When my friends heard that I was taking a trip to Uzbekistan, the response I got was “WHY”. And I was like, WHY NOT? After all it was home to so many powerful empires, though it is difficult now to see traces of the distant past. Unless you can close your eyes and imagine it all. But the real draw for me was two big attractions of the Silk Route: Samarkand & Bukhara that resided in ancient Sogdiana. Ever since I’ve got back, there are many who’ve asked me about the land. In fact there is always much curiosity about the best places to visit in Samarkand, but I’d like to call them utterly unforgettable experiences. Where did it all begin for me? It started in Maracanda, the Greek name Samarkand was known by during Alexander’s reign. Or did it start with the Persians!!
BEST PLACES TO VISIT IN SAMARKAND
Some cities mirror people. They carry imprinted in them the canvas that time has created. If you crave for slices of history, Samarkand is draped in leaves from a 1000-page book. For those who love captures from the ancient Silk Route, you will feel it when walking through the streets. The city will surely seduce you with aromatic teas, spices, lovable Uzbek people and even printed fabrics inspired by all that makes Central Asia a visual delight.
When I boarded the train in Tashkent, I felt my heart leap. Just because I knew I was about to meet the phoenix (biggest destruction was by Ghengis Khan) that had risen over and over, emerging more beautiful each time. After all, the forthcoming halts carried more than 2000 years of a tumultuous past, stunning artistic expressions, in later times scientific developments & the last vestiges of the Timurids.
So the color blue dominates my favorite memories of Samarkand. And just in case you think that’s it, here’s an update. I am going back for more real soon.
DON’T MISS: REGISTAN SQUARE
I was quite unprepared for the view when I first stepped into this architectural creation. The eloquence of its narrative is seen in its symmetry, the turquoise domes, the intricately painted shapes & symbols (some of which surprise you) & well just the magnificence of it. Registan means ‘sandy place’ perhaps named because of a canal nearby, forming sand & silt deposits.
During Timurlane’s time it was used as a commercial centre & later made into a spiritual one by his grandson & astronomer UlugBeg. Ofcourse the ensemble looked quite different then and the madrasah’s (schools) came up at different points in time. Today the 3 sides of the square almost envelop you with massive, mosaic tiled buildings & they look similar in their composition, just until you get closer.
Ulugbeg Madrasah (Left of the square)
This was the first one (completed in the 15th century) and I feel it best represents the commitment Ulugbeg had to scientific progress. Leading astronomers & mathematicians were appointed to this university. Soon after its construction the Ulugbeg Observatory was built at a distance from the square. This madrasah also housed a mosque and to the north of the structure was a caravanserai.
Much of its façade was destroyed during earthquakes and many parts of the Registan Square today are restored by the monuments protection committee. When I walked in though I found souvenir shops selling local textiles, jewellery and the rest. Where there were books, there are now trinkets and I remember going SIGH!
(A modern day creation, it’s said to be Ulugbeg in conversation with other astronomers)
Sher Dor (Right of the square) & Tillya Kari Madrasah (Middle structure)
These two were built around the 17th century by a feudal lord Yalangtush Bohadur, who was the head of an Uzbek tribe. I was especially surprised by the work on the Sher Dor Madrasah. Can you see it has anthropomorphic shapes? A lion (sher) with tiger stripes & a sun on its back chasing a deer is a prominent design, besides other vegetative ornamentation. Quite unusual to see this in Islamic art & the only conclusion one can draw is there was a heavy influence of earlier Zoroastrian settlements.
Tillya Kari Madrasah, was known as such because it was gilded (Tillya). The walls, dome, even the mihrab (facing Mecca) and the minbar (elevation where the preacher sits) was covered in thin sheets of gold. The façade made of brick was enveloped with mosaic & majolica, with patterns that were both geometric & floral. This also had a Friday mosque that was built to replace the Bibi Khanym mosque next door, which by that time was in ruins.
Inscriptions from the Koran are seen on the facades of both the madrasahs and the while you must take your time to explore all three, you will unknowingly slip in and out of different eras.
