Day 1: Tehran
You land in Tehran, Iran’s capital. With a population of about 12 million, it is one of the largest cities in Western Asia and Iran’s primate city - that is, much larger than any other city in the country.
Day 2: Tehran - Shiraz
Tehran has a number of interesting historic and modern sites, even graffiti ones. However, your time in the city is limited, so visiting its most impressive museums - Saadabad Palace Complex (also spelled Sa’dabad), The Carpet Museum of Iran, or The Treasury of National Jewels (aka Jewelry Museum) - is probably the best choice.
Saadabad Palace Complex, built and used by Iranian monarchs (in the 19th century, in the 1920s and 1970s), was partly converted into a museum complex after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Over 110 hectares in area, the complex consists of 18 palaces (also called castles or houses). Many of them are museums - of fine arts, historical plates, Persian miniature and arts and crafts, calligraphy, anthropology, military, etc. - while the rest house various cultural organizations. Adjacent to the complex is the current presidential palace.
You may opt for visiting the carpet museum boasting a rich collection of world-famous Persian carpets dating from the 18th century to the present, or the jewelry museum with its stunning Imperial Crown Jewels of Iran (aka Imperial Crown Jewels of Persia) containing bejeweled crowns, thrones, tiaras, aigrettes, swords and shields, separate precious gems, tableware and some unusual precious items.
They say Tehran museums are the best tourist attraction in the city - at least in terms of cultural enlightenment.
You fly to Shiraz in the afternoon.
Day 3: Shiraz
Dating from 2000 BCE, Shiraz is one of the oldest Persian cities. It was a leading cultural center of Persia in the middle ages. Many renowned scholars and artists, including the famous Iranian poets Havez and Saadi, came from Shiraz. Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Shiraz was designated the capital of Persian Art, Culture and Literature. The city is also known for its most beautiful gardens.
After breakfast you go on a guided tour around the city. You first visit the citadel called Ark of Karim Khan (also Arq of Karim Khan, Arg-i Karimi, Arg-e-Karimi, Arg-e Karimi, Arg of Shiraz, Citadel of Shiraz, or Citadel of Karim Khan). It was built in the 1760s for Karim Khan, the founder of Zand dynasty, to be his stronghold and living quarters, and it served as a governor’s seat and even a prison under the following dynasties. Today the citadel is a museum run by Iran’s Cultural Heritage Organization.
Next, you go to enjoy Eram Garden (Persian: Bagh-e Eram), one of the most beautiful Persian historic gardens, and, set in it, the traditional Persian upper-class villa Qavam House (also called Narenjestan e Ghavam), a museum now. Today they are part of Shiraz Botanical Garden under Shiraz University and are a World Heritage Site.
Then you visit Vakil Bazaar (Persian: Bazar-e Vakil), which is considered to be Iran’s best. It features a series of impressive vaulted arcades (built in the 18th century) with courtyards, caravanserais, bath houses, and, of course, shops - in two rows. The bazaar is a most enjoyable shopping place in terms of exoticism, atmosphere and prices. Its astonishing range of merchandise boasts an enormous number of local souvenirs and handicrafts, including famous Persian rugs and carpets.
Among several mosques and shrines adjacent to the bazaar stands out Vakil Mosque (Persian: Masjed-e Vakil) built in the mid-18th century by order of Karim Khan. This grand structure featuring exuberant decorative tiles is quite worth visiting as well.
Dating from the 18th century, too, Nasir al-Mulk Mosque (Persian: Masjed-e Naseer ol Molk) or Pink Mosque you see next is notable for its unique pink tiling in the interior decoration, a lot of beautiful stained glass in the façade and striking examples of traditional decorative elements, such as honeycomb vaults and intricate geometric designs.
Among the important Shiraz pilgrimage centers stands out the mosque Shah Cheragh (Persian Shah e-Cheragh translates as “King of Light”). It contains the tomb of Ahmad and Muhammad, sons of the seventh Shia Imam Musa al-Kadhim, and boasts very impressive decoration as well.
