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Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. If that sentence does not roll off your tongue, do not fret: the five ‘Stans’ of Central Asia are far from the headlines on even the slowest of news days. It was not always like that, though.

In the past three millennia, the region played host to some of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen, built by Turks, Mongols, Persians, Arabs, Scythians, and a certain Macedonian adventurer.

Much of this history is preserved in the heritage sites of Central Asia. But in a region dominated by headstrong, undemocratic regimes, what are the prospects for these important sites?

Turkmenistan: Locked-Up Wealth

Serving as the main power base of successive Persian and Turkic empires, Turkmenistan’s modern-day obscurity does a great disservice to its former significance. And, the country’s Karakum desert is a historical treasure trove.

The biggest archaeological treasure is Merv, the capital of the Parthian and Sassanid states and, according to some, once the biggest city in the world. Its prosperity declined after the bloody 13th-century Mongolian conquest (some estimates claim one million deaths). But despite the destruction, its mud-brick fortresses, ice houses, and city walls still stand. The astounding acoustics of the tomb of the Seljuk Sultan Sanjar testify to the architectural peaks reached in Merv.

Unfortunately, much of the 12th-century terracotta ornamentation of the mausoleum is feared to have been lost to insensitive reconstruction projects during the 1990s. This is a common issue across the region, and closer attention by international bodies is needed to avoid further tragedies like this.

Two other important archaeological sites feature on Turkmenistan’s UNESCO World Heritage list. One is Nisa, an important Parthian trading hub that has been well excavated. The other is Konye-Urgench, once a thriving oasis city and now a desert site preserving monumental Turkic architecture from the Middle Ages.

Restrictive entry requirements and a rather dark dictatorship make Turkmenistan one of the least-visited countries on Earth. This ensures low pressure from tourism but also makes it difficult for archaeologists to access and reduces the economic impetus for conservation.

Although Nisa, Merv, and Konye-Urgench are the three most important heritage sites in Turkmenistan, they represent just a tiny fraction of the archaeological wealth of Turkmenistan. Caravanserais, fire temples, mausoleums, and entire oasis cities remain unexcavated. We can only imagine what hidden treasures lie undisturbed beneath the surface.

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The city of Merv as seen from the air. ©Marc Nesbitt/Flickr

Kazakhstan: Petroglyphs and Burial Mounds from Scythian Times

Around 3,000 years ago, the Scythians developed a system of semi-nomadic living. Scythians kept herds of horses, cattle, and sheep; lived in tent-covered wagons; and fought with bow and arrow on horseback. Their innovations made them the first masters of the steppe, and the vast grasslands of Kazakhstan hold most of their history.

Scythian history is recorded in petroglyphs scattered across Central Asia, but most notably in the thousands of drawings of Tamgaly, near Almaty. Even more spectacular are the fantastic gold treasures that have been discovered in Scythian burial mounds. The future of these tombs is at the center of Kazakhstan’s preservation debate.

The Kazakhstani government, flush with oil money and eager to be seen by the international community as a responsible partner, wants to protect its heritage sites and turn them into tourist attractions. Information centers are going up around the country, and mounds are being excavated and placed under glass cupolas.

But not everyone is happy with the government’s efforts. Murat Nurpeisov, the scientific secretary of the association of museums in Almaty, warns [ru] that the tourist potential of many of these sites is small, and he sees these historical objects turning into a kind of Disneyland. He advocates leaving some stones unturned by instead landscaping certain burial sites into a park akin to South Korea’s Gyeongju Park, where the bones of ancestors remain untouched. The debate continues.  

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The Grand Mosque of Bukhara. ©Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Flickr

Uzbekistan: The Bulldozer Approach

Of all the Stans, the cities of Uzbekistan sound loudest in the imagination of the history buff. Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva are an easy sell for travel agencies promoting an Oriental fantasy of bustling spice bazaars and ‘Jewels of the Silk Road.’ Without a doubt, these cities hold some of the finest Islamic architecture in the world. Unfortunately, the government’s approach to its heritage sites is a serious impediment to their conservation as well as their tourism potential.

Large areas around the main historical buildings have been bulldozed in recent years to create a manicured park landscape, with the remaining neighborhoods walled off lest a tourist see the ‘real’ Uzbekistan. Visitors inevitably complain about a sterile experience that lacks atmosphere and authenticity.

The heritage sites themselves have not escaped from harm, either. Shahrisabz, the birthplace of the empire-builder Tamerlane, has been irreversibly damaged by recent ‘development’ and might soon be stripped of its UNESCO World Heritage status. And now Bukhara, undoubtedly the most important of Uzbekistan’s medieval cityscapes, one that still oozes Silk Road atmosphere despite the Uzbek government’s best efforts, is also up for redevelopment. Conservationists need to be on their guard. Central Asia deserves more headlines.

Steven Hermans is the author of Exploring The Silk Road (Horizon Guides, 2017) and is editor of Caravanistan, an online travel guide to the Silk Road that was described by the Lonely Planet as a “peerless online travel guide to the region.” He has been traveling the region since 2010 and has dedicated himself to improving tourism on the Silk Road both for travelers and locals.

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