The artistic wonders of... Uzbekistan

| June 15, 2016

Diana read ancient Middle East and Islamic studies at SOAS. Her area of expertise is the Islamic world: religion, history, culture and languages. She has travelled extensively in Central Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia and China. She accompanies the Cox & Kings tour Uzbekistan: The Golden Road to Samarkand. Here she talks us through the incredible history, architecture and art of Uzbekistan.


Diana-DriscollHow did you become interested in Uzbekistan? 

While at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) in London, I met scholars and students from all parts of the globe. Because of them, my studies and travels took me beyond the Middle East and deep into India, south-east Asia and China. But there was a missing link – a hole in my map – it was Central Asia.

I began to study the Silk Road. Five thousand miles of a network of paths and roads upon whose tracks 3,000 years of history were impressed. Here the caravans carried merchants, monks, priests, mystics as well as ambassadors and learned scholars. Gems, pearls, ivory, corals, ostriches, elephants, ‘heavenly’ horses, herbs, spices, fruits, melons, rhubarb, medicines – the more exotic, the higher the price. These highways would bring famous (and infamous) warriors, conquerors and empire builders, the freemen and the slaves, and the artists and artisans who would build magnificent cities.

Uzbekistan was the very soul of the Silk Road. Wedged between the well-defined cultural borders of Persia, China and India, its cities remained relatively independent, developing their own art and culture.

What do you enjoy most about leading this specialist tour for Cox & Kings?

It is a shared journey; it is walking the Golden Road to Samarkand, the Royal Road to Noble Bukhara, and the mummified city of Khiva. It is meeting the men and woman who occupied these cities: nomadic warriors, early merchants, conquerors and scholars; the fabled players of the Great Game, the Tournament of Shadows, who spied for King and Country.

It is seeing the High Pamirs, the Hindu Kush and the Tian Shan (Mountains of Heaven); the great rivers, the Oxus and the Jaxartes of the Greeks. It is because of the fertile river valleys and oases, populations greater than those in other places of Central Asia developed and prospered.


When Alexander the Great arrived at this Sogdian city in 329BC, he declared: “Everything I heard about the beauty of this city is indeed true, except it is much more beautiful than I imagined.” In 630AD, the Buddhist pilgrim Xuan Zhang commented on its fertile soil, its industrious merchants and its oddly ‘barbaric’ Zoroastrian beliefs. Samarkand’s reputation for the exotic and erotic reached the ears of the Tang emperors who lusted after the dancing girls, the golden apricots and the blood-sweating horses of the Ferghana Valley. In 1220 the nomadic hordes led by Genghis Khan dammed up the lifeblood of the city, the irrigation canals.

But like a phoenix it emerged from its ashes to be ‘one of the largest and most perfectly beautiful cities in the world’. What we see before us now is a 14th-century transformation that reflects the genius and grandeur of the Conqueror of the World, Temur i-lenk or Tamerlaine. To Samarkand he brought, or rather deported, from the conquered cities of Persia, Syria, Asia Minor and India, slave labour and the finest craftsmen. The city swelled with theologians, historians, scholars, architects, masons, painters, calligraphers, book-makers, tile-glaziers, silk-weavers, glass-blowers, silversmiths, gunsmiths, bow-makers and armourers.

avenue of tombs

Colossal and conspicuous; magnificent and divine; dazzling and sublime. Perhaps the desert environment and deeply conservative Islam moulded the architecture of Samarkand. Geometrically patterned mud bricks decorate walls; arches disguise sharp corners; ribbed vaulting lies under high drums and double domes which extend the buildings to ever-greater heights. Monochrome tile work expands into polychrome; faience mosaics and glazes explode in a dazzling array of colours: turquoise, royal blue, white dominate, followed by shades of red, green, gold and black. These decorative designs and colour schemes kept in perfect balance are the most spectacular medium of Central Asian art, and the craftsmen of Samarkand its most accomplished masters.

Particular sights include -

The Registan: “The noblest square in the world… I know nothing in the East approaching it in massive simplicity and grandeur.” (George Curzon, 1899).