You also visit the tombs of the famous Persian poets Hafez (1315 - 1390) and Saadi Shirazi (1210 - 1291 or 1292). Translated into many languages, their works are still very popular in Iran and are often used as quotation sources in the country and elsewhere, including the West. Set in beautiful gardens, these sites are Shiraz major tourist attractions.
Day 4: Shiraz (environs)
After breakfast you ride to Persepolis (“Persian city’; Old Persian: Parsa), one of Iran’s most interesting locations 70 km northeast of Shiraz. The ceremonial capital of Achaemenid Empire or First Persian Empire (550 - 330 BCE), it was excavated in the 1930s and currently boasts the remarkable ruins of Great Stairway, Gate of All Nations (built by order of Xerxes the Great), Apadana Palace of Darius, Hall of a Hundred Columns, Tripylon Hall and Tachara Palace of Darius, Hadish Palace of Xerxes, the palace of Artaxerxes III, Imperial Treasury, Royal Stables, Chariot House and a number of other ancient structures. The citadel of Persepolis has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.
At a distance of 12 km from Persepolis lies the necropolis Naqsh-e Rustam (also Naqsh-e Rostam; “Picture of Rostam”) you head for next. It dates from c. 1000 BCE and features very impressive tombs of Achaemenid kings (Darius I the Great, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I, Darius II, and Artaxerxes III or Darius III). Carved in a rock face quite high above the ground, these huge tombs are called Persian Crosses for their cross-shaped facades. The site also features notable reliefs of Sassanid kings of the Neo-Persian Empire (224 - 651 CE), depicting scenes of their victorious battles and day-to-day royal life.
The site Naqsh-e Rajab you see next is located at a distance of a few hundred meters from Naqsh-e Rustam. It features rock-face inscriptions and reliefs dating from the early Neo-Persian Empire, including Shapur's Parade celebrating the victory over the Romans in 244.
Day 5: Shiraz - Yazd
After breakfast you set out for Yazd, located at a distance of 440 km from Shiraz, stopping en route in Pasargadae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An archeological site today, Pasargadae was the capital of the famous Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, and it is where Cyrus the Great is buried. You see his limestone tomb (dating from c. 540-530 BCE) and learn why it is also called Tomb of Solomon’s Mother. You also see most impressive Pasargadae ruins: the audience hall, the citadel, etc.
You arrive in Yazd in the evening and check in at your hotel.
Day 6: Yazd - Isfahan
Yazd is an ancient city of over 5,000 years of age! And it is probably the most enchanting destination in Iran if perceived as a live historic city as a whole. Thanks to its remoteness from capitals and desert location, it was immune to many major wars during its history. Besides, Yazd has recently resisted modern urbanization and maintained its ancestral construction technologies. Hence it has kept a lot of its traditional desert structures and their charm, with their domed roofs, badgir windcatchers, qanat wells, yakchal “ice pits”, etc. According to UNESCO, Yazd is one of the few cities boasting the world’s oldest architecture, and the world’s largest adobe city.
Yazd is also a traditional center of Zoroastrianism, which the Persians had practiced for centuries before Islam was brought to the region. There are from 5% to 10% of Zoroastrians in the city even today. Yazd has a dakhma tower of silence and a fire temple with a fire that has been kept burning in it for centuries!
After breakfast you set out on a guided sightseeing tour of the city. First you see the Friday-prayer mosque Jameh Mosque of Yazd (Persian: Masjid-e-Jameh Yazd) dating from the 12th century (largely rebuilt in the 14th century). It features two minarets, Iran’s highest, and is rich in exquisite faience mosaics. Its tall mihrab (a Mecca direction niche to face while praying) is one of the world’s finest.
Next comes the fire temple Yazd Atash Behram. (Atash Behram “fire of victory” is the highest grade of fire a Zoroastrian temple is built to house. Fire temples are named after the grades of fire they maintain.) Today there are only 9 surviving Atash Behrams: the one you see in Yazd and 8 in India. Yazd Atash Behram was set up in 1932; the previous one was converted into a mosque when Arabs invaded the area. A plaque on the temple says the sacred flame in it, brought there from another shrine, has been burning since about 470 CE.
