Phoenix Cities of Central Asia

Conquerors of Transoxiana
By Eileen K. Gunn

The reason that Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, and the other cities of Transoxiana have risen from the dead so many times is that they are in some way inevitable. Each city is located where runoff from the nearby mountains flows into the desert — not just in the best local spot for human habitation, but often in the only such spot available within several days' journey by caravan. And each sits on the Silk Road, a collection of overland routes between Europe and the Far East — routes that went around forbidding mountain chains, the Tien-Shan, the Alai and Transalai, and the Pamirs, to China and India. To travelers, these cities were indispensable, and they were well-rewarded simply for existing.

But the sedentary cities, with irrigated gardens and lush farmlands outside their walls, were a natural target for nomadic invaders (sometimes from the surrounding steppes, sometimes fleeing drought or war elsewhere). Only the strongest of the desert empires were able to establish a defended borderland between themselves and the nomads, and even these cities, if they weakened, were overrun. And the strongest cities, being the richest, necessarily attracted the most ambitious conquerors.

A River of Invaders

The earliest invaders were probably the Scythians, who created the first Central Asian empire. These nomads from the steppes and forests of southern Russia and Siberia passed through the area in the 8th century B.C. One of the first human groups to be identified by name, the Scythians attacked some of the earliest human settlements, the beginning of a pattern that has continued in Central Asia to the present day.

They were followed by hordes of additional invaders, too numerous to recount in detail. From 530 B.C. to A.D. 1200, Persians, Greeks, White Huns, Turks, and Arabs all warred and ruled here, and even the Chinese attempted to gain a foothold. And then, in the 13th century, the regional Asian tyrants started to look to the West. Over the next few hundred years, Mongolia and Central Asia sent forth the most notorious conquering hordes of the Middle Ages, led by two of the most feared men in history, Genghis Khan and Timur.

A Tide of Mongols

In 1220, when the Mongols under Genghis Khan swept in from the east, they pursued a deliberate policy of terror — a city that resisted their advance would be destroyed and the population massacred — in order to frighten other cities into surrendering without a battle. Among the cities destroyed were Samarkand and Bukhara.

As before, the cities were slowly rebuilt on or near their previous sites. And the next conqueror, Timur, unlike Genghis Khan, was a homeboy who sought to revivify the flagging trade routes through the land of his birth, and to make its cities the world's most glorious. He spread death and destruction elsewhere, but at home he built roads, mosques, fountains, and madrassahs. Although he and his generals spent much of their time far away, in Persia, India, Russia, and elsewhere, Timur controlled much of the known world, and Samarkand was his capital.

From conquered lands, Timur brought back art and artisans. Samarkand's decorative architecture from this period, modeled on earlier styles and generally following Islamic rubrics, is among the most beautiful in the world. This is what we go to Samarkand to see, now that it is no longer on the way to anywhere else.

A Sea of Khanates

Around 1500, the Uzbeks invaded the area. They took Bukhara for their capital, and Samarkand's preeminence was over. In the next century, due to the fall of the Byzantine empire in 1453 and the rise of maritime trade to India and China, the Silk Road was used less and less. The cities of Central Asia ceased to be ruled by strong centralized powers, and warring khanates arose, none of whom could assure the safety of trade caravans. The days when Central Asia was the world's crossroads were past.

Pawns in the Great Game

And yet, although the world's commercial interest moved elsewhere, the region remained alive in the West's imagination, and attracted the attention of neighboring empires, as an opportunity for colonial expansion and a market for manufactured goods. In the 19th century, after generations of decline, the area became the prize in the Great Game, the power struggle between Tsarist Russia and the British empire for control of Asia. The Russians won, and the local emirs saw their power diminish under the Tsars and die under the Soviets. Given that these emirs wielded absolute power of life and death over their subjects, and that some, like Nasrulla, were criminally insane, this is not a situation much to be regretted.

From 1920 to 1991, Soviet social and civil engineering likewise made radical changes in Central Asia. Warring clans, sweeping transformations in national identity, the slaughter of the millions by the few. The more things changed the more they remained the same. For the celebration of Samarkand's 2,500-year anniversary in 1995, many of the Timurid buildings were repaired, and some of the mosques and madrassahs returned to their orginal uses. Will we see another cultural resurrection in Transoxiana, now Uzbekistan? I wouldn't bet against it.


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »