10-07 Samarkand 1

7th.October 2019, Samarkand 1

We were 2 days in Samarkand, perhaps the most well-known of the silk road cities. We saw most of the major sights on the first day. They are very impressive particularly the Registan square flanked by 3 great madrassas built over 200 years but all in the same style and made to harmonise. Unfortunately there is not really any other old city left. The area in between the ancient monuments is laid out as parks and precincts in a modern way including of course the souvenir shops.

Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum

Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum interior

The beautiful portal and trademark fluted azure dome of the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum marks the final resting place of Timur (Tamerlane), along with two sons and two grandsons (including Ulugbek). It’s a surprisingly modest building, largely because Timur was never expecting to be buried here. The tilework and dome are particularly beautiful; be sure to return at night when the building is spot-lit to grand effect. Timur had built a simple crypt for himself at Shakhrisabz, and had this one built in 1404 for his grandson and proposed heir, Mohammed Sultan, who had died the previous year. But the story goes that when Timur died unexpectedly of pneumonia in Kazakhstan (in the course of planning an expedition against the Chinese) in the winter of 1405, the passes back to Shakhrisabz were snowed in and he was interred here instead. As with other Muslim mausoleums, the stones are just markers; the actual crypts are in a chamber beneath. In the centre is Timur’s stone, once a single block of dark-green jade. In 1740 the warlord Nadir Shah carried it off to Persia, where it was accidentally broken in two – from which time Nadir Shah is said to have had a run of very bad luck, including the near death of his son. At the urging of his religious advisers he returned the stone to Samarkand and, of course, his son recovered.

The Registan

This ensemble of majestic, tilting madrassas (religious schools) – a near-overload of majolica, azure mosaics and vast, well-proportioned spaces – is the centrepiece of the city, and arguably the most awesome single sight in Central Asia. The three grand edifices here are among the world’s oldest preserved madrassas dating back to the 15th and 17th centuries, anything older having been destroyed by Chinggis Khan. The Registan, which translates to ‘Sandy Place’ in Tajik, was medieval Samarkand’s commercial centre and the plaza was probably a wall-to-wall bazaar. The three madrassas have taken their knocks over the years courtesy of the frequent earthquakes that buffet the region; that they are still standing is a testament to the incredible craftsmanship of their builders. The Soviets, to their credit, worked feverishly to restore these beleaguered treasures, but they also took some questionable liberties, such as the capricious addition of a blue outer dome to the Tilla-Kari Madrassa. For an idea of just how ruined the madrassas were at the start of the 20th century, check out the excellent photo exhibit inside the Tilla-Kari Madrassa.

Ulugbek Madrassa

The Ulugbek Madrassa, on the western side, is the original madrassa, finished in 1420 under Ulugbek who is said to have taught mathematics here (other subjects taught here included theology, astronomy and philosophy). The stars on the portal reflect Ulugbek’s love of astronomy. Beneath the little corner domes were lecture halls, now housing displays on Ulugbek, including copies of the ‘Zij’ (his writings on astronomy) and miniatures depicting Central Asian astronomers at work. At the rear is a large mosque with a beautiful blue painted interior and an austere teaching room to one side. Police guards occasionally offer to clandestinely escort visitors to the top of the madrassa’s minaret for around US$10.

Sher Dor Madrassa

Sher Dor Madrassa entrance portal

The other buildings are rough imitations by the Shaybanid Emir Yalangtush. The entrance portal of the Sher Dor (Lion) Madrassa, opposite Ulugbek’s and finished in 1636, is decorated with roaring felines that look like tigers but are meant to be lions. The lions, the deer they are chasing and the Mongolian-faced, Zorostrian-inspired suns rising from their backs are all unusual, flouting Islamic prohibitions against the depiction of live animals. It took 17 years to build but hasn’t held up as well as the Ulugbek Madrassa, built in just three years.

Tilla-Kari Madrassa


In between them is the Tilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) Madrassa, completed in 1660, with a pleasant, gardenlike courtyard. The highlight here is the mosque, which is on the left-hand side of the courtyard and is intricately decorated with blue and gold to symbolise Samarkand’s wealth. The mosque’s delicate ceiling, oozing gold leaf, is flat but its tapered design makes it look domed from the inside. The result is magnificent. Most of the madrassa’s former dormitory rooms are now art and souvenir shops.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque

the domes

The mosque Bibi-Khanym Mosque is one of the most important monuments of Samarkand. In the 15th century it was one of the largest and most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world. By the mid-20th century only a grandiose ruin of it still survived, but major parts of the mosque were restored during the Soviet period.

at the Shah-i-Zinda


Samarkand’s most moving and beloved site is this stunning avenue of mausoleums, which contains some of the richest tilework in the Muslim world. The name, which means ‘Tomb of the Living King’, refers to its original, innermost and holiest shrine – a complex of cool, quiet rooms around what is probably the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, who is said to have brought Islam to this area in the 7th century. The most stunning Timurid-era tilework dates from 14th and 15th centuries.

A shrine to Qusam, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, existed here on the edge of Afrosiab for around seven centuries before Timur (Tamerlane) and later Ulugbek buried their family and favourites near the sanctity of the original shrine.

The most beautiful tomb is the Shodi Mulk Oko Mausoleum (1372), resting place of a sister and niece of Timur, second on the left after the entry stairs. The exquisite majolica and terracotta work here – notice the minuscule amount of space between the tiles – was of such exceptional quality that it merited almost no restoration.

Hiking in Switzerland and around the world