Retracing the Silk Road and Persian Roots in Uzbekistan

Angela Dansby
Source: Encyclopedia Britanica

Five months after my mother unexpectedly passed away in February 2019, I went by myself to Turkmenistan and the Republic of Uzbekistan in Central Asia to process and heal before meeting members of the Society of International Business Fellows in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. Since I was traveling to the region anyway, I thought it would be a cultural crime not to see Turkmenistan with its incredible Parthian past and futuristic White City as well as the great Persian architectural hubs of Bukhara, Shakhrisyabz and Samarkand in Uzbekistan.

A friend was originally supposed to join me on this incredible adventure, but she had to cancel for health reasons. As I had already planned the trip with an Uzbek travel agent (this was the only way to get a visa for Turkmenistan), I decided to go solo on a week-long trip for the first time in my life. This alone time was much needed in fact and gave me a chance to fully absorb the exotic locations. I arranged tour guides in each city, so it was a perfect balance of social and alone time.

Registan Square, Samarkand

Interestingly, I first heard of Uzbekistan when I lived in Washington, D.C., from 2000-2002 and befriended an Uzbek man. What he told about his country made me put it on my travel list. Turkmenistan I knew nothing about before booking the trip as it is the most closed country in the world after North Korea. It is nearly impossible to meet a Turkmen without going there. (FYI, in March 2022, Serdar Berdymukhamedov took over from his father as the third president of the authoritarian state.)

Crossing the border from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan was like entering a high-tech Checkpoint Charlie. My Turkmen guide and driver dropped me off at the border checkpoint, where I got into a scuffle with customs officers about Turkmen carpets I had purchased without a certificate of provenance. Then I was fingerprinted (along with everyone else) and had to walk a quarter mile to a no man’s land strip between the two countries and pay for a shuttle to take me to the Uzbek side. There, I had to pay for another shuttle to take me to the official Uzbek border, where my iris was scanned and luggage searched. I guess the authorities wanted to make sure I wasn’t a Turkmen with an American passport or a carpet smuggler!

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, both former country members of the USSR, could not be more different from each other in terms of openness and secularism. Uzbekistan is the most visited country in Central Asia, welcoming to tourists and international business. Of course, that’s relatively new positioning since its post-Soviet communist leader Islam Karimov died in 2016. His government had a poor human rights record, which was frowned upon by the international community.

When Karimov died, long-serving prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev stepped in as president and populist reformer. He cleaned up a bit after his predecessor, opening the economy, trade and foreign investment as well as improving Uzbekistan’s international image by releasing political prisoners and allowing some public protests. He also reversed Karimov’s opposition to the construction of the hydroelectric Rogun Dam on the border with Tajikistan. This dam, expected to be completed in 2028, will be the highest and tallest in the world and contain six hydroelectric units.

The majority (75%) of Uzbeks are Sunni Muslims and some are considered the most devout in Central Asia. The most religious and Islamic institutions are concentrated in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley. As a single woman, I did not go there. Plus, I had more than enough culture to take in elsewhere.

Silk Route. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

As a major producer of silk since the 4th century, Uzbekistan was an integral part of the Silk Route, the ancient trade route linking China to the west. Bukhara was on this route and it has an UNESCO-recognized historic center that’s more than 2,500 years old. It is the best-preserved medieval city in Central Asia. It includes the tomb of Ismail Samani, a masterpiece of 10th century Islamic architecture, and hundreds of beautiful mosques, madrasas (educational buildings), bazaars and caravanserais from primarily the 9th to the 17th centuries. During this time until the 16th century, Bukhara was the largest hub for Muslim theology, particularly mystical Sufism, in the Near East. Today, it remains known as “the capital of Islamic culture.”

Bukhara is also known for suzani textiles – large, cotton panels hand-embroidered with silk threads. The word “suzani” comes from the Persian word suzan, which means needle. This art originated with nomadic tribes in Central Asia and today it is prized for incredible craftsmanship and beauty. (FYI, Christie’s auctions suzanis.) Pomegranates, one of the world’s oldest cultivated fruits, frequently appear on suzanis, other forms of art and of course, Uzbek food dishes. Supporting the textile industry, Uzbekistan is also among the world’s leading cotton producers. (It is also a significant producer and exporter of natural gas.)

Shakhrisyabz, historically known as the phonetically simpler “Kish” or “Kesh,” is a few hundred years older than Bukhara and known as the birthplace of 14th century Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur. Impressive remnants from his dynasty remain in a historic center that is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Shakhrisyabz means “Green City” in Persian and aptly represents the turquoise tiling characteristic of Persian architecture. The ruins of Ak-Saray Palace, Kok-Gumbaz mosque, Dor-ut Tilovat memorial complex and three mausoleums of ancient rulers are breathtaking.

UNESCO-recognized Samarkand, dating back to 1,500 BC, as also a hub on the Silk Road. It is home to magnificent Persian mosques, mausoleums and madrasas from the 14th and 15th centuries. The most stunning of all is Registan Square with three madrasas, including one named after astronomer-mathematician Ulūgh Beg, Tilya-Kori (meaning “gold works”) and Sher-Dr (meaning “abode of lions”). Also worth seeing are Beg’s 15th century observatory, Amir Temur Mausoleum Gur-i Amir Сomplex, Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Shah-i-Zinda Ensemble and Sherdor Madrassah. There are endless examples of stunning Persian architecture in Samarkand.

One thing I would not recommend there is going to an ancient bath house. Based on my hilarious yet refreshing experience at a Turkish bath house, I assumed it would be similar in Turkic Uzbekistan. While the hammam scrub down was similar, finding the bath house on dark back roads was a nightmare and the experience of being loofahed while trying to speak Uzbek was not worth it.

However, it is absolutely worth saying “salom” (hello) to Uzbekistan as a country and “rahmat” (thank you) for its wonderful preservation of Persian architecture and Islamic culture.  

Denmark is about 50 times smaller than Greenland with only 2 percent of its land space (43,000 vs. 2 million km2). However, Greenland has 1 percent of Denmark’s population (58,000 vs. 5.9 million).