For the lust of knowing what should not be known, we take the Golden Road to Samarkand ~ James Elroy Flecker
Samarkand, in Uzbekistan is the jewel of the Great Silk Road legacy and its most famous city. Believe to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia (and probably the world), along with Bukhara. On my curated trip to Uzbekistan with One Life to Travel, the visit to Samarkand was kept in the last part of the itinerary, with the promise that the best has been kept for last. So when I landed in Samarkand after a long drive from Bukhara, my expectations were sky high. Samarkand dazzled me with all its finery and glamour. It is indeed the most mesmerizing city of the Great Silk Road.
We travelled to Samarkand from Bukhara by road and amidst conversations with my fellow travelers, stunning views of the Uzbeki countryside landscape, my mind kept going back to the parting words of our local guide in Bukhara – “Bukhara and Samarkand can be compared to two women; Bukhara is like a simple beautiful village woman who is earthy in her beauty but does not have any jewels or pretty dresses to show off. Samarkand is the dazzling beautiful woman with jewels one her and many pretty dresses. While both are beautiful, they are in essence very different. So the beauty actually lies in the eyes of the beholder, which one is the greater beauty – Samarkand or Bukhara”
Samarkand is one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia and was the labor of love of emperor Timur (famously known as Timurlane), who made it his capital. Today, Samarkand is listed as UNESCO World Heritage site (listing in 2001) as Samarkand – Crossroads of Cultures.
My first impression of Samarkand was that it was certainly the most vibrant of all the cities I had visited in Uzbekistan on our journey – Khiva, Bukhara or even the capital city of Tashkent.
We started off on our Samarkand site seeing, with visit to Observatory of Ulugh Beg. Widely considered to be one of the finest observatories in the Islamic world, Ulugh Beg Observatory was built in the 1420s by Timurid astronomer and emperor Ulugh Beg. It was not a very impressive sight (considering our Indian observatories of Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, Rajasthan – which is also an UNESCO World heritage site), but it does give a sense of development and open culture in the Islamic world in those times.
We then visited St. Daniel mausoleum or tomb of St. Daniel, which was a bit of curiosity for me as this was a majorly Islamic country and ‘Saint’ is a word associated with Christianity. Our local guide explained that Samarkand and in larger part Uzbekistan has been under the influence of many religions, starting from Zoroastrianism and being a vibrant society, it has imbibed all of the influences and traces of its rich heritage to this date. Located on the shore of Siab, a small tributary of Zerafshan River, St. Daniel is said to house relics of Daniel, the Old Testament Biblical Prophet. As per another they are the relics of Daniyol (or Danier), an associate of the Arab preacher Kussama ibn Abbas. But all versions agree that Danier is the Saint and pilgrims from all the three world religions come here to worship him. Walking up to the mausoleum, one certainly feels a sense of higher spirituality & calm. There is a wishing tree in the mausoleum complex and as I bowed down to touch the trunk of the tree to make wishes, I felt for those moments, a sense of timelessness and energy passing through myself.
Shah-i-Zinda necropolis was next on our sight-seeing list. The Shah-i-Zinda necropolis consists of many mausoleums and ritual buildings of 9-14th and 19th centuries. The name Shah-i-Zinda (meaning “The living king”) is connected with the legend that Kusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad, who was said to be buried here. The local guide told us that The Shah-i-Zinda complex was formed over nine centuries and now includes more than twenty buildings. A visit here makes for a stunning, almost over powering experience in intricate beauty of blue tile artistry and Islamic artwork.
We visited Gur-i- Amir next, which is the mausoleum of the Asian conqueror Timur, also known as the founder of Uzbekistan/Uzbek empire. The Gur-i.Amir occupies an important place in the history of Persian-Mongolian Architecture as the precursor and model for later great Mughal architecture tombs, as Timur’s descendents are the Indian Mughals (starting from Babur).
By the time, we finished visiting Gur-i-Amir, it was late afternoon and we settled for a lazy late lunch. Post our lunch, we visited a Russian Orthodox church on our way to the Bibi Khanym Mosque (this was a special request from me and I was glad that inspite of being on an women group tour, they did this for me). It was an interesting visit, as it marked the Russian influence during the Soviet days (as Uzbekistan was an USSR state under soviet rule). Our guide himself was Russian who opted to stay & work in Uzbekistan.
We visited Bibi Khanym Mosque which was a beautiful example of Islamic architecture in the lines of Gur-i-Amir mausoleum, but much smaller in scale.
Our last and most regal sight-seeing in Samarkand was reserved for last and it was Registan Square. The Registan Square is said to be the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand of the Timurid dynasty, now in Uzbekistan. The name Rēgistan means “Sandy place” or “desert” in Persian. The Registan was a public square and is framed by three madrasahs (Islamic schools) – Madrasa of Ulugh Beg (1417–1420), Sher-Dor Madrasah (Lions Gate) (1619–1635/36) and Tilla-Kori Madrasah (1647–1659/60). The Registan Square is certainly grand and is the jewel in the crown of Samarkand. One actually understands the scale of architecture and building construction the great empreror Timur imagined and invested in Samarkand, by going around Registan Square. Stunning blue tile and gold intricate work, absolutely dazzling to this very day. The restoration and conservation is immaculate and one feels that all these majestic buildings were constructed just yesterday.
Samarkand definitely dazzled me and I could fully understand the extent of the rich heritage & culture of the Great Silk Road. A day in Samarkand left me with rich blue colored dreams of extravagance and it was time to head home with a heady blue feeling, but not before we returned to Tashkent via Afrosiab Train….wait for that experience in another post).
If you liked reading this travelogue, you may find the following interesting:
Uzbekistan Travel Diaries – Journey into the Great Silk Road here.
Khiva in Uzbekistan here.
Bukhara in Uzbekistan here.
Top 10 reasons to visit Uzbekistan here.
Golden Smiles of Uzbeki people here.