Archaeological tour of Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is the birthplace of some of the world's most ancient civilizations – and we have the archaeological evidence to prove it. On this 16-day tour, we'll take you back in time through more than 3500 years of our recorded history.During the latter part of the Bronze Age, when much of present-day Uzbekistan was part of ancient Iran, the prophet Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, is believed to have been born in this region. Though the once-mighty Zoroastrian empireflourished on our lands for centuries, the armies of Alexander the Great, the Arab conquest and the invasions of the Turks and Mongols dealt it a series of blows from which it would not recover.At the same time that Zoroastrians were living in massive fortress complexes and worshipping at fire temples, elsewhere in the former Greco-Persian empire, another faith – Buddhism -- was quickly gaining followers. In 2004, archaeologists from France and Uzbekistan announced that they'd made a stunning discovery in Termez, a city on the Amu Darya (formerly the Oxus) River near Uzbekistan's border with Afghanistan. Because of this work, we know now that in Silk Road days, Termez was a major hub for Buddhist culture and religion – so much so that historians now believe the city played a central role in exporting Buddhism to Tibet and China.Uzbekistan is also blessed with many archaeological sites, restored buildings, palace complexes and relics -- including the world's oldest Koran-- that attest to how important our region has been to Islamic history, science and culture down through the ages.

Day 1: Arrival in Tashkent
We'll pick you up at the airport and take you to your hotel to rest up after your long journey.

Day 2: Tashkent then Termez
After breakfast today, we'll take you on a sightseeing tour of the historic old part of our nation's capital. Even though the areas of our city that you saw on your drive from the airport yesterday look modern, Tashkent's history goes back about 2,500 years. But this is an earthquake-prone region and unfortunately for many of our ancient landmarks, in 1966, a devastating earthquake destroyed much of the city. It took decades to restore some of our masterpieces of medieval Islamic architecture to their former glory but we think you'll agree that the results have been worth the effort.
We'll visit two of the Old City's most magnificent 16th century showpieces, the Kukeldash Madrassah and the Hasti-Imam complex, a square constructed around the tomb of the great 10th century Islamic scholar, scientist and poet Abu-Bakr Muhammad Kaffal Shashi. This complex includes the Friday mosque of Hasti (meaning "sainted") Imam, the 16th century Barak-Khan Madrassah and the mausoleum housing the remains of Kaffal Shashi. Though the library here holds about 20,000 books and 3000 manuscripts, its most famous possession is the world's oldest Holy Koran, transcribed by Caliph Othman in Medina in the year 651, only 19 years after the Prophet Muhammad's death.
During your stay in Uzbekistan, you’ll see many examples of our country’s fine textile art but few can compare to some of the masterpieces on display at our Museum of Applied Art in Tashkent. After lunch,a person knowledgeable about the collections will escort you on a tour of the museum.
You'll have the opportunity to experience more of Tashkent before you leave Uzbekistan but this afternoon, we must head for the airport to catch our flight to Termez, then check into the Meridian Hotel there.

