Samarkand, the heart of the silk road, is an ancient city full of stunning architecture and fascinating history. At 2,750 years old, it is a similar age to Rome or Babylon and is often called ‘The Pearl of the Muslim World.’ So let’s explore Samarkand, one of the first places where human civilization began to develop and the spirit of the ancients can still be felt amongst the monuments, mosques and archeological treasures.
HISTORY OF THE HEART OF THE SILK ROAD
Samarkand’s location in the Zerafstan River valley, at the intersection of the Silk Road trade routes to Persia, China and India has led to it seeing both destruction by foreign invaders and triumphant revival. Alexander the Great, The Arab Conquest, Genghis Khan and finally the great conqueror Timur have all had big influences on the city leading to a vibrant mix of Iranian, Indian, Mongolian, Eastern and Western cultures.
Throughout its history Samarkand has been a centre of various religions, scientific discoveries, outstanding craftsmanship and education. The evidence of the hugely important part the city has played in the development of human life can still be found in the numerous museums and in the fabric of the incredible buildings waiting to be explored. Along with holy city of Bukhara, Samarkand is one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia.
Timur, the Turco-Mongol conqueror is one of history’s most fearsome and merciless figures. His military and political ambitions were responsible for the deaths of around 17 million people. In 1370 he made Samarkand his capital city and the influence of his rule can be found throughout the city in the magnificent structures and buildings he designed and built. Timur was a keen patron of the arts and brought all the best artisans and craftsmen to Samarkand from the countries he had conquered to help him create this extraordinary city.
LET’S EXPLORE SAMARKAND
Be amazed at the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum
The Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum is in the south-west of Samarkand and was built in the 15th century. It is a complex of imposing buildings including a Khanaka (a place of spiritual retreat for Sufi Muslims), a Madrasah that was built at the behest of Muhammad Sultan, Timur’s grandson, and the tombs of Timur himself and his descendants.
The burial section of the mausoleum is marked with gravestones with the tombs underneath. Timur’s gravestone is a single piece of jade. It’s sobering to think of the remains of a man that shaped the face and future of the world using violence and brutality laying quietly at my feet.
I loved the decorations inside the dome and on the vault walls. Light and dark blue glazed bricks, are studded with rosettes to mimic stars and there are gorgeous onyx panels covered in paintings, carvings and precious stones.
Fall in love with Registan Square
The Registan was an important part of Timur’s city. The square was a bustling place full of traders, neighbours sharing news and shopping at the bazaar. It was also the political hub of Samarkand in which public proclamations were made and public executions were carried out. Timur enjoyed a good beheading of an enemy!
Today three enormous and breath-taking buildings loom over the square – The Ulugh Beg Madrasah, Sher-Dor Madrasah, Tilya-Kori Madrasah. They were completed after Timur’s death by his sons and grandsons and they have become an iconic symbol of the city. We visited this incredible place during the day but I know that at night, when it is all lit up The Registan is even more impressive.
Wander around the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis
This complex of holy buildings was founded over 1000 years ago to mark the site where legend suggests that Muhammed’s cousin Kusam Ibn Abbas was buried. Abbas came to Samarkand from Mecca to spread the teachings of Islam in the 7th century. Local legend suggests that he was attacked by Pagans while praying and was saved by an Islamic saint who helped him escape into an underground paradise where he still lives. There is an inscription at the site which reads ‘Those who are slain while following Allah’s way are never counted dead. No, they are alive’
Throughout the years, even up to modern times, new temples, mausoleums and buildings have been added. This has created a fascinating, evolving site showing the various styles of architecture, traditions and decorative crafts as they have developed through hundreds and hundreds of years of continuing work.
Wandering around the necropolis is like travelling through the layers of history. One step takes you into a new century of design so that the new and very old, the dead and the living are all mixed up together. As with most of the incredible places to be discovered in Samarkand the necropolis is a feast for the eyes. Every new site is more gorgeous than the last. The ancient people of this city were truly incredible artists and craftsmen.
Visit Bibi-Khanym Mosque
Bibi-Khanym Mosque can be found North-West of The Registan. It is enormous and was once one of the world’s biggest mosques. The top of the distinctive turquoise domed cupola is 41 metres high. The mosque is likely to have been one of Timur’s greatest treasures and was paid for by the spoils of his invasion of India.
Building the mosque was a massive challenge at the time and construction was difficult and a long process. Samarkand is a city of myth and majesty and one of the best parts of travel is hearing the stories attached to the places I visit. The legend attached to the mosque suggests that the architect had more to worry about than building plans.
