Few towns along the Silk Road have such a resonance as Samarkand in Uzbekistan. Travelers have grown romantic around this historic city for centuries. When Alexander the Great was here on one of the farthest ends of his empire building, he declared: “Everything I have heard about Samarkand is true, except that it is even more beautiful than I had imagined.”
Samarkand has had many ups and downs since then, but it owes its current incarnation to the vision of “one family.” The Turkish-Mongol conqueror Timur, also known as Tamerlane in the West, was born a century after Genghis Khan, but his epic campaigns across Asia spilled almost as much blood. His armies ravaged as far away as Syria, Persia, and India. The spoils of war flowed back to Samarkand, not least the artisans he needed to transform his capital into an imperial trophy. His grandson, Ulug Beg – also one of the most renowned astronomers of the Middle Ages – continued the family’s building tradition and helped to make Samarkand the marvel it is today.
The most important among the glories of Samarkand is Registan, a large public square flanked by three mattresses (Islamic colleges), the first of which was built by Ulug Beg. As an ensemble, they are one of the most dramatic architectural statements in the Islamic world. Stunning mosaics and tiles adorn massive portals, and huge melon domes in turquoise are flanked by powerful minarets that shoot straight out of the ground.
Northeast of Registan is the Bibi Khanum Mosque, Timur’s largest holding, with a blue and cafe-au-lait brick arched entrance 35 meters high and a series of domes stretching behind it. The mosque was built so quickly that it began to crumble almost as soon as it was finished, but a restoration from the late 20th century brought the complex back to life (albeit with a veneer that looks a little too pristine in some light).
Perhaps more impressive is the Shah-i-Zindah, a necropolis with a tangle of domes and massive portals and the tombs of the best and most luminous in the Timurid Empire. The tile and mosaic work here offers stylized calligraphy, intricate floral designs, arabesques and more shades of blue than you can imagine.
Timur is himself buried in his own mausoleum, the magnificent Gur-i-Mir. For such a world-changing figure, it is a surprisingly modest affair, but its tall portal, blue ribbed dome and blunt minarets are classics in the style that makes the city so famous. It was said that anyone who dared to open Timur’s tomb would trigger a war that was more terrible than even those he had waged. Russian archaeologists did just that in 1941 to examine his remains, and three days later the Nazis launched their surprising invasion of the Soviet Union. Visitors to Samarkand today are advised not to do anything more dramatic than take a picture.
Headline image lent by Ekrem Canli
On the way
Would you like to visit Samarkand? G Adventures can get you there. Check out ours small group trips to Uzbekistan!!