Day 3: Termez
After breakfast, we'll proceed to the Termez Archaeological Museum, which houses more than 27,000 items, most discovered during archaeological excavations of nearby sites dating all the way back to the Stone Age. This museum's wide-ranging collections include household items such as dishes and cups, weaponry, paintings and sculptures, even stamps and coins. Since all exhibits and collections are arranged according to historical eras, if one period interests you more than others, you'll have no difficulty focusing on it.
From here, we'll visit many of the architectural structures unearthed during archaeological excavations. Buddhist sites include the Fayaz-Tepa temple complex and the 12-metre-high Zurmala stupa, both erected during the Kushan era (2nd century BC to 3rd century AD). Among archaeologists and historians, there's no general agreement about the original purpose of the Kirk Kiz (meaning 40 girls) fortress, built during the 9th century. According to various legends, the 40 female occupants who might have once lived here might have been fierce Amazon-type warriors, nuns, relatives of a local warlord or members of a rich man's harem. It is equally possible, although less fun to imagine, that somebody just gave a strange name to a conventional fortress.
The Islamic monuments we'll visit include three mausoleum complexes. The mausoleum of Al Hakim at-Termizi houses the remains of a 9th-century Sufi mystic and religious leader who founded an order of dervishes. The Sultan-Saodat ensemble, constructed from the 11th to 17th centuries, contains the graves of family members of the Sayyid (direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad) dynasty of Termez. But some experts describe the 16th century Khanaka Kokaldor Ota mausoleum as the most architecturally unique and interesting of the three.
Did you know? In 1943, archaeologists discovered an underground chamber near the mausoleum complex which contained only one large stone vault inscribed with Tamerlane's name. Understandably, this can, and has, generated confusion – isn't Tamerlane buried in Gur Amir in Samarkand? While the short answer to this question is yes, the longer answer is more interesting.
Among the theories: Tamerlane may once have intended to be buried in the city of his birth and therefore ordered a crypt constructed for that purpose but at some point, he changed his mind. Another version: in the winter of 1405, when Tamerlane died suddenly of pneumonia in Kazakhstan, all the mountain passes that would have led to Shakhrisabz were blocked by ice and snow so his body was taken to Samarkand instead.
But here's the problem: Tamerlane's Shakhrisabz crypt should have been empty but wasn't -- it contained the remains of two unidentified men. So, if we're talking about Shakhrisabz, “Who's buried in Tamerlane's tomb?” isn't a silly question -- and the correct answer to it is “Nobody knows.”

Day 4: Termez to Shahrisabz
After breakfast, we'll board the bus for Tamerlane's birthplace, Shahrisabz (also spelled Shahkrisabz and Shakhrisyabz), all versions meaning “green city.” Tamerlane was so fond of his home town that under his and his successors' patronage in the 14th and 15th centuries, it became the region's cultural and political hub. In 1380, the emperor sent to Shakhrisabz some of the master artisans he'd imported from around his empire and there, they created his Ak-Sarai Palace.
Like most of the grand buildings and monuments you'll visit throughout this tour, Ak-Sarai Palace has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Paris-based United Nations agency has this to say about it: “Although Samarkand may boast a great many Temurid monuments, not one can rival the Ak-Sarai Palace in Shakhrisyabz. The foundations of its immense gate have been preserved: this architectural masterpiece is outstanding in its dimensions and bold design.”

Day 5: Shahrisabz to Samarkand
After breakfast, we'll set out for Samarkand and check into our hotel there. After lunch, prepare to be dazzled by the splendour of a city which is often called one of architectural wonders of the world. In 1370, Tamerlane decided to make Samarkand his imperial capital. To that end, he brought in the greatest artisans and craftsmen from all over his vast empire to turn his dream into reality.
Today's Samarkand is believed to be very close to Tamerlane's vision but photographs taken in the early 20th century show these monumental buildings in an advanced state of disrepair, the elaborate tilework all but gone in many places. In recent years, massive restoration projects have transformed the interiors and exteriors of mosques, madrassahs and mausoleums and this work is still in progress.
A number of colourful legends surround the story of the creation of one of Samarkand's architectural highlights, the Mosque of Bibi-Khanum,, but the most credible is that Tamerlane ordered it built and named it after his favourite wife, a Mongolian princess.
Today, you'll also get the chance to pay your respects to Tamerlane himself, where he rests, along with various relatives, under the golden dome of the fabulous Gur-i Amir mausoleum.
Later in the afternoon, a musical folklore troupe will perform for you at Shir-Dor Madrassah in Registan Square.

Day 6: More Samarkand
Today, we turn our attention to some of Tamerlane's relatives. The most famous of them, Ulugh Beg, was a grandson who ruled over the lands known as Transoxiana from 1409 to 1449. Today, though, he is remembered mainly as an astronomer and a great patron of the sciences. He established theUlugh Beg Observatory, a three-storey, cylinder-shaped building constructed around three huge astronomical instruments. The largest of these, a curving stone arch called the Fakhri sextant, was used to measure theangle of elevation of celestial bodies, allowing astronomers to calculate the length of a year to within 25 seconds – almost 200 years before telescopes were invented! After Ulugh Beg's death, the observatory was destroyed by religious fanatics but rediscovered in 1908 by Russian archaeologist Vassily Vyatkin. This discovery meant so much to Vyatkin that he asked to be – and is -- buried on the site.
We will also visit the Shakh-i-Zinda necropolis, a complex consisting of mosques and eleven mausoleums constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries to house the remains of members of the royal family and other nobles. Today, we have also set aside time for you to explore another of Samarkand's claims to fame -- the city's excellent main bazaar.
More ancient tombs, including one believed to hold the remains of the Old Testament prophet Daniel, are located in the nearby town of Afrasiab. While there, we'll also visit a workshop specializing in hand-woven silk carpets.

