There are certain names that conjure images of exotic travel to far flung magical destinations. Timbuktu, Port Said, Tangiers, Damascus, Jaipur, The Caspian Sea, Lake Titicaca, Saigon.
Samarkand is one of those places and is a location that very much lives up to expectations. It is undoubtedly the Crown Jewels of Islamic architecture in Central Asia and arguably the whole of Muslim civilisation.
This is the city of the great warrior Timur (also known as Tamerlane – 1336 to 1405) and his heirs, most notably his grandson Ulugbek.
No expense was spared in making Samarkand the iconic capital of their great empire. Such was the beauty of the place that even Genghis Khan, notorious for sacking everything in his path, spared the city from ruin so beguiled was he by its majesty.
We arrived on the superfast Afrosiyob train from Bukhara, which has a top speed of 250 kmh. It is actually a Spanish TALGO train liveried for Uzbekistan Railways.
We were staying three nights plus a further day as we were due to catch an overnight train north to Khiva, that would depart after midnight. We therefore needed to plan our visits carefully.
I suspect the vast majority of visitors make a beeline for the Registan, Samarkand’s prime site amongst all the piles of must sees. We however made the unusual decision to leave it until last, even averting our eyes when we passed anywhere near it in a taxi.
We were staying in the Malika Classic some 30 minutes walk from the thick of it. Coupled with my rock hard bed we were not best pleased with our new residence having been so spoiled in Bukhara, but grew to like it thanks to the great staff there.
The tremendous advantage of having plenty of time to visit places is that you get to linger in the main attractions and also get to lounge about for long recuperation periods drinking tea, reading, writing and chatting, all against tremendous backdrops under glorious clear blue skies.
Day 1 – Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Shahi Zinda Mausoleum Complex
Day 1 saw us take in two stunning complexes and drink enough tea to detoxify Homer Simpson.
First up was the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, erected by the order of Timur in 1399-1405. From the outside the main mosque & madrasa were fabulous to look at with their mighty blue domes, towering patterned minarets, artistically decorated porticoes and secluded courtyards.
It was inside however that took the proverbial biscuit with jaw dropping tile-work and artistry of the highest standard. I got a stiff neck just gazing upwards, an affliction I was to encounter many times over before leaving the country.
After a good hour plonked on a tapchan sofa (a covered seat/table with plush cushions & colourful textiles typical of Uzbek teahouses) at an adjacent cafe, it was time for our next absolute treat.
We first made a quick detour to the recently built Primov Mausoleum. Primov was the founding president of the newly independent Uzbek nation, separated from the USSR in 1991. He had passed away in 2016 and now lay in a simple tomb in a brightly coloured and rather gaudy building that I first took to be a tacky hotel or restaurant.
No photos we allowed, so we just filed past his grave to pay our respects along with everybody else. In a bizarre twist we sat on some marble benches alongside the tomb, benches that soon filled with around 100 Uzbeks.
We had gatecrashed a prayer session unbeknown to us. Verses were read over the tannoy as everybody prayed. We stayed frozen in respect to the ceremony, unable to move for 15 quite surreal minutes.
As soon as the tannoy cut off we were out of there with everybody else. It was Saturday and we realised that everybody was in their finest clothes. Brightly coloured dresses, golden sandals, smart suits, highly polished shoes. The teeth of the women glinted with gold in the sunlight, a must have fashion statement in these parts it seemed.
I felt more conspicuous in my scruffy western traveller’s garb than perhaps I had ever done before!
Shahi Zinda Mausoleum Complex
We then sauntered down to a site so fabulous and unique (to me) that it made me slightly tearful and struck me dumb.
The Shahi Zinda (translated as Living King) is a series of mausoleums constructed for the great and the good of the 9-14th and 19th centuries. They line both sides of a twisting avenue built high up on a rocky outcrop. Each building was decorated absolutely beautifully, befitting of the standing of the sitting tenant.
Each domed building was reached by climbing a few stone steps up to its kaleidoscope entrance revealing its gorgeous inner sanctum.
The colours, patterns and designs were exquisite, each one very different, perhaps at the request of the incumbents concerned.
This place was not for rushing. It had cost us all of $2 to gain admittance and we certainly got our money’s worth. Remarkably we seemed to be the only foreigners there.
After staying for a marvelous 90 minutes we had seen the whole awesome site. Time for tea!
Uzbekistan Dark Beer
That evening we headed for the brewery bar connected to the Pulsar Brewery. We had read that it served dark beer, a welcome change from the gassy fare that we had been ‘forced’ to drink up until then.
