Originally caravanserais on the Golden Trade route across Central Asia, these fabled cities developed into thriving centres of commerce and culture. Under the ferocious medieval warriors Genghis Khan and then Tamerlane and their descendants they assumed inimitable power and splendour. These great cities were once so remote behind barriers of deserts and mountains that until the demise of the Soviet Union, it was almost impossible to visit them.
The journey begins in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan and continues onto Samarkand. The city was chosen by Tamerlane as the capital of his great empire and he transformed it into the most beautiful city in Central Asia. New buildings rose out of the desert, built of mud brick and faced with ceramic tiles in every imaginable shade of blue. Explore this remarkable city of soaring minarets and domes of glistening turquoise and cobalt blue. In the 14th century Samarkand’s observatory and mosques became intellectual gathering places for astronomers, poets, theologians and architects. The city contains some of the finest examples of Islamic art and many of its architectural styles became models for the rest of the Islamic world. Continue onto Bukhara which was an important staging post on the network of caravan trails which criss-crossed Central Asia. Although famous for its rugs, it was as ‘Divine Bukhara’ with its hundreds of mosques, madrasas and minarets that the British diplomat-poet, James Elroy Flecker and the Muslim world remembers it. Crooked alleys wind irregularly between the walls of clay-built houses and the men still wear colourful striped coats, knee high leather boots and patterned turbans.
From Bukhara, the party will cross the great Karakum desert of Turkmenistan and travel to Merv. Explore the ruins of this city which until the Mongols devastated this great Islamic capital in the 13th century, was the second most important city in Islam after Baghdad. From here take a short flight to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. Once a sleepy unremarkable provincial Soviet city, today Ashgabat is being transformed into a fantasy of white marble palaces, futuristic buildings, soaring apartment blocks and large fountain complexes. It is like no other city in Central Asia. Nearby is the ancient city of Nisa, seat of the Parthian Kings a their height in the 3rd century and now a UNESCO listed site. From Ashgabat fly north to Kunya Urgench which at times between the 11th and 14th centuries was the most important city in the Islamic world and is the most important archaeological site in Turkmenistan along with Merv.
The journey finishes amidst the marvellous city of Khiva, an ancient walled city. This is an open-air museum, more intact than either Samarkand or Bukhara. It is a maze of mosques, palaces, religious schools and homes, most of them enclosed within an area less than one mile square. Return to Tashkent for the direct flight back to London.
The journey is open to members of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Association (FCOA) and Alumni of Oxford and Cambridge Universities and their friends and family . Please note that Distant Horizons has sole responsibility for the operation of this tour. The FCOA and Oxford and Cambridge Universities have no direct control over the operation of any tours.
Dr Shearer has lectured and researched extensively on development and conflict archaeology and has conducted on site research at the Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan, excavated at the city of Nishapur in Iran (near Mashhad) and in the Ferghana Valley of Uzbekistan. He is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and has worked with the London Metropolitan Police, Arts & Antiques Unit as their in-house expert on stolen cultural artefacts from Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran. He has also held positions at the Centre for Applied Archaeology at University College, London and was the Sackler Scholar at the British Museum. In addition to his scholastic experience and knowledge, Dr Shearer has travelled extensively in the region and has accompanied five very successful journeys to Central Asia for Distant Horizons.