Day 7: Samarkand to Bukhara
The drive from Samarkand to Bukhara usually takes about three and a half hours so we'll leave after breakfast but stop to take in some special places of interest along the way, starting with the 11th-century Ribat-i Malik caravanserai near the village of Malik in the province of Navoii. Back in the days of the Silk Road, caravanserais could be found every 30 kilometres but this one, added to UNESCO's world heritage list in 2008, is unusual because it more closely resembles a fortress or a palace complex than most of the caravan stopover points along the route. Our next stop will be the town of Gijduvan, the centre of Uzbekistan's ceramic arts, where we'll have lunch with the family of a ceramicist and see how our country's unique pottery is created. Then, not far outside Bukhara, we'll pause in the town of Vabkent to view a 12th century minaret.
After we check into Hotel Emir in Bukhara, the rest of the day will be yours.

Day 8: Bukhara Sharif
Since Emir Travel and Hotel Emir are both in Bukhara, we freely admit to having a bias in favour of our ancient city, once one of the most renowned centres of learning and culture in the Islamic world. One of the greatest charms of our Old City is that almost everything worth seeing and experiencing, including shops, restaurants, covered bazaars and of course, our monumental buildings, is within easy walking distance.

Sharif meaning 'noble' in Arabic, is a designation bestowed only on a handful of cities, Mecca and Medina among them, with special religious importance in Islam. Bukhara earned itssharif status as the 9th century birthplace of Imam al-Bukhari, one of the greatest collectors of writtenhadith -- sayings or anecdotes attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. For generations before al-Bukhari`s lifelong work, these stories had only been passed down orally.

Today, you'll see the majestic Kalyan minaret, the symbol of our city, and the prototype for the smaller, slimmer Vabkent minaret you saw the previous day. Although it was built in 1121, after Bukhara was sacked by Genghis Khan and his army in a century later, legend has it that the Mongol emperor was so impressed that he ordered it spared while everything else around it was destroyed, including the original mosque. The mosque and the madrassah now facing each other across the square both date from the 16th century.
Some time in the 1800s, one of Bukhara's cruelest emirs, Nasrullah Khan, ordered a man charged with defacing the minaret to be thrown from the top of it. However, our historians say that there's no truth to the widely-believed “Tower of Death” story that executions such as this took place regularly. After all, five times every day, amuezzinhad to climb up and down the 104 steps of the interior spiral staircase to summon the faithful to prayer.

In Soviet times, Bukhara downplayed the most poignant historical aspect of a residence that used to be known only as “a rich merchant's house.” In fact, the merchant who once owned it, a dealer in the pelts of karakul sheep (called Persian lamb in the West), was the father of Faizullah Khojaev, who was a controversial figure to Bukharans. Khojaev, the leader of a dissident group that helped the Red Army overthrow the last emir of Bukhara in 1920, became the first president of what was then called the Bukharan People's Soviet Republic.
But like many other people of his day, Khojaev ran afoul of Joseph Stalin and, after a show trial inMoscow, was executed by firing squad on March 13, 1938, his 42nd birthday. His mother, sister, wife and daughter were all exiled to a prison camp in Siberia, although his mother died enroute. Khojaev was rehabilitated in 1966 and today, the house where he once lived now contains much of his personal and family memorabilia.
While there, you'll also see displays of the traditional clothing worn by Uzbek people before the 1920 revolution, including paranjas, the all-obscuring veil that Bukharan women were required to wear in public.