Then you go to see the local “tower of silence”, a dakhma (also spelled dokhma, dakhmeh). By tradition, Zoroastrians used to put the bodies of their dead on top of dakhma towers to be cleaned up by scavengers, then put the bones into ossuaries and stacked them near or inside these towers. Since the 1970s such use of dakhmas has been illegal in Iran, which forced the local orthodox Zoroastrians to adopt new burial methods.
The next site you visit is the beautiful Amir Chakhmaq Complex (also spelled Chakmaq, Chakhmagh, Chakmak), consisting of a mosque, a caravanserai, a tekyeh (a place where Shia Muslims gather to mourn the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali), a bathhouse, a well, and a confectionary. The complex, Iran’s largest structure, is renowned for its grand façade featuring three stories of symmetrical ached alcoves.
In the afternoon you leave for Isfahan. As you arrive in the city and checked in at your hotel, you go on a tour of impressive Siose Bridge or Siosepol (meaning “the Bridge of 33 Arches”; also called the Allah-Verdi Khan Bridge) and Khaju Bridge (Persian: Pol-e Khaju) - striking examples of Safavid bridge architecture (dating from the 17th century). Siose Bridge is 295 meters long and almost 14 meters wide. Khaju Bridge has 23 arches and is 105 meters long and 14 meters wide. Functioning as a bridge and a dam, it also serves as a building and a place for public gatherings. Khaju Bridge was recognized as one the world's great "multifunctional" bridges in 2008.
Day 7: Isfahan
With a population of almost 2 million, Isfahan is the third most populous city in Iran, after Tehran and Mashhad. It flourished particularly in the 16th century under the Safavid dynasty when it was Persian capital. Today’s Isfahan boasts fine examples of Islamic architecture, including historic bridges over the Zayandeh River (also spelled Zayandeh-Rood, Zayanderood, Zayande River). There is also a Zoroastrian fire temple and a number of churches (Armenian).
Your guided tour of Isfahan begins with Chehel Sotoun (also spelled Chihil Sutun or Chehel Sotoon), a palace in a park, with a large pool before it, built by Shah Abbas II in 1647 for entertainment and reception purposes. The name Chehel Sotoun translates as “Forty Columns”, for the 20 elegant wooden columns of the palace and their reflected in the fountain before them make 40. The palace features amazing frescoes depicting humans - contrary to Islamic design rules. They are real historical figures acting in scenes, such as the shah’s receptions, and imaginary ones painted to show the great values of love and life.
The next site is Naqsh-e Jahan Square (also known as Imam Square; formerly known as Shah Square; Persian: Maidan-e Naqsh-e Jahan; built in 1598 - 1629), a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. It is the world’s second largest square; it is 508 meters long and 160 meters wide. Naqsh-e Jahan Square is printed on Iranian 20,000-Rial banknote.
The square boasts most impressive historic buildings dating from the Safavid times (1501 - 1736): Shah Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace, and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. Keisaria Gate on the northern side of the square opens into Isfahan Grand Bazaar.
The grand Shah Mosque (called Imam Mosque after the 1979 revolution) on the south side of the square dates from 1629. It is a striking example of Persian Islamic architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It boasts rich interior decoration, gorgeous multicolored mosaics, calligraphic inscriptions, and iwan entrance vaulted ceiling muqarnas (also mocarabe, honeycomb work, or stalactite work, taking the form of small pointed niches stacked in stairs-like tiers.)
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque on the eastern side of the square (also spelled Lutfullah, Lutfollah, Lutfallah, Lotf Allah), another masterpiece of Safavid architecture, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, too. Dating from 1618, it is the earliest structure in the square. In contrast to Shah Mosque, which was intended for the public, Sheikh Lotfolla Mosque was built for the shah, his harem and the court. That is why it is smaller and of a different design (no minarets, secret entrance, etc.). And that is why it is even more impressive that Shah Mosque in terms of decoration. Open to the public now, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque reveals dazzlingly beautiful ornament made exclusively for the shah and his ladies.
