Central Asia, in particular the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva in Uzbekistan, are famous for their architecture. The destructive habits of Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and other nomadic plunderers has meant very little early old stuff remains. Most of the famous architecture in the region dates back to the time of Tamerlane (1336-1405) and the Timurids (Tamerlane and his descendents).

Describing Central Asian Islamic architecture, Philip Glazebrook wrote in Journey to Khiva: “Round the court glistened tiled facades, in every facade is a tiled arch, in the arch a fantastically carved door, every surface writhing with violently-colored patterns of Islam which blaze up like flame, vivid and restless, to end in the suddenly cut-off of the flat-topped wall. Above that the aquamarine domes, beautiful things, in shape and substance serene.”

Because wood and stone were not very plentiful in the deserts and steppes of Central Asia, brick became the desired building material. Buildings were traditionally designed to beat the heat, with large openings facing the wind and fountains and pools and even streams in the courtyard to provide a cooling effect.

Important advances that made Central Asia architecture possible included the development of fired bricks in the 10th century, colored timework in the 12th century, polychrome tile in the 14th century and the squinch (a kind or bracketing used in making large domes).

See Muslim Architecture, See Sights in Samarkand, Bukhara

Features of Central Asian Architecture

Features associated with the famous Timurid Architecture found in Samarkand and elsewhere in Central Asia include massive blue domes, often ribbed; tile- and mosaic-covered portals (gateway facades); towering, tapering minarets; and courtyards lined with cell-like quarters. The huge entrance portal featured in some buildings, as high as 30 meters, are intended to dwarf all those who stand before Allah.

Traditional Central Asia cities had an inner city and an outer city surrounded by a wall, intended to keep storms, bandits and marauding horses out. Many cities had water brought in by aqueducts and stored in reservoirs.

Decorations in Central Asian Buildings

Mosques, madrasahs and other buildings in Central Asia are famous for their colorful tilework. The tiles not only make the building look beautiful they also make them appear lighter. The tiles are set up to reflect the desert sun. Deep cobalt blue and turquoise (meaning "color of the Turks") were often featured on domes.

In keeping with the Muslim taboo on representations of animals and people, the tiles, walls and arches were decorated with calligraphy, floral designs and geometric shapes. The calligraphy is often either in the stylized kufic script favored by the Timurids or the often filiated thulth scripts.

The tiles come in variety of styles: stamped, chromatic (one color painted on and then fired), polychromatic (several colors painted on and then fired), and faience (carved onto wet clay and then fired). Other decorative features include carved and painted woodwork. patterned brickwork and carved ghanch (alabaster).

Types of Buildings in Central Asia

Central Asian mosques typically have a large portal which leads to a colonnaded space (sometimes open, sometimes closed) and covered prayer area. Many small mosques have a pointed roof supported by carved wooden columns. Some large ones have an enclosed space divided by many supporting pillars. See Islam Architecture.

Central Asian minarets are typically made of brick, sometimes covered with tiles, and often tapered inward to make the building nearby look bigger. Some have stairways which the muezzin climbed to call the faithful to prayer from the top. Others, like he ones at the Registan, are purely ornamental.

Mausoleums were built by famous leader to highlight their fame or to honor holymen. Most have a prayer room set under a domed cupola. The actual tombs may be located in a central hall or underground in a crypt-like room. Some have accommodation, washrooms and kitchens.

You can al fined forts ( arks), multi-domed bathhouses ( hamans), caravanserais ( rabat), shopping arcades, covered bazaars ( tok) and reservoirs ( hauz) in Central Asia.


Many of the most famous buildings in Central Asia—such as the massive structures at the Registan in Samarkand—are madrasahs, Islamic theological schools. They typically are two stores high and have a central courtyard surrounded by cell-like living quarters ( hujras) used by students, teachers and traveling scholars.

Madrasahs and the square in front of them were often the central building of a Central Asian city the same way a cathedral and market square were at the center of European cities. Markets were often set up in the squares in front of madrasahs and the niches in front wall of the madrasah were used by merchants.

The main features are the monumental portal at the entrance, a mosque to the right of the entrance, a lecture hall to the right, and arched portals in the central courtyard. These days the cells in the courtyards are often filled with carpet sellers and souvenir shops.

