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The Silk Roads

The Silk Roads

Sample city guide: Samarkand

Contents list | Introduction | Planning your trip | The Middle East - practical information for the visitor | The Silk Road route maps | Sample city guide: Samarkand


Of all Central Asian cities, Samarkand is probably the one which most fires the imagination. Alexander the Great was moved by its beauty, Marco Polo lavished it with praise and Tamerlane made it the capital of his empire. European poets dreamed of it and for the West it became a symbol of all that was forbidden and mysterious about the East. Things have changed, however, and much has not survived. Nevertheless, what is left is astonishing both in scale and intricacy. Two or three days are needed here to see all the main sights.


Samarkand officially celebrated its 2500th birthday in 1970 though it is probably much older than this. Reliable evidence is scarce but archaeologists have unearthed traces of a large human settlement dating before the 6th century bc. The reason for this abundance of life was/is the nearby Zrafshan River, ‘The Golden Strewer’, known as Polytimetus by the Greeks. Up until the arrival of cotton (see p201) it nourished orchard upon orchard of the best almonds, peaches, blue plums, cherries, figs, apples, apricots and nectarines in the region.
    The Greek historian, Strabo, writes of this city as Marakanda, the capital of Sogdiana and records the arrival of Alexander the Great in 329/8bc (who commented that it was ‘even more beautiful’ than he had imagined).
    It was here, in a famous drunken brawl, that Alexander killed Cleitus, one of his own generals, with a spear. Plagued with guilt afterwards, he was reconciled to this act only by his friends’ insistence that his drunken outburst was punishment from Dionysius (the God of Wine) for not having made the correct sacrifices earlier.

Ten centuries of invasions

Alexander’s empire crumbled shortly after his death and in the following centuries Samarkand was attacked by the Seleucids, the Graeco-Bactrians, the Kushans and the Turks but its seven-mile city wall held firm until ad712 and the arrival of the Arab army.
    The Arabs brought Islam with them but their empire fragmented in the 9th century, allowing the Samanids to become rulers of the first independent Islamic state in Central Asia. Their most famous son has to be Mohammed Ibn Musa al Khorezmi (see p189). Power struggles and invasions continued until the arrival of Genghis Khan in March 1220. He wrecked the city so comprehensively that the original site, now Afrosiab, was abandoned altogether and the whole town was shifted to a patch of wasteland immediately to the south. Sources indicate that over 300,000 of the 400,000 inhabitants were killed or forced to flee. The city recovered quickly, though: by the time Marco Polo arrived 50 years later, he noted that Samarkand, on its new site, was ‘very large and splendid’.


It was to become even bigger, however, under its greatest ruler, Tamerlane. Born in nearby Shakrisabz (in 1336), Tamerlane decided that Samarkand was to be the heart of his empire, the ‘centre of the universe’ (traditionally either Balkh or Herat had always been chosen as capital of the region). Artists and architects were recruited from all over Asia to develop it and they didn’t mess around, building magnificent mosques, madrassahs and palaces, each covered in the fabulous turquoise blue tiles that stick in our mind today. Inside these buildings were some of the finest schools and workshops on the planet, attracting a second tier of finery which combined to truly create a ‘Mirror of the World’, ‘Garden of the Blessed’ or ‘Fourth Paradise’, as Samarkand became known (suburbs were named Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, even Paris to show their subsidiary status!).
    It shouldn’t be forgotten that Tamerlane is estimated to have been responsible for 17 million deaths; but for Samarkand his rule meant untold riches as it became the capital of an empire that stretched between Russia in the north, the Mediterranean in the west, the Persian Gulf in the south and Delhi in the east (he had horses winched over the Hindu Kush to effect this campaign). Interestingly, despite Samarkand’s opulence, Tamerlane preferred to live in a magnificent city of 20,000 silk tents out on the nearby meadow.
    Tamerlane’s grandson, Ulugh Beg, a noted intellectual, maintained the artistic traditions even if he shunned military glory. He matched Tamerlane’s achievements in the arts and added cutting-edge developments of the sciences: Omar Khayyam (author of The Rubaiyat), Al-Biruni (who suggested that the Earth might revolve around its own axis) and Avicenna (see p189) all lived here as Samarkand reached its zenith.
    By the 16th century the ruling Sheibanids had moved their capital to Bukhara, leaving Samarkand in decline until 1868 when the Russians arrived. On 15 May 1888, the first train pulled in, shunting it back onto the map. Restoration of monuments began under Lenin in 1921 and the city was declared capital of the Uzbek Socialist Republic in 1925, only to be replaced by Tashkent in 1930.

