Ever since as a teenager I read a magazine article about Samarkand I had dreamed of one-day going there. The very name seemed to conjure up a place of wonder, almost of legend, the magnificent buildings, the great centre of Islamic culture and learning, one of the marvels of the world. When Alexander the Great conquered the city, the capital of the Sogdian Empire, known to the Greeks as Marakanda, he is said to have exclaimed that everything he had heard about it was true, except that it was even more beautiful than he had imagined. Marco Polo described it as a splendid city. Nowhere calls to mind the romance of the Silk Road as much as Samarkand. It changed hands several times before its conquest by Ghengis Khan in 1220, which was followed by significant destruction. But 150 years later the city was reborn as the capital of Timur’s Empire. As he wrought devastation across the Eurasian continent, Timur, or Tamerlane, pillaged his conquests and brought back great minds, architects and artists to build the city whose remnants we still marvel at today. The romanticism of Samarkand in the western imagination was evoked in the 1913 poem by James Elroy Flecker, The Golden Journey to Samarkand. Flecker was born in Lewisham, close to my own south-London home. The poem’s sentiment expresses the purpose of many who travel. And Samarkand had long seemed to me one of the most enchanted of destinations.
We travel not for trafficking alone,
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
My journey was less romantic. I arrived by rail from Tashkent on a smart, fast, comfortable train. Samarkand’s railway station is a few miles from the city centre, and I hopped into a public minivan for the journey into town, which passed through the broad, straight avenues of the modern part of the city. My accommodation was in the old town, close to the Registan, a great open space fronted on three sides by huge, mosaic covered medressas. Meaning ‘Sandy Place’ in Tajik, the Registan was once the commercial centre and bazaar. On one side, the oldest of the three is the 15th century Ulugbek Medressa, named after Timur’s grandson and successor, a great mathematician and astronomer, who is said to have taught here. The other two were built in the 17th century. The Sher Dor (‘Lion’) Medressa features what look like two leopards or tigers over the entrance, although they are supposed to be lions. In between them stands the Tilla-Kari (Gold-covered) Medressa.
Ulugbek Medressa, Samarkand
There is no doubting the splendour of the Registan, the sheer impressiveness of its scale. The space between the three medressas was covered with raised platforms when I was there, to form a stage. There were light systems attached to scaffolding. Apparently there was to be an international folklore festival. It very much spoiled the scene. Much was done during the Soviet period and since to restore the medressas, a controversial work, involving rebuilding as much as restoring. Once the Registan must have been the heart of the city. But now it has been deprived of its surroundings, its context, obliterated by the planners of the 20th and early 21st centuries. These great buildings now stand out like sore thumbs amid the wide open spaces, the broad avenues of the modern town. The former intimacy that once characterised the Registan, the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, the life of the city that once was, could be seen in old photographs. The black and white pictures show that the buildings were crumbling, but the city they depict had a soul that has now gone. For all their magnificence, the three medressas look forlorn, mere museums, sites on the tourist trail. No longer the romantic city of the imagination.
Much the same could be said for other historical sites of Samarkand. The huge Bibi Khanum mosque, named after Timur’s wife, was originally built with the help of craftsmen and elephants brought by Timur from his campaign in India. Badly damaged in an earthquake in 1897, it was later heavily reconstructed. In the interior courtyard is an enormous stone Koran stand that would have been about the right size for the Uthman Koran, now in Tashkent, which is said to have been brought to Samarkand by Timur. The mosque sits on a recently laid out, broad tree-lined avenue. Close to the entrance is a signpost directing tourists to Samarkand’s various sites. Like the Registan, the mosque stands on its own, outside of any context or setting, a stage on the tourist trail through Samarkand. Impressive in its size, but somehow not satisfying.
A little way off from the Bibi Khanum mosque, beside a busy highway, is the Shah-I-Sinda, the Avenue of Mausloeums. The narrow avenue leads up a hill, with fabulously tiled tombs on either side. After controversial heavy restoration work in 2005, much of the mosaic work is not original. But it is beautiful. The heart of the complex is the shrine of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, who is said to have brought Islam to the region. There had been a shrine here long before the time of Timur, and the rest of the mausoleums came later, as Timur and Ulugbek buried their family members here. Shah-I-Sinda is a place of pilgrimage, and as such more of living place than some of the city’s other tourist sites. Pilgrims far outnumbered tourists when I was there. Local people came to pray in the mausoleums, leaving small offerings of money on the tombs. Most important is the shrine of Qusam ibn-Abbas, the ‘tomb of the living King’ after which Shah-I-Sinda is named. In the beautifully tiled interior, a prayer leader led pilgrims in their devotions. As I was leaving Shah-I-Sinda, I looked into a little courtyard next to the entrance. A group of devout young men had just slaughtered a sheep, and were looking very pleased with themselves.
Some distance away, beyond Samarkand’s bazaar, is the Afrosiab Museum, around which are excavations of Marakanda, the early city of Samarkand. The centrepiece of the museum is the remains of a 7th century fresco depicting the Sogdian King Varkhouman receiving foreign emissaries riding on elephants, camels and horses.
Statue of Ulugbek, Samarkand
Continuing in the same direction, you come to Ulugbek’s observatory, the remains of which were discovered early in the 20th century. In the 15th century it was one of the finest in the world. Now all that remains is a portion of the track along which the vast sextant once ran. Using this observatory, Ulugbek produced the most important star catalogue since Ptolemy, correcting many mistakes made in earlier catalogues. At the site of the observatory there is also a small museum to Ulugbek’s achievements. The exhibits stress the wide influence of Ulugbek’s work, which, among others, was translated into Latin by the noted Oxford orientalist Thomas Hyde and published in 1665. His influence spread east to China as well as west to Europe. This is a reminder that in the middle ages Central Asia, and in particular Samarkand, was at the centre of scientific enquiry. Sadly, the observatory was destroyed by religious fanatics upon Ulugbek’s death in 1449 (he was beheaded at the order of his eldest son). Today Uzbekistan’s government uses Ulugbek to extend awareness of the country’s rich history around the world. Three years earlier, I had seen a bust of Ulugbek in a park in Riga, a gift from Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov during a visit to Latvia.
Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum, Samarkand
Perhaps the most striking of Samarkand’s monuments is the Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum. Among those interred there are Timur, two of his sons, and two grandsons, one of them Ulugbek. The richly tiled building has also undergone significant reconstruction. Under the high blue dome, a simple dark jade stone marks the tomb of Timur in the crypt below. To one side of it is the simple marble stone that marks the grave of Ulugbek. While I was there, a group of bearded men came in and prayed by the tombs. This might seem peculiar, that the butcher of millions should be accorded almost saintly status. For Timur is now revered in Uzbekistan. At the entrance of the museum at Ulugbek’s observatory, a plaque contained the following words: ‘The history of Central Asia during the reign of Amir Temur and the Temurids is inscribed in the general history of world civilisation as one of the brightest periods of its development.’
Timur's gravestone, Samarkand
Not far from the Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum is a statue of a seated, regal looking Timur. In 1941, his tomb, as well as that of Ulugbek, had been opened. It was confirmed that Timur was indeed lame, due to an injury in his youth. Using his skull, his face was reconstructed, so we have a fairly good idea what he looked like. His tomb was said to have been inscribed with the words ‘When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble.’ As I sat looking at Timur’s tombstone, it was Ozymandias, king of kings, from the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley that came to my mind. The mighty ruler, the terror of the world, now a broken black tombstone. But still, sitting in that room, in that presence, it was hard not to feel awe.
- A journey to Samarkand