Throughout its history this fabled oasis at the fringes
of the Kyzylkum Desert has left its visitors breathlesss
at the sight of its blue cupolas, its minarets and the
sublime larger-than-life monuments of Timur.
Samarkand or Marakanda was probably founded about 500
BC, and historians refer to it as the "Pearl of the Islamic
World", "Eden of Ancient East", "Rome of the East", "Peak
of the Land". Its territories have been conquered by and
lived under some of the most ferocious armies of history
- Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane or Timur.
The latter made the city his capital and named it the
"Centre of the Universe". A must to almost any traveller,
most of the architectural monuments of the city are heritage
to Timur, his grandson Ulughbek and the Uzbek Shaybanids.
Samarkand's culture shows Iranian, Indian, Persian, and
Mongolian, and being the central part of the Silk Road,
Chinese, Mideastern and Europeaninfluenced . Its period
of greatest development was at the height of the trade
on the Silk Road beginning in the 2nd century until the
The centrepiece of the city and one of Central Asia's
most awe-inspiring sights is the Registan, an ensemble
of majestic, tilting medressas offering an overload of
majolica, azure mosaics and vast, beautifully proportioned
Restored in its original splendour the artwork on the
Registan is one of the most important monuments of Islamic
arts. The ensemle consists of Ulughbek Madrassah
to the west side of the square, memorial to the ruler
dating back from 1417-20 and accommodating at least 100
students of Islamic and secular sciences at the time in
its two storey dormitory cells. Almost like a mirror stands
the Shaybanid Emir Yanangtush's Sher Dor Madrassah
(1619-35), with its roaring felines, characterising the
name (Lion Medresse) and a, for Islamic arts unusual,
depiction of live animals. The third building inbetween
is the Tillya Kari Madrassah, (gold-covered) completed
by the Emir in 1660.
The gigantic congregational Bibi-Khanym Mosque nearby
the Registan is powerful and shapely, even in ruin, and
was the jewel of Timur's empire. It's a victim of its
own grandeur, since it was once one of the Islamic world's
biggest mosques and pushed construction techniques to
the limit; slowly crumbling for centuries, it finally
collapsed in an earthquake in 1897.
Bibi Khanum being Timur's Chinese wife, the Mosque is
one of Timur's most ambitious projects and was to exceed
anything he had encountered on his campaigns and was built
between 1399 and 1404.
There is a giant marble Quran stand in the open courtyard
The most moving of Samarkand's sights is Shahr-i-Zindar,
a street of tombs mostly belonging to Timur and Ulughbek's
family and favourites, including one said to be that of
a much revered cousin of the prophet Muhammad. Though
disfigured by donation boxes, the tombs are decorated
with some of the city's finest majolica tilework.
Shahr-i-Zindar stands for 'The living King', and refers
to the holiest Mausoleum of this place of pilgrimage,
probably the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of Prophet
Mohammed who is said to have brought Islam to the area.
Also adorned with exceptional tilework the other tombs
belong to Timur's and Ulughbek's family and friends.
Gur Emir Mausoleum
Timur's favourite grandson erected this Madrassah and
Khanagha 1400-1401, Timur erected the adjectant mausoleum.
Although Timur had built himself a separate crypt at Shahrisabz,
he was buried at Gur Emir (Tomb of the Emir) in 1405.
Two of his sons and grandsons including Ulughbek also
lie buried in the crypt underneath the inner room.
See the story on the Samarkand
region page for more information.
The best live show in town is the main bazaar around the
Bibi-Khanym Mosque. The kinetic, colourful main farmers'
market is a regular Tower of Babel, and full of the dresses
and shawls, hats and turbans, of just about every ethnic
group in existence in the region.
Ulughbek (1394-1449) has built this initially 30 m, three
storey observatory for his astronomic work in the 1420s.
The remains include the instrument's track ecavated in
1908. Following Ulughbek's achievements Samarkand was
to become one of the world's scientific centres in the
Closeby the Observatory, Afrosiab are the excavations
of early Marakanda, a.o. the restored tomb of Prophet
Daniel. Together with the fine Sogdian arts examples the
7th century frescoes at the nearby Afrosiab Museum are
one of the most interesting points of the site.
There are daily flights between Tashkent and Samarkand.
Otherwise it's a five hour bus or train ride across the
flat, dry 'Hungry Steppe'. Buses run between Samarkand
and Tashkent, Bukhara, Dushanbe and Almaty.
to continue to Shakhrisabz!