Ali Qapu Palace, standing across from Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, is sometimes called the first Iranian “skyscraper”. Built in the 17th century, it is 48 meters in height and has 6 stories. It was originally built as a portal - Ali Qapu translates as “Exalted Porte” (chosen to rival “Sublime Porte” of the Ottomans) - to Isfahan royal quarter. The shahs used the palace for administrative, reception and residential purposes, as well as for entertainment. The palace features fine stucco ornaments and very charming frescoes.
When you are done with Naqsh-e Jahan Square, your last site is the grand Jameh Mosque of Isfahan (Friday communal prayer mosque), also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mosque is one of Iran’s oldest, dating from the 11th century. However, it has been reconstructed and renovated many times, so it presents - uniquely - various Persian architectural styles. It is especially notable for its stucco mihrab, muqarnas, and glazed tile work.
Day 8: Isfahan - Kashan - Tehran
After breakfast you travel back to Tehran, stopping in Kashan (also spelled Kachan) en route. Kashan, a city with a population of almost 350,000, dates from the Elamite period (2,700 BCE - 539 BCE) and has a number of very interesting tourist attractions.
First, you see Fin Garden in Kashan (Persian: Bagh-e Fin). Dating from the end of 16th century, it is the oldest traditional Persian garden in Iran. It features, besides many cypress trees and other plants, a large number of naturally fed pools and fountains, as well as historic bath structures. The garden is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Next, you go to Kashan’s suburb to see the archeological site Tepe Sialk. (A tepe or tappeh translates as “a hill” or “a mound”.) It is ruins of ancient settlements dating from the 6rd millennium BCE. It boasts the world’s oldest ziggurat. (Ziggurats are large structures built in ancient Mesopotamia and western Iranian plateau, having the form of a terraced step pyramid.)
Then comes Agha Bozorg Mosque, another fine example of Islamic architecture dating from the 18th century, and Boroujerdi House - a historic Persian home built in the 19th century for a wealthy merchant’s bride. It took 18 years and dozens of workers, architects and artists to build it. It features all the classic features of traditional Persian residential architecture and is a museum now.
Day 9: Tehran - Tashkent
After breakfast you fly to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Present-day Tashkent is in all respects a regional hub; it is the fourth largest CIS city with a population of around 3 million. Tashkent grew to its present size mainly during the Soviet times, especially after the destructive earthquake of 1966. Today it has all the features of a modern metropolis, with a lot of Central Asian-style newly-built structures and Soviet-era buildings.
After you have relaxed and freshened up after your flight, you set out on a guided sightseeing tour of the city. First you go to Tashkent’s Old City to see Khazrati Imam Architectural Complex (also Hast Imam), consisting of Barak-Khan Madrasah (also spelled Baraq Khan), Tilla Sheikh Mosque (also spelled Tillya Sheikh), Muyi Muborak Madrasah, Kaffal Shashi Mausoleum (also spelled Kaffal Ash-Shashi, Qaffal Ash-Shashi), Namazgoh Mosque and the new Khazrati Imam Mosque. The complex is the top Tashkent historic site and Islamic center. Thoroughly restored in 2007, the edifices of the complex, with the earliest of them dating back to the 16th century, show their original splendor now. The new mosque featuring traditional Islamic architectural elements adds to the grandeur of the site.
Next, you visit the old Islamic college Kukeldash Madrasah (16th c.) and the large traditional Central Asian bazaar Chorsu near it. After lunch you see the modern part of the city, including the Independence Square and the Istiklol Square, and visit Museum of Applied Arts boasting an abundance of fascinating exhibits.
Day 10: Tashkent - Samarkand
After breakfast you ride to Samarkand (also spelled Samarqand), once the capital of Persian province of Sogdiana (or Sogdia, Suguda, Sogdiane, Sogd, Sugd) and, later, the capital of Tamerlane’s Empire. Samarkand is probably the best-known Uzbekistan’s historic city. Over 2,750 years of age, it boasts very impressive architectural monuments and has a rich history.
