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Just an archaeologist who lived in Rome

Iran Odyssey. Day 15: Tehran.

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We had returned to the same hotel in Tehran and that familiarity of the surroundings seemed to underscore that the full circle of our trip had finally closed.

Our last morning started with a drive through Tehran to the Reza Abbasi Museum. Its rather unprepossessing facade betrayed nothing of the splendours within. Spread over its many floors were the most exquisite examples of archaeological objects, Persian manuscripts, and ceramics. A true treasure trove.

In the dim light of the top floor, my eye was continually caught by the glint of gold in the display cases. Spotlights shone on treasures from 7th century BC Median culture, through the Achaemenid Empire and up until the Sassanian period in the 6th/7th centuries AD. The craftsmanship spanning these centuries was ridiculously impressive and though I’m not usually one for shiny bling I was like a magpie darting from one case to another; eyes feasting on the golden bowls, drinking vessels and decorative objects.


Gold rhyton in the shape of a ram’s head. 7th-6th century BC. Median.



Gold beaker. 6th-5th century BC. Achaemenid.

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Gold plate. 5th-4th century BC. Achaemenid.


Gold rhythm in the shape of a horses head. 6th-7th century AD. Sassanian.



Gold decorative pieces showing a king killing a lion. 7th century BC. Median.


Gold beaker with bulls. 5th-4th century BC. Achaemenid.


Gold ryhton in the form of a ram. 5th-4th century BC. Achaemenid.

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Silver plate with rosette design and cuneiform inscription: ‘Artaxerxes, King of Kings…’ 5th century BC. Achaemenid.

The ceramic objects on display on the floor below may not have gleamed and sparkled but they were no less bewitching. Most of the pieces that appealed to me, as they had on our visit to the Archaeological Museum, were the wonderful zoomorphic vessels in the shape of deer, stags and pigs whose open mouths seemed to bellow at you in a chorus from each case.




The floor below had various ceramics from the Islamic period, each one ornately decorated and many reminding me of the inside of the mosque domes I’d seen so many of over the last two weeks. Others were strikingly modern looking – simple stripes or the black brush stroke of script against a white background.



The next floor was dedicated to Kufic manuscripts dating from the 9th century and images from books mainly from the Safavid Period (16th-18th century AD). I was immediately entranced in the incredible detail of the images. Miniature scenes and portraits executed with the deftest of touch. Prancing horses, galavanting camels, coy poses by individuals and jolly scenes of picnics all in a flourish of vibrant colour. On closer inspection of one of the drawings revealed a slightly darker side – strewn on the floor between the legs of the camels and horses were the bloodied dismembered limbs and heads of the enemy at war. The image of a figure seated on a horse also seemed innocent from afar but up close the horse’s body was made up of a tangle of humans and animals.


Camels vs horses


Dismembered enemy


Horses prancing (and in the throes of dying) off the page.


The human horse

The manuscripts of excerpts from the Quran were entrancing. To someone who reads Kufic script they would mean something but to me they were simply (and ignorantly) a beautiful pattern of sweeping lines and dots that captivated me. Some of the script looked like a group of snails and slugs had gathered together on parchment, others looked like an annotated music sheet with letters rather than notes bobbing above and below the lines of the stave. They were simply beautiful and I was transfixed until I was called to join the others who were assembling in the entrance.


Slugs and snails. Kufic script of the Quran. 9th century AD.


Musical score. Kufic script. 9th-10th century AD.


Nastaʿlīq script. 19th century.

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‘In the Name of God’ written in the form of a bird. 19th century.

We went on a drive around Tehran to get a general impression of the city. It was far busier now the holidays were drawing to a close. Sadly, the architecture did little for me and the general run down nature of the capital city is glaring in comparison to some of the jewels of towns we had seen. It feels like a city on edge and has nothing of the blissful calmness of Esfahan. Huge murals remind you of the political, religious and military struggles Iran has undergone and there is an unnerving feel to seeing huge depictions of gun toting martyrs and celebrated religious leaders looming above you.





The anti-American stance of the State was palpable. The walls of the closed American Embassy were emblazoned with propaganda: a mural of the Statue of Liberty with a face of a skull, a loaded starred and striped gun… Thankfully now, Iranians who appear to abhor a blank wall, are painting murals of a less hardcore nature and that, instead, embrace the more playful aspects of life. Long may this continue…


The most imposing monument in Tehran is undoubtedly the Azadi Tower (Freedom Gate). It defies perspective and seemed to me to look big from any distance. It stands in the middle of a huge roundabout and its shape, I am informed, is inspired from historical architecture. The main vault is from the Sassanian Period, the arch has been plucked from the medieval period; and the stands on its flared base represent connections between the old and new. It’s a formidable structure and somehow, though heavy with marble and squat in proportions, managed to look, from some angles, quite light against the matching blue and white sky.


The Azadi Tower

After lunch two of us broke off from the main group and returned to the National Archaeological Museum. While our first trip to the museum on day two had been absorbing and jaw-dropping, two weeks of seeing sites, gauging Iran’s complex chronology and understanding the historical landscape meant that the same objects could now be viewed in a better context. I was not disappointed with my choice to return. I headed for the grey wall at the back of the museum to see the so-called Darius relief once more. It was still jaw-dropping. But now I had been to Persepolis and seen the other relief carvings it had more of an impact on me. The reliefs of rows of attendants, the ambassadors from other countries lined up with their gifts, the archers with their tightly curled beards, and the repeating scene of a lion mauling a bull came flooding back to mind and here before me was the king whom they were all honouring. It was humbling.


Darius the Great relief from Persepolis


An attendant of Darius the Great


Pharnaces. The mayor of the Palace at Persepolis greeting Darius the Great


Just a detail of a lovely handbag

I noticed some objects I had overlooked on the first visit and was thrilled to discover that they were inscriptions from Persepolis including one on a column base that started ‘I am Darius, the Great King, King of Kings… ’ I could now recite the rest with ease. I paused and kept looking at this object that had, incredibly, survived the destruction by Alexander the Great. Here was the voice of Darius the Great, son-in-law to Cyrus the Great.


I am Darius, king of Kings…


I am Darius, King of Kings…

Alongside this was a round column drum from Susa with a neat inscription claiming ‘I am Artaxerxes, the Great King, King of Kings, son of Darius the King…’ and next to that an inscribed tablet belonging to his other son, Xerxes claiming much the same. How I had missed these gems I am not sure but it was an exciting moment to find them this time.


I am Artaxerxes, King of Kings, son of Darius…


I am Xerxes, King of Kings, son of Darius… you know the drill…

Wandering around the rest of the museum I took in the elegant pose of a statue of Darius, a small bull-headed column that was a repeating theme in Achaemenid architecture, the delicate reliefs on a staircase, the poise of a sculpted dog from Persepolis, the beautiful glazed bricks from Susa, and a wonderful depiction of a Sassanian with terrific hair.


Darius stature from Susa


Detail of the Darius statue


Glazed bricks from Susa. An archer.


Reliefs on a staircase from Persepolis


Under the watchful gaze of a (partly restored) mastiff from Persepolis


Bull capital of a column from Persepolis


Terrific Sassanian hair

We left the museum as the sun was low in the sky and a warm light filled the street. We returned to the hotel via a different route and passed a large building. I broke off our conversation and stopped dead in my tracks. Before me stood a building that had replicated every facet of Persepolis into its fabric. There were the reliefs of the attendants, the grand staircases, the blocky crenellations, the bull-headed columns, the slightly Egyptian door lintels, and at the top a relief of Ahura Mazda. There was suddenly no need to imagine what parts of Persepolis might have looked like in all its splendour. Bewilderingly, here it was!





