Let’s imagine that you are in Tashkent for some reason and you have just 1-2 free days to get acquainted with the ancient cities of Uzbekistan. So what city you should choose? Here we will try to compare the three most famous ancient cities Central Asia - Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
To start with here is some statistics.
Samarkand (500,000 inhabitants) and Bukhara (275,000) are regional centers, whilst Khiva (50,000) is only a small town in the Khorezm region. In fact, Khiva can be considered as the historical center of the new Urgench, with which it is even connected by an intercity trolley bus. Samarkand is known for about 2700 years, Bukhara - about 2500, Khiva - about 1200, but Samarkand was devastated by Genghis Khan and rebuilt from the ground in the 13th century, Bukhara blossomed around 1,300 years ago, Khiva was an ordinary town until the 16th century, and Samarkand became such in the 18-19 centuries. The history of Bukhara is a smooth rise, a long flowering and a smooth decline; the history of Samarkand is an alternation of ups and downs, and the history of Khiva is one short-lived heyday in the times not too far. Samarkand joined Russia in 1868 (by conquest, obviously), Khiva and Bukhara were the centers of monarchy-protectorates and never were in direct subordination to Russia, they only became the part of USSR in 1920 and left in 1991 after it collapsed.
Finally, in Samarkand 10-15% of the population are Russians, whilst in Bukhara and Khiva practically none of them, in Bukhara and Samarkand they speak Tajik, while Khiva is entirely Uzbek, but only these Uzbeks speak their own Khorezmian language - a dialect of Uzbek language that is not always understood by the people of other regions.
On the left is Haywak well in Khiva, on the right the back of Registan in Samarkand, at the bottom – Bukhara’s Registan in front of Ark citadel
Samarkand’s panorama, let's say straight, is the weakest - ordinary-looking mahallas with flat houses of the twentieth century and multi-colored roofs, among which are lonely masterpieces and the deserted pre-Mongolian town of Afrosiab. One of the features of Samarkand - its radical adherence to one-story buildings, it's probably the lowest of the major cities of the former USSR.
The panorama of Bukhara is higher, but et again, with the exception of a couple of areas, a rather unattractive development, over which the perfect outline of the domes, portals and the lonely Kalyan minaret prevails.
And finally, Khiva - its general view is probably the best among all cities of the former USSR. Stunningly integral environment of old adobe houses, including mosques, madrasahs, minarets, mausoleums and khan's palaces. Khiva is the most complete ancient city of post-Soviet countries.
The view of the Samarkand Registan is one that can be recognized at a glance, like Red Square in Moscow, Tiananmen in Beijing or San Marco in Venice. In Samarkand there are several brightest monuments and ensembles of Central Asia, and maybe of the whole of Greater Iran, and although there are not many of them, nothing comparable can be found neither in Khiva nor in Bukhara. The most important sights of Samarkand form the Great Diagonal, stretched by a rare dotted line for 11 kilometers (!) from the southwest to the northeast. The most frequent landmarks are mosques and mausoleums.
My top 5 in Samarkand:
Bibi-Khanum mosque is obviously impressive, but only in size.
In Bukhara, too, there is the Big Diagonal, stretching from the southeast to the northwest for around 3 km, but continuously. Its sights are generally more modest than in Samarkand, but much more numerous. The most frequent sights are madrassas, mosques, commercial buildings (domes, caravanserais).
My subjective top 5 in Bukhara:
Khiva, with all its amazing integrity and atmosphere, on closer examination proves to be very provincial. Most of its houses, palaces and temples were built in the 19th, and the brightest buildings are turned inwards, hiding the ornaments of yards and interiors behind a modest facade. The most frequent sights are madrasahs, mosques, palaces.
My top 5 in Khiva:
- Juma mosque
- The walls of Ichan-Kala
- The Palace of Tash-Hauli
- Minaret of Kalta-Minor (pictured)
- The Kunya-Ark Palace
Concluding: Samarkand is fragmentary city of scattered masterpieces, Khiva is an exceptionally integral city of mediocre buildings, Bukhara is the absolute golden mean.
Now let's compare the individual buildings, not only in terms of "where is better", but also to understand clearly the differences of the three cities.
The oldest building.
