Although Samarkand had already been the most important oasis north of the river Oxus for about 2000 years, it is the period when Amir Timur made the city his capital in the 14th century that has enraptured visitors ever since. His boundless energy, military genius and patronage of the arts have left history ringing with a thunder that echoes to this day.
Places like the Shah-i-Zinda, the Registan and the Gur-e Amir mausoleum are unique architectural masterpieces. Beyond the spectacular monuments of the Timurid dynasty, though, most tourists find little that is compelling about Samarkand. A city of half a million inhabitants, Samarkand lacks the buzz and the monumentalism of Tashkent, nor does its scrubbed historical centre have the fairytale atmosphere of cosy Bukhara. Keep it in mind as you plan your trip.
Alexander to Genghis
Samarkand’s history starts in a hazy past, founded by the mythical king Afrosiyab. It was known as Marakanda by 329 BCE, when Alexander the Great arrived. He conquered the city to find that “everything I have heard about the city is true, only that it is much more beautiful than I imagined”.
Marakanda probably prospered under stable Seleucid and Kushan rule in the centuries that followed, attested by contemporary Hellenistic and Chinese artefacts dug up by archaeologists. Following the demise of those empires, the city fell into disrepair, attacked by early waves of Huns and Turks finding pillage more profitable than trade.
The fortunes of the Sogdian people inhabiting the Samarkand oasis turned as Silk Road trade with a resurgent China picked up again in the early Middle Ages. In 630, Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang found a prosperous Zoroastrian society where the soil was rich, the arts were at a higher level than elsewhere, and precious merchandise from many foreign countries was stored.
The sword of Islam came to Samarkand in 712. Leader of the Arab troops was Qutham Ibn Abbas, a cousin of Mohammed. The Shah-i-Zinda necropolis developed on the place where he was killed in battle shortly after founding the city’s first mosque.
The Sogdians took up the new faith gradually over the coming centuries, but managed to resist large-scale arabisation and continued trading, climaxing in the Samanid empire in the 9th and 10th century.
Persian domination of Central Asia then withered as Turkic nomads penetrated ever further east. Their power struggles would take a harsh toll on Samarkand, capped off in the year 1220, with Genghis Khan’s take-no-prisoner’s approach to warfare.
But Samarkand recovered quickly, and both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta sang the city’s praises when they passed by at the turn of the 14th century.
Timurids, Uzbeks and Soviets
The Turco-Mongol Amir Timur spent most of his life on the war path, ending up with an empire that stretched from Delhi to Damascus, but crumbled as soon as he passed away. In his time off, he would carouse with abandon in Samarkand, encouraging craftsmen with both carrot and stick to make haste building his monumental city.
The empire fell apart, but Samarkand remained prosperous for another half century under Timur’s grandson, astronomer-king Ulugh Beg. By the 16th century, though, the rise of the Uzbeks spelled the end of the Timurids, and Timur’s great-great-great-grandson Babur was chased out of the country to India, where he would found the Mughal dynasty that would rule over Delhi for the next 3 centuries.
As the geopolitical center of the world shifted towards Europe and ocean routes became the standard for long-distance trade, the Silk Road declined. Bukhara wrested supremacy from Samarkand under the Uzbeks, and when Tsarist forces arrived in 1868, they found a beauty in decline.
The Tsarists turned into Bolsheviks, and as the borders of the new Soviet empire were drawn up, predominantly Tajik-speaking Samarkand and Bukhara suddenly found themselves in the Uzbek SSR, cut off from their Persian brethren in the Tajik SSR.
In independence, that situation persists. Although it is estimated that 70% of Samarkandi’s speaks Tajik as their first language, only Uzbek and Russian are recognised as official languages by the Uzbek state.
Things to see and do
What in our opinion is important is the synergistic power of Samarkand’s monuments. The finest craftsmen and architects of their age were (forcibly or not) brought from Delhi, Balkh, Esfahan, Shiraz, Damascus, Baghdad, Ankara, Yerevan and even Russia to build the new capital at Samarkand by Timur.
Egged on by the limitless ambition of their steppe warrior king, a new spectacular style of building arose, merging their different traditions. This new style in turn would influence architecture in the region for centuries to come.
It highlights what Samarkand and the Silk Road was all about, really: combine ideas from different cultures, add a new local insight to it, then transmit it onwards to another part of the planet (see for instance the story of Samarkand paper). In this way, Central Asia has always been the axis on which the wheels of Eurasia turn.
However, tourists should keep in mind that when viewing these monuments, you are not looking at what people saw several centuries ago. Like elsewhere in Uzbekistan, Samarkand’s monuments had been neglected for a long time when authorities started paying attention again in the 20th century. What followed was not always a faithful reconstruction of the past, but often included the guesses, additions and fantasies of the modern builders.
