Exotic Samarkand

Tuesday 14 to Saturday 18 October

After we arrived in Samarkand we took a short orientation walk to the most famous site The Registran (sandy place).  The sun was low and the weather was mild, an opportunity to sit and watch the bridal parades that are now a feature of each sunny afternoon.

We started our guided journey the next day, with a token visit to a camel statue representing the Silk Road and we finished our journey visiting another camel statue. There is no doubt that the history of the Silk Road is very important to this region. In fact, the cities of Samarkand and our next stop Bukhara are considered the “middle” of the Silk Road, the half way distance between Venice or Istanbul in Europe and Xi’an in China.

We then visited the extraordinary mausoleum of the Living King and it was here that our local guide entertained us with the first of many legends. This mausoleum holds many graves, including some of Amir Timur’s relatives, ministers and military notables. In fact even the court’s wet nurse has a mausoleum dedicated to her.

The Living King, Shani Zinda, brought Islam to this area in the 7th century. Legend has it that a soldier, looking for his tomb down a well found him in Paradise.

We continued our journey through the cemetery behind the complex, where Russian influence saw memorials with photos and dedications on the graves, quite a departure from the Islamic burial sites.

We then returned to the Registrant, perhaps the most famous site in Samarkand. A massive square enclosed on three sides by Medressas.

Medressas are Islamic schools of learning.  Usually built over two levels, with tiny classrooms on the lower floor and bedrooms on the upper floor. As you entered there was a lecture hall and on the right was a mosque. A courtyard filled the centre.

In the early years study for young men focused only on learning the Quran, later other disciplines such as mathematics, philosophy and sciences were incorporated. Medressas focusing on the Islamic faith are now banned in Uzbekistan, so remaining active Medressas are now incorporated into universities.

The Sherdon Medressa (lion) was built over 17 years in the early 17th century and was a copy of the Ulugbek Medressa (star) opposite which was built by Timur’s grandson in the 15th century and completed in just two years.

Standing between these two Medressas is the Tilla-Kari (gold covered) Medressa with an amazing mosque decorated with literally kilos of gold.

Through Tashkent and Samarkand there are numerous sites relate to the Uzbek hero Amir Temir. In Samarkand Temir built a mausoleum to his proposed heir and favourite grandson Mohammed Sultan who pre-deceased him.

When Timur died the following year of pneumonia he was interred here, as the pass to Shakhriabz, his  birthplace and intended resting place, was snowed in.

Also buried here are two of Timur’s sons, the grandson who followed him to the throne, Ulugbek and his favourite teacher Mersaid Baraka.

The mausoleum also contained an interesting map showing Timer’s conquests.

The guides have a favourite story about a Soviet anthropologist who opened the crypts in 1941 and found an inscription “whoever opens this will be defeated by an enemy more fearsome than I”. The following day Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Fact or Fiction?

In the setting sun we found a couple of other mausoleums in the same area. One was undergoing massive renovation including new gardens and singing fountains.

We started our second guided day visiting the Bibi-Khanyam mosque built by Timer’s Chinese wife as a surprise. Another legend tells of the architect who fell madly in love with Timer’s wife and slowed work down so he could see her more often. He requested a kiss from her to finish the job, and despite her protests she finally succumbed. Legend has it that Timer filled a crypt in the mosque with riches and buried the architect there. Of course the crypt and riches have never been found.

Bibi-Khanym’s mausoleum is opposite the mosque, perhaps she is waiting for the architect to reappear?

Some of the best views of the crumbling mosque are from the Siob Bazaar next door, so we ended up with an eclectic mix of mosque and bazaar photos.

Of course this part of the world has as many gypsies as you see in Europe and the same type of scams, “take my photo”, “now you have to pay me $1”. But it was two ladies with motley looking budgerigars with string tied to their legs that upset me. You pay the gypsy and the poor bird will pluck a scroll from her hand containing a prophecy of your life.

Much more interesting was a visit to a local bread shop. For a few minutes we got in the bakers’ way whilst they kneeded dough, shaped the flat bread and baked it. Sellers were coming in to take their allocated loaves, in antiquated pram frames, which they will sell on the streets.

Next we visited Ulugbek’s Observatory. Timer’s grandson and heir was a scholar, particularly in astronomy. He is credited with measuring a year to within minutes, by observing the star patterns in his 30m astrolab in 1420, prior to the telescope coming in to use.

The observatory site is another popular place for wedding photos and it was quite difficult to photograph the memorials without flashes of white lace and beads. Of course the groups took the opportunity to photograph us foreigners and smiled sweetly whilst we photographed them. We were invited to numerous celebrations, but I don’t think our travelling jeans quite made the grade.

Our tour guide Fazil kept us moving. Next was the old testament prophet St Daniel’s tomb. Legend has it that Daniel’s body grows half an inch each year so the sarcophagus is 18m in length. His remains, which date to at least 5C BC, were brought here by Timer from Susa, Iran.

To end the day Fazil took us to a number of contemporary religious sites, the Russian Orthodox Alexey Cathedral, the Polish Catholic Church of St John the Baptist and three mosques. At the first mosque we were entertained by kids kicking a soccer ball, at the second we watched men entering for 4pm prayers and at the third we watched school children returning home and saw more Silk Road camel statues. Fazil had certainly shown us an interesting side of Samarkand.

Our last day in Samarkand was free, so after some housekeeping we found a coffee shop and a post office and then entertained ourselves people watching on the University Boulevard. A day to unwind after nearly 50 days on the road.