Myths and Minarets in Uzbekistan’s Ancient Cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand

  • Cynthia Ord
  • 28 November 2011

Uzbekistan is a premier cultural heritage destination sought out each year by more and more travellers wishing to immerse themselves in the magic of Central Asia’s Great Silk Road.

Within Uzbekistan’s borders are three historical cities on the ancient trade route that once spanned the Eurasian continent. Amid the ancient surroundings of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, visitors can explore beautifully restored Persian architecture and lose themselves in the mausoleums, madrasas, mosques and minarets that glint with Uzbekistan’s characteristic azure ceramic tiling.

It is these architectural treasures that have gained the triad of historical cities their coveted UNESCO World Heritage status. After all, the sheer number of monuments is astounding, as is the blend of blue cupolas, mosaics and graceful pointed arches set deep into the facades of mosques that transports travellers centuries back in time.

How do you keep your bearings in this architectural sea of blues and beiges? Learn the unique stories behind the buildings. In each of Uzbekistan’s three Silk Road cities, a landmark minaret has a myth behind it, adding a touch of intrigue to the present-day wonder.

Kalyan Minaret, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Behind the ornate beauty of the Kalyan minaret in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, is a history of salvation and doom. Photo by Wallace Faria

The Kalyan Minaret in Bukhara

The city of Bukhara was declared a World Heritage Site in 1993 by UNESCO, which noted that the urban layout is over 2,000 years old and remains amazingly intact. This makes Bukhara one of the oldest and best-preserved examples of a medieval city to be found in Central Asia.

Monuments in Bukhara attest to every era of the city’s long history. In fact, the skyline of Bukhara’s historical centre is dotted with ornate mosque rooftops, turquoise domes and minarets.

Towering above everything else, one impressive minaret in particular catches the eye with its delicate grace and form. This is the Kalyan minaret that crowns the Poi Kalyan mosque complex. Intriguing lore about this 45.6-metre tower abounds. It is said that the minaret we see today, completed in 1127 AD, is actually not the original construction. The first one inexplicably collapsed just after having been praised in medieval chronicles. “There was not anything of its kind, so womanlike and beautiful ever made.” From this description, we are left only to imagine the original doomed minaret.

The second construction of the Kalyan minaret was more charmed than cursed. According to legend, Central Asian conqueror Genghis Khan was so smitten with its beauty that he spared it from destruction during his siege of the city in the 13th century. Condemned criminals led to the top of the minaret were not so lucky, however: For centuries, the minaret was used to execute them by throwing them from the top, hence the nickname “tower of death.”

Kalta-Minor minaret, Khiva, Uzbekistan

A landmark of Khiva, Uzbekistan, is the short and stout Kalta-Minor minaret, which tells the tale of the overconfident and short-lived khan who commissioned it. Photo by Ben P. Jones

The Kalta Minor Minaret in Khiva

In the old city of Khiva, it is the walled citadel, Itchan Kala that has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking through the fortressed interior of Khiva, visitors immediately understand why it is known as an “open-air museum.” As the most coherent and immersive of Uzbekistan’s three ancient cities, Khiva’s streets and alleyways teem with history.

Just beyond the entrance of the citadel is a midget minaret. This landmark if the Kalta Minor Minaret. Compared to tall, elegant minarets like the Kalyan in Bukhara, the Kalta Minor is awkwardly short and stout. Like the Kalyan in Bukhara, though, the story of the Kalta Minor is also one of monumental hubris and abrupt endings.

As the story goes, this minaret was commissioned by Mohammed Amin Khan, Khiva’s ruler in 1855, who had grand plans to construct the highest minaret in the Muslim world. It was to reach 80 metres in height with a view from the top that would encompass all Bukhara on a clear day. Then, the great Khan suddenly and unexpectedly dropped dead before the project’s completion, which is why all that remains is a dwarfed column measuring up to only 29 metres. As compensation, it is the only minaret whose entire surface is covered with glazed tiles.

Gur-e Amir Mausoleum, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

In Samarkand, Uzbekistan, the twin minarets of the Gur-e Amir Mausoleum guard the remains of Amir Temur (aka Tamerlane), a great khan of Uzbek history. He placed a curse on anyone who dares to disrupt his eternal rest. Photo courtesy of Luke Ford

The Twin Minarets of the Gur-e Amir Mausoleum in Samarkand

The ancient city of Samarkand was deemed a “crossroads of cultures” and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 for its fantastic art, architecture and historical urban structure.

A must-see in the city of Samarkand is the massive Gur-e Amir Mausoleum, burial place of Uzbekistan’s greatest khan, Amir Timur (also known as Tamerlane). The building’s symmetry is masterful – the central dome and arched entrance are flanked by mirror-image minarets. Construction was completed in the 15th century when Amir died, and heavy restoration projects have been carried out over the past hundred years.

The lore behind this mausoleum is simply uncanny. In 1941, Timur’s remains were exhumed so as to verify their authenticity. According to the writing on the wall, this was a bad idea. Carved in the stone coffin is an inscription that reads “The one who breaks the precept of Timur will be punished, and a terrible war will break out all over the world.” Tellingly, on the 22nd of June in 1941, just three days after the exhumation, German forces attacked the Soviet Union, kicking off some of the bloodiest battles along the Eastern Front of World War II. Was this the Timur’s curse for disrupting his eternal rest? Some believe so.

To do your own exploration of Uzbekistan’s mesmerising ancient cities along the Great Silk Road, get in contact with Afsona Travel, the whl.travel local connection in Uzbekistan.

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Cynthia Ord

Cynthia Ord discovered the WHL Group while interning with the local partner Outdoor Albania for a summer. She is currently based in her hometown of Denver, Colorado, helping out with The Travel Word newsletter, and planning her next trip. On the side, she writes about the impacts of tourism for her blog, tourism, people and the earth.
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architecture & landmarks, Asia, cities, holy sites, personal experience, South-Central Asia, Uzbekistan, whl.travel, world heritage,

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