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The Odyssey of Samarkand

Perhaps Central Asia’s finest and most illustrious city, Samarkand can quite rightfully claim to be the bond that gelled the glorious Silk Road together. A splendid city having an early history of activity in the local area dating back to the late Palaeolithic era, it is along with Bukhara, one of the regions oldest inhabited cities. Because of its cultural, economic and geopolitical importance, many successive Greek, Persian and Arab empires have fought and ruled this city due to its prized strategic location being at the crossroads between the Mediterranean and China. It is no wonder such a long and prosperous city has witnessed an assortment of new settlers, rulers and civilisations.

Though it was once an enclave where it attracted enterprising merchants, the brightest of intellectuals and holy men of the East, modern day Samarkand may seem a shadow of its former self after more than a century of Russian rule and prior to that, Mongol destruction. Less often now do you see roving merchants on donkeys and camels with their goods pacing the old neighbourhoods but instead, replaced with gas guzzling motors and iconic yellow taxis drifting the spacious avenues in front of sprawling Soviet era and modern buildings. Many doors of houses are painted with a light blue supposedly because of local superstitious beliefs of warding off the evil eye or the colour blue being a symbol of natural wealth and splendour. This is generally the scene away from the main attractions, which boasts majestic madrassas, mosques and mausoleums. The old town quarters of the city though, now seems largely barren and disconnected from the rest of the more bustling city mostly due to city-planners sealing it off from most visitors creating a rather ‘disneyfication’ effect. Despite such questionable attempts to preserve the authenticity of the old quarters, Samarkand is still a remarkable and culturally rich city for the visitor to immerse in. It is after all, a UNESCO World Heritage Site holder.

Brief History

Being one of the oldest settlements of Central Asia, Samarkand (Samarqand) was founded approximately around 6th to 8th century BC on an large oasis in the north-east of now modern day Uzbekistan, and was one of the main centres of Sogdian Civilisation due to its cosmopolitan nature even during its early days. In 329 BC, Alexander the Great conquered the city – which was known as Marakanda to the Greeks and it was he who proclaimed that “Everything I heard about Marakanda is true, except it is even more beautiful than I had imagined”. This period also introduced Central Asia to classical Greek culture.

After being conquered by the Sassanians and various nomadic Turkic empires, the Muslim Ummayad Caliphate captured the city from the Turks in 710. It is also thought that first paper mill in the Islamic world was founded in Samarkand during Abbasid rule after obtaining the secret of papermaking by two Chinese prisoners during the Battle of Talas. From this period until 13th century, the city was one of the most important intellectual centres of the Islamic world home to many thinkers, astronomers and theologians.

The 10th century Iranian author Istakhri provides rich descriptions of the city’s natural beauties and bounties. The Travels of Marco Poloalso describes in his records Samarkand as being “a very large and splendid city”. The Mongol sackings of the 1200’s however, left large parts of the city completely devastated and only really recovered in the 14th century under Amir Timur. Infamous for his raids across the Iranian plateau and northern India, but more locally celebrated for his patron of the arts and grand buildings such as the Bibi-Khanym that decorated the legacy of the Timurid dynasty. Timur reportedly once boasted, “Let he who doubt our power look upon our architecture”.

From 1500 to the late 1800’s, many more dynasties and emirates sought to take control of the city and at times was left uninhabitable due to earthquakes and warring devastation. In 1868, Samarkand came under Russian rule by a force led by Colonel Konstantin von Kaufman by fending off various local challengers. It then became the capital of the newly formed Samarkand Oblast and grew further importance when the Central Asian Railway reached the city in 1888. After becoming the capital of the Uzbek SSR in 1925, it was eventually replaced by current capital Tashkent five years later. 

Samarkand is now a city of just over 500,000 inhabitants comprising of different ethnicities, the largest of whom are Persian speaking Tajiks and Uzbeks. Exact figures are difficult to calculate since most people in Uzbekistan identify themselves as Uzbek despite speaking an eastern Persian language, as was the case Soviet era. A similar situation is also present in other Uzbek cities such as Bukhara and Ferghana. 

Some tips and important information

Best times to visit Samarkand are between April – June where the season is very mild and temperate. Some precipitation may occur but it is not too hot like in the summer months and not bitterly cold like in the winter season. Best to book the best accommodation in high season relatively in advance, as they can get full rather quickly and may be stuck with lesser options in terms of quality of accommodation. 

