Uzbekistan's top historical sites

How to see Uzbekistan's Islamic architecture

Uzbekistan's top historical sites
By Steven Hermans

Historical Samarkand is often the first stop for visitors to Uzbekistan – with the exception of capital Tashkent which serves as a transport hub. The high-speed train from Tashkent to Samarkand takes two hours, halving the time it takes to drive between the two cities.

Samarkand was the capital of Amir Timur, a 14th-century master general who built an empire spanning Central Asia and Persia, killing 17 million people in the process. He was also a patron of the arts, capturing artists along the way to build him a legacy in stone. The pitiful dead have been forgotten, but the magnificent city still stands.

Samarkand's Registan

How to visit Samarkand’s Registan square and its madrasahs

The Registan complex of mosque and madrasahs (Islamic schools), decorated with ceramic tiles and presided over by an obviously un-Islamic lion, are at the heart of Samarkand. From here, you can branch out to the enormous Bibi Khanum mosque, or instead visit the striking Gur Emir mausoleum of Timur himself, which would inspire the Taj Mahal, built by Timur’s descendants of the Mughal dynasty.

The Registan was medieval Samarkand’s commercial centre. In the 15th century, under the auspices of Ulugh Beg, the astronomer-king and Timur’s grandson, it became Samarkand’s educational centre as well, when he built a splendid madrasah (from the viewing platform, it’s the building to your left) where he taught astronomy. At the time, the Ulugh Beg madrasah was known as one of the best universities of the Muslim world.

Ulugh Beg’s size is balanced by the sheer elegance of its design and ceramic tile coating. A yellow-brown background highlights glazed green, turquoise, yellow and blue. Mosaic and majolica panels shine with floral motifs and Kufic calligraphy. The highlight is a muqarnas (a vaulted form of Islamic architecture) honeycomb decoration that dazzles with its mathematical complexity.

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Samarkand's Registan square

"Never in all the centuries will an artist, thought's acrobat, even with the bow of phantasy, scale the forbidden peaks of this minaret," reads one of the inscriptions extolling the opposite Shir Dor (having tigers) madrasah, built by Governor Yalangtush between 1619 and 1636. His architects strove to match Ulugh Beg in scale and nobility, though Koranic prohibition against symmetry forbade an exact mirror-image.

The decoration of Shir Dor is not as refined as that on the Ulugh Beg madrasah of the 15th century - the golden age of Timurid architecture. Yet the harmony of large and small rooms, exquisite mosaic decor, monumentality and efficient symmetry all place the structure among the finest architectural monuments of Samarkand.

The lions and human-faced sun that guard the portal are a striking return to pre-Islamic Zoroastrian symbolism, reminiscent of the Divanbegi madrassah in Bukhara.

To enclose the square in pleasing harmony, Yalangtush had a third madrasah built with a stretched facade of 75 metres. The Bibi Khanum mosque was in ruins by this time, and Tillya Kari was to become the city’s main mosque. Its name means “the gilded one” and besides a lavish mosaic feast matching the colours of the Shir Dor, its magnificent interior is swathed in gold leaf.

Need to know

The Registan is so huge that it’s worth visiting the site several times. Try to visit at different times of the day. This will allow you to pick out different details and to observe the play of light and shadow in the muqarnas. The site is open between 8am-7pm daily and the entrance fee is 30,000 som ($3.90).

It’s possible to climb Ulugh Beg’s minaret for exhilarating views over Samarkand. The best time is early in the morning – be prepared to surreptitiously offer guards a small fee if you want to do so.

Uzbekistan Samarkand The Ulugh Beg Observatory Built in the 1420s by astronomer Ulugh Beg it is considered by scholars to have been one of the finest observatories in the Islamic world

Ulugh Beg observatory, Samarkand

Samarkand's Shah-i-Zinda

How to visit Samarkand's Shah-i-Zinda

Overlooking Samarkand is another monument to the dead: the Shah-i-Zinda grave complex is the most atmospheric of all the majolica masterpieces of Uzbekistan. Built to house the graves of leaders and their relatives from the 11th to the 19th century, the complex tells the story of Samarkand, from humble beginnings to the spectacular heights of the Timurid empire.

The holiest site in Samarkand is a necropolis of mausoleums. In the 14th and 15th centuries, it developed into an architectural testing ground whose celebration of ceramic art, unrivalled in Central Asia, makes this street of the dead perhaps the most visually stunning sight in Samarkand.

