01/31/2011 04:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Art and Architecture of the Silk Road

"Where the heck is Uzbekistan and why would you go there?" asked some of our friends when my wife told them where we were going in April 2008. The first question was easy to answer: it is a country bigger than California with 28 million people, a former member of the U.S.S.R. next to Afghanistan.

Its location was why we were headed there: it was the center of the 7000-mile-long Silk Road of the Middle Ages, where goods were exchanged between the east and west, causing the area to flourish for centuries. Its rulers left behind impressive art and architecture, now preserved at four UNESCO World Heritage sites, which tourists are just starting to discover.

Uzbekistan reached its height as the center of the empire of Timur the Lame, or Tamarlane, in the 14th century, which stretched from northern India to southern Russia, from western China to western Turkey. He was to have a profound effect on subsequent history. His defeat of a sultan delayed the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople by 50 years, allowing time for books about the ancient Greeks and Romans to reach Europe and spark the Renaissance. Tamarlane's great-great-great grandson, Babur, would found the Mogul dynasty of India.

Since you lose a lot if you try to rely entirely on a guide to appreciate travel, we read the best book on the subject, Uzbekistan: The Golden Road to Samarkand by Calum Macleod and Bradley Mayhew.

We chose Bestway Tours & Safaris because of its reputation for providing terrific guides in exotic locations. "The Splendours of Uzbekistan" started out the eight days on the ground in the nation's sparklingly-clean capital, Tashkent, which has 2.3 million people. It is very modern, although roads outside the capital can be bad.

There is little crime in Uzbekistan and Islamic extremists would have a hard time getting a foothold: with an authoritarian secular govern, the entire time we were there we never heard a call to prayer in this ostensibly Muslim country.

Khiva and Bukhara
Our first destination was the most remote city of the Silk Road, Khiva, where the inner city, Ichan Kala, has been preserved largely as it was in the Middle Ages. The homes are adobe and the people on the street in colorful robes and scarves aren't dressing up for tourists: traditional clothing is worn widely, especially in rural areas.

The inner city has numerous sites of historic, religious and cultural importance, with the highlight being the 163-room Tash Hauli Palace of the khan, commissioned in 1830. By the time we got there, we were dizzy from going past tiles with geometric and floral art, perfected over 1400 centuries. The Koran forbids using figures of people or animals except for symbolic purposes, as well as mandating that nothing be a precise duplication of anything else. Every inch of the palace was covered with different designs and colors and we felt like we had walked into a kaleidoscope.

We then drove south to "Holy Bukhara," which once had a mosque for every day of the year. It also became a center for science. During the 10th century, its state library rivaling the one in Baghdad as the greatest in the Islamic world. This attracted Ali ibn-Sina (aka Avicenna in West), who cured the sultan and wrote a remarkably accurate medical handbook, used in the Europe until the 19th century (a museum devoted to him is in the suburbs).

Bukhara's bazaars were a primary destination for caravans and it still has hawkers of everything from cute puppets to handmade ceramics who are eager to bargain. Lord Curzon, the viceroy of British India, called Bukhara "the most interesting city in the world."

In the Ark citadel, there is a museum devoted to the city's history as regional power, with historic photos and artifacts, such as gorgeous robes used by the mystical whirling dervishes. There are lots of interesting buildings in the Old City, such as the 1000-year-old Ismael Samani Mausoleum, with its intricate brickwork, and the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah, or religious school, whose front is covered by 11 million handmade tiles.

We were eager to move on to fabled Samarkand, from its founding in the 6th century B.C. an oasis of trees and trade between East and West. When Alexander the Great conquered it in 329 B.C., he remarked, "Everything I have heard about the beauty of the city is indeed true, except that it is much more beautiful than I imagined." Marco Polo and ibn-Batutta, the greatest pre-modern travelers, reported that even in ruins in the 13th century it remained one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Tamarlane made it his capital, bringing in artisans from across the empire to turn it into what was called the Jewel of Islam.

One of its highlights is the Gur Emir, where Tamarlane and some of his family are entombed. When we walked inside, the lights were dim, but then our guide turned on full lighting and it was like the heavens opened up. No set of even wide-angled photos could convey the 360-degree scope of what our eyes beheld, with every inch covered by stars and trees carved into copper and gold and Koranic phrases in calligraphic Arabic script. Gur Emir is more beautiful than the Taj Mahal.

The next morning we went through the Shah-i-Zinda mausoleums, which are of a small enough scale to allow an intimate appreciation. For centuries, Samarkand's ceramic masters experimented with colors, designs, and materials inside and out and they provided staggering variety. Genghis Kahn's troops were so moved that they refused to destroy these houses of the dead.

The highlight of any visit to Samarkand is the Registan, which Lord Curzon called "the noblest public square in the world." On three sides are madrassahs, each with a unique outer design. The combination of grand portal, turquoise domes, and elaborately decorated pillars is awesome and the whole thing is impossible to truly capture with photos.

We walked into the Tillya Kari, the madrassah in the center. Its far wall is covered in gold leaf up to the ceiling, which has what appears to be a vibrating sun surrounded by circles of leaves and flowers. We gazed upwards in awe and everything else in our lives was put into proper perspective.