The Debate Over Progress in This Historic Silk Road City

Eliza Gray History /
renovation controversy samarkand uzbekistan
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People often say that progress is a positive thing in cities. But what if progress threatens the history of one of Asia's most historic locations? This is the dilemma at play in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. For centuries, Samarkand has been a city full of legendary stories that date back to the 15th century. It is seen as the epitome of the Silk Road era, with an overlap of cultural influences and art from the time when communities were meeting and exchanging goods along the merchant path. And for international organizations like UNESCO, this story is one worth saving, hence they stepped in and granted World Heritage status to a number of locations in Uzbekistan - most importantly, Samarkand. Nicknamed the "Crossroad of Cultures," Samarkand's monuments and historic buildings are an emblem of the Silk Road's influence. However, modernization is threatening its legacy for generations to come.

On multiple occasions, UNESCO has voiced criticism and concern over the rebuilding taking place in one of the largest cities in the country. For many, restoration projects are seen as a necessary evil to preserve the structural integrity of these vital monuments. But many scholars have argued that the efforts went too far and compromised the authenticity of the site. According to National Geographic, nowhere is this more present than at the Bibi Khanym Mosque. The unique tiling that covers the entrance was replicated during renovations. But to the trained eye, they are far from authentic.

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The fine line between necessary and selective restoration is also at the hands of economic pressures. For Samarkand, tourism is one of the main pillars of revenue, which has incentivized decision-makers to prioritize beauty over history in the name of profit. It has also led to some large-scale demolition in surrounding neighborhoods that UNESCO did not deem worthy enough for status. "Samarkand's monuments have been disconnected from their urban fabric," reflected Ona Vileikis of the University College London. "The local, vernacular architecture is mostly unacknowledged."

For the parties at play, it's unclear if there's an easy solution. But it is something UNESCO will continue to navigate for years to come.