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The design and construction ot Islamic architecture interests my head but does not touch mv heart. Round this court glistened the tiled facades, in every facade its tiled arch, in every arch its fantastically carved door, every surface writhing with the violently coloured patterns of Islam which blaze up like flame, vivid and restless, to end in the sudden cut-off ot the flat-topped wall. Above float the aquamarine domes, beautiful things, in shape and substance serene in a way that the tilework is not. The domes and cupolas I love: it is the garish walls, the fidgety detail, the over-repeated arch, that makes me admire the restraint of Greece all the more heartily . . . still, sitting in the shade alone amongst the roses of the silent court, I remembered the crowds of the Acropolis, the heat and crush of the Athens museums - where interest obliges me to elbow a way to every object on show - and I couldn't help feeling that it was rather wonderful, whether or not I appreciated my surroundings, to be the only tourist in so celebrated a spot as the centre of Samarcand.

"Journey to Khiva" by Philip Glazebrook

The rich architectural inheritance of Uzbekistan is endowed with some of the most audacious buildings in the Islamic world. They are the legacy of a series of Central Asian rulers from the Turkic hordes to Tamerlane to the Khivan khans, who created breath-taking monuments to their own immortality in an attempt to leave an enduring mark on restless nomadic lands. The heavy swell of a melon dome, the graceful arch of a madrassah portal and the bold silhouette of a towering minaret form some of the most evocative images a traveller will carry away with him and sound the clearest echoes of past splendour.

Rich archaeological remains in the area preserve an intriguing mix of Hellenistic, Buddhist and Scythian influences in the laconic desert castles of Khorezm and Bactria and trace a development to the rich Sogdian palaces and wall paintings of Varakhsha and Afrosiab. But it was the arrival of Islam in the eighth century and its alien synthesis of styles that transformed the face of Central Asia as much as its soul.

Islamic architecture is historically the result of a fusion of ideology and wide-ranging local traditions by a desert people with little architectural tradition of their own. However, its eclecticism has been joined by a deep conservatism and a unifying ideology that has long favoured established forms and continuity of development. A madrassah from the 19th century differs little from one of the 15th century and a mosque from Samarkand shares many similarities with one in Marrakesh. For more than a millennium, Islam has dominated the function of buildings, their layout and their decoration.

Central Asia's desert environment has also profoundly affected its architecture. Whole towns are turned in on themselves in protection against desert storms and nomad raids. A lack of stone gave rise to a richly imaginative use of baked brick and made the development of the brick cupola a natural choice in a land chronically lacking in timber. Desert heat inspired cool summer iwans, suburban gardens and a love of freshwater canals.

Several innovations have also steered the course of local architectural development. The introduction of fired brick in the ninth and tenth centuries gave buildings not only a far greater solidity than before, but also a rich medium of decoration that was ideally suited to the harsh desert light. The series of corner arches that appeared for the first time at Tim, near Samarkand, eased the move from a square base, through an eight- and sixteen-sided layer of transition, to a round dome and paved the way for the great turquoise domes of Samarkand and Bukhara. The technology of monochrome tilework, first brought to the Kalon Minaret in Bukhara in the 12th century to emphasize exterior monumental inscriptions, soon expanded into the revelry of Timurid polychromatic tilework. The full resources of Tamerlane's empire brought a cosmopolitanism and monumentality to Timurid architecture. It also introduced the ribbed dome, the high drum and the double dome (employed so successfully in the Gur Emir), the tendency to ensemble architecture and the new madrassah design of monumental portals flanked by towering minarets.

Today the blues of Samarkand, the khakis of Bukhara and the greens of Khiva reflect Central Asia's staggered architectural evolution. Samarkand offers the most spectacular, Bukhara the widest variety, Khiva the most homogenous.

Mosques form the cornerstone of religious and social life in Central Asia. Their relatively bare interiors, devoid of the Christian distractions of furniture, sculpture or music, require only a mihrab niche set in a qiblah wall to point the direction of Mecca, a minbar pulpit from where an imam can address his congregation, and a clean, carpeted space used for daily prayer. Prayer also requires ablution and, in a desert faith like Islam, mosques stood to benefit by combining religious ritual with a clean water supply. In Central Asia's rather relaxed version of social Islam, mosques thus soon grew into social centres providing school, notice board and meeting place. Mosques are divided by function and structure into district guzar mosques, built on a personal scale to service approximately 60 households; juma (jami) or Friday mosques, such as the Kalon in Bukhara, required to accommodate the entire male population of a city for its most important lunchtime service; and namazgokh or holiday mosques, open air arenas catering to both town and country during important Islamic festivals. Minarets summon the faithful to the mosque and provide an eloquent example of the synthesis of engineering, art and imagination working in tight constraints. Their height ranges from 60 metres to 10, from the fragile taper of Vabkent to the cylindrical tower of Khiva to the vertical ribs of Jarkurgan.

Mausoleums have largely followed the pattern first set in 997 by the portal and dome of the Arab Ata mausoleum of Tim, but have nevertheless expanded into a range of styles from Khorezmian conical tent designs to monumental streets of tombs, as seen in the Shah-i-Zindah. Most contain a gurkhana (tomb chamber) and ziaratkhana (prayer hall) and have provided clandestine shelter for popular Islam during troubled times.
Madrassah are religious colleges run under state sponsorship and most conform to a set pattern. Twin flanking mosque and lecture rooms lead into a four iwaned square courtyard lined by hujra cells.

Decoration in Central Asian art has been straightjacketed by Islam's prohibition in the Hadiths of figural art. In its place complex geometric and later arabesque designs thus developed in a mind-spinning fusion of science, mathematics and art. Girikh pentagons inscribed in stars and continually dividing floral motifs were inscribed on grids and transposed onto tile to cover entire facades. Calligraphy also gained a primary position in tile and brick decoration as a sacred vehicle of divine communication. Of the various decorative scripts used, the angular Kufic was most favoured by the Timurids, although the rounded, cursive Thulth script is also widely used, often with its stems elongated and interwoven with floral designs to produce a foliated script.

Tilework however remains the most spectacular medium of Central Asian decoration and the Timurids its most accomplished masters. Faience mosaic, which was carved in soft clay, individually coloured and fired, then assembled on a mortar base like a jigsaw, gradually gave way to polychrome tiles, which had their floral designs painted directly onto the tile before it was glazed. Both still conformed to the non-figural traditions of Islam and were characterized by their deep turquoise hue (turquoise-the colour of the Turks). Yet bold breaks with tradition can be seen in the lions and faces of the Shir Dor and Divanbegi madrassah and in the yellow and brown hues imported from Iran and Azerbaijan. Other forms of decoration to look out for include carved alabaster ganch and kundal and chaspak painting techniques, which respectively use heavy mineral paint and three dimensional carved wood set on sub-coloured ganch to decorate the interiors of mosques and royal buildings.