Samarkand is the most famous city in the history of Uzbekistan as it was in ancient times. It was invaded and conquered by different kings and rulers from East and West. In 6 century BC it was under the control of Akhamenids dynasty, later by Alexander the Great. The first local ruler who made the city so famous was Amir Temur and it became the capital of his great empire in XIV century.
Samarkand is located in Zarafshan valley surrounded by Pamir-Alai mountain spurs that protected the green oasis against the cold winds and heat of Kyzyl Kum desert.
The ancient Samarkand was well-known on West and East. In IV century BC it was one of the centers of culture and trade on the East and its name was Marakanda.The trade caravans passed through Marakanda from Syria to India and Siberia. The riches attracted not only the merchants but also the warriors. In 328 BC after the rebellion of the residents of the city under the Spitamen’s command against the Alexander the Great occurred, the city has been destroyed completely. Then, it was revived on the south-west of Afrosiab ancient settlement.
Xuan Zang’s description of a Zoroastrian society was confirmed by ossuaries excavated at Afrosiab. The greatest discoveries were wall paintings rich in colour and pageantry, for this was the Sogdiana heyday, when her colonists swarmed to China taking glass and wine-making among diverse new skills. However, Chinese hopes of joining Sogdiana to her western empire were dashed by the Arab invasion. Where Xuan Zang had tried to reason with the pagans, Islam came to dominate over others. After invading Samarkand in 712, Arab commander Qutaiba ibn Muslim erected the town`s first Mosque and deported much of the population. In the chaos that followed, Samarkand acquired a valuable skill, for the Battle of Talas in 751 supplied Chinese prisoners to teach its people the art of paper-making. In time, trade routes carried the secret west to replace parchment and papyrus.
Only in the IX century, under Samanid’s rule, did Samarkand enjoy a renaissance. It started growing like Persian towns: a citadel with prison, the shakhristan (town proper) containing government offices and a great Friday mosque, and rabad (suburbs) for bazaars and warehouses.
In XIII c. the city was conquered by the Mongolian ruler Chingizkhan and almost fully destroyed. In XIV c. Samarkand became the capital of Amir Temur’s empire spreading from Syr Darya River to the Ganges and the Bosporus. The city was given a new location, south of its previous site on the mound of Afrosiab, which had been largely destroyed by the Mongols.
Under the Temur’s rule it had become a thriving city which netted half the commerce of Asia. In its markets there was leather, linen, spices, silk, precious stones, melons, grapes, and a host of other goods. It was a city of great architectural monuments, skilled artisans and scholars.
Tamerlane’s death started internal struggle between clans and the reduction of his realm, but for half a century Samarkand continued to blossom under his grandson Ulughbek, the astronomer. However, the rise of nomadic Uzbeks spelt the end of Timurid power and Samarkand’s prosperity. Tamerlane’s great-great-great-grandson, Babur seized Samarkand for the third time in 1512.
After the demise of Timurid rule in Central Asia, Samarkand came under a succession of Persian, Turkic, and even Chinese rulers.
The Shakhi-Zinda (“The Living King”) is a complex of buildings which was originally built to commemorate Qusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of Muhammad Prophet, who came to preach Islam in Samarkand in 676. There are several legends surrounding him. Some say that he was beheaded by the locals, after which he picked up his severed head and plunged with it into a well from which he will one day re-emerge. Another legend recounts that “he was not killed, but in saving himself from the infidels, entered a cliff which opened miraculously before him and closed again after him.
Once Islam was established in Maverannakhr, the site soon became a holy shrine, the object of pilgrimage for the faithful. Ibn Battuta describes it as follows: “Outside of Samarkand is the tomb of Kussam ben Abbas. The inhabitants of Samarkand come out to visit it every Sunday and Thursday night. The Tartars also come to visit it, pay vows to it and bring cows, sheep, dirhams and dinars (coins).” Besides Qusam himself, the bodies of several other members of Timur’s family, those who either died before the Gur Emir was built or who were considered too lowly to be buried there, are also located in the Shahi-Zinda.