Iran was, just as I had anticipated, not the most dangerous place on Earth at all. Quite the contrary – I found it to be one of the most beautiful, inspirational, unforgettable and fascinating places I have ever visited. The people couldn’t be more friendly (save the road rage man!) and its history couldn’t be more fascinating. From the ornate domes of mosques to the mesmerising remains of Persepolis I really couldn’t be more consumed with awe and wonder. The reliefs of curly haired men, the solitary beauty of Cyrus’ tomb, the calm of the mosques, the dramatic landscape, the blues and turquoises of the tiles… all these things will all stay with me.

As a woman though, I didn’t feel like I’d left Iran until I was well and truly aboard the plane and I could, for the first time since landing 15 days ago, remove my head scarf in public. It was a very liberating moment but I was prepared to don it again as I was already keen to return to this wondrous country.


The End


Iran Odyssey. Day 14: Esfahan to Tehran.


The atmosphere on the bus is bleak as we find ourselves heading back to Tehran accepting that our trip is almost over. The weather seems to echo our mood and across the flat plains leaving Esfahan, the clouds start to swirl and gather. By the time we start the climb into the mountains the weather really starts to close in…


Storm brewing on the plain


Dramatic clouds in the Karkus Mountains

We weave our way up through the foothills of the Karkus Mountains and up into the small village of Natanz where the bus stops outside a mosque, the view of which is obscured by a row of trees. The trunks bend and lean as if they are gently losing the battle against the ‘bracing climate’ that I read Natanz is famous for. And indeed, as we step off the bus we are greeted by a chilly wind and everyone immediately rummages through their luggage for jumpers and scarves before we head towards  the mosque.


Abdussamad Esfahani shrine and mosque

It is essentially a shrine to Abdussamad Esfahani, a 13th century Sufi, built by one of his disciples in 1304. Instead of a smooth rounded dome we spy an octangonal and pointed roof which covers the shrine and the architecture of the minaret rises straight up and would look more at home in a skyline of an industrial city in Britain.


We pass through the tiled entrance and find ourselves in a plain plastered courtyard. There is beauty in the simplicity but I later learned that tiles had been chipped off the walls at the request of a 19th century British traveller who bought them.



Ventilation mosque-style


A splash of colour

At least there are some vestiges of painted decoration that he couldn’t chip off the walls.


The shrine itself contains some beautiful and intricate wood work – a lattice screen and various decorative elements and to look up is be lost in a honeycombed world of squinches lining the inside of the pointy roof.



The roof of the Abdussamad Esfahani shrine

We bundle back into the bus and continue to wend up the mountains to a town called Abyaneh. As the bus heaves its way up along the road we are suddenly overtaken on a bend by a car who beeps furiously at us cuts in front sharply and then slams on the breaks. The reaction of the bus driver was to break too but then he surged forward to nudge the car on the bumper in frustration at this dangerous manoeuvre. And that is where things suddenly got dramatic. The car in front screeched to a halt and a burly man jumped out of the vehicle and marched up to the driver’s side of our bus. He was shouting and in an instant his arm shot through the driver’s window spraying glass all throughout the front of the bus, shards of which pierced our driver’s face. The man continued to shout, now waving a bloodied arm, and our driver shouted back with trickles of blood on his forehead and cheeks. As I looked on in disbelief I caught sight of a police check point up ahead and realised they had witnessed the whole thing too. We were waved up the road by the sentries and the shouting match continued outside the vehicle with the police having to intervene threatening the men with batons. Once tempers had calmed we were allowed to continue our journey and all we could do was reach for some tissues to help stem the blood being lost by our driver. As a group there was suddenly a lot of mumblings as to how quickly it appeared to have been sorted and that there seemed no repercussions for either man. Traffic incidents and road rage seemed to be dealt with a lot more leniency in Iran…


Road rage

When we pulled into Abyaneh we all got off the bus and headed into the old town. A notice told us that Abyaneh was “a virgin village with a smiling face” which was as intriguing a strap line for a town as I could hope to imagine. Boasting that was built from nature’s raw materials, namely mud bricks and wood, the town was perched on top of the mountain and had a very lost world feel to it. This was not helped by the dark clouds that sat heavily and suffocatingly, all around us. I learned that the local language derived from Achaemenid times and the local dress from the Sassanid dynasty. The lost world description suddenly didn’t feel so out of place. As we walked into the town we passed some more modern buildings that tried to emulate the mud walls and gypsum detailing but looked like something out of a set of a dystopian film.



The older buildings had far more character and charm but there was an overall sense of eeriness that I couldn’t shake. The higgledy-piggledy houses clung to the mountainside and as we passed along the streets ladies in bright flowery clothes wanted to make us tea or get us to try a hot soup. Having seen the soup I settled on the tea and in the biting cold it was warmly welcomed.



Have to wonder what lies beyond that door…


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Just as it started to lightly snow we left the town and regrouped at the bus. There was no sign of our driver. We waited. And waited. I cruised past the tat stalls and soon discovered that unless I wanted to buy a cassette tape of sketchy Iranian music or a plastic bucket and mop I was going to be disappointed by the offerings on sale. I popped into the relative warmth of the small information centre only to discover that information was not really their forte, so I politely left none the wiser.

At this point our driver came around the corner and we all thought we would be on our way. But our cheer was short-lived. Behind our driver came a couple of police men and the other driver involved in the fracas who was now sporting a bandaged arm. This, we had not foreseen but his presence did explain why we were able to drive off at the check point – the incident had been resolved. We boarded the bus, as did our driver and the road rage man with the bandaged arm. Through our guide as interpreter we listened to and watched the oddest little ritual. The driver with the bandaged arm explained that he was sorry for his actions and he apologised for the distress it must have caused us. In turn, our driver lucidly explained that he did not accept the apology but would do so on our behalves so that we could get on with our journey. Then they kissed each other on the cheek and us, feeling helpless, just applauded the gesture. As we clapped the bandaged-arm man got off the bus and that was that. This, I am informed, is ‘restorative justice’. Just as at school when you were wronged and the teacher would get the aggressor to apologise to you in front of the class, Iran has a system of justice that works on the principle that some crimes can be personalised and thus the State need not intervene. I must say, it was a pretty impressive display and the literal ‘kiss and make up’ ritual was hugely effective. I bet it saves a mountain of paperwork, time and money and for petty incidents like this it seems a brilliant solution. However, I did respect that our driver did not accept the apology (he was still bleeding from the head, after all) but cunningly accepted it on our behalves so that we could continue our journey without further delay. Everyone was a winner.

We drive off, all a little stunned and while we had lunch our driver fixed the window with a sheet of plastic and duct tape. It begins to snow properly as we leave the the lunch spot and we begin our descent from the mountains to the noise of plastic flapping in the wind.


Snow at lunch

Along the way down we are reminded that this is ‘Nature Day’ in Iran – the one day of the year that Iranians are supposed to go out and commune with nature and embrace its wonders. This normally takes the form of a family picnic in the countryside and I assume it normally takes place on a sunny day. I salute the Iranians because in spite of the snow, the bitter winds and no views except of clouds, they were still camping out by the side of the road, huddled together and having a picnic. This is a nation of people who can and will endure.


View of Karkus Mountains in cloud. Perfect day for a picnic.

The road to Tehran brings a respite in the weather. We are on the home stretch and the sun just breaks through the clouds.


Iran Odyssey Day 13: Esfahan


Waking to another day in Esfahan is like waking into a dream, though I’ll admit the fact that we got driven to a dank underpass in the middle of nowhere where we had to leave the bus was a little shy of dream-like. We got ushered through some less than desirable narrow streets towards the Masjid-I Jameh Mosque, one of the oldest in Iran.

