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)

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