Samarkand, Splendour Non-Pareil (2003,2013)

Samarkand, Splendour Non-Pareil (2003,2013)

The drive from Bukhara to Samarkand takes just under four hours and the highway is world class. It was not always this easy to reach this beautiful city. Some of the earliest European impressions of Samarkand come from Don Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, Ambassador of Henry III of Castile to Timur Lane’s court in 1404. He had journeyed fifteen months to reach Samarkand; first by ship to Constantinople and on to Trebizond, then by land for three thousand miles through eastern Turkey and northern Persia to Balkh and across the Oxus by way of Termez and Shahri-Sabz to Samarkand. Today, one can fly into Samarkand and it takes less than three hours whether from Moscow or New Delhi.

Quintessential Samarkandi Tilework
City on the Move

Unlike Bukhara, Samarkand gives you the impression of a city that has moved on. Today Samarkand is a modern city like any other with broad tree-lined avenues, shopping malls in the fashionable Satara Prospect and speeding cars jostling for space with vendors of nons – the local bread and nuts and dryfruits heaped on carts. Samarkandis seem oblivious to the grandeur all around as they go about their daily business amidst exquisite ancient monuments that make tourists gape and stare in wonder. Besides, Samarkand is above all, a Timurid city.  Not the barren Bukhara browns for this glorious capital of Timur.  The city comes alive in rainbow colours – thanks to painstaking restoration work done by the Soviets. Coloured tiles manufactured on mass scale to mimic the originals so much so that a lay observer would hardly notice the difference.

Clavijo who was an esteemed guest at the nuptials of six of Timur’s grandsons Ulug Beg and Ibrahim Sultan, sons of his son Shakh Rukh and four others, writes, “The various orchards and palaces…  belonging to His Highness stand close up to the city of Samarkand, while stretching beyond lies the great plain with open fields through which the river flows, being diverted into many water courses.” At the beginning of October 1404, when Timur ordered the Great Horde to gather, “twenty thousand tents were pitched in regular streets all round the Royal Camp and as many spread all over the surrounding plain and many more tribes coming in every day from outlying districts, and butchers and cooks and bakers and even bath attendants to minister to their needs.”

Bibi-Khanym Mosque
Bibi Khanum Mosque

Timur had eight wives of whom Bibi Khanum was the undoubted First Lady. She was a Chinese or possibly Mongolian princess of such beauty and grace that Timur ordered a magnificient mosque to be built for her exclusive use. Legend has it that the Persian architect entrusted with the task fell in love with her and paid with his life. Now the mosque, described by Clavijo as the finest In Samarkand,  is being restored and therefore, half of it is barricaded. Inside the complex, shooting for an English film is in progress, with scores of actors dressed from head to foot in black riding shining black horses and brandishing swords. Not far from the mosque you come across ruins which once supported a magnificient cathedral mosque built by Timur in memory of his favourite mother-in-law. Before it fell to its present sorry state, it had even served as a cotton market.

Gur Emir

Gur Emir, another monument that rises majestically in the urban landscape of Samarkand was originally built around 1404 as a mausoleum for Mohammad Sultan, Timur’s favourite grandson who died of wounds at the great battle against Bayazid.  The original building did not measure upto Timur’s expectations, hence he had ordered it rebuilt in ten days’ time.  Originally, it was part of a sprawling complex of assorted buildings which included a guest house, some medresses etc, but none of these survive. Their place has been taken by modest single storey dwellings which mercifully blend unobtrusively with the background. A few children play hopscotch under the shade of the trees.

