Samarkand (290 kilometers southwest of Tashkent, about a four hour drive) is a city whose name conjures up exotic images of caravans, turbanned merchants, bazaars, veiled women, and harems. It is perhaps more closely associated with the Silk Road than any other place―especially among people who had never been there―and has been romanticized in poems, plays and travelogues. In 1913, James Elroy Flecker, a British diplomat and poet who never traveled east of Syria wrote in a famous poem:
And how beguile you? Death has no repose
Warmer and deeper than that Orient sand
Which hides the beauty and bright faith of those
Who made the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
Unfortunately modern Samarkand does not fit the romantic image that many people expect and many leave disappointed. Located in a valley oasis, surrounded by a dusty desert and barren mountains, it is busy, noisy city of over 500,000 — with about 300,000 more in nearby areas — filled with traffic-clogged streets, businesses and modern shops. Now a rail and industrial center, it is a major processing center for the region’s vast irrigated agricultural areas. Major industries include cotton and silk processing, canning, and the production of fertilizers, textiles, and wine. The city has a university and is known as a center for karakul sheep breeding research.
Samarkand is closely associated with Timur (Tamerlane, 1336-1405), regarded in the West as an unforgiving conqueror but respected in Central Asia and the East as a great statesman who made invaluable contribution to world civilization. Samarkand was the capital of the vast empire that embraced the territory of 27 modern-day countries. Tamerlane decided to outshine all of capitals in the world with the grandeur and beauty of Samarkand, a process that was continued by his descendants, the Timurids. The tourist sites are comprised of turquoise-domed Timurid buildings, situated in different locations around the city and ensconced like oases within modern Samarkand. They are definitely impressive but in the opinion have been too immaculately restored by the Soviets and seem cold and out of place in modern Samarkand.
Samarkand is Uzbekistan’s second largest city. It is not far from Tajikistan and many people that live in and around the city are Tajiks. There are some old neighborhoods with traditional Uzbek-style courtyard houses around some of the main Timurid tourist sights. In the spring and autumn the city is sometimes enveloped in nasty sandstorms. The Zerafshan River flows through both Samarkand and Bukhara.
History of Samarkand
Samarkand is said have a history that goes back 6,000 years although 2,500 years is probably a more realistic figure. . Alexander the Great captured it in 329 B.C. and reportedly exclaimed, "Everything I have heard about the beauty of Samarkand is true except it is even more beautiful; than I could have imagined. " In ancient times Samarkand was known as Afrosiab.
Over the years the city grew in size and was controlled at various times by Turks, Arabs, Persian Samanids, Karakhan and Seljuk Turks, Mongolian Karakitay and Khorezmshah. The Arabs called it the “City of Gems. By the 13th century Samarkand was a Silk Road city of 200,000 people nourished by an aqueduct that brought water to arid steppe from far away mountains, and famous for its craftsmen that produced saddles, copper lamps and silver lam.
In 1220, Genghis Khan's attacked Samarkand. When his army appeared, according to one report, the ruling shah and 110,000 of his troops fled the city and the city noblemen opened the gates begging for mercy. Some soldiers who did not want to surrender took refuge in the mosque, where they thought they would be protected by Allah. The Mongols didn't care. They shot flaming arrows and maybe they hurled vessels of oil from catapults.
The rebellion was enough to piss the Mongols off. They torn down the city wall, destroyed the aqueduct, killed about 100,000 people and hauled 30,000 skilled craftsmen, including smiths, weavers, artisans, falconers, scribes and physicians, back to Mongolia.