Registan square

Bibi Khanum mosque: Tamerlaine’s greatest achievement and one of the largest buildings in the Islamic world, it rises like an ocean liner above the city.

Shah-i-Zinda: a necropolis of 26 tombs, it is the most stunning celebration of ceramic art.


Bukhara is renowned for its 10th- and 11th-century scholars: Ibn Sina (Avicenna) in medicine; al-Beruni in astronomy; Nashaju in history; Rudaki the poet. It was in the 15th century under the Uzbeks that Bukhara had its second renaissance. It sprang to life yet again in the Great Game of the 19th century. Alexander ‘Bokara’ Burnes dressed in Afghani robes, armed with his linguistic skills, gleaned strategic military information and won a knighthood. But Conolly and Stoddart were not so skilful or diplomatic. Their encounter with the ‘mad’ Emir Nasrullah led to their being incarcerated in a ‘bug pit’ for years before losing their minds.

Kalon Mosque

Samarkand is blue and spectacular; Bukhara is khaki and timeless. You may think that the urban city plan resembles Samarkand in design, with the Registan (Labi-Hauz), the citadel (Ark), mosques, madrassas, caravansaries and gardens, but you must look closely. Before you is a medieval city whose streets, gates, walls and buildings span virtually 1,000 years. It is indeed rare that so many have survived undamaged from pre-Mongol times.

The city's wide medieval streets hold 150 madrassas, 200 mosques and 1,000 caravanserais – or so they say.

The 10th-century tomb of Ismail Samani is one of the most breathtaking jewels of Central Asia. Its facade, an intricate, complex basketry of brickwork is a perfect cube with elements of Sogdian and Zoroastrian architecture.

Ishmail Samani Mausoleum

The Kalon Minaret has stood on this spot since 919. The golden monument rises 50 metres and is decorated with bands of geometrical ornamental friezes made entirely of brick. The patterns are different in each band and never repeat themselves.

But Bukhara’s distinction lies in the flowering of decorative art: the great range of new ornamental motifs of flowers, dragons and birds, incised terracotta, painted vegetal ornaments, spherical designs in mosaic and alabaster, as well as beautifully carved and painted wooden ceilings.


The Uzbek khanate of Khiva was little more than a den of brigands, slave traders and robbers up until the late 18th century. Yet it represents the crowning achievements of Central Asian ornamentation.


The jade green and gold of Khiva, harmonious and calm. Star-shaped figures inscribed within pentagons; floral arabesques in blue and white crawl up walls like ivy; wood carving on doors and wooden support columns in fluted design, supporting carved wooden ceilings spiralling with stalactites in swirling colours.

This is a museum city. The old town monuments of madrassas, mosques and minarets hold treasures that you can savour. Inside the Tash Hauli Palace is the harem decorated with the finest china-blue tilework reaching up to delicately painted ceilings supported by carved, slender wooden pillars on marble bases. You can climb crenulated city walls, walk to the top of the minarets and wander through the courtyards of palaces.

tash hauli palace

What are you most looking forward to seeing on the tour?

The Savitsky Museum in Nukus, a 20th-century jewel hidden in northern Uzbekistan… During the Soviet rule, artists who stay true to their vision were executed, sent to mental institutions or Gulags. Nomadic people were stripped of their ethnic clothing and ornaments and forced to wear western dress. In the 1950s a young artist named Igor Savitsky amassed an eclectic mix of 40,000 pieces of Russian avant-garde art and over 50,000 pieces of ethnic Uzbekistan textiles, clothing and jewellery under the watchful eyes of the KGB. Today this amazing collection is housed in the Savitsky Museum in Nukus. Marinika Babanazarova, the director, personally escorts Cox & Kings through this extraordinary museum of ‘forbidden art’.

If you could only recommend one book to read before departure, what would it be?

The Silk Road by Frances Wood. You will begin with one book but end with a fulsome bibliography of Central Asia: travel literature, history, art and archaeology, guidebooks, maps, music and novels.

Diana Driscoll accompanies the Cox & Kings art and culture tour Uzbekistan: The Golden Road to Samarkand >

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