UNESCO sites in Central Asia

UNESCO sites in Central Asia

Central Asia has 14 places of important cultural or natural value that have been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). There are 3 UNESCO sites in Uzbekistan, 1 in Kyrgyzstan, 2 in Tajikistan, 3 in Kazakhstan and 3 in Turkmenistan. In addition, there are also the Western Tien Shan that is located within the Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan states and the “Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor” covering the network of cities along a northern route of Silk road in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan 

Central Asia Guide offers tours to all UNESCO sites through Central Asia Tours or the country specific tours and the are the best way to experience the cultural legacy and natural beauty of this region. Please contact us if you wish to organize a tour focusing only on the UNESCO sites of Central Asia.

UNESCO sites in Uzbekistan

The Unesco sites in Uzbekistan focus on the Silk Road era cities that used to be centers of trade or main cities of the Timurid Empire. 

Historic centre of Bukhara

The Historic Centre of Bukhara, situated on one of the branches of the Silk Roads, is more than two thousand years old. It is one of the best  examples of well preserved Islamic cities of Central Asia from 10th to 17th centuries, with a very intact old town center area that takes you back to the stories of the Arabian Nights. Bukhara was for long an important economic and cultural center in Central Asia. This ancient Persian city served as a major center of Islamic culture for many centuries and became a major cultural center of the Caliphate in the 8th century.

With the exception of a few sights from before the Mongol invasions of Genghis Khan in 1220 and Temur in 1370, the old town boasts with an amazing number of architecture of the Sheibani period of Uzbek rule, from the early 16th century onwards. The sights that survived from the invasions are the Ismail Samanai Tomb and the Poi Kalyan minaret together with the Attori mosque and the Chashma Ayub shrine. 

The Ulugbek madrassa is a survivor from the Temurid era and with the Sheibanids buildings like the rest of the Poi-Kalyan group, the Lyabi-Khauz ensemble, the Kosh Medresseh and the Gaukushon medresseh in the Hodja-Kalon ensemble saw their birth. Later significant buildings include for example Taki Sarafon (Trading Dome of the Moneychangers), Taki-Tilpak-Furushan (Trading Dome of the Headguard Sellers), Tim-Bazzazan and Tiro-Abdullah-Khan. Even later, in the early 17th century several great buildings were added, including a new great mosque, Magoki Kurns (1637), and the imposing Abdullaziz-Khan medresseh (1652).

But the real significance of Bukhara is not in its individual buildings but in its overall unified and well survived old town.

Samarkand - Crossroads of cultures

The historic town of Samarkand, located in a large oasis in the valley of the Zerafshan River, in North-Eastern Uzbekistan, is considered the crossroads of world cultures with a history of over two and a half millennia. Evidence of settlements in the region goes back to 1500 BC, with Samarkand having its most significant development in the Temurid period, from the 14th to the 15th centuries, when it was capital of the powerful Temurid empire.

The historical part of Samarkand consists of three main sections. In the north-east there is the site of the ancient city of Afrosiab, founded in the 7th century BC and destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, which is preserved as an archaeological reserve. Archaeological excavations have revealed the ancient citadel and fortifications, the palace of the ruler (built in the 7th century displays important wall paintings), and residential and craft quarters. There are also remains of a large ancient mosque built from the 8th to 12th centuries.

To the south, there are architectural ensembles and the medieval city of the Temurid epoch of the 14th and 15th centuries, which played a seminal role in the development of town planning, architecture, and arts in the region. The old town area has retained substantial areas of historic fabric with typical narrow lanes, articulated into districts with social centres, mosques, madrassahs, and residential housing. The traditional Uzbek houses have one or two floors and the spaces are grouped around central courtyards with gardens; built in mud brick, the houses have painted wooden ceilings and wall decorations.

To the west, there is the area that corresponds to the 19th and 20th centuries expansions, built by the Russians, in European style which gives Samarkand a very different feeling compared to Tashkent which was heavily rebuilt after the famous earthquake that leveled the city. This area represents traditional continuity and qualities that are reflected in the neighbourhood (Mahalla) structure, the small centres, mosques, and houses. Many houses retain painted and decorated interiors, grouped around courtyards and gardens.

The major monuments of Samarkand include the Registan mosque and madrasahs, originally built in mud brick and covered with decorated ceramic tiles, the Bibi-Khanum Mosque and Mausoleum, the Shakhi-Zinda compound, which contains a series of mosques, madrasahs and mausoleum, and the ensembles of Gur-Emir and Rukhabad, as well as the remains of Ulugh-Bek’s Observatory.

Historic Centre of Shahrisabz

The Historic Centre of Shahrisabz (Shakhrisyabz), located on the Silk Roads in southern Uzbekistan, is over 2000 years old and was the cultural and political centre of the Kesh region (Former name of Shahrisabz was Kesh) in the 14th and 15th century. It contains a collection of exceptional monuments and ancient quarters which bear witness to the city’s secular development, particularly to the period of its apogee, under the rule of Amir Temur (Timur or Tamerlane) and the Temurids, in the 15th-16th century.