The Shahi-Zinda is located on the mound of Afrasiyab, the site of Samarkand prior to the Mongol conquest, just north of the present city. The entrance to the complex is a massive ivan gate. A 70 meter-long combination stairway-walkway runs up to the top of the complex, where the tomb of the Living King himself is located. On either side of the stairway there are the mausoleums containing the others buried there. The earliest extant structures in the complex, including the minaret near Qusam’s mausoleum, were built in the eleventh century. By the twelfth century, the site was being used exclusively as a burial ground. Much of the original complex that grew up around the tomb of Qusam was destroyed by the Mongols when they sacked Samarkand in 1221, although they spared the Living King from this sacrilege. During the fourteenth century, there was a revived interest in the “cult of saints,” resulting in more construction on the site, and a new Shahi-Zinda sprang up on the site. Part of the earlier complex is preserved in the actual mausoleum which contains Qusam, the rest of which dates from 1334-1335 and 1460. Building on the site continued throughout the fourteenth century and into the next, with Timur merely continuing the trend. Since that time, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, more structures have been added to the complex.
The Registan ensemble at the heart of Samarkand is unique and the greatest of all the grandiose and magnificent works of the Islamic world. Registan (means “sandy place”) was the main square and bazaar before the construction of the magnificent buildings. Now three buildings tower over the square. These are madrasahs (Muslim schools). The Samarkand madrasahs were not built simultaneously, but in different centuries. It is especially surprising that it still gives impression of the art wholeness of the architectural ensemble.
The right madrasah Sher-Dor (the lion’s gates) had been kept in the best way. Above the ark entrance the artists of the beginning of the XVII c. depicted two Turan tigers hunting of the fallow-deers and above their backs there are sun discs with the lines of human face. The Turan tiger disappeared from the face of our planet. It was a holy symbol of Turkestan. But as it is known, the artists of the Muslim East under the religious considerations always avoided to draw living creatures. Why then in Registan there was an exception out of this rule. There is no answer to this question so far.
Ulughbek, the grandson of Temur, built a beautiful madrasah on the west side of the square in 1417-1420. According to historical documents the ruler himself lectured here on astronomy.
It is perhaps fitting that Ulughbek, more a scholar than a military or religious leader, has left an educational institution as his primary contribution to the architecture of Samarkand. Indeed, it is the finest example of this type of building from the early Timurid period. As a work of architecture, it is unique in its complexity and its ambitiousness. It ranks among the best work of this period. The building is rectangular in shape, measuring 56 by 81 meters, and encloses a courtyard (30 meters a side) with four axial ivans. There are minarets at each of its four corners and a 34.7 meter tall entrance portal on the facade that faces the Registan. This enormous entrance towers over twice the height of the walls of the enclosed courtyard. In addition, there are two smaller entrances on the sides of the madrasah. These three entrances open onto the courtyard by way of three of the four ivans. Around the courtyard, on two stories, are fifty rooms, which could house one hundred students, and two lecture halls. The fourth ivan, opposite the entrance ivan, leads into a rectangular mosque, flanked by two domed chambers.
The decoration of the madrasah, as elsewhere in Samarkand, emphasizes the color blue, with light and dark blue tiles in hazarbaf technique forming various designs, including the calligraphic representation of sacred names within geometric outlines on the facade, the exterior walls, and the secondary entrances. Mosaic faience is featured above the entrance ivan in a star-shaped design (not surprising for an astronomer!) and in other prominent places, such as the entrance to the mosque.
The third madrasah is located between Sher-Dor and Ulughbek’s Madrasahs and called Tillya-Kori which means “golden work”. This construction was finished in the second half of XVII century. This is the latest construction at this square. Although Tillya-Kori was constructed according to the a usual plan of all madrasahs: right-angled yard with festive decorated entrance portal, galleries of arched rooms (hujr) and minarets at each corner, the third madrasah in Registan primarily was founded not only as an educational institution but also as the main Friday Mosque of the city. For this, from the left side of its inner yard the domical building was constructed with the chair of the abbot of the mosque. It is enough just to look at the inner decoration of this building in order to understand why madrasah got the name “golden work”. The whole inner surface of the mosque is fully covered by gilding.
Bibi Khanum Mosque
After the military campaign in December 1398, Amir Temur decided to create a mosque unlike other mosques throughout the Muslim world. Ninety-five elephants imported from India were used in the construction of the mosque, actively used to carry heavy marble stones.
The Bibi Khanum mosque, was reputedly named after Timur’s favorite wife, Saray Mulk Khanum, the daughter of Chagatay Khan that Timur and Husayn had installed in 1364 in order to legitimize their conquest of Maverannakhr. It is properly called the Masjid-i Jami’ (congregational mosque), but has come to be known by the name of Timur’s wife. A madrasah and mausoleum, now mostly in ruins, were erected by the queen herself opposite the entrance of the mosque. The Masjid-i Shakh in Isfakhan, Iran, as well as some Moghul mosques in India, seems to have copied its basic form.
Bibi Khanum’s portal gate over 35 metres around an arch 18 metres in diameter with flanking minarets 50 metres high. Rectangular courtyard (167 by 109 metres) paved with marble, minarets in each corner and fringed by a gallery of 400 cupolas supported by 400 marble columns. North and south were side mosques with fluted domes and to the east the portal of the main sanctuary topped 40 meters. The decoration on the mosque, which originally covered all visible faces, is rich and varied, including kufic designs and girikhs using glazed bricks in hazarbaf technique, mosaic faience, tiles inset in brick and stone, incised marble and terracotta, and haft rangi tilework. A band of inscription separates the upper and lower sections of the ivan wall of the main sanctuary. The ivan itself was originally framed with a light blue tile spiral molding. All three domes, now in varying states of disrepair, were originally finished in light blue tile on top of a zone of muqarnas. The domes were covered in inscriptions in hazarbaf technique, the smaller ones in naskhi, the larger one in kufic. Parts of the latter are still visible. Inside, the domed chambers were decorated with painted plaster and gilt papier-mache, both of which feature the colors blue and gold; little of the latter remains to this day. Over the sanctuary ivan is an inscription made from carved unglazed terra cotta. Both this and the inscription over the entrance portal, little of which can still be made out, ascribe the building of the mosque to “The great sultan, pillar of the state and the religion, Amir Timur Gurgan…”
There is an interesting legend that has grown up surrounding the construction of the mosque. Apparently, while Timur was away conquering India, the architect who was in charge of the project fell in love with the queen after whom the mosque is named. Bibi Khanum, in an attempt to dissuade the young man, brought 40 painted eggs to him, explaining that, just as all the eggs tasted the same, so it was with women. She would provide him with a beautiful maiden so that he could finish construction of the mosque, now delayed as a result of his infatuation with the queen. A week later, he brought her 40 gourds, 39 filled with water and one filled with wine, and said, “Oh Bibi Khanum, although they may all look alike only one can intoxicate me.”
She agreed to allow him to kiss her, with her hand separating his lips and her cheek. His passionate response penetrated through her hand to leave an indelible imprint on her cheek which the Amir was none too pleased to see when he returned. “Seeing the imprint of the lips upon his wife’s cheek, he sent his elephant brigade into the great mosque and wreaked the damage that can still be seen today. His captains chased the architect to the top of a minaret, where he grew wings and flew off, never to be seen again. And Temur decreed that in future all women should wear a veil, hence the origin of the Mohammedan custom of enshrouding their womenfolk.”
In actual fact, Timur’s elephants cannot be blamed for the deterioration of the building over time. Rather, hasty construction, earthquakes (including a major one in 1897), and general neglect have resulted in only a shell of the former structure remaining today, but even this is impressive.
At the entrance road leading to the city, visitors can see the the buillding of Ulughbek’s observatory and statue of himself. In the XV c. it was the biggest observatory ever built in the East. It had three storeys, circle building decorated with glazed tiles and mosaic. After the death of Ulughbek it was destroyed by local clans and religious people of the city as they were not tolerant. In 1908 it was discovered by Russian archeologist Viyatkin who found the location of the building according to old manuscripts of XV c.
Today visitors can view his discovery, the underground section of a vast meridian arc, though it is called a sextant as only 60° were used. Surviving 11-metre arc sweeps upwards in two marble parapets cut with minute and degree calibrations for the astrolabe that ran its length. The arc completed its radius at the top of a three-storey building, colourfully faced with glazed tiles. Above ground floor service rooms were arcades designed as astronomical instruments. “Inside the rooms he had painted and written the image of the nine celestial orbits and the shapes of the nine heavenly bodies, and the degrees, minutes, seconds and tenths of seconds, of the epicycles, the seven planets and pictures of the fixed stars, the image of the terrestrial globe, pictures of the climes with mountains, seas and deserts” .
