1. For cosmopolitan Tashkent
Tashkent may trace its roots back more than two thousand years but today it has a contemporary feel with wide, tree-lined streets, grand statues, green spaces, shopping malls, museums, and just a nod to some characteristically Soviet architecture. A devastating earthquake all but flattened the city in 1966, so many of the ancient buildings simply vanished or were reconstructed. Head to the Hazrat Imam complex for a dose of national history and refuel at Afsona with its modern Uzbek cuisine.
2. For UNESCO treasures
Officially, there are four UNESCO sites (with many more on the tentative list) but as each is an old town, you get plenty of things to see for your som (Uzbekistani currency). These are the historic centres of Bukhara and Shakhrisabz, Khiva’s Itchan Kala, and Samarkand.
Highlights include the endlessly beautiful Shah-i-Zinda, a street of striking tiled mausoleums, and Ulugh Beg’s fifteenth-century observatory in Samarkand. Elsewhere, the albeit incomplete vase-like Kalta Minor and rounded walls of Khiva, and Bukhara’s mighty Kalyan Minaret beg to be admired – among many other attractions.
3. For the varied architecture of the four Ms: mosques, madrasahs, mausoleums and minarets
Uzbekistan has more mosques, madrasahs, mausoleums, and minarets than you can shake a stick at – even the hardiest of sight-seekers would be pushed to see them all.
There’s no one-style-fits all approach here – the variety in the architecture represents the diversity of the different periods and rulers across the centuries.
In Khiva, you can wander among more than 200 intricately carved elm wood columns inside the cool, dark Juma Mosque, while the distinctive Chor Minor Mosque in Bukhara is curious for its four-minarets and almost sandcastle-like design.
The same applies to the mausoleums: the mysteriously understated stone ‘tomb of Timur’ in Shakhrisabz is, in fact, no such thing, as Timur is actually entombed in the contrastingly elaborate Gur-i-Amir Mausoleum in Samarkand, complete with slabs of onyx and jade, marble stalactites and gilded domes. Then there’s the Samanid Mausoleum in Bukhara which is different still: a cube of baked brick with both Zoroastrian and Islamic motifs.
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4. For dazzling tile work
Adorning many of the four Ms, inside and out, is some serious tilework with a mix of geometric patterns and calligraphy, delicate flowers, and mosaics offering a kaleidoscope of blue, white, green and turquoise. What sets Uzbekistan’s tile art apart is the occasional depiction of animals and birds, as the use of such creatures is generally forbidden in Islam. Look out for the playful tigers in Samarkand’s Registan, and the phoenix above the gate at the Nadir Divan-Beghi Madrasah in Bukhara.
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