From Bukhara, I took the hour and half Afrosiyob train to Samarkand. The Afrosiyob is a Spanish built high speed train that connects Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, with other major cities like Samarkand and Bukhara. The high speed train cuts traveling time by at least half so many tourists and locals are now taking the Afrosiyob fast train instead of driving almost 5 hours from Bukhara to Samarkand. Do book early as they sell out almost as soon as they are released. I was only able to snag the last few seats in economy on the train (first class and business class all sold out). The economy class seats are comfortable enough for the 1.5 hour train ride. However, the luggage racks near the entrance to each cabin are small and not enough for everyone’s suitcases and bags. So do try to get on the train as soon as it arrives. Also the stop in Samarkand is quite short (about 10 minutes for passengers from Bukhara to get off and those going to Tashkent to get on) so make sure you are ready to get off the train with your luggage before it arrives the station.
Samarkand is located in east-central Uzbekistan in the valley of the river Zerafshan. It is not only one of the oldest cities of Central Asia, as old as Babylon or Rome, but also its jewel due to its location on the major cross roads of the Silk Road. It was once the capital of ancient Sogdiana in the 4th century BC and was captured by Alexander the Great in 328 BC. After that it was ruled by the Arabs (8th century), the Samanids of Iran (9th and 10th centuries), and the Turkic people until it was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1220. In 1365, Samarkand became the capital of the Timur Empire until it was conquered and became part of the Khanate of Bukhara in 1500. Between 1924 and 1936, Samarkand was the capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Historians used to call Samarkand the “Rome of the East” and the “Pearl of the Eastern Muslim World”. Samarkand was the melting pot of Western, Iranian, Mongolian, Arab, and Eastern cultures. Today it consists of two parts: the old city and the new city built after the Soviet’s arrival in the 19th century. The old city has monuments dating back to the times of Timur in the 14th century all the way to the 20th century. This old historic city was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. The newer part of Samarkand is similar to any other Russian city with wide avenues and parks and Soviet blocks. We stayed at the Grand Samarkand Superior Hotel in the new part of town. The hotel is about 10 minutes drive from the old city and all the sights and the rooms are spacious but nothing to write home about. I wanted to stay at the newer L’Argamak Hotel but it was fully booked as were a few other nicer hotels.
The centerpiece that made Samarkand a UNESCO site is the Registan ensemble which was the city’s medieval commercial center with six roads running through it. Registan means “sandy place” in Tajik and used to be a bustling bazaar where imperial decrees were announced and locals gathered to watch parades as well as executions. The square is surrounded on three sides by three grand madrasas which are theological schools among the world’s oldest preserved ones. The three madrasas all have portals facing the center of the square and I was completely overwhelmed by all the majolica and patterned mosaics. All the swirls and patterns were for sure busy but somehow it didn’t feel garish nor did they clash with each other. I couldn’t believe that this majestic square and city was almost abandoned in the late 17th century where these buildings were used for grain storage and animal shelter. It was not until 1875 that Samarkand regained its importance as a trading center. However, when the Soviets came, they prohibited the madrasas from operating but fortunately they decided to restore the Registan to its former glory. They rebuilt domes, adding a blue one to the Tilla Kari Madrasa, straightened minarets, and restored all the beautiful mosaics. Note that the entrance ticket is for the whole day so you can let the guards know you intend to return later in the evening so that they don’t tear the ticket.
On the western side of the square is the Ulugbek Madrasa built from 1417 to 1420 by Timur’s grandson Ulugbek. He originally also built a khanaka which is a hospice for dervishes, a caravenserai, and a mosque on the square. However, these were dismantled to make room for the other two new madrasas two hundred years later in the 1600s by Uzbek governor Yalangtush Bakhadur. Ulugbek was known for his passion in astronomy and this was reflected in the mosaic above the main portico of his madrasa depicting the sky and the stars. The lecture halls of the Ulugbek Madrasa are now museums housing displays related to astronomy. There is also a large mosque in the back with a beautiful blue interior.
Sher-Dor Madrasa, on the eastern side of the square and completed in 1636, was intended to be the mirror image of Ulugbek Madrasa. However, the architect did not take into account that the Ulugbek Madrasa had sunk into the ground over the last 200 years and as a result the Sher-Dor Madrasa ended up taller. The name Sher-Dor means “adorned with tigers” and came from the two golden tigers carrying a Mongolian-faced sun on their backs chasing a white deer on the portal. This madrasa took 17 years to build and supposedly used newer techniques but still didn’t hold up as well as the Ulugbek Madrasa built in only 3 years.
On the northern side of the square between Ulugbek Madrasa and Sher-Dor Madrasa stands Tilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) Madrasa built from 1646 until its completion in 1660. The highlight of this madrasa is its mesmerizing blue and gold mosque. The ceiling here is actually flat but the tapered design of the gold leaf made it look like a dome from the interior. There is also an interesting photo gallery here with black and white photos of pre-restoration old Samarkand.
Northeast of the Registan Square is Bibi-Khanym Mosque which was once the largest mosque in the Islamic World. The mosque was financed by Timur’s successful campaign to Delhi, India and was named after his chief wife Saray Mulk Khanum. Saray was the daughter of Mongol Khan and a descendant of Genghis Khan. She was said to be his favorite wife and close confidante who advised him on matters of the Empire and even acted as regent when he was away. Timur wanted to build a mosque where the dome can be compared to the dome of heaven and the arch of the portal, the Milky Way. A court historian recorded that “The dome would have been unique but for the sky being its copy; the arch would have been singular but for the Milky Way matching it.” The mosque has a cupola of 41 meters high and an entrance portal of 38 meters high flanked by 50 meter high minarets. The sheer size of the mosque built between 1399 to 1404 was a great feat in those times and soon after its completion, parts of the building started collapsing. The rectangular courtyard was covered in marble and surrounded by 400 carved marble columns supporting a gallery of 400 cupolas. There is a large marble Quaran stand here that once held a 7th century 1 m² Osman Quaran. Legend has it that barren women who crawl underneath the marble stand will be able to bear children. The mosque collapsed in an earthquake in 1897 and was completely rebuilt in the 1970s.
I will continue with more beautiful sights of Samarkand in my next post. Stay tuned!
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