Historic Samarkand

Samarkand is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to UNESCO: “The historic town of Samarkand is a crossroad and melting pot of the world's cultures. Founded in the 7th century B.C. as ancient Afrasiab, Samarkand had its most significant development in the Timurid period from the 14th to the 15th centuries. The major monuments include the Registan Mosque and madrasas, Bibi-Khanum Mosque, the Shakhi-Zinda compound and the Gur-Emir ensemble, as well as Ulugh-Beg's Observatory. [Source: UNESCO \=/]

“The historic town of Samarkand, located in a large oasis in the valley of the Zerafshan River, in the north-eastern region of Uzbekistan, is considered the crossroads of world cultures with a history of over two and a half millennia. Evidence of settlements in the region goes back to 1500 BC, with Samarkand having its most significant development in the Temurid period, from the 14th to the 15th centuries, when it was capital of the powerful Temurid realm. \=/

“The historical part of Samarkand consists of three main sections. In the north-east there is the site of the ancient city of Afrosiab, founded in the 7th century BC and destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, which is preserved as an archaeological reserve. Archaeological excavations have revealed the ancient citadel and fortifications, the palace of the ruler (built in the 7th century displays important wall paintings), and residential and craft quarters. There are also remains of a large ancient mosque built from the 8th to 12th centuries. \=/

“To the south, there are architectural ensembles and the medieval city of the Temurid epoch of the 14th and 15th centuries, which played a seminal role in the development of town planning, architecture, and arts in the region. The old town still contains substantial areas of historic fabric with typical narrow lanes, articulated into districts with social centres, mosques, madrassahs, and residential housing. The traditional Uzbek houses have one or two floors and the spaces are grouped around central courtyards with gardens; built in mud brick, the houses have painted wooden ceilings and wall decorations. The contribution of the Temurid masters to the design and construction of the Islamic ensembles were crucial for the development of Islamic architecture and arts and exercised an important influence in the entire region, leading to the achievements of the Safavids in Persia, the Moghuls in India, and even the Ottomans in Turkey. \=/

“To the west there is the area that corresponds to the 19th and 20th centuries expansions, built by the Russians, in European style. The modern city extends around this historical zone. This area represents traditional continuity and qualities that are reflected in the neighbourhood structure, the small centres, mosques, and houses. Many houses retain painted and decorated interiors, grouped around courtyards and gardens. \=/

“The major monuments include the Registan mosque and madrasahs, originally built in mud brick and covered with decorated ceramic tiles, the Bibi-Khanum Mosque and Mausoleum, the Shakhi-Zinda compound, which contains a series of mosques, madrasahs and mausoleum, and the ensembles of Gur-Emir and Rukhabad, as well as the remains of Ulugh-Bek’s Observatory.” \=/


Registan (central Samarkand) is arguably the most famous site in Central Asia. Built over a 250 year period from the early 15th century to the mid-17th century, it is a stunningly beautiful monumental square with both grand architecture and exquisite details. It was intended to convey the artistic achievements and the power of Tamerlane and his descendants. Although the Registan is associated with Tamerlane, its main buildings were built by his Grandson Ulughbek, and the Uzbek Shaybanids that came after the Timurids.

Registan means "sandy place." The square itself is about the size of three football fields. One side of the square is open. The other three sides are each fronted by massive madrasahs, Islamic religious schools. The three madrasahs are what stand out most. The Registan is no longer functioning. But when it was it served as an elite, private school, university, religious center and commercial area. The main square contained a huge bustling bazaar.

The English statesman Lord Corzon called the Registan the "most noble public square in the world" and said no piazza in Europe approached it. To do so he said it needed to be "commanded on three of its four sides by Gothic cathedrals of the finest order." Explorers such as Ibn Batuta, Fitzoy MacLean and Laurnes van der Post described it in equally grand terms.

Madrasahs of the Registan

The three madrasahs are: 1) Ulagh-Beg (on the left), built between 1417 and 1420; 2) Tilla Kari (in the middle), built between 1641 and 1660; and 3) Sher Dor (on the right), built between 1515 and 1631.

Each madrasah features a dazzling 30- to 40-meter-high arched facade, covered with colorful mosaics and tiles; blue domes; and pedestal-like minarets. On the inside are lecture halls, prayer rooms, dormitories and cells for scholars and imam. What makes the buildings so magical are the elaborate geometric designs of blue, red and black tiles that cover everything.

The mosques, prayer rooms, and cells are no longer used. Some rooms have small displays of old photographs. Here and there are some interesting photographs of heavily armed Turkmen and Uzbeks in traditional clothes taken in the late 19th and early 20th century. Around the central courtyard are rows of cells formally used by scholars and imam and now used by vendors to sell carpets, thickest and scarves.

