Islamic architecture in Uzbekistan

Standing in stark contrast to the severity of the Soviet era, Uzbekistan’s ancient and contemporary Islamic architecture provides flashes of magic amongst more dreary concrete exteriors.
In Samarkand, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque once again stands tall (the original was destroyed by an earthquake in 1897) as one of the city’s most important Muslim monuments. The façade alone is a joy to behold. At the heart of the city, Registan Square, and the three madrasas, are shining centrepieces. In Bukhara, the Kalyan Minaret and corresponding Po-i-Kalyan Mosque, cast dark shadows, literally and figuratively, as they introduce travellers to medieval tales. But it’s not all mosques and minarets; the Tashkent Metro is a great place for architecture to begin their tour. Constructed after the devastating earthquake of 1966, its 29 stations are gems of Soviet modern art mixed with Islamic turquoise and gold.

The History of Islam in Uzbekistan

Islam began to take root within Central Asia’s nomadic Turkic communities in the 8th century, as the Arab world expanded its powers north and east. Large parts of the region came under Muslim rule. From the late 11th century onwards it was governed by the Khwarazmian dynasty, which originated in Persia; the dynasty’s rule in what is now Uzbekistan came to an end in 1220 when Genghis Khan invaded Bukhara and the Khwarezmid capital of Samarkand. However, even the all-conquering Mongols could do nothing to quash the teachings of the Qur’an. Genghis Khan himself practised a form of religious shamanism known as Tengrism, but he was thought to have encouraged tolerance of other religions – alongside massacring, destruction and genocide, of course. Many of Uzbekistan’s stunning sites, constructed during the Khwarazmian dynasty, were razed by Khan’s armies.

After Khan’s death in 1227, numerous heirs and indirect descendants took control of the Mongol Empire which at the time spread as far as China, Persia and Eastern Europe. One such member of the ruling Mongol elite was Amir Timur, who was in fact born in the city of Kesh – what we now know as Shakhrisabz in Uzbekistan. Timur became one of the most powerful leaders of the Muslim world, successfully mounting military campaigns across Central Asia and into Northern India.
During Timur’s reign, Uzbekistan, particularly Samarkand, continued to produce traditional Islamic architecture, including rebuilding a number of the sites trashed a century earlier by Genghis Khan. Many of the mosques, mausoleums and madrasas (places of Islamic learning) that you’ll find today were rebuilt by Timur during the 14th and 15th centuries.

By the 20th century, everyone from the Soviet-led Uzbek government to UNESCO was carrying out restoration projects – especially after the Tashkent earthquake of 1966 – and today, much of Uzbekistan’s most important Islamic architecture has been restored to its former glory.

Turquoise domed mosques, blue and golden frescos and towering minarets capped with cupolas can be found throughout the country, with contemporary and ancient Islamic architecture standing side by side. Manicured gardens feature ornate marble statues of the Qur'an, and trickling fountains are tucked within internal sahns (courtyards). Uzbekistan’s historic towns and cities boast fortified medieval walls, decorated gateways, vast halls and prayer rooms with classic cylindrical columns.

Where to see Uzbekistan’s
Islamic architecture

Tashkent

The Hazrat Immam Mosque (2007) and the Barak Khan Madrasah (16th century) are superb examples of Islamic architecture from the past and the present. Both of these sites stand opposite each other on the completely unadorned Khast Imam Square at the centre of the old town district of Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. The Hazrat Immam Mosque is the city’s largest place of worship and it is a neat, respectful and contemporary representative of 21st century Islam. Classic blue cupolas on two towering minarets either side of the Barak Khan Madrasah watch dutifully over the Muyi Mubarak Library that contains one of the Qur’an's oldest editions.

