When the driver of a minivan met us late in the night at the railway station in Samarkand, we did not think at all that he is a bear whom we just woke up from winter sleep. The next morning he was nowhere to be found. After one hour of delay, two young men from the hotel reception helped us to wake him up by phone. One of the men was Amir, the other one Timur. The medieval conqueror Emir (= Amir = prince) Timur, also known as Tamerlane (1336 – 1405), is still very popular. After all, Samarkand was the capital of his empire. It was here, where he decided to demonstrate his power by building the biggest and most beautiful monuments. If I say slowly: Sa-mar-kand, in my language it sounds similar to the word “dra-ho-kam” which means a precious stone, a jewel… And it is really like that! Even in the past, all travellers used to give very special names to this city: the pearl of the universe or the mirror of the world. So, what are the most interesting sights you should visit?
I do not know any other square like this one in Samarkand – the Registan. On three sides, there is a monumental building respectively. These are madrasahs – former religious educational institutions. The fourth side of the square is open – from here you can enjoy the view of this architectural masterpiece. We could hardly wait, but suddenly we stopped in front of something which looked like a fence and was very big and very green!
We suspected our sleepy driver that he took us to a wrong address, but it proved to be the case, we were standing in front of the most beautiful square in the world!
We arrived at Uzbekistan at a time when they were celebrating the independence of the Soviet Union. The celebration in Samarkand had to be very pompous as they had built a big green grandstand – exactly on that open side of the Registan! It was not possible to take pictures of the whole square as we know it from postcards, but anyway, we could enjoy the monuments one by one.
(1) The Madrasah of Ulugh Beg on the left side is the oldest one, built by Timur‘s grandson in 1417 – 1420. Look at the gorgeous portal with a height of 35 m, decorated by geometrical stylized ornaments.
Although the interior is without any decoration, you have the feeling a noble spirit of learning is still here… In the past, lectures not only on Koran but also on mathematics, logic, geometric and natural sciences were given here by the greatest scholars of the 15th century, including Ulugh Beg himself.
Back on the square, I am sure somebody will find you and offer you the opportunity to climb up the minaret. Do not reject, just bargain the price. The view is amazing – you can see the other madrasahs, the whole surroundings and also an enormous building in the background.
(2) The Sher-Dor Madrasah, which we could see so well from the minaret, is situated just opposite. It was built in 1424.
The most remarkable elements on its facade are the lions who swallowed the sun. They are interesting not only because they look more like tigers but also because of the ban in Islam of the depiction of living beings on religious buildings. And here you can see also gazelles and birds.
The building is almost the mirror image of the Madrasah of Ulugh Beg but its dome is much larger. It might also be the reason why the madrasah had started to collapse some years after being finished already.
Be prepared for a ritual performed by everybody who enters the building: first you will enter, then tilt your head back and open your mouth! The walls of the interior mosque are covered with blue tiles but mostly with gilded Kufic inscriptions, plant ornaments and calligraphic patterns.
Nowadays, there are no schools in the madrasahs but they are not like just empty walls with a faded fame without life, on the contrary.
The madrasahs on the Registan are pilgrimage sites for local people – the same like Guri Amir (4) – the mausoleum of Timur.
You will always meet some pilgrims here. But they do not pray in the way we know from Arab countries. Both men and women (without headdresses), sitting together on benches and spreading out their hands towards heaven, recite the verses of the Koran. Nobody is beating his forehead against the ground. Their common prayer reminds of spiritual meditation.
Their famous ancestor Timur is their national hero, the founder of the Uzbek statehood who established a strong empire between the Ottoman Empire and India. Even the fact that he walked with a limp did not detract from his power. He was an excellent strategist who led military campaigns and conquered other territories. The longest campaign against Syria and Ankara took seven years.
You would expect that a warrior like Timur would have died in a war and that together with his soul he would have let out his last war cry… But the reality was different. Timur was preparing to invade China. The winter was very cold. Avoiding to freeze he was only drinking araq all the time, caught a cold and that was fatal for him… His mausoleum is just as gorgeous as the other buildings he built in his capital.
A solid block of dark green jade is placed over the grave of Timur, next to his spiritual teacher Mir Said Baraka who once laid in his hands the symbols of power – a drum and a flag. In 1941, Soviet scientists decided to examine Timur‘s bones. They opened his sarcophagus on 22nd June 1941 – on the day when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. It is rumoured that the Soviet Union had won in the battle of Stalingrad owing it to the re-burial of Timur‘s remains. Since then, nobody would open the sarcophagus because they are afraid of letting the spirit of war out.
Soviet anthropologists confirmed that Timur was 172 cm in height and had an athletic and well-built stature.
It is possible that thanks to his manly look women admired their ruler Timur. It is said that he had 18 wives and 21 official mistresses. Coming back from his successful campaign against India, he decided to undertake the construction of the largest and most magnificent mosque (5) – Bibi-Khanum Mosque – just to demonstrate his power.
He gathered hundreds of stonemasons, architects and craftsmen from different parts of the world, they even used 95 Indian elephants as draught animals. The court astrologist determined the day when the foundation stone was laid – in May 1399. Timur personally watched over the construction. When he was not happy with the size of the main portal he ordered to destroy it and build a new one. The mosque was almost completed 5 years later. About 10,000 men could pray in the courtyard. Have a look at the vast parade portal (40 m high). Originally there were 4 big and 4 small minarets.
