Samarkand – the Epicenter of the Silk Road

I left Tashkent bright and early on Thursday morning on the Afrosiab bullet train bound for Samarkand. Samarkand is believed to be one of Central Asia’s oldest cities. It is estimated that the city has been continuously occupied since the 5th century BC. Samarkand was the heart of the Silk Road and is generally considered to be Uzbekistan’s most attractive city.

Afrosiab Bullet Train

The train ride took me through mostly flat farm land and the periodic village. The ride was an incredibly smooth and incredibly. You would never now we were traveling at speeds over 100 mph with the trip only taking just over two hours to travel approximately 214 miles. I arrived in Samarkand just after 10:00 a.m. and was met by my local guide Gulnara and my driver Erkin. Erkin would be with me for the next 7 days during the remainder of my tour of Uzbekistan.

We didn’t waste any time once we loaded my luggage in the car. Because it was so early it was unlikely my room would be ready, so Erkin suggested that we visit the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum first since it was on the way to my B&B.

At the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum

When we arrived at the mausoleum, I could have sworn I had been transported to Isfahan, Iran. The fluted (as opposed to flat) domes and arch of the mausoleum, as well as the azure colours, reminded me of the mausoleum in the square in Isfahan. I soon found out the reason. The mausoleum had been designed by an Iranian architect who was from Isfahan.

Entry to the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum

As we walked in, Gulnara explained told me that construction began on the mausoleum near the end of the 14th century and while there has been considerable restoration, the foundations of the madrasa and khanaka (a religious room), the entrance portal and a part of one of four minarets were all original.

As Gulnara continued to explain the history of the mausoleum, three young men attached themselves to our little group and began to listen in. They soon introduced themselves to us and told us they were from Kabul, Afghanistan. (I immediately had a million questions for them, but refrained.). Anyway, they simply wanted to listen in for a bit since they could not read the Russian subtitles in the mausoleum. The young guys worked for an NGO in Kabul, spoke fabulous English and could not have been nicer. They pulled out pictures on their phones and wanted to show me their office, a cake that was made for the retirement of one of their American colleagues and on and on. I invited them to follow us into the mausoleum, but they declined since they had already walked around inside. Instead they asked for some advice on other things to see and said their goodbyes.

The crypts (Timor’s is the dark one in the middle)

Now the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum is famous because it houses the remains of Uzbekistan’s most important ruler, Amir Timur (or Tamerlane). In addition to the famous ruler, the remains of two sons and two grandsons, including another famous Uzbek ruler, Ulug’bek, as well as Timur’s favourite teacher, are buried in the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum.

Gur-e-Amir ceiling and walls
Ceiling of Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum

Now I am not sure what I expected, but the mausoleum was gorgeous. The room sparkled with gold leaf that had been applied to the intricate designs on the walls, but the internal dome was the real capper. The dome had been designed with paper mache, covered in gold leaf and painted. It literally sparkled. After spending a bit of time in the mausoleum and watching Uzbeks arrive and pay their respects to Timor, we left the building stopping briefly in a souvenir shop where I found … you guessed it … a Christmas ornament (made from a small squash gourd). The streak continues!

The Registran

We left the mausoleum, dropped off my luggage at my B&B and stopped at a local market a couple blocks from my hotel to pick up some water. From there, Gulnara and I walked to the massive Registran, the historic square in the heart of old Samarkand. The Registan, which dates to at least the 14th century, was a public square and the commercial center of old Samarkand with massive bazaars where vendors would sell produce and hand made wares. In addition, it was a gathering place where people came to hear royal proclamations and where public executions took place. YIKES!

The square is surrounded by three madrassas: the Sher Dor Madrassa, the Ulug’bek Madrassa, and the Tilla-Kari Madrassa. All three madrassas (religious schools) were shut down by the Soviets in the early 1900s. However, the massive earthquake damage to the buildings over the years was repaired, in part, by the Soviets, resulting in three magnificent buildings. Each building had gorgeous blue azure tiles, Islamic designs built into the architecture and large interior courtyards.

Sher Dor Madrassa with tigers

The Sher Dor Madrassa, completed in 1636, was significant for the two tigers that were featured on the arch to the building. It is forbidden by Islamic tradition to feature animals on in artwork, so this building is unique for the animals designed into the arch.

The Ulug’bek Madrassa
Antique “dress” …. (and yes it is me)

The Ulug’bek Madrassa, completed in 1420, was built by ruler Ulug’bek and is significant for the fact that Ulug’bek taught mathematics at the school while he reigned. The madrassa featured lecture halls, teaching rooms and dormitory rooms, where students lived two to a room. Now unfortunately, in keeping with the “bazaar” theme of the Registran, all of the rooms were filled with vendors hawking their wares. Scarves, rugs, ceramics and woodwork were just some of the items for sale. In fact, all three madrassas featured vendors and souvenir stands so it made it a bit difficult to really appreciate the gloriousness of the three buildings. On the flip side, I did find some nice little things to bring home and got to try on a historic “dress” in an back portion of an antique shop.

