I bet you never thought of Tashkent as a candidate for your travel bucket list. Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand in Uzbekistan—of course. But Tashkent? It’s the administrative centre. Aren’t capital cities of historically rich countries drab and dry in comparison? Well, at least that is the assumption we most often live with. A fair enough one, for they often are so, serving as entry and exit points for air travel, or are confined to business and politics.
But some are a bit more. Tashkent is one of them. Now I am not saying it is steeped in history or burgeoning with attractions like the rest of the country. You may well be disappointed if you expect too much. You may even get cross with me for my recommendation. 🙂
Known as Tashkent or Toshkent, meaning ‘Stone City’ since the 11th Century, it is a showcase of ‘modern Uzbekistan’, a sparsely populated country proud of both its rich heritage and recent independence in 1991.
Amir Temur or Tamerlane [Temur the Lame] as he is more commonly known, the country’s medieval hero, is everywhere here—in an equestrian statue in the central Amir Temur Square, and the names of its streets, buildings, museums, and businesses.
The just lifted Russian mantle is no less conspicuous. It gleams through in towering eastern orthodox churches, wide pristine avenues lined with poker-faced communist apartment blocks and charming elite East European mansions, and a large percentage of the populace. The population of the city in 2012 was just over 2.3 million. 20 percent of this are Russian.
Centrally located in Central Asia, the city traces itself back to the Sogdian and Turkic periods, and after that to Islam in the 8th Century AD. It was razed to the ground by Genghis Khan in 1219, and rebuilt once again from profits of the Silk Road. The Russian Empire conquered Tashkent in 1865—the subsequent Soviet rule saw extensive growth and demographic changes. In December 1991, Tashkent became the capital of an independent country.
For me, Tashkent helped put Uzbekistan in a global context and bring to the fore its relationship with the rest of the world, its own past, and its future. Whilst Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand transposed me to a carefully recreated romantic medieval world, Tashkent let me revel in the country as it was, today.
In this photo essay I make an attempt to list the city sights I explored and the essence in them, which together I believe shape the modern Uzbeks’ aspirations.
In between may I suggest, like I did, you too drop in for a bite at its many western cafes, take a stroll through Broadway choc-o-bloc with international brands and marvel at the ornate metro platforms in which the decor and architecture of each illustrates the respective station names. Please note photography is prohibited inside the metro system [the stations are considered military installations].
1. Courage Monument aka Earthquake Memorial, an ode to rising from one’s ashes
Through its chequered history, Tashkent has time and again had to rebuild itself from scratch. The most recent was at 5:23 am, 26 April, 1966 when an earthquake 5.1 on the Richter scale flattened 80 percent of it. This included over half of the old city, made 300,000 homeless and killed around 200, mainly women. The moment, and the many who rebuilt the city are immortalised in the Courage Monument aka Earthquake Memorial comprising that fateful moment captured in a cube fronting a couple in the Soviet art style.
2. The world’s oldest Koran in Khast-Imam Complex
Khast-Imam Complex is Tashkent’s religious centre. A cluster of mosques and minarets, the edifices within span a thousand years. Its oldest limb is the mausoleum of the first holy patron of Tashkent Kaffal-Shashi (976 AD). Filled with carved sandalwood pillars is the most recent addition: Hazrat-Imam Mosque (2007).
One of Uzbekistan’s most prized treasures sits unassumingly in an equally unassuming modern museum across the Barak-Khan Madrasah built by Ulugh Beg’s grandson in the 16th Century. The treasure is an oversized blood-stained mid-7th Century Koran of Caliph Uthman, the world’s oldest Koran and Islam’s most sacred relic, written on deerskin.
3. Chorsu Bazaar, Old Town—the proverbial eastern crossroads
Chorsu translates as ‘crossroads’ or ‘four streams’. Like its name, it is a veritable melting pot of fresh vegetables, fruit, breads, pickles, noodles, sweetmeats, meat, spices, grain, dairy products, souvenirs, and a gamut of vendors and buyers. Colourful and vibrant, yet meticulously organised, the bazaar is the bestest place to see and feel Tashkent’s local life all abuzz.
4. World War II Memorial in memory of the 400,000 Uzbeks who died in another’s war
Four hundred thousand inscribed names, a crying mother, and an eternal flame pay homage to the Uzbek soldiers who died in World War II. The 1999 memorial in Independence Square reminds the Uzbek people of the loss every family in the country suffered in the name of war.
5. Independence Square, a celebration of a new nation
Independence Square, the largest square in Tashkent, is a showcase of Modern Uzbekistan. Surrounded with impressive public buildings, and filled with trees, gardens and fountains, the square symbolises the revival of Uzbekistan as a free independent state. The Independence Arch, Independence Monument, and above mentioned World War II Memorial, stand in its midst.
6. Sunday mass in an Eastern Orthodox Russian Church in a Muslim Country
Though now a Muslim country, Uzbekistan till 1991 was atheist, and from 1865 to 1924 whilst under the Russian Empire—Eastern Orthodox Christian. The historical make-up allows one a rather unique experience of attending mass in an unusual setting. There are a number of churches in the city. The one that took my fancy was the Holy Assumption Cathedral Church with its three-storeyed stone bell tower, a working church since 1945 repeatedly closed and restored to its current glory.
7. Palace of International Forums, Uzbekistan’s official representative building
I literally gasped in awe when I came across the palace, a venue for state events, congresses, conferences and other cultural highlights! Located in Amir Temur square, the International Forums Palace is an architectural masterpiece combining classical lines with modern elegance. The interiors were designed by the Ippolito Fleitz Group, which unfortunately one cannot just stroll into. However, the grandeur of the outer edifice more than makes up for it. It opened in 2009 on the occasion of Tashkent’s 2,200th anniversary.
Relying on the bravery, the tenacity and loyalty of my dukes, military strategists and soldiers, I conquered the thrones of twenty seven kings. I ruled over the kingdoms of Turan, Iran, Rum, Magrib, Sham, Egypt, Iraq, Gilan, Shirvan, Azerbaijan, Fars, Khorasan, Jete, Khorazm, Khotan, Kabulistan, Bakhtarzamin and India.
~ Amir Temur, Code of Temur
The Amir Temur Museum (1996) narrates a fantastic tale of Uzbekistan’s medieval hero Amir Temur, his achievements, dreams and the 12 principles that guided him, both as a statesman and an individual. These are displayed in juxtaposition with correspondence, ornaments, pottery, paintings, and military paraphernalia of his empire—the Timurid Empire (1370-1507).
Above: A copy of the world’s oldest Koran at the Amir Temur Museum. It was brought to Temur’s grandson, Ulugh Beg’s court from Baghdad in the 15th Century. The original is in the Khast-Imam Complex; Below left: Code of Temur, 19th Century copy; Below right: How some western artists visualised Temur as.
In conclusion, if you visiting Uzbekistan please don’t swish past Tashkent. Stop awhile and probe the city a little. It would be worth the effort. 🙂
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Note: Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan, was part of my road trip from Nukus to Tashkent in Uzbekistan.