First, you see Gur-e Amir Mausoleum, the sepulcher of Tamerlane (Timur) and the Timurid dynasty (1404; also spelled Gur Emir). It contains the graves of Tamerlane, his two sons, two grandsons, and his spiritual mentor. Gur-e Amir (“tomb of the king”) is the precursor of the famous Humayun's Tomb in Delhi and Taj Mahal in Agra, which were built by Tamerlane’s descendants, the ruling Mughal dynasty of North India.
During Ulugbek’s reign a solid block of dark green jade was placed over Tamerlane’s grave. Legend has it that there was a warning against opening the grave, saying “Anyone who breaks my peace in this life or the next will be subjected to suffering and die.” However, Soviet archeologists did so on June 19, 1941 - and a few days later Nazi Germany attacked the USSR… Tamerlane’s remains were reburied in November 1942, at the beginning of the Battle of Stalingrad.
Next, you go to nearby Rukhabad Mausoleum (“abode of spirit”; also spelled Ruhabad, Ruhobod, Ruhabod, Rukhobod, Rukhabod). This small mausoleum dating from the 14th century is said to contain seven hairs of Muhammad the Prophet.
You also see the Registan Square and the three grand madrasahs (Islamic colleges) on its sides. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is certainly one of the world’s most impressive historic squares. The madrasahs date from different times. Ulugbek Madrasah (also spelled Ulugh Beg, Ulughbeg, Ulugh-Beg), the earliest of them, was built in 1417 - 1420 by order of Ulugbek, Tamerlane’s grandson. Two centuries later Sher-Dor Madrasah (“Possessing Lions”; also spelled Sher Dor, Sherdor, Shir Dor, Shirdor) and Tilla-Qori Madrasah (“Gilded”; also spelled Tilla-Kori, Tillya-Kori, Tilya-Kori, Tilla-Kori) were erected by order of Samarkand governor. Each of the madrasahs features unique decoration: fascinating tile mosaics, delicate stone carvings, splendid gilt ceilings, etc.
After lunch you go see the ruins of Samarkand ancient settlement site Afrosiab (also spelled Afrasiab). It was founded in the 7th century BCE and existed until the 13th century CE. It is the site where archeologists excavated remains of various adobe structures and unique frescoes giving us some idea of the culture of ancient Sogdiana and its center Samarkand known as Maracanda (or Marakanda, Maraqanda) then.
Next, you visit the Friday communal prayer mosque Bibi-Khanym (“senior princess” or “senior wife”; also spelled Bibi-Khanom, Bibi-Khanum; Uzbek: Bibi-Xonim masjidi). Built in 1404, it is one of the largest historic mosques in the Islamic world. According to Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo, a Spanish ambassador to Samarkand in Tamerlane’s times, the mosque was built by order of Tamerlane in honor of his senior wife’s mother by 200 best architects and 500 workers brought from all the corners of his empire.
Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis (12th c. - 15th c.; also spelled Shah-i-Zinde, Shakh-i Zinda, Shahi-Zinda, Shohizinda, Shah-i Zindeh, Shah Zindeh, Shah-i Zindah) you see next is a complex of more than 20 mausoleums with 44 tombstones; most of them are of Tamerlan’s relatives, as well as military and clergy aristocracy. The main of them is the mausoleum of Kusam ibn Abbas (or Qutham ibn Abbas, Qusam ibn Abbas), the cousin of Muhammad the Prophet. According to a legend, Kusam ibn Abbas came to Samarkand with Arab conquerors to preach Islam and was beheaded for faith in the city. However, he took his head and went down to a deep well where he remains alive. (Shah-i-Zinda means “living king”.)
You also see the surviving part of Ulugbek Observatory (15th c.). It still has a section of the mural sextant, once the world’s largest, which Ulugbek, Tamerlane’s grandson, used to compile his world-famous star catalogue, the best between Ptolemy’s and Brahe’s. Ulugbek’s discoveries greatly advanced knowledge in the field of astronomy and mathematics in the Middle Ages.