Ulagh-Beg is the oldest madrasah. Named after Tamerlane's grandson and completed in 1420, it boasts a magnificent mosaic-covered facade, four minarets, two floors and 50 Khujaras (cells), where a hundred students lived. Ulugbek occasionally delivered lectures on mathematics and astrology in the main lecture hall..

Shir Dar is a copy of Ulagh-Beg built by the Uzbek Shaybanids not the Timurids. It is unusual in that it breaks the Muslim prohibition of images with some depictions of animals and men. The lions are curiously striped like tigers. Tilla Kari has an extraordinary blue dome and embraces the Golden Mosque with its rich interior and tromp l'oeil dome (a flat ceiling that appears concave) gilded with nearly a quarter ounce of gold leaf. It also has a charming garden-like courtyard.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque

Bibi-Khanym Mosque (one kilometer north of the Registan) was built by Tamerlane with the aim of outdoing anything that he had seen during his conquests. When it was completed shortly before his death in 1405 it was the largest mosque in Central Asia. The main gate was 35 meters high, the columns rose 50 meters into the sky and the blue dome looked like it belonged on top of an arena.

In the end the mosque was a clear symbol of Tamerlane wasteful extravagance. Its cupolas began to crumble under their own weight before the mosque was even completed. Over time the mosque was devastated by earthquakes and wars, and finally collapsed in an earthquake in 1897.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque is largely ruin. Work is being to being done but it will be decades if not centuries before the work is finish. Enough pieces of the mosque remain to show off its size and extravagance. The blue dome, the caved in cupolas, ceramic minarets, outer walls and a massive archway are still there. The massive, marble Koran holder is visited by women having trouble conceiving. They crawl under it on the their hands and knees in the hopes that the act will bring them children

According to legend Bibi Khanym was Tamerlane's first wife. She was a beautiful Chinese woman and it is said that she ordered the mosque built in her husband's honor to surprise him after he returned from one of his campaigns. She hired a famous architect to design the grandest structure in the empire. The architect fell in love with Bibi and refused to finish the mosque until Bibi kissed him. She agreed. The kiss left a mark on her cheek, which Tamerlane immediately spotted on his return. Enraged, Tamerlane had the architect killed and decreed that all women had to wear the veil so as not to tempt men.

Shahi Zinda

Shahi Zinda (on the outskirts of the city, about one kilometer from Bibi-Khanym Mosque) is impressive necropolis built between the 13th and 15th century. Located where the city walls once stood, it features 25 mausoleums organized in a long in a row on a sunbaked hill. Many of the tombs belong to Tamerlane's relatives or to important nobles and religious figures from the Timurid era, and were designed by a caste of craftsmen enslaved by Tamerlane. They are among the oldest standing buildings in Samarkand.

Shahi Zinda means "Tomb of the Living King." This is a reference to inner most shrine, which is believed to contain the remains of Qusam ibn-Abas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, who is credited with introducing Islam to the area. For this reason the tombs attract pilgrims

The tombs are beautiful in understated way. Some have richly tiled walls and blue domes but have not been over-restored like many buildings in Samarkand and Bukhara. The scratched away designs and fading colors are more charming than garishly restored ones. The most outstanding tilework is found in the tomb of Tamerlane’s niece, which is the second tomb on the left after you enter the necropolis.


Gur-Emir (one kilometer southwest of the Registan) is a mausoleum where Tamerlane, two of his sons, two of his grandsons (including Ulugbek) and other descendants and beloved teachers are entombed. Built in 1404, it is a glorious but modest building with a ribbed dome decorated with colored tiles and 30-foot-high ancient kufic script that reads: "There Is No God But Allah and Mohammed Is His Prophet."

The mausoleum seems relatively small. This is partly because the madrasah that once stood next to it is gone except for the gate. The restored interior is decorated with carvings and colorful tiles and boasts a golden cupola placed over one of the world's largest slabs of jadethe marker for Tamerlane’s tomb. The jade was once a single piece but in broke in two when it was carted away by a Persian warlord in 1740. According to legend, the warlord suffered many hardships, including the near death of his son while the jade was in his possession and his string of bad luck only ended when the jade was returned to Samarkand.

