A settlement was first founded here over 2,700 years ago making this one of Central Asia’s oldest cities. Modern-day Samarkand stands on the site of an ancient settlement, Afrasiab, part of the mysterious Sogdian Empire.
The city fell to Genghis Khan in 1220 but revolted against its Mongol rulers a hundred and fifty years later, finally becoming capital of the Timurid dynasty in the 14th century and flourishing as a renowned centre of trade, learning and the arts.
Today, many of the amazing historical buildings have been restored and the city enjoys worldwide fame as a jewel in the crown of Islamic architecture.
The beating heart of the ancient city, Registan Square is still an impressive public square bordered on 3 sides by gigantic madrasahs: Ulugh Beg; Sher-Dor and Tilya-Kori. The symmetry here is awesome. Huge portals stand facing each other across the open space, their glazed tiles glinting golden in the hot desert sun while the dazzling domes seem like pieces of azure sky fallen to earth. Minarets rise proudly either side, and even the cobbles underfoot are a work of art.
Ulugh Beg Madrasah
Built around 1418 CE, this is the oldest of the architectural masterpieces here. Back in the Middle Ages, the college attracted the brightest minds from all over Central Asia, firmly establishing Samarkand as a top centre of learning. In its heyday, the college could accommodate 80 students, mainly engaged in mathematics, astronomy, Arabic and religion. Today it stuns visitors with its perfect symmetry and the bold, geometric designs emblazoned on the façade. Lofty minarets complete the scene to dramatic effect.
This was a feat of cutting-edge architecture when it was built in the early 1600’s. Mirroring the grand Ulugh Beg madrasah opposite, the new college also featured a inner quadrangle, student khudjra-cells and two classrooms. Both inside and out, it is decorated with bright ornaments of glazed brick, while floral pattern majolica wind up the minarets embellished with quotes from the Koran in flourishing Arabic script.
But the Sher-Dor Madrasah is most famous for its striking portal. Shining gloriously over the archway, two tigers stride boldly after white deer as the sun (with a human face) rises over their backs. These unique mosaics flout the Muslim taboo on depicting living beings on religious buildings.
Tilya-Kori - The Gilded Madrasah
Tilya Kori is the newest and largest of the three madrasahs, flanking Registan Square to the North. The impressive 2-storey outer wall with its exquisite façade is 120m long and studded with shapely window arches that draw your eye up to the breath-taking dome soaring to the heavens in a blaze of gleaming turquoise tiles. The detail here is simply fantastic, a riot of strapwork designs filled with ornate floral arabesques. Unusually, the lower minarets are topped with blue not gold.
But there is plenty of gold here! The main hall of the grand mosque gleams with glorious gilded tiles, and the tasteful lighting creates a hushed atmosphere despite the sumptuous decor. The detail, colour and depth of these mosaics is amazing. Tilya-Kori is perhaps the most spectacular of all Samarkand’s magnificent monuments.
It’s hard to imagine that just a few decades ago this amazing mosque was a hulking ruin open to the elements that have haunted the Silk Road since time immemorial. Meticulously reconstructed, Bibi Khanym once again soars skywards, resplendent in all its former glory.
This bold project was commissioned by the great warrior-king Timur (1336-1405). He wanted to build the most impressive mosque ever seen, and the complex was to be completed before he returned from his next military campaign. Hundreds of the best stone masons and artisans, even 100 elephants, were drafted in from all corners of the empire. They worked feverishly to finish this immense structure before their lord’s return, in just 5 years. But when Timur saw the building, he wasn’t satisfied and ordered the central dome and portal to be enlarged still further.
But his plans were too ambitious; within a few years, bricks came crashing down on the worshippers’ heads (the main hall could hold 10,000) and after Timur’s death, the mosque was gradually abandoned.
Today, this most magnificent of mosques, dedicated to Timur’s favourite wife, is a truly awe-inspiring sight. The sheer dimensions of it leave us breathless, and the vast vault of the 40m high sky-blue dome is almost luminescent, a piece of heaven resting on hundreds of marble pillars. New life has been breathed into the surrounding scrubland, too, and Bibi Khanym now overlooks a pleasant park making it one of Samarkand’s top tourist spots. A huge stone Koran stand, erected by Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg, stands in the grounds and is believed to have healing powers.
Here lie the Khans of the mighty Timurid dynasty – Timur himself (also known as Tamerlane), his two sons, and his grandson, the great Ulugh Beg. Dating back almost 700 years, this final resting place is shrouded in an ancient, majestic atmosphere.
The solemnity of the large inner hall is matched only by the exquisite, intricate mosaics lacing over every inch of the walls – rich blues and gold combine with striking effect so the whole chamber seems to vibrate with a mystical, golden light. The glazed tiles in the deep niches of elaborately carved bricks glimmer like chandeliers, and the detail is simply breath-taking – tiny coloured tiles perfectly arranged in mesmerizing geometric and floral patterns cover the walls in a web of awe-inspiring beauty. With its marble floors and onyx wall panels, this is truly a tomb fit for emperors.
The sarcophaguses are also made of polished marble. The sarcophagus of Timur himself is easily identified; it’s made with a solid slab of dark jade that was once a religious symbol in China and later served as a throne for a descendent of Genghis Khan in the Chagatai Khanate.