Day 11: Samarkand - Bukhara
After breakfast at the hotel you will start towards Bukhara. Bukhara (in Sogdian βuxārak means ‘a lucky place’; also spelled Bukhoro, Buxoro, Buchara, Bokhara, Buhara) is one of the world’s oldest cities. It is over 2,500 years old, and seems to be emanating the breath of history. In the old times Bukhara was part of Sogd. The toponym ‘Buxara’ was mentioned for the first time on the earliest copper coins of Bukhara with Sogdian inscriptions (4th-5th centuries).
The city was a large political and religious center in the Middle Ages; it is one of the seven holy cities of Islam. Bukhara boasts a large number of oldmosques of different architectural styles, as well as a lot of madrasahs, minarets and mausoleums. The historic center of Bukhara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After you have checked in at your hotel, you still have some leisure time to spend before your overnight rest. We recommend that you stroll about the surroundings, feeling the charm of the city in the evening, and visit souvenir shops. In Bukhara you can perceive the Orient in full. At every step you will encounter a trader offering fine craftwork: astrakhan hats, masterly embroidered suzani, national shirts, skullcaps, knives and artfully decorated jewelry. This urge for trading seems to be inherited from the ancestors who used to travel in caravans along the trails of the Great Silk Road.
On arrival to Bukhara you will make a ride outside the city (it’s just a 15-20 minutes ride from Bukhara), where you will see the countryside residence of Bukhara emirs called Sitorai Mokhi-Khosa Palace (‘Star-like and Moon-like Palace’, 19th c.). The palace features a mixture of western and eastern architectural styles. In comparison with the rest of Bukhara, the climate in the palace is different: it is never hot there even on the hottest days.
Also let’s take a look at the complex of Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari, which is sometimes treated as the Central Asian Mecca. Baha-ud-Din Naqshband was a mentor of Tamerlane and a powerful Sufi, who became the founder of the Sufi Order called Naqshbandia, which soon became one of the most famous orders. The complex includes many different buildings: mosques, a minaret, a mausoleum, and a khanaqah.
Tea ceremony is widespread all over Uzbekistan. Uzbek people drink tea whenever an opportunity presents itself: for breakfast, lunch and dinner, at work, at home or while being a guest in somebody’s house. The favorite tea of any Uzbek person is green tea - kok-chai. No party, no celebration or meeting of friends can go without it. Tea is served inpiala (a drinking bowl) together with fruits and oriental sweets: parvarda (uzbek caramel), halva, navat (crystallized sugar), puff cookie, thick pancakes with butter, kaymak (boiled cream), dry fruits or honey.
Overnight at the hotel.
Day 12: Bukhara
Bukhara (“a lucky place”; also spelled Bukhoro, Buxoro, Buchara, Bokhara, Buhara) is one of the world’s oldest cities. It is over 2,500 years old, and seems to be emanating the breath of history. The city was a large political and religious center in the Middle Ages. It is one of the seven holy cities of Islam. Bukhara boasts a large number of old mosques of different architectural styles, as well as a lot of madrasahs, minarets and mausoleums. The historic center of Bukhara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Your tour of Bukhara begins with Ismail Samani Mausoleum (The Samanid Mausoleum; 9th c. - 10th c.), one of the most esteemed Central Asian architectural monuments. It was built as the sepulcher of Ismail Samani, the founder of the last Persian dynasty ruling in Central Asia. The mausoleum features fascinating brickwork patterns that look different as the light changes during the day. The building survived into the present thanks to the wit of the local people: threatened by Genghis Khan hordes, which destroyed everything on their way, they buried the mausoleum in a huge heap of soil. The mausoleum of Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah-Mazar-e-Quaid, is modeled on Samani Mausoleum.
Next, you see Chashmah-Ayyub Mausoleum (also spelled Chashma-Ayub). Chashmah-Ayyub translates as “Job’s spring” from Persian. According to legend, the biblical saint Job (Ayyub or Ayub) once visited the place during a severe drought in the area and opened a spring with a blow of his staff. This spring water is still there, fresh and pure, and is believed to be healing. The mausoleum was built in the 15th century by some of the master builders Tamerlane had brought from Khorezm after capturing Khiva, so the building features a Khorezm-style conical dome, uncommon in Bukhara.