We pass through an entrance of cool coloured hues and plunge into a world of earth-coloured brick architecture. The space is a dizzying array of pillars and vaults and each pillar is lovingly decorated by perforations in the brickwork. The space has an eerie atmosphere as the repetition of the architectural elements help to disorientate and the voices echo around the cavernous underbelly of this vast space.



The history of this building is complex and I soon understand that we are seeing a microcosm of the entire architectural history of Iranian mosques in one place. My eye is caught by a solitary figure standing motionless and serene at the back of the building just staring through a narrow recess at an inscription. Her poise and gaze are uninterrupted and as the rest of the group move to the next room and the echoes die away it is just me and her in the room. I cannot help but be struck by her grace and feel as if I am intruding by taking photographs of her but she doesn’t flinch even though the whir and click of my camera shutter now echoed as loudly as the voices had. I moved away slowly and never discovered what the inscription was that she had been reading so intently.


I joined the others in an imposing room and lift my eyes to the brick dome high above us. There was little decoration other than the play of brick formations and as light shafted in from windows the dust dancing in the air was spotlit.


This is the earlier part of the mosque dating to the 11th century and is in sharp contrast to the brightly glazed tiles decorating the later parts of the mosque that greet us in full sunshine as we pass through a door. As the group’s eyes adjust to the harsh light the more familiar architectural layout of soaring facades of the iwans around a courtyard with their minarets pronging the sky, come into view.


I’m not quite mosque weary because each one we have visited has differed so greatly from the one before but I content myself with wandering away from the history lesson being given by our guide and saunter through the rooms by myself. Instead, I test myself on what I have remembered of mosque architecture. I check off the list the main elements that have been a wonderful recurring theme throughout this trip: mihrab, squinches, minbar, hypostyles… check. I obviously pass my own test with flying colours.



While I wait for our group to assemble I wander the little bazaar at the entrance to the mosque and soon discover that this is the place to buy a chador. I would think one dressed mannequin would be sufficient to demonstrate the garment but evidently I’m no marketing expert as apparently rows of identical mannequins are required, each with a descriptive label. There is more to buying a chador than meets the eye. I, however, am not tempted.

Our next destination was an Armenian cathedral. Vank Cathedral, is a surprise to the uninitiated and I was very much uninitiated. Wandering through the portico outside the Cathedral I discover the most beautiful soft and delicate wall paintings.



In contrast, the rich colour of the paintings inside the cathedral is the first thing that grabs you. The second thing grabs you pretty swiftly after that. Having been in numerous mosques with decorative glazed tiles it was quite a shock to be suddenly reminded of the Biblical concepts of heaven and hell. Hell, particularly. The gory scenes of what awaits those in the queue for hell were quite something – a world of ravenous blood-thirsty monsters and their human prey being eaten and dismembered. Give me the serene and calming bluey-green tiles of a mosque any day.


After that experience the last thing I expected was that I was going to fall quite so in love with Armenian art in the museum opposite the cathedral. But I did. The depictions of wide-eyed Armenians in various 13th and 14th century Gospel manuscripts were just glorious and the perfect antidote to the Technicolor hellish scenes in the church. The courtyard of the complex was punctuated with relief carvings on a very distinctive grey stone and up close the artwork had some lovely child-like naivety about it that made me smile and made me warm to these settlers.


I later learnt that the Armenian deportees had started to build the cathedral in 1606 and the architecture resembled that of a mosque but it was ‘Archbishop David’ who was responsible for later additions including the traumatising scenes of the underworld. My sympathy for these poor displaced people grew.

Grabbing a coffee in the shop opposite Vank Cathedral was a delight. The Armenians know what they are doing with coffee and frankly, the sight of a fresh espresso convinced me that I could quite happily live in Esfahan and not want for anything (except alcohol, obviously).

Our lunch stop was a little drama-filled as one of the group was suddenly and quite violently taken ill but we were assured they would be cared for back in the hotel and so on we went with our afternoon trip.

Events at lunch had distracted me from eating much, which was just as well since our next site, a Fire Temple, lay on top of a hill and climbing up on foot on a full stomach would have been nauseating to say the least. The path started out just fine – a gradual zig-zag up the slope was within all the group’s means.


Atashgah Fire Temple complex from the foot of the hill

Half way up was still fine but some of the group were feeling a little challenged and the number of people ascending, declined. Then suddenly the gentle path gave way into what I can only and perhaps over-dramtically, call a ‘death shute’. The outcrop of rock at the top of the hill had been worn smooth by the millions of feet that had made it that far and the steep angle of the rock face was now sprinkled in a light dusting of crumbled stone that practically speaking, acted like marbles on the surface of a mirror. I might as well have been wearing rollerskates. Balance was paramount and suddenly any slight movement of my bag, and camera, which had been casually slung over my shoulder, could be the contributory factor that unbalanced me and send me hurtling to my death.  The only way up to the top, I decided was to grapple along the ground on all fours and lunge out to reach any nodule of rock in a small gully that could act as leverage. Thing is, as I was wishing I had packed crampons and was writhing around on the floor, Iranian women in completely inappropriate footwear, namely slip on high heels, seemed to be getting better purchase than I on this death shute. They were having to step over me. It was humiliating. As I looked downwards (big mistake) I noticed that luckily some of my group had not made it up this far so I was sure I could regale them with the dramatic story of my ascent without them ever knowing I had basically been a doormat to the locals. Unfortunately, by the time I had scrambled up to the fortress I found many of my group already up there admiring the view and I appeared to be the only member with dust all over my knees. I took in the view, snapped a photograph and decided to make a hasty retreat fearing that if the death shute had been perilous on the way up then going down was going to be terrifying. I was right and elected to ride it out on my bum. Safety first.


View from the top of Atashgah (post death-shute ascent)

At the bottom of the hill I needed a stiff whisky but a glug of water had to suffice. Somewhat shakily the group all clamber back into our vehicle and we were transported along the river Zayandeh-Rood (translates as ‘life giver’). Famous for its bridges we cruise past a few and are eventually dropped off at one end of the Khaju Bridge.


The Khaju Bridge

Not only did this bridge serve as a link between the Zoroastrian quarter and the Khaju quarter, it’s architecture lent itself to being a place where public meetings could be held. Today, a road takes pedestrians across the river on the upper level but this once would have served wheeled traffic.


A group of Iranians on the bridge

On the lower level, above the the various sluices that help regulate the flow of the river, is an area for the pedestrian to wander and enjoy the shade. A pavilion in the centre of the bridge juts out over the water and it is from here Shah Abbas II would have taken tea and enjoyed the view. It teemed with people today and the lower level was bustling with families having picnics to the sound of rushing water below them.


Lower level of the Khaju Bridge

The early evening was spent wandering the stalls in the bazaar watching a member of our group delight in trying on local outfits and causing much mirth amongst the shop owners. We then sit at the entrance to the bazaar as the evening light turns to orange, shelling monkey nuts and reliving some of our favourite moments from the trip. Tomorrow we complete our circuit and return to Tehran and sadly it already feels as though our Iranian adventure is over.


Dusk in Esfahan

Uzbekistan Odyssey. Day 6: Bukhara

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After a wonderful feast of a breakfast, which for me consisted of a freshly cooked omelette followed by warm pancakes and mulberry jam and a vat of coffee, we met our guide. Matsuma (I apologise for not knowing how to spell her name but I remembered it because it rhymed with ‘satsuma’ so ‘Matsuma’ has lodged in my head) had an oval face framed by a few locks of black hair that hadn’t quite been tucked under her headscarf. She had an authoritative air about her but a friendly demeanour and within a few minutes we discovered that she had an amazing grasp of English and a wealth of knowledge to share with us. Oktyabr had had a few adorable pronunciation issues but once we had worked out that “boons” were ‘bones’, “litter” was ‘ladder’, and “the knees of the mound” were in fact ‘foothills’ it became possible to decipher his tales. I must admit if I could introduce the phrase the knees of the mound into common English parlance, I absolutely would. We were going to have no such language problems with Matsuma. She too was an archaeologist with plenty of excavation experience so we all felt in good hands.

