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Nurata
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  • To the north of the featureless Samarkand–Bukhara ‘Royal Road’, the Pamir-Alay Mountains produce one final blip on the map before fading unceremoniously into desertified insignificance. The Nuratau Mountains, which top out at 2169 m, are rapidly becoming the centre of Uzbekistan’s growing ecotourism movement. Modest Nurata town makes a logical base for jumping off to the mountains or to one of several nearby yurt camps.

    Nurata city is surrounded by the Nuratau Mountains and is home not only to a fortress supposedly built by Alexander the Great but also a medieval pilgrimage site supposedly linked to Hazrat Ali. The city also serves as the transport hub (and occasional overnight stopover) for those camel trekking in the Kyzylkum Desert or trekking and birdwatching in the stunning and remarkably unspoilt Nuratau Kyzylkum Biosphere Reserve.

    Local people believe that Nurata was founded as Nur by Alexander the Great in 327bc. They credit Alexander with building the hilltop fort and also the kariz, a complex water system that brought drinking water several kilometres from a spring right into the centre of the citadel. This ancient town held a strategic position on the frontier between the cultivated lands and the steppe. It lends its name to the nearby mountain range, the westernmost spur of the Gissaro Alai, soon expiring in Kyzyl Kum wasteland. Today, home to 30,000 people and renowned for marble and astrakhan fur production, Nurata has retained some of the holy sites that attracted pilgrims from all over Central Asia. 

    First and foremost, if you are sightseeing in Nurata you will want to visit Alexander's Fort. It is strategically located on the top of a hill to the south of the town, and Uzbek sources suggest that Alexander The Great instructed one of his generals to build an inpenetrable fortress here while he continued his conquest of Bactria and Sogdiana. When Alexander returned, his troops could neither break down the gates nor scale the walls, such was the strength of the construction.

    It is a steep climb to the top of the site. What appears to be clay underfoot is, in fact adobe bricks, compacted by thousands of sandalled feet and the elements over two millennia. In places you can still make out their individual shapes, and it's slightly eerie if you're on your own to think of the men who built it, lived and worked here. It's timeless. The central citadel, once measuring half a kilometre in each direction, has long gone, but one glance at the view, across the mountains and across Nurata itself, reveals exactly why Alexander (if indeed it was he) chose this spot, and why it was such a good decision.

    Nurata became important again at the start of the Islamic era as Hazrat Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, is said to have struck the ground here with his staff, and the Chashma Spring spurted forth. The 10th-century Bukharan chronicler Muhammad Narshakhi recorded people having visions of the Prophet in Nurata, and hence it became an important regional pilgrimage centre, with all the mosques, resthouses and other supporting structures you would expect.

    Beneath Alexander’s fortress you’ll encounter the anomaly of several hundred trout occupying a pool and well next to a 16th-century mosque and a 9th-century mausoleum. This is the Chashma Spring, formed, it is said, where the Prophet Mohammed’s son-inlaw Hazrat Ali drove his staff into the ground. Hundreds of holy (unfishable) trout swim in mineral packed water. The ‘holy’ fish live off the mineral-laden waters of the spring and canals that feed it. Regardless of the time of year, the mineral-laden spring water Is said to remain at a consistent 19.1°C. Also on the grounds here is a small museum (working hours 7am-5pm Tue-Sun) that details local history and culture through tools, clothes and ceramics.

    Parents anoint their children, while others fill bottles for ailing relatives. A grave nearby may be that of one of Alexander's generals who died here whilst on campaign. By the spring is the Juma Mosque, first built in the 10th century to accommodate visiting pilgrims when they came to pray. The mosque has been rebuilt several times; the current structure (mostly 16th century) has 25 cupolas, one of which has a diameter of 16m and hence is amongst the largest in central Asia.

    Nurata is most famous for its old, circlepatterned suzani, which can sell for thousands of dollars at international auctions, but it also has a few quirky tourist attractions, most notably an old fortress of Alexander the Great. You can make like Alexander – go ahead, even throw on your suit of armour – and clamber all over the fortress, which looms over the town like a giant sandcastle. Behind the fortress, a path leads 4km to the Zukarnay Petroglyphs, which date to the Bronze Age. Ask the curator at the museum how to find the trail. If it’s too hot to walk, there are sometimes guys with motorcycles hanging out near the museum who will whisk you out there for a couple of thousand som. (If you miss these, there are many more petroglyphs at Sarmysh Gorge, accessible by car 40km northeast of Navoi.)

    Nurata leads an unhurried measured life far from large industrial and tourist centers. It numbers only 25 thousand people, and it seems that everyone know each other here. Innocence and hospitality of local population excite tourists and pilgrims, who come to visit this small beautiful town every year.