Then comes Bolo Hauz Complex (17th c.). It is the hauz “pond” and two surviving structures of Bukhara’s Registan central square complex - a mosque, still functioning, and a minaret. Very rich in ornaments, the mosque is called “a mosque of 40 pillars” because its 20 pillars, decorated with beautiful engravings, are reflected in the pond.
Across from the complex stands the Ark Fortress, the impressive Bukhara citadel you also see. It dates from the 6th century, and is the location the city grew from. It is hard to imagine that just 100 years ago they still beheaded criminals on the square before the citadel and its dungeons were full of inmates suffering from poisonous insects. Today’s Ark is a most interesting tourist attraction featuring reconstructions with dummies and housing a few museums.
Next, you see Po-i-Kalyan Complex (also spelled Poi Kalyan; Uzbek: Poi Kalon, Persian: Pa-i Kalan; “The Foot of the Great"). Dating from the 12th - 16th centuries, it consists of Kalyan Mosque, Mir-i-Arab Madrasah and the famous Kalyan Minaret - a 45.6-meter-tall circular-pillar brick tower, narrowing upwards (built in 1127). The minaret miraculously survived many wars and invasions. It was used as an observation tower and an execution tool in the past: criminals were killed by being tossed off the top of it, so it is also known as Tower of Death. There are a lot of legends about this grand structure, so it is especially interesting to listen to the guide there.
You also visit Abdulaziz-Khan Madrasah (1652) and Ulugbek Madrasah (1417; also spelled Ulugh Beg, Ulughbeg, Ulugh-Beg), examples of different architectural styles of different times. Ulugbek Madrasah is moderate in size and decoration, while its counterpart is grand and ornate.
After lunch you go to Lab-i Hauz Complex (also spelled Lyab-i Khauz, Lyabi Khauz, Lyabi Hauz; 1568-1622) consisting of Kukeldash Madrasah (1568-1569), a khanaka monastery and hospice for Sufi travelers (1622), and Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasah (1622). All the structures of the complex stand around a large pond that is a perfect place to relax in the outdoor teahouses around it in hot summertime. You can also take a look at the statue of a man riding his donkey there. It is Nasreddin, the legendary medieval Central Asian folk character, famed for his wit and humor.
Visiting all these tourist attractions, you go past unique medieval domed shopping arcades you are also told about by the guide. They are still used for retail sale and offer an abundance of souvenirs and other traditional merchandise: garments, old Bukhara coins, jewelry, etc. We recommend that you visit them after the tour.
Day 13: Bukhara - Khiva
After breakfast you set out on a long (7-8 hours) and exciting journey to Khiva across the Kyzylkum Desert (also spelled Kyzyl-Kum, Qyzylqum) and along the Amudarya River (also spelled Amu Darya; known as the Oxus from its Ancient Greek name in historical sources).
Day 14: Khiva
Khiva is an amazing historic city called “a museum under the open sky”’. Its Ichan-Kala “inner city” historic part (also spelled Itchan-Kala), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a walled medieval Central Asian town being preserved as it was in the past - an artifact town. Although protected by the state and having the status of a museum reserve, Ichan-Kala is populated with real people, mainly artisans.
When you are in Ichan-Kala, you will be given a lot of interesting information on what you are seeing around. The large blue tower in the central Ichan-Kala square is an unfinished minaret Kalta Minor. The khan who was building it died, and the succeeding khan did not complete it because he thought that the minaret would overlook his harem and the muezzin would be able to see his wives. Juma Mosque, which was built in the 10th century and rebuilt in 1788 - 1789, is famed for its hypostyle hall, which still has 112 wooden pillars of the 10th-century mosque. Islam Khodja Minaret is the highest minaret in Ichan-Kala, while Islam Khodja Madrasah is the smallest of its madrasahs. Avesta Museum in Ichan-Kala deals with the history of Zoroastrianism; Khorezm (also spelled Khwarezmia, Khwarizm, Khwarazm, Khwarezm, Khoresm, Khorasam, Harezm, Horezm, Chorezm, Chorasmia), with Khiva as its center, is believed to be its cradle.