How Samarkand Got its Name
The story on how Samarkand got its name goes: A long time ago, in a region of Central Asia, there was a great and wicked king who lived in a beautiful castle. One day his wife gave birth to a beautiful daughter and they named her Kant, which means sugar in the Uzbek language. About the same time, there was a baby boy born to a very poor family. They named him Samar, because he was handsome and strong. As he grew up, he became very famous for his bravery, and he competed in all the athletic events. [Source: Dr. Oktyabr Dospanov, orexca.com |~|]
One day the princess met the young man in the garden of the castle. They were so attracted to each other that they agreed to meet every day in the garden. As they got to know each other, their love grew stronger and stronger. One day Kant's father learned of their secret meetings and became very angry. He did not like Samar because he was very poor, and considered him beneath his daughter. |~|
When Kant told her father that she wanted to wed Samar, the king decided to kill him. When the broken hearted Kant learned of his death, she threw herself from the top of the castle. All of the people of the city were grief-stricken, and they renamed their city Samarkand after the two lovers. |~|
Silk Road Samarkand
Samarkand was arguably the grandest city on the Silk Road. It was located at about the halfway point between China and the Mediterranean and situated where the routes from China converged into a single main route through Afghanistan, Iran and the Middle East. Samarkand and other Central Asian, Silk Road cities such as Bukhara and Khiva were centers of art and scholarship, full of poets, astronomers, and master craftsmen.
Samarkand is said to have a history that goes back 6,000 years although 2,500 years is probably a more realistic figure. Alexander the Great captured it in 329 B.C. and reportedly exclaimed, "Everything I have heard about the beauty of Samarkand is true except it is even more beautiful than I could have imagined. "
According to the International Dunhuang Project: “North of the modern town of Samarkand lies a grassy plateau called Afrasiab, the name of an evil ruler of the Iranian national epic, the 'Book of Kings'. This marks the site of the first city of Samarkand from its foundation in the 7th or 6th century B.C. to the Mongol invasion in the 13th century AD. Samarkand lies at the heart of the Silk Road in the area once called Sogdiana. The merchants of the Sogdian city-states dominated trade on the Eastern Silk Road from the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. onwards. Sogdians lived in market towns along the route all the way into China acting as local agents for their countrymen. The Sogdians were originally Zoroastrians, worshipping at fire altars. Later some became Manichaeans and there were also Buddhist and Nestorian Christian communities. They converted to Islam after the Arab conquests from the late 7th century. [Source: International Dunhuang Project: Silk Road Exhibition idp. bl. uk ^/^]
Over the years the city grew in size and was controlled at various times by Turks, Arabs, Persian Samanids, Karakhan and Seljuk Turks, Mongolian Karakitay and Khorezmshah. The Arabs called it the "City of Gems. " By the 13th century Samarkand was a great city of 200,000 people nourished by an aqueduct that brought water to the arid steppe from far away mountains. It was famous for its craftsmen and products like saddles and copper and silver lamps.
Genghis Khan's attacked Samarkand. in 1220. According to one report, when his army appeared the ruling shah and 110,000 of his troops fled the city and the city noblemen opened the gates begging for mercy. Some soldiers who did not want to surrender took refuge in a mosque, where they thought they would be protected by Allah. The Mongols showed little mercy. They shot flaming arrows; hurled vessels of oil from catapults; tore down the city wall, destroyed the aqueduct, killed about 100,000 people and hauled 30,000 skilled craftsmen, including smiths, weavers, artisans, falconers, scribes and physicians, back to Mongolia.
