Samarkand: the cultural crossroads of Central Asia that few people have heard of, and you'll never forget
An ancient Silk Road city is a Unesco World Heritagelisted hub of historic Islamic architecture, and one of the oldest human settlements on earth
An azure, onion-shaped dome stands like a beacon in the heavens, while other parts of this magnificent structure glow with amber and jade hues against the night sky. Yet, a lit-up Gur-e Amir – a 15th-century mausoleum of Tamerlane (also known as Timur) – is just one of the ancient religious sites making this area of Central Asia, Samarkand, an essential stop-off.
Situated in east-central Uzbekistan, Samarkand can rightly be said to be one of the planet’s oldest inhabited cities – some archaeologists date it to around the 7th century BC. Over its first few hundred years, the settlement was captured by Alexander the Great in 329BC and the famous leader of the Mongols, Genghis Khan, in 1220. Nonetheless, despite suffering numerous invasions – the Iranians, the Persians and the Turks got in on the act, too – the now UNESCO World Heritagelisted city prospered because of its position on the Silk Road, a historically significant network of trade routes between China and the Mediterranean.
At some point during the Middle Ages, Samarkand had a slight change of direction and became an important centre for Islamic scholarly study. One structure created at this time was the Registan. Literally translating as “sandy place” or “desert”, the public square was the heart of the city and of the Timurid dynasty. Indeed, it was a spot where citizens went to listen to royal decrees – gloriously announced by bursts on huge copper pipes known as dzharchis - or to witness executions.
This quadrangle is framed by a triad of majestic madrasahs (Muslim educational institutions): Sher-Dor, Tilya-Kori and Ulugh Beg. The latter was the first to be built (1417-1420) and has a trio of exquisite minarets and an iwan - a rectangular, normally vaulted hall, walled on three sides, with one end completely open - that’s an alluring assemblage of geometric beige, blue and white tiling. It still exists today, as do the other two madrasahs, which have several similarly splendid design features, so all of them deserve a visit. A couple of other edifices in the immediate vicinity are must-sees: the originally 15th century-fabricated domed Chorsu, which used to be a bazaar but is now an art gallery; and from the same era, the crafted stone blocks that amount to the mausoleum of Shaybanids – which is named after the eponymous leader of the Uzbeks.
The Bibi-Khanym Mosque also reveals the influence of religion in Samarkand’s development. When it was constructed in the 1400s, it was one of the world's biggest and most striking of its kind. It eventually fell into disrepair, but since the late 20th-century a comprehensive restoration has been in operation. As a result, a 40-metre-high light green cupola will now enthral holidaymakers as well as a series of minarets, and a verdant courtyard containing a hefty Quran stand made from ornate marble. Near this temple is Siyob Bazaar, an amazing venue where the intoxicating aroma of bread, dried nuts, fruits and spices wafts through the air.
If possible, don’t leave town without investigating Ulugh Beg’s Observatory. Located in the northeastern outskirts of the city at the foot of Chupan-ata Mountain, it is named after the scientist and architect who founded this advanced establishment in the 1420s. Although the observatory is mainly in ruins, the site has thoroughly engaging remnants of age-old astronomical instruments and an intriguing museum. Samarkand might start off as a place most people have never heard of, but by the time they leave it’s a destination that nobody can forget.