Uzbekistan: Travel, History, Culture and Soul

Uzbekistan, one of the most historically underrated countries in the world.

Introduction to Uzbekistan

If you look at Uzbekistan on a map, it looks a bit like a scorpion ready to pounce.

The country stretches from the Aral Sea (well, what’s left of it anyway) in the west to the borders of the Pamir mountains in the east. It shares a northern border with Kazakhstan and in the south with Turkmenistan.

Ethnic Groups of Uzbekistan

Uzbek people; photographer unknown
Uzbekistan is the most populous of all the Central Asian republics. Thus it’s no surprise that it also contains the greatest diversity of ethnic groups in the region. The largest of these are the Uzbeks, but there are significant numbers of Kazakhs, Turkomans, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Russians and others. Historically, this has been the source of a lot of conflict. In many ways, this is also one of the legacies of the Soviet Union. When politicians in Moscow divided up the Central Asian territories of the former Russian Empire into Communist republics, they did so with little regard for the region’s ethnic groups. Thus, we have a bunch of former Soviet states that are ethnic tinderboxes. This though is not something I’m going to discuss here (maybe in a future post).

Places to See and Things to do in Uzbekistan

The three especially old and historical cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent are the most important urban centers that one should visit.


Samarkand; photo source unknown
Samarkand is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, minus the time when the Mongols pretty much destroyed it. It was rebuilt and revived under their successor and founder of the Timurid dynasty, Tamerlane. His legacy lives on with the absolutely beautiful architecture, gardens, mosques, madrassahs and the bazaar. For thousands of years, it was one of the great trade hubs of Central Asia and the fabled Silk Road. It is also a stronghold of Persian language and culture in an otherwise mostly Turkic-speaking part of the world. If you do come here, be sure to check out Registan, Gur-e-Amir, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Shah-i-Zinda.


Great Mosque of Bukhara, Uzbekistan; photographer unknown
Like Samarkand (see above) Bukhara is also an old Silk Road city with Persian roots and has its fair share of beautifully-tiled mosques, madrassahs and bazaars. The city is essentially an outdoor archaeological and art museum. What makes Bukhara especially interesting is that life here for its people, despite countless invasions and Soviet rule, hasn’t changed too much in centuries.


Statue of Tamerlane in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; photographer unknown
The capital and largest city of Uzbekistan, Tashkent was also an ancient Silk Road stop until Genghis Khan’s Mongol horde brought death and destruction. Over the following decades, the city bounced back and eventually became a center of Turkic culture in Central Asia. While more industrialized than say Samarkand and Bukhara, Tashkent also has its share of beautiful medieval mosques and other examples of distinctly Islamic architecture. Tashkent’s museums also shouldn’t be missed. The best one is probably the History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan. Exhibits here include Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Islamic, Turkic, Mongol and even Russian artifacts.


Khiva, Uzbekistan; photo by Frans Sellies on Flickr
Though roughly 50,000 people call it home, Khiva is more of a museum than a city. Its old town reportedly contains over 50 monuments including mosques, city walls, arched medieval gates and old-style adobe houses from the 18th century.


Ruins of Elliq-Qala archaeological complex; photographer unknown
Not far from the city of Khiva (see above) are the remains of what appear to be several fortresses known as Elliq-Qala. Translated roughly as “50 fortresses,” this site in the desert oasis area of Khwarezm contains at least 20 or more fortresses (new ones are being dug up all the time) and the remains of several cities or towns. Many of them date back to over 1,500 years ago and were probably stops for travelers and merchants journeying across the continent on the trade network known as the Silk Road.


Inside the Nukus Museum of Art; photo by Ezequil Scagnetti
Until the 1930s, Nukus was nothing more than a small village on what is today Uzbekistan’s border with Turkmenistan. However, the Soviets wanted to turn it into a model Central Asian city, so they built it up with large avenues, ugly apartment blocks and factories. Sure, there are not too many reasons to visit with the exception of the world famous Nukus Museum of Art. Rated internationally as one of the best museums in the world, its many collections include those devoted to archaeology, Uzbek and Russian art, musical instruments, traditional jewelry and a really interesting exhibition on the diminishing Aral Sea.

Sources and Suggested Reading

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