Also due to the high inflation of the Uzbek som, there is a black market for US dollars so there is little to no risk in exchanging it ‘on the street’. The de facto headquarters of this currency trade is basically situated in the central bazaars, which essentially means everyone exchanges it on the ‘black market rate’. That also includes most hoteliers, restaurateurs, local shops and taxi drivers. Samarkand is overall, a very safe city for anyone to travel to, but it is still best to be vigilant as with travelling to any place.

Visas at this moment are required by all nationalities, but some nationalities like those from Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, France, New Zealand, Canada, Britain and Australia no longer need a Letter of Invitation for tourism purposes. It is important not to overstay ones visa (even for a shore while) as this may result in a large fine and deportation. Best to check with the national department/ministry of your own nation that handles foreign and diplomatic affairs for more nuanced conditions and advice specific to your country to avoid any hassle while you are in Uzbekistan.. 

Main Sights

The Registan – A spectacular public square that was once at the core of ancient Samarkand city during the Timurid dynasty, and the name Registan translates as “sandy place” in Persian. Here, one can witness a union of grand madrassas decorated with ceramic azure tiles shimmering in the crowning sun with wide and vast open spaces. It has been reconstructed several times due to earthquakes and scars suffered from wars, but it still undoubtedly ignites a sense of life that was present when activity in the older Afrosiab area stopped. Visiting Registan should preferably be done twice a day, once during the daytime and in the summer, during evening when one can hear fluid melodies and witness a colourful vista painting its colourful history.

image flickr – The Registan – Jose Javier Martin EspartosaUlugbek Madrassa – The oldest of the three main structures situated on the Western side of Registan Square, when construction was completed in 1420 under Timurid ruler and scientist Ulugbek. It is an imposing structure with a colossal iwan crowned with an azure dyed dome. The external sandy walls are adorned with white, light blue and dark brown tiles in a mixture of mosaic patterns in a geometric fashion. Being an educational institution, many different subjects were taught here such as mathematics, sciences, philosophy and theology. Due to earthquakes and passing time, the madrassa was heavily damaged and many painstaking efforts to preserve in particular the peaking minarets were undertaken throughout the 20th century by Soviet engineers using unique techniques to rescue this masterpiece. 

image flickr – Sherdor Madrassa – Jose Javier Martin EspartosaSherdor Madrassa – On the opposite end, parallels can be drawn with this madrassa with the Ulugbek building particularly in arrangement but somewhat disproportionally. The Sherdor Madrassa boasts an extremely large awning with another large doorway underneath it with the gllazed walls beautified with verses from the Quran and even more interestingly, is ornamented with illustration of tigers with a sun and human face on either side of the entrance but is really meant to be of lions – hence the name “Sher” which means lion despite general traditional Islamic prohibitions of depiction live objects, which is fascinating and unsurprising at the same time since it apparently provoked the uproar of the religious clergy. It is said however, Shaybanid Emir Yalangtush (who commissioned the building) wanted to depict it an emblem to demonstrate their power. Most probably imitating Iranian symbol of the sun and lion, which was on Iran’s flag until the 1979 Revolution. On the inside hall, gold coated bricks with tiles dominate the hall with fine floral and colourfully vibrant designs. 

Tllla Qori Madrassa – Ten years after the completion of the Sherdor Madrasah, work on the Tilla Qori Madrasa, which means “trimmed in gold” with its primary aim of training students to become part and parcel of the mosque. The surfaces of the walls are very much coated in gold and the outdoor garden courtyard sways a very pleasant atmosphere. 

Other nearby buildings includes the historic Mausoleum of the Shaybanids, who are a dynasty that ruled the Khanate of Bukhara. Also a grand structure that houses many tombstones, with the oldest dating back to the 16th century. 

