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Unexplored Uzbekistan, Sophie Ibbotson

Uzbekistan is surely an intriguing place to visit, famous for its Silk Route cities of Bukhara, Khiva, and Samarkand. It is double the size of the United Kingdom, and boasts of ancient history and rich cultural heritage.

As Central Asia’s cradle of culture for more than two millennia, it holds a majestic collection of architecture and ancient cities, all deeply infused with the history of the Silk Road. In terms of sights alone, Uzbekistan is arguably the region’s biggest showstopper. The mausoleums of Samarkand, mosques of Bukhara, renowned Savitsky Museum in Nukus housing the greatest art collection in Central Asia, and booming capital Tashkent are just some of the many amazing wonders to discover.

Appointing tourism ambassadors is one of the new approaches Uzbekistan has recently taken to promote the tourism potential of the republic. We asked Uzbekistan’s Tourism Ambassador Sophie Ibbotson to share her insights on Uzbekistan’s rich cultural heritage, it’s Islamic history, and contemporary art and culture.

How did you develop a connection to Uzbekistan and embark on the role of Uzbekistan Tourism Ambassador to the UK?

I have been working in Central Asia since 2008. I’m fascinated by the history and culture, the landscapes, and the people, and have been fortunate enough to work in a variety of roles, including as a consultant to the World Bank and to different governments in the region. Most of what I do involves economic development, and in Uzbekistan tourism is a priority sector. I also wrote Bradt Travel Guides’ guidebook to Uzbekistan. In 2019, I was asked by Uzbektourism (now the Ministry of Tourism and Sports) to become Uzbekistan’s brand ambassador for tourism, representing the country in an official capacity. It was a dream opportunity.

It is said a visit to Uzbekistan is like leafing through the charred chapters of the Silk Road. What are your thoughts on this?

Uzbekistan is the heart of the Silk Road. That’s the first thing tell that to people who are unfamiliar with the country but curious and want a flavour of what it can offer. I’d challenge the idea that those chapters are “charred”, however, because the legacy of the Silk Road is very much alive. Nearly everything about modern Uzbekistan, from the ethnic and cultural makeup of the population to the styles of architecture and food, the languages which are spoken and the trading partnerships which thrive, is the result of the web of economic and cultural ties forged by what we call the Silk Road.

The Islamic architecture adorning the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent are world famous and admired by Muslims and non-Muslims. Can you tell us any interesting information about the architects who constructed and designed these magnificent buildings?

We rarely know the names of the architects who produced Uzbekistan’s monuments; it’s the patrons - the men who paid for the buildings - whose names are usually preserved. There are exceptions, however, such as the 12th century Kalyan Minaret in Bukhara, which was the work of a master architect called Bako. He was an engineer as well as an architect, and went to great lengths to ensure that his minaret survived: he dug foundations 10m deep, and allowed the mortar at the base to settle and dry for two years before he started to build the superstructure. It wasn’t enough for Bako, though. Before he died, he lamented, “The flight of my fancy was greater than the minaret I built.” I’d disagree: 900 years later, the Kalyan Minaret is still standing and it never fails to impress all those who see it.

Although Uzbekistan is most known for its magnificent architecture, what lesser-known aspects of the culture are particularly intriguing?

Uzbekistan’s intangible cultural heritage is wonderful, and the greatest thing about it is that not only are the traditions rooted in thousands of years of history, they are still evolving today. You see this in music and dance, storytelling and food, and also in handicrafts. I love sitting in a workshop and watching artisans weaving, carving, and painting, or listening as the sounds of a doira (drum), rubab (long-necked stringed instrument) or nay (flute) float across the rooftops in an evening.

The country has a rich cultural heritage and history, can you tell us a little about the archaeology of Uzbekistan?

Uzbekistan is a paradise for archeology lovers, especially those with an interest in pre-Islamic history. There are numerous sites dating from the time of Alexander the Great, including his fortress and koriz (subterranean water channels) in Navoi Region, and the city of Alexandria on the Oxus (also known as Kampir Tepe) near Termez. Karakalpakstan alone has more than 50 desert fortresses, many of which have never been excavated, plus the Mizdarkhan necropolis, which I hope will soon be designated as an Archeological Park. There are Buddhist stupas and Zoroastrian towers of silence, petroglyphs of wild animals and hunters, and sites such as Afrosiab (ancient Samarkand) where the most remarkable Sogdian frescoes have been found. As recently as 2019, archeologists surveying the Fergana found evidence of a previously unknown megalithic civi