After a day in Tashkent, it was on to Samarkand the mysterious and exotic sounding place with grand turquoise domed structures that inspired me to travel all the way to Uzbekistan. Its history dates back to 2700 years ago. It is the oldest in Central Asia and has experienced rule by the Persians, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Timur, the Arabs, The Turks and Russians.
The Greeks called it Marakanda and Poets and historians called it “Eastern Rome and the Eastern pearl of the Muslim world”. It is said that when Alexander the Great first saw the city, he exclaimed ‘Everything I have heard about Marakanda is true, except that it’s more beautiful than I ever imagined’.
We traveled to Samarkand by van from Tashkent and on our way, passed by Kongil, a village that has the “Meros” paper mill and where the ancient technology of paper making from mulberry bark was revived. The secret of papermaking was learnt from two Chinese prisoners in 751 and that, led to the foundation of the first paper mill in Samarkand.
When Samarkand became the capital of Timur’s empire in the 14th century, it became one of the most glorious in the then-known world. He populated it with artisans and craftsmen from across the empire and it was in a constant state of construction. He would often have buildings done and redone if he wasn’t satisfied with the result.
Today, the city is home to nearly half a million people, many of whom are students. In the newer part of town are administrative and cultural buildings and Universities. The older part is where the ancient city once stood and where the notable landmarks are found. One of my favorites is the Shah-I Zinda.
The Shah-I Zinda is a necropolis located on the mound of Afrasiyab, the site of ancient Samarkand before the Mongol conquest. It was originally built to commemorate the cousin of Muhammad who came to preach Islam in Samarkand in 676. Excavations have unearthed remnants of the old city of Samarkand below ground level, which indicate that prior to its use as a cemetery, the area contained mostly residential and commercial buildings. But by the twelfth century, the site was being used exclusively as a burial ground.
It’s the prettiest cemetery I have ever seen. Quite strange for a tourist attraction but the rows of polished and ornately tiled buildings create a fairytale like village with stunning beauty. It is my second favorite landmark next to the Registan Square.
Timur’s grandson, Ulug Beg was at one time Samarkand’s ruler. He was also a great astronomer and mathematician who built the enormous Observatory in 1424. The sextant was 11 meters long and once rose to the top of a three-story structure but was kept underground to protect it from earthquakes. It was the world’s largest 90-degree quadrant at the time but in 1499 religious fanatics destroyed the observatory. All that remains of this structure today is the large concave slit in the earth, which used to house the sextant.
There is a mosque adjacent to the Siab market or central Market that was built at request of Timur’s elder wife, Saray Mulk Khanum. Built at the same time as Timur’s madrasah, it was intended to be more majestic so the queen ordered architects to make it to be the tallest in Samarkand. But an error in the project caused destruction of the building over time. It was partially reconstructed a few years ago.
Originally designed to house the body of Timur’s favorite grandson, is the Gur-I Amir complex. It had three buildings clustered around a square courtyard: the actual mausoleum, a madrasah and a khanaqah. This is where Timur’s remains are buried together with other members of his family including Ulugh Beg.
The only parts of the complex that remain intact are the ornately designed mausoleum, the entrance portal, and one of the minarets.
The entrance is adorned with tilework and muqarnas elements both of which are of Iranian influence since the architect of the complex was someone who came from Isfahan.
A stone’s throw from Gur-I Amir, is the vast Registan square that lies in the center of the city. It really means sandy place and it is surrounded by the medieval tilting madrasahs that are overloaded with sparkling majolica, turquoise mosaic patterns. The grand edifices are some of the World’s oldest. Thanks to the soviets, who worked relentlessly to restore them.
The Ulug bek Madrassah on the west side is the original one built in 1420. This was where Ulug-beg was said to have taught Mathematics.
The Sher Dor madrassah across Ulug-beg’s is decorated with Lions but look like tigers. This one took 17 years to build and its former dormitory rooms are now art shops.
In the middle is the Tilla-Kari Madrassa, its mosque’s ceiling is intricately decorated with gold leaf. It is actually flat but its tapered design makes it look domed from the inside.
The madrasahs are considered to be the finest representations of Islamic art and architecture in existence. Sadly, during high tourist season tacky sound and light shows take place in the square.
Samarkand possesses an extraordinary power of attractiveness and I’m so fortunate to have marveled at its monuments up close. Timur’s empire did not overshadow that of the Genghiz Khan’s nor did it last as long as the Arab Empire, but it definitely left an indelible mark in the world. The monuments his dynasty erected in Central Asia are testimonies of his greatness.