Look ’round thee now on Samarqand!
Is not she Queen of Earth? Her pride
Above all cities? In her hand
Their destinies? In all beside
Of glory which the world hath known
Stands she not nobly and alone?”
Edgar Allen Poe
Samarkand, which is more than 3000 years old, preserved all traits of past epochs, civilizations and cultures. Contemporary of Rome, Athens and Babylon, Samarkand is the proud home to the most spectacular architectural experiences in Asia, all deeply infused with fascinating history and legends.
The pivot of the fabled Silk Road, the site of Alexander the Great’s slaying of his friend Cleitos, the centre of Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Christian and Islamic cultures, it was brutally devastated by Genghis Khan in 1220, only to rise again under Tamerlane and his descendants in the 14th-15th centuries and to become one of the world’s most glorious capitals which netted half the commerce of medieval Asia.
Today this majestic city that historians and poets referred to in the past as the ‘Rome of the East’, ‘the Pearl of the Eastern Moslem World’, this living memorial of Silk Road history and UNESCO World Heritage site, is Uzbekistan’s most visited tourist destination.
Most of the living witnesses of the city’s past glory- madrassahs, mausoleums and mosques that has survived to the present day, are attributed to Timurids dynasty. These architectural complexes seem to rival with each other in terms of monumentality and refinement of decoration.
The Registan square, the city’s centerpiece, commonly known as the ‘jewel in Central Asia’s crown’, is a splendid stage for a kind of triptych of three imposing madrassahs that dominate the square with their perfect harmonious forms, alterating mosaic and majolica panels and fascinating interplay of blue, turquoise and green tiles highlighted on a yellow-brown background . Lord Curzon, the English statesman, who visited Samarkand in the late 19th century, wrote: “ The Registan of Samarkand …is the noblest public square in the world. ….No European spectacle indeed can adequately be compared to it…”
Ulugbek’s madrassah, dating to the 1400s, fascinates with its geometric patterns stretching across the walls and up the 33-metre minarets with honeycomb pattern decoration at the top. It brings home the splendour, the style and sophistication that shines in all the monumental constructions of the Timurids Empire. No less impressive are the other two seventeenth-century madrassahs: Shir-Dor and Tillya-Kari, built to match the Ulugbek’s madrassah in scale and nobility, and presenting the best samples of richly coloured geometric, floral and epigraphic patterns.
Bibi-khanum mosque intended by Timur as a mosque without parallel in grandeur or décor throughout the Moslem world, though with noticeable 19th-century earthquake damage, still stands to make the visitor realise its grandeur and be captivated by a romantic legend associated with the construction of the mosque.
One of the holiest sites in Samarkand is breathtaking Shakhi-Zinda necropolis which developed into Central Asia’s finest ensemble of ceramic art. Walking along the ancient walkway lined by dozens of intricately designed mausoleums built for royal nobility in 14th-15th centuries, one can’t but admire the many ways the medieval craftsmen and artists articulated their unique talents.
Just as spectacular is another city’s landmark – Gur Emir mausoleum where Timur, also known as Tamerlane, is actually entombed beneath a large slab of jade side by side with his descendants. The majesty of architectural forms, the azure-blue fluted dome crowing the building, colorful mosaic designs, delicate stucco and gold leaf interior decoration make this mausoleum a unique monument of medieval architecture.
But Samarkand is not only about medieval art and culture. It was here that Ulugbek, the grandson of Timur, initiated the construction of observatory with the biggest sextant ever built. Able warrior, enlightened ruler, Ulugbek was above all a man of science. Working in his observatory, which though in remains still stuns the mind, he created a star catalogue with more than 1,000 entries, thus glorifying his name for centuries to come.
As it was mentioned in UNESCO justification of Samarkand as world heritage location “ensembles in Samarkand ….. played a seminal role in the development of Islamic architecture over the entire region, from the Mediterranean to the Indian Subcontinent”.