Samarkand is the second largest city of Uzbekistan and is of the same age as the city of Babylon or Rome.
The history of Samarkand is about 2,750 years old and has witnessed many upheavals during the times of Alexander the Great, the Arabic Conquest, Genghis-Khan Conquest and lastly Tamerlane's. Hence, the culture of Samarkand was developed and mixed together with the Iranian, Indian, Mongolian and a bit of the Western and Eastern cultures.
Majestic and beautiful city Samarkand has a marvelous and attractive power. Poets and historians of the past called it "Rome of the East, The beauty of sublunary countries, The pearl of the Eastern Muslim World". Its advantageous geographical position in the Zarafshan valley puts Samarkand to the first place among cities of Central Asia.
Over the history this legendary city on the Silk Road went through growths and decays, suffered from destroying invasions of foreign rulers and again revived, becoming more beautiful.
Today Samarkand is the treasure of unique antiquity spirit. It is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List due to the abundance of material and spiritual values. Unique monuments of ancient architecture, heritage of scientific and arts schools, artisans workshops are well-known around the world.
Modern Samarkand is divided into two parts: the old city, and the new city developed during the days of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. The old city includes historical monuments, shops and old private houses, while the new city includes administrative buildings along with cultural centres and educational institutions.
The Samarkand symbol, the image of which can be met more often in post cards and booklets, is Registan Square.It is called the pearl of Central Asia.
Popular Monuments and Landmarks of Samarkand
The history of the Registan Square
Translated from Uzbek, “registan” means a sand place. In the ancient times, this central square was covered by sand. The territory was not initially surrounded by madrassah; those great erections appeared rather later. In that period, authorities of the city were gathering people on the square to announce khan’s orders, held celebrations and public executions, and collected the army leaving to war.
In the past, one could see many trade rows around the square, where artisans and farmers were selling their goods. All main roads of Samarkand led to Registan where it was always noisy and lively.
Various rulers during their reign would change the main significance of the square, but since those times and up to now, Registan has always been the center of the city social life.
There are three madrassahs on the square: Ulughbek, Sherdor and Tilla-Kori, that are the main sights of the city. They were erected by two rulers at different times.
The heir of the great state of the Temurids, a well-known mathematician and astronomer Ulughbek, assumed the authority in 1409. In year 1417, he gave an order to build the madrassah that would later be renamed in his honor. It was the first erection on the Registan Square. The word “madrassah” stems from Arabic and literally means “teaching and learning place”.
In 1420, the construction of madrassah ended. On the outside, the building, located on the western part of the square, was done in the form of a rectangle; inside there is a square yard with entrances to the student cells (approximately for 100 people) and learning rooms. The façade of the madrassah looks out on the square, completed with two tall minarets in the corners. Special attention should be given to an exquisite interior of the building. Glazed bricks create beautiful ornaments on the yellowish laying of the walls. The madrassah portal is adorned with patterns of ten-pointed stars symbolizing the sky, and astronomy.
At that time, it was the largest scientific-educational establishment in Samarkand. Here students were taught philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, theology. Along with the madrassah, caravan-sarai and hanaqa of Ulughbek were constructed as well. Two centuries later, they would build two other madrassah on the place of the vendors’ shelter and hanaqa, and they would complete the architectural ensemble that we can all see today.
In 1612, Yalangtush Bahadur was appointed the emir of Samarkand. He was the governor-general of the Bukhara khans and by that time, he was already ruling feudal principalities, was known as a skillful politician and an educated commander.
Being a ruler of the city, he decided to construct another madrassah on the Square of Registan opposite the building erected by Ulughbek. According to the project of architects, the new madrassah was supposed to be located on the eastern side of the square and be a mirroring reflection of existing building on Registan. However, the exact mirroring concurrence did not work as the architect did not take one peculiarity into consideration – 200 years have passed since the construction of the Ulughbek madrassah, and the building had shrunk into the ground and the level of the square itself had risen to 2 meters. In the result, the new madrassah turned out to be taller. However, it is rather difficult to notice this different visually.
There was Ulughbek’s hanaqa located on the site of the territory planned for construction, that had noticeably dilapidated by that time. It was taken to pieces and the main part of the material was used for erection of the new building.
Construction lasted until 1636. Emir Yalangtush Bahadur wished his creation not to give in either in pomposity or space to the Ulughbek madrassah. Despite the fact that the façade of the building was completely resembling the first madrassah, they had used new technology in construction, not common in the 14th century. Workers applied rather progressive techniques that speeded the process.
Upon construction, the madrassah was named in honor of the ordering party. However, the name did not find its usage among people, and the building was renamed to Sher-Dor. The name comes from the images on the portal: two big golden tigers carrying a sun on their backs and heading after white fallow-deer were adoring the entrance. Sher means tiger (lion) and the name is translated as “adorned with tigers”. It was this plot that later became a national symbol of Uzbekistan.
Ten years later since the construction of the Sher-Dor madrassah, the ruler of Samarkand Yalangtush Bahadur had planned to erect another building that was supposed to complete the ensemble.
The construction began in 1646, in the northern part of the Registan Square, on the place of the caravan-sarai. The architect decided that the new madrassah should be another copy of already existing buildings, though would be located in the center.
The author of the project had an idea of achieving an architectural integrity of all erections and constructed the façade in the way that it visually created a closed space on the square.
