Swooning over Samarkand

Our Tashkent hotel was lovely but unfortunately, we had no time to enjoy it after arriving at 9pm and leaving the next morning at 6.30am when we set off to the train station.

Everything was so clean and efficient – I saw at least 10 ladies cleaning the streets between the hotel and the station which was only a 15 minute drive! 

The cleanliness and efficiency continued when we got to the train station to catch the wonderful high speed Afrosiyob train.  The train has a high speed of 344 kilometres per hour, but on this leg of the journey it only made it up to about 250km. The seats were huge, with lots of leg room and incredibly comfortable, made even more so on the 2 hour journey by the availability of food and barista coffee!  Really very luxurious.

Samarkand is another clean, beautiful train station and it was easy enough to get everything and everyone off the train and onwards to meet our new guide – Hanifa.  Unlike the other countries where we had one guide throughout the country, in Uzbekistan we have a different guide in each city. Apparently, they need to get qualified as a guide in each city so most just specialise in one.   It was a bit of a shame really as we don’t get the chance to get to know them that well as we did in the other countries, though it does mean they know their stuff (not that the others didn’t lol).

So, to start with a brief history of Samarkand (though I am not sure it is possible to write a brief history of a city so old!!) …  along with Bukhara (which is our next stop), Samarkand is one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia and it was the capital of the Timurid Empire during the 14-15th centuries.  Tamerlane ruled his vast empire with an iron fist, but at the same time he was a patron of the arts and literature and he oversaw the rebuild of much of the city to make it a grand and beautiful city. Luckily, much of his architectural heritage (dating back to the 14/15th centuries) has been persevered (thankfully the Russian’s left it alone) for us to see today – and it is spectacular!

As with many cities and towns along the Silk Road, the city has been the scene of much history and has played an important role in many dynastys with the earliest excavations finding evidence of human activity dating back to 40,000 years! Alexander the Great conquered the city in 329 BC, sparking the beginning of the Hellenistic period which came to an end when it was conquered by the Persian Sassanians around 260 CE.

The early Islamic era started after the Arab conquest of Iran which lead to Turks taking over the city but when their empire collapsed due to wars with the Chinese Tang Dynasty and the city became a diverse religious community for a period of time. Even today there is evidence of Zorastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity religions among others. This period of religious calm came to an end when an Arab garrison and administration centre was established.  Much of the population converted to Islam and the city started it’s development as a centre for Islamic learning.

The Mongols conquered Samarkand in 1220 and pillaged the population of the city, taking with them 30,000 young men and 30,000 craftsmen. Clearly they did not do much damage as Marco Polo described the city in this records from the late 13th century as “a very large and splendid city …”.

The Timurid Empire came to an end in 1500 when Uzbek soliders took control of the city. The capital was moved to Bukhara, leaving Samarkand to fall in to decline but when the Imperial Russian empire turned up in 1868, they started to build their own section of the city which again became a capital city, this time of the Smarakand Oblast of Russian Turkestan (bit of a mouthful!). It became even more important when the Trans-Caspian railway reached it in 1888.

All of that leaves us with the city of three parts we see today – the new town (founded in the 19th century by the Russian empire), the old town (founded around the end of the 13th century after the Mongol attack) and the ancient town (founded 2750 years ago).  With so much to see, we started our sightseeing straight away with our first stop being the Gur-Emir mausoleum, just around the corner from the hotel.  

The mausoleum was completed in 1404 and is the resting place of Mongol conqueror Tamerlane.  It was originally intended to be the tomb of his grandson, Muhammad Shah so it is not as grand as one may expect, but he (after the died unexpectedly), his grandson and a number of other family members were interned there and to be fair it is still pretty grand with the interior walls covered in beautiful tiles with gold inscriptions.  As with most of the sites in Uzbekistan, the mausoleum has been heavily restored, the adjacent madrasa and other buildings have not been rebuilt or restored.

A grand portrait of Tamerlane hangs in the mausoleum.  Nobody really knows what he looked like it, and legend has it, his skull was exhumed so they could try and recreate his appearance – now that is dedication to your art!

We have been lucky enough to have two weeks of very few tourists and almost no crowds – but this all changed in Samarkand!!  We probably saw more tourists in one day than we had in the rest of the trip – still, the crowds were nothing compared to Dubrovnik or other European cities I had visited. 🥴 

The next stop was Registan Square, one of Samarkand’s and in fact Uzbekistan’s most famous landmarks.   The area was a public square where people gathered to hear royal proclamations and it was the hub of the Timurid Renaissance.  (Of course, people are still gathering there today). The square is framed by 3 beautiful madrassas (built between 1417 and 1636) which were Muslim schools up until the revolution in 1917 but these days they are mostly souvenir shops and it has been beautifully restored inside and out.  Photos really do not do it justice.

After a short break for some food, we headed to the Bibi-Khanum Mosque – legend says this building was a gift to Tamerlane by his Chinese wife (he apparently had 9 wives, plus concubines!).  This mosque is one of the most important monuments in Samarkand, built in the 15th century it was one of the largest and most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world.  Sadly, much of the mosque was destroyed in a large earthquake in 1897 but we are lucky today to be able to see much of it reconstructed (as are most of the famous monuments in Uzbekistan). 

