Phoenix Cities of Central Asia

Travelers to Transoxiana
By Eileen K. Gunn

Conquerors aside, visitors to Samarkand and Bukhara include many of the greatest travelers in history: the adventurous chronicler Ibn Battuta from Tangier, the Spanish diplomat Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, the Elizabethan merchant Anthony Jenkinson, the Victorian soldier Frederick Burnaby, the writer George Curzon (later viceroy of India), and many others. Every hundred years or so, some wandering Westerner would write of his journey to Transoxiana. These letters and chronicles provide varied windows, some crystal clear, some hazy with the passage of time, into the lives of these cities.

In 1332, the indefatigable Ibn Battuta visited Urgench, near Khiva in Khorezm, and Bukhara, that city still in ruins from the destruction visited upon it by Genghis Khan a century earlier. He sniffed contemptuously at Bukhara and went on to Samarkand, which he called"one of the most perfectly beautiful cities in the world."

In 1404, the next traveler from the West, Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, witnessed Timur's triumphal return to Samarkand from despoiling Baghdad and Ankara, and detailed the feasting and celebration that ensued. He also observed Timur's preparations for his campaign against the emperor of China. Clavijo's prose is straightforward and, compared to that of other chroniclers, gives an impression of trustworthiness. His long description of seeing an elephant for the first time is both accurate and oddly vague, as though his mind, overworked by wonder after wonder, had refused to process the information. Clavijo's firsthand account of Timur gives an impression of restrained elegance:

His Highness had taken his place on what appeared to be small mattresses stuffed thick and covered with embroidered silk cloth, and he was leaning on his elbow against some round cushions that were heaped up behind him. He was dressed in a cloak of plain silk without any embroidery, and he wore on his head a tall white hat on the crown of which was displayed a balas ruby, the same being further ornamented with pearls and precious stones.
Timur, responsible for the deaths of millions of people, was lounging about on pillows, wearing a simple silk suit and a tasteful hat with a ruby clipped to it. Coming across a portrait like this is one of the joys of reading travel chronicles.

In 1558, Anthony Jenkinson, a well-traveled Elizabethan merchant, took a supply of English woolens to Bukhara, for the yearly trade fair of merchants from India, Persia, Russia, and the Balkans. With his prices undercut by the Persians, he was able to sell only a small quantity of cloth to the khan, who then left on a military excursion without paying for it. The khan was defeated in battle by the khan of Samarkand, and Jenkinson escaped only a few days ahead of the victor's arrival in the defeated city. He wrote an excellent account of his journey, including a description of the infamous yard-long parasitic worm endemic to Bukhara. It's no wonder that, though his illustrious career took him to Russia and Persia, he never returned to Central Asia.

This part of the world has held the traveler's imagination for more than 2,500 years. Travel here is now more easily accomplished than it ever has been. Though it always behooves the traveler to respect local mores, there is at present considerably less risk of torture and beheading than there was even a century ago.


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »