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Samarkand – An Oasis of Exotic Delights on the Old Silk Road

Gita with Vegetable Vendor, Samarkand

  • This post was originally featured October 21, 2011 in Ashok Vaish's blog

    We just got back from a magical journey. A journey along the old Silk Road where gold and spices and jade and ivory and carpets and rhubarb and tea (and, of course, silk) was carried by caravans of camels in the centuries from the time of Alexander the Great to the time of Kubilai Khan, the great Mongol emperor of the Yuan dynasty in China. The Silk Road extended from Constantinople, the Capital of Byzantine Rome, to Chang-An, the Capital of T’ang China (modern day Xian). Along the way it crossed some of the most stark and dangerous terrain on earth and some exotic oases towns that had  a culture straight out of the Arabian Nights.

    One such town was Samarkand in modern day Uzbekistan. We spent two days here drinking in its amazing history and the monuments left behind by one of its greatest rulers, Timur Lang (or Timor Lane as he is sometimes called in the West).

    Samarkand has been at the center of many empires. Here’s a list for the history buff:

    The Achaemenids (6th – 4th Century B.C.)

    Greek with the conquest by Alexander the Great (4th Cen. B. C. on)

    Kushan  - A Greco-Indian Buddhist empire. (1st – 3rd Century A.D.)

    Sassanid – a Persian dynasty. Zoroastrian, Buddhist (3rd-7th Century)

    Arab – briefly part of the Caliphate after muslim conquest in eighth century.

    Samanid – a Persian, Shia empire (9th and 10th Century)

    Turkic Sunni Muslim rule from the Aral Sea kingdom of Khwarezm (11th -13th Cen.)

    Completely destroyed, burned and looted by Genghis Khan (March 1220)

    Rebuilt by Timur Lang, a descendant of Genghis (14th Century)

    Timur Lang and his dynasty (14th – 16th Century)

    Uzbeks, Bukhara Emirates (16th – 18th Century)

    Tsarist Russia and Soviet colonization. (19th & 20th Century)

    Independent Uzbekistan (1991 – present)

    Timur Lang’s monuments define Samarkand today. They have been restored somewhat from the ravages of time and violent cultures since the 14th century when they regally dominated the Samarkand skyline.See an annotated Slide Show of Samarkand here.

    Timur’s Mausoleum

    Timur ruled from 1370 – 1405. He saw himself as Genghis Khan’s heir and was a great conqueror in the Mongol tradition: a brutal destroyer, sacker and looter across Asia. But he was also a builder of a beautiful city and a patron of the arts. In 1404 he lost his favorite grandson in a battle and was devastated. Timor, the  murderer of more than a million people, is said to have cried for two days. He built this mausoleum in memory of his grandson. He is buried here too along with his other descendants.

    The tombs inside the Mausoleum

    We learned of a famous curse attached to opening Timur’s tomb: A sign was carved on it warning that whoever would dare disturb the tomb would bring unspeakable horror onto his land. The tomb lay unopened for 500 years.

    On June 19, 1941 a Russian expeditionist, Mikhail Gerasimov, opened the tomb. Three days later he learned of the Nazi invasion of Russia which resulted in 30 million Russians being killed!


    Registan Square

    The Sher Dor Madrassa at Registan Square

    This was the center of the city of Samarkand, built in desert motifs and consisted of places of worship and public discourse. It was a great bustling place with colleges teaching philosophy, math and astronomy as well as a silk route bazaar with eclectic wares from across Timur’s empire – from India to Persia and beyond.

    Bibi Khanum’s Mosque

    Timur built this mosque in memory of his wife, Bibi Khanum, in 1399 after he returned from his Indian campaign, where he sacked and looted Delhi, India, because “the sultanate there was too tolerant toward its Hindu subjects”.

    He brought back more than 50,000 prisoners and 95 elephants who helped build this mosque with Indian architectural elements. Timur’s great grandson, Babur conquered India in 1526 founding the Moghul dynasty which ruled until 1847.

    A huge stone Koran dominates the center of the square.

    The whole complex is being restored with Russian assistance, a process that began in Soviet times.

    Shah-e-Zinda Tombs

    (Right) This is a beautiful necropolis not far from the Bibi Khanum mosque, where legend has it that Kusam ibn Abbas, prophet Mohammed’s cousin is buried. He came to Samarkand in the seventh century to preach Islam and was murdered by the Zoroastrians. His tomb was regarded for a long time as a pilgrimage site, equivalent to Mecca for those who could not afford the journey to Arabia.

    The complex has the distinctive blue color of Persian architecture, mosaic work inlaid with precious stones and ornate mosques (somewhat against the Islamic injunctions to keep it simple).

    Samarkand’s Bazaar

    A bustling market of delights in Samarkand. Colorful dresses, scarves and headwear distinguish the vendors of fruits, vegetables, almonds and black sweet raisins.

    Here you are transported back to the days of the Silk Road. Local wares include fruits from the orchards of this oasis and fine fabrics, stone and metalware. The bazaar was modernized by the Soviets ridding it of all its cultural charm.

    All in all a hidden gem of a city to visit – in the middle of a forgotten Central Asia.

    See a complete slide show on Samarkand here.


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