Our first stop of the day in Bukhara was a mausoleum but the van pulled up outside a Soviet fun park. There was an abandoned feel to the park but the Ferris wheel was slowly revolving so somewhere there was life. The hearts of two archaeologists, an architectural historian, an historian and a sheep farmer melted simultaneously when we saw the 10th century Samanid mausoleum. It was a plain brick construction but its proportions and the contrasting textures created by the play of the pattern of the brickwork, was delightful and masterful.


The brick is a simple building material and I’ve long loved the Romans’ use of it on a mass scale. But here was an architect who truly understood the versatility and inherent beauty of brick. I immediately likened some of the design to a box of biscuits – you know the ones, the kind you got at Christmas that had iced rings, custard creams and bourbons inside.


A box of brickscuits

While the group was still mesmerized with its construction, Matsuma guided us to a shady spot under a tree and described the architectural achievement of the mausoleum. It draws from Sogdian, Zoroastrian, and Sassanid influence and later I read that all of these elements were pulled together with ‘arithmetic and geometrical advances made by al-Khwarizmi*, al-Fergani and ibn-Sina and the latest squinch technology…’. ‘The latest squinch technology’: I’ll let the beauty of that phrase sink in. The walls are 2m thick and their robustness has meant that the building has never had to be rebuilt – something that cannot be said of most of Uzbekistan’s monuments. The architecture of the mausoleum so transfixes the viewer that it is easy to forget to query for whom it was built. It houses the tomb of Ismail Samani founder of the Saminid Dynasty – obviously a man of taste if he had any input into the design of his final resting place.

* As an aside, the word ‘algorithm’ derives from the Latin form of his name, ‘Algoritmi’.


The inside of the dome of the Ismail Samani Mausoleum


Inside the Ismail Samani Mausoleum

We wander through the gardens and the view opens over Pioneer Lake and across the waters a man fishes while talking to his companion and both are dwarfed by the imposing mudbrick walls of Bukhara that form the backdrop. It is lovely to have this view over the water and it is beautifully echoed by the sunken pools that form part of the architectural landscape.


Matsuma did not let us linger long and took us through the garden to a complex, that though called a mausoleum and indeed does contain an anonymous tomb, was actually built to commemorate the spot where the Prophet Job on finding the area parched struck the earth to create a spring. The roofline had several domes and boasted a lovely brick conical-domed tower. Outside, a man with a characterful face posed with his bicycle much to the delight of our group. It’s always hard to know whether it is permissible to take photographs of people but he clearly loved the attention so we obliged him.


Inside was a museum dedicated to water supply and I learn that Uzbekistan is sprinkled with ‘sardobas’ – medieval reservoirs fed by a variety of sources including melting snow, rain water, rivers and underground water channels. I am instantly reminded of the ice house we saw in Iran and the qanats that kept Iranian irrigated and cool. Water management in these arid countries is a fascinating and wondrous thing. Sitting beneath explanatory panels and faded images were a few people trying to sell local wares. I will admit to having a little bit of an embroidered cloth white out at this stage. I am barely capable of seeing one stitched pomegranate or tulip flower before I glaze over. And this was only day 6.

Matsuma was keen to move on and we board the freshly wiped down minibus and drive to the Old City of Bukhara. We draw up next to a grand building with a portico held up by tall matchstick columns – the same glorious spindly wooden columns that I so admired in Iran. The early 18th century Bolo Hauz Mosque stands on one side of the Registsan square and was briefly used as a proletarian workers club during the Soviet period. Although I appreciate mosques are used by the masses I cannot think of a more unlikely building to represent the values of the proletariat. The bright colours of the recent restoration of the painted ceiling certainly catch the eye but are tempered by the plain wood segments.



We all stand in awe and meanwhile at the far end of the portico something unexpected happens: a column breaks loose and flies out of line with the others. A crane on the back of a truck winches it clear of the building and I notice that it has been replaced by two long matchstick trunks of wood.


We head inside and I think we are all slightly underwhelmed by the incredibly newly painted interior and are all drawn back outside not only to admire the architectural delight of the iwan and portico but I think we are all curious as to why the column was being removed.


We find the column horizontal and some workmen clamouring around its capital. The workmen kindly allow us to peer at them at work. One chap sits on the actual column shaft to weigh it down while the others either stand around or seem to hack at the sculpted and decorated capital with a range of the least likely looking conservation tools. As we round the capital we are all captivated. Far from being one lump of sculpted wood, the capital is a jigsaw of rhomboid, triangular and diamond wedge-shaped pieces of wood. They all fit together but it’s their differing lengths that create the textured, sprouting head of the capital. This is a fascinating revelation and we are all thrilled that happenstance meant we were able to witness it.


We cross the Registan square and pause outside the Ark. The site of the Ark has been inhabited for as long as Bukhara has stood here from the 7th century and its latest incarnation is as recent as the 1980s with the rebuild of the mudbrick walls in stone.


We enter through the imposing gateway and start to climb the ramp. All the current buildings date from the 16th century onwards and as we pass a series of tiny rooms on either side of the ramp we are reminded that this was used as a prison and these were small cells and torture chambers. Although not the dungeon, or ‘Bug Pit’, that the British Colonel Charles Stoddart was imprisoned in before he was publicly executed in 1842, four years after his arrest, for having offended the emir they were evocative of the harsh life of incarceration. The story of Stoddart and his supposed rescuer, Arthur Connolly, who was executed at the same time was documented by Joseph Wolff but Stoddart’s name also lives on, wonderfully randomly, in the form of a Sri Lankan lizard: Ceratophora stoddarii.

We hasten our step as Matsuma races ahead and we are shown the rest of the complex which consists of a series of elaborate pavilions and courtyards.



Inside the Ark Fortress



Light relief

Along the way we pass stalls selling textiles and as we enter one courtyard there is something of a fête-like appearance to the arrangement of embroidered silk displays. Hung over the sides of the raised portico huge swathes of fabric gentle ripple in the breeze like elaborately coloured and textured bunting.


Embroidered bunting

The eyes of my group light up and soon there is a hive of activity in one corner of the courtyard. Fabrics were being flapped out onto the floor in the sunshine and the seller explained the unique quality of his particular silk products. The words floated over the heads of the group as they were simply transfixed by the designs and there were a series of oohs and ahhhhs as one fabric was laid on top of another. The oohs and ahhs soon turned into “how much?” and with a bit more flapping of fabric a deal was struck and we left the courtyard laden down with bundles of purchases.

As we pass into another immaculately presented courtyard I’m acutely aware that what we are seeing is only a tiny fraction of the fortress.

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View through the passageway in the Ark Fortress


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Inside the Ark Fortress


Display purposes only: Furry hats inside the Ark Fortress

Much lies beyond the refinery of the buildings that have been conserved and the majority of the fortress lies in dusty ruins—crumbling remains of monuments poking out of a moonscape. Sadly, that part of the site is not on the itinerary as time is short and we head out back out into the square to grab some lunch. I was actually itching to leave the complex for the simple reason I had spied the fortified walls of the Ark and the wall-lover in me could not wait to see and photograph them. Outside, proudly standing in a tiny spot of dappled shade provided by the spindliest of trees was a camel. A Bactrian camel. My first of the trip. I delight in camels at the best of times and although I am a huge admirer of the Dromedary, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of excitement to see a Bactrian in its native land.


A snooty Bactrian camel in Bactria. Perfect.

