Samarkand was added to the Unesco World Heritage List in 2001. It is heralded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It differs greatly from Tashkent with its impressive Soviet and post-Soviet architecture. Samarkand is a mecca of colourful Islamic mosques and mausoleums.
Situated in eastern Uzbekistan, it has played an important role as a trading city for centuries. A major pitstop on the Silk Road, its rich history dates back to the 4th century BC. In the 9th century the city became an important Islamic centre of learning. It was conquered and destroyed by Ghengis Khan in the 11th century and went on to become the capital of the Timurid Dynasty in the 1300s. Under the rule of Amir Timur, the founder of the Timurid Dynasty and later his grandson Ulugh Beg, Samarkand became an important trading and scientific city. Many of its most beautiful buildings were first constructed during this era. By the 1700s the city had gone into decline and was virtually uninhabited. With the introduction of the railway in the late 1800s it began to recover economically due to its location as an important trading point between east and west.
Samarkand is one of Uzbekistan’s main tourist destinations so you will encounter more of the hustle and bustling hoards here, but it really is a must-see city. I travelled there on a high speed, spotlessly clean train from Tashkent. The ticket was not expensive. The city also has its own airport for internal and international flights. Clean, comfortable, reasonably priced accommodation can be found in hostels and hotels in and around the old part of the city. This places you within walking distance of all the most beautiful landmarks. There are some decent restaurants and cafes close by in the more modern part of the city where you can drink refreshing sweet tarragon lemonade. The Art Café on Tashkent Road, a pedestrian street between the Registan and the Bibi Khanym Mosque, is also excellent and really cheap.
So where do we start with such a feast for the eyes and senses? On many streets in Samarkand you can smell the fresh basil that grows in the well-manicured flowerbeds and many green spaces in the old part of the city. We will start at the Gur-Emir Mausoleum in the west of the city. It houses the tomb of Amir Timur, or Tamerlane, the founder of the Timurid Dynasty. Superstition surrounds the opening of the tomb in 1941 as it was said to unleash a curse which led to the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. Close to the Gur-Emir a giant statue of Amir Timur himself faces towards Registan Street. This street is busy with people and traffic. There is a huge Soviet mural on the façade of the building on the corner where it intersects Umarov Street.
It is worth allowing yourself at least a half day to explore Registan Square. It’s a vast area flanked by three madrasas, or Islamic schools. These huge structures are some of the most ornate in the world. Its not the size of the space that will take up your time and pique your interest. It is the alluring beauty and intricate detail present in every aspect of the buildings. The first madras was built in the 15th century by Amir Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg. He was an astronomer and mathematician and the interiors pay homage to this.
The other two were added later in the 17th century. Having fallen into near dereliction the restoration process was begun by the Soviet Union and completed by the Uzbek nation. The Registan’s architecture and design features, the painstaking detail of its fabulous interiors and the immense colour of its looming facades overwhelm the senses. It was once the city’s main square and an important centre of Islamic learning. It is hard to imagine something so beautiful was designed as such a functional space.
If you can tear yourself away from the Registan, you can stroll up Tashkent Street. It’s a wide, relaxed pedestrian street lined with a few cafes and some really nice shops selling clothes, bags, jewellery and gifts. The Siab Bazaar is at the end of this street. You can buy all sorts of fresh food, household goods and hardware, clothes, gifts and plants. There’s a welcome buzz about the place but none of the hustle you encounter in markets the world over. Of course, some traders are up for a haggle but its less hectic. The sugared peanuts are amazing and some of the clothes and crafts on sale here are really good quality and great value.
The Bibi Khanym Mosque is right outside the gate of the Bazaar. It has been refurbished less than the others. It’s colossal towers and sandy walls provide a place for birds to nest. There is a notable calm in the courtyard below as the birds circle its turquoise domes.
A pedestrian bridge leads to the Hazrat Khizr Mosque and cemetery. Uzbekistan’s former president Islam Karimov is buried at this compound and it is a venerated site. Although it is on a height it is wheelchair accessible like many of the attractions in Samarkand. It is possible to visit the mosque complex even when prayers are going on, but tourists are not generally encouraged to wander around the cemetery and photography is generally not allowed. The design features here differ notably from the other sites.
Finally, on this road of jewels we reach the Shah-i Zinda mausoleum complex. Approached through a narrow-stepped entrance, the narrow avenue is a sea of shimmering blue and turquoise tiles. It’s a place of pilgrimage so it is important to be respectful and you may need to cover your hair, shoulders or legs. It is an important burial place with members of the Timurid Dynasty and a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed resting here. Walking on to the avenue lined with its azure mausoleums feels like stepping inside a precious gem.
It would be foolish to try to see all these beautiful places in one day. While they are geographically close to each other, they are all worth taking your time to explore. It is paradise for anyone who enjoys taking photographs. Most of the places mentioned require a small entrance fee. There are more tourists here than in the capital or in Moynaq and the old city feels calm and safe. Aesthetically it’s a wonderland and a feast for the senses.