In A.D. 629, early in the Tang Dynasty period, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) left the Chinese dynasty capital for India to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He traveled west — on foot, on horseback and by camel and elephant — to Central Asia and then south and east to India and returned in A.D. 645 with 700 Buddhist texts from which Chinese deepened their understanding of Buddhism. Xuanzang is remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited — the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. His trip inspired the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West” by Wu Ch'eng-en, a 16th century story about a wandering Buddhist monk accompanied by a pig, an immortal that poses as a monkey and a feminine spirit. It is widely regarded as one of the great novels of Chinese literature. [Book: "Ultimate Journey, Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf); See Separate Article on Xuanzang]
Xuanzang was as philosopher, educator and translator as well as being a monk and traveler. Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “ Xuanzang was a leading Indophile of ancient China. The Chinese monk not only promoted Buddhist doctrines and the perception of India as a holy land through his writings, he also tried to foster diplomatic exchanges between India and China by lobbying his leading patrons, the Tang rulers Taizong (reigned 626–49) and Gaozong (reigned 649–683). In fact, the narrative of his pilgrimage to India, The Records of the Western Regions Visited During the Great Tang Dynasty, was meant for his royal patrons as much as it addressed the contemporary Chinese clergy. Thus, Xuanzang's work is significant both as an account of religious pilgrimage and as a historical record of foreign states and societies neighboring Tang China. In fact, in the work Xuanzang comes across both as a pious pilgrim and as a diplomat for Tang China." [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006]
According to Silk Road Seattle: Xuanzang was a Chinese Buddhist monk and translator who traveled across the Tarim basin via the northern route, Turfan, Kucha, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bactria, then over the Hindu Kush to India. He departed the Tang capitol (Chang'an) in 629 and returned via the southern route in 645. The remainder of his life was spent translating into Chinese the sutras which he had collected in India. At the request of the Tang Emperor Taizong (r.626-649) he composed a description of the lands through which he traveled. After his death, his travels and story became fantastic legends which were used in plays and novels."Source: Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad ]
Xuanzang in Samarkand
Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “Xuanzang set out once more going west to Tashkent and thence on to Samarkand in modern-day Uzbekistan. This was the farthest point west on his journey. Being the terminus of caravan routes between Iran and China,it was an important trading entrepot on the Silk Road. Convoys of merchants coming from the north and travelers going south also met there. Xuanzang relates that the capital is 20 li or so in circuit. It is completely enclosed by rugged land and very populous. The precious merchandise of many foreign countries is stored up here. The soil is rich and productive and yields abundant harvests. The forest trees afford a thick vegetation and flowers and fruits are plentiful. The shen horses are bread here. The inhabitants are skillful in the arts and trades beyond those of other countries. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins, author of books on Xuanzang, mongolianculture.com \~/]
“Very early on Sogdians from the region of Samarkand specialized as caravaners, so much so that their languages became the lingua franca of the Silk Road east of Dunhuang. These camel drivers also became unofficial emissaries of Buddhism. Although the king of Samarkand was a vassal of the Great Khan of the Western Turks, the local culture was that of Sassanian (226-629 C.E.) Persia. The religion of the king - Zoroastrianism - was Persian and the Sogdian language was related to Persian. \~/
“At first the king of Samarkand was pointedly unfriendly, but then after hearing Xuanzang preach, the king allowed Xuanzang to convene an assembly where he ordained a number of monks. Shortly after Xuanzang's visit the king sent an embassy to China asking to be received as a vassal state. The Emperor Taizong declined to accede to this request; instead thetwo countries established diplomatic and commercial relations." \~/
Xuanzang on the Samarkand Area
Xuanzang reported: “Sâ-mo-kien [Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan]: The country of Sa-mo-kien is about 1600 or 1700 li in circuit. From east to west it is extended, from north to south it is contracted. The capital of the country is 20 li or so in circuit. It is completely enclosed by rugged land and very populous. The precious merchandise of many foreign countries is stored up here. The soil is rich and productive, and yields abundant harvests. The forest trees afford a thick vegetation, and flowers and fruits are plentiful. The Shen horses are bred here. The inhabitants are skilful in the arts and trades beyond those of other countries. The climate is agreeable and temperate. The people are brave and energetic. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|]
“This country is in the middle of the Hu people (or this is the middle [p.33] of the Hu). They are copied by all surrounding people in point of politeness and propriety. The king is full of courage, and the neighbouring countries obey his commands. The soldiers and the horses (cavalry) are strong and numerous, and principally men of Chih-kia. These men of Chih-kia are naturally brave and fierce, and meet death as a refuge (escape or salvation). When they attack, no enemy can stand before them. From this going south-east, there is a country called Mi-mo-h o. |:|