    Origin of the city

    There are a lot of legends related with the origin of the city and its name. People refer the origin of the city to the fortress Nur, which was founded by Alexander the Great in 4th century BC. However, according to archeological excavations the cultural layer in this area reaches the age of 40 thousand years. Supposedly, the main reason to choose this place for settlement was the spring, known as Chashma.

    According to legends, many millennia ago a fire rock (probably meteorite) fell from the sky and a spring of healing water appeared where it hit the ground. By the way the place name is also connected with this legend. Nurata can be translated as “Ray of Father” or as “Ray-father”. The complex Chashma is considered as one of the most important Islam centers in this region. Thousands of believers from neighboring towns as well as from other countries come to visit it every year. The complex consists of Djuma-Mosque (Friday mosque), qubba, bathhouse, hill, remained after ancient fortress and the well with holy spring. They say that sometimes a strange radiance appears over the spring, confirming local saying “Allah presented us with Nur (ray)!”

    It is worth to say about scientific data about this spring: the water temperature is always 19,5º C. Water composition includes 15 microelements as well as gold, silver, bromide, iodine, which impart unique healing properties to it. In addition the spring is the home for wonderful fish – marinka, which does not have scale. This fish as well as the spring is considered as sacred and people do not eat it.

    One of peculiarities of Nurata is the unique system of underground water pipe channels, running from the holy spring. Such underground channels are called as “kyarizi” and some time ago they were very popular in many cities of Central Asia. Today the system of channels in Nurata is one of several systems survived our days. People use it today like centuries ago.

    Nuratau mountains

    South of Lake Aidarkul, there is great hiking and birdwatching in the mountains of the Nuratau-Kyzylkum Biosphere Reserve, which is also the site of a wonderful community-based tourism project – the only one of its kind in Uzbekistan. Under this UN Development Programme–sponsored ‘cultural tourism’ project, families in several villages have converted their homes into rustic guesthouses. The families offer hiking, horse- and donkey-riding, traditional cooking, weaving and craft-making lessons, and the opportunity to breathe in mountain air and sleep on tapchan (tea beds) under the stars. During winter weekends you can observe authentic kupkari (traditional polo-like game played with a headless goat carcass) matches.

    This is a great opportunity to interact with the local ethnic Tajiks in their element – and a great way to ward off architecture burnout if you’ve seen one too many medressas. The program’s website has information on getting to the various villages.

    Getting there Shared taxis to Nurata from Navoi leave from the main bus station in Karmana and take one hour. The fare is US$2 per person, or US$1.50 if you travel by minibus. If you are travelling on to Lake Aidarkul and the yurt camps, you will need a private car or taxi. Expect to pay around US$20 each way. Nurata itself is a small town and easily traversed on foot. There is also a minibus service running between the old and new parts of the town.

    Nurata monuments map
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    Aidarkul Lake Yurt Camps
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    Nurata
    There are four yurt camps within shooting distance to the north of Nurata. Two are about 60km due north of Nurata in Yangikazgan; two others are further east in Dungalok near the shores of manmade Lake Aidarkul, formed from the diverted waters of the Syr-Darya in 1969.
    Sarmish-say Petroglyphs
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    Navoi
    The Sarmysh-say tract, located on the southern slopes of Karatau, 45 km north-east of the Navoi city, is one of the most famous places in Central Asia with petroglyphs. By today, over 10,000 petroglyphs were discovered in Sarmysh-say. It is a very large and varied collection of rock art. Most of the petroglyphs are located in the middle reaches of the say (the river).
    Karmana
    Navoi
    Karmana is old Navoi, and it is likely a settlement was founded here around the time of the Arab invasion. The town was a stopping point on the Silk Road - as testified to by the caravanserais and rabats that remain - and in later centuries it was a resting place and hunting ground for Karakhanid governors and also the emirs of Bukhara.
    Trading Domes
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    Bukhara
    Long ago, in the XVI century under the Shaybanides dynasty, Bukhara became the capital giving rise to unprecedented growth of the city, and since it was located on the Great Silk Road, the markets and trading stores even more congested cross-roads of public roads. Several centuries passed since that and four trading domes have only survived up to date.
    Tours in Nurata
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    Yurt Camp & Aydarkul Lake Tour
    Bukhara/Samarkand – Nurata – Yurt Camp – Bukhara/Samarkand
    $145 2 days
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    Explore the ancient sights from the time of Alexander Great in Nurata city. Stay in the Yurt camp and explore the desert landscape walking around the dunes or riding on the camels.
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    Safari yurt camp
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    Safari yurt camp is located 60 km from Nurata and consists of 20 yurts. The location leaves much to be desired. There’s not much to see out here except nondescript desert and a reservoir. The camp exists purely for the camel rides.
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    Aidar yurt camp
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    Aidar yurt camp is another must for those travelling to Uzbekistan. A small camp of 10 yurts set 15-20 min ride from Aydarkul lake. Good location, decent facilities, tasty food, camel rides, national music performance, desert views, night sky and much more. Truly unforgettable experience
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