Uzbekistan: a little-known gem of the Silk Road
In Europe, Uzbekistan conjures up a faraway and mysterious land, that most would not be able to locate correctly on a map. After the fall of the USSR, the country has known an extended period of relative isolation. Yet, since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came into power in December 2016, Uzbekistan has been pursuing deep reforms on all fronts (juridical, economic, banking, and so on) and is opening more and more to the outside world.
One of the pillars of President Mirziyoyev’s new policy line is to attract more Western tourists. More than 2,5 million tourists from the neighbouring countries, Russia, India, China and Korea visited the country last year, but less than a thousand Belgians went to Uzbekistan in 2017. However, this flow should rapidly increase, as the country possesses considerable assets, in particular, the historic cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva (less known than the other two), which are truly magnificent.
Monuments of these three cities come from the time of the Khanates, powerful kingdoms located on the Silk Road, to which they owed their prosperity. These Khanates were at the heart of the “Great game”, this cold war between the British and Russian empires throughout the 19th century. The British feared that Russian troops could take over India (the gem of the British Empire) through the Khanates and Afghanistan. On the other hand, Russia was carrying on its inexorable expansion towards the East and the warmest seas of the South. In the end, Russia took over the Khanates, letting their emirs in power to govern puppet States. After the revolution, the Soviets formally annexed them to the USSR.
From this past, several World Heritage monuments remain, which are among the most beautiful of the Muslim heritage. Khiva, the least known city, is a real City-museum, almost entirely preserved with undamaged fortifications. Only a few hundred inhabitants are still living inside the city walls and, during the evening, you may feel like you’re walking through a 16th-century city. Magical!
Bukhara has numerous mosque and madrasas (Koranic schools), now transformed in museums. The Poi Kalan complex, consisting in the Mir-i-Arab madrasa, a beautiful mosque and the Kalan minaret, is quite simply exceptional. The main access door and the walls of the Ark Citadel, which was the residence of the emir, is outstanding.
Finally, in Samarkand, the extraordinary Registan Square, at the heart of the ancient city, is one the most beautiful in the world. It has gained its worldwide fame thanks to three spectacular madrasas, which changes colours as the day passes. Thanks to these impeccably preserved buildings, Samarkand was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001. We must also note the presence of the Ulugh Beg’s madrasa, built in honour of the surprising 15th-century monarch and great astronomer who created one of the finest observatories in the Islamic world in the city. Ulugh Beg tried to develop a critical thought among Islam before he was assassinated by his own son for heresy.
Tourists can also visit the gravestone of Tamerlane (or Timur), who had made Samarkand his capital. Being a recent state created from the USSR’s dislocation, Uzbekistan has recreated a symbolic past around the figure of Timur, the last of the great nomadic conquerors of the Eurasian Steppe whose vast empire comprised modern-day Iran, the Caucasus, Iraq, Afghanistan, much of Central Asia, as well as parts of contemporary India, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey. In Tashkent, two museums testify of this glorious past.
These three wonders are easily accessible. There are direct flights from Paris and Milan to Khiva, and a rapid train connects Tashkent to Samarkand in two hours, and to Bukhara in four. Soon, Khiva will also be accessible by train.
Uzbekistan is a fully secular country with a muslim majority and religious tolerance prevails. Vodka is traditional and tourists can dress as they wish. It should be added that the Uzbek gastronomy is delicious and varies by region, with lots of organic vegetables and fruits. Uzbekistan probably has the best melon in the world, and Khiva even holds a melon festival every year!
I urge readers to visit Uzbekistan before this country becomes a major tourist destination, which is inevitable given the beauty of its historical heritage.