Not letting even a camel distract me for too long I moved along to let my eyes digest the fortification wall that had so enthralled me on my way in. And what walls they are. Their form is so pleasing it almost hurts. Their height, their gentle bulbous curve, their girth, their plumpness and their dumpyness is all realised in a soft beige stone punctuated with dots of brown – the ends of long wooden beams laid horizontally at regular intervals. They have the bulk and yet the grace of elephant’s feet. One of our group immediately identifies the building technique known as Murus Gallicus. It’s a brilliantly defensive construction since it cannot be damaged by use of a battering ram and the base of these walls are tens off metres thick. These are true fortifications.


Now that’s a wall! Glorious.


We have lunch in the Registan square surrounded by chattering groups of Uzbeks wearing a flow of coloured textiles that can only make you smile.

We then head to the little pocket of Holy Bukhara. As with many of the squares in Uzbekistan it is like a face-off between two buildings. Two towering arched gateways of the Kalon Mosque and the Mir-I-Arab Madrassah stand opposite one another and seem to be bracing themselves, legs apart to remain steady and squaring each other up as if for a fight.



Mir-I-Arab Madrassah

At the far end of the square was a minaret. Unlike the other round minarets that I’d seen, this one was not decorated with coloured tiles and was constructed entirely of plain brick. However, even from afar the tower clearly looked banded and I wandered over for a closer inspection. It was spectacular. Proving the versatility of the simple brick, each band was composed of either circular, square or rectangular bricks arranged in differing patterns to give an extraordinary texture. There were some sculpted bricks and some with geometric reliefs and the more you looked the more complex it became. It was a triumph of construction and much like the Ismail Samani mausoleum that we’d seen earlier in the day, the triumph derives from the use of a simple building material that becomes elevated by the ingenuity and creativity of the architect (who I subsequently find out was unimpressed with the final result) and builders.


The Kalon Minaret AKA ‘The Tower of Death’



Peak bricks


Insciption on the Kalon Minaret

I circle the tower and in its shade I open my guide book and read that my feelings of awe were shared by none other than Genghis Khan. This incarnation of the Kalon Minuret has stood since 1117 and was spared demolition in a ‘rare gesture of humility’ by Genghis Khan who, as my guide book continued, was amidst ‘an orgy of destruction’. I would hazard a guess that is the only thing that Genghis Khan and I have in common but the only reason I am enjoying seeing the tower is precisely because we did. Just as I am feeling all warm and fuzzy I read that the minaret was also known as the Tower of Death. Now slightly less warm and fuzzy, I read on and learn that in the rulers in the Middle Ages would hurl criminals off the top of the tower; their splatted remains serving to warn others in the market place below of their fate for wrong doing. I look down at my feet at the clean paving around me, shudder and move slowly away.

I rejoin the others who have now, under the tutelage of Matsuma, learned a great deal more than I about the surrounding buildings and we enter the Kalon Mosque.


Courtyard of the Kalon Mosque


As with all the mosques I have visited in both Uzbekistan and Iran, I find an immediate peacefulness within their walls. The outside world of people selling souvenirs and the bustle of tourists melts away and calm ensues. Even the perennially annoying use of the selfie-stick takes on a grace and charm. The central courtyard has a solitary tree and there is already a small group huddled under its dappled shade so we move into one of the side arcades to listen to Matsuma. Except that I find the arcade most distracting and I start wandering between the series of white painted columns enjoying the coolness of the space.




Whatever tranquility I am experiencing now does not reflect the history of the mosque which was far from peaceful. Genghis Khan rode into the mosque in 1219 and though he had mistaken the building for the Sultan’s palace he quickly drew attention away from that, climbed the pulpit and shouted to his troops ‘the hay is cut! Give your horses fodder!’ which was a cue for his followers to sack and raze the city of Bukhara, leaving the minaret, mind.

We move on and wander the streets of Bukhara, wending our way slowly back to the hotel just as the sun begins to drop.


Rooftops in Bukhara


Facade in Bukhara


Facade and domes in Bukhara


Modern squinch

Our last stop is at the carpet museum though the building that houses the museum slightly detracts from the capers inside. The Magok-i-Attari Mosque dates back to the 9th century and the relief work on the bricks of the facade look like tracery. It evidently was spared from total destruction and sits on top of the remains of a Zoroastrian fire temple complex.


Magok-i-Attari Mosque


Brick ‘tracery’ on the Magok-i-Attari Mosque

The mud brick walls are lit in the warm glow and the shapes and textures are exaggerated in the raking light. It truly is a magical city.


Pigs being carried away by exotic birds. No, I don’t know either but the pink evening light on this building was lovely.



Uzbekistan Odyssey. Day 5: Khiva to Bukhara


I wake early, grab my camera and head out before breakfast to explore Khiva before we set out for our drive to Bukhara. The vivid blue sky of yesterday has been replaced by a dreary grey blanket of cloud and everything looks flat through my lens. There are no interesting shadows, there are no bright greens and blues of the tiles and the brickwork looks dull; a photographers nightmare. But I take solace that my early rise was not in vain as it is lovely to see the streets that were filled with stalls and peppered with people yesterday, now empty.





I wander around alone and it’s a relief not to be hounded by scarf and furry hat sellers telling me their wares are “cheap and almost free” which is a cry that has whistled across the streets in many of the tourist areas. The only people in the the streets seem to be the people who work at the sites laden with bunches of keys preparing to open the buildings for the tourists. A camel looks at me haughtily as I pass and even as a camelophile I’m disappointed, being so close to Bactria, that he is a dromedary.

The first of the stalls begin to appear and each owner is armed with large plastic sheets in the event the skies do open.

Drops of rain start to fall and the stone paving turns a dark metallic grey. I head back to the hotel by way of some back streets outside the city walls and the pristine finish to the UNESCO city fade and it gives way to the rugged and real world of the inhabited town. A woman comes to her door with a child in her arms and we exchange hellos while the kid waves at me and I wave back. A simple exchange but everyone is left smiling.


Lada and “behind the scenes” at Khiva


Wonderful texture of brick and wood wall construction in the back streets of Khiva

I gulp down a coffee and join the others. Our driver, Azim, is extraordinarily proud of his minibus and without fail every time we return to the vehicle, even after a short stop, he has cleaned our dusty footprints away, cleaned the dust from above the wheel arch and laid a little damp towel down in the footwell of the sliding door for us to step on and remove the excess dirt from our shoes. His attentive care for his vehicle, which is after all is his livelihood, extends to his driving. He slowly picks his way around the potholes with precision and although we appreciate the smooth ride the queue of cars behind him do not and speed past us leaving in their wake a plume of dust that inevitably settles on the gleaming white bodywork of his van. Azim’s only option is to flip the windscreen wipers on, send a jet of water onto the glass and try wash away the worst of the damage. We continue our journey in this manner and I can tell he is itching to reach the newly laid tarmac of the main road.


We stop for lunch at a roadside cafe and the smell of barbecued lamb welcomes us as the van door slides open. We find a long table with a brightly coloured striped table cloth and tea and bread are brought immediately. The barbecue itself is very long but only about 15ms wide: the exact length of the pieces of meat on each skewer. Genius.


Our journey continues and the new tarmac road looms into view and we speed along. The landscape turns to scrub desert and looks like it has been ironed flat.


After a few hours the road comes to an abrupt end and with a bump we return to the old potholed tarmac road and once again Azim picks out the route to avoid the potholes and once again the windscreen wipers are deployed.

We reach Bukhara and once the rooms are allocated we order a bottle of chilled white wine and toast our arrival.