“Guri Amir” is Tajik for tomb of the emir. Next to the jade slab are six white marble cenotaphs, which are said to contains the remains of Tamerlane's relatives and teachers. The plain marker to the left of Tamerlane belongs to Ulughbek. The one to the right is for Mersaid Baraka, one of Tamerlane’s teachers. The one in front belongs to his grandson Mohammed Sultan. Behind Tamerlane’s marker are stones for his sons Shah Rukh and Miran Shah. Behind these is the marker for Tamerlane’s beloved teacher, Sheikh Rukh.

The seven tombs are just representational. The actual tombs lie in a spare, brick-lined, subterranean crypt, which can be visited if security officials at the mausoleum are in the right mood. The entrance, around the back through a tiny battered wooden door, is under lock and key. In 1941, Soviet anthropologists opened Tamerlane’s grave and confirmed that Tamerlane was in fact lame and that he was also tall for his time (170 centimeters) and that Ulughbek was beheaded. According to an often told story the anthropologists uncovered an inscription that read “whoever opens this will be defeated by an enemy more fearsome than I.” The next day, June 22, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

Tamerlane apparently wanted to be buried in his birthplace, Shakhrisabz, and had a simple crypt built there. Guri Amir was intended for his sons. The story goes that when Tamerlane died suddenly of pneumonia in Kazakhstan in 1405 in the winter all the passes to Shakhrisabz were closed so Tamerlane was buried at Gur Emir instead.

Old City of Bukhara

Old City of Bukhara has an older and less ostentatious feel than Samarkand. Where Samarkand's monuments are flashy and colorful most of the sights in Bukhara are more subdued and constructed of baked, intricately carved brickwork. Of course, the famous tiled mosque walls and blue domes are present as well, providing markers for the otherwise low-lying skyline. Old Bukhara can easily be explored on foot and it quite pleasant walking through the labyrinth of quite lanes where no cars allowed.

The Historic Centre of Bukhara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site: According to UNESCO: Bukhara, which is situated on the Silk Route, is more than 2,000 years old. It is the most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia, with an urban fabric that has remained largely intact. Monuments of particular interest include the famous tomb of Ismail Samani, a masterpiece of 10th-century Muslim architecture, and a large number of 17th-century madrasas. [Source: UNESCO]

With the exception of a few important vestiges from before the Mongol invasions of Genghis Khan in 1220 and Temur in 1370, the old town bears witness to the urbanism and architecture of the Sheibani period of Uzbek rule, from the early 16th century onwards. The citadel, rebuilt in the 16th century, has marked the civic center of the town since its earliest days to the present. The real importance of Bukhara lies not in its individual buildings but rather in its overall townscape, demonstrating the high and consistent level of urban planning and architecture that began with the Sheibanid dynasty.

Important monuments that survive from early times include the famous Ismail Samanai tomb, impressive in its sober elegance and the best surviving example of 10th century architecture in the whole Muslim world. From the 11th century Karakhanid period comes the outstanding Poi-Kalyan minaret, a masterpiece of decoration in brick, along with most of the Magoki Attori mosque and the Chashma Ayub shrine. The Ulugbek medresseh is a surviving contribution from Temurid. With the advent of the Sheibanids came some of the most celebrated buildings of Bukhara: the Poi-Kalyan group, the Lyabi-Khauz ensemble, the Kosh Medresseh and the Gaukushon medresseh in the Hodja-Kalon ensemble. Later buildings from this phase of Bukharás history include monumental medressehs at important crossroads: Taki Sarafon (Dome of the Moneychangers), Taki-Tilpak-Furushan (Dome of the Headguard Sellers), Tim-Bazzazan, and Tiro-Abdullah-Khan. In the early 17th century fine buildings were added, including a new great mosque, Magoki Kurns (1637), and the imposing Abdullaziz-Khan medresseh (1652).


Labi-Hauz (the Bukhara Old Town) is a charming plaza surrounding Bukhara’s last remaining pool and the main gathering place in the Old Town of Bukhara. Built in 1620, it is a pleasant place with kebab restaurants, brick steps, carpet shops, mulberry trees and women is psychedelic Uzbek dresses hawking souvenirs. Labi-Hauz it is only part of the Old Town that has a lived-in quality. It name means “around the pool” in Tajik.

Labi-Hauz has a timeless quality. Old men while away the hours at traditional tea houses and on wooden platform, gossiping and playing backgammon, dominoes and card games. Young boys, stripped to their underwear, leap into the murky green water of the tree-lined pool. Around the edges of the square are several old mosques and religious schools, some in operation but most housing tiny boutiques selling brass, paintings and skullcaps. On the east side of the square is a statue of Hoja Nasruddin.

