A thousand years ago, Bukhārā-ye Sharīf – Noble Bukhara – was one of the great intellectual and religious centres of the Islamic world, rivalling Baghdad and Cairo. Scholars and students came to Bukharara’s madrassas from along the Silk Road and beyond, and amongst them are some of the most important names of the Islamic Golden Age: Imam Al-Bukhari, Abu Ali ibn Sina (Avienna) and his teacher al-Qumri, Sadiduddin Muhammad Aufi, Bahauddin Naqshband, and Amir Kulal (Shams ud-Din). They were drawn here by the generous patronage of successive rulers, vast libraries of priceless manuscripts, and, no doubt also by the concentration of shrines and other sacred sites in the region we now know as Uzbekistan.
This wealth of Islamic heritage continues to draw visitors to Uzbekistan today. Many Muslim visitors are surprised to discover, however, just how many of the figures who shaped the development of their faith lived and worked here, and how remarkably well preserved the sites associated with them are. BBC News once called Uzbekistan the “Land of a thousand shrines” but if you don’t have half a lifetime spare to visit them all, these are five of the most sacred places to include in your pilgrimage itinerary.
Imam Bukhari Memorial Complex, Samarkand
Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari, as his name suggests, was born in Bukhara in 810. He began studying hadith as a child, and after going on Hajj at the age of 16, he continued to travel widely, visiting not only Mecca and Medina, but also Baghdad and Damascus, Basra, Kufa, and Jerusalem. It is said that he met more than 1,000 learned men on his journeys, hearing from them at least half a million traditions. When al-Bukhari finally returned home to Bukhara in his thirties, he compiled 7,272 of the most credible traditions into his al-Jami' al-Sahih (also known as the Sahih al-Bukhari), which is still regarded by Sunnis as the most authentic collection of hadith.
Al-Bukhari died in 870 at the age of 60. There is a modern memorial to him in Bukhara, but his tomb is in the village of Hartang, 25 km outside of Samarkand, as this is where he died. The burial crypt is beneath a modern structure decorated with majolica tiles, and the surrounding complex, which includes a mosque, madrassa, and library is currently being expanded to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims who come here to pay their respects.
Mausoleum of Bahauddin Naqshband, Bukhara
Bahauddin Naqshband (1318–1389), founder of the Naqshbandi order of Sufism, was born and died in a small village on the outskirts of Bukhara. Naqshband was a Sayyid, claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and he was adopted by the Khwajagan Mohammad Baba as-Samasi (who was also from Bukhara) whilst still a child. He also counted the famous Sufi scholar Amir Kulal amongst his teachers.
Naqshband is buried in his birthplace, Qasr-i Arifan, beneath a marble dahma (grave stone). The complex you see today dates from the mid 16th century: the main courtyard is surrounded by iwan (verandas) with gracefully carved wooden pillars and painted ceiling panels, and there’s a substantial mosque with a baked brick minaret. The shrine is on UNESCO’s Tentative List for World Heritage Site status. Unlike many of Uzbekistan’s monuments, this site is still a place of active worship, and it is common to hear recitations and prayers in the courtyard. Central Asia’s Muslims come here in large numbers, and so do Naqshbandis from South Asia and the UK.
Shah-i Zinda, Samarkand
Samarkand is the jewel of the Silk Road. Though the city has some 2,750 years of history, it was under the patronage of the Timurids, and in particular Amir Timur (1336-1405), that it flourished as one of the great cities of the mediaeval world. The Shah-i Zinda is generally referred to as the royal necropolis of the Timurids, but in fact it is much more – and much older – than that.
Shah-i Zinda can be translated as “The Living King”. The name refers to the legend of Kusam ibn Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, who preached Islam in this region in the 7th century. It is said that when he was beheaded, he did not die but continued to live beneath the city, protecting it from harm. The Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta visited his tomb in the 1330s, by which time it was already well-established as a place of pilgrimage.
The Shah-i Zinda complex has grown immensely since the time of Ibn Battuta. There are now dozens of tombs here, many of which date from the 15th century and house female members of the Timurid dynasty. What unites them is the spectacular tilework, mostly in turquoise and a dark lapis lazuli blue. They are part of Samarkand’s UNESCO World Heritage Site and without doubt one of the most impressive sights in Uzbekistan.
Sultan Saodat Complex, Termez
It is rare that foreign tourists or pilgrims venture south to Termez, an ancient city on the Amu Darya, the river which today is the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Those who do, however, discover some remarkable archaeological sites, including the lost city of Alexandria on the Oxus (also known as Kampir Tepe) and the Buddhist monasteries of Fayaz Tepe and Kara Tepe, and a significant collection of well-preserved mediaeval monuments.
For visitors interested in Uzbekistan’s Islamic heritage, perhaps the most significant of Termez’s historic sites is Sultan Saodat. This complex of religious structures – mostly mausoleums but also a mosque and a khanqah (a hostel and meeting place for itinerant Sufis) – dates from the 10th to 17th centuries and grew up around the graves of the Termez Sayyids. These holymen claimed direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and they were politically and spiritually influential. When they were built, these mausoleums would have been richly tiled like those at the Shah-i Zinda, but even in their unadorned state, the mudbrick architecture makes an impact.
Mizdarkhan Necropolis, Nukus
In the deserts of Karakalpakstan, in the remote northwest of Uzbekistan, you will find Mizdarkhan. Founded by fire worshippers in the 4th century BC and later occupied by Zoroastrians, Mizdarkhan was once one of the largest cities in the region. After it was attacked by Amir Timur and reduced to rubble, however, it became a burial site.
Mizdarkhan has always been considered a holy place. At some point in its history, a local legend developed that this is the burial place of Adam. There is a simple structure over his supposed grave, and it is said that when the last brick falls from it, the world will finally end. Wary pilgrims therefore replace fallen bricks on the mausoleum when they visit, helpfully protecting the future of mankind.
After decades of Communism and the restrictions on religion which came with it, Uzbekistan is now rediscovering and celebrating its Islamic heritage. Pilgrimage tourism is growing fast amongst Central Asian Muslims, and an increasing number of international tour operators such as UK-based Halal Travel Guide are helping their guests to discover fascinating places which resonate with their faith and cultural identity.
For more information follow Sophie Ibbotson on Twitter https://twitter.com/UZAmbassador
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