Uzbekistan Odyssey. Day 4: Nukus to Khiva 

We set off on our first big drive of the trip. The Soviet buildings and sparse greenery of Nukus die away giving way to scrub desert and the driver carefully picks his way between the potholes in the tarmac. After some time the horizon becomes dotted with low mounds and we pull off the main road and head along a dust track towards one of them. As it gets closer I spot the unmistakable shape of a round tower crowning the top of the hill. It is a familiar shape to me as we had seen some Zoroastrian Towers of Silence in Iran and indeed the pleasing shape, the sense of tranquility and the ethical practise of disposing the dead away from the land you use to live on and feed from had me seriously considering converting to Zoroastrianism.

We clamber up the slope and follow the rather precarious path that circumnavigates the walls around to the stepped entrance. It requires a bit of a scrabble up through the break in the wall but we manage to reach the platform inside. Chilpak was a royal cemetery of the 4th century and unlike the ones I saw in Iran where the bodies were left out in the open to be picked clean by birds and then the bones swept into a communal central pit, this one had internal divisions creating familial spaces called ‘naoi’. When the bones were clean, each individual was placed in a substantial ceramic ossuary that in many cases looked like little houses that we had likened to the Villanovan burial vessels in the museum. The camel-shaped ossuary must have belonged to this group and together with the fact that griffins were assumed to be the birds that pecked the bones clean I became convinced that this was the way I wanted to be buried.

Inside the tower was a curious metal frame to which were tied hundreds of pieces of coloured textiles. We all presumed this marked the most sacred of spots in the tower but were amused to learn that is was a landscape surveyors’ trig point and that the locals had adopted it as a place to leave offerings to bring good luck.


We drive to the next mound on the horizon. The area we are entering is known as Elliq Qala, in the province of Khorezm, and in every guide book it tells you it means ‘Fifty Forts’. Oktyabr explains that this is in fact a misnomer and the name comes from the local pronunciation for the word ‘wind’ which was misheard as ‘fifty’, presumably because it was so windy. These are the Windy Forts. Easy to see why: they sit perched on hilltops overlooking the flattest of dusty plains and there is no obstacle to break of hinder the passage of any wind.

We arrive at the impressive walls of Qizil Qala fortress which dates to the 1st to the 4th century AD with later additions in the 12th century. The base of the fortification wall is very much reconstructed but has a really pleasing sturdy shape with sharp corner angles and an impressive slope reminiscent of the travertine walls of the Vatican. Protruding out of the smooth surface of the wall are the ends of horizontal wooden beams that cast long shadows like a collection of sundials.



At the entrance we see that there are decorative pilasters where a constrasting mudbrick design was used to break up the facade. Rather chichi for an imposing fortress.

We scramble up through the doglegged entrance which was intended to throw off anyone trying to breach the walls in antiquity. The inside of the fort looks like the gently undulating surface of the moon littered with dust-covered shrubs. There are deep holes in the odd place where the archaeologists have investigated the internal layout of the fort. The walls, though seemingly solid in construction, were once punctured by arrow slit windows. I loved hearing that through time the standard brick size changed – between a dumpy brick and a slender one it is hard to know what the difference is when it comes to building threes massive structures but there was a human decision to change the shape and it is that that I love.

Our next stop is the neighbouring mound of Torpak Qala another fortress founded in the 1st century AD. On first glimpse it looks unimpressive, a large crater has been dug through the build up of mud layers in the entrance and nothing is visible within it. A sloped track borders the crater and looks like the access road to a quarry site. We follow Oktyabr up the slope and as we reach the crest we see why he has led us here. A ridge extends out from the hillock we are standing on and stretches out to form a huge rectangular enclosure. Along the spine of the ridge sits a ruined mudbrick wall and it suddenly apparent that we are very much in one corner of a huge complex that lies below us – a walled and protected city. It is a little bit of a pull focus moment.

We continue to clamber over the citadel and are told of a king’s throne room, a room of victories and a Zoroastrian temple with a cleansing room with adjacent prayer room. It appears that this corner of the complex served as the royal and religious centres of the settlement. Sadly not visible now as they are housed in St Petersburg, but we learn of frescoes that would have once adorned each of the rooms: sun gods, large scary faces, dancers… it is world away from the bleached mudbrick before us.

Lunch is taken in a local restaurant and we are served little pasta ravioli filled with meat or egg. More like mini dumplings we gobble them up to replenish the calories we’ve burnt off during our morning of mudbrick and hilltops. We drop Oktyabr off in a town where he can catch a taxi back to Nukus while we continue onto Khiva. We bid our farewell and in the midst of this we are trying to organise a tip of a certain amount as he has been a wonderful host. Apparently between the front and back row of a small nine-seater minibus there is some misunderstanding and a hug wad of notes is passed to me. One thing to understand about Uzbekistan is that the current black market exchange rate is 7000 Sum to the dollar and the biggest note they have is 5000 sum. Paying for anything is a laborious process of counting out notes – it’s the same as if we only had 50p notes in Britain. Wads of notes have already become a familiar sight and paying for lunch leaves the little case heaving and with money spewing out.

So when I hand him a large wad I presume it has been counted out and that this is the tip we are leaving. Oktyabr gratefully accepts it and pops it in his pocket. We wave goodbye and as he crosses the road to get his taxi someone asks me for the left over money so that it can be returned to our kitty.

I am hit by the sudden realisation that I have handed him goodness knows how much of our money. The rest of the group register what has just happened and we decide that the best thing to do is confess to him our mistake and rectify it. I hop out the van and chase him along the road and I’m followed by one of my fellow travellers. Oktyabr spots me, and comes over. I explain the mix up that has happened in the most apologetic way I can muster and he digs into his pocket and retrieves the wad of notes. The pile suddenly looks enormous and I feel awful for having gotten his hopes up. As my companion distracts him by talking to him about the weather, I count out the right tip and then deliver a distinctly slimmer wad of notes into his hand. It is monstrously awkward but it had to be done as we are on a budget and to judge by the size of the remaining wad I am now in possession of I had probably given him a good few days worth of our budget. Poor man

The landscape we are driving through is not particularly notable but it is quite something to cross the famous Oxus River…

I’m keen to arrive in Khiva in daylight as we are straight off the next morning to Bukhara. We pull into town in the warm evening light and it is perhaps perfect. The wonderfully bulbous mudbrick city walls of Khiva greet us and we get taken to our hotel. Only that it is not the hotel we thought we were staying in. We are without a translator but our driver, Azim, seems utterly convinced that he has brought us to the right place. He enters the hotel and returns with a lady dressed in purple with hair to match. She grins at us and we get a flash of her row of gold teeth. She welcomes us to the hotel but our group is still confused and try phoning the agent to confirm which hotel we are booked into. Usually it wouldn’t matter but in this case a special and more expensive hotel had been chosen for the one night because it was the only one in a traditional building. Meanwhile the purple lady is quite insistent that we enter the hotel and we apologise that although we are sure her hotel is lovely we would like to check there has been no mix up. She retains a fixed grin but is looking a little dismayed and keeps gesturing towards the hotel doors and tries to move us from our perches in the bus but to no avail. Finally it is confirmed that the original hotel cancelled our booking and we are indeed in the purple lady’s hotel. Her face lights up when we all follow her into the hotel and she keeps enthusiastically welcoming us. We are handed keys to our rooms and she offers us tea. I am now very conscious that we are losing precious daylight but she suggests we should take tea so we all sit and wait for the brew to be poured. We pore over our maps and guide books and discuss a few of the sites we want to see in Khiva. The purple lady just sits with us and smiles her gold smile. I am entrusted with map reading and given the task of navigating our group through the old town in the absence of a guide. I stare at the map of little wiggly streets of Khiva and get my bearings while we gulp down our tea. The purple lady continues to smile and in so doing wrinkles up her piercing blue eyes. As we finish our tea the purple lady announces she will show us Khiva…. our group falls silent as the penny drops that she is our guide and not the owner of the hotel as we had all imagined. To say this was an awkward moment is an understatement. Our second for the day. She sees our faces and the penny drops for her too. She bursts out laughing and says she should have probably introduced herself.