Most of these buildings here were built in the 16th and 17th centuries. The most unusual of them is the Nadir Divan Begi Nadrassah Madrasah, which lies on the east side of the square and was built as a hotel-caravanserai in the 16th century and was declared a madrasah by the khan in 1630. On its facade is a colorfully-tiled bird mosaic. On the west side of the square is the Nadir Divan Begi khanaka.

North across the street is the Kukeldash Madrasah. In its time it was one of the largest Islamic schools in Central Asia. South of Labi-Hauz are the remains of Bukhara’s Jewish quarter. Among the back streets are many surprises including a three-room, white-washed synagogue. There used to be seven synagogues in Bukhara now there is only this one.

Covered Bazaars of Bukhara (west and north of Labi-hauz) lie in a busy market area filled with scores of shops, arcades and narrow streets. The central area contains five dome-covered buildings built in the 16th century to provide merchants with a cool centralized place for selling. The original domed buildings were built at a major intersections of the bazaar and each housed merchants that specialized in a certain trade, such as books or hats or jewelry.

Only three of the domed buildings remain: Taqi-Sarrafon (formally used by moneychangers), Taqi-Telpak Furushon (formally used by cap makers) and Taqi-Zargaron Sarrafon (formally used by jewelers). Two have been renovated and again house a few shops. In the Taqi-Telpak Furushon Area is a 16th-century arcade known as Tim Abdullah Khan, a men’s bathhouse (used until the 1990s and restored in the 2000s) . On the site of the fountain in this area were two old caravanserai, one reserved for Hindu traders. Also in this area is a new madrasah built with Saudi Arabian money.

Mosques and Madrasahs of Bukhara

Maghoki-Attar (near Labi-hauz in the Taqi-Sarrafon Area) is Central Asia’s oldest mosque and Bukhara’s holiest site. Located near the old spice and herb bazaar, it was founded in the 12th century and reconstructed in the 16th century and sometimes used by Jews as a synagogue. Underneath archaeologists have found the remains of a 5th century Zoroastrian temple and an older Buddhist temple. Part of the archeological excavation remains exposed. Nearby is a display of Bukhara carpets and prayer mats and a park built on the site of an old caravanserai used by merchants from the Caucasus.

Ulughbek Madrasah (near Labi-hauz in the Taqi-Zargaron Area) is Central Asia’s oldest madrasah. It was built in 1417 and was one of three major madrasah built by Ulughbek, Tamerlane’s grandson (the other two are the Registan in Samarkand and a madrasah 30 miles away in Gijduvan). It reopened briefly after Uzbekistan became independent but was closed down.

Nearby is the Abdul Aziz Khan Madrasah, which was built in 1652 and eschews the Muslim prohibition on images of people and animals. A former lecture hall now occupied by a shop contains an original Chinese-style fresco. In the same area is a two-story student dormitory and a small winter mosque.

Kalyan Mosque (next to Kalyan Minaret) is a huge complex built in the 16th century on the site of the mosque destroyed by Genghis Khan. It is large enough to accommodate 10,000 people and contains a roof with 288 small domes. In the Soviet era it was used as a warehouse. In 1991, it reopened as a place of worship and contains lecture halls used by students at the nearby madrasah.

Miri-Arab Madrasah (across a square from Kalyan Mosque) boasts impressive azure domes that stand out among the brown buildings that surround it. Named after a Yemeni sheik, it is a working Islamic school that opened in the 16th century and was only working madrasah in Central Asia in Soviet times. The madrasah was carefully restored by Soviet archaeologists. It has come back to life. In the main hall students memorize the Koran. In the early 2000s, it had 250 students who enrolled at the age of 17 or 18. Students study Arabic, the Koran and Islamic law and live in cells lining the courtyard. The madrasah is officially closed to visitors but tourists can sometimes step in and have a brief look around..

Kalyan Minaret

Kalyan Minaret ( five minute walk from Labi-hauz) is one of the oldest structures in Bukhara and one that reflects the city’s architectural achievements and its cruelty. Built in 1127 by a Karakhan khan who wanted to be called to prayer from the grandest minaret in the world, it is made of baked bricks and stands 155 feet tall and measures 30 feet in diameter and has a 30-foot-deep foundation that includes layers of reeds to absorb the shock of earthquakes.