In Samarkand it is almost impossible to determine this: on the one hand, Shakhi-Zinda has a mausoleum of the beginning of the 14th century, on the other hand, the mausoleum of Rukhabad had been built from 1270s to 1380s, and the back of the mausoleum Abdi-Darun can even be of pre-Mongol times. We will consider the oldest Samarkand building to be Ruhabad, and by its general unsightliness it shows that it was erected before the Timurid heyday:
In Bukhara, there have been preserved 4 pre-Mongolian buildings from a couple of dozen in the whole of Central Asia: the Karakhanid minaret of Kalyan and the Namazgokh mosque, the Samanid (that is, the older) mosque of Magoki-Atari and the mausoleum of the Samanids. The latter was built at the turn of the 9th-10th centuries and is named to be the oldest brick building in Central Asia (adobe ruins can exceed even 2000 years here). And one of the most beautiful:
In Khiva, the situation is the same as in Samarkand - there are several candidates for the oldest building, but with an even wider range of time. The Ak-Sheikh-Baba bastion over the Kunya-Ark palace hides the castle of the times of the Afrigids (4-10 centuries); the starting point of the city is the well of Haywack, lost in the courtyards; and near the main street there is a rather modest mausoleum of Alauddin (1303). What impresses most of all - although it has a difference of 600 years with the surrounding buildings, visually it is very difficult to guess about it.
The main mosques.
Bibi-Khanum mosque in Samarkand was the main construction site of Tamerlane at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, where he tried to summarize the experience of the entire subjugated world. It turned out to be something gigantic and not very intelligible (the real Timurid masterpieces - Gur-Emir, part of Shakhi-Zinda the mausoleum, the mausoleum of Yasavi in Turkestan), and in addition the constructively weak - in the 15th century the mosque began dilapidating and its present appearance - the result of a large-scale restoration. Nevertheless, this is the largest mosque in Central Asia in height (portals more than 40 meters) and the volume of internal premises.
Kalyan-mosque (Great Mosque) in Bukhara was built in the early 16th century on the site of the pre-Mongol predecessor. Less in height than Bibi-Khanum, it is the largest in Central Asia by the area (127 by 78 meters), actually its yard itself is a large square. In addition, it has a pre-Mongolian Kalyan minaret (48 meters), which for these centuries became a symbol of Bukhara - it is visible even from the outskirts.
Khiva’s Juma Mosque (Friday Mosque) is the largest indoor building in Central Asia (55 by 48 meters), and the most unusual of these three mosques – from the outside it looks like a Soviet grocery store but inside it is a fantastic forest of 212 carved wooden columns, and neither repeats the other. Some extend back over thousand years old, some can hardly reach a hundred.
In Samarkand, they look basically like this - aivan from columns without carving, reminding a monitor, a single small minaret, like a pulpit, and squeezing them from all sides mahallas (living quarter). All of them are of XIX and even the beginning of the 20th century, when the city was reborn after complete desolation.
In Bukhara, "ordinary" mosques are either small, or they are very unattractive. The view is extremely simple - the courtyard behind the high wall, where there is a "box" building with aiwan. On the photo below even, the dome is not one of the mosque, but of a huge Kalyan mosque in the background.
But in Khiva ordinary mosques are much more recognizable - a building with a dome and a courtyard of two aivans of different heights, looking at each other. Just note that if in Bukhara and Samarkand the domes usually have only a round (like the dome itself) "neck", in Khiva they are also often stand on 4-corner "stands."
Frankly, I still do not understand why there is such a number of these Muslim schools in the Central Asian cities: in Khiva alone there are around 30 of them! In city centres they sometimes stand one after another, forming the whole blocks. It might be due to the fact that madrassas performed the role of guest houses, and the rooms could be rented there, but whether this is the main reason for that is hard to say. Nevertheless, the basic unit of Central Asian attractions is the madrasah, and not the mosque.
In Samarkand, there are few madrasahs, and they are not of a single style.
In Bukhara, the most characteristic (though not so common just for Bukhara alone) are uncompleted corner towers and a special construction of the entrance in the form of a wide Y - through the main gate you see a wall that two corridors pass into the courtyard: slaves and unfaithful were supposed to stay in the foyer. In addition, it is in Bukhara where you mostly will come across a kosh - a pair of buildings, whose portals stand strictly along the same axis.