Shakhrisyabz rose to prominence in the 14th century as it was the birthplace of Tamerlane (1336-1405), founder of the Timurid dynasty. Tamerlane had a tomb for himself prepared there, although he would instead be buried in a new mausoleum built in Samarkand. The city contains not only outstanding monuments dating from the period of the Temurids, but also mosques, mausoleums, and entire quarters of ancient houses. Some of the notable monuments include:

Ak-Sarai Palace: Construction began in 1380, the year following Temur’s conquest of Khorezm. Its immense gate is an architectural masterpiece, outstanding in its dimensions and bold design.
Dorus Saodat: A vast complex which was destined as a place of burial for the ruling family. It contained, in addition to the tombs themselves, a prayer hall, a mosque, and accommodation for the religious community and pilgrims.
Chor-su bazaar: The covered bazaar was built at the cross-roads of two main streets, in the form of an octagon with a central cupola1.
Despite the inroads of time, the remaining vestiges are still impressive in the harmony and strength of styles, an enriching addition to the architectural heritage of Central Asia and the Islamic world1. However, it’s worth noting that in 2016, the site was included in the list of World Heritage Sites in danger due to the destruction of a large part of its historic centre3.

Ichan Kala of Khiva

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UNESCO sites in Kyrgyzstan

Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain

UNESCO sites in Kazakhstan

Saryarka – Steppe and Lakes of Northern Kazakhstan

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Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

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Petroglyphs of the Archaeological Landscape of Tanbaly

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UNESCO sites in Tajikistan

Proto-urban Site of Sarazm

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Tajik National Park (Mountains of the Pamirs)

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UNESCO sites in Turkmenistan

State Historical and Cultural Park “Ancient Merv”

The State Historical and Cultural Park “Ancient Merv” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located near the current city of Mary. It is the oldest and most completely preserved of the oasis cities along the Silk Roads in Central Asia.

The remains in this vast oasis span 4000 years of human history. A number of monuments are still visible, particularly from the last two millennia. The site includes also older remains of Bronze Age (2500-1200 BC) and Iron age (1200-300 BC) dwellings and the the historic urban center and the post-medieval city Abdullah Khan Kala.

The historic urban center of Merv consists of a series of adjacent walled cities: Erk Kala, Gyaur Kala and the medieval Sultan Kala or Marv al-Shahijan. The Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar (1118-57) is one of the most outstanding architectural achievements of the Seljuk period1.

Merv was a major Iranian city in Central Asia, on the historical Silk Road, near today’s Mary, Turkmenistan2. It was the capital city of several polities throughout its history2. In the beginning of the 9th century, Merv was the seat of the caliph al-Ma’mun and the capital of the entire Islamic caliphate2. It served later as the seat of the Tahirid governors of Khorasan2. In the 11th–12th centuries, Merv was the capital of the Great Seljuk Empire and remained so until the latter’s ultimate fall2.

Today, Merv’s glory shines once again thanks to the efforts of the Turkmenistan government, dedicated academics, and UNESCO, which declared Ancient Merv a World Heritage Site in 19993.


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Parthian Fortresses of Nisa

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Central Asian multi country UNESCO sites

Western Tien Shan

The transnational property is located in the Tien-Shan mountain system, one of the largest mountain ranges in the world. Western Tien-Shan ranges in altitude from 700 to 4503 m. It features diverse landscapes, which are home to exceptionally rich biodiversity. It is of global importance as a centre of origin for a number of cultivated fruit crops and is home to a great diversity of forest types and unique plant community associations.  

The Western TIen Shan UNESCO site consists of the following entities:

  • Karatau State Nature Reserve (Kazakhstan)
  • Aksu-Jabagly State Nature Reserve – main part Kazakhstan
  • Aksu-Jabagly State Nature Reserve – Karabastau paleontological area Kazakhstan
  • Aksu-Jabagly State Nature Reserve – Aulie paleontological area Kazakhstan
  • Sairam-Ugam State National Nature Park – Boraldaitau area Kazakhstan
  • Sairam-Ugam State National Nature Park – Irsu-Daubabin area Kazakhstan
  • Sairam-Ugam State National Nature Park – Sairam-Ugam area Kazakhstan
  • Sary-Chelek State Biosphere Nature Reserve Kyrgyzstan
  • Besh-Aral State Nature Reserve – main part Kyrgyzstan
  • Besh-Aral State Nature Reserve – Shandalash area Kyrgyzstan
  • Padysha-Ata State Nature Reserve Kyrgyzstan
  • The Chatkal State Biosphere Nature Reserve – Maidantal area Uzbekistan
  • The Chatkal State Biosphere Nature Reserve – Bashkizilsay area

Silk Roads: The Routes Network of Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor

A majority of the Unesco sites of the Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor are in China but there are also many sites in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that follow the old routes of the northern branches of the Silk Road. 

  • Starting from East, the most eastern location is the Kayalyk site, next to a small town called Koylyk in curren Kazakhstan, not far from the Alaqol state reserve. The site is still mostly not researched but it has already been found out that it was a thriving Medieval city from 9th to 13th Centuries.
  • Second is the site of Talgar (Talhiz) in Southern Kazakhstan, not very far from Almaty. The city was formed in the 18th century and was living its heyday in the 13th Century. 
  • Staying in Kazakhstan, we have the Karamergen, which is a settlement (a fortress) that was a stopping place along another route of the Silk Road that was following the shoreline of the lake Balkhash
  • In Kyrgyzstan, the first of tree sites is the most known, the site of Burana tower, also known as the city of Balasagun. Balasagun was founded in the 10th century AD at the site of an older settlement. Along with Kashgar, Balasagun was one of the capitals of the Eastern Khanate after the Karakhanid state divided.

Page updated 28.4.20245

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