Silk Route Spotlight: Samarkand, Crossroads of Cultures

Silk Route Spotlight: Samarkand, Crossroads of Cultures

If ever there were a crossroads of cultures, it is the melting pot of Samarkand. Over there – China, and over there – the West, the Mediterranean. And here – Samarkand, city of spices, silk, religions, cultures, and conquerors.

This Silk Road oasis in Central Asia’s Uzbekistan is so cherished by the world that it’s designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, preserved for future generations beyond the 25 centuries that it’s been here. Built like a rock, Samarkand’s ancient name means “stone fort” or “rock town.”

Tiled domes dominate the skyline of ancient Samarkand <br>Photo credit: Charles Lawrence

Tiled domes dominate the skyline of ancient Samarkand
Photo credit: Charles Lawrence

Dome of the Bibi-Khanum Mosque rises more than 130 feet Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Dome of the Bibi-Khanum Mosque rises more than 130 feet
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Conquering DeedsSamarkand exudes a “spirit of place” made up of Islamic culture beyond imagination in ancient and modern times, yet was also a favorite strategic city of conquerors. Alexander the Great gushed that Samarkand was “even more beautiful than I imagined.”

In contrast, Conqueror Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde ruled the city for 100 years, tearing it to shreds. Conqueror Tamerlane (a.k.a. Timur) liked – loved – Samarkand so much he made it his capital and poured his wealth and imagination into its architecture and decorative arts, revitalizing the city, unlike anything seen in the world up to that time. He even spared his enemies’ artisans to help build this urban crown of his empire. Between Tamerlane and his grandson, Ulug Bek, they built “the best of the best” of their time, from the world’s largest mosque to the world’s largest observatory.

Intricate tile designs adorn Samarkand's mosques and madrassahs <br>Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

Intricate Islamic designs adorn Samarkand’s mosques and madrassahs
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

For 25 centuries, the sun sets on Samarkand Photo credit: Charles Lawrence

For 25 centuries, the sun has set on Samarkand
Photo credit: Charles Lawrence

If These Walls Could Talk… Take your pick of this ancient Silk Road city – madrassahs, mosques, mausoleums, and museums. Favorite historical and architectural highlights include:

    • Madrassahs
      Front and center are the three iconic Islamic “madrassahs,” or schools, that make up Registan Square with their glistening turquoise, gold and emerald tiles: Ulug Bek (“great ruler”), once largest in the world; Tillya-Kori (“gold-covered”); and Shir-Dor (“tigers”). Even today, head-scarved women cross this public square, bags exploding with housewares, fruit, and textiles. Here children chase each other in games first played 2,000 years ago. Men meet and greet, calling out “Assalam alaikum,” words of peace that have echoed from these walls for a millennium.
Shir-Dor Madrassah is controversial for depicting living creatures on a religious building Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

Shir-Dor Madrassah is controversial for depicting living creatures on a religious building
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

  • Mosques
    Bibi Khanum Mosque – enormous today – was the world’s largest in the 14th century. It’s believed the main gate loomed a dizzying 114 feet. Quickly built and quick to crumble, this mosque collapsed in an 1897 earthquake but was rebuilt in the 1970s. Legend has it that any woman who crawls under its massive courtyard Koran stand will produce many children.
    A controversial kiss surrounds the building of Bibi-Khanum Mosque in Samarkand, Uzbekistan Photo credit: Michel Behar

    The legend of a kiss is tied to the construction of Bibi-Khanum Mosque in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
    Photo credit: Michel Behar

  • Mausoleums
    Shah-i-Zinde (“Tomb of the Living King”) is a vast complex of mausoleums and tombs – at least 20 buildings over nine centuries. Here rest the remains of ancient Samarkand dwellers, fragments of the city’s earliest Islamic structures, and (it’s believed) the bones of Mohammad’s cousin. Gur-i Amir (“Tomb of the King”) contains the tombs of Tamerlane, several sons and grandsons – including Ulug Bek – as well as Tamerlane’s favorite teacher.

    Shah-i-Zinde’s necropolis of tombs and mausoleums in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
    Photo credit: Michel Behar

  • Museums
    On the outskirts of town is the Afrosiab History Museum, an archaeological site studded with the history of ancient Samarkand, 11 layers deep. Excavations since the 1111s have uncovered pottery shards, tiles, and physical clues to this crossroad city’s past.
    Samarkand is built on the ruins of ancient Afrosiab Photo credit: Michel Behar

    Samarkand is built on the ruins of ancient Afrosiab
    Photo credit: Michel Behar

Promoting Paradise A Persian historian once said, “The paradise of this world is Samarkand.” That’s hyperbole for so many other places, but not this Central Asian city. Dazzling conquerors for 2,500 years and dazzling travelers today, Samarkand is, indeed, a paradise that overwhelms, astonishes, and, ultimately, inspires us to think beyond ourselves, to those who came before us with their Silk Road visions and inspirations.

Samarkand's town square? That's Registan Square, where these women meetPhoto credit: Michel Behar

Samarkand’s town square? That’s Registan Square, where these women meet
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Rain or shine, Registan Square is Samarkand's historic gathering place <br>Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Rain or shine, Registan Square is Samarkand’s historic gathering place
Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Travel to Central Asia with MIRLearn more about MIR tours that travel to Central Asia, visiting Silk Route highlights such as Samarkand. You can also book a custom private journey to Central Asia and Samarkand.

(Top photo credit: Lindsay Fincher)

PUBLISHED: January 14, 2014

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