Bibi-Khanym was the name of Timur’s Chinese wife and it is said she had the mosque built as a surprise for her husband to come home to. The architect fell stupidly in love with her and would not finish the mosque until she allowed him to kiss her. His passionate kiss left a mark which revealed the tryst to Timur who executed the love-struck man and insisted his wife and all other women should henceforth wear veils so that there would be no further temptation.
Inside the mosque is a courtyard with two smaller mosques, make sure that you explore them too. Inside one is a wonderful display of un-restored ancient Islamic calligraphy. There is a vast marble Quran stand in the courtyard. Local women are meant to crawl underneath as it is thought that any woman who does will have lots of children. I imagine many modern women wouldn’t dream of going near it.
Souvenir shopping in Siyob Bazaar
The bazaar is the vibrant, busy beating heart of every city in Central Asia. A great bazaar like Siyob, the one we visited, is a shopping centre full of everything you could ever want to buy but much more intense and fun. A traveller can really get to know a city from the local’s point of view in the bazaar, it’s where they come to shop, meet friends and catch up on news. In Siyob it was great to see people dressed in traditional clothing and continuing a style of commercialism that has been around for a thousand years.
The Siyob Bazzar is a 10 minute walk from The Registan and right next to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque. Each type of product is collected together in its own market for convenience. Each stall holder and trader considers themselves as part of a community rather than as a competitor to his neighbour which I think is ace. The banter and warmth shared by the people working here really made me smile.
Driving a good bargain is part of an authentic bazaar experience and is expected. I know that some people hate it but the local people are so friendly and happy that it’s not at all intimidating. The colourful spices, tasty fruit and veg and unique craft items are all worth a barter over, you’ll come away with treasure.
Stargazing at Ulugh Beg Observatory
Ulugh Beg was Timur’s grandson and is the same man who built the first Madrassah on The Registan. He was an astronomer and a mathematician who loved the sciences of trigonometry and spherical geometry.
Ulugh Beg built his Observatory in the 1420’s and it was a centre of learning and education throughout his life. The building was a three storey cylinder which housed three massive astronomical instruments. The main one, the Fakhri sextant, is an arc stone corridor with a window at the end. It is still intact and was used to measure the angle of elevation of stars and planets. This allowed the astronomers to work out the length of a year and the rotational axis of the earth. Ulugh Beg and his colleagues were startling in their accuracy. The astronomers also created a star map of over 1018 stars. This was an incredible achievement in an era before telescopes had even been thought about.
The observatory was almost completely destroyed after Beg’s death and the scientists were sent away. The exact location was lost from living memory and the remains of the building and the work done there weren’t re-discovered until 1908 by Vassily Vyatkin a Russian archaeologist who is now buried there.
EXPLORE SAMARKAND: TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
Best time of year to visit Samarkand
The spring months from May to June and the autumn months from September to November are great times of year to visit Samarkand. Avoid summer months of July and August, can be hot and dry and in the winter months, the temperatures drops dramatically making it harder to explore Samarkand for very different reasons.
Getting around the city of Samarkand
- Bicycle – We travelled around the city on bicycles which can be hired from shops in the centre of the city. Make sure you have your wits about you though! The roads can be very busy and it seems that it isn’t usual to check what’s coming before opening your car door. Our group had a few near misses.
- Buses – You can catch the mini buses that travel all around the city for around 900 Som per journey. There is also a little electric cart that costs 1000 Som and will shuttle you between The Registan and Syobi Bazaar.
- Taxis – The standard fare for a taxi between the old and the new town is 3000 Som. Make sure that you are getting into a registered taxi.
Where to stay in Samarkand
The best place to be near is Registan Square to make it easier to explore Samarkand and you will find many hotels to suit any budget.
Tours of Samarkand sights
Samarkand is a pretty easy city to get around so you can self-guide but you may be missing out gems of knowledge that you can only get from local guides. In Samarkand there is a wealth of history and culture you seriously don’t want to miss!
Getting a Visa for Uzbekistan
Since February 2018, following political changes in Uzbekistan, the Visa requirements have relaxed somewhat. There are some visa free countries but the majority, including the U.K can either travel visa free if staying for five days in transit or apply for a tourist visa through an embassy or the e-visa website.
Please be aware that if you are planning to use the new e-visa service, it has glitches and requires patience and starting your application well before you travel.
If you’re planning on backpacking around Central Asia, this guide will help you with land border crossings and visas on the road!
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