All that remains of this structure today is the large concave slit in the earth which used to house the sextant.
GUR EMIR Mausoleum
The fabulous Gur Emir (“The Great Prince”) is a mausoleum which was originally designed to house the body of Timur’s favorite grandson, Muhammad Sultan (1375-1403), who was buried there after being killed on one of Timur’s campaigns.
After Timur’s sudden death in Otrar in 1405, he was also brought back to Samarkand and buried here, although he intended burial in his home-town Shakhisabz. His grandson and descendents down to Ulughbek buried here as well. So, it is the graveyard of Temur’s men relatives including Umar Shaykh, Miran Shah, Pir Muhammad, Shah Rukh, and Ulughbek. Timur was the principle builder of this structure and the initial ensemble, minus the mausoleum, was finished by 1401. The mausoleum itself was completed by 1404. According to the legends, when Timur returned from a campaign to discover that the mausoleum was, in his estimate, too low, he ordered it rebuilt in ten days.
The original ensemble included three buildings clustered around a square courtyard: the actual mausoleum (to the south), a madrasah (to the east), and a khanaqah (to the west). The north side of the court contained an entrance portal. There was a minaret at each corner of the courtyard. The importance of this complex is that it represents the earliest standing evidence for ensemble planning that was to become so popular in the Timurid period and later
The mausoleum is the focus of the ensembe. Its exterior is octagonal in shape, whereas the interior is square (10.2 meters to a side), with a rectangular bay in each wall. Along the eastern side of the building is the gallery that Ulughbek added. The large dome over the main chamber rests on a tall drum. The external octagon has been finished in light blue glazed tiles that feature the names Allah and Muhammad. Around the base of the drum, also in tilework, runs a white-lettered inscription in kufic script: “God is immortality.” The rest of the drum is elaborately decorated in various geometric patterns of both glazed and plain tiles, with dark and light blue colors playing a prominent role. Finally, the bulbous, fluted external dome, with 64 ribs, continues the same geometric patterns that were used on the drum, creating an overall visual impression of a vast expanse of azure and turquoise. This type of ribbed dome can also be seen in the shrine which Timur built to commemorate Ahmed Yasavi.
Inside the chamber, the decoration is ornate. The dado (the lower part of an interior wall) features hexagonal tiles of onyx and its upper boundary is marked by a slight muqarnas (stalactite composition used in transition from polygon to circle) cornice, above which (about 2 meters from the floor) is a green inscription band with gold letters. Another band, featuring geometric patterns painted on plaster, is located 3.7 meters above the floor. Above this, the walls are decorated with star designs, whereas the bays employ muqarnas, originally covered with blue and gold pressed paper. Finally, just below the zone of transition, another inscription band, with letters of gold, runs around the four walls. The ark and the inner dome were also originally covered with elaborate patterns on pressed paper. Not surprisingly, the papier-mache, which is the earliest instance of this artform in the area, soon deteriorated and is only now being restored.
The bodies lie in an underground crypt, which is accessed by a stairway in the southeast corner of the main chamber. The tombstones are located in the chamber itself. Timur’s cenotaph is a massive slab (the largest in the world) of nephrite (dark green jade) which was brought back from Mongolia by Ulughbek in 1425 and subsequently broken in half in the XVIII c. when the invading Persian ruler, Nadir Shah, tried to remove it from the chamber. On the tombstone is the following inscription in Arabic: “When I rise from the dead the whole world will tremble.” On the very day that the Soviet archaeologist, Professor M.M. Gerasimov, exhumed the skeleton of Timur from the crypt in which it lay (which, incidently, confirmed that the Amir had indeed been limp), June 22, 1941, Hitler’s armies invaded Russia.