Samarkand today
From being a relatively backward Islamic city in the last century, Samarkand has come a long way. According to the official figures, the city accounts for 500,000 tonnes of cotton per year, which is more than the entire state of Uzbekistan produced before 1917 (though such figures may be suspect: Uzbekistan is notorious for its fraudulent crop statistics). The city centre has also undergone something of a boom since being recognised as a World Heritage Site. Restoration never seems to stop on one building or another, but unfortunately, with the number of tourists increasing annually it can sometimes feel a bit crowded.  


Registan Square
This square constitutes the heart of the city. The Registan (literally ‘Sandy Place’) seems always to have been busy; originally it was the bazaar with a caravanserai (see box p115) on the northern side. Skirting the square today are three madrassahs and a mosque, and the effect of this combination is sublime: the ‘noblest public square in the world’ according to Lord Curzon. Some visitors, however, complain that the buildings have been over-restored to the extent that they look more like replicas and it’s hard to say they haven’t got a point.
    The earliest of the three buildings is the Ulugh Beg Madrassah to the west (left as you face the central building). It is widely acknowledged to be the best of the three. Built at the command of this great ruler between 1417 and 1420, it housed up to 200 students studying sciences, mathematics, astronomy, law, languages and theology. Ulugh Beg himself taught here. The fact that it has been restored is most easily seen by looking at the minarets, which were leaning precariously until fairly recently. Soviet engineers were called in and in 1938 the right-hand minaret was rotated through 180 degrees (no mean feat considering its size). The left-hand minaret was straightened in 1965. To see the curve, look along the right-hand wall.
    The minarets are not purely decorative but have steps leading up their insides. Although not officially permitted, if you come early and slip some money to one of the guards (1500sum) he will show you the way up. Inside the madrassah there’s a small art gallery and a bronze statue of Ulugh Beg and his courtiers around an Astroglobe.
    Directly opposite Ulugh Beg is the Shir Dor Madrassah. Built at the order of ‘Little Timur’, Amir Yalangtush Bahadir, between 1619 and 1636, this was meant to be the mirror image of the Ulugh Beg Madrassah. Clearly it is not identical but apparently if you were to tip the fronts of the two madrassahs towards each other they would exactly touch along the centreline of the Registan. Shir Dor means ‘Lion-bearing’; the lions (they look more like tigers) above the entrance represent the rising sun, thus exempting themselves from the Islamic prohibition of animal images. Inside is a musical instrument museum, entry to which is free.
    Between the two are the Tillya Kari Mosque and Madrassah. ‘Tillya Kari’ means ‘Decorated with gold’ and the buildings date from 1646 to 1660. The inside of the mosque was restored in 1979 and is now so blue and gold it is breathtaking. Patches of water are already rising up the walls, however, fading the colours as they go. In the room next to the dome is a tiny museum with photographs of how the town used to look pre-1940s. These give you a good impression of the city before the recent restoration.
    Entry to the Registan costs 4000sum; this gives you access to all four buildings. Its opening hours change with the season but it is always open during daylight. Note that access to the buildings has been steadily restricted over the years so you will need to come early (around dawn) if you want to bribe your way up one of the minarets.
    Outside the Registan you can see a bronze statue in memory of the traders and camels of the Silk Road and it’s nice to feel part of it – though if you have come from China you might be sick of these by now.

Museum of Culture and Art of the Peoples of Uzbekistan

The contents of this museum do not live up to its grand name. It’s so close to the Registan, however, that it’s worth a look – and there are toilets here if you need them. When we visited, we had the whole place to ourselves, apart from the curators who were busy trying to sell us the exhibits. It is open daily (except Wednesday) from 09.00 to 17.00. Entry is 3000sum.

