Samarkand has been the climax of every Silk Road odyssey since the time of Alexander the Great and the dazzling monuments of this city in Uzbekistan still afford travellers a glimpse into a time that has become the stuff of legend and poetry.
At the crossroads of the silk roads running between China, India, Persia and the west for thousands of years, Samarkand city is today a relatively off-the-beaten tourist track destination, particularly for independent travellers. Apart from distance I don’t know why – the excitement of standing where Alexander feasted, Genghis Khan destroyed and Tamberlaine rebuilt and reigned is palpable. If you are planning to spend time in Uzbekistan it is likely to be top of your list!
Here’s a little poetic Samarkand inspiration from James Elroy Flecker:
Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells,
When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
And softly through the silence beat the bells
Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.
We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
Who wouldn’t want to travel to Central Asia having read that as a teenager…?
The ruins of Afrosiab
On the outskirts of Samarkand (or Samarkanda) is the once mighty settlement of Afrosiab, at one time called Marakanda. This is the city which Macedonian Alexander would have visited in 330 BC and described as “more beautiful than I ever imagined”. He celebrated his victory over the Sogdians by feasting like an oriental potentate and murdering his right-hand general in a rage.
Afrosiab is now an atmospheric, windswept area of strangely lumpy grass where shepherds graze their flocks. A museum contains the remains of artefacts found on this site from 2,000 BC bronze-age burial bracelets to frescoes from a seventh century palace.
On the road to Afrosiab, the tombs of Sahr-i-Zindar house the memorials to the family of 14th century ruler Timur. They feature glorious intact majolica tilework but it is the legend and legacy of Timur that travellers to Central Asia delight over today.
The monuments of Samarkand
Christopher Marlowe wrote a play about the ruthless conqueror Tamberlaine. The real emperor Timur made Samarkand his capital in 1370 and over 50 years he and his sons built what was to become an almost mythical city.
Enormous turquoise domes, ribbed and ornamented or smooth and sparkling, top these jewels of Islamic architecture, immense in their scale. The mosque built for Bibi Khayam – Timur’s Chinese queen – has long since collapsed under its own weight but the gateway remains and is 35m high.
The city’s centrepiece is the complex of medressahs called the Registan, which was built by Timur and his highly educated son Ulughbek in the 15th century.
On their vast facades yellow striped lions pounce after fallow deer, an unusual departure from the Islamic bar on depicting people or animals. Inside every surface is decorated in lapis blue and shiny gold with endless patterns of twining leaves and flowers.
A friendly police guard will let you climb one of the minarets at the Registan for a small back-pocket tip. Squeeze up the narrow stairs, scramble through the reconstruction worksites and poke your head and shoulders through a hole in the roof.
Careful shuffling around allows spectacular views of the mosques, medressahs and mausoleums across the city in the golden evening light. The leafy boulevards and traffic of the modern city swirl around the monuments like islands but Samarkand still has one foot in the past.
In the 19th century Lord Byron imagined a place “where the grave, white-turbaned merchants go” and in the street a gentleman in a long coat and bulbous embroidered cap walks with his head a little bowed and hands clasped behind his back. He is overtaken by a trotting donkey cart driven by two boys taking their produce to the main bazaar. Follow them to find pyramids of glowing plums, cherries, grapes and vegetables of all descriptions.
Round, flat Samarkand bread is decorated with pink and yellow flower designs. Ladies in long loose floral dresses offer us shots of fresh and intense boysenberry juice.
Side trip to Shakhrisabz
Take a day trip to Timur’s hometown, Shakhrisabz. Here again, only the enormous (38m) gateway survives of his magnificent palace but there are a number of exquisite mosques and mausoleums, including the tomb where the ruler intended to be buried.
Sitting in a vine shaded courtyard under a pomegranate tree, eating cherries and gnawing on a chunk of nougat bought at the bazaar. That’s how you know you’re in Samarkand.
Natasha von Geldern
Samarkand travel information
A comfortable, modern train runs between Samarkand Uzbekistan and the capital of Tashkent twice daily, with a travelling time of around five hours. There are also domestic flights with Uzbekistan airways.
There are a range of guesthouses and B&B accommodation available in Samarkand. I stayed at Bahodir guesthouse near the Registan.
The best time of year to travel for the most pleasant Uzbekistan weather is in spring, from May to June, avoiding the baking summer and freezing winter.
From Samarkand we crossed over the border into Tajikistan, where our adventures started in Penjikent.