Day 9: From Bukhara to Paikent and back again
Today we'll visit the ruins of two ancient Sogdian settlements that once thrived in the Kyzyl-Kum Desert outside Bukhara from around the 4th century BC to the 12th century, but both abandoned after the Zerafshan River changed course and rendered them uninhabitable.Paikent and Varakhsha were prosperous mercantile centres on the Silk Road whose citizens bought from, and sold to, camel caravans. Archaeologists discovered Varakhsha, famous for its magnificent murals, in 1937 but excavations in Paikent didn't commence until the 1980s. Paikent's historical museum, built in 2003, showcases many of the artifacts unearthed during archaeological excavations, including Chinese and Japanese porcelains, jewellery and coins.

After we return to Bukhara in the afternoon, we'll visit Sitorai Mokhi Khosa, the summer palace built by the last emir of Bukhara and completed in 1918, and the 10th century Chor Bakr necropolis, where the remains of some of the direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad are entombed. In the evening, we'll attend a performance of traditional music and dance in the courtyard of the Divan Begi madrassah.

Day 10: Bukhara to Khiva
The 450-kilometre road trip from Bukhara to Khiva takes 6 to 7 hours so we'll leave after breakfast but stop to have a picnic lunch near the banks of the Amu Darya River, called the Oxus in ancient times, arriving in the walled city in late afternoon. After we check into our hotel and have dinner, the rest of the evening is yours.

Day 11: A walking tour of Old Khiva
Unlike Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva's old city is almost uninhabited. With 54 perfectly-preserved or restored historical buildings and monuments, including mosques, madrassahs, mausoleums, minarets and palace complexes, in so compact an area, it's almost like experiencing Samarkand in miniature. Highlights of the city include an underground mosque, the courtyard of the royal harem – and the unique symbol of the city, called Kalta Minor, meaning “short minaret” -- which looks much like an elaborately-decorated industrial chimney. And therein hangs a tale...

If this minaret had ever been finished, it might have been taller than Bukhara's Kalyan minaret and, according to one of several stories associated with it, this might be the reason why it wasn't. Historically, the khans of Khiva and the emirs of Bukhara, both rivals for influence in the region, were mortal enemies whose armies constantly waged war on each other. Allegedly, Khiva's Muhammad Amin Khan, who had ordered the construction of this minaret, meant for it to tower over Bukhara's minaret but when Bukhara's then-emir Nasrullah – the same emir, nicknamed “the Butcher,” who had ordered a man to be thrown to his death from the the Kalyan minaret -- got wind of this, he vowed it would never happen.
As the story goes, Nasrullah offered the minaret's architect more money if he'd abandon that project and build his mighty minaret in Bukhara – and the architect agreed. But when the Khivan khan found out about this double-cross, he put out a contract on the architect's life, who fled to save his own skin. Since there was no one else who could complete the job, work on the minaret ceased after the death of the Khivan khan in 1860, so what you see today is what it looked like then.

Day 12: Khiva to Ayaz-Kala
After breakfast today, we'll head deep into the open desert to the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan to explore the ruins, dating back to the 4th century BC, of what were once mighty fortress complexes and settlements of the Zoroastrian civilization. In those days, though, the region consisted not of barren desert but of fertile land. Toprak-Kala, once the capital of the country of Khorezm, was only discovered by archaeologists in 1938 but the site yielded such so rich a motherlode of artifacts, including documents, that historians have been able to learn a lot about what life was like for the inhabitants. Ayaz-Kala consists of three fortresses all within visible distance of each other, presumably so that signals of approaching enemy invaders could more easily be sent and received.We'll have lunch, dinner and spend the night at a nearby yurt camp.

Day 13: Ayaz-Kala to Mizdakhan, then on to Nukus
After breakfast at the yurt camp, we'll head to one of the oldest cemeteries in Central Asia, the Mizdakhan necropolis. Originally, this was a Zoroastrian burial ground but after the Arab conquest of the region in the 8th century, the dead were buried according to Islamic funeral customs and today, the cemetery remains a place of pilgrimage for Muslims. Many legends are associated with Mizdakhan, including one that the grave of the Biblical Adam is there. From there, we’ll drive to Nukus, Karakalpakstan’s capital, and check into our hotel there.