And Khiva madrassas are recognized immediately by the courtyard in front of the portal, which is protected from the outside world by inconspicuous wall. And the towers with the tops in a green checkers:
Quite different in three cities minarets as well, from left to right medieval Samarkand, the new Samarkand, Bukhara (though the photo is from Gijduvan) and Khiva. The first and last pictures remind of old factory chimneys, but as you can see, they have very different silhouettes. Old-Samarkand - almost cylindrical and without a platform; new Samarkand - cylindrical, with a dome, decorated walls (somewhere cladding, somewhere figured brick) and always very small. Bukhara minarets are all like a pre-Mongolian Kalyan - gradually narrowing and at the top expand with a large platform under the "lamp", and are also decorated with brick patterns. Finally, the minarets in Khiva visibly narrow from the bottom to the top, without widening at the top even at the platform level. The tops of Bukhara and Khiva minarets resemble skullcaps:
And here's another piece of local architecture - noncanonical images of animals and faces. In Samarkand, they are tigers on the Sherdor madrassah (left) and Khoja-Aharar (right), in Bukhara, fabulous birds on the Diwan-begi madrassah (3 pairs above the portals), and in Khiva silhouettes of elephants on a column brought by the local hero Palvan-Mahmud from India.
Finally, the palaces ... but there are no palaces in Samarkand now, since it ceased to be the capital of the monarchy in the 16th century.
However, Ark is dominating over Bukhara - not only the emir's palace, but also a fortress and a site of ancient town: behind these walls a hill rises to the level of the walls. Ark as a monastery of power dominated the merchant city at all tames, as if coexisting with it in different worlds. The Mongols of Genghis Khan at one time destroyed the Ark, while most of the city chose to pay off from them. Last time the Ark was destroyed in 1920 by Mikhail Frunze, who was taking Bukhara by storm: the monarchy was over, the palace was not restored, so there is not much left on the top.
In Khiva it is no longer Ark but Kunya-Ark - this very word means "citadel", maybe even "Kremlin", so if in Bukhara is simply the Kremlin, then in Khiva is the Old Kremlin. But if the power of the Bukhara emir was concentrated in one place (not counting the summer residence), Khiva amazes with the number of palaces - two in the old city, three in the new city and another couple in the surrounding villages - even here on this photo, besides Kunya-Ark (built next to the very castle of Ak-Sheikh-Baba with a turret), one can see Nurullabay, where the last lawful khan was killed. The shape of the Khiva palaces is very recognizable - a high wall, behind which there are several courtyards for different purposes but with obligatory platforms for yurts.
And the important difference between Bukhara and Khiva from Samarkand is the preserved fortress walls. And if in Bukhara only fragments of the outer wall once stretching for 6 kilometers were preserved, in Khiva the walls of Ichan-Kala (inner city) and large fragments of the walls of Dishan-Kala (Outer city) were almost entirely preserved.
However, we are talking only about walls and buildings. But when one is speaking about such cities, it is worth mentioning their historical heritage - after all, once they were one of the centers of world civilization ...
Samarkand is sometimes called the Rome of the East - a city of power and blood. Although Jami and Navoi, Omar Khayyam and Rudaki studied here, Tamerlane outshines them all. Tamerlane, who is known locally only as Emir Timur, is just a nickname under which he is known in Europe, was invented by the Turks beaten by him. Tamerlane means ‘Timur Lamey’ and is considered here to be pejorative. The role of the capital of the empire, the home of one of the three most famous conquerors in history (along with Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, who also left their traces here) is the main historical symbol of Samarkand: a short heyday that will be remembered for thousands of years. The second great countryman after Tamerlane was his grandson Ulugbek - emir-astronomer, who built the largest medieval observatory and left his indispensable trace in the world science. Here are the tombstones of Tamerlane and Ulugbek in the mausoleum of Gur-Emir, and the graves themselves in the underground burial vault beneath them:
Bukhara, returning to ancient analogies, can be called the Athens of Orient - a city of knowledge and money, where the merchants and theologians run the show. Bukhara did not give the world a great conqueror, but here lived, studied and created already familiar to us Omar Khayyam, Rudaki, Firdausi ... The most famous Bukharan was, undoubtedly, "the king of doctors" Avicenna. Bukhara, nicknamed the "dome of Islam in the East", occupies a special role in Muslim theology: from here was Imam al-Bukhari, who collected "Sahih" - in fact the Muslim book No. 2 after the Koran, and Bahauddin Naqshbandi - in the 13-14 centuries Bukhara was the world center of Sufism, this Islamic trend was prevailing in Central Asia and was very remotely resembling Buddhist, rather than Christian, monachism. Here is a pole above the grave of Bahauddin:
Well, a separate issue is the huge influence of Bukhara on Russia, not so much on Russians as on other nations. Ancient gold in the Ugra swamps, Bukhara mosques and settlements in Siberian and Volga cities, graduates of Bukhara madrassas up to Akhmad Kadyrov, palaces of the emir in St. Petersburg, Yalta and Zheleznovodsk are all traces of a distant city. The conquest of Siberia is essentially a kind of Russian-Bukharian "hybrid war": the adventurer Ermak, hired through Russian merchants, against the Bukhara protege-vassal Kuchum.