In the afternoon you ride to Urgench, the administrative center of Uzbekistan’s Khorezm Province, from where you fly back to Tashkent.
Day 15: Khiva - Tuprak-Kala Fortress - Ayaz-Kala Fortress - Urgench - Tashkent
Today you will have a unique opportunity to walk in the mazes left from ancient settlements. Those are the remains of the ancient empire of Khwarezm, which means the “Country of the Sun”.You will visit the ruins of Toprak Kala and Ayaz Kala. In the past there were more settlements, however, two above-mentioned are the best preserved ones. Here you will see the ruins of once great walls, branches and bays, the remains of hand-made irrigation systems and tumbled down but still impressive defensive walls of the bygone cities.
Toprak-kala Fortress, ancient capital of Khwarezm, situated in 20 kilometers to the North-East from Ayaz-kala. Toprak Kala is an outstanding ancient Khwarezmian architectural monument dating back to the 1st с. Behind the walls of the fortress one can see the street of the ancient city, the square, the remains of the fire-worshipers’ temple and tumbled down palace of the ruler at the background. High Palace in the town was 40 meters in height and had about 150 halls and chambers decorated with rich frescoes and sculpture. The town also boasted three 30-meter-high towers with residential rooms in them, which is especially interesting and unusual. Archeologists discovered a lot of bright artifact evidence of highly developed culture in Toprak-Kala: woolen and silk fabrics; skillfully made ceramics; coins; golden and glass jewelry, as well as items made from amber, shells and even corals. In the palace they discovered the priceless archive of the Khwarezmian rulers in ancient Khwarezmian language. The frescoes and sculpture in the town was the reason why Toprak-Kala (‘adobe fortress’) was also called “a museum of ancient fine arts”.
Next you will visit Kyzyl-Kala Fortress (or “Red fortress”) is located not far from Toprak-Kala, 27 km from Biruni town. The total area of the fortress is 65х63 meter. For the first time the monument was opened in 1938 by members of the Khwarezm archaeological and ethnographic expedition. Most likely the ancient structure was built as a defensive fortress and was part of a chain of Khwarezm fortifications, created by the state for protection of north-east borders of ancient Khorezm. The fortress’ walls were very thick (8 meters) and enemies were not able to get into the interior, using battering ram. Besides, Kyzyl-Kala Fortress functioned as the center of the agricultural area and crossroads of caravan routes, which passed through the ridge of Sultanuizdag.
And the last remarkable ancient settlement site is Ayaz-Kala Fortress, dating back to the 4th с BC now represents a unique historical monument of Zoroastrism(Mazdaism, Zoroastrianism) times. Ayaz-kala fortress is located in Ellikkalinskiy region of Karakalpakstan, amidst the moving sends of Kyzyl-Kum (Kyzylkum desert) and Sultan Uvays mountain ridges. Double walls of Ayaz-kala fortress, built from sun-dried earth bricks, are turned to the four cardinal directions. Entrance into the fortress, located on Southern side is protected by insidious labyrinth. The entrance has another interesting feature: its design makes it possible for the wind to blow litter and dust from the fortress. This is where its name comes – ‘a Fortress on the wind’. In the beginning of new era the residents of Ayaz-kala tried to build new defensive constructions inside the fortress, however this building was destined to remain unfinished. Up till now scientists guess, what could make builders and common citizens to leave Ayaz-kala.
Wherever you look you see the great KyzylKum desert, which is despite being a desert is full of life: suddenly you can see a cheerful jerboa or predatory-looking griffins watching you from afar. A small tumbled down fortress has perched on a cliff not far from Ayaz Kala. It looks like it is broken away from main city blocks.
Day 16: Tashkent
On the last day of your tour you may still have time (depending on your flight) to visit Tashkent Metro - one of the world’s most beautiful underground railway systems. Its stations are real works of art, each featuring unique designs covering various themes, such as famous people, events, valued notions, terms or just common nouns. For instance, there are stations named Pushkin, Cosmonauts, Great Silk Road, and Apple Orchard. Note, however, that taking photos in Tashkent metro is prohibited for security reasons.