The rich History of the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor in Uzbekistan

Kassim Sheikh complex, one of multiple sites in the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor UNESCO cluster

The legendary Silk Road was a very commercial trading network between East Asia and Europe. Caravans brought luxury goods such as silk and spices, horses, weapons, and medicine in both directions. The Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor is a key section of these ancient Silk Roads in Central Asia. Located in rugged mountains, fertile river valleys, and uninhabitable desert, the 866-kilometre corridor runs from east to west. First along the Zarafshan River and then further southwest. The ancient caravan road then crossed the Karakum Desert to the Merv Oasis in today’s Turkmenistan. Because of high mountains and inhospitable deserts, there were no alternative routes in this area. Thus, the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor channelled the bulk of the east-west exchange along the Silk Roads from the 2nd century BCE to the 16th century CE. People travelled, settled, conquered, or were defeated here, making it a melting pot of ethnicities, cultures, religions, sciences, and technologies.

The UNESCO listing consists of 31 individual sites in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. 15 of the sites are in Uzbekistan. Most of these locations are near the cities of Navoi, Bukhara and Samarkand. During our frequent research trips to Uzbekistan, we have visited some, but not all the UNESCO sites of the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor. Take a step back in time with us and explore the not so well-known historical gems of the Silk Road in Uzbekistan.

map of the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor UNESCO sites

The Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor sites around Bukhara

Bukhara is a city most Uzbekistan travellers will visit anyway. The historic town of Bukhara is a UNESCO site in its own since 1993. We have visited Bukhara numerous times, but the sites of the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor are a bit off the beaten path. Nevertheless, looking up the new UNESCO inscription of the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor, we realize that we have already visited five out of eight of sites around Bukhara.

The Naqshbandi Mausoleum near Bukhara is one of multiple sites in the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor UNESCO cluster

Bahouddin Naqshband was an important Islamic thinker in 14th century Uzbekistan. Naqshband’s profound teachings and spiritual guidance have given birth to one of the largest and most significant Sufi orders in the world. But he was not merely a man of inner contemplation, but also a surprisingly enterprising figure, far from the stereotypical image of a poverty-stricken Sufi scholar. This is why today his mausoleum draws not only pious pilgrims but also entrepreneurs who pray for good business.

We still remember the mausoleum from our first visit more than two decades ago. But when we visited again in 2022, we were surprised by the changes. A modern infrastructure has sprouted around the mausoleum, complete with bus parking lots, restaurants, souvenir stalls, and comfortable hotels for visitors. While these amenities cater to the practical needs of more affluent modern pilgrims, the essence of the place remains solemn. The Bahouddin Naqshband Mausoleum is rooted in contemplation and silence, still offering a sanctuary of spiritual tranquillity.

If you visit, don’t miss the smaller mausoleum of Naqshband’s mother, Bibi Orifa.

How to get there – The tomb of the city saint of Bukhara is located about 12 km east of the city. Simply catch bus no. 60 from the bus stop Eski Vakzal (Old station) in Bukhara. N 39° 48’ 8,572” E 64° 32’ 14,023”

The Karakhanid Dynasty ascended to power in the 12th century. And they embarked on an ambitious project. The rulers built towering minarets of an unprecedented height to show their power to the Islamic world. The biggest and most famous of these minarets is the Kalon minaret in Bukhara. However, nestled in the quiet town of Vabkent stands a lesser-known gem, a Karakhanid minaret nearly a century older. The Vabkent minaret may not be as famous as its sibling in Bukhara, but its exquisite brickwork bears testimony to the era’s craftsmanship and artistry. And it is quite likely that you are the only tourist there.

We fondly remember our first visit in 2003 when we suddenly found ourselves in an impromptu soccer match with local children.

