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.
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.