Gur Emir

Gur Emir is a lofty structure with a fluted turquoise dome studded with fine blue and gold tiles and rising from an octagonal base. The walls were lined with jasper and alabaster.  Today it houses the remains of Timur, his three sons, Omar Shaik, Miranshah and Shakrukh and his grandson Mohammad Sultan. Mir Sayeed Barka, a famous Sheik is also buried next to Timur. Like in Taj Mahal, the tombs are in the basement. Timur’s tombstone is carved out of a single piece of green jade. The guide tells you an extraordinary story. According to him, the tomb is inscribed with the warning that anyone who opens the tomb would bring upon the country an invader worse than Timur himself. Disregarding the warning, in the year 1941, Professor Gerasimov, a Russian archeologist opened the tomb and scooped out the skeleton of Timur at which moment, according to the guide, he received news that Hitler had just crossed into the Soviet Union. In the corner of the courtyard lies the Blue Stone, a bluish grey marble carved with arabesques believed to be the base of Timur’s throne. Next to it is a circular object believed to be Timur’s bath.


By far, the most impressive monument in Samarkand is Registan, the cobbled square with an ensemble of ancient structures right in the middle of a modern avenue. In Uzbek language, Registan means ‘sandy place’. Lord Curzon called Registan ‘the noblest public square in the world’. No sophisticated lens can really do justice to the grace and grandeur of the square. Wide angle lenses collapse and distort the exquisite proportions and render a somewhat flat image that is an apology for the actual structure. Unlike Humayun’s tomb or Taj Mahal, the elegance comes not from symmetry, but from balance.  Registan is enclosed on three sides by perfectly proportioned structures while the fourth faces the main road. On the north is the Tilla Kari or the Golden Mosque Medresse built in the middle of the seventeenth century by Yallangtush. As you face Tilla Kari, to your left is the smaller medresse built by Ulug Beg in 1417.  To your right, facing Ulug Beg Medresse is the Shir Dor or the Lion Bearer also built by Yallangtush. It’s full moon this night. The large circular silver disc of the moon dazzles like diamond between Tilla Kari and Ulug Beg Medresse, and renders the evening magical. The fluted turquoise domes shimmer in the moonlight while the archways with their black interiors appear mysterious. But the monument is not open after sunset. You have to be content with a telephoto view of moonlit Registan.

Registan, Timur’s Grand Square

Next day you come back to explore Registan. The Ulug Beg medresse has a majestic portal flanked by perfectly proportioned minarets. The mosaic panel over the arch is decorated by stylized geometrical patterns. In the inner courtyard is a statue of the great astronomer-builder surrounded by his students. There are deep galleries along the axes all taken over now by hawkers of handicrafts and reproductions of ancient silk route maps. Your brochure assures you that Ulug Beg himself delivered lectures on science and astronomy here. Tilla Kari is a guilded dome and its courtyard is flanked by dormitories and cells where the devout who came to pray stayed. The Shir-Dor Medresse is of more recent origin, having been built in the seventeenth century. It is not considered to be upto the high standards of ‘Samarkand architecture’ but together, the three structures that form the Registan Ensemble, though built in different periods, present a picture of harmony.

Ulub Beg Observatory

Atop a hill is the must-see Ulug Beg Observatory with its giant sextant. Ulug Beg ascended the throne in 1447 after Shakh Rukh’s death, but ruled briefly for two years only to be murdered by his own son Abd al Latif.  He was an accomplished and renowned astronomer of his times. He built a magnificient  observatory in 1429. It was discovered by a Russian archeologist in 1908 and was excavated in 1948. It houses the original marble sextant with a radius of 40.21 meters and has been acknowledged to be so accurate as to produce readings with error margin of a fraction of a second.

The Astronomer Ulug Beg

You cross a busy square with chaotic traffic on the way to Shakh Zinda, the Shrine of the Living King on a hillside.  It is believed that Kasim ibn Abbas, the cousin of Prophet Mohammed is buried here. He came to Samarkand with the Arab invasion in the seventh century and stayed on to convert Nestorian Christians to Islam. Shakh Zinda is a cluster of structures built over several centuries from the eleventh to the nineteenth and houses several mausoleums and an exquisite mosque. A lone woman prays silently in a corner while two youths try to sell you replicas of the roof tiles.  From atop Shakh Zinda you get a view of the bustling city of Samarkand, its bazaars, its traffic and its sprawling settlements. Samarkand, you conclude, is a symbol of continuity as few cities of the world are. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

(Published in Frontline dated Feb 13, 2004)

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