How to get there: Catch a bus or minibus from the Karvon Bazar Bus station in Bukhara to Vabkent. N 40° 1’ 10,893” E 64° 31’ 4,738”

Mosques and graves of the Chor Bakr complex in Bukhara

Chor Bakr is a 3-hectare necropolis on the outskirts of Bukhara. The name “Chor Bakr” translates as “the four Bakr”. This refers to Abu Bakr and his three brothers, all of them direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed who are said to be buried here.

In addition to the mosque, a minaret and a handful of other structures, it is the picturesque, extensive cemetery that invites visitors to pause and reflect. The graves are organized into courtyards enclosed with walls. Each is associated with a particular noble clan. Notably, the high groundwater level in Bukhara necessitated above-ground burials, adding a distinctive character to this sacred site.

How to get there: To get there catch a local bus from the Bukhara Bazar. N 39° 46’ 28,200” E 64° 20’ 4,860”

Like Varakhsha, most sites of the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor UNESCO cluster are ancient towns or way stations from the time of the silk roads

Varakhsha had historical significance in the Hephtalite civilization of Bukhara, serving as the last refuge for local kings when Arab armies advanced. Archaeologists unearthed a palace with exquisite frescoes depicting battles and wild animals, but these treasures are not on site. They are now housed in museums in Tashkent and St Petersburg. It was only years after our visit to Varakhsha on the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor that we travelled to St Petersburg. Eagerly we went to see the Central Asia Collection in the Eremitage. And indeed, the frescoes of tigers and elephants from Varakhsha were marvellous!

Today the desert site of Varakhsha features only some wall foundations and a lot of pottery shards. Without some background information it is difficult to make out the town structure. On the upside there are rarely any tourists at all at this UNESCO site, which gives the trip an explorer feeling.

How to get there – The best way to get to Varakhsha, 30 km northwest of Bukhara, is by taxi. Prices will start around 20 Dollar for a half-day trip. For our own trip to Varakhsha we happened to get a good price because the taxi driver used the opportunity to take along his girlfriend. The two of them were not interested in leaving the car while we ventured out to explore the ruins. N 39° 51’ 48,337” E 64° 4’ 23,172”

Paikent is one of the silk road age towns belonging to the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor UNESCO cluster

A similar site from the same era as Varakhsha is the settlement of Paikent, 50 km to the west of Bukhara. Paikent was inhabited from the 4th century BC to the 11th century AD. At its zenith in the Hephtalite and early Arabic eras, this 18-hectare city boasted a citadel featuring a Zoroastrian fire temple and later a mosque. With some imagination you can make out the multiple residential areas, the impressive citadel, and the adobe brick fortifications. In the palace hall there is still some brick flooring in place. While a significant portion remains unexplored, ancient ceramic remnants can be found scattered across the desert terrain.

Finds from the ancient Silk Road in the Paikent Museum near Bukhara

At the on-site museum, a concrete block in the desert, you will find a surprisingly good collection of objects found at the Paikent site.

How to get there – Again, your best bet to get there is by taxi. It might be best to book a trustworthy driver through your accommodation. Our taxi driver pretended to know the way to Paikent – in the end he drove around rather aimlessly for quite a while in the vicinity. Eventually, we got off the car annoyed in the middle of nowhere and walked the rest of the way. N 39° 35’ 7,736” E 64° 0’ 40,903”

The Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor sites in and around Navoi

In the Kizilkum Desert, about halfway between the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, lies the city of Navoi. The large Soviet-era city is known for its mining industry, including the extraction of gold. Although Navoi is not on the Uzbekistan tourist trail, it has a certain appeal with its Soviet prefabricated buildings and broad tree-lined streets. Before the Soviet era the old town was named Kermana. Kermana is now only a small urban quarter of Navoi, but home to the UNESCO sites of the Kasim Sheikh Complex and the Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum. Nearby you will also find the ruins of the Rabat I-Malik caravanserai.

If you are already in the area, we also recommend a trip to the Sarmishsay petroglyphs near Navoi.