The name, which means ‘Tomb of the Living King’, refers to its original, innermost and holiest shrine – a complex of cool, quiet rooms around what is probably the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed who is said to have brought Islam to this area in the 7th century.

Shah-i-Zinda began to assume its current form in the 14th century as Timur and later Ulugh Beg buried their family and favourites near the Living King.

Look out for the 16-sided tomb of Amir Burunduk, the octagonal mausoleum built by Ulugh Beg, and the glorious Alim Nesefi Mausoleum with its relief majolica tiles, eight-pointed stars and the inscribed names of twelve Shi'ite imams.

Inside Shah i Zinda

Inside the tomb in Shah-i-Zinda

The sapphire blue tombs are part of the necropolis built for Timur's female relatives. The most beautiful tomb is the Shodi Mulk Oko Mausoleum (1372), resting place of a beautiful young niece of Timur. The exquisite majolica and terracotta work here – notice the minuscule amount of space between the tiles – was of such exceptional quality that it merited almost no restoration.

Need to know

The narrow corridors keep Shah-i-Zinda cool, so you can visit throughout the day in all seasons, but to have the site to yourself, come early in the morning. After visiting Shah-i-Zinda, be sure to continue on to Samarkand’s city cemetery, where the most visited grave is that of former strongman Islam Karimov, who ruled the country with an iron fist for more than a quarter of a century, styling himself as Timur’s successor.

Bukhara's Po-i-Kalan

How to visit Bukhara's Po-i-Kalan complex

Bukhara is Uzbekistan’s fifth-largest city and was a prominent stop on the Silk Road trade route. Built on the remains of a Buddhist monastery, Bukhara is known as the Dome of Islam throughout the Muslim world and still attracts pilgrims – Sufis in particular – who visit the shrine of Bahuddin Naqshbandi, revered founder of the Naqshbandi Sufi sect.

More than 2,000 years old, Bukhara offers the most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia, with an urban fabric that seems to have changed little over the centuries.

The spiritual heart of Bukhara is the Po-i Kalan complex. The magnificent brickwork of the Po-i Kalan minaret has been in place since 1127, surviving earthquakes, the Red Army’s cannonballs and Genghis Khan’s marauders. At the foot of the 45m high minaret lies the mirror image of the Kalan mosque and the Mir-i Arab madrasah. The mosque actually stands on the foundation of an earlier 8th-century mosque that was burnt to the ground by Genghis Khan’s army.

This ‘new’ mosque was built in 1514 and served as Bukhara’s main mosque, with space for up to 10,000 worshippers. Shut down during the Soviet invasion, the Mosque re-opened to the faithful in 1991. The minaret cannot be scaled by tourists, and the madrasah is functional, only allowing visitors into the main court of the building so as not to disturb the students, but the Kalan mosque is free to visit.

The 19th-century octagonal pavilion set in front of the mihrab is an intriguing late addition to the mosque. Some say it marks the ancient well used for centuries for ritual ablutions, others that it was built to shade the emir during his weekly visits. Most probably, it served as an early tannoy system, from where a second imam would echo the words and motions of the first for the benefit of the congregation.

Uzbekistan Bukhara Mir i Arab madrasah

Mir-I-Arab madrasah, Bukhara

Bukhara's Lyabi Hauz

How to visit Lyabi Hauz

The Lyabi Hauz square centres around a pond or hauz. Most ponds in Bukhara were filled in after the Soviet take-over; they were the cause of diseases that plagued residents. But the Lyabi Hauz survived, perhaps because of how it so beautifully reflects the religious structures that flank it on three sides. The Divanbegi madrasah is noteworthy for its facade of phoenixes attacking a Mongol-faced sun, while the nearby khanqah (Sufi spiritual retreat) was a hostel for wandering dervishes who passed through the city. Summer evenings bring concerts and al fresco dining in a rather garish green light.

There’s plenty more to see in Bukhara, from the 1,000-year-old Samanid mausoleum to the gaudy palace of the last Emir, the Ark Fortress and the leavings of the famed Bukhara Jews. Central Bukhara has hundreds of historic structures now used as bathhouses, shops selling carpets, spices or calligraphy.

It pays to wander out of the centre and into the narrow back streets to get a sense of real Bukharan life playing out amidst the ruins of days gone by. The crowds soon thin out, and it’s not long before kids force you into their game, or an invitation for tea comes your way. Accept that invitation, and you will be rewarded with a peek behind the high gates of a traditional Uzbek multi-generational house.

