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Friday, 1 February 2013

Silk Road in Uzbekistan

Despite Silk Road’s popularity for more than two centuries, the name itself came only during its dying days in the mid 1800s. German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, coined the term because of the booming silk trade. Spanning an impressive 6500km, the route starts at ancient An’chang, now known as Xi’an, China. The route served as a trade route allowing goods and culture to exchange over the years including the bubonic plague, The Black Death.

Alexander the Great
Around 200BC, Alexander the Great invaded central Asia, thus introducing Greek culture to the region. The short-lived reign was then succeeded by the Xiongnu people, now known as Huns. Together with the Han Dynasty, they controlled the silk route before the Sogdians come into picture. The Sodgians were based in Shash, one of the oldest inhabited cities or better known as Samarkand in the present soon became the capital of Amir Temur’s Tamerlane Dynasty in the 14th century.

The Silk Road reached its golden age around 600A.D also about the same time the Islamic religion was founded. Consequently, Muslims controlled Mesopotamia and Iran along with the Silk Road as well as the Spice Road, a trade route known for its spice trading. Silk Road continued to prosper under the Tang Dynasty a century later whereby art and culture flourished.

In 1200 onwards, the Mongols under the rule of Genghis Khan took over a vast majority of the area hence, establishing ‘Pax Mongolica’ or ‘Mongol Peace’. During this era, paper money were introduced and the famous Marco Polo travelled the area, recording his memoirs. The era lasted a good two centuries before the Turkish Ottoman Empire gained power. Tamerlane also began conquering certain parts of Asia such as Persia, parts of southern Russia and northern India.
Charms of History
Unfortunately, in the 1400s, the Silk Road in its heyday also carried a bubonic plague known as The Black Plague which in turned triggered the decline of the route. Amidst the downfall, rose the Chinese Ming Dynasty. The Ming Dynasty however, also caused further decline by reducing the traffic and trade of silk due to fear of the power of Uighurs. In 1600, Uzbek Turks began settling in what is known today as Uzbekistan. After a devastating earthquake in the 1700s, the Silk Road continued its growth with new explorations such as the Muztagh Pass and other buried cities.

Itchan-Kala Ensemble
The modern day Silk Road still retain its charms and history of which most of it can be found in the architecture and monuments in Uzbekistan. Also, it should be noted that all of the monuments are recognized and protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
One of the towns along the Silk Road is Khiva, located in Chorku. It was an oasis town on the northern Silk Road spur on the way to Russia. The entire city has been painstakingly preserved making it one of the finest example of an old Silk Road city in Central Asia. One of the must visit sites in this ‘open-air museum’ is the Itchan-Kala Ensemble; the walled inner city of Khiva. In it, you will find the palace of ‘Khiva Khan’ and the richly carved wooden gates of the “Madrash” and many Mosques. Houses here are also uniquely patterned creating a unique ambience.

Another town with rich history is Tashkent, the Uzbekistan’s capital. It has been inhabited since around 200BC but had to be rebuilt after an earthquake in 1966. Regardless, many great monuments still stand today such as the Zangi-ota Mausoleum complex which is very popular among them Muslims. Some say that the complex was built as a burial place of Zangi-Ota, also known as Sheikh Ay-Khodja, the fifth Murid of Khodja Akhmad Yassavi, a famous spiritual leader. Travellers of the Silk Road should also not miss the Mausoleum of Sheikh Zaynudin Bobo. He was a writer known for making Suhrawardiyya popular. Another beautiful piece of architecture can be found at the Sheikhantaur Mausoleum.   He was a Sayyid, meaning that he claimed descent from the Quraish, the tribe of the prophet Muhammad.
Gur Emir Mausoleum
Samarkand, Silk Road’s beloved gem is an important settlement a thousand years ago; it was the capital of Tamerlane. It now houses Gur Emir Mausoleum; the Registan Square, an architectural ensemble consisting from three madrassahs; the Bibi Khanum Mosque, the most lavish monument of Samarkand and the Shah-i-Zinda Ensemble, meaning ‘the living king’, a necropolis where Kusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad was buried. The Gur Emir Mausoleum,  meaning the ‘tomb of the king’ is also in Samarkand. Originally, it was built for the grandson of Amir Temur and heir, Muhammad S u l t a n , b u t however it became the family crypt of the Temurid’s  dynasty including Temur’s teacher Sayyid Baraka. Another well known place to visit is the Mausoleum of Saint Daniel or Hodzha Danijar. Locals say water flowing past the tomb has healing powers. People who come here believe that a prayer service at the mausoleum helps them cope with the disease, difficulties and brings luck. Observatory of Ulugbek which was constructed on a high hill of Chupan-Ata was grandson of Temur. Mirzo Ulugbek, explored the stars and created the catalogue of 1018 stars with incredible accuracy for that time.

