities along the Silk Road lie within Uzbekistan, although the country offers much more. Archaeologist and traveller Ben Churcher offers ten highlights from his explorations along this ancient trade route

Plains outside Samarkand


Most people visiting Tashkent have a favourable impression of Uzbekistan’s capital. Largely rebuilt following a disastrous 1966 earthquake, the city is pleasantly ‘low-rise’ with wide, tree lined streets. The city has central markets, the Chorsu Bazaar, where you can get your first glimpse of Central Asian foods and at Hast Imam Square the huge Koran of Caliph Othman is on display. Written in the middle of the 7th century, this Koran was brought to Uzbekistan by Emir Timur, the late fourteenth century founder of the Timurid dynasty.

Following independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has embraced this mediaeval warrior better known in the west as ‘Tamerlane’ and by tales of the pyramids of skulls he left in the wake of his conquests; conquests that, at one point, stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the western borders of China. Emir Timur (1336 - 1405) is now an Uzbek national hero and Tashkent’s central square, Emir Timur Square, is well designed and focused on an equestrian statue of the conqueror. Adjacent to the square is the crown-shaped museum of the Timurids, a good place to be reminded of their role in constructing many of the impressive monuments that can be seen throughout the region. A direct descendant of Timur, Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur (1483 - 1530), went from presiding over a small kingdom in Afghanistan to establishing the Mughal dynasty and becoming the first Mughal emperor.


The ancient city of Samarkand has not stood still and preserved a mediaeval city for us to explore today. Instead, its monuments are firmly enmeshed within a modern and growing city. While the city still abounds with ancient buildings such as those at the Registan Square or the nearby Bibi-Khanym Mosque, the masterpiece is the Gur-i Amir: the Mausoleum for Emir Timur. As a piece of architecture, the ribbed dome and tile work mark Gur-i Amir as a masterpiece of the Timurid period and, inside the ornately decorated mausoleum, lies the dark green, almost black, jade grave marker of the long dead warrior himself.

We know this for certain as Soviet archaeologists in 1941 opened the crypt of Emir Timur and examined his skeleton. They were able to confirm that Emir Timur had sustained a severe injury to his right side and that he would have walked with a pronounced limp; indeed, our word ‘Tamerlane’ comes from the Persian translation of Timur the Lame. Although Emir Timur and his relatives were reburied with due Islamic honour, people have noted that his crypt was opened on the day Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa against Russia. Emir Timur and his association with continental invasions echo over the centuries.


Many of the monuments seen at Samarkand have been restored, even extensively rebuilt, during the twentieth century. While certainly not looking like movie sets, the buildings do, however, struggle to gain your respect as being truly ancient buildings. While little remains at the ancient city of Samarkand, Afrasiyab (there are sections of the city wall visible and some archaeologist’s overgrown trenches), the much ruined location is evocative as the place visited by both Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.

In Alexander’s chronicles, Afrasiyab has a dark memory as it was here that he killed his companion Cleitus the Black in a drunken rage. The event showed those around Alexander that he would do anything, and heed nobody, as he pursued his dream of immortal glory. The seeds of the mutiny that would curtail his conquests had been sown.

Many centuries later Genghis Khan captured the citadel before stripping the citizens of their wealth, artisans and fighting men. As the city was largely cooperative it was spared the worst of Mongol retaliation but by stripping the city of its wealth, and by dismantling the area’s vital irrigation works, the Mongols dealt the city a crippling blow.

Now Afrasiyab is deserted and lonely. The track behind the small museum (shouldn’t be missed for some well-preserved first millennium CE frescoes) winds up into the ancient city past overgrown trenches left by Soviet period archaeologists. In the distance, the raised inner keep of the city remains visible, but like the rest of the city, it has decayed into rounded mounds rather than remaining as recognisable buildings. Even so, Afrasiyab seems to speak history louder than the restored monuments of the city centre and the site reminds us of the deep antiquity of countries such as Uzbekistan.


This feature is from the Summer 2014/Issue 1 of Timeless Travels magazine

To find out which other sites make Ben's top ten to visit in Uzbekistan, CLICK HERE to buy the feature for just 0.99p

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