But the project of this mosque was too ambitious for the skills of the builders at that time. The mosque was built too quickly, there were problems with statics, stones started falling down from the cupola, minarets collapsed, the mosque came down and became a ruin also by frequent earthquakes.
Timur built the mosque for his favourite wife, confidant and adviser (Bibi) Saray-Mulk-Khanum. A nice legend is connected to the construction of the mosque. Timur was on his way home after a military campaign but the mosque was not completed yet. Bibi wanted to make the construction faster. Because she was very pretty, not only Timur fell in love with her but also a young builder who promised to make it faster under the condition he may kiss his queen. Some say Bibi was cautious and covered her face with her hand, others even say it was a soft pillow, but nevertheless, the love of the young man was so intensive and his kiss so ardent that a love bite remained on Bibi‘s cheek. After Timur saw it, he ordered Bibi to be thrown down a minaret. But do not worry! Her last wish was to put on all the dresses she had and because these were only silk dresses, light as a breeze, she was saved (and maybe this is how a parachute was invented… 🙂 ).
The neighbourhood of the mosque is full of life, but I do not mean the tourists. This is the place where you can meet the most typical faces of Uzbekistan.
I am sure this is because the colourful, vivid and loud local market – Siob Bazaar – is near. It is interesting to visit especially because of the beautiful props of the walls of the mosque in the background.
Inspecting the local products do not miss water (tavruz) and honey (kovun) melons! In the past, they used them as means of payment for female slaves. Khalifs of Baghdad and shahs of Persia liked those fruits as well and let them be imported in special bronze vessels with ice.
But let‘s continue with the sightseeing.
Bibi Khanum also took care of Timur‘s grandson Ulugh Beg. The ruler took him on his campaign against India and to the Caucasus and married him off when he was only 10. Five years later, when Timur died, Ulugh Beg became his successor (he is also buried in the mausoleum Guri Amir). But more than in wars he was interested in medicine, poetry, mathematics, history, theology and music, but his biggest passion was astronomy. Visit his restored Observatory (6) from the 15th century.
This is a favourite place for wedding couples to immortalize their important day. So let us wish them a happy constellation of stars! And if you visit the observatory, please, give my regards to the lady at the ticket office – she was the most unpleasant person we have met in Uzbekistan. An exception that confirms the rule about the hospitality of the Uzbek people.
If you are not sated with the turquoise colour yet, then also visit the necropolis Shah-i-Zinda (7). You will meet some local pilgrims here as well. They leave their prayers and some banknotes in the tombs.
It was built around the old tomb of Kusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad, who had brought Islam to this region. The whole ensemble is often called an open-air museum of tiles decoration.
And now try to imagine you are preparing for a 10,000 km long journey which could take 6-8 years. Camels in your caravan are fully loaded with silk, diamonds, rose oil and other luxurious articles. There are so many dangers on the road… You should better make a stop at the small mosque Hazrat Hizr (8).
Even in the past, everybody wanted to pray here because he believed that this place would bring him good luck and he would safely return from the long trade route which was called the Silk Road and ran through deserts, river fords, narrow gorges and other dangerous places.
Not long ago, I have read somewhere what an unknown poet once said: “You may travel through the whole world, see the pyramids and admire the smile of the sphinx. You may listen to the soft singing of the Adriatic wind and kneel in front of the Acropolis, you may be impressed by the Colosseum in Rome, Notre-Dame in Paris or the old Cathedral in Milan. But if you visit Samarkand once, you will be fascinated with its charm forever.” I fully agree. I could not say it better…
How to Get There: We took a late-night train from Tashkent. It was really an adventure! First a check of the luggage on the railway station, then a squeeze in the crowd of local passengers and another checkpoint. We just hoped to get onto the right train. There were 10 open coupes on the couch, separated by boards with two beds on both sides. Two other beds were in the gangway. We got in among the last passengers, the couch was full. I don‘t know if you can imagine the stench when 60 people take their shoes off. Well, I can…
Exhaustion, the cramped space and heavy air overcame us and after we had fallen asleep at last, the alarm clock on a mobile phone of my friend started to ring. Until we found it and managed to switch it off, the mobile phone had woken up at least half of the couch occupants. Arriving at Samarkand we prepared for getting off. There was a narrow gangway in front of us, full with feet, with socks or without. I just wished the train would stop slowly and I would not land on someone‘s feet. Only our group got off – we were happy that we were in the right place and the other passengers were happy too that the foreigners who took pictures of everything, laughed all the time and were unable to switch off the alarm on the phone were already out. 🙂 🙂 🙂
Now, you can travel easier and more comfortable. They have already opened the Tashkent to Samarkand high-speed rail line. All details and information you can find here.
Where to Stay: I recommend the hotel Registan Plaza with a good location. We were satisfied with the service too. More information about the hotel here.
What to Eat: Try shashlik – a dish of skewered cubes of meat or ground meat, cooked on a grill or barbecue.
Goodbye, Samarkand, I wish to come again!
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri