The Crossroads of Cultures. The popular nickname for Samarkand is an apt one; the city is a storied Silk Road hub held in awe by travelers and dreamers alike, known for its bustling bazaars, towering minarets, and magnificent architecture. The former capital of Timur the Lame–who was known to the West as Tamerlane–Samarkand is a fulfilling, though initially disappointing, destination.
Let’s get the negative out of the way first. The reason Samarkand is a disappointment has to do with the expectations most visitors arrive with. While Samarkand is a treasure trove of ancient architecture and Central Asian culture, it is also a modern city with boulevards upon avenues of drab Soviet buildings. It can be a bit disheartening for starry-eyed travelers in search of the jewel of the Silk Road, but you just have to hold on and dig a little. Amidst the bustling streets of the city are treasures waiting to be discovered. Here are a few you shouldn’t miss!
Samarkand’s most famous site is the sprawling Registan, a complex of madrasahs amazingly well preserved since their construction from 15th through the 17th century. The oldest, the Ulugbek Madrasah, is on the west side of the complex (on your left as you enter). The madrasah was finished under the rule of Ulugbek, Timur the Lame’s grandson. Unlike his grandfather–a fearsome conqueror renowned for building pyramids out of the severed heads of his enemies–Ulugbek was a man of learning who poured resources into developing the cultural and academic facilities of his capital.
Across from the Ulugbek Madrasah is the Sher Dor Madrasah, with its massive mosaic of lions prowling across the facade.
In between the two is the Tilla-Kari Madrasah. When walking through this one, look up. Trust me, it’s stunning! Believe it or not, that’s ceiling is flat, not domed. The domed look is just an illusion.
In the courtyard is a nice garden area with some benches for seating. Well worth a sit down if you’re feeling tired and just want to watch the people mill about for a spell.
Be sure to catch a sunrise at the Registan, as the facades of the buildings bathed in golden light is one of the defining sights of a trip to Uzbekistan.
Once one of the largest mosques in the world, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque is still stunning, but in a state of disrepair. While restorations are under way, it still isn’t up to the glitz of the Registan. Still, this is a must-see for Samarkand; the sheer size of the facade will have you gawking.
Legend has it Timur’s wife–who the mosque is named for–had this mosque built as a surprise for him, but the architect she commissioned became so enamored with her he wouldn’t finish the structure without a kiss. Timur discovered his wife’s indiscretion and had the unlucky man executed. Bum deal, but the guy kind of had it coming. Remember that bit about Timur building pyramids using the severed heads of his enemies? Yeah.
Bibi-Khanym is buried across the street, but her mausoleum is pretty dull compared to the mosque.
Surrounded by a sprawling graveyard, this site contains one of the holiest Islamic sites in the region: the tomb of Qusam-ibn-Abbas, Mohammed’s cousin. Here, it’s easy to take your time, walking slowly and admiring the exquisite majolica tile-work of the mausoleums, stepping into the coolness of the crypts, and reading the placards to see who is buried where.
This is a very holy spot for locals, so please, be respectful!
I’ve mentioned Timur the Lame several times. Samarkand was his ‘project city’, his capital, and the jewel of his empire–though it existed long before his time. The tyrant himself is buried here, along with several of his family members, in the Gur-E-Amur Mausoleum. Small in scope compared to other Samarkand structures, it looks pretty unassuming from the outside.
From the inside, however…
…it is majestic. By a long shot, it’s one of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever seen.
The Tomb of Daniel
This next one is a bit quirky. The rumored resting place (one of two) of the Old Testament prophet Daniel, this shrine contains the holy man’s sarcophagus inside. What makes it quirky is the sarcophagus itself. The prophet’s remains are said to grow a small amount each year, so the size of the sarcophagus is increased accordingly. Now, it measures a whopping 18 meters.
Try not to think too hard about a slowly growing corpse and be courteous as you visit this very sacred spot for Muslims. I know, I know; that’s a tall order!
This last sight is that of the ancient city of Siab in a dusty patch of what appears to be empty space. Built on a mound of land, this ancient fort has elements dating back to the 7th century B.C. and is still being excavated. It’s also totally open. Nothing fulfills a childhood dream of being Indiana Jones quite like exploring the ruins of an ancient city buried under the sand.
Be careful, though. There are bits of old pottery, bricks, and even animal bones everywhere. Don’t disturb anything, leave it for the archaeologists!
There you have it, six awesome things to see in Samarkand! I’d recommend doing Samarkand before Bukhara, so you haven’t been beguiled by Bukhara’s atmospheric charms before seeing the architectural splendor of this ancient city.
