Islamic societies had been building minarets for a few hundred years before it became a thing in Central Asia. From the 11th century onwards however, the slender, skyscraping towers built in Central Asia proved to have an enduring influence on Islamic architecture.
1. Burana tower
In the year 999, the army of a Turkic tribe formerly settled around Kashgar, known as the Karakhanids (Black Khans), entered the gates of Bukhara without opposition. It marked the beginning of the end of more than 1000 years of Persian dominance over Central Asia, slowly shifting the demographic balance to Turkic peoples.
The Karakhanids had 4 capitals, including 2 in Kyrgyzstan: in Balasagun (now near Tokmok) and Uzgen. To make sure everybody understood who was the new boss in town, they built a big tower in their city.
It used to be 45m high but earthquakes have diminished its standing to 25m today.
In Uzgend, a similar tower was erected.
The nearby mausoleums of Karakhanid rulers are more proof of the masonry skills of the Karakhanid craftsmen.
2. Jarkurgan minaret
With its columnar form arising from the integration of eight beautifully ornamented subcolumns, the Jarkurgan minaret in Minor village near Termez, Uzbekistan, stands as one of the most resplendent buildings left after the Mongol destruction of Central Asian civilization. The architect, Ali bin Muhammad of Sarakhs (now just across the border from Turkmenistan in Iran), was so pleased with his work that he signed the tower in the baked bricks.
Archaeological sleuthing traces this tower to 1108, under the patronage of the Karakhanids, who by this time had already adapted to the culture of the Persian people they conquered.
3. Kutlug Timur minaret
Towering over the desert wastelands around Urgench in Turkmenistan stands a quiet memory of the affluence of days past, when famous scientists like Avicenna and Biruni studied here.
The Kutlug minaret was originally constructed in the 11th-12th century, but rebuilt centuries later by the Mongol rulers of the day. At 62m height, it is the tallest minaret in Central Asia. It lacks the ornamentation of the minarets coming up next, but the apocalyptic vibe you get standing in front of it makes a visit more than worthwhile.
4. Minaret of Jam
Spectacular from whichever vantage point you might conceive it, the minaret of Jam, built in 1190 by a Turkic dynasty from Ghor in Afghanistan, is located in a very remote corner of Afghanistan, along the banks of the Hari river.
Its base seriously eroded, it is under imminent threat of collapse, but cultural rescue operations are impeded by the security situation in Afghanistan.
5. Kalyan minaret
Probably the most famous of all Central Asian minarets built in the 12th century, the Kalyan minaret in the center of Bukhara is a work of art whose influence has spread far and wide. Copied by an Italian trader of the time, the diamond pattern in the brickwork on the exterior of the Kalyan minaret ended up later on the walls of the Doge’s Palace in Venice.
The minaret is also known as the Tower of Death, as criminals were put in a sack and hurled from the top of the minaret until the 20th century.
6. Musalla minarets
Deliberately dynamited by British engineers in 1885, the destruction of the magnificent Musalla complex in Herat is reminiscent of the Taliban bombings of the Buddhas in Bamiyan. All that is left of it now of the complex that housed a mosque, madrassa, mausoleum and 20 minarets are 5 dangerously leaning towers.
At one point, the Musalla complex was an architectural masterpiece of the Islamic world. Now, harassed by explosives from British and Soviet invasions, earthquakes, and recently, traffic, it stands forlorn as a witness to the hard times fallen on the people of Afghanistan.
7. Islam Khoja & Kalta Minor minarets
No minaret article would be complete without mentioning Khiva. The spectacular Islam Khoja Minaret is 45 m high and can be seen from far away in the desert when approaching Khiva.
It’s stunning tilework is only rivaled by one other minaret. A stone’s throw away, the unfinished Kalta Minor marks the culmination of a millennium of Central Asian ceramics expertise.
Numerous legends abound on the reason the Kalta Minor remains unfinished. Did the architect flee because he thought the khan would kill him? Or was the jealous khan afraid the muezzin would be able to look into his harem from atop the minaret? We’ll never know.