Culture Day in Samarkand

Following my departure from Tashkent, my barely-more-than-a-week run through Uzbekistan was quite a blur. In fact, as I write this, I can’t for the life of me remember how I even got from Tashkent to Samarkand. Was it a train? Maybe a bus? I straight-up cannot remember, which I think sets the tone for these quick posts on Uzbekistan.

When I arrived in Samarkand, this was the first part of my ride through Uzbekistan where I didn’t have some embassy to visit and other logistical nonsense to take care of. What I did have to see was the very thing that got me interested in Uzbekistan to begin with — the history. Anyone who’s heard of Uzbekistan and seen photos has probably seen the incredibly ornate ceramic-tiled mosques and mausoleums for which the country is known. Even among the Muslim world, renowned for its beautifully elaborate monuments, Uzbekistan stands unique.

So when I arrived in Samarkand off the transit I can’t remember, I went straight into the city after dropping off my things. There’s a few famous buildings that I had heard about prior to my arrival, but it didn’t take long to find other equally-beautiful sites. But before the sites, some history.

A Short History of Samarkand

Samarkand is, and has always been, one of Central Asia’s greatest cities, as well as one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the region. Its exact timeline is unknown, but the city’s founding date was likely sometime in the 7th or 8th century BC. Human activity in the area has been traced back to Paleolithic times, though it can’t be confirmed that anything linked to Samarkand existed that far back. Nonetheless, it was an extremely important Silk Road stop back in the day, and as a result was quite prosperous. For a time, it was even the seat of an empire founded by Timur. At other times, it has come under control by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. It was renowned as a center of Islamic study in ancient times, and now is renowned for its ancient landmarks.

In its earliest records, Samarkand was an important city in the first Sogdian Empire, which came from present-day Iran. Following the conquest by Alexander the Great in 329 BC, Samarkand flourished under Hellenistic Greek influence, particularly in adopting new architectural styles and building techniques. After Alexander’s death, Samarkand remained prominent through several successive empires but gradually faded in influence over the coming centuries.

It was not until the Sassanians came from Persia in 260 AD that Samarkand was revived a little, though there was conflict between the Sassanians and the Huns, until the region fell under Sassanian control once again. After the Sassanids came the Turks, who introduced Islam to the region before falling to the Chinese Tang Dynasty. At the time, Samarkand was a religious center and quite diverse, home to Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Zoroastrians, though many were converted to Islam once it was firmly under Arab control.

By 1000 AD, the city was under Karakhanid control, which lasted until Genghis Khan came onto the scene in 1220, who did what he did best and took it. However, the Mongol empire fell as quickly as it rose after the death of Genghis Khan, and Samarkand was under Timurid control by 1370, where Emperor Timur made it his capital. Timur was known to be a patron of the arts, and Samarkand once again became a center of culture in Central Asia.

The next 500 years were a whirlwind of power shifts and turbulence, during which time the splendor of Samarkand gradually faded. In 1868, it fell under Imperial Russian control, where it remained until the fall of the Soviet Union 100-something years later, which gave us Uzbekistan as we know today. Under Soviet rule, Samarkand grew and became the capital of the Uzbek SSR until it was replaced by Tashkent. Many soldiers from Uzbekistan served in both world wars, primarily on the eastern front fighting Germany.

Today, it is the second-largest city in Uzbekistan and remains a cultural icon in the hearts of Uzbeks and foreigners alike. It didn’t matter who I talked to in Uzbekistan — Samarkand was always the favorite.

Gur-e-Amir

The first place I came to was a mausoleum called Gur-e-Amir, which was built for an ancient conqueror called Timur. Timur was one of the last great emperors to come from the Central Asian steppe, and his Timurid Empire occupied much of what is present-day Iran. Samarkand was his capital as he sought to invade present-day Georgia and Kurdistan in northern Iraq. After several grand military conquests through Persia and the Caucuses, Timur died while en route to invade Ming China. His body was embalmed and returned to Samarkand, where Gur-e-Amir was built to house him.

Gur-e-Amir is therefore an important historical and cultural site on the basis of Timur alone, however its architectural style is significant as well. Gur-e-Amir was completed in 1404 AD, and Timur’s descendants went on to built the Mughal dynasty in India and South Asia. Gur-e-Amir was the first and one of the greatest influences on Mughal architecture, the greatest example of which being the Taj Mahal.

I didn’t learn this until after I visited and as such the significance was lost on me at the time. But I’m having a hard time imagining that this honestly quite unassuming mausoleum in Uzbekistan became the primary influence for the style that created the Taj Mahal, thousands of miles away in India.

Yet, it’s true. So take a look.

Registan

The second major site I visited in Samarkand was the one that first got me turned on to Uzbekistan to begin with — a massive complex called Registan.

In Persian, registan means “sandy place,” or “desert.” The main square in the middle was the heart of ancient Samarkand during the days of Timur, where people would come to hear royal decrees and see public executions. On three sides, there are three Islamic schools, called Madrasahs. The oldest is Ulugh Beg Madrasah, which was followed nearly 200 years later by Tilya-Kori Madrasah and Sher-Dor Madrasah.

The cool thing about these Madrasahs (and Sher-Dor in particular) is the design choice. In Islam, it’s pretty frowned upon to depict living beings on religious buildings. In fact, it’s just not done. And yet one of the Islamic schools in one of the capitals of the ancient Muslim world was built with two huge tigers on its front facade, reflecting ancient Persian beliefs that predated Islam entirely.

It took some time for Islam to enter Uzbekistan, and when it did, there were certain local beliefs and customs that never went away despite Islamic customs. Depictions of animals are one such custom. Ancient and traditional Uzbek art heavily focused on the living beings of the land — scorpions, snakes, camels, birds, those sorts of things. Much of the traditional crafts changed to accommodate this culture shift.

This suzani, for example, is a pomegranate pattern. And yet, animal designs were hidden in it — look at the leaves, which were meant to resemble bird wings. Traditional Uzbek style never went away. But despite the apparent shift in art styles when Uzbekistan became Muslim, one of the grandest Muslim sites of all was adorned with designs forbidden by the religion for which it was built, instead elevating the culture that built it.

Take a looksie — the first photo is the Madrasah facade in question. Many apologies for the low-quality iPhone photos.

Unfortunately, this is all I saw in Samarkand. I got sick that night and spent my last day in the city recovering and rehydrating so I could feel well enough to continue my push towards the Turkmen border. It’s an awesome city, and I hope to be back to conclude my unfinished business in Uzbekistan.

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