‘All I have heard about the beauty of this city is true, it is just much more beautiful in reality’
- Alexander the Great
Samarkand is one of the most famous cities of ancient Asia, and one of the most famously beautiful. The renowned Registan Square is imposing and intricate, exemplifying the very best of Uzbek architecture and religious grandiosity. Yet, Samarkand is more than Registan. The sprawling, modern city is full of important historical sites, being one of the most important hubs along the ancient silk road. Samarkand was even the capital of the cruel but prolific conqueror Timurlane, whose tomb you can visit in the city. Massacring roughly 17 million people in the process, Timur’s authority stretched across modern Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan, with Samarkand at the helm.
Less cruel than his grandfather, but equally as important for the development of the city, was Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg. A scientist and a scholar, he transformed Samarkand into an important historical hub of scientific study. You can see his handiwork at his Observatory, which still stands and is accessible to tourists.
The glory of Samarkand is, however, largely ancient. The city faded from significance as trade was rerouted through Bukhara as early as the 17th century. Relics of it’s former fame and importance are still evident across the modern city, however.
What is there to see?
Registan Square is the most famous site in Uzbekistan, and it deserves the title. A central square lined by madrasas (literally ‘school’ in Arabic, these are ancient sites of Islamic scholarship), the site is vast and beautiful.
The tombs of Timurlane and Ulugh Beg are situated in the same site, the Gur-i Amir Mausoleum. Their bodies lay alongside their extended family, as well as other significant figures in their lives, such as teachers. There is a legend surrounding the resting place of the great conqueror- it’s supposedly cursed. The king of Iran attempted to steal it once, and failed. Once after, the soviets attempted to exhume the body to examine the remains. Inside, they found an inscription: “Whoever dares to disturb my peace will call the demons of war on their land”. Three days later, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.
Shah-i-zinda is an even more impressive site, if you happen to be a big fan of tombs. Streets of brightly decorated mausoleums, and is an important pilgrimage site as it supposedly houses the body of one of the cousins of the Prophet Mohammad. It’s a fantastic example of Islamic art and architecture, though is typically very popular, meaning there’s plenty of people jostling for perfect photos.
The observatory of Ulugh Beg pays homage to Samarkand’s aforementioned scientific legacy. Despite having been built in the early 15th century, Beg and his contemporaries recorded stars with unparalleled precision, for their day. This observatory is one of the key foundation stones of modern astronomy, and an incredible technological achievement for its time. Though the original site was plundered and largely destroyed by religious fanatics, what remains of the site is open, and there is a museum in place giving information about the site and its significance.
The construction of the Bibi Khayam Mosque was ordered by Timur itself, though was largely left to ruin in the centuries after his death. The soviets began reconstruction of the ruin in the 20th century, and restored its former glory. Though the sites of Uzbekistan are incredibly beautiful, this mosque serves as a clear reminder of the extent to which some of the sites are made up of restored materials, rather than being original relics.
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