Discover Samarkand and Bukhara: the Silk Road capitals of Uzbekistan
Architect Marwa El Mubark visits Bukhara and Samarkand, the Silk Road capitals of Uzbekistan, as the country launches its pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023, and plans a new art biennial for 2025
A landlocked part of Central Asia, Uzbekistan has a somewhat understated presence within today’s international stage. However, historically, two of its major cities, Samarkand and Bukhara, have played a pivotal global role as important stopping points along the ancient silk route, bolstered by the region’s cultural richness. As the country prepares for its participation in the Venice Architecture Biennale that opens next week, as well as for hosting the inaugural Biennial of Contemporary Art in Bukhara in 2025, we take a cross-section of its diverse landscape through a selection of offerings in the heritage-rich Samarkand, and its neighbour, Bukhara.
Samarkand and Bukhara: a cultural tour
A warm and intimate lunch destination off the Samarkand city centre on Pushkin Street, Platan boasts an eclectic, elegant yet moody interior in hues of red, yellow and green – the perfect backdrop for the range of tantalising cuisine on offer. In a country where meat features heavily as the centre of most dishes, Platan offers a welcome range of vegetarian options, from their ‘Vitamin’ salad, which consists of shredded, fresh vegetables, to their lentil soup and delicious samsas – an Uzbek equivalent to the English pasty.
Constructed under the rule of Timur the Lame in the 14th century, Registan Square is the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand. With its large central plaza, framed by three ornate madrassas – or Islamic colleges – it is the perfect place to take in the breadth of the city’s architectural heritage and craftsmanship. Walls and floors are adorned in glazed clay tiles, brick formations and stone carvings, the oldest of which can be seen in the Ulugh Beg Madrasa, dating back to 1420.
A centre for pilgrimage since ancient times, the historic Shah-i-Zinda complex dates back to the 11th century and is visible in the city as a row of graceful mausoleums, shining in tones of blue and running up the ancient slopes of the Afrasiab district. Prior to acting as a necropolis burial site, this complex was an inhabited city of its own, with various tradespeople engaged in metalwork, woodwork and embroidery among other activities. The remnants of these are still visible in the myriad of crafts markets housed within its walls today.
Summer Palace Gardens
Chosen for its climate and geography, which make it the coolest geographical point in town, the Sitorai-Mokhi-Khosa Summer Palace was originally built as a retreat for the last Emir of Bukhara, Alim Khan, to escape the intensity of the region’s hot summer months. Consisting of three buildings that house respectively a banquet hall, a chess room and a traditional chaykhana tea house, the complex is set in a palatial series of rose gardens surrounded by courtyards. These grounds make for a key public wellness hub for the city today, offering a space to stroll under the shade of large trees, next to fountains that cool the air. It even has its own pheasant sanctuary.
A historic resting point for travellers along the Silk Road, Bukhara has always been a hotspot for cultural and commercial exchange. As such, a strong market and trading culture emerged, which remain alive today under the roofs of the city’s historic monuments. The most prominent of these are the four trading domes located on each side of the city centre; The Toqi Telpak Furushon, the Tim Abdulla Khan, the Toqi Sarrofon Bazaar, and the Zargaron. Each one houses stalls showcasing the work of craftspeople specialising in a specific trade, from metalwork to ceramics and woodworking for everyday household items.
The Afrasiab Museum displays artefacts found during the excavations of its namesake city quarter, the historic centre of Samarkand until it was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century. The museum’s exhibits illustrate the history of Samarkand’s development from the time of Alexander the Great’s conquest. Although modest, it is a must-see for understanding the breadth of Uzbek history. Among other displays, it explores the story of Soqdiana - an ancient Iranian civilisation whose remains lie just beyond the museum walls – through a variety of frescos, ossuaries, knives, arrows, coins and pottery. The building was designed in 1970 by Armenian architect Bagdasar Arzumanyan, while the country was still part of the Soviet Union.
Inspired by the scale and complexity of the nearby 1420s Mirza Ulugh Beg Observatory, the new terminal at Samarkand Airport combines a mix of historical, local and modern inspiration in its design. The large-scale structure opened in 2022, created by Turkish practice KIKLOP Design & Engineering. It features organic shapes inside and out, warm timber internal accents, and modern materials throughout, as well as all the mod cons that a major transport hub of its kind needs.
Mercure Bukhara Old Town
Located in the historic centre of Bukhara and just a stone’s throw from the nearest airport, the Mercure Hotel is Uzbek architect Zoirsho Klichev’s most recent work, as well as the newest contemporary addition to the city’s Old Town. Surrounded by some 140 architectural monuments from UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the hotel draws on the region’s courtyard typology with a tall Iwan arch that frames an outdoor wellness spa and pool. Internally, traditional materials such as Bukhara bricks and adobe plaster, complement the building’s historical context, preparing visitors for what lies beyond its walls.
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