Trans Eurasia travel

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Culture & Arts

For centuries Uzbekistan has been known for its artistic output: from glazed tiles to the finest silks, finely worked jewellery set with precious and semi-precious stones, to handwoven and knotted carpets.

Uzbekistan is home to some of the most spectacular architecture not only in the Islamic world but worldwide, and several sites are justifiably recognised by UNESCO as being of international cultural importance. Monuments to both God and man incorporate influences from ancient Greece to the Buddhist temples of the Indian subcontinent, a riotous fusion of ideologies, tastes and techniques. ' The lack of stone and timber available locally pushed forward advances in brick and tile making and there was significant medieval innovation in the design and engineering of domes (including ribbed domes and double domes).

Many say Islam prohibits the depiction of living things in art, but this is scarcely evident in Uzbekistan. Though ornate calligraphy, colourful geometric patterns and nature-inspired motifs (the usual alternatives) are all in evidence, so too are tiles painted with animals, flowers and human faces and beautifully illustrated manuscripts depicting men, beasts and even the occasional prophet or angel.

Tiles must be the most impressive of Uzbekistan's decorative mediums, and tile making reached its peak during the Timurid era. Soft clay tiles were individually carved, painted, fired and glazed, their colours derived from ground lapis lazuli and turquoise, yellow ochre and burnt sienna, terra verde and red iron oxide. Similar techniques have been used to produce a variety of plates, bowls and other homeware items, which are popular and affordable souvenirs for visitors.

Natural pigments are also important for Uzbekistan's carpet-making industry. Though most carpets are now produced by machine, and Turkmen and Afghan (arpets often labelled as Uzbek, some small workshops do still produce carpets by hand. The revival of traditional carpet making in Khiva is the subject of the fascinating and very readable Carpet Ride to Khiva by Chris Alexander, and you can also see carpets being made on looms in Bukhara and Samarkand.

Uzbekistan was one of the earliest producers of silk after the secrets of production escaped from China, and the country's farmers and artisans continue to raise silkworms and weave high-quality silks. Some of the most attractive silk designs are dyed and woven using a method known as ikat.

Carpets are another Central Asian tradition, though the famed 'Bukharan' carpet is actually a neighbouring Turkmen creation and it is there that serious buyers should seek them out. Workshops in Khiva and Samarkand are working to revive lost skills and designs and are well worth a visit.

The Turkic peoples of Central Asia have long enjoyed fame as a blacksmith race (the most popular male name, Timur, means iron) and the tradition is preserved in most local bazaars in the form of pichok knives, kumgan ewers, chillim hubble-bubble pipes and chased metal plates. Brightly painted beshik cradles are also found many other fine examples of the woodcarvers' art (see Khiva and Kokand).

Ceramics is another important area of Central Asian tradition, innovation and decoration. During Ramadan, Uzbeks eat only from ceramic plates, with a fresh set bought each year. Two of the most vibrant local schools are Gijduvan and Rishtan.

Traditional musical instruments range from the guitar-like dulara (2 strings), tanbur (4 strings) and rubab (5 strings)-traditional accompanimeiu to the epic poetry of wandering bards-to the percussive nagora drum and doira ringed tambourine. The famed Bukharan carpet, however, rarely came from Bukhara itself but rather front the semi-nomadic lands of present day Turkmenistan.