“Mi-mo-ho [Maghian]: The country Mi-mo-ho is about 400 or 500 li in circuit. It lies in the midst of a valley. From east to west it is narrow, and broad from north to south. It is like Sa-mo-kien in point of the customs of the people and products. From this going north, we arrive at the country K'ie-po-ta- na. |:|
“K'ie-po-ta-na [Kebûd]: The country of K'i e-po-to-na is about 1400 or 1500 li in circuit. It is broad from east to west, and narrow [p.34] from north to south. It is like Sa-mo-kien in point of customs and products. Going about 300 li to the west (of Samarkand), we arrive at K'iuh-shwang- ni-kia." |:|
Samarkand Under the Timurids
After the Mongol attack Samarkand remained a backwater until Tamerlane made it the capital of his new empire in 1370. At its height Tamerlane's empire stretched from Mongolia through Central Asia to Europe. Samarkand became the Athens of Central Asia. It was known as "garden of the blessed” and "the forth place. " Tamerlane reportedly once boasted, "Let he who doubts our power look upon our architecture. ”
Tamerlane patronized the arts, supported scholars and filled Samarkand with beautiful buildings. He filled the city with booty and craftsmen brought back from his conquests. A Spanish nobleman who visited Samarkand in 1403 described communities of captive craftsmen—silk weavers, potters, glassworker, armorers, silversmiths—gathered from the cities of conquest. "
Samarkand was further embellished under Ulughbek, Tamerlane's grandson. He made Samarkand into great city of learning and brought in astronomers, mathematicians and scholars from all over the Muslim world. Ulughbek was a scholar and astronomer himself. He built a great observatory and many grand buildings. Many of the great buildings found in Samarkand today date back to Ulughbek not Tamerlane.
Samarkand went into a period of decline after the Uzbek Shavybanids came to power in the 16th century and they established their capital in Bukhara. By the 18th century it had been leveled by a series of earthquakes and was essentially a ghost town. Samarkand wasn’t truly revived until the Russians arrived in the 1860s and connected it to the Trans-Caspian Railway. Samarkand was the capital of the Uzbek SSR from 1924 until 1930, when it was replaced by Tashkent.
Samarkand is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to UNESCO: “The historic town of Samarkand is a crossroad and melting pot of the world's cultures. Founded in the 7th century B.C. as ancient Afrasiab, Samarkand had its most significant development in the Timurid period from the 14th to the 15th centuries. The major monuments include the Registan Mosque and Madrasahs, Bibi-Khanum Mosque, the Shakhi-Zinda compound and the Gur-Emir ensemble, as well as Ulugh-Beg's Observatory. [Source: UNESCO \=/]
“The historic town of Samarkand, located in a large oasis in the valley of the Zerafshan River, in the northeastern region of Uzbekistan, is considered the crossroads of world cultures with a history of over two and a half millennia. Evidence of settlements in the region goes back to 1500 B.C., with Samarkand having its most significant development in the Timurid period, from the 14th to the 15th centuries, when it was capital of the powerful Timurid realm. \=/
“The historical part of Samarkand consists of three main sections. In the northeast there is the site of the ancient city of Afrosiab, founded in the 7th century B.C. and destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, which is preserved as an archaeological reserve. Archaeological excavations have revealed the ancient citadel and fortifications, the palace of the ruler (built in the 7th century displays important wall paintings), and residential and craft quarters. There are also remains of a large ancient mosque built from the 8th to 12th centuries. \=/
“To the south, there are architectural ensembles and the medieval city of the Timurid epoch of the 14th and 15th centuries, which played a seminal role in the development of town planning, architecture, and arts in the region. The old town still contains substantial areas of historic fabric with typical narrow lanes, articulated into districts with social centres, mosques, Madrasahs, and residential housing. The traditional Uzbek houses have one or two floors and the spaces are grouped around central courtyards with gardens; built in mud brick, the houses have painted wooden ceilings and wall decorations. The contribution of the Timurid masters to the design and construction of the Islamic ensembles were crucial for the development of Islamic architecture and arts and exercised an important influence in the entire region, leading to the achievements of the Safavids in Persia, the Moghuls in India, and even the Ottomans in Turkey. \=/
“To the west there is the area that corresponds to the 19th and 20th centuries expansions, built by the Russians, in European style. The modern city extends around this historical zone. This area represents traditional continuity and qualities that are reflected in the neighbourhood structure, the small centres, mosques, and houses. Many houses retain painted and decorated interiors, grouped around courtyards and gardens. \=/
“The major monuments include the Registan mosque and Madrasahs, originally built in mud brick and covered with decorated ceramic tiles, the Bibi-Khanum Mosque and Mausoleum, the Shakhi-Zinda compound, which contains a series of mosques, Madrasahs and mausoleum, and the ensembles of Gur-Emir and Rukhabad, as well as the remains of Ulugh-Bek’s Observatory. ”
Orientation and Layout of Samarkand
Located at an elevation of 710 meters at the foot of the Alay Mountains, which are in Tajikistan, Samarkand spreads out from the Zeravshan, Uzbekistan’s third largest river. They layout of the city is somewhat confusing an most places of interest to tourists are located around the three main tourist sights:1) the Registan; 2) Bibi-Khanym Mosque and 3) the Gur Amir Mausoleum. Each of these are about one kilometer from the other and can be reached on foot or by taxi.