image flickr –Bibi Khanym Mosque– Jose Javier Martin EspartosaBibi Khanym Mosque – No trip to Samarkand is fulfilled until the immense Bibi Khanym Mosque is visited. Situated around a kilometre north of Registan and completed for construction shortly after the death of Timur, it is one of the largest and most impressive in Central Asia and in the Islamic world. Though Timur wished for a mosque to built at the site, it was named in honour and built on the orders of his most dear Chinese wife– Bibi Khanym to surprise him after his long and arduous months away for war in India. Folklore has it that the architect of the mosque fell in love with Timur’s wife and would even refuse to complete construction until she agreed to kiss him. She reluctantly agreed since completing the mosque was her first priority and upon Timur’s immediate arrival back to Samarkand, he noticed the kiss mark on his face and then executed the architect. He then subsequently decreed that all women within his realm must wear the veil so not to tempt other men. According to the Spanish ambassador Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, who visited Samarkand in 1404, the grand mosque of the city "belongs to the most magnificent buildings, which the king Timur is still raised". The height of the mosque is about 41m high and slightly less in diameter. Inside the courtyard, a giant marble Quran stand is signed with an inscription glorifying the Timurid ruler. The mosque is also heavily decorated with Arabic calligraphy and inscriptions, glazed bricks and with geometric patterns much like the madrassas. It fell into heavily dilapidation during the years due to earthquakes and ill maintenance and was only properly restored at the start of the 1970’s and was finished only recently. Such is testament of Timur’s might that it is reflected in the architecture and size of the buildings, which mirrors the vastness of his empire.

image flickr – Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum – Jose Javier Martin EspartosaGur-e-Amir Mausoleum – Buried in this mausoleum is Amir Timur, along with two of his sons and grandsons along with Ulugbek. Timur had initially buried his grandson and predicted heir, Mohammed Sultan here when he was just 27 years old under a fairly modest crypt after he died returning from a trip apparently from the Asia Minor. Timur himself had plans to for a tomb to be built in his hometown of Shahrisabz, but his sudden death after planning for an expedition to attack Ming China and a complex situation led to him being buried in Samarkand. Many mystical stories have been associated with this tomb. According to one of them, in 1740, the Persian general Nadir Shah brought a jade tombstone of the Emir, made from a single block of jade back to Persia, and put it a step in front of his throne. It is said that the Shah gained bad luck from the stone including his son being on the brick of death. His advisers persuaded him to immediately return the stone to its rightful place, and this was done, but the stone on the road split into two parts. His son though, did recover. Another mystical story was on June 21st 1941, Soviet archaeologists uncovered Timur’s tomb with an inscription that said, “do not disturb my grave, or else a fate worse than I will dawn upon you”. The very next day, Adolf Hitler launched his attack on the Soviet Union. Outside the tomb, it is known for its simplicity of design but like with all of Timur’s authorised buildings, it is a grand structure with a large azure coloured dome with blue and white tiles on the walls. 

image flickr –Shah-i-Zinda– Jose Javier Martin EspartosaShah-i-Zinda – The avenue of Mausoleums, and perhaps one of the best displays of tile work in one single area can be found here, the Shah-i-Zinda also known as ”The Living King” in reference to the legend that the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Kusam ibn Abbas, is buried there, is a necropolis in the north-eastern part of Samarkand formed over nice centuries (11th till 19th century). There are eleven mausoleums and are all attached to each other all decorated with carvings and ivory. At the centre of the complex lays Kusam ibn Abbas’s tomb and his headstone is richly coloured with gold, blue with a hint of green. Though the best-preserved tombs are ones from Timur’s family, which is the middle group of buildings. Near the entrance stands who is thought to be the tomb of Rumi Ulugbek who was widely considered the greatest astronomer and mathematician of his time. At the upper end, amongst a few others lays the mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed built before Timur’s time in 1340. After surviving for centuries nearly intact without much restoration aside from a filling in gaps, several of the Shah-i-Zinda tombs contentiously went under a full restoration scheme. So unfortunately, much of the majolica, carvings, brickwork and beautiful mosaics you see today are not entirely the original. Still, the Shah-i-Zinda is a place of great significance and respect so it is important to enter upon the mausoleum dress conservatively. It is well worth the visit just viewing the showcase of some of the most brilliant works of craftsmanship in the East.

image flickr –Ancient ruins of Afrosiab – Peretz PaternskyAncient Afrosiab – The oldest part of the ruins of ancient Samarkand that was a settlement from around 500 BC until 1220 AD, when activity from that area was ended and then replaced by Registan. What was once a place of lively markets, working artisans and social events, it is now cluster of barren, abandoned hills but it is thought to be the famous Marakanda that Alexander the Great entered upon for which he noted for its great beauty. The walls can also contains frescos from the 7th century of a ruler receiving foreign dignitaries along with camels and elephants bearing gifts including men and women with festive costumes. The Museum of City History also contains many artefacts from the city’s history such as pottery, knives, swords, arrows and coins as well as many other relics of interest. After visiting the museum, one can also wander around the Afrosiab from the height of the hills for a picturesque and panoramic view of the old city. 