Driving a bit outside of the center of Samarkand to the south-east, in the local community area, once you can visit the ruins of the mausoleum of XV c. It is called Ishrat-Khona (“the place joy and happiness” in Uzbek). This is a mausoleum for the female and infant members of the Timuride dynasty. According to legends, the mausoleum was built by order of Khabibi Sultan Beghim, wife of the Timuride Sultan Abu Sayid who ruled from 1451 to 1469, in memory of their deceased daughter Sultan-Havend-bika.
The monument is a complex of structures. Its central section is a cross-shaped crypt with a high ceiling. From the south-east it adjoins a suite of three premises. From the north-west there is a mosque. On both sides of the entrance portal, there are two storeys of auxiliary premises. From the central hall an underground passage runs into the octahedral crypt which is spanned by an elliptical vault . The design of the vault is based on the crossing of arches and pendentives. The main hall has a tall panel running along the base of the walls from which rise the ribs, arches and pendentives to form the stellar bowl of the shallow dome .The interior decor comprises murals and kundal-technique plafonds. The external facades used to have a rich ceramic facing – mosaic filling of tympanums and cartouches .The earthquakes of 1897 and 1903 brought down the dome and the tall drum. Measures are being currently taken to ensure the conservation and restoration of this outstanding work of architecture. The dimensions are 27.5 by 22.5 m; height – 18-19 m.
Hodja Daniyar Mausoleum
Half an hour`s walk from the museum, beyond the Siab, is the legendary Tomb of Daniel, the Hebrew saint allegedly brought back from Persia by Timur.
The mausoleum of Hodja Daniayar (St. Daneel) is one of the most popular cultural sites in Samarkand. It is respected by all religious people including Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Daniyar, Daneel and Daniel – all these are the names of saint in Islam, Christianity and Jewish literature.
Hodja Daniyar Mausoleum is located down to the north walls of Afrasiab excavation site, just by the Siab river. Common people call it the mausoleum of prophet Daniyar, but his real grave is in Mosul.
According to Bible interpretations, Daneel in Hebrew means “God is judge”, “My god is Judge”. He was born in Jerusalim in 603 B.C. and was from royal family of David and Solomon. When Israel was invaded by Babylon king Novohudonosor, Daneel was sent to Babylon (modern territory of Iraq) together with other young members of royal family. They started to learn different sciences like astrology, art of dream interpretation. The most talented among the Jewish youth was Daneel. Due to his interpretation of dream of Novohudonosor he was awarded with honor by the king and became one of the closest people to him.
When he became old he asked the king to have holidays, after which he moved to Suzy (modern city Shush in Iran) where he died and was buried in royal cemetery. It is considered that the spirit of this prophet would defend the city and remains of the Daneel would bring welfare.
During his military campaign to Asia Minor (1397-1404) Amir Temur made pilgrimage to the mausoleum of Daneel and decided his capital Samarkand also should be rich and prosperous.
When the remains of Saint Daneel was being transported to Samarkand the caravan with fifty camels stopped near the river Siab, close to the place where the mausoleum is located now. The place is also was very similar to the burial place in Suzy. Soon, after he was buried here spring water appeared and inhabitants of the city since long time has been using the water , believing to its healing power.
Modern mausoleum was built in the beginning of XX c. However, according to the paintings of XIX c. and photos of XIX c, it is well known that the grave was covered with river stones. Inside the mausoleum there is a grave 18 meters long. Mullahs believed that even in death Daniel grew half an inch every year (he will rise again when he reaches a certain size) and thus his grave was enlarged annually.
Afrosiab History Museum
In 1880s Russian archeologists started excavations on Afrosiab site, gathered a lot of historical artifacts and the results of work of local and soviet scientists of 1960s are exhibited in this marble museum.
The first hall contains excavation photos and relief maps showing the city’s expansion south of the ruler’s citadel. The exhibits and reconstructions of the following halls enable the visitor to see Afrosiab’s evolution through the centuries. Early ceramics and architecture have great influence of Greco-Bactrian period; other souvenirs of Alexander’s visit include silver coins, swords and knives. Zoroastrianism in the Kushan period is evident from altars for fire offerings, bricks with solar symbols and ornamental ossuaries for the bones of the dead, once picked clean of flesh by birds and beasts of prey. Local cults also prospered—find terracotta statuettes of Anahita, goddess of the waters (divinity of the Amu Darya) and of fertility (she holds a seed-packed pomegranate).
Silk Road profits from the fifth century onwards are reflected in jewellery, cosmetics, coins and hone-carved chessmen, but chiefly in wall paintings on public-buildings and gentry dwellings. In 1965 the royal palace yielded the museums highlight, a series of seventh-century murals over two metres (6,5 feet) high, displayed in their original layout like an epic narration of courtly splendour. Even with the decay of time and Arab mutilation—the Prophet’s prohibition on idols led the Arabs to scratch out the eyes—the paintings survive in colourful testimony to the skilled artists at the peak of Sogdian cultural activity. Leading a bridal procession from Surkhandarya to the ruler of Samarkand is a princess atop a white elephant before an entourage of maids on horseback, bearded camel-riders holding the rods of ambassadorship, a cavalcade of horsemen and a file of sacred swans. The central mural depicts the ruler himself, magnificently clad in robes and jewellery, receiving the gifts of foreign envoys: silk-bearing Chinese, long-haired Turks, Pamiri nomads and pigtailed Koreans.
Khodja Akhrar Complex
Four kilometers south of the Registan stands the ensemble built around the grave of Sheikh Khodja Akrar (1404- 1490), leader of the Nakhshbandi dervish order and dominant political figure in Transoxiana following Ulughbek’s death. Acclaimed by the people as a religious ascetic and miracle-worker, he yielded great wealth and influence over Tamerlane’s great-grandson Abu Said and his sons. Between 1630 and 1635 Bukharan vizier Nadir Divanbegi incorporated the funerary mosque built by Akrar’s sons into a large madrasah. The mosaic tiling has been fully restored so the portal shines again with heretical art— the Persian heraldic emblem of lion – tigers chasing does, similar to those on the Shir-Dor madrasah. Around the courtyard, faced with solar and floral motifs similar to Tillya-Kori, runs a gallery of student ceils, lecture halls and a domed mosque, all functioning now. South of the madrasah is the ornate Khodja Akrar mosque (XVII – XX centuries), a row of summer and winter premises featuring tiled and doubled mihrab, wooden ivan embedded with star shapes and columns finishing in muqarna stalactite capitals.
The Imam Ismail Al’-Bukhari’s memorial complex is located 12 km from Samarkand. Imam Ismail Al-Bukhari was born in 810 in Bukhara. He died and was buried in 870 near Samarkand. Imam Al’-Bukhari undertook the titanic efforts selecting hadiths (oral traditions recounting events in the lives of the Islamic prophet Muhammad) in order to screen unreliable ones and preserve the true words of the Prophet for the descendants. During his work he verified around 600,000 hadiths and included a little bit more than one percent of them into the group of reliable ones. In order to do that he had developed and applied the classification principles depending on the source. As testified by the contemporaries, Al-Bukhari had a unique memory sense. For him it was enough to read a book only once in order to remember its content by heart.
16-year hard work resulted in collection of the most reliable hadiths “Al’-Jami As-Sakhikh”. For 12 centuries, this book is considered as the second source of information after the Koran in the Islamic world.
In XVI c. a small mausoleum was erected above the Imam’s grave, a mosque was built and trees were planted nearby. A few years ago due of the Imam Ismail Al-Bukhari’s birthday anniversary, the memorial complex was constructed on the place of the ancient mausoleum. Visit to this hole place is equal to small Muslim pilgrimage.
Samarkand Market – Bazaar
Just next to Bibi Khanum Mosque there is Samarkand’s main bazaar, focus of the old town. Its name is Siab market. The local people tried to preserve its original function, it is still colorful, crowded, rich for fruit, melons, water melons, famous Samarkand bread (non), sweets, dry fruits, vegetables and so on. Early mornings and Sundays offer the most activity. Beside cloth sacks of exotic spices, the famous Samarkand non fills barrows and pushchairs. These roundels of unleavened bread include some 20 varieties with individual pattern and name. When Amir Temur left on his first campaign, he took the best wheat and bakers the city could offer, salt, water and firewood. He later concluded that the superior flavour was in fact due to Samarkand’s pure air. He ate only non delivered from the capital of his empire. Samarkand could boast over 100 kinds of grape by the tenth century.