DON’T MISS: GUR EMIR MAUSOLEUM
There is something about visiting the burial place of a powerful ruler. And because the legend carries the weight of his achievement, you expect in death as in life a sense of celebration and opulence. Gur Emir Mausoleum meaning ‘Tomb of the Ruler’ did not let me down. It is quite elaborate both from the outside and even the relief work in the area of the tomb is intricate & lavish. This structure with time, came to be a place where most of the Timurids were buried.
But I was keen to see it simply because I found the narrative around his tomb a mystery. It’s said that when the land became part of the Soviet Union, researchers in an attempt to study Timur’s body opened the sarcophagus and apparently found this inscribed. Translated as “Whomsoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I”. The story goes that within a few hours Hitler invaded Russia and once the body was reinterred almost a year later, the Germans surrendered. It has all the making of a film I agree. What a force he was in death as in life.
Don’t miss the blue ribbed dome outside, the deep niches inside the mausoleum, the mosaic & ceramic tiles and finally, the elegance & grandeur of the resting place of Timurlane.
DON’T MISS: IMAM AL-BUKHARI MEMORIAL
I will always remember this place with lots of joy. It was the first mosque where I with a couple of other women stepped in to offer prayers and the priest said a short verse for us. In India, women aren’t allowed inside mosques and I was happy that as a person of another faith, I was welcomed and felt one with the spiritual energy there. Perhaps it has a lot of do with the great soul for whom this was constructed.
Muhammad Al-Bukhari was a theologian & his work is considered immensely influential as he is said have analyzed thousands of hadiths (stories about the prophet). I remember reading somewhere that his writings resulted in a summary of hadiths, ‘Al-Djami as-Sahih’ (Authentic Collection), which was canonized in the 10th Century as the main hadith anthology in Sunni tradition.
Born in the 9th century in Bukhara but buried in a village called Khartank, 30 km from Samarkand, has made this short detour a much-revered place. The memorial complex comprises a mosque, mausoleum, library & madrasah and is a recent 20th century creation. While a tomb is visible, it is actually constructed over the real burial place. The lawns, the use of mosaic, majolica, onyx & paintings on both the walls and ceilings with green overtones are mesmerizing.
DON’T MISS: SHAH-I-ZINDA NECROPOLIS
Where do I begin. This is really like taking a walk into the narrow & beautifully laid out streets of ancient Baghdad or lets say Samarkand of yore. When you climb up the steps the sun is beating down on you and I remember simply admiring the beauty of the fabrics worn by the Uzbek people. I really do love the colors & patterns on their textiles. But when you stand at the gate leading into the complex, is when you get the full impact of this creation.
Will you read more if I tell you that Shah-i-Zinda means ‘The Living King’? I’ve dedicated a post to this sea of blue, so drop by and savor this Medieval jewel of Samarkand
WHAT I MISSED
BIBI AL-KHANYM MOSQUE
It was the main mosque at the time of the Timurid Empire. The best artists & craftsmen from countries conquered by Timur, were sent back to make the mosque the most beautiful & grandiose one. It is said that the mosque was so gigantic that the brick design couldn’t bear its own weight & started cracking within a decade. This mosque was initiated with the wealth he brought back after the military campaign in Northern India.
Of course just the remnants of this structure can be seen, so you have to imagine quite a bit. But remember this was for 3 decades the place where some of the finest scholars & astronomers studied the skies & other celestial bodies.
It has collections from ancient times, even those pre dating Islam. Paintings, pottery, murals and much more from Sogdian times can be seen here. I’ve scribbled that in for my next trip
HOW TO GET TO SAMARKAND
Travel from Tashkent by train and in 2 ½ hours you will be in Samarkand. I took the high-speed train (they are all named Afrosiyob) and had a very comfortable journey. The trains are well maintained and it’s lovely to see the countryside always of any land, even if you are zipping past. This was the fastest way to cover the distance of approx. 280 km
(Samarkand station & the Afrosiyob train)
Samarkand was right in the middle of the Silk Route connecting China to Persia, India & the Mediterranean people. Besides, its many empires had created an amalgamation of cultures giving the land a mystical feel. While Timurlane was seen as a ruthless conqueror by many, the Uzbek people have much respect for him. I urge you to carry this truth, as you walk through & experience the final expression of this land’s greatness. One that adorns the old city & is a remarkable display of Islamic creativity.
“For lust of knowing what should not be known, we take the golden road to Samarkand”
~ James Flecker (English poet & playwright)