Silk Road Series: Samarkand, Uzbekistan
“We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.”
-From a poem by James Elroy Flecker
Uzbekistan is the epicentre of the Silk Road. Its architecture, culture and spirit have been shaped by that trans-continental flow of goods and ideas in a way perhaps no other country has. The term “Silk Road” is a bit misleading; after all, there was no one path that stretched from China to Europe. Rather, there were multiple routes criss-crossing Asia like veins across a body. Traversing some of the highest peaks on Earth, spooling out along deserts like the Taklamakan (whose name means “the place of no return”) and snaking their way through endless rolling grasslands, the various routes that traders took on their journey westward typically converged in Uzbekistan. As a result, the large trading cities of Uzbekistan achieved legendary status among travellers and merchants, none more so than Samarkand.
Perhaps one of the oldest cities on the planet, with some locals even claiming lineage to the soldiers of Alexander the Great who conquered the city around 2000 years ago, Samarkand is one of those places that exists as much in the imagination as it does in the real world. An oasis on the border of Uzbekistan’s great dusty plains and the agricultural eastern pocket of the country, Samarkand has been referred to, without a trace of hyperbole or irony, as the Jewel of Islam, the Centre of the Universe, the Garden of the Soul and the Pearl of the East.
Samarkand, like many cities across Central Asia, suffered greatly 800 years ago from the Mongols and their leader Genghis Khan. After defeating the city’s defenders, the Mongols burned the last holdouts alive in their mosque and the city’s canals were turned red with the blood of innocent townspeople. However, while Mongol devastation stamped out countless civilizations in Central Asia, Samarkand’s rise to greatness was just beginning.
A century after Genghis Khan, a nomadic warrior named Timur, eventually known in Europe by the derogatory name Tamerlane (“Timur-the-lame” - due to a battle injury), chose Samarkand to be the capital of his growing empire. While even non-history buffs might know the name Genghis Khan, Timur is relatively lesser known in the west. However, Timur’s empire was nearly as large as the empire of his role model Genghis Khan, and Timur was just as ruthless, killing an estimated seventeen million people.
In Timur’s great bloody sweep across Asia and the Middle East, he enslaved the best and brightest of his conquered foes and brought them back to Samarkand. These reluctant architects and artisans, who were hanged in the public square if their work didn’t satisfy Timur, designed and constructed a capital befitting of such a powerful ruler; their works are what makes Samarkand such a majestic place today. In fact, this architectural legacy may be one of the key differences between Timur and Genghis Khan; while the great Khan left nothing but battered ruins and skeletons in his wake, Timur and the architectural style he spawned (Timurid architecture) proliferated throughout the region and continues to awe travellers today. The soaring towers and bubbly domes of the Taj Mahal in India can be traced back to Timur and the style he established in Samarkand.
Our guesthouse in Samarkand was set down a back alley in a residential neighbourhood, just one street over from the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum. Timur, with his humble background as a nomadic warrior from the grassland steppes, had instructed his family to bury him simply when he died. These instructions were promptly ignored when Timur died on campaign fighting the Chinese, and Timur and his descendants were buried under this mausoleum.
With the cobalt blue tiles that Uzbekistan is famous for, and an ornate golden interior, the tomb’s peaceful beauty belies Timur’s bloodlust and cruelty. His skeleton rests deep in a crypt, beneath a solid slab of Mongolian jade (stolen at one point by a Persian ruler and returned to the tomb when he was told it was cursed). When Soviet archaeologists opened the crypt for the first time in 1941, confirming that the skeleton did indeed belong to Timur, they came upon an inscription that read “Whoever opens this will be defeated by an enemy far stronger than I”. Within 24 hours, the Soviets learned that Nazi Germany had launched a massive invasion of the Soviet Union, fuelling further whispers of a curse relating to the tomb.
The crown jewel of Uzbek tourism, splashed across billboards, postcards and anything tagged #Uzbekistan on Instagram, is the Registan. An expansive plaza flanked on three sides by some of the most beautiful buildings you’ll ever see, the Registan is grand. The three buildings are each unique, with their own character, and it’s fun to decide which is your favourite. All three are united, however, in their architectural style and the fact that they were medressas (Islamic schools). Students would live in tiny cells in the walls of the medressa, memorizing the Quran (in its entirety!) and debating theology with teachers and other students in the shaded courtyards of their respective medressas.
The wide sandy square that separated the buildings (Registan means “place of sand”) was used for parades, festivals, and executions, with the heads of the unfortunate displayed on tall poles as warnings to others. The dazzling blue tiles and the soaring heights of the towers must have been an overwhelming sight to Silk Road traders, trudging in from the empty desert or icy mountains.
On the right side of the Registan is the Sher Dor Medressa and I think it’s the most interesting of the three. Unique among basically any Islamic building, there is an animal mosaic prowling on the front of the building. Apparently, the Arabic inscriptions that twist and turn on the facade say, “the architect has built the arch of this portal with such perfection that the entire heavens gnaws its fingers in astonishment, thinking it sees the rising of some new moon”. This line is so poetic it makes you want to disregard the architect’s obvious bragging.
While the Registan is the clear favourite of contemporary tourists, I preferred the more human-scaled Shah-i-Zinda complex. Shah-i-Zinda is a crowded cluster of mausoleums, dedicated to Timur’s extended relatives and various Islamic holy men. As such, it remains a place of spiritual pilgrimage for modern Uzbeks, whereas the Registan is more clearly a tourist attraction.
The tombs are built on a slope and narrow paths wind their way up and through the complex. The effect is a bit overwhelming, like navigating a maze of blue. No two tombs are the same and the tilework here is inconceivably intricate. Stare too long at any one pattern and it can feel like you’re falling headfirst into a giant kaleidoscope of turquoise. Flower designs curl around themselves and snake up walls splashed with sapphire blue tiles. Although it was around 42 degrees celsius outside, the dimly lit insides of the tombs were cool and refreshing.
There are many other gorgeous sights in Samarkand, dotted throughout the modern city of highways, apartment buildings and modern monuments to Timur, more than we had time to visit. To combat tile-fatigue and prevent heat exhaustion, it’s best to concentrate on just a few, with the above being our personal recommendations.
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