Kalyan means “great” in Tajik. For centuries, it was the tallest structure in Central Asia. It managed to stand erect for 850 years with only minor touch ups and restorations. The exterior features 14 ornamental bands, each with a different pattern and some containing the first blue glazed tiles to be used in Central Asia. A stairway inside the adjacent mosque lead to the top of the tower. The stairway can be climbed. Ask inside the mosque for directions to the door that leads to the stairway.

According to legend the minaret was built over the grave of an imam killed by the Karakhan khan in a quarrel. During the invasion of Bukhara, Genghis Khan was so taken by the minaret that he ordered it to be spared. Local legend has it that when Genghis Khan, who normally torched everything he conquered, visited the tower to admire its height, he tossed his head back to see the top and his skullcap fell off. Kneeling to pick it up he noted that this was the only time he had been forced to go down on one knee for anyone or anything. Thus he left the tower intact.

In the 18th century Bukhara's emir's converted it into a killing tower. On market days, condemned criminals were led up the 105 steps and displayed before the crowds. After their crimes were read they were tied up and sewn into a bag and tossed off the top. Thousands are said to have died this way and locals maintain the ground is still dented around the tower.

Ark of Bukhara

Ark is a fortress where Bukhara's emirs lived. Bukhara’s oldest structure, it has been occupied since the 5th century and has been destroyed and rebuilt many times—most recently in 1920 when the Bolsheviks seized power from the last emir—and has little left of major historical value. About three quarters of the site is occupied by ruins. The walls are probably about 300 years old. Some of the original royal buildings have been turned into museums.

The main square of the Ark was used for Bukhara’s notorious slave market. At the steep tunnel entrance to the fortress, there are small chambers dug into the walls that were used as public torture chambers by the emirs. One of the royal apartments has been converted into a museum with an interesting exhibit that includes Bukhara carpets, rugs, snake-skin whips used on the prisoners, a Soviet-era condemnation of Islam, and a royal robe that weighed 25 pounds and was padded to make the emir look bigger.

Other buildings include the 17th century Friday Mosque, featuring a porch supported by sycamore logs and a small museum with 19th and 20th century manuscripts; the living quarters of the emir, now housing a small museum dedicated to the Soviet period; the Reception and Coronation Court, where the last emir was crowned in 1910 and kept his treasury and harem.

In front of the Ark is a the Registan, a large square, where slaves were sold, executions were carried out and merchants gathered to sell their stuff. Beside a pool opposite the Ark’s gate is the Bolo-hauz Mosque, the emir’s official place of worship. Built in 1718, it is a working mosque. The painted porch is supported by 20 columns of walnut, elm and poplar.

Bug Pit of Zindan Prison (behind the Ark) is where enemies of the emir waited to have their throats cut with a sheep butcher’s knife after they were tortured. It is so named because it was filled with unpleasant insects as well as spiders, ticks, rats, and scorpions.

Ichon-Qala: Khiva’s Old Town

Ichon-Qala is the name of Khiva’s old town. Located at the southern end of the Soviet town, it is surrounded by a centuries-old wall and contains most of the places of interest to visitors. The 2.5-kilometer-long mud wall dates back to the 18th century when it was rebuilt after a Persian raid. Many of the most lovely building have stubby, turret-like towers topped by turquoise or brown domes.

Ichon-Qala (also spelled Itchan Kala) has a rectangular layout with gates on the north, east, south and west sides. Most visitors arrive through the West Gate, a twin-turreted, mud-brick reconstruction of the original, which was destroyed in 1920. The area around the West Gate contains the best restored buildings. The slave market was held around the East Gate. The niches here were used to display slaves that were on sale. Today there is small working mosque and food bazaar here with melons, grapes, red peppers, embroidery, hand-forged sickles, local glazed pottery. Before restoring the houses in the old town, the Soviets kicked the residents out and moved them to concrete apartment complexes outside the walls.

Itchan Kala is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to UNESCO: “”Itchan Kala is the inner town (protected by brick walls some 10 meters high) of the old Khiva oasis, which was the last resting-place of caravans before crossing the desert to Iran. Although few very old monuments still remain, it is a coherent and well-preserved example of the Muslim architecture of Central Asia. There are several outstanding structures such as the Djuma Mosque, the mausoleums and the madrasas and the two magnificent palaces built at the beginning of the 19th century by Alla-Kulli-Khan. [Source: UNESCO \=/]

