The Silk Road is undoubtedly one of the most significant trade routes in history. At its peak, the network stretched from China right across to the Mediterranean, and connected people from different civilisations, religions and cultures through the trade of goods and ideas. Today, many of the great Silk Road cities remain scattered across central Asia – here are our top five sights from within the region.
Uzbekistan is arguably the most impressive central Asian nation in terms of Silk Road sights, home to a trio of beautifully preserved cities awash with stunning mosques, madrassas and minarets.
And while Samarkand and Khiva both have their charms, they seem but pale mirages when you are standing alone on a late autumnal afternoon staring up at the Kalyon Minar, the most prominent sight on Bukhara’s skyline, with the vast and unbelievably sumptuous 16th-century Kalyon Mosque at your side.
Situated at the crossroads between Merv, Herat and Samarkand, Bukhara was in a prime location to benefit from Silk Road trade. It was already flourishing by the 6th century BC when it was sacked by the Achaemenids, becoming a satrapy of the Persian Empire.
The evident wealth of Bukhara would in many ways prove a curse, attracting the unwanted attentions of Alexander the Great in 329BC, then the subsequent invasions of the Seleucids, Graeco-Bactrians and the Kushans. Today, though, its sites stand as tall and impressive as they did centuries ago, and a visit to this jewel of a city is a must for anyone with an interest in the Silk Road.
Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan
One of the most impressive sites in the entire central Asian region, Tash Rabat is probably Kyrgyzstan’s most remarkable monument; indeed, its presence is in complete contradiction to the popular notion that Kyrgyzstan is all about landscapes rather than historical sites.
This small but perfectly formed 15th-century caravanserai once sheltered an array of merchants and travellers along one of the wilder stretches of the Silk Road, but its location is even more remarkable than its structure: tucked away from sight, half-buried in a hillside, up a valley at 3,530m above sea level.
The building is entirely stone-built, half-sunken into the hillside from which it emerges almost organically like a rocky outcrop. It is a broad rectangle in shape, measuring 36m long but looking smaller from the outside because some of its internal structure lies beneath the hillside. The front entrance leads into a central hall that is surrounded by a network of small rooms, about 30 in all, which were used as bedrooms, prison cells, pantries and prayer rooms.
A dome stands above the central hallway and this still bears faint traces of plaster and decorative paintwork. Facing the entrance just beyond the dome is the khan’s seat, where the local ruler would have sat, and behind this is a small room that probably served as a gaol, as there are two deep, covered holes, one of which has been subsequently filled in, in which prisoners may have been confined.
A significant capital for 2,500 years, Merv was one of the most important oasis cities of the Silk Road, and is among the major archaeological sites of central Asia. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, Merv first became a significant centre under the Achaemenian Empire, and across the millennia which followed was a regional capital for a succession of controlling dynasties.
One of the most unusual features of Merv, and one of the reasons for its particular attraction for archaeologists today, is its character as what British scholar Georgina Herrmann describes as a ‘wandering city’.
Merv is actually made up of five separate but near adjacent cities. In the geographically unconstrained flat plain of the oasis, and a historical context of continually shifting water-courses, new cities tended to be built alongside rather than on top of the old. The result is a series of easily discernible cities representing different historical periods, scattered across the arid plains to the north of Bayramaly.
This important Silk Road commercial centre is today home to Kazakhstan’s most impressive monument and most important pilgrimage site, the Timurid Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassaui.
The town’s origins lie in the settlement of Shavgar, which flourished in the 9th and 10th centuries as a centre for trade and handicraft production. Shavgar appears to have declined in the 12th century, in favour of Yassi, which was probably initially a suburb or satellite town. Yassi’s fortunes in turn were linked to the presence here of a revered Sufi mystic, Khoja Ahmed Yassaui, and became a place of pilgrimage on his death.
Undoubtedly the finest building in the country, this mausoleum makes for a stunning sight from every angle. Some 46m by 65m in plan, the building reaches a maximum height of 41m. The towering portal, dominated by the tall central arched niche, faces southeast. Its decoration was never completed and wooden timbers still protrude from square holes in the walls. A plaque on the façade records that the mausoleum has been included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Located on the banks of the Zarafshan River, at a significant Silk Road crossroad, the ancient city of Panjakent was destined to grow and flourish. The Sogdians constructed an impregnable-looking fortress with walls 12m thick on a hill 4km east of the modern town, and it supported a thriving population of 5,000 people during the height of the silk trade. It was a melting pot of Silk Road cultures, with Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Manicheans and Nestorian Christians all making their unique contributions.
Today, although the modern town is a virtual ghost town, ancient Panjakent is remarkably preserved. Having been abandoned suddenly and never built over, it is still possible to walk the streets laid out much the same way as they were the day the Arabs came.
At its height in the 8th century, the city covered around 20ha, and about half of this area has been carefully excavated, with finds being removed to the National Museum in Dushanbe and the local Rudaki Museum. Most impressive among the buildings are the citadel on top of the hill overlooking the city, the necropolis, and the fine, once multi-storeyed buildings where the famous frescoes were discovered.
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