Kasim Sheikh Complex

The restored Kassim Sheikh complex in Navoi

Dating back to the 16th century, the Kasim Sheikh complex has undergone several expansions over the centuries. Eventually the old structure required essential renovations and restorations that commenced in 2001. The main building’s high tambour is already visible from afar.

The complex itself comprises a mosque, a Khanaka or pilgrims’ hostel, and the tomb of one of the last emirs of Bukhara. But the focal point of the site is the expansive cenotaph of Kasim Sheikh, who gave his name to the complex. The revered Kasim Sheikh was a local Sufi teacher who actively supported the Shaybanids’ claim to the throne in Bukhara. He subsequently became a spiritual guide and advisor to the Bukhara emirs.

Location: N 40° 7’ 59,913” E 65° 22’ 2,667”

Mir Sayyed Bahrom Mausoleum in Navoi, now belonging to the Zarafshan UNESCO cluster

Within walking distance from the Kasim Sheikh Complex in Navoi is the tomb of another Islamic saint, the Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum. It dates to the Samanid period in the 10th or 11th century and is one of the oldest and smallest mausoleums in the whole of Uzbekistan. Stylistically, it is reminiscent of the much better-known Samanid mausoleum in Bukhara. Recently a mosque with beautiful wooden pillars and a garden have been added, thus making a visit to the Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum a very spiritual experience.

Location: N 40° 8’ 34,405” E 65° 21’ 40,524”

Rabat I-Malik Caravanserai and Sardoba

Rabat i Malik, a Silk Road Caravanserai in Uzbekistan and a UNESCO site since 2023

Nearby, next to the main road, there is another site belonging to the UNESCO sites of the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor: The Rabat I-Malik Caravanserai. Unfortunately, today only ruins remain of this once magnificent caravanserai from the 11th century, including the impressive portal.

The caravanserai was built by the Karakhanids, who also built those gigantic minarets mentioned above, and whose territory at times extended as far as present-day China. They traded extensively between China and Central Asia and therefore infrastructure along the old trade routes was a priority. The Karakhanids built caravanserais about every 30 km (a one-day trip back then). A caravanserai usually consisted of accommodation facilities, restaurants, and stables. Quite often a few troops were stationed there for protection. Therefore, it is not surprising that the size and arrangement of the complex bear a resemblance to that of a fortress.

Rabat i Malik Sardoba near Navoi is a minor UNESCO site in the 2023 cluster

Opposite the Rabat I-Malik caravanserai on the other side of the road you will see a restored sardoba, a circular reservoir for collecting and storing fresh water. You can walk down a few steps into the reservoir until you reach the water-filled bottom.

How to get there – While the Kasim Sheikh Complex and the Mausoleum of Mir Said Bakhrom are in the centre of Navoi, Rabat I-Malik is about 20 km to the west. It is not far from Navoi airport and several minibuses leaving from the Navoi bus station pass by. N 40° 7’ 23,080” E 65° 8’ 53,370”

Are the UNESCO sites of the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor worth a visit?

There is no need to join a tour to visit the UNESCO sites of the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor in Uzbekistan. Most of them are accessible by public transport. Sometimes your best bet will be hiring a taxi.

NB: We were not sponsored to write this blog post and we paid all expenses ourselves.

Guidebook recommendations for Uzbekistan

*This post contains affiliate links, from which we may earn a comission (at no extra cost to you)*

Thinking about a trip to Uzbekistan? If you understand German we have you covered. Our Uzbekistan travel guidebook is one of the most comprehensive ones in German and already published in the 4th updated edition:
Usbekistan DuMont Reise-Handbuch. 4. Auflage 2023.

For English readers we would recommend the Bradt guide Uzbekistan by Sophie Ibbotson (2020). Sophie has travelled to every corner in Uzbekistan and loves the country, the culture and the Uzbek people.

You will find more ideas for places worth visiting and useful information in our Uzbekistan posts.