Tilla-Kari Madrassa
Inside the Tilla-Kari Madrassa
Ceiling of the Tilla-Kari Madrassa

The final madrassa was the Tilla-Kari and it was by far my favourite building. The Tilla-Kari Madrassa was completed in 1660 and featured a beautiful (and very peaceful) garden courtyard with lots of trees and flowers. And as much as I liked the courtyard, the best part about the madrassa was the magnificent mosque with an intricate gold leaf ceiling that was designed to appeared domed despite the fact that the ceiling was flat. In addition to the beautiful interior, the mosque included a wonderful photo gallery of pictures showing the Registran as it was at the end of the 19th century.

My view at lunch

After the lengthy tour of the Registran, we walked the length of a carless promenade that featured restaurants and shops. We stopped for a quick (and very late) lunch before walking down the street to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

The entrance to the mosque was enormous and took us into a square courtyard facing the entrance to the mosque on the opposite side of the entrance. Now while the exterior of the mosque has been partially restored, include four minarets at the outer corners, the interior of the mosque is in ruins. Work as begun on restoration, but I suspect it will be years before it is completed.

Entrance to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque
Bibi-Khanym Mosque with Koran stand

Since we could not go inside, Gulnara and I sat on a bench and enjoyed the courtyard while Gulnara told me various legends about the site. One of those legends involved the interior courtyard where an enormous marble Quran stand sites. Legend has it that if any woman walks around and/or crawls under the stand she will have a baby. While we were there we saw four women circle the stand.

Siob bazaar
Siob bazaar with man selling raisins

We left the mosque and took a walk through the adjacent Siob Bazaar a partially covered and mostly open air market where you can purchase just about anything, including locally made candy, nuts, spices, clothing, furniture, baby cradles, fruits, vegetables, breads and on and on. The bazaar was loud, loud, loud with vendors wanting me to be everything and anything, but the bazaar was much, much cleaner than other bazaars I have visited. Apparently once a week the bazaar is closed and sterilized.

After buying some local candy to satisfy my sweet tooth, Gulnara and I found Erkin who drove us to our next stop, which was the tomb of the first president of Uzbekistan,  Islam Karminov, who died on September 2, 2016 after 25 years in office.  It is said he had a bad heart and was not supposed to drink, but when Uzbekistan won gold at the 2016 Olympics, he ignored the advise and subsequently suffered a stroke and passed away.  His tomb is revered and hundreds of Uzbeks (and tourists) pay their respects every day.  I was not allowed to take a picture inside the tomb so the best I have is a picture of the side of the tomb.

Tomb of Islam Karimov

We then got back in the car and travelled to more tombs.  The Shah-i-Zinda, is a series of mausoleums containing the remains of family favourites of rulers Timur and Ulug’bek. However, the site is most famous for the mausoleum of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed who in the 7th century is said to have brought Islam to the Samarkand.

Lucky stairs at the Shah-i-Zinda
The street of mausoleums at the Shah-i-Zinda

We entered the “street of mausoleums” by making a wish and counting the stairs to the top. If you count 42 steps, your wish will come tree. I actually saw one guy start over as he apparently miscounted his steps.

We wandered down the narrow alleyway and went into the mausoleum of the sister and a niece of Timur. It had been restored, but remains the most beautiful mausoleum in the complex with soft blue colours and even a stained glass window. We also stopped by a small museum where a young man showed us the earliest colour pictures of the site taken by a Russian photographer at the turn of the century using three different lenses. It was remarkable to see the old, coloured pictures.

Ancient door leading to Quasm ibn-Abbas tomb

Our last stop at the site was the mausoleum of Quasm ibn-Abbas. We followed a number of elderly gentlemen into the tomb through the entry way of a centuries old carved wooden door, down a narrow hallway, up some stairs and into a tiny room. Unfortunately, you cannot see the tomb as it is covered by heaven wooden lattice work. An imam said a prayer for the men while we were there and when it was over, we left.

By now it was close to 6:00 p.m. and I was exhausted. We were supposed to go to the Afrosiab Museum, which houses a 7th century fresco uncovered during excavation of an old Samarkand palace. However, the museum closed at 6, so we ended the day visiting the Ulug’bek Observatory.

Me and Uleg’bek at the Observatory

Now, I must admit, I knew absolutely nothing about the ruler Ulug’bek before I planned my trip to Uzbekistan. However, this guy was an absolute genius. While Ulug’bek was a ruler, statesman (no wars during his reign) and teacher, Ulug’bek was an incredible astronomer. In the 1420s, Ulug’bek built an observatory that included a massive sextant with which he and his astronomers were able to plat stars, calculate the length of a year and the length of a day. In fact, his calculations were so accurate, that they are virtually identical to those measurements used today.

The observatory was rediscovered in 1908 and we were able to see the remains of the underground sextant used by Ulug’bek and his astronomers. What I found particularly remarkable is that NASA has used Ulug’bek’s findings in their research and study of the stars. Simply incredible. (And it is completely unclear to me why this guy is not more well known.)

The building housing the ancient observatory
The remaining sextant (the big curved instrument)

After a quick tour through the museum that was across from the observatory I declared I was done in. Gulanara and Erkin dropped me off at the B&B with the promise that Erkin would pick me up in the morning and take me to the Afrosiab Museum, the Tomb of the Old Testament Prophet Daniel and a silk carpet factory that is visited by every head of state who travels to Samarkand. For now, it was off to rest.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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