Khiva

The walled old town of Khiva, Itchan Kala, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It contains many of the city’s most impressive examples of Islamic architecture, including amazing interior designs such as those displayed within the Pahlavān Mahmoud Mausoleum. This fortified setting is like stepping foot inside ancient Arabia with towering blue domed minarets, smooth clay carved ramparts and winding streets leading to madrasahs and mosques. The 18th century Djuma Mosque is still in its original state and contains more than 200 carved wooden columns. The gaps in the roof let in the sunlight, creating an extremely atmospheric setting for prayer.

Bukhara

Bukhara’s old town district was one of the major trading centres on the Silk Road and still houses plenty of well preserved examples of Islamic architecture including the all-seeing Kalyan Minaret. This 45m tall tower is part of the Po-i-Kalyan Mosque complex and was once used to exterminate criminals, 'unfaithful' wives, and the enemies of the Khan, by throwing them off the top. The 16th century Lyab-i Hauz was originally one of Bukhara's main trading squares and still represents an important place for local residents and visiting sightseers to congregate. The Persian-style hauz (pool) is one of the few remaining in Bukhara and provides the centrepiece to numerous restored and preserved madrasahs, including the Kukeldash Madrasah. Just outside the historic centre, in a small park, is the Ismail Samani Mausoleum (943 AD). This is Bukhara’s oldest and most important example of Central Asian architecture, and it is believed that it escaped a sacking by invading Mongols as it was covered in mud caused by recent flooding.

Samarkand

The influence of the first emperor Timur and the Timurid dynasty are evident throughout Samarkand with the restored Gur-e Amir Mausoleum considered to be a precursor to Mughal dynasty designs, such as the Taj Mahal. The Bibi-Khanym Mosque is another important example of medieval Muslim architecture and was once considered one of the Islamic world’s most magnificent mosques. Extensive restoration by the Soviets, particularly of the three domes and external façades, have in no way diminished the mosque’s dramatic effect, although the original, before its destruction in the 1897 earthquake, must have been nothing short of breathtaking.

At the heart of Samarkand – like a giant sahn – is the city’s public centrepiece, Registan Square. Flanked on three sides by the madrasahs of Ulugh Beg, Sher-Dor and Tilya-Kori, this is where the masses once gathered for royal declarations, executions and public events. A visit here provides an opportunity to observe the variations in Islamic architecture, and to pick up a few souvenirs at the surrounding street stalls.

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Mosque etiquette in Uzbekistan

Most mosques have a separate entrance for men and women. You’ll need to leave your shoes outside the front entrance or place them in a plastic bag – so make sure your socks and tights are clean! Bare feet are not allowed. Both men and women should avoid revealing clothing – we recommend long sleeves, and long skirts or trousers. A head scarf is essential for women visiting Uzbekistan, as you may be asked to cover your hair when entering a mosque.

The mosque’s prayer hall is called a musalla. Praying takes place on the carpets or rugs on the floor; chairs are only available for disabled or elderly visitors. Copies of the Qur'an are the only sacred items to be found in a musalla and decoration on the walls is sparse. Normally, non-Muslim visitors will be invited to sit quietly at the back of the musalla to observe prayers taking place. Please don’t walk in front of someone while they're praying.
When entering a mosque you may be greeted in Arabic: “Assalamu alaikum” . This translates as: “peace be with you”. “Wa alaikum assalaam” is the appropriate reply: “and upon you be peace”.

Many Muslims greet members of the same sex with a handshake, and members of the opposite sex with a nod or with a hand placed on heart. Best advice is to take note of how you are greeted and do the same back.

When visiting a mosque, switch off your mobile phone and remain quiet and respectful throughout. This means no eating or drinking, or taking photographs without permission. Holding hands or kissing is – unsurprisingly – not the done thing inside a mosque or within the general vicinity of an Islamic shrine or mausoleum.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dudarev Mikhail] [Intro: Ron Knight] [The History of Islam in Uzbekistan: Angshuman Chatterjee] [Khiva: U.S. Embassy Tashkent] [Samarkand: Arian Zwegers] [Mosque etiquette in Uzbekistan: Dan Lundberg]
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