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15 Comments

  1. We gave read a lot about the Silk Road and visited many spots along it. The Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor certainly looks like an interesting and isolated part of this route. It definitely looks like there are some great stops along the way. Enough that you have been back to visit some. Good to know that many of the sights can be visited with public transport.

  2. Your article really brings the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor to life! It’s amazing how this part of the old Silk Road has seen so many different people and stories. I loved reading about the UNESCO sites around Bukhara and how they’re a bit off the usual path. The mix of the old and new at the Bahouddin Naqshband Mausoleum is super interesting. Thanks for the great travel tips too – they’re perfect for anyone wanting to explore these cool spots in Uzbekistan. Really enjoyed your take on this historic place!

  3. Ladies, if I envy you one trip, then it’s your visit to the ‘stans! Since that region was behind the so-called Iron Curtain for such a long time, to me, it feels like it’s like one of the least explored parts of the world – at least touristically speaking. I would love to visit – albeit, as a solo travelling woman, I feel a bit coy. Also, due to recent events, I can imagine that at this very moment, it’s politically not the most stable region. Hence, for now, it remains a dream and I’m very happy to visit at least virtually through your blog. Cheers to that 😉

  4. The Silk Road was always present in some of the stories I used to be read when I was a child. It was always a mysterious road, and never really knew where to place it in the world at that age. I was supposed to visit Uzbekistan last summer, but plans fell through. Maybe next year. I would have loved to explore Bukhara, even though I had no idea it was part of the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor. I would be interested in visiting the Varakhsha village, especially that there aren’t many tourists around.

    1. Dear Joanna, Varakhsha is a bit tricky to reach – you will have to negotiate a taxi for this excursion. On site there is not much information to be found – so it is better to come prepared with some ideas what you are looking at. But the trip is very well worth it!

  5. Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor is an interesting part of the Silk Road. You are lucky to have explored this isolated part of the route. Looks like there are many unique and interesting stops here. Thanks for the tips on how to visit and that there are public transport options.

  6. The Silk Road route has always been fascinating to me. I have not made it there so far, but yes it is on my list. It is quite far down unfortunately as the travel seems pretty remote and I thought of a lot of planning is needed. So it is good to know that with public transportation it is possible to get to these beautiful areas. I would love to visit the Kasim Sheikh complex and see the towering Vabkent minaret with my own eyes.

    1. Dear Adele, the tourist main sights like Samarkand, Buchara and Chiwa are quite easily accesible by train. The sites of the Zarafshan Karakum Corridor are a bit off-the-beaten path and you will have to plan ahead.

  7. The closest I’ve been to this area is India, but the architecture looks so similar. I love the premise of the Silk Road’s history coupled with the fact that you’ve visited so many UNESCO sites. Bukhara looks especially beautiful, but I also like the unstructured, ancient vibes of Varakhsha. Thank you also for suggesting that folks don’t need a tour. Sometimes it’s hard to decide whether or not to do one, but I’m glad that this is very doable on your own.

  8. Every time I read your article about the Silk Road, it brought back memories of my history class when I was in middle school. The city of Samarkand and Bhukara sound familiar, but of course, the Silk Road is more than that two cities. I like seeing the Islamic architecture here. But I wonder about the information you wrote under the Memorial Complex of Chor Bakr. Did you mean the Prophet Mohammed said to be buried there?

    1. Dear Umiko, no, four brothers (chor – four), Abu Bakr was a person. So Abu Bakr and his three brothers are buried there. All four of the brothers are decendents of the prophet Mohamed.

  9. Uzbekistan has long been on my travel wishlist. Have read a lot of posts about travelling there. But absolutely loved the format of this post. Detailed, but not overwhelming with all the transport options mentioned as well as the coordinates.

  10. These are all great sites to visit. Vabkent Minaret looks fascinating and I would love to see them personally. Happy to know that these are accessible by public transport. Thank you for sharing about these UNESCO heritage sites. I definitely learned something new today.

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