Samarqand is one of the oldest cities in Central Asia, and is spread over three sites — the ancient settlement known as Afrosiab; the Timurid portion; and the modern part of the city. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, Samarqand is a contemporary of Rome and celebrated its 2750th birthday in 2007.
Located along the Great Silk Road at the crossroads of routes leading to Persia, India and China, Samarqand has drawn people from all over. It also attracted itinerant travelers like Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta, as well as purposeful conquerors like Alexander the Great and Shaybanid Khan alike. The former came out of curiosity; the latter to plunder or rule over its vast wealth. Samarqand drew me in as well, a modern-day traveler. If you have been following my Uzbekistan journey on this blog, then you will recall that it was a picture of a blue dome in Samarqand that had sparked off a desire to visit it.
I was in Samarqand for two days and got a glimpse of a fascinating past filled with myths, legends and historical events. I also saw many blue domes and many more works of art that were in different shades of blue. The amount of blue was enough to dub Samarqand as the blue city and use that title for this blog post as well ! 🙂 .
Though there are claims that the first settlement in the region came up around 1500 BCE, archaeologists have been able to date the earliest settlement to only around the 6th-7th century BCE. This was the Afrosiab, named after the legendary king who is believed to have ruled this place (and whose son-in-law established Bukhara). When Alexander arrived here in 329 BCE, it was a prosperous and populous city. Afrosiab was the capital of the Sogdian Empire and was ruled by Zoroastrian kings till the arrival of Arab invaders in the 8th century CE. The on site Afrosiab Museum in Samarqand has a stunning collection of wall murals and artifacts recovered from the site.
With the arrival of Qutaiba ibn Muslim and his Arab forces in 712, CE violent and dark days descended upon Samarqand. Islam was established in a brutally quick and violent manner after which Samarqand rose again in prominence. Till the 13th century, Samarqand was ruled by a succession of dynasties — Western Turks, Persian Samanids, Karakhanids, Seljuq Turks, Khorezmshahs, etc. In spite of this frequent change in the ruling dynasties, Samarqand thrived and its population numbered more than what it is today.
In 1220, Chenghiz Khan marched towards Samarqand and ravaged it to such an extent that it is rumoured that the city’s water canals turned red with blood. The next century was a period of uncertainty as Samarqand tried to rebuild itself.
And then along came Amir Timur who made Samarqand the capital of his Timurid Empire in 1370. Over the next 35 years, Timur transformed the city into the region’s economic, cultural and intellectual centre by building madrassahs, mosques, palaces, caravanserais, and mausoleums. Artisans and builders were brought from Delhi and Damascus to give reality to Timur’s vision. Ulugh Beg, Timur’s successor continued with the building spree and built a madrassah at what is now the Registan Square and also an observatory. The 14th and 15th centuries were the most significant period in the city’s development.
The Timurid Empire disintegrated with the death of Ulugh Beg and Babar’s inability to hold on to it. The Shaybanids succeeded the Timurids in the 16th century, but decided to made Bukhara their capital. With this move, Samarqand lost its importance and a decline set in. A series of earthquakes and fall in Silk Road trade further accelerated this decline.
It was with the coming of the Russians in 1868 that Samarqand’s fortunes changed yet again. Building activity resumed and this time the style was European — with broad, tree-lined roads and building designs — setting the groundwork for the modern city that Samarqand is today. The Russians also undertook repair and restoration of its many monuments and this has been continued by the Uzbekistan government after their Independence.
My two days in Samarqand were sorely insufficient to cover 2000 plus years of history and I realised early on that I would have to prioritise on what I wanted to see. I decided to focus on the Timurid monuments in Samarqand, with some non-Timurid ones and a museum thrown in as well. I had to be content with seeing the old city of Afrosiab from a distance and experience modern-day Uzbekistan through the few walks I took in the neighbourhood of my B&B and while driving through the city.
The main sites I visited were the Registan Square Complex, Bibi Khanum Mosque, Gur Emir Mausoleum, Ulugh Beg Observatory (and museum), Khoja Daniyar Mausoleum, the Shahi Zinda necropolis and the Afrosiab Museum. I felt like a I was undertaking a mad dash when I moved from one monument to another, but thankfully, once I was there it felt like time had stopped still and I could experience the visit in peace and without feeling pressured.
Presenting the many monuments and the museum I visited in Samarqand as well as the shades of blue expressed on the monuments. Clicking on any of the photographs will enlarge it, and you can then use the left or right arrow keys to navigate the photographs and their accompanying captions.
When I arrived in Samarqand on that cool and magical evening in September 2015, I had been in Uzbekistan for a week. I had already visited four cities and seen numerous monuments — each more beautiful than the other. The blue tile work, the architecture, the calligraphy, the history, legends, myths for each city and monument was fascinating and I left each city with a “it can’t get better than this” and arrived at the next one with “this can’t be better than the previous one(s)”.
I was always proved wrong and Samarqand was no exception. In fact, Samarqand offered the best and the grandest of all that Uzbekistan has to offer. I arrived in the city with very high expectations and when I left I was reminded of Alexander the Great’s reaction to Samarqand (or Marakanda as the Greeks referred to the city) when he visited it. He is believed to have said that:
Everything I have heard about Marakanda is true, except that it’s more beautiful than I ever imagined.
That one sentence captures the essence of my visit to Samarqand. 😀
My Dream Trip Uzbekistan Series:
Dear Uzbekistan | A city called Nukus | Art in the Desert: The Savitsky Collection at Nukus | Mizdahkan: A city for the dead | 3 forts & a dakhma | Itchan Kala of Khiva | There’s something about Bukhara! | Monumental Bukhara | The Jewish Heritage of Bukhara | Shakhrisabz: The home town of Amir Timur | The Registan Square of Samarqand | The blue city of Samarqand | The silk paper factory at Konigil | The surprise & delight that was Tashkent | Uzbekistan: The food & markets special | The Uzbekistan trip planner |