The Gur-Emir complex once included a madrasah and khanaka, the ruins of which can still be seen nearby. The mausoleum itself fell into disrepair in C17-19 but renovation began last century. Today, visitors pass through an imposing gateway of richly carved bricks and fantastic tilework to a small inner courtyard. The façade is finished with decorative tilework, and striking mosaics swirl up two minarets standing like sentinels either side of the mausoleum topped with a distinctive single cupola.
No wonder that this magnificent edifice played an important role in the development of Islamic and Moghul architecture, serving as a model for later tombs including India’s famous Taj Mahal, built by one of Timur’s descendants.
By a small hill on the banks of the Zerafshan River stands an unassuming brick building topped with 5 modest domes. But don’t be fooled by the size. This is none other than the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Daniel (Daniyar), revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
This simple tomb with its 18m sarcophagus is wrapped in mystery and legend. It is said that the great Timur brought the remains of Prophet Daniel here from Susa, Iran, and that the holy relics grow each year, which explains why the sarcophagus is so long (though others say it is to foil thieves, so they won’t find the exact location of the relics). Be that as it may, Daniel’s Tomb and the holy spring nearby are a tranquil place of pilgrimage in this bustling city.
Al-Bukhari Memorial Complex
No trip to Samarkand would be complete without a stroll through the Shah-i Zinda, a maze of medieval streets lined with some of the most exquisite tombs, some dating back over 1,000 years. This is one of the oldest parts of the city and it borders the ancient settlement of Afrasiab. Legend has it that Qussam Ibn Abbas, cousin of the Prophet Mohamed, is buried here, hence the name Shah-i-Zinda, Tomb of the Living King.
The necropolis comprises mausoleums and other ritual structures of 9-14th and 19th centuries. Here we can see fragments of some of the earliest known Islamic structures.
The complex dedicated to Timur’s close family comprises magnificent royal burial vaults dating from the 14th century. Richly decorated with ornate mosaics, the buildings here feature some of the finest tilework of the Muslim world. The mausoleum of Timur’s sister and niece, built in 1372, is perhaps the most stunning example – the mosaics here were so finely crafted that little renovation was needed, even after 700 years.
An ancient carved wooden door leads from this sanctuary into winding medieval alleyways lined with tombs of other nobles. Many of the buildings have recently been restored, making this an Oriental wonderland of shimmering blue and white.
Ulugh Beg Observatory
Standing at the top of Shah-i Zinda’s 40 steps, a magical vista opens before us: a nest of domes each as individual as the person they honour – smooth, plain, tiled, pointy, large or small, they each have a story to tell, and together they form an ensemble that epitomises the mysterious charm of the Silk Road.
In marked contrast to Daniel’s Tomb, the tomb of outstanding Sunni theologian Al-Bukhari (810-870 CE) is marked by a splendid memorial complex built in 1998 in honour of the Imam’s 1225th anniversary on the site of his grave.
Born in Bukhara in 810, Al-Bukhari was an exceptionally gifted scholar who dedicated his life to collecting the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. Over the course of his lifetime, he travelled extensively, gathering over 600,000 hadiths, and authoring many highly-esteemed books.
His memorial, located in the village where he spent his last years 25 km north of Samarkand, now greets visitors with an impressive gateway. Inside we find large, well-tended lawns and flowerbeds flanked by neat prayer rooms. The glistening mausoleum over the tomb itself is an exotic blend of green, blue and white glazed tiles, onyx, marble and granite finished with one of the best examples of modern Islamic tilework and topped with a smooth blue dome. Azure cupolas also adorn the mosque, giving a sense of harmony and beauty to the whole complex. The plane trees planted by the original sixteenth-century mosque are still alive today.
The complex is also home to a library of rare Islamic manuscripts and an active madrasah.
Ulugh Beg was one of the most remarkable characters of the Middle Ages – outstanding scholar, leader of an empire, and astronomer extraordinaire. He commissioned this phenomenal Observatory almost 600 years ago, and from here he mapped the stars with astounding precision.
Although today only the underground structure remains, back in 1420’s the observatory was a sight to behold.
A remarkable feat of technology and engineering, this 3-storey, 30m high cylindrical brick structure housed state-of-the-art astronomical apparatus as well as the largest astronomical instrument of the pre-telescope age. The main shaft was made of baked bricks and coated with polished marble, but it was the sheer scale of the observatory that allowed the astronomers to make such astonishingly accurate calculations: one degree on this meridian shaft was over 70cm long.
Ulugh Beg worked with the best scientific minds here, and his detailed Star Catalogue was a such game-changer that it still caused a stir when it was published in Oxford University two centuries later.
After Ulugh Beg’s death, the Observatory and associated library with over 150,000 books were destroyed by fanatical clergy, and by the end of the 17th century, nothing remained of this spectacular structure. For centuries, the Observatory’s exact whereabouts eluded historians, and even though it was rediscovered in 1908, archaeologists still have much to learn.
The site was opened to the public in 1970 and today you can explore the underground section as part of the Ulugh Beg Observatory Museum. The Museum also houses a fascinating collection of medieval astronomical instruments, copies of Ulugh Beg’s star charts, and a mini replica of the observatory as it once was. The Museum entrance is decorated with bright, bold tilework which very aptly feature star-like geometric patterns.