Uzbekistan Bukahara The Lyabi Hauz square

Lyabi Hauz square, Bukhara

What to see in Khiva, Tashkent and beyond

The small slave trader settlement of Khiva encapsulates the best of Central Asian architecture within its mud-brick fortress walls. In the 19th century, Khiva remained out of reach for Russian colonial troops due to its remote location in the Kyzylkum desert, meaning it is well-preserved.

The Kalta Minor minaret dates from the 19th century and was supposed to rival the Kalan minaret in Bukhara. However, it remains unfinished after the architect fled out of fear of being killed by the khan. More than the shape, though, it’s the pattern-glazed tiles in shimmering turquoise, white and yellow that make the minaret worth visiting.

Khiva is tiny (home to just 90,000 people), so it’s worth exploring further. The best side trip goes to the desert fortresses of Khwarezm: impressive, lonely relics rising up from the barren floor, these were once flourishing settlements until the course of the life-giving Amu Darya river changed and left them parched and deserted.

Uzbekistan Women play traditional music

Uzbek women playing traditional music

Tashkent’s museums

After a devastating earthquake in 1966, Tashkent was rebuilt by authorities to become the “beacon of Soviet power in the East” that would “light the socialist path to prosperity for neighbouring peoples of Asia.” A city built on a monumental scale, Tashkent offers a fascinating blend of 20th-century Oriental Brutalist architecture, medieval mausoleums and a fast-paced modern metropolis.

Besides monumental structures, Tashkent is also the place to indulge in some fine food – for instance, the capital’s 100 000-strong Korean community ensures delicious Korean-Uzbek food is not hard to find.

Few museums in Uzbekistan are worth your time; Tashkent is the exception. The Fine Arts Museum is stunning from the outside, but inside the visual feast continues, with an exquisite assembly of the best silk, woodcarving, suzani weaving, ceramics and jewellery.

Tashkent’s State Museum of History is another must-visit, if only for the spectacular shape of the former Lenin museum. It’s the place to really get a grasp on the long and diverse history of this land (but take a guide along, the museum’s English-language explainers are not very helpful). If possible, visit the museum at the end of your trip: you’ll get so much more out of the exhibits when you have been to the places they came from and understand the historical context, not just academically, but emotionally.

Uzbekistan Tashkent Amir Timur museum

Amir Timur Museum, Tashkent

Beyond Uzbekistan’s cities

If you would like to extend your trip outside of the main cities, consider the following options. If arts and crafts are your thing, head to the eastern Ferghana Valley, where you can admire silk production in Margilan, ceramics masters in Rishton, and the Khan’s Palace in Kokand.

For something entirely different (and rather more depressing), continue west from Khiva into the new Aral desert, the successor to the Aral Sea, formerly the fourth-largest lake in the world but dried out by cotton farming. The regional capital Nukus hosts the Savitsky Museum, home to a top-notch collection of Russian avant-garde art once forbidden by Soviet authorities.

In the far south of the country, Termez offers remains of Greek and especially Buddhist history, as well as a tantalising glance over the border to Afghanistan at glorious Mazar-i Sharif.

Finally, Uzbekistan’s central location in the region means you can cross a border and quickly find yourself in one of four other Stans: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Turkmenistan.

Uzbekistan Fergana textiles

Ferghana textiles, Uzbekistan

Is this authentic?

If you are wondering if a building would have looked the same 500 or 1000 years ago, the answer is, almost invariably, “no”. Although Uzbekistan has plenty of experts on the matter, it remains a very corrupt country, and restorations are usually given to cronies who have no time for historical accuracy.

Heritage destruction by real estate developers in search of a quick buck, or by inane officials in the name of touristification; it’s a real scourge in Uzbekistan. We advise not to look for the ‘real’ or ‘old’ Uzbekistan. There is only one Uzbekistan: that of the present.

One of the special attractions of Central Asia is the extraordinary layeredness of its history. Destruction is a big part of that, from Genghis Khan to Soviet state-sanctioned atheism. Recent market-driven restorations are just the latest version of a never-ending process of renewal.

Uzbekistan's top historical sites

By Steven Hermans

Steven is the creator and editor of Caravanistan, an online travel guide to the Silk Road that was described by the Lonely Planet as a "peerless online travel guide to the region". He has been travelling the region since 2010, and has dedicated himself to improving tourism on the Silk Road, both for travellers and locals.

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