We set out on a lovely evening stroll through the town and every building looks magical in the warm glow of the sun. I instantly fall in love with the relatively recent build of the Islam Khodja Minaret (1910). It has a very pleasing dumpy but perfectly rounded shape and it sits looking very much rooted to the ground. The tapering coloured bands of glazed tiles seem to squeeze it upwards and it’s evidently Khiva’s lookout point.

Along the road and past the stalls selling embroidered silk, silk scarves and carved pieces of wood we wend our way towards the mausoleum of Pakhlavan Mahmoud. He is the adopted patron saint of Khiva and rather wonderfully, I discover he was a furrier in his day but also renown for his wrestling talents. Not many patron saints can claim that combination. The mausoleum was set up over his furrier workshop and boasts a gorgeous green dome visible in glimpses from around the city. Though he died in the 13th century, the tomb was only inaugurated in 1810. I’ll admit that a part of me wanted it to be fur-lined but the cooling blue and white tile decoration is lovely.


Our guide, Matsuma herds us along the streets and brings us to a crossroads. Part of the group are distracted by the very distracting enormous shaggy wool and fur hat stalls and the array of strange mannequins with no noses. Our poor guide is keen to continue the tour and eventually gathers us in one spot to adore the second mina of Khiva, the Kalta Minor minaret. It’s a stunted minaret as it is incomplete but was supposed to be the highest one in all Asia until its benefactor was beheaded and its architect fled. So it sits rather heavily at one side of the town but the turquoise tiles are a teaser as to how it may have looked had a head not rolled.


We move on to the Juma Mosque. As we enter in between the huge carved wooden doors we are met with a forest of carved columns. There are 213 columns of which only a handful date to the original 10th century, the rest mainly from the 18th century, but the atmosphere in this building is wonderful. Patches of light seep through the small open courtyards but for the most part the room is dimly lit. We weave in and out amongst the rows of columns and I really do feel a sense of peace in this space.

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Our final stop, just as the sun is getting low in the sky, is the impressive facade of the 19th century Allah Kali Khan Madrassah at the eastern edge of the town. Its bricks are a warm colour in this light and the delicate and sparing use of blue tile decoration is used just to highlight the grand entrance and the arches over the window.



The group by now are weary and the sun has all but set. The lure of a drink before we eat is growing strong and my companions saunter back to the hotel. I lag behind with one other person to catch the last glimmers of light on the city walls but soon dusk settles and the camera is switched off.

Tomorrow we head to Bukhara.


Uzbekistan Odyssey. Day 3: Tashkent to Nukus

We rise early to get to the airport for our internal flight to Nukus, capital of the Republic of Karakalpakstan in the north west of Uzbekistan. The queuing system at the airport for the various security checks seem to work on the basis that you just push and barge to the front as soon as you are bored of standing in line. It works brilliantly as you can imagine. We eventually find ourselves on the airside and discover an Uzbek barista who makes the most wonderful cappucino. Feeling a little more fortified we board our flight. I wish I could regale you with what the landscape looks like between Tashkent and Nukus but I had a centre seat and there was a layer of cloud shutting off any chance of a glimpse of the Kyzylkum Desert.
We meet our new guide on our arrival; a friendly-faced man called Oktyabr (October). His name comes from the period of Soviet rule when the month of October had particular relevance. He is an archaeologist and proudly tells us of his work and publications. We drop our bags off at the hotel and head out to see a cemetery site called Mizdakhan. On the way we hear some of the horrors of the consequences of the Soviet draining of the Aral Sea. Where there once were forests there are now barren scrublands. Where once there was a thriving fishing industry there is now none. It’s a human caused disaster and the effects on these people and the landscape is devastating. There are efforts to replant the trees in Nukus and hope that they will survive.

Mizdakhan cemetery

We reach the cemetery and enter through the gate. The tombs spread like a sea around us and litter the slopes and crest of the hill before us. The adjacent town was founded in the 4th century BC and was inhabited until it was destroyed by Timur (14th century). The cemetery was still considered sacred so burials continued here. The grave markers are a mix of brick enclosures and metal frames that look like bedsteads. In many of the grave plots there is a ladder with seven rungs used to carry the body to the cemetery and then left to assist with the dead’s ascent to the afterlife.

We pick our way between the tombs and climb the hill. At the top there is a particularly impressive brick tomb structure and we pass through its doors and down a staircase. It’s the 12th century tomb ofMazlam Khan Slu. The terracotta brick construction is punctuated in a regimental pattern by inserts of small turqoise blue-glazed tiles with decorative reliefs on them. The colour is cooling as is the temperature as we descend further. At the foot of the stairs a domed room opens up in front of us and is warmly lit from the windows high in the dome.

We return to wending our way between the wire-framed enclosures and pass pathches of earth covered with little piles of brick fragments. The observant spot that most of the piles have 7 fragments and these offerings are left by those that make the pilgrimage to the dead. I am not normally spooked by cemeteries but the skeletal form of the bedstead enclosures, often with images of the interred hanging off the metal frame, leave me unsettled perhaps because they don’t have the permanency of stone grave markers. As we pass along the ridge the view opens up and a second hill comes into view. This hill is also densely dotted with stone and metal graves and above them rise the domes of some larger monuments.

Sprawl of the cemetery

One brick fragment has toppled off

We descend and head to the local town for lunch. The national dish of Uzbekistan is plov and I must admit I had reservations about ordering it after hearing some digestive horror stories from my mother. We are reassured by Oktyabr that the Karakalpakstan version of plov is lighter and less fatty and quite frankly far nicer. Most of the group decide that this is the plov to plump for so we order. It arrives and looks very innocent. A mound of rice cooked through with yellow pepper and a sprinkling of beef on the top. It is indeed very tasty and since this is written in retrospect I can happily report that there were no unpleasant after effects.
We head back to Nukus to the Igor Savitsky Museum which is, as I have read over and over again, ‘home to one of the finest collections of Soviet avant garden art. I don’t want to sound unappreciative but I don’t think I am a big fan of Soviet avant garde art if what I saw are considered the best examples. We amuse ourselves by trying to guess the title of the work by looking at the subject matter and soon realise that it is a case of say what you see – ‘Woman in Red Dress’, ‘Secretary Bird’, and ‘Picking Cabbages’… you get the idea.

Downstairs is an archaeology section but I have truly decided that for me, museum displays are best visited after I’ve seen the site. Looking at an array of stone, metal or ceramic objects from unfamiliar place names does little for me. Once I have seen the site and understood it in its landscape I am then ready to see the objects retrieved from it and importantly, remember them. This is probably a strange confession for an archaeologist. One object I saw in this section of the museum I will never forget though. Sitting in a cabinet with no light was the unmistakable form of a camel at rest; seated with its knees and legs in the awkward arrangement they adopt when you are about clamber onto their backs. This ceramic camel was pleasingly bulbous and its plump body was in fact a large pot, it’s hump would have formed the lid and its head arched backwards to create a handle. Reading the label it is revealed that this vessel is an ossuary. How wonderful. Being a very keen camelophile, the idea of having my bones left to rest in a camel-shaped vessel for eternity makes me smile.

We return to the hotel and I curl up on one of the large wooden sofas that is littered with cushions in the courtyard and catch up on writing the previous day’s blog.

Uzbekistan Odyssey. Day 2: Tashkent

After not enough sleep I wake and join the rest of my similarly jet-lagged group at breakfast in the hotel. We meet our guide in Tashkent, a bright young woman called Olga, who is eager to show us the old part of the city – namely the Hazrat Imam Complex. It’s hard to get ones bearings on the first outing so I simply enjoy seeing Tashkent in daylight. We drive past street after street of smart and sturdy Soviet buildings but the overriding impression of Tashkent is just how leafy green it is. The base of every tree trunk is painted white and as we approach the squares the trees look like an assembled group of school boys with their white socks pulled up. Olga tells us that the planting of trees in each of the city’s public open spaces was a direct response to their Independence a physical resistance against ever using their squares again for military or political parades. What a wonderful gesture and the city looks fabulous as a result.

