Below are some of the major travel highlights for Silk Road. For more in-depth attractions of each country on this route, click on the country names below or select a route to see the highlights on this section of the journey. Click on the icons below to focus on specific types of features (click again to return to all).

In-depth highlights: China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia

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Highlights of Ashgabat - Istanbul

Kunya-Urgench

The origins of Kunya-Urgench go back to the 5th century as part of the Persian Empire. As capital of the Khorezm region in the 12th century, it rivalled Bukhara in wealth and importance as a Silk Road city. Destroyed by the Mongols in 1221, the city recovered but 150 years later the inhabitants were forced by Tamerlane to move to the new town of Urgench in present day Uzbekistan. They left a series of very impressive monuments behind though, which influenced architecture in Iran, Afghanistan and the Mogul Empire in India. These include the 11th century 60 metre high Kutlug-Timur minaret, the 14th century Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum, the monument of Ibn Khajib, the Ak Kala Fortress and the Tash Kala Caravanserai.

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Kunya-Urgench

Merv

The five ancient cities of the Merv oasis, covering over 100 km², have been important in this region for millennia. Merv reached its peak in the 11th and 12th centuries as part of the Great Seljuk Empire as key city along the Silk Road and famous for its libraries that attracted scholars from all over the Islamic world. The city and its million strong population were destroyed by the Mongols in 1221. Today, Merv is the oldest and best-preserved of the oasis cities of the Silk Road with notable monuments including the Beni Makhan mosque, Sultan Sanjar's Mausoleum and the windowless castle of Kyz Kala. The Museum of History in the nearby town of Mary contains an excellent collection of relics rescued from Merv.

UNESCO World Heritage Site: State Historical and Cultural Park "Ancient Merv"

Ashgabat

The capital of Turkmenistan was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1948. Since independence in 1991, it has been extensively renovated by President Niyazov with many futuristic, controversial and bizarre buildings. In particular the huge Arch of Neutrality is topped by a 12 metre golden statue of Niyazov which revolves with the sun. Other attractions in the city include the Presidential Palace, Independence Square, the Mosque of Khezert Omar, the Turkmenistan National Museum of History and the Earthquake Monument. The Tolkucha Bazaar is famous for its sea of traditional Turkmen carpets.

Yazd

Yazd is a desert city that was a major centre along the Silk Road and is the centre of Zoroastrianism, Iran's state religion before the arrival of Islam and a belief which predates Christianity. Over 10,000 believers still reside in the city today. Here the Towers of Silence on a hilltop was the traditional Zoroastrian burial ground, where bodies were left to be eaten by vultures. The Zoroastrian Fire Temple has a flame that has burned for over 1,500 years. Yazd is also renowned for its wind towers or badgirs which captured breezes and cooled living quarters below. The old town of Yazd is perfect for exploring on foot amidst the clay brick houses, ancient Islamic buildings and labyrinthine of narrow alleyways. Other notable attractions include the Jameh mosque with its twin 48 metre minarets, the Doulat Gardens and the Amir Chakhmaq mosque.

Esfahan

Esfahan is Iran's pearl, one of the finest places in the Islamic world and one of the great destinations in world travel. Although it dates back to the beginning of the Islamic period, Esfahan reached its peak under Shah Abbas the Great when he moved his capital here at the beginning of the 17th century. Esfahan's most impressive site is the enormous and spectacular Royal Square or Meidan Eman, over 80,000 square metres and the second largest city square in the world. The square, built as a royal polo ground and once home to entertainers, preachers and Silk Road caravans, is bordered on each side by four monumental buildings. The Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah is renowned for its beautiful dome and exquisite tile work. The Ali Qapu Palace was developed from an earlier Timurid palace and was used by the Shah to receive guests and foreign dignitaries. It is renowned for its superb plaster works and paintings and has a balcony overlooking the square. The magnificent Royal Mosque and the Portico of Qaysariyyeh complete the historical masterpieces. The Imperial Bazaar leads from the square to the north, a labyrinth of alleyways selling carpets, sweets and spices, tiles, jewellery and bright clothes. Other buildings of note include Vank Cathedral in the Armenian quarter of Jolfa, Chehel Sotun Palace also known as 40 Columns Palace due to the reflection of its 20 columns in waters of its fountain and the shaking minarets of Minar-e Jonban. The historic bridges of the Zayandeh River include Si o Se Pol (the Bridge of 33 Arches) and the Khaju Bridge.

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Meidan Emam, Esfahan

Tehran

Iran's capital is a huge, sprawling metropolis of some 15 million people and its main attractions are its numerous imperial palaces and museums. The Sa'd Abad Palace and Museum complex includes the White Palace, the former summer palace of the Pahlavi royal family, which highlights the opulent lifestyle of the Shah. Golestan Palace comprises several buildings and a beautiful garden and was constructed in the 19th century by the Qajar rulers. The National Museum of Iran houses a huge and impressive collection of historical artefacts from around the country with one building detailing ancient Persian history and another dealing with the Islamic period. The Carpet Museum contains over 100 exquisite Persian rugs while other museums of note include the National Jewellery Museum, the Glass and Ceramics Museum and the Islamic Museum.

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Golestan Palace

Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex

Tabriz was one of the most important cultural centres on the Silk Road and its bazaar complex is a reminder of this period and traditional commercial centres in Iran. Tabriz was the capital city of the Safavid kingdom from the 13th to the 16th centuries and remained an important commercial hub until the end of the 18th century.

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex

Urfa
Urfa
Urfa

The town of Urfa (or Sanliurfa) is known as the 'City of the Prophets' and was supposedly the birthplace of Abraham before he moved to Canaan. Urfa was an important staging post on the ancient trade routes and silk products are still sold in its 16th century bazaar. The ruined Crusader castle at Urfa sits high above the city, affording amazing views. The nearby village of Harran is supposedly one of the oldest settlements in the world and was once a wealthy merchant city which traded with the Phoenician city of Tyre. Today it is famous for its traditional mud-brick beehive houses.

Istanbul
Istanbul
Istanbul

Turkey's most important city spans Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus and has been capital of three empires - Eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman throughout its history (including its previous incarnations as Byzantium and Constantinople). This has left it with an incredibly rich historical heritage that makes it one of the great cities of the world. The Blue Mosque is perhaps the city's most famous sight, built by the Sultan Ahmet I in the 17th century, with a stunningly impressive scale and elegant design. Aya Sophia was built as a Byzantine Christian church in the 6th century, converted to a mosque after the Islamic takeover in the 15th century and now a museum. Its huge dome and walls include some superb mosaics. The 4th century Hippodrome of Constantine was the site of political demonstrations, chariot races and polo matches. Topaki Palace, built in Islamic style, was the home of the Ottoman sultans for four centuries. Other buildings of note include Suleymaniye Mosque, the Kariye Camii church and the ancient ramparts and aqueduct. One of Istanbul's most famous attractions is the vast Grand Bazaar, a labyrinth of some 4000 covered shops, cafés and restaurants, where you can haggle for jewellery, clothes, sweets and spices.

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic Areas of Istanbul