Phoenix Cities of Central Asia

Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva
By Eileen K. Gunn
The Registan of Samarkand.
The noblest public square in the world: The Registan of Samarkand (Daniel C. Waugh)

The legendary cities of Central Asia have been built, razed, rebuilt, seized, ransomed, and destroyed over and over, by nomad invaders, imperial conquerors, and occasional earthquakes. They now lie on many dusty layers of former glory, in a land continuously occupied since 8000 B.C.

The armies of many of the great conquerors of the ancient and medieval world passed through these oasis cities: Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Timur (sometimes called Tamerlane). Transoxiana, as it was known, the land beyond the Oxus River, was the crossroads of the world. Its cities — Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, and others — have been ruled and fought over by Sogdians, Zoroastrian Turks, Arabs, Samanids, and Mongols. And once a city's walls were breached, its palaces and monuments, made of sun-dried brick, were easily ground to dust.

Merchants and travelers following the Silk Road between the Mediterranean, China, and India in the first millennium also sought food, water, and shelter in Transoxiana. The desert cities prospered and, when sacked, were rebuilt. In later centuries, after the secrets of silk production moved west, trade waned and the cities grew fat on the plunder brought back from other lands and captured from merchants.

Timur's capital of Samarkand, which he intended to be the capital of the world, was built on the labor of tens of thousands of captured architects and craftsmen. The majolica-tiled mosques and schools they built, and the later buildings modeled on them, are among the most gloriously decorated buildings ever constructed.

Timur's immediate descendants, the Timurid rulers, were also enthusiastic builders. His grandson especially, the learned scientist-ruler Ulugh Beg, undertook many extravagant urban projects, building mosques, madrassahs (seminaries), caravansaries, and khanagas (guest houses) in Samarkand, Bukhara, and elsewhere.

At the edge of Transoxiana lay Khiva, where the Oxus River (now called the Amu Darya) flowed through marshy channels to the Aral Sea. Long avoided as a city of thieves and slave traders, Khiva became a thorn in Russia's side during the Great Game, the 19th century's cold war between Russia and England, but remained remote from modernization. The architecture of its inner city seems frozen in a much earlier time.

This article offers a whirlwind tour of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. When you admire the famed turquoise domes, the elaborately constructed minarets, the madrassahs blooming with stars and edged with Kufic inscriptions, give a thought to the resilience of these ancient cities. They have been pounded frequently and thoroughly into dust, and have risen again each time, like phoenixes in the desert.


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