Uzbekistan: On the bloody trail of Tamerlane

He was a meglomaniac and a mass murderer. Yet, in his wake, the despot left some of Central Asia's most beautiful cities. Mark Stratton travels to Uzbekistan to see them

Following in the footsteps of a merciless Central Asian warlord with a penchant for decapitation probably doesn't sound either particularly safe or much of a holiday. Well, rest assured, Tamerlane, self-proclaimed "conqueror of the world" cast off his mortal coil some six centuries ago - but not before adorning Uzbekistan's Silk Road with a sumptuous architecture as striking as its history.

My Silk Road journey begins in the rather demure surroundings of Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital and airport hub. There's little of the Silk Road's glamour or history to be found in Tashkent's Soviet cityscape of vast squares and behemoth concrete buildings. Although the abundant parks - where old men play chess against the clock - and the trolleybuses are pleasant distractions.

Tashkent does host the pumpkin-shaped Museum of Timurid History though, which, amid razor-sharp weaponry and silk ceremonial robes, does a fine job glossing over Tamerlane's horrifying exploits. Granted, he was a brilliant military leader. He captured 27 thrones across Asia with his nomad armies in the latter part of the 14th century, creating an Empire that stretched from Delhi to Moscow. Trouble is, he was also sadistic and cruel. He regularly butchered the entire populations of cities he conquered, including Baghdad and Damascus, before leaving his calling-card: towers of severed heads. He reputedly left 17 million people dead during his 40-year trail of destruction.

Despite these grim statistics, Oleg, my guide, tells me Uzbekistan's current (and thuggish) regime has adopted Tamerlane as a national figurehead since breaking from the Soviet Union in 1991. "We've never had any Uzbek heroes before, only Russians like Marx, so we've gone back to Tamerlane," shrugs Oleg.

It's the city of Samarkand - "whose shining turrets shall dismay the heavens," wrote the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe - where Tamerlane really left his mark. Six centuries behind him I enter this fabled city after a five-hour journey from Tashkent, delivered to the doorstep of Hotel Zarina in Samarkand's historic quarter. Zarina is one of many private b&bs popping up along the Silk Road catering to a steady growth in tailor-made holidays. Its wooden porch (for tea drinking, I'm told) and whitewashed rooms hung with bright kilims (flat-woven rugs) and silk-embroidered suzanis (wallhangings) provide a cool retreat from the midday temperatures.

Tamerlane established Samarkand as his imperial capital in the 1360s, and set about aggrandising it over the next three decades with plunder from his conquests. As a result, you need several days to wander through Samarkand to see all its minarets and domes, coated with the characteristic majolica, a white-tin glaze.

Little outshines the Bibi Khanym Mosque - the world's largest building when it was completed, in 1404. Entering beneath a 30m-high glazed portal sandwiched by two octagonal towers, I stand facing an azure-tiled dome, ribbed like a honeydew melon and rising from the courtyard like an oversized Fabergé egg. Under a recessed iwan (three-sided hall) it's still possible to see the original décor: striking patches of faience mosaic and gilded papier-mâché wallpaper hinting at a splendour once described by a courtier as "unique but for the Milky Way".

Yet the mosque, built of mud bricks, started crumbling away soon after it was completed; Tamerlane had hurried its construction aware of his failing health. He would encourage his enslaved workforce (mainly artisans and elephants from a recent sacking of Delhi) by tossing them titbits of cooked meat.

Which reminds me it is lunch-time, and I am in need of sustenance myself. Around the mosque, aromas drift from the bread ovens of the Siab Dekhkhan bazaar. The daily market has magic to thrill the senses - spice stalls overflow with green tea, turmeric, dried loganberries, peppercorns, and crystalline sugar resembling chunks of quartz.

Near a large pyramid of watermelons, a trickster bamboozles by sleight of hand, repeatedly winning games of three-shells-and-a-pea. Holding sway though is a muscular strongman lifting balls of iron welded to rings - with his teeth.

I plump eventually for a traditional chaikhana (teahouse) where elders in knitted skullcaps idle their days away supping green tea on communal wooden beds. Uzbek cuisine can be a little one-dimensional, dominated by bubbling vats of meaty mutton pilau called plov and sizzling skewers of mutton and fat. Yet I somehow manage to order saffron-spiced chickpea soup, which, accompanied by dolma - rolled vine leaves stuffed with mutton and onions - makes a delicious lunch.

Later in the day I visit Samarkand's most photographed landmark, the Registan, a broad plaza fronted by the towering edifices of three madrassas (Islamic schools). Considered the pinnacle of Timurid architecture, the Registan was actually finished after Tamerlane's death as his dynasty staggered on, ruled by his sons. Two of the madrassas face each other in mirrored reflection. The turquoise domes, the sand-coloured, wickedly leaning minarets, are sublime. But it's all a little too perfect, argues historian Justin Marozzi in his enthralling biography, Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. Marozzi claims that Soviet restorers have created an "Islamic Disneyworld".

More to my liking is the Gur-Emir Mausoleum, set in a tranquil courtyard of roses and marigolds. Inside an opulent interior of hexagonal onyx tiles is Tamerlane's final resting place. He died rather tamely of old age in 1405, on the verge of an ambitious campaign to conquer China's Ming dynasty. He went to his grave without remorse or humility, as his cenotaph, a brooding slab of dark nephrite jade, boasts: "When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble." Vain words, perhaps, but when a Soviet scientist exhumed Tamerlane's remains in 1941, it is said that a further inscription inside his casket read: "Whomsoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I." Two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

Tamerlane's conquests were led by a desire for control over Central Asia's trade routes. So I travel further west, to Uzbekistan's two other must-see cities: the trading outposts of Bukhara and Khiva. I take shared taxis as I'm told all the local buses have been commandeered to ferry workers to the cotton harvest. Indeed, throughout the drive fluffy pods of cotton dust the fields like fresh snow. This heavily irrigated area of land forms a verdant corridor squeezed by golden sand dunes from the surrounding Kyzylkum Desert.

Bukhara's dusty, low-rise architecture doesn't scale the heights of Samarkand's flashy opulence, although its maze-like mud-brick lanes leading to caravanserai, hammams (baths) and khans (inns), exude an Arabian Nights intrigue. Khiva is a walled city of turquoise and dark-blue tiled palaces with gilded harems and the atmospheric Hotel Khiva - a former madrassa built in the 17th century.

Most of Khiva post-dates Tamerlane, because he levelled it no fewer than five times. This still irks Olga, my guide here, who objects when I profess admiration for both his architectural achievements and energy. "He's hated here in Khiva," she protests, as we sip minted green tea at a chaikhana. "He's supposed to be our national hero, but how can we honour a man who destroyed our city and slaughtered everybody?"

And she is right. There was too much blood on Tamerlane's hands for him to be remembered as anything better than a murderous megalomaniac. Although I suspect modern Uzbekistan would be a lot less interesting without him.

Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711; regent-holidays.co.uk) offers 14-day tours and tailor-made holidays along the Silk Road from £1,295 per person, including flights, b&b, private car hire, visa support and guides. Return flights to Tashkent with British Airways (0870 850 9850; ba.com) start from £250. Recent changes mean travellers require a visa support letter, but this should be sorted out by your tour operator. Contact the Embassy of Uzbekistan (020-7229 7679; uzbekembassy.org) for 15-day visas costing around £38. 'Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World' by Justin Marozzi (Harper Collins, £9.99)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road