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