Samarkand’s traditional highlights are easy to navigate. It’s a leisurely 3 kilometre walk from the Gur-e Amir past the Registan, the Bibi Khanym mosque and the bazaar to the Shah-i-Zinda. Shade is in low supply here – take your precautions in summer.
From the Shah-i-Zinda, it’s another 3 kilometres along a busy road to the Ulug Beg observatory; best to hop on a bus or in a taxi to get there.
If you are an early riser, you can beat the crowds and visit the monuments on your own before they open (9 to 6 opening hours are standard), by partaking in the ancient local tradition of bribing the security guard. Prices depend on your negotiation skills but it could end up costing you less than going the official route (between 2 and 5 dollars per site).
Thousands of people have written about the history and architecture of Samarkand’s historical treasures. We will focus on what is not said by them and refer you for everything else to the authoritative Oriental Architecture website.
Gur-e Amir to Ulugbek observatory
Registan: The park behind the Tilya-Kori and Sher Dor madrasa is a good place for a picknick, or if you are a local teenager, a secret canoodle. It also offers some of the best photography angles of the complex.
Trundle through the shopping boulevard, recently renamed to honour Uzbekistan’s first president Islam Karimov who grew up nearby, to end up at the massive Bibi Khanym mosque. Across the street is the wholly restored Saray Mulk mausoleum. Behind is the bazaar.
Cross the pedestrian bridge and you arrive at the colourful Hazrat-Khizr mosque. The mausoleum of Karimov is next door. He stole billions from his people and stymied the economy, forcing millions to find work in Russia as badly treated migrant workers.
He also closed the borders, restricted religious freedoms, forced children to pick cotton (while draining the Aral Sea to water that cotton), had thousands of opponents murdered and tortured, and thousands more jailed. Yet, you will find his mausoleum thronged with pilgrims searching for a blessing from the revered forefather. In Central Asia, ancestors have a presence in daily life after they passed away; they spread their spiritual energy and mediate individual relationships with God. Even if they ruthlessly oppressed you.
Follow the main thoroughfare east for 500 metres to get to the most evocative place in Samarkand, the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis. Several tombs are worth discussing in detail here: Ali Nasafi, Amir Hossein, Shadi Mulk Aga Khan and Shirin Bika Aga.
To visit the Ulugbeg observatory, cross the street and catch some transport. Ulugbeg’s astronomical achievements were exceptional. Of the observatory, only one part of a sextant is left. The museum has decent English explanations about the life and times of Ulugbeg.
If you backtrack a little, you can visit the mausoleum of the prophet Daniel along the river Siab (Gmaps). As he precedes Jesus, his tomb (one of 5 in the world currently claiming the title) is popular with Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.
Beyond the highlights
The Russian newtown, built in the 19th century for the colonials, lies southwest of the historical centre, in the housing blocks around the Alisher Navoi city park (Gmaps). It is a lively part of town with bars and restaurants and a lot of colonial architecture and churches.
Explorers who like to wander the backstreets should include the Shanghai district (OSM / Gmaps) on one of their strolls. Consisting of squats along the river, this is where part of Samarkand’s Gypsy community lives.
More mausoleums can be found outside of the city centre: that of Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (Gmaps), Khoja Abdi Darun (Gmaps), and across the street, for a look at pre-restoration Samarkand, Ishrat Khana (Gmaps). The Khoja Ahror Vali mausoleum (Gmaps) is next to the Nadir Divanbegi madrasa, which, like its namesake in Bukhara, tries to emulate the Sher Dor madrasa of the Registan.
On the edge of the city park (OSM / Gmaps), in the former house of a Jewish merchant, sits the Samarkand Museum of Regional Studies. No attempt is made to tell a story with the exhibits, but the house is beautiful, and the exhibits on Jewish life in Samarkand are interesting, especially seeing how there is no such museum in Bukhara, the city most connected to Jewish culture in Uzbekistan.
A few 100 metres further north is the city’s Ethnographic Museum (Gmaps). If you are really keen.
Halfway between Ulugbek’s observatory and Karimov’s mausoleum is the Afrosiab museum (OSM / Gmaps). The material is certainly there to make it into an interesting experience. Ancient ossuaries, statuettes and frescoes will delight the initiated. However, staff is unmotivated, the English texts are undecipherable, and the presentation is tired. As keen museum-goers, we got very little out of this one.
Behind the museum lies the site of what is now known as Afrosiab (old Samarkand before the center moved further south) buried under layers of sand. There is not much to see, for now it is a dusty field waiting for excavation.
Across from the Registan (OSM / Gmaps) is the house museum of one of Tajikistan’s major poets, Saddridin Ayni. It’s a modest affair, but if you speak a local language one of the literati caretakers will be happy to engage with you in a discussion about life in Samarkand and the Tajik language in past, present and future.