- Hiking to Refugio Frey and Beyond - January 20, 2020
- Christmas Letter 2019 - December 18, 2019
- My Walk Out of the Woods - June 30, 2019
Yap, i would just have taken it for granted that pic #2 is domed-shape. I wasn’t a fan of patterns and bright colors before but here they just look so magnificent. I had to smile with that “cuteness” thing in one of the photos… It looks… out of place:-)… But it gave it more life!
Agreed! I was so surprised when I noticed it. Someone made quite the gesture 🙂
Whenever I read your posts it feels part adventure, part history and now art class. It never ceases to amaze me the remote places you have visited. My favorite is the ceiling of Tilla-Kari Madrasah. The optical illusion is astounding! I can’t imagine the pain staking time and effort that was taken to accomplish that finished product. What that a painting or done with tile?
I’m glad you mentioned that to be respectful around the Shah-I-Zinda. I always have to keep that in mind when I am visiting temples here in Korea and that it is a place of worship for the locals.
Love you adventures and hope that I have time to read more in the future.
It’s tile, isn’t that crazy? I couldn’t get my head around how intricate all of the patterns were. Truly astounding how much work they put into those buildings.
Rafiqua Israel (@Rafiqua_Israel)
These photos are amazing! This place almost doesn’t seem real! I just LOVE how the buildings are mosaic-ed. It’s so pretty and detailed. The inside of the Gur-E-Amur Mausoleum is just WOW!
You really saw some interesting places on your post Korea trip. I feel like you are visiting all the places I’ve read about in books like “The Kite Runner”.
Lindsay @ The Neverending Wanderlust
A fantastic article and stunning pictures yet again! I’m really glad you included the ‘negatives’ in the article so that readers (like me) can go to the city with more realistic expectations. Samarkand has definitely made it to my list of places to go-thanks to you!! I also really like that you give us a bit of education along with telling your story–nice for me to get my history interwoven with storytelling (makes it go down easier).
BTW–the photos of the Tilla-Kari Madrasah really sold it for me–those are gorgeous photos!!!
Thanks Lindsay! It’s a gorgeous place, but yeah, I was less ‘in love’ with it than I was with Bukhara and Khiva. Still, absolutely stunning stuff there 🙂
I was honestly holding my breath with each paragraph. Your post is amazing, and I swear I would never heard of Samarkan or even really made an effort to know it if not for your post. Here are my several comments:
1. I love your photos, but I especially loved the one about the sunrise at the Registan. That looks breathtaking. Like, I could just sit on a bench and just stare and feel alive. It’s that beautiful.
2. “Remember that bit about Timur building pyramids using the severed heads of his enemies? ” WTF hahahaha! Is this for real?? For a kiss?? Wow, crazy!
3. Why is Shah-I-Zinda one of the holiest sites in the region? Is it because of Mohammed’s cousin or is there some other reason as well?
4. I had no idea that Daniel’s tomb even existed! And how random that his coffin is so beautiful! I’ve never heard of the story that you mentioned, the one about his corpse “growing”. Do you by chance know why?
5. Afrosiab: That is just freaky and amazing and it makes me want to go! Do many tourists visit this place?
What a wonderful adventure!
Thanks for reading! Yeah, Timur was a brutal ruler, though I’m not sure how much of that is legend and how much is fact. Still, it’s a crazy story, right?!
The biggest reason for Shah-I-Zinda being holy is due to the remains of Mohammed’s cousin being buried there, but there are lots of other holy folk and royalty there as well.
In regards to Daniel’s corpse, I looked it up, and one source (the Atlas Obscura) said that legend came from Timur’s extensions of the grave to prevent grave robbers. Something about making it more difficult to steal the remains. I like the growing corpse story more 😉
As far as the Afrosiab, lots of people go to the museum, but I didn’t see anyone in that area that I was walking around in. It was so crazy, I felt like I shouldn’t have been there, but it was all so open!
Wow, you have certainly seen some beautiful architecture throughout this trip. Have you noticed them changing slightly as you move throughout your travels? Would be interesting if they did.
Yeah, there was a huge change when I crossed from Tajikistan into Uzbekistan. Tajikistan is a weird blend of nomads and herders, then Soviet grandeur in the capital. Uzbekistan (at least the main cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva, etc.) feels like it stepped from a story about the ancient Silk Road. That was the biggest difference for me.
Thanks for reading!
Great pictures Nathan, Samarkand is such a beautiful city! Went there some years ago and the images seen still stick with me today 🙂
Here is an article I wrote about the best to do’s in the city – http://lilontravel.com/en/samarkand-best-places-to-see-travel-uzbekistan/
I love the colors you found inside those mosques. It reminds me a bit of the ones found in Malaysia, in a small way. I like the B&W photo especially, seems to capture a more solemn mood that you were searching for in Samarkind. Thanks for sharing this.
Thanks! Yeah, the insides were just stunning. Very different from the temples in Korea, but they still make you stare about you in wonder 🙂