Running between the Registan and Bibi-Khanym Mosque is Tashkent kuchasi, a pedestrian-only shopping zone with souvenir shops and shops geared for tourists from Uzbekistan, Russia and abroad. Beyond Bibi-Khanym Mosque is the main bazaar. This geared is mainly for local people and contains a large covered markets fill with dried fruit, vegetables, spices and nuts and stalls and tables selling tools, clothes and household items. Beyond the main bazaar is the old cemetery.
East of the Registan is a large old town, filled with mud-brick buildings and a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys that are easy to get lost in. The administrative center of the modern city is located around Mustailik maydoni. The main modern shopping area is along Mustalik north of Gorky Park.
The Russian part of town, so-named because of the Russian and Soviet architecture found there, Soviet times, is where you find most of the bars, restaurants and limited nightlife in Samarkand. It’s located in central Samarkand roughly between Khusayn Baykaro street (north) and the University Boulevard (south), and Bustonsaroy (east) and Kashgari (west).
Tourist Information: Samarkand doesn't really have any proper tourist offices. The Uzbekturism service bureau at the Hotel Samarkand offers some information on arranged tours but is generally regarded as not very helpful. Samarkand Tourist Information Centre, according to Lonely Planet, is “a volunteer organisation offers good travel advice, particularly on local transport, and sells postcards and stamps. They run some particularly interesting city tours (US$8–15 per person), visiting handicraft masters, learning to cook in a local's house or touring the backstreets of the Jewish Quarter. ” Address: Toshkent 45; Tel: +998 91 545 0390; Hours: 10:00am-5:00pm mid-March to mid-Nov
Entertainment, Restaurants and Shopping in Samarkand
Samarkand doesn’t that many cultural and nightlife opportunities other than the after hours scene at hotel restaurants, local drama, opera, ballet, classical music, folk music, folk dance and puppet shows, and performances staged for tourists at some of the major tourist sights and hotels. There are some restaurants and cafes around the Registan area, Tashkent kuchasi between the Registan and Bibi-Khanym Mosque. Some hotel restaurants become bars with music in the night.
The Russian part of town, so-named because of the Russian and Soviet architecture found there, Soviet times, is where you find most of the bars, restaurants and limited nightlife in Samarkand. It’s located in central Samarkand between Khusayn Baykaro street to the north, University Boulevard to the south, Bustonsaroy to the east and Kashgari to the west.
Some of the best hood is offered at the guest houses and home restaurant. In the summer people looking for tourists to eat at their home restaurant gather in the Old Town between the main bazaar and Ismoil Bukhori. You can buy things like bread, fruit, dried fruit and sweets at the bazaar. The hotel restaurants generally have okay food but some lingering habits from the Soviet-era endure at some of the older hotels. Chinese, German, Middle Eastern, American and Russian food are available
Samarkand remains a great trading centers although many of the products are different than in the Silk Road days. You can get T-shirts, tools from China, vodka and champagne from Russia and soft drinks and snacks from Turkey. Running between the Registan and Bibi-Khanym Mosque is Tashkent kuchasi, a pedestrian-only shopping zone with souvenir shops and shops geared for tourists from Uzbekistan, Russia and abroad. Silver Street in Samarkand is the traditional carpet-making center. It has been renovated. Beyond Bibi-Khanym Mosque is the main bazaar. The main modern shopping area is along Mustalik north of Gorky Park. In the middle of Gorky Park is a daily, makeshift flea market with people selling clothes and pirated goods.