The construction of the Tilla-Kori madrassah lasted more than 14 years and finished in 1660. The main façade of the building is done in two levels; the central portal is silted with a five-ended deep niche with two entrances leading to the inner closed yard. There is a blue-domed tower of the mosque to the left of the portal, with two minarets standing on both sides of the frontal part. The construction beautifully balances two bigger madrassah without disturbing the unity of the architectural style.
The name “Tilla Kori” was given thanks to its décor. Artists had used the painting method of “kundal” for decoration that contained mostly gilt. Among all three madrassah, this erection has a rich decoration of walls that leaves everyone impressed with the abundance of golden colors. Tilla Kori means “gilded”.
Today different concerts, celebrations and other bright events of the city and the Republic are held on the Registan Square. Thousands of tourists’ daily flow to the square in order to see the grand beauty.
The Gur-Emir Mausoleum
It is the family vault of Amir Timur and his heirs, was built in 1404 in the south-western part of the city. This mausoleum was a prototype for two well-known monuments of world architecture: the Humayun Mausoleum in Delhi and the Tadj Mahal in Agra.
One of the most significant architectural ensembles of medieval East – the Gur Emir was built in the southwestern part of Samarkand at the beginning of the XV century. This majestic complex consisted of a khanaka, the madrasah of Muhammad Sultan - grandson of Amir Timur, and, later, tombs of Amir Timur himself and his descendants.
The madrasah, a small building with a typical yard composition was meant to teach the children Samarkand nobility. Opposite to the madrasah there located a khanaka with a central hall and cells - hudjras. The both buildings were erected by Mukhammad Sultan’s order to be become a center of Islamic education. But Muhammad sudden death in 1403 led to a change in an intended use of the complex.
After the death of Muhammad Sultan, Amir Timur was inconsolable: he ordered to put temporarily the remains of his beloved grandson in a madrasah’s corner room – darskhana, and immediately started the construction of the mausoleum which closed the ensemble from the south.
However, Tamerlane did not live to see the mausoleum finished, he died in winter 1405. The construction was completed by another Tamerlane grandson – Ulugbek. Although Amir Timur already prepared a mausoleum for himself in his native Shakhrisabz, it was Gur Emir that became his tomb and a burial place of his descendants.
It is a cathedral mosque which according to a legend was named after Amir Timur’s beloved wife. Majestic blue domes of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque are a striking sight.
According to the legend, the formidable ruler built the mosque in honor of his favorite wife Bibi Khanym. After successful campaign to India Temur decided to build the biggest building of the East – the mosque – which should have exceeded all mosques of the world by its size. Sparkling walls, high minarets, wide portal of the mosque, decorated with carved marble, must have praised for centuries the name of Temur and his favorite wife.
Hundreds of architects, painters and builders were taken to Samarkand. The construction lasted for 5 years (1399-1404) and when Temur came back from another campaign it was ready-built.
The Shakhi-Zinda Complex
One of the most mysterious and inimitable architectural monuments, is located not far from the Bibi-Khanym Mosque. The complex is a unique ensemble consisting of eleven shrines.
It consists of rows of refine sparkling blue colors tombs. Harmoniously combined in a lively and moving composition, various mausoleums are grouped along the narrow medieval streets. Shakhi Zinda consists of eleven mausoleums, which were built one after another in 14 - 15th centuries.
Shakhi Zinda is the burial place of royal persons and nobles. But the main mausoleum from which the necropolis starts seems to be the imaginary grave of Prophet Muhammad's cousin, Kusam ibn Abbas. The complex was called "Shakhi Zinda" that means in Persian "The Living King". He was one of those who preached Islam in that region. Later the Complex became an important pilgrimage centre that was revered by the people as sacred.
The grave of Kusam ibn Abbas attracts to Samarkand many adherents of religious or spiritual tourism, because even in the Middle Ages, a pilgrimage to the grave of "The Living King" was equated to Mecca hajj. According to a legend, water source at the grave possess healing power.
Ancient site of Afrasiab (VII-II centuries BC)
Located on high hills at the entrance to Samarkand from the north. Interestingly enough, but Afrasiab town, as such, did not exist at that place at all. The locals named this place according to a legend that once there existed a huge city founded by mythical Turan tsar - Afrasiab. In fact, this ancient site belongs to Samarkand of the pre-Mongolian period.
Suffering from invasions of many conquerors, Samarkand could not withstand the invasion of Genghis Khan. The great Mongol ruler ordered to ruin the city to the ground. People were so shaken with the deed of Genghis Khan that wouldn't dare to settle that land again. Coming back to the ruins of Samarkand they settled at the foot of that hill. Now Samarkand skirts the huge wasteland - the ancient city of Afrasiab.
The Museum of Afrasiab is located at the same site and displays the collectin of archeological findings, carried out on the site of this ancient city.
The Ulugbek Observatory
It was built on Kukhak hill in Samarkand suburb in 1424—1428, it went down in history as one of the most important observatories of the Middle Ages.
By Babur’s words, which saw the observatory, it was three-storied covered with beautiful glazed titles building of round form 46 meters in diameter, 30 meters in height. In the main hall huge instrument was placed for observations of Moon, Sun, and other stars of the vault of heaven.
Observatory was unique construction for its time.The basis of observatory was giant goniometer vertical circle), radius of circle was equal 40,212 meters, and the length of arc was 63 meters. The main instrument-sextant was oriented with amazing exactness by line of meridian from south to north.
After Ulugbek’s death observatory was destroyed and robbed by religious fans. Only in 1908 archaeologist Vyatkin found first document where location of observatory was mentioned. Unfortunately only underground part of sextant and basis of the building were saved. By found documents scientists made the model of the observatory.