“Itchan Kala, the inner fortress of Khiva, is located to the South of the Amu Darya River (known as the Oxus in ancient times) in the Khorezm region of Uzbekistan and it was the last resting-place of caravans before crossing the desert to Persia. Itchan Kala has a history that spans over two millennia. The inner town has 26 hectares and was built according to the ancient traditions of Central Asian town building, as a regular rectangle (650 by 400 meters) elongated from south to north and closed by brick fortification walls that are up to ten meters high.\=/

“The property is the site of 51 ancient monumental structures and 250 dwellings and displays remarkable types of architectural ensembles such as Djuma Mosque, Oq Mosque, madrasahs of Alla-Kulli-Khan, Muhammad Aminkhon, Muhammad Rakhimkhon, Mausoleums of Pahlavon Mahmoud, Sayid Allavuddin, Shergozikhon as well as caravanserais and markets. The attributes are outstanding examples of Islamic architecture of Central Asia. Djuma Mosque, a mosque with a covered courtyard designed for the rugged climate of Central Asia, is unique in its proportions and the structure of its inner dimensions (55m x 46m), faintly lit by two octagonal lanterns and adorned with 212 columns. The madrasahs, which make up the social areas, have majestic proportions with a simple decoration, and they form another type of Islamic architecture specific to Central Asia. \=/

“The place of the architectural heritage of Itchan Kala in the history of Central Asian architecture is determined not only by the abundance of surviving architectural monuments, but also by the unique contribution of Khorezmian master builders to Central Asian architecture and preservation of its classical traditions. The domestic architecture of Khiva, with its enclosed houses with their courtyard, reception room with portico or avian supported by delicately sculptured wooden posts, and private apartments, is also an important attribute of the property that can be studied in its 18th- and 20th-century morphological variants. \=/

“However, the outstanding qualities of Itchan Kala derive not so much from the individual monuments but also from the incomparable urban composition of the city, and from the harmony with which the major constructions of the 19thand 20th centuries were integrated into a traditional structure.” \=/

Buildings in Khiva’s Old Town

Kukhna Ark (opposite Mohammed Amin Khan Madrasah) is a fortress where the khans kept their residences. Established in the 12th century and expanded in the 17th century, it contains the khans’ harem, mint, treasures, stables, mosque, arsenal and prison. In the prison by the entrance who can se a display of chains and whips and instruments used for torture and executions as well of pictures of people being stuffed into sacks and tossed from towers. Executions were often carried out in large square facing the Ark.

The summer mosque boasts a red, orange and gold roof and walls covered by exquisite white-and-blue floral tiling. Next door is the mint, now a museum with some money printed in silk. In the throne room the khan kept the royal yurt and passed judgment on people accused of crimes. It is said that if a victim was ordered through the right door he was to be executed. If he passed through the left door he was freed. If he was sent through the middle door he was imprisoned. At the top of the pavilion there are excellent views of the entire Ark and old town.

Juma Mosque (center of the Old Town) is large structure with a roof supported by 218 wooden columns, some of them from the original 10th century structure (most of what you see dates to the 18th century). It is possible to climb the stairs inside Juma minaret for a view of the city. Other buildings in the area include the 20th century Matpana Bay Madrasah, the 17th century Arabhana Madrasah, the 19th century Dost Alyam Madrasah, the 18th century Abdulla Khan Madrasah, the Anusha baths and the small Aq Mosque (founded in 1657).

Madrasahs and Palaces in Khiva’s Old Town

Mohammed Amin Khan Madrasah (near the West Gate) was built in the 1850s and was transformed into the Hotel Khiva in Soviet era. It features a large courtyard surrounded by two stories of cells. Outside is the turquoise-tile-covered Kalta Minor minaret.

Alloquil Khan Madrasah (near the East Gate) lies at the heart of an area with many outstanding buildings built during the 1830s and 40s when Khiva grew rich from trade with Russia. The Akkoquil Khan Madrasah (1835) and the older Kutlimurodinok Madrasah face each across a street and have matching tile facades. The 18th-century Alloquilihon Bazaar and Caravanserai is housed in a domed structure with tall wooden gates, It is still used and opens onto Khiva’s modern bazaar outside the Old Town. The caravanserai contains a large courtyard used by merchants to sell their merchandise. It is now occupied by department store.

Tash Hauli Palace (facing the Caravanserai) was built in the 19th century as a residence for the emirs, his court and his harem. Now a museum, it boasts 163 rooms, three main courtyards and six smaller courtyards. The entire complex took 1,000 slaves over eight years to build. The first architect was impaled after the told the emir that his ambition of building it in three years was impossible.

