Historically due to its climate, geography and distance from the sea Central Asia’s arid landscape has never been conducive to agriculture. As a result the nomadic inhabitants had little to trade and in return few major cities developed in the area.
The Mongol invasion in the early 13th century led to utter destruction of the few settlements and a near complete massacre of the civilian population. As a result of Genghis Khan’s foray and its nomadic history most of Central Asia is lacking sites of historical interest.
After the historical overload of Turkey, Georgia and Armenia this lack of sites left us wandering what there was to see in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. With one exception in Kazakhstan it wasn’t until we reached southern Uzbekistan that we encountered any buildings of historical significance.
The Registan in the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand was build between 1417 – 1660; traditionally a public square where people gathered to hear royal proclamations and watch public executions. The square is flanked by 3 Madrasahs which are stunning examples of Arabic architecture. Unfortunately it was closed for the week when we visited due to a music festival.
Further south and located on the Silk Road is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bukhara with over 140 buildings of historical importance. In 1920 during the Russian Civil War many of the buildings, including the Ark, were destroyed or damaged, many have been restored.
The Kalân Minaret, also known as ‘The Tower of Death’ due to criminals being executed by being thrown to their death from the top is probably one of the most impressive. With 10 metre foundations, including stacked reeds as primitive earthquake proofing, the tower reaches skyward for an impressive 45½ metres, an impressive feat of engineering for 1127. Genghis Khan was so thunderstruck by it’s enormity that he spared it from destruction.
Kalân Mosque at the base of the tower is able to accommodate 12 thousand people, reinforcing the importance and size of the city. During Soviet times the building was used as a warehouse, it reopened as a place of worship in 1991.
The picturesque Char Minor is hidden away down a maze of backstreets. Some believe this modest sized building was the gatehouse to a larger and long-gone Madrasah.
The massive Ark of Bukhara is the oldest structure in town, occupied from the 5th century right through to the Red Army invasion of 1920. About 20% remains intact and operates as a tourist attraction housing several museums. During Genghis Khan’s rampage of Central Asia the inhabitants of the city found refuge behind the impressive 20m tall exterior walls, much of which still exists today, until they smashed through the defences and ransacked the fortress.