Here on the picture is the water tower in the Crimea, built on the money of the last Bukhara emir, who liked to have a rest on the Black Sea:
Khiva, in this sense, was not lucky. Yes, Khorezm gave the world the great medieval scholars Al-Khorezmi (on his behalf "algorithm" and "algebra") and al-Beruni, but they have no special relation to Khiva. In addition, there is a hypothesis that tiles, wood carvings and hipped roofs have come to Russia from Khoresm, but this does not completely relates to Khiva.
Here we’ll touch upon Russian heritage in these cities.
Samarkand, as already mentioned, was conquered and put into direct subordination to Russia in 1868: the Russian Samarkand is the most well-preserved city of Russian Turkestan and coexists with antiquities. And if the oldest part of the city is distinguished by its distinctive "Turkestan style", then the living quarters built at turn of the 19-20th centuries are a usual southern Russian city like Pyatigorsk or Astrakhan. There are still many Russians living in Samarkand unlike in Bukhara and Khiva.
You can see many Russian buildings in Bukhara, including in the Old City, but most importantly - Bukhara had a whole Russian satellite city, Kagan, or New Bukhara, built around the railway station: there was an embassy, various trade missions and banks, a military town, and of course schools and hospitals to serve all this. In fact, like Samarkand, Bukhara has a full-fledged Russian part that has been detached into a separate town.
And the least Russian past is represented in Khiva, where the railroad didn’t come. Some similarities were between New Bukhara and New Urgench (now just Urgench), but there are only a couple of houses left now. The nearest Russian city of Petro-Alexandrovsk was washed away by Amu Darya River, its successor Turtkul stands slightly apart. The most important "Russian" monuments were built not by Russia, but by the vizier-modernizer Islam Khoja, who organized the school with the support of the tsar's specialists (left on the picture), the hospital, post office and the cotton plant.
But the Russians are only one of many nations, that left their traces in Central Asia.
Samarkand from three cities is the most multinational: on the one hand its main language has always been Tajik, and Samarkand old-timers in the majority define themselves as Tajiks; but this is also the birthplace of the dominant Uzbek "Samarkand clan". In addition to Tajiks, Uzbeks and Russians, there are many Iranians, Roma-Luli (which consider Samarkand like a capital), in the past Jews and Indians played a significant role in the life of the city, and along with Russian history the city became home for Tatars of Kazan (as merchants), Crimean Tatars (as deportees) and Koreans (similarly). At the same time, every nation, even Russians, has their own mahallas and Samarkand mahallas best kept a cultural environment. Walking through the Samarkand mahallas is first and foremost an introduction to the Central Asian way of life:
In Bukhara they also speak mainly Tajik language, but only its people do not consider themselves Tajiks: they are just Bukharians, they are themselves a nationality, they are Indo-European and in their veins probably run a Sogdian blood. Iranians, Jews (even until now!) are still noticeable here, and in the past even the Indians. In some places, especially in the Jewish quarter, the environment is well preserved, very interesting people come across, and comparing with Samarkand in mahallas in Bukhara it is somehow more cozy and safer. In general, Bukhara again confirms the role of the "golden mean".
Mono-national (not counting once a large part of the population of captive Persians, now gone), Uzbek Khiva has the most integral environment, even the double-glazed windows are rare here (one still got into the picture), and there is just one disgusting roof made of metal tiles all over Ichan-Kala. But the Khorezmians themselves are somehow more modest, dressed mostly in a modern way, they do not roam around the city on donkeys, so you look at houses here more than on passers-by.