The palace features impressive colored-tile facades, intricate carved-wood walls and pillars, and elevated ceilings designed to funnel in cool breezes.. In one of the courtyards is a wooden platform where the emir received petitioners and a stone slab where he erected his tent in the winter. Among the other parts of the palace that are open are the harem, adorned with wonderful geometric-patterned tiles, and the judgment hall, which contains a door reserved for people condemned to death.

Islom-Huja Madrasah (between the East and South Gates) was built in 1910. Its 45-meter-high minaret is the tallest in Khiva. It can be climbed for lovely views into both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The madrasah contains Khiva’s best museum, with collections of carpets, woodcarvings, pottery and metalwork.

Central Asian Mausoleums

Ismail Samanid Mausoleum (outside of Bukhara’s Old Town) is one the oldest standing structures in Bukhara. Completed in 905 and named for the founder of the Samanid dynasty, it is a small domed brick building constructed in the shape of an almost perfect cube, measuring 35 feet on each side, and sitting several feet below ground level. The building is starkly mud colored, but the brickwork is quite intricate, almost woven in appearance, and is said to display every geometric shape known. The bricks cover a two-meter-thick wall that has remained standing after numerous earthquakes.

The dome represents heavens while the cube symbolizes the earth and the Kaaba, the most important Islamic landmark in Mecca. There are also Zoroastrian symbols such as circles in nested squares, symbolizing eternity. As the sun rises and sets, shadows cast by the bricks constantly change.

Pahlavon Mohammed Mausoleum (west of the Islom-Huja minaret in Khiva) is one of the most beautiful places in Khiva. Built over the tomb of Pahlavon Mohammed, a 13th century poet, wrestler and philosopher, it features a lovely turquoise dome, a Persian-style chamber, and beautiful tilework. Pilgrims place coins and messages in the grillwork that surrounds the tile-covered sarcophagus of Pahlavon Mohammed. Several khans are buried in unmarked graves outside the building. The 18th-century Sherghozi Khan Madrasah across the street is named after a khan killed by slaves who built it. It contains a museum of ancient medicine.

Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi (in the town of Yasi, now Turkestan) was built at the time of Timur (Tamerlane), from 1389 to 1405 and is now a UNESCO, World Heritage Site. According to to UNESCO: “In this partly unfinished building, Persian master builders experimented with architectural and structural solutions later used in the construction of Samarkand, the capital of the Timurid Empire. Today, it is one of the largest and best-preserved constructions of the Timurid period. The property, burials and remains of the old town offer significant testimony to the history of Central Asia. The mausoleum is closely associated with the diffusion of Islam in this region with the help of Sufi orders, and with the political ideology of Timur. [Source: UNESCO, World Heritage Site, 2003 \=/]

“The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yaswi, a distinguished Sufi master of the 12th century, is situated in southern Kazakhstan, in the north-eastern section of the city of Turkestan (Yasi). Built between 1389 and 1405, by order of Timur (Tamerlane), the ruler of Central Asia, it replaced a smaller 12th century mausoleum. Construction of the building was halted in 1405, with the death of Timur, and was never completed. The property (0.55 ha) is limited to the mausoleum, which stands within a former citadel and the archaeological area of the medieval town of Yasi; the latter serves as the buffer zone (88.15 ha) for the property. \=/

“Rectangular in plan and 38.7 meters in height, the mausoleum is one of the largest and best-preserved examples of Timurid construction. Timur, himself, is reported to have participated in its construction and skilled Persian craftsmen were employed to work on the project. Its innovative spatial arrangements, vaults, domes, and decoration were prototypes that served as models for other major buildings of the Timurid period, in particular in Samarkand. It was left unfinished, providing documented evidence of the construction methods at that time and by having a unique architectural image. \=/

“Considered to be an outstanding example of Timurid design that contributed to the development of Islamic religious architecture, the mausoleum is constructed of fired brick and contains thirty-five rooms that accommodate a range of functions. It is a multifunctional structure of the khanaqa type, with functions of a mausoleum and a mosque. A conic-spherical dome, the largest in Central Asia, sits above the Main Hall (Kazandyk). Other notable attributes include fragments of original wall paintings in the mosque, alabaster stalactites (muqarnas) in the intrados of the domes, glazed tiles featuring geometric patterns with epigraphic ornaments on the exterior and interior walls, fine Kufic and Suls inscriptions on the walls, and texts from the Qu’ran on the drums of the domes. The principal entrance and parts of the interior were left unfinished, providing exceptional evidence of the construction methods of the period. \=/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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