Siab Market (next to Bibi Khanym Mosque) is one of the best markets in Central Asia. Used mainly be local people, it is overflowing with melons, saffron, spices, pomegranates, dried apricots, oranges, apples, honey, other fruits and vegetables, as well as some less than appealing meat hung on hooks or set on tables, with meat juice dripping on the ground. It is a good place to stock up on cucumbers and oranges. Around the edges of the market people sell an assortment fabrics, clothing, shawls, veils, turbans, dresses and a variety of household items. It is very large and often is bustling with people.
Accommodation in Samarkand
The accommodation situation in Samarkand is pretty good. There is a choice fancy hotels, Soviet-era hotels, two and three star hotels, bed-and-breakfast and rooms in private homes. Several new hotels have been built. There are some relatively new guest houses set up in traditional Uzbek courtyard houses that have a charming atmosphere and offer good food. The main problem can be finding them. The places are scattered around town. Some are a bit hard to find.
There is no centralized organization that arranges home stays. Generally, booking agencies and travel agencies can book rooms at the overpriced expensive hotels. Generally you need the address of a place and good direction on how to get there.
There are few hotels and bnb’s in the Registan and Gur Amir Mausoleum. The selection is better Russian part of town in central Samarkand between Khusayn Baykaro street to the north, University Boulevard to the south, Bustonsaroy to the east and Kashgari to the west. The area around the intersection of Dakhbed Yuli and Rudaki has some inexpensive hotels and restaurant. There are around a half dozen top-end hotels. Here you are better off choosing one of the newer ones and avoiding the old ones: the Emir, Sim-Sim and Bahodir. Many travelers say the Amir is good.
Transportation in Samarkand
Most places can be reached on foot. For those that are not are best reached by using the plentiful and cheap taxis. Private cars often serve as taxis. You can one flag down by standing on the sidewalk and holding at your hand to let passing driver know you want a ride. Taxis can also be arranged through the hotels and guesthouses.
The public transportation system consists of buses, trams and trolleybuses (buses connected to electric lines over the buses). The system is confusing and the buses can very crowded and should be avoided. Public transportation is ridiculously cheap, with tickets less than a two cents a piece. But why bother since most taxi rides are less than a dollar. A taxi to the Registan costs around US$1 in som. The new tram line running from the train station to Siob Bazaar was scheduled to open in 2018.
Street names and numbers are relatively useless. Taxi drivers generally operate on the basis of landmarks and orientation points, not street names. Communication can also be an issue as many drivers speak only Uzbek and Russian. If you don't speak Russian have your destination and a nearby landmark written down in advance in Cyrillic, and have a pencil and a paper with numbers listed that you can use for negotiating the price. Agree on a price with a driver before you set off. Do this on paper so there is no confusion. Sometimes, taxi drivers try to charge ridiculously high prices especially if they know you are a tourist but this rarer in Samarkand than Tashkent.
The main train station is about six kilometers northwest of the city center. Trains can be caught to Tashkent, Bukhara, Termiz and Dushanbe and destinations in the former Soviet Union. The super fast ‘Afrosoiyob’ bullet train to Tashkent departs daily at 5:00pm, with a second service from Karshi at 6:00pm, and possibly also 5. 30pm. The cheaper and slower 'Sharq' train leaves at 10. 30am daily. The airport is about four kilometers north of the bazaar. The long distance bus station and regional bus station is about one kilometer east of the airport, or at least it used to be. Long distance taxis and shared taxis are relatively cheap so you are best off using them.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Uzbekistan Tourism website (National Uzbekistan Tourist Information Center, uzbekistan.travel/en), Uzbekistan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020