Some parts of this mosque were not completed restored, but you can still see some of the original decoration.  I was interested to learn that they only restore areas where they have part of the original decoration to work from i.e., they won’t just make things up. If they do not know what the original decoration was, they will often leave it blank. 

After another long day I had an early night – after two weeks in of intense travel, I was craving a little more solo time so was missing a few dinners to get it!  And finally, the following morning we were not meeting until 10am.  As I always awake early, I took the opportunity to go for a short walk around before joining the group.

I did not miss the opportunity to see the Gur-Emir mausoleum at night, and then again in the morning, as the sun came up from the roof of our hotel – my early morning rising was definitely rewarded.

The second morning in Samarkand started at Shahi Zinda, or the Alley or Avenue of Mausoleums.  It is an ancient cemetery and is one of the longest-running examples of continually constructed buildings in the world, with tombs and buildings ranging from 9th century through to the 19th century.  Legend has it, that one of the prophets cousins, Kusam ibn Abbas, is buried in the complex after he came to the area in the 7th century to preach Islam.

 The alley of stunningly beautiful buildings, most covered in vibrant turquoise tiles and intricate wood carvings was just stunning, particularly in the morning light.   The visit was made even more special when inside one of the small rooms, a man started praying, with the beautiful musical prayers echoing around the small room. 

Next stop was Ulgubek’s Observatory.  Ulgubek (sometimes know as Ulugh Beg) was the grandson of Tamerlane and was a great astronomer and mathematician.  He became ruler of the Timurid Empire in the 15th century and between 1424 and 1429 he built this incredible observatory which was considered to have been the biggest in Central Asia, and one of the finest in the Islamic world.

The original observatory was lost in 1449 (it was a round structure, 3 story’s high outside and 3 stories deep) and its remains were rediscovered in 1908. The original part that we can see today is the underground trench, with the lower section of the meridian arc. When originally built, the walls of the trench was lined with polished marble.

Ulgubek was way ahead of Europeans in understanding the stars, and it is said that  Europeans used his catalogue of stars until the telescope was invented in 17th century.   The observatory was even written about by Babur in his memoirs (a descent of both Temurlane and Genghis Khan), one of the first royals to write with ‘#nofilter’ (so he certainly annoyed some people 😂).

After exploring the museum at the observatory, we headed out of the city a little to visit a mulberry paper factory.   Even today, this paper manufacturer follows the ancient process brought from China in the 7th century (apprently from Chinese prisoners) and Samarkand became famous for paper marking, having the first paper mill in the Islamic world.  Even the infamous Babur memoirs, he also wrote about the very strong paper that came from the city.

The ancient manufacturing process was lost during the Soviet times and but was revived in 1995 by this small manufacturing business.   It was a very interesting, but completely manual process that took days to produce only the smallest amount of paper so not sure how lucrative it would be without the tourists.

In summary you cut the wood, wet it, remove the bark, dry it, boil it (for 5 hours), crush it using the water wheel (the process requires a lot of water), then wet it again, collect the bits from the water and press (with stones) between two sheets of cotton and final rub with a stone to make it smooth.  Just a few steps lol.

The drive back to the city was crazy, the traffic was reminiscent of India or Vietnam, not the easy going Central Asia we had grown used to!

After a late lunch we had out final stop in Samarkand was to see the remains of the ancient part of the city – Afrasiyab.   Afrasiyab was occupied from 500 BC (the Sogidan culture) to 1220 AD but today is just a hilly grass mound on an elevated area.  The site was discovered in the 1920’s but was actively excavated in the 1960’s, and this uncovered some amazing frescoes which are now housed in the Afrasiyab Museum of Samarkand and I can only describe them as wow!  Incredible to see some these arts works from so long ago. 

The best part about them for me, was the insight they give in to the lives of those who lived there and the people who visited, mostly during the 7th century and the Unash dynasty.  One depicts a procession of a king and princess (perhaps the arrival of a royal bride) with camels and birds, and links to the Zoroastrian religion – possibly the main Sogdiana religion (before the Arab invasion).

In another fresco, there is a reception of ambassadors.  Unfortunately, it was not well preserved, but you can still pick out the Koreas (apparently it was restored by Korean restorers who took special care with the restoration of the Korean ambassadors in the image??).  Others than can be identified are described as “Iranian Europoids” and “Turkic Mongoloids” and it describes a confusing time (certainly for me) as the Varkhuman dynasty was Turkic and the local Iranian elite was gradually replaced by the Turkic!

There are images of what looks like Chinese women, floating in boats and another fresco depicts hunters on a great hunt.  There are also images of running dogs (possibly dachshunds), a sacred animal of Zoroastrianism.

I had a brief opportunity to wander around the souvenir shops and market, before an early dinner (though it truly felt like we had just had lunch) and a quick stop to see Registan square at night before we headed back to the train station to get back on the Afrosiyob train to our next destination.