Another town to go to is Bukhara, once known as “The Divine” because of the number of religious schools and mosques there. Besides being a main trading centre, it was a pilgrimage site for Muslims. Its main attractions include The Ark, a massive fortress which has been damaged and restored countless times since its completion in 5A.D and the Kalyan Minaret, also known as the “Tower of Death”, because until as recently as the early twentieth century criminals were executed by being thrown from the top.

Amir Temur’s birthplace and hometown brings us back to Shakhrisabz, a town with impressive monuments from the Temurid Dynasty. Aside from its bazaars, the Ak-Saray Palace is a must. Initially planned to be the most grand of all Temur’s construction in 1380, now only traces of its 65 meter tall gate towers survive adorned with blue, white and gold mosaics. Another beautiful historical place is the Kok-Gumbaz Mosque, built in honour of Ulugbek’s father, Shah Rukh and the Dorut Tilavat Complex or House of Meditation which hosts the Mausoleum of Sheikh Shamseddin Kulyal , spiritual tutor to Timur and his father, Turghai. East of the Kok Gumbaz is another mausoleum complex called Dorus-Saodat Ensemble (Seat of Power and Might), which contains the Tomb of Jehangir, Temur’s eldest and f a v o r i t e s o n . Behind that is the tomb of Temur. Only discovered in 1943, it has a single stone casket, on which inscriptions indicate that it was intended for Timur but he was not buried there.
In the Ferghana Valley named after 9th century astronomer, Abu’l-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kathir al-Farghani, we have Ferghana, a fertile area filled with orchards, where The Silk Road passes through to Kyrgyzstan. Ferghana’s wide, orderly tree-shaded avenues and attractive blue-washed 19th century tsarist colonial-style houses are said to mimic the appearance of pre-earthquake Tashkent. With Russian as the primary language, the city has a distinctly different feel from most Uzbek cities. Its main sights are the Museum of Local Studies and Regional Theatre. Also in the Ferghana Valley is Kokand, the ancient capital of the local rulers known as the Khans of Kokand. In there a lie the Khudoyar-Khan Palacewhich upon completion was one of the largest and most luxurious palaces in Central Asia. 19 of its original 113 rooms survive and it now hosts a museum. Juma Mosque, a Friday mosque built in 1800-1812, and reopened in 1989, it can hold 10,000 worshipers. Arguably, the most beautiful mosque in Kokand, it has a room housing a collection of suzani and ceramics from the region. Nearby is the Amin Beg Madrassah, often named after Khomol Khozi, the 1913 restorer responsible for the ornamental facade of coloured tiles. Next up is the Khamza Museum, dedicated to Kokand’s Soviet hero Hamza Hakimzade Niyazi, a poet, author, playwright and composer widely seen as one of the leading figures in the development of modern literary tradition of Uzbekistan.
Once conquered by the most fearless of conquerors like Genghis Khan and Amir Timur, these cities channel a sense of pride and dignity as aptly inscribed above the entrance of the Ak-Saray Palace in Shakhrisabz;

“If you challenge our power - look at our buildings!”

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