In addition to buildings and people, the Central Asian cities have another huge layer of interesting - craft. In Samarkand and Bukhara you can find pretty much everything what makes them famous: carpets and embroidery, ceramics and wood carvings, ornaments and calligraphy ... it is just they have different regional schools. Let's say carpets - from left to right carpets from Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva:
Samarkand and Urgut suzane (photo from Urgut):
Bukhara and Nurata suzane (photo from Khiva, where there are no traditions of embroidery):
Gold embroidery. Suzane from Kashkadarya, but embroidered in different traditions. To the left is Samarkand embroidery with a pattern along the contours and inserts, to the right is embroidery from Bukhara with a gold thread across the entire area of the pattern:
Ornaments. On the left is from Bukhara, on the right from Khorezm. The ones from Bukhara are thinner and filigree, but the ones from Khorezm are probably is more perfect:
Pottery - on the left is from Samarkand, on the top right from Bukhara (or rather from Gijduvan - the current center of Bukhara ceramics), below from Khiva. The dishes are produced first of all in Gijduvan and in Rishtan in Ferghana valley, Samarkand and Khiva produce mainly infinitely different tiles.
Wooden carving is in the same order as above - Samarkand, Bukhara and Khorezm. The most perfect and complex is probably the last one from Khorezm. They carve doors, columns, book holders, but the specialty of Samarkand are wooden carved dishes, and of Bukhara - carved pencil and jewel boxes.
In each city there are also purely local crafts. In Samarkand - paper, because, thanks to the Arab-Chinese wars and captive Chinese engineers the Rome of the Orient was the first centre of paper production outside China:
And accordingly pseudo-tiles from the lacquered papier-mâché:
As well as feather shawls, this art was brought here by Russian and Tatars:
In Bukhara - amazing things from metal, and as a symbol of local crafts are "bird's" scissors for carving patterns:
pencil & jewel boxes and miniatures:
In Khorezm - stunningly dense ornaments for everything and everything:
The same with gastronomy - in every city there is something of its own. In Bukhara and Samarkand, I remember sweets, as well as halis – a meat cooked all night to the state of porridge meat, in Khorezm - a green lagman, egg patties and fish. Each region has its own way of cooking pilaf: in Bukhara (left) the most artsy and diverse, in Samarkand (the upper right) the most canonical, in Khorezm - the simplest:
Concluding, the most important handicrafts for each region are:
Samarkand: ceramics, suzane, carpets, paper, miniature and papier mache.
Bukhara: ceramics, suzane, carpets, forging, minting, jewelry, miniature.
Khorezm: wooden carving, ceramics, jewelry, carpets.
And vice versa (including other centers):
Pottery: Khorezm, Bukhara (Gijduvan), Fergana (Rishtan), Samarkand, Shakhrisabz, Urgut
Carpets: Bukhara, Samarkand, Khorezm
Suzane: Bukhara and Nurata, Surkhandarya, Samarkand and Urgut, Kashkadarya.
Jewelry: Khorezm, Bukhara, Shahrisabz
Forging: Bukhara, Tashkent, Fergana Valley (including Uzbek knives)
Woodcarving: Khorezm, Samarkand, Bukhara, Kashkadarya
Stone carving: Khorezm, Kashkadarya
Painting on wood: Khorezm, Samarkand
Gastronomy: Bukhara, Samarkand, Fergana Valley, Khorezm
In general, Bukhara is still the capital of crafts, where they are the most diverse; Khorezm is quite narrowly specialized, but is extremely strong in its specialty, and Samarkand is in the middle. In addition to crafts, there are many other traditions, such as cockfighting in Samarkand. In general Central Asia is very interesting region to gain insight of the other people’s life.
Summing up: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are cities for different target audiences.
If you want to see the brightest masterpieces of Central Asia - then you should head for Samarkand.
If you are interested in cultures of different peoples and unusual habits, then again, it is best to go to Samarkand.
If you want to see the ancient antiquity in a balanced way, to have a general idea of the region - then travel to Bukhara.
If you are a lover of folk crafts and want to take something with you as souvenir, then Bukhara is again the best.
If you are a photographer - definitely take a tour to Khiva!
If you are not a great adept of history, but just want an oriental tale – then also choose Khiva.
But it would be best, of course, to visit all 3 ancient cities, and not only them, and not just the cities.
Finally - SUBJECTIVE rating of the most interesting regional centers of Uzbekistan and its most ancient cities:
7. Kermin (as part of Navoi)
And the most interesting areas outside the main cities are by far Surkhandarya and Karakalpakstan.
Courtesy to varandej