It’s hard to find “old” Tashkent, but seeking it out is certainly worth the effort. 50 years ago, an earthquake damaged the city, and opportunistic Soviet planners used the seismic event (described in various magnitudes depending on the source) as an excuse to bulldoze the old town and build a social modernist utopia. Today, wide avenues and massive concrete apartment blocks dominate the landscape. Finding authentic Uzbekistan in post-soviet Tashkent is therefore a challenge – one that should ultimately bring you to the Khast Imam Architectural Complex.
Architectural authenticity in Uzbekistan comes with an important caveat. Recent renovations of nearly every historically significant building in the country have left them looking better than they ever were. After centuries of exposure to the harsh elements of Central Asia, the neglect of the Soviet Era, and the passage of time, a newly independent Uzbekistan took great, and swift, efforts to preserve their architectural heritage. The facades and interiors you see today reflect this, so excursions further afield than old Tashkent are required to find ancient structures in their original condition.
The Khast Imam Complex can be found on the north side of Tashkent. Getting there by taxi is recommended, but it can be easily reached on foot from Chorsu Bazar, or by Metro, about 2km distance. The trek between Chorsu and the complex feels as if you are going back in time as you get lost among the historic mudbrick homes and narrow streets of Old Tashkent that were fortunate enough to escape post-earthquake Soviet planners’ utopian ambitions.
An approach from any direction will feature the impressive rise of the twin 53m (175ft) minarets of the Khazrati Imam Mosque. Built in 2007, the mosque, while not at all historically significant, dominates the square with its massive facade, and two blue domes.
Across the square is the 16th century Barak-khan Madrasah. Built by the grandson of Mirzo Ulugbek, today cells formerly occupied by students feature local artisans selling their handicrafts to the occasional tourist. On any visit to the Khast Imam complex, a short shopping excursion to this historic gift shop provides a welcome respite from the brutal heat of the relentless Uzbek summer sun.
Additional landmarks of the square include the 16th century tomb of Abu Bakr al-Kaffal ash-Shashi. Said to be one of the greatest muslim scholars of all time, Kaffal-Shashi was deeply devoted to the faith, and dedicated his entire life to the spread of Islam, and religious education. In his extensive travels throughout the muslim world, he was a student of great theologians including the Imam Al-Bukhari. When Kaffal-Shashi died in the 10th century, he was buried at the city wall of old Tashkent in a mausoleum which did not survive. The present 16th century structure became a pilgrimage destination for the devout, and is today one of the most important historical landmarks of modern Tashkent.
The remainder of the grounds of this park-like complex are occupied by various state-sponsored religious institutions, including the library of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, where the Koran of Khalif Uthman, the world’s oldest copy, which is said to date from the 7th century, is kept for study and safekeeping.
While impressive, the Khast Imam Complex of Tashkent is no substitute for the ancient silk road cities of Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara. However, since nearly every trip to Uzbekistan begins and ends in the capital city, this major architectural complex deserves a visit either as an introduction of things to come, or a last taste of Uzbek heritage on your way out.