This necropolis is in its original condition (Genghis Khan’s troops refused to touch it) and one of Samarkand’s highlights. Legend has it that Qutham ibn Abbas, either the cousin or the nephew of the Prophet Mohammed, was beheaded here by infidels. Instead of dying, he picked up his severed head and disappeared into the depths of a well, where he still lives today. Since then aristocrats have clamoured to be buried near the grave of this ‘saint’, resulting in a narrow alley of highly decorated mausoleums nicknamed ‘City of the Dead’.
    Abbas’s tomb is at the top end on the right and although excavations revealed that there is actually no body here, the gravestone (which can be seen through a lattice grille) is the original, listing his death as occurring in 676/7. The inscription above the door reads, ‘The gates of Paradise are open wide for the believer’. Modern legend says that he still makes the odd appearance and there are further rumours telling of a city of catacombs beneath the site.
    Most other tombs date to within a century or so of Tamerlane’s time. The second mausoleum on the left (that of Tamerlane’s niece who died in 1372) is regarded as the best. Keep an eye out for the architects’ signatures on the portals of the tombs. Remember that this spot is considered sacred by many (you are likely to see people praying in Abbas’s tomb) so dress and act appropriately. Entry is 3000sum and it’s open daily 08.00-18.00.

Gur Emir Mausoleum

This is the mausoleum of many of the key members of the Timurid line including the Big Man himself and, despite its mediocre size, it is breathtaking. Originally built for a favourite grandson, Mohammed Sultan, Tamerlane was laid here because he died unexpectedly in 1405, before his real tomb in Shakrisabz (see box p260) was completed. He lies at the foot of his spiritual guide, Sheikh Mirs aid Bereke, with his grandson, Ulugh Beg, beside him.
    While digging the mausoleum’s foundations, workmen found human remains. Not willing to desecrate the grave they reburied the individual as a holy man in the crypt of the king. The tombs were re-opened in 1941 and it was confirmed that Tamerlane was lame (and that he had had tuberculosis) and that Ulugh Beg had been murdered (beheaded by his own son). A time capsule was included when the tombs were closed once more.
    The jade stone over Tamerlane’s grave was originally one slab, brought back from Mongolia by Ulugh Beg, but it was stolen by Persian invaders under Nadir Shah. They took it to Mashad, only to return it, in two pieces, because it had brought them bad luck. The onyx meanwhile was brought from south-east Turkmenistan. Numerous modern myths surround the unsealing of Tamerlane’s tomb. An inscription was said to have been found warning that the opening of the crypt would release the spirit of war. Germany marched on Russia the day after the opening.
    It is sometimes possible to get into the crypt beneath the building (this costs 3000sum; wait to be approached by the vault keeper). Descending into the crypt is similar to entering the pyramids in Egypt – although obviously on a smaller scale.
    There is a large slab of carved marble in the courtyard outside the mausoleum, which is supposed to be the Kok Tash, the stone upon which Tamerlane’s throne sat. This is unlikely but it has certainly been used for coronations since. The large stone bowl beside it was part of Tamerlane’s pre-battle ritual: he would have it filled with pomegranate juice (dark red) and then his army would file past, each man taking a swig of the ‘blood’ of the enemy.

Bibi Khanum Mosque
Designed to accommodate over 10,000 people, this mosque was to have been Tamerlane’s pièce de résistance. Unfortunately, it started to collapse as quickly as it was built; some say it was just too big, others too hurriedly built; others blame seismic activity. Whatever the cause, shortly after it was finished in 1404 cracks started appearing.
    The huge stone lectern you see in the courtyard was placed in the mosque by Ulugh Beg but was moved outside in 1855 when it became clear that the building was no longer safe. It collapsed in an earthquake in 1887. Restoration started in 1974 but has only recently been completed. The main gate is the focus of this restoration and it is worth a closer look. It was designed to face the prevailing wind in an attempt to keep the courtyard cool and if you stand underneath the portals you realise just how successful the plan was, sucking in any breeze that is about.
    Legend has it that the head architect working on the mosque fell in love with Tamerlane’s wife, Bibi Khanum (hence the name). He beseeched her for a kiss but that fabled kiss left a permanent scar on her lips. Tamerlane was not at all happy when he discovered this and called for the executioner, whereupon the architect promptly climbed to the top of a minaret, sprouted wings, and flew home to Persia! Open daily; entrance is 3000sum.

The Silk Roads