Day 14: The Savitsky Art Museum Indirectly, archaeological excavations in this region have yielded much more than a wealth of knowledge about the ancient history of Karakalpakstan. In 1950, a Russian artist named Igor Savitsky accompanied the Khorezm Archaeological and Ethnographic Expedition here to sketch the artifacts unearthed during excavations and fell so deeply in love with the people and culture of this region that he decided to make his home here.

At first, Savitsky began collecting the unique art, weaving, clothing, jewellery and ornamentation of the Karakalpak people but soon branched out to collect the work of Central Asia’s artists in general. Among them were Russians who had migrated to the region in order to escape Moscow’s persecution of artists who refused to adopt what dictator Joseph Stalin and some of his successors considered to be the only acceptable style and subject matter for Soviet art: Socialist Realism. This idealized representation of life in the new Soviet Utopia, portraying handsome, healthy people joyously performing manual labour, was art in the service of State propaganda. Many artists who refused to buckle under paid a terrible price for their aesthetic convictions.
With the full collusion of top Karakalpak Communist Party officials, Savitsky managed to wheedle enough funding from Moscow to finance his museum project and keep it going. If the Kremlin had suspected what this money was being used to buy, Savitsky and everyone who supported him would have met untimely ends but as far as Moscow was concerned, Nukus was in the middle of nowhere, a place where nothing of interest to anyone could possibly be going on. The remoteness and inaccessibility of that city, separated from Russia by vast swaths of desert, were Savitsky’s greatest allies.
Throughout many trips to Russia, Savitsky sought out the relatives of Avant Garde artists who had been “repressed” – sentenced to incarceration in mental hospitals, prisons or Siberian labour camps – and bought the art that they’d squirreled away in secret hiding places, providing them with much-needed income. His mission to rescue these banned paintings from destruction and preserve them for future generations was so all-consuming that reportedly, little else in life interested him. Not even in 1984, after he was admitted to a Moscow hospital to be treated for advanced lung disease caused by overexposure to harsh chemical preservatives, did Savitsky let up, brokering new acquisitions for his art museum even on his deathbed.
Today, the Savitsky Art Museum’s holdings include about 90,000 pieces, 40,000 consisting of outlawed art snatched out from under the noses of the Communist Party bigwigs by its sly founder, a collection second only to that of the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. Even though the Savitsky museum itself is a respectable size, only a small fraction of its collections can be exhibited at one time and many pieces in storage still await restoration.
In 2010, the release of the documentary film The Desert of Forbidden Art, by U.S. filmmakers Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev, helped bring the story of Savitsky’s magnificent obsession to the attention of art lovers outside Uzbekistan. Today, the priceless gift that Savitsky bequeathed to his adopted homeland, one of the poorest regions of our country, has attracted so many international visitors that this art museum is rapidly becoming one of Uzbekistan’s must-see attractions.
In the afternoon, we’ll head for the airport, board our flight to Tashkent, check into our hotel there and have dinner.

Day 15: Tashkent Revisited
Tashkent is one of very few cities in the world that can boast of having a mass transit system so resplendent that it qualifies as a major tourist attraction and after breakfast today, you'll see why.
After the 1966 earthquake, workers came from all over the Soviet Union to help rebuild Tashkent, not as the ancient Silk Road city it had been before the natural disaster but as a model of the ideal contemporary Soviet urban centre. The creation of the city's famed subway system, inspired by Moscow's, is one proud legacy of that initiative. Though the opulent design of each station of the four-line Metro is unique, all symbolically celebrate some aspect of our nation's history and culture.
After lunch at the famous Karavan restaurant, we'll head to Chorsu Bazaar in the Old City. If you still have sums left, the merchandise on display there will offer you many ways to spend them. The main difference between this bazaar and many other markets and vendors you’ve seen in Uzbekistan is that the merchants of Chorsu Bazaar don’t cater mainly to tourists but rather a demanding local clientele, which often translates to higher quality and lower prices than merchandise intended for the tourist trade.
In the evening, we’ll attend a performance of the Navoi Opera and Ballet Theatre.

Day 16: Farewell and Come Back Soon!
We hope that you’ve enjoyed your time with us as much as we’ve enjoyed our time with you. Thank you for the honour of being your host.