Central Asia Travel Diary

It's true – Samarkand IS one of the greatest sights in Central Asia!

Although the historic sights are interspersed through what is essentially still a Soviet-developed city (unlike Khiva and Bukhara, where the historic town centres had been largely unaffected by new development), the massive scale of the magnificent buildings was awe-inspiring.

We began our touring through Samarkand at 9 am after yet another great breakfast – in fact, our first buffet breakfast since Almaty almost three weeks beforehand.  We began at Samarkand's historic heart, the Registan.  In the 1400s to 1700s, Samarkand was one of the world's busiest trading cities and a great centre of learning.  The Registan comprises three madrassas, or Koranic schools, which in their day were among the finest universities in the world, teaching Mathematics, Theology, Astronomy and Philosophy.  Each of the three madrassas had facades of exquisitely intricate tiled patterns in Islamic style.

The madrassa to the left as we faced the Registan was the oldest, having been built in 1417 to 1420, and it was the first one that we visited.  Known as the Ulughbek Madrassa, after the ruler of the day, it had an inner courtyard that was open for inspection (mainly because it housed many small souvenir and craft stores).  When I visited the Registan in 1991, none of the madrassas was open for inspection; now all three could be entered – a huge improvement.

As we were walking towards the second madrassa, we were approached by a policeman.  My heart sank as I recalled my experience with the KGB in Ashgabat, but this was Uzbekistan and it was different – he approached us to offer to unlock the gate to the minaret which would allow us to see the view from the top.  At a cost of 5000 sum this seemed a bit expensive, but the lure of a good view proved too much for this geographer to resist.  The view from the top was good though not spectacular, but was interesting also for the insight into the structure of the construction inside the largely unrestored foundations of the minaret.

The second madrassa (that had been in front of us as we faced the Registan when we arrived) was completed in 1660, and was known as the Tilla-Kari (Gold Covered) Madrassa.  Entering this madrassa brought us first to a lovely garden courtyard on a comparatively intimate scale, from which we entered a lavishly decorated room in colours of deep blue and gold.  The intricate detail in the context of the grand scale of the room was an almost overwhelming sight – simply magnificent!

The third madrassa, which was finished in 1636, was known as the Sher-Dor (Lion) Madrassa, and was named after the tiled façade showing two tiger-looking lions with smiling-faced suns on their backs – seemingly in open defiance of the Islamic prohibition on showing representations of living things.  This madrassa also had a beautiful courtyard, and while we were there we were approached by someone promoting an evening cultural show, to be held at 6 pm in that courtyard.  At 7500 sum including tea and sweets, this sounded very appealing, so we made the decision to return in the evening for the show.

Having spent almost an hour and a half at the Registan, we took the short drive to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.  This structure was completed by Samarkand's famous and ruthless ruler, Tamerlane (also known as Timur the Great) in the late 1300s.  It was huge in scale, and the front gate alone was 35 metres high.  Apparently, it stretched the building technology of its day a little beyond its limits, and it began collapsing almost as soon as it was completed.  It continued to crumble over the years before finally collapsing in an 1897 earthquake.  When I visited in 1991, it was still in ruins, although some restoration work was underway.  The contrast today was amazing, with much of the mosque restored to its former glory – perhaps a little TOO pristine, but nonetheless magnificent.

The markets next to the mosque had also been significantly modernised since my 1991 visit.  At that time, the markets comprised a series of parallel curved-metal-roofed stalls with a large open area selling huge melons.  Now it was a much busier, more bustling market under substantial tile-faced concrete shelters.

Our third stop was the Shahr-i-Zindah complex, an avenue of tombs and mausoleums, the most famous of whom was Mohammed's cousin, Quasm ibn-Abbas, who is said to have brought Islam to Samarkand.  This was another interesting and beautifully decorated place, a type of city-of-the-dead within a city.

Our fourth stop was the same mausoleum to which we had walked the previous afternoon, the Gur-Emir Mausoleum.  Built in 1404 on the orders of tamerlane to house his own body (after he had died!), this had also been extensively and beautifully restored since by visit in 1991.  The interior was amazing, a beautiful array of intricate blue and gold within a magnificent high-roofed chamber under a fluted azure-tiled dome.

After a quick diversion to our hotel to collect some more sum for entry fees, we went to our final visiting point for the day, the Ulughbek Observatory.  Ulughbek was Tamerlane's grandson, and although also ruler of Samarkand, was better known as an astronomer and mathematician.  In fact, he taught at Ulughbek Madrassa in the Registan that we had visited earlier in the day.  The observatory was built in the 1420s, and the huge (36 metre diameter) astrolab was used to successfully determine the earth's diameter to an accuracy of a few hundred metres.

The day was becoming quite hot by this time (2 pm), so we returned to our hotel to take part in the great Uzbek tradition of the siesta before setting off again at 5:20 pm for the cultural show at the Registan.

The show was a brilliant cultural experience that will not be easy to forget!  For just 7500 sum each, we enjoyed a 45 minute performance by the Folklore-Ethnographic Group called 'Bozor Bayram', which means 'The Market Celebration'.  The plot followed the plight of two young lovers overcoming the objections of their hostile parents, and featured Uzbek songs, dancing, stories and market performances (including dropping the pointed ends of knives on a man's bare stomoch, lying on a bed of nails, and fire breathing), all in traditional costume in the stunning surrounds of the courtyard of the Sher-Dor Madrassa.  The acoustics were so good that no amplification was needed, and the performance included a supper of bread, sweets and tea.  As the story drew to a close and the market erupted into celebration, Andy was chosen from among the audience to join in – no mean feat given the lightning fast speed of the dancing.  In fact, Andy had an excellent chance of being chosen as the two of us comprised the entire audience!

We returned to the hotel at 7:30 pm, just in time for a lovely outdoors meal of two kinds of salad, accompanied by cold water and bread, with chilled melon for dessert followed by tea and coffee.  Dinner outside as the sun faded and dusk took over was a wonderful finish to a superb day in Samarkand.

Saturday 22 July 2006

In Samarkand

The Registan, Samarkand
Inside the Tilla-Kari Madrassa, Samarkand
Shahr-i-Zindah, Samarkand
Inside the Gur-Emir Mausoleum
Sher-Dor Madrassa, Samarkand