image flickr –Uluegbek Observatory– Jose Javier Martin EspartosaUlugbek’s Observatory – One of the best archaeological findings in Central Asia daring back to 1420 but destroyed in 1449, the remains of the observatory was discovered in 1908 and it was named after the ruler Ulugbek who was not only a leader but an astronomer in his right where he observed star positions. The Uzbek poet Alisher Navoi in tribute to Ulugbek and praised his contribution to science whilst Laplace called him the best observer in astronomy to have ever lived. The entrance of the laboratory was re-modified several times and the small onsite museum contains some more artefacts from Afrosiab along with ceramics and depictions of Ulugbek himself.

Mausoleum of the Old Testament Prophet Daniel (Daniyar) – The remains of the Prophet Daniel lie in this long and narrow mausoleum topped with domes on the banks of the Siob River. There is popular belief that his tomb guards against troubles and brings prosperity, as well as the 18m long coffin growing by an each every good year. So how did remnants of the biblical figures tomb end up in Samarkand? According to legend, Timur wanted Samarkand to receive the same protection and prosperity as the people of Susa did when he unsuccessfully tried to conquer the ancient city in Persia. Allegedly, another tomb in Susa exists which is also supposedly Daniel’s. Lending credence to the suspicion that its in fact ashes of his from his tomb mixed with local earth that is actually in Samarkand since it is known that a Muslim’s remains cannot be disturbed after burial.

Rukhabad Mausoleum - Which means ‘abode of the spirit’ was one of the first buildings erected by Timur during his reign and hence one of the oldest in the city. It is tomb of the famous Islamic theologian and Sufi saint Shaykh Burhan al-Din Sagardzhi and his family who was a highly influential figure in the court and was one of the first propagators of Islam in East Turkestan (modern day Xinjiang). It is said that Timur respected him so much that he never went passed his tomb on horseback but he used to dismount and then past it on foot. It is a famous place of pilgrimage and attraction, and also houses a souvenir and craft shop.

Samarkand Carpet Factory ‘Hudzhum’ – Carpet weaving in the Eastern domain has always had a special place for admiration and refinement. For centuries, a good carpet symbolised prosperity and grace and in Samarkand, that tradition has been handed down through generation of the skill and the art of handcrafted carpet and this is one of the places such tokens of fineness is fashioned. One can witness it all done by hand stage by stage using various different materials and classic techniques and in addition, a ready made or customised carpet of ones choice can be ordered here to bring home as a unique gift from Samarkand.

Memorial Complex of Imam al-Bukhari – The tomb of one of the most celebrated Islamic scholars and hadith collector (sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari is located in Hartank a village about 20 km from Samarkand. The mosque on the site is rather small in size but has brightly restored ceilings with all tall arch columns. All visitors are welcome but remember to dress conservatively.

Regional Studies Museum – Situated in an old Jewish merchants house, it contains old photos of Samarkand and Bukhara’s diverse population. Also at the museum contains old ceramics and other historical relics.

Hazrat Khizr Mosque – An old mosque with great beauty, it is located just south of the ancient Afrosiab settlement near the Bibi Khaymn Mosque and Bazaar. It was destroyed by Genghis Khan’s army and was restored several times but it still retains an pleasant charm of a high “avian” canopy with well carved doors. 

Khovrenko Wine Factory – Named after the successor of Russian business D.M Filatov, M.A Khovrenko helped preserve much of the winemaking techniques that his predecessor sought to preserve after centuries of abandonment. An excellent place to taste wine but one is still welcome to visit without doing any wine tasting. 

Accommodation

Jahongir B&Bwww.jahongirbandb.com - +998 91 521 67 48 - A pleasant guesthouse that is situated close to the old town. Has a nice courtyard outside with a rustic charm and vines and a real local and fresh feel in general. All rooms are equipped with air condition; a fridge, contemporary bathroom and most should have a TV. WiFi should be available throughout the hotel. A highly recommended place to stay.

AnticaThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. - +998 93 336 17 93 - A beautiful place to stay that has a lovely courtyard shaded with fruit trees. Close to the Gur-e-Amir, staying here is a treat for a great cultural experience. Rooms can be a little small but tastefully decorated and should offer all the basic amenities such as WiFi and towels. A great place to stay.

Emir B&BThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. - +998 66 235 74 61 - A hostel with a great location at just an arms length distance to the Gur-e-Amir, The place is nicely decorated with traditional carpets, tapestry and wooden furniture. Breakfast is a treat and the courtyard is pleasant and quite. Rooms can be a little small again but has all the basic services. Highly recommended.

Hotel Arbawww.hotel-arba.com - +998 66 233 60 67 - Situated close to the city centre but quite a distance from Registan, it is of the more grand hotels good for comfort and space and up to date interior. A nice hotel to stay for a reasonable price with around 22 guest rooms.

FurqatThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. - +998 66 235 62 99 - The 26 rooms of this guesthouse are richly furnished with local and colourful quilts and tapestry. Has a rather old house feel but the garden is full of beautiful vines and the top terrace has a great view of Registan when having breakfast. Every room includes a T.V, minibar and private bathroom with a hairdryer and its a very short distance from the main historical attractions.

Hotel Ark Samarkand – +998 66 235 69 41 - An excellent location being straight across from Registan, the rooms are comfortable and refurbished and lightly adorned decor. Though it is quite dear compared to the other hotels, it has a very warm and comfortable feeling so one can expect a pleasant stay.

Eating and Drinking

Restaurant Samarkand – A fairly large restaurant that serves good, local Uzbeki and common food such as Plov, Kebabs, chicken and fish and vegetable options. Very popular with locals but also with rich Uzbeks, and has a good atmosphere though the place may be opulently adorned with some loud music on the ground floor, it has a nice ambience to the place for enjoyable experience especially for a special occasion.

Platan – A great place to eat at. Might seem like a tourist trap at first but away from the tourist filed rooms, the place is spacious and airy with live music and lots of good food in particular the mutton dishes of both Central Asian and international variety. Also includes a vast selection of vegetable only selections, which is rather rare in Samarkand.

Osh Markazi – The best Plov is where the locals eat, and its not hard to see why. It is literally called ‘Plov Centre” for a reason since it speciality is a tasty and meaty Plov along with great appetizers and plates of salads. 

Oasis Garden – The interior of this restaurant is cosy and reserved with some contemporary décor. The menu is extensive in both Russian and English language with plenty of varied European selections along with a wide selection of alcoholic drinks.

T.Bone Café & Bar – Probably the best European style food and bar place in Samarkand. The menu lists a great range soups, salads, meats and wines along with coffees and desserts. Quite a cosmopolitan place since it is rather expensive and trendy cafe for most locals so its usually crowded with young and modern professionals. Brilliant place for a meal.

Besh Chinor – Clean and friendly with an authentic atmosphere, this is a great local spot for great pilov and kebabs that are flavoursome and tender. Though hardly much English is spoken here, you can choose which dishes you would like by going into the kitchen for a ‘visual selection’. Some traditional live music is played here too which makes for a really pleasant occasion.

Kerimbek – Though it seems to cater largely for tourists because of the English menu, this place was still mixed with locals and has somewhat Middle Eastern ambience. The dishes are appetising and the waiters are super friendly and helpful. A lot of live music and dancing goes on at night especially to add extra savoury to a great meal.

Shopping

Siob Bazaar – Located behind the Bibi-Khanym, the main market is a place full activity and colour, with an assortment of sights, sounds and smells of fruits, vegetables, spices and baking bread – especially the famous ‘non’ bread. Visiting the bazaar is an excellent of learning more about the local food and ways of life since it is full of life and not too over crowded as some others bazaars are around the world. 

Many souvenir and craft shops can be found in the Registan where the Madrasahs are which includes some really fine pottery of different designs, colours and designs along with other ceramics and paintings. Ethnic clothing and top-quality tapestries and carpets are also on display on the stalls which Samarkand definitely prides itself in.

Useful links

http://www.centralasia-travel.com/en (tours, expeditions, hotels and other useful information can be found on this website)

www.sogda-tour.com

www.uzairways.com - Uzbekistan Airways.

www.en.sharqtaronalari.uz - Samarkand’s cultural festivals and music

 

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