As the founding father of Soviet literature in Farsi, Ayni perpetuated the grim image of pre-Soviet Turkestan, stuck in the dead of the Middle Ages – with tyrants, wrestlers, greedy moneylenders and wordless women in burqas.
He left a mark not only as a writer. In 1927, Ayni organized Samarkand University, and in 1941 was the initiator of the autopsy of the grave of Tamerlane. Not without his consultations, the Soviet government drew a line that over the years has become a state border between Tajiks and Uzbeks. In the formation of Tajik identity, Ayni played a noticeable and very controversial role. Nearby stands a monument of Ayni with Gorki. They were friends in real life, and Ayni is also known as the Tajik Gorki.
Uzbek wine: is it any good? No. But don’t let that stop you; the wine has the power to add a wonderfully illicit touch to your madrasa tours. Khovrenko (Gmaps / OSM) produces wine, brandy and vodka, a small museum tour with degustation costs 50 000 sum.
Silk carpet workshop and papermaking workshop
Uniquely, Samarkand also has a papermaking workshop. Paper came to Samarkand in 732, after the Battle of Talas brought home Chinese prisoners that had the know-how. The papermakers of Samarkand improved on the process, crucially by using the bark of the ubiquitous mulberry tree as a fiber, and polishing the paper with agate, to make it the most sought-after paper in the Islamic world. The workshop is located in the northeastern district of Konigil (OSM / Gmaps).
Accommodation and transport
If you are trying to escape plov, Oltin Baliq (Ymaps) offers fried fish in its laid-back alfresco restaurant – very popular with locals. Milkshakes and fruitshakes are cheap and refreshing, if sweet.
We are not good at giving restaurant recommendations, so look elsewhere for that, but know that most of the food and drink options are located in the Russian part of town (see the accommodation chapter).
Urgut’s Sunday bazaar (Gmaps – 40 min drive from Samarkand) started in the 1990’s, when mass unemployment after the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that everyone suddenly worked in the bazaar. It’s not interesting for the goods on sale, though, mostly cheap Chinese plastics and textiles like elsewhere.
The bazaar is touted to tourists for its suzani section. Most suzanis are made in nearby Gus or Shahrisabz, but if you don’t mind paying a little bit extra you can skip the journey and buy the same suzani from the souvenir sellers in Bukhara or Samarkand.
If you are here anyway, continue to Chor Chinor, a relaxing grove shaded by old plane trees. A good place for a cup of tea and a chat with a whitebeard.
Shahrisabz & Katta Langar
As the birthplace of Amir Timur and the site of considerable tourism controversy, Shahrisabz deserves an article of its own.
We have written about Katta Langar, a village with a good excuse for a visit, about an hour’s drive beyond Shahrisabz. Villages are always great palate cleansers in Uzbekistan, where bucket-lists are so dominated by the big-ticket attractions.
The Nuratau mountains fall into the same category as Katta Langar. The Nuratau villages are much better even, since they are more set up for tourism and are nicely positioned halfway between Samarkand and Bukhara.
Zaamin national park
Zaamin National Park is a great place to get out of the heat for a day and enjoy an environment that is less dominated by human activity. You can camp, hike, climb and swim here, or simply enjoy sitting in a field with a picknick of local lamb roast.
A sanatorium was built at 2200 m height, and the nearby peaks that form the border with Tajikistan (don’t come too close) reach up to 4000m. Spring is a good time, as the poppy fields are blossoming and the Sharshara waterfall (OSM) is at its most impressive. Summer is nice too, for the refreshing temperatures.
From Samarkand, any hotel should be able to organize a driver/itinerary for around $30-40 a person for a day. There are several accommodation options once in Zaamin if you are not camping – there is always space.
Imam al-Bukhari mausoleum
Many muslims will not want to pass up the opportunity to visit the mausoleum of Imam al-Bukhari (Gmaps), 25 km north of Samarkand. Neglected during Soviet times, the last resting place of the famous hadith collector was rediscovered when President Soekarno of Indonesia came for a visit with the express wish of visiting the tomb.
With the help of Saudi Arabia, the complex of mausoleum, madrasa, museum and mosque was rebuilt in the 1990’s, with no expense spared. It is now well set up to receive thousands of pilgrims.
Kattakurgan & Tim
On the way to Bukhara, architecture aficionados and tiny village enthusiasts can make the detour to the Arab-Ata mausoleum in Tim. Built in 978 during the Samanid dynasty, it predates the Ismoil Somoni mausoleum in Bukhara by nearly a century.
On the way to Tim, Katta Kurgan’s 17th-century Nakidbek mosque is worth a look. There is an old hammam still in use 2 doors down.