The Hazrat Imam Complex looms into view and the familiar blue tiled mosque of which we saw so many in Iran stands proud. Although the present mosque was only built in 2007 the origins of some of the structures date to the 16th century. We wander into the main square behind the mosque and find that it is dotted with figures tugging on strings and above us their kites soar against the blue sky. The kites sound like small engines purring away as the wind vibrates against them. Old and young busy themselves with weaving their kites to avoid others and it is mesmerising watching them.

We are guided into the Muyi Mubarak Library, a small domed building in the square, and led to a central display case in which sits what is claimed to be the world’s oldest copy of the Qu’ran, dating to the 7th century. It is huge book about 2m long and the elk skin pages looked waxed. The Kufic script is pleasingly large and the characters dance across the pages. No photography was allowed but later I saw a copy in the History Museum so at least I was able to capture its beauty. The library has other examples of the Qu’ran on display including one ‘optimistically written in Hebrew’ as the guidebook politely described it.

Copy of the Osman Qu’ran

Walking back outside into the harsh light we are greeted by the whirring of kites once again and we head towards the Barak Khan Madrassa which, though heavily restored after the earthquake in 1966, has a beautiful facade.

Inside we find each of the rooms around a central courtyard is now a tourist shop and so we linger over the silk scarves and ceramics. We are all taken by one particular scarf design that includes little white nodules woven into it representing the silk worm cocoon. It seems a fitting reminder of the little creatures that were the catalyst for the incredible network of Silk Roads which weave across Asia and beyond.

Silk scarf with cocoons

We drive back to the hotel to meet a local archaeologist and over our lunch of a mountain of grilled lamb and beef he regales us with stories of excavating in the mountains in the Jizzax region of Uzbekistan. The site sounds wonderful and the hardships of digging in a remote mountainous region soon impress upon us how dedicated the team is. He is a buoyant character and his enthusiasm is infectious. It is also heartwarming to hear how much archaeological work is being done in Uzbekistan. He urges us to visit the State Museum of History of Uzbekistan so we bid our farewells and board the bus.

We are taken to another site on route to the museum and pull up next to what looks like a mudbrick citadel fortified by a high mudbrick wall with bastions called Ming O’rik.
We are proudly told that the construction dates to 2500 years ago. This information is then immediately retracted as the custodian of the site boasts that it earliest phase dates to 2500 BC. Our learned group explores the ruins by way of walkways and and with a lack of any written information panels we try and justify the claims being made. The construction looks like melted ice cream and as we investigate there is nothing that leads us to be convinced of the chronology being suggested

Mud bricks

We are then told the complex includes a Zoroastrian fire temple but evidence of this alludes us although I kind of love what I assume to be the mannequin mock-up of fire related activity

Dodgy mannequins playing with “fire”

Eventually we make our way to the heritage centre next door to ask for a definitive answer and are handed a print out that reveals that the structure is in fact Late Antique. Needless to say we are all quite amused and definitely confused by the date range we have now been offered and we clamber into the bus in the hope that the History Museum may shed some light on this.

Housed in a formidable building, the History Museum is spread out over various floors and we learn that at one time one of those floors was dedicated to the life of Lenin. I am immediately reminded of the Red Castle Museum in Tripoli where one floor was devoted to the rise of Gaddafi and his achievements. It suddenly seems like an age ago that I was in Libya wandering the corridors of photos, gold plates and medals in Gaddafi’s honour and wonder what has become of the display of this slice of history now and whether it too has been irradiated. We plunge into the archaeological section and are all astounded at the complexity and diversity of the rich history of what is now Uzbekistan. One minute we are looking at funerary vessels that remind us of the Villanovan culture of the Iron Age in central Italy and the next we are staring into the carved faces in a relief that could have been plucked from Palmyra. We see Bactrian statuary and in an adjacent cabinet the fragments of a Buddha. It is mind boggling. Somehow in the next 10 days some of this rich story will be better understood as we visit places and I familiarise myself with the chronology but for now I look around in awe.

I am listening to The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan as we travel and he has a knack, which is nothing short of genius, for unpicking this story and fitting it in to the bigger picture. I feel a huge sense of privilege that I have travelled here to see this extraordinary blend of cultures and just hope I can do it justice in these scribblings.

Uzbekistan Odyssey. Day 1: London to Tashkent

The first day of travelling is always fraught with anxiety and the fact that mine started early in the morning heightened the anxiety level. I’m basically rubbish in the morning and so three alarms set on three different devices was all I could do to allay my fear of not waking up at 5am. It worked: phase one of my journey to Uzbekistan started to a shrill cacophony of alarm tones and me jumping out of bed and fumbling around trying to turn them all off.

I threw the guide books that I had been thumbing through the evening before into my bag and headed to the airport only to discover the flight was delayed. First by twenty minutes, then by thirty and then an hour. In my head an hour was the most I could be delayed without a real risk of missing my connecting flight in Istanbul on which I was due to meet my fellow travellers who had flown in from Italy. Fine, I kept telling myself, I’ll be fine. Now, anyone who has followed my travel odysseys in the past will know that I am a fool to think anything will be fine. The list of my trouble-free journeys is rather short but despite that I kept thinking I’ll be fine.

We take off an hour and half later than expected but the pilot assures us we can make up time in the air and all will be fine. And indeed all was fine except that by the time we approach Istanbul the plane makes a gentle curve and we start heading away from our destination. I flick on the world map on my to screen and become fixated with the little animation of the plane and the ‘time to destination’ clock that is ticking away at the top of the screen.

Sure enough our trajectory is not on course for Istanbul and rather than ticking down time, the clock seems to ticking up and the number of minutes begins to rise, not fall. As we head further out to sea I will the plane’s wing to dip down and turn back. My connection time is disappearing and my ‘I’m going to be fine, thoughts turn to ‘right, ok I’ll have to spend the next 24 hours waiting for the next flight on an inadequently padded chair in a waiting room as I don’t possess a visa to leave the airport in Turkey to spend the night in a hotel’. The animated plane is meanwhile still heading out to sea and the clock is still ticking upwards. I now have 25 mins before the gate closes. The clock says 17 mins until landing. I make a quick calculation that there is no way I can make it from row 24 to the front of the plane, into the airport, and to the next gate in the remaining 8 minutes. At that moment the wing dips and the plane icon on the screen makes an agonisingly slow turn on the map and we are once again heading towards Istanbul.

The clock starts ticking down at last but I am now factoring in the runway taxi time too and there is simply no way to make the flight. I feel a pang of nerves and my muscles tighten. The moment we land I send a text message to my group asking for the departure gate number and thankfully a response comes straight away with the news that the flight to Uzbekistan is delayed by an hour and a half. My entire body relaxes and delightedly I banish the thought of an overnight stay in Ataturk Airport. It soon becomes apparent that the connecting flight delay was instigated by the delay to my original flight. When I board the connecting flight I am greeted by the smiley faces of my friends and I, relieved, apologise for having kept them waiting. I find my seat, slump into it and happily remind myself that I am now bound for Tashkent.

We meet our driver outside Tashkent airport after having passed through customs and checks without a problem. The streets of the city are deserted at 3am and we hurtle along wide tree-lined boulevards with Soviet-style architecture on either side. As a former Soviet republic, it is not hard to see how Uzbekistan’s recent past has stamped an indelible mark on its urban fabric. I am hooked already.