The beer was indeed delicious. Less so the food. We asked to see them menu and I was beckoned to follow the beer waiter. He took me to a large chest refrigerator and pointed out, “here menu.”
The fridge was choc full of nine different types of sausage and skewers of steak slices. Hamish is a vegetarian and I as usual had joined him in being meat free for the trip. Oh well, best make the most of it – cue skewers with roasted onions, tomatoes & potatoes.
Day 2 – Excursion & Timor’s Mausoleum
First of all we took an excursion outside of Samarkand to travel to Urgut Market and then onto Timur’s birthplace of Shahrisabz in Kashkadarya province.
Gur-e-Amir (Timur’s Mausoleum)
We arrived at the Timur mausoleum after dark and found the structure to be most beguiling under its floodlights.
Gur-e Amir is Persian for “Tomb of the King”. This architectural complex with its azure dome contains the tombs of Tamerlane, his sons Shah Rukh and Miran Shah and grandsons Ulugh Beg and Muhammad Sultan. Also honoured with a place in the tomb is Timur’s teacher Sayyid Baraka.
The construction of the mausoleum itself began in 1403 after the sudden death of Muhammad Sultan, Timur’s heir apparent and his beloved grandson, for whom the new mausoleum was intended.
Timur had built himself a smaller tomb in Shahrisabz, near his Ak-Saray palace. However, when Timur himself died in 1405 whilst on his military expedition to China, the passes to Shahrisabz were snowed in, so he was buried here instead.
Ulugh Beg, another grandson of Tamerlane, completed the work. During Ulugh’s reign the mausoleum became the family crypt of the Timurid Dynasty.
There were some official looking guards around, but they did not seem to care that Hamish & I just wandered in ticketless. We were on our own and uneasily felt we could be locked inside at any moment.
If the exterior was wonderful, the interior was absolutely stunning, especially the main mausoleum room of the Timurid Dynasty.
The clanking of a large set of heavy iron keys told us that it was time to depart. We had been spellbound by the grandeur of the place.
Gur-e Amir occupies an important place in the history of Persian-Mongolian Architecture as the precursor and model for later great Mughal architecture tombs, including Gardens of Babur in Kabul, Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra, which was built by Timur’s Persianised descendants, the ruling Mughal dynasty of the Indian Sub-continent.
We went to bed very happy that night, delighted with what we had just seen and also looking forward to finally visiting the Registan the next morning.
Day 3 – The Registan
Think India and you think Taj Mahal, with Cambodia its Angkor Wat, Peru conjures images of Machu Picchu. In Uzbekistan, the chances are that thoughts will turn to Samarkand and the Registan in particular. And with very good reason.
Meaning sandy place in Persian, the Registon was the ceremonial centre point of the Timurid dynasty from the 15th Century.
The square acted as the main focal point where people gathered to hear royal proclamations, heralded by blasts on enormous copper pipes called dzharchis . It was also a place of public executions.
Then as it is today, the square is framed by three huge madrasahs of stunning Islamic architecture.
We were to spend eight hours there, aside from a break for lunch and a chance to visit the nearby statue of Timur the Great.
We would have stayed longer too, except that there is now a need to purchase a second ticket to visit after dark. As we had already wandered much of the sight under lights, we decided that we had more than had our money’s worth (a bargain $8 in fact).
We had managed to avoid a peek at the magnificent site for two whole days, so approached with a great deal of anticipation. We visited on a lovely September day and were delighted that the crowds were threadbare.
Indeed, after lunch they were virtually non-existent as all the tour groups departed for other sites.
The three imposing madrasahs are Ulugh Beg Madrasah (1417–1420), Sher-Dor Madrasah (1619–1636) and Tilya-Kori Madrasah (1646–1660).
Not only are the exteriors amazing, but the interiors are something to behold too. Words are unnecessary, I will just let the pictures do the talking……
As you would expect for such a glorious location, it is a catalyst for wedding parties too.
Finally, I mentioned the statue of Timur. Here it is.
My Wilbur’s Travels Books
Uzbekistan will feature alongside all of the other former Soviets (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania & Estonia) in a future book in the Wilbur’s Travels train journeys series.
Part One detailing my travels by train across all the Balkan countries is available now from Amazon.
The city beginning with the letter S that I would most like to visit that I haven’t yet? Sydney.
How about you?
Look out for T tomorrow.