Along the Zerafshan Valley one reaches Karmana, the old Silk Road town of Karminiya and favoured place of rest for Bukharan emirs. These days Karmana and Navoi virtually run into one another not far from the airport. But you'll notice the difference between the two: whilst Navoi is modern and includes far too much concrete, large parts of Karmana are still made from traditional mud brick, and the pace of life seems slower.
Karmana is old Navoi, and it is likely a settlement was founded here around the time of the Arab invasion. The town was a stopping point on the Silk Road - as testified to by the caravanserais and rabats that remain - and in later centuries it was a resting place and hunting ground for Karakhanid governors and also the emirs of Bukhara. Karmana sank into commercial and political obscurity following the establishment of Navoi in 1958, but it retains a certain charm and (here are several historic sites of note.
Local legend claims the Arabs named Karmana so, finding fertile land and plentiful water 'similar to Armenia' (ka Arminiya). Merchant-caravans broke their journeys here and elsewhere at a network of rabats or caravanserais - safe haven against robbers or the elements. Beacons fired warning of trouble up and down the line. Outside Karmana, 26 kilometres on the route to Bukhara, stands the impressive portal of the Rabat-i-Malik, the royal caravanserai, for this is the royal desert steppe and the building's sponsor was a royal himself.
Karakhanid Khan Shams al Mulk Nasr ruled much of Transoxiana from 1068 to 1080 as an ideal Muslim prince, focusing on Islamic expansion, court splendour, patronage of scholars and public building. Some historians believe that the rabat started off as the steppe residence of a local Karakhanid governor, only later converted into a caravanserai after the Mongol invasion.
The surviving 12-metre portal held a mighty gate opening on a large courtyard surrounded by high walls and corner towers. Ground floor stalls housed the horses, camels and bales of silk, while weary travellers retired upstairs for food, rest and prayer. An elegant wall of columns and arches reached this century but has since dissolved underfoot, leaving a lone faсade of polished brick and carved ganch. Beside a chaikhana beyond the modern highway a brick dome covers the caravanserai's great well, part of the medieval irrigation system of sardoba and subterranean canals (karyz) still supplying Karmana with mountain meltwater.
Life in Karmana still centres on the main bazaar. When we visited in November, the watermelons were the size of beach balls, and the pomegranates incredibly sweet and pink. Eating a pomegranate requires patience and a certain amount of skill, especially if you want to do it without getting covered in the sticky red juice, but it's definitely worth the effort. You can buy them one at a time or, more commonly, by weight.
Near to the bazaar is the Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum, an 11th-century brick-built tomb that, with its dome and monumental portal, served as an architectural model for many later structures, probably including the Ismail Samani Mausoleum in Bukhara. Like Arab Ala in Tim, this 11th century portal and dome composition marked the birth of a style that would dominate architecture for the next few centuries. The portico is decorated with a Kufic inscription but, unusually, this is not made from mosaic or painted onto larger tiles but rather depicted with certain bricks raised out from their surroundings. The mausoleum was added to the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2008 in recognition of its importance as an architectural prototype. Also in Karmana are a Polish graveyard (many Poles were held here during WWII) and the tomb of Khazrati Khoja Khoshrov Bobo, who gained fame after surviving an assassination attempt.
By the 16th century, when Karmana had recovered from the numerous sackings so common to towns on the major paths of invasion, the Sufic brotherhoods were in their heyday. Wandering dervishes met, prayed and stayed at special hostels called khanagha. Close to the point where the river crosses Navoi is the Kasim Sheikh Khanagha, a 16th-century hostel built by the Bukharan emir Abdulla Khan for itinerant holy men. The Kasim Sheikh Khanagha in Karmana is a striking example of the size and importance these hostels acquired. Without one a town had no right to city status. In the late 16th century, Bukharan emir Abdullah Khan, a native of Karmana, commemorated it with a khanagha, built as was customary near the tomb of a holy man, marked by the usual white flag.
The turquoise dome atop a lapis lazuli-coloured drum still stands, and the latter is strikingly decorated with calligraphy, stars and floral motifs. Beneath the blue dome raised on a high drum is the central hall of the khanagha where dervishes joined in services of religious fervour. The khanagha is still in daily use, though now as the town's main mosque the chambers echo in a spine-chilling fashion with the sound of the muezzins voice if you are fortunate enough to be present as he calls the faithful to prayer.
West of Karmana, 26km along the road to Rukhara, is the Rabat-i Malik, an ambitious and heavily fortified caravanserai built by the Karakhanid ruler Abu'l Hasan Shams al Mulk Nasr in the late 11th century. Though this was once a large complex of cells, stables, guardhouses and storerooms around a courtyard, only the portico remains fully intact: it is 12m tall, domed and with an impressive facade of embedded columns, connected at the top with arches. The only other example of this particular style is the Jarkurgan Minaret in Surkhan Darya. Trucks from Tehran flash past Rabat-i-Malik, for the 70 year hiatus is complete and overland traffic pursues the ancient traditions.