Silk Route Spotlight: Samarkand, Crossroads of Cultures
If ever there were a crossroads of cultures, it is the melting pot of Samarkand. Over there – China, and over there – the West, the Mediterranean. And here – Samarkand, city of spices, silk, religions, cultures, and conquerors.
This Silk Road oasis in Central Asia’s Uzbekistan is so cherished by the world that it’s designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, preserved for future generations beyond the 25 centuries that it’s been here. Built like a rock, Samarkand’s ancient name means “stone fort” or “rock town.”
In contrast, Conqueror Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde ruled the city for 100 years, tearing it to shreds. Conqueror Tamerlane (a.k.a. Timur) liked – loved – Samarkand so much he made it his capital and poured his wealth and imagination into its architecture and decorative arts, revitalizing the city, unlike anything seen in the world up to that time. He even spared his enemies’ artisans to help build this urban crown of his empire. Between Tamerlane and his grandson, Ulug Bek, they built “the best of the best” of their time, from the world’s largest mosque to the world’s largest observatory.
Front and center are the three iconic Islamic “madrassahs,” or schools, that make up Registan Square with their glistening turquoise, gold and emerald tiles: Ulug Bek (“great ruler”), once largest in the world; Tillya-Kori (“gold-covered”); and Shir-Dor (“tigers”). Even today, head-scarved women cross this public square, bags exploding with housewares, fruit, and textiles. Here children chase each other in games first played 2,000 years ago. Men meet and greet, calling out “Assalam alaikum,” words of peace that have echoed from these walls for a millennium.
Bibi Khanum Mosque – enormous today – was the world’s largest in the 14th century. It’s believed the main gate loomed a dizzying 114 feet. Quickly built and quick to crumble, this mosque collapsed in an 1897 earthquake but was rebuilt in the 1970s. Legend has it that any woman who crawls under its massive courtyard Koran stand will produce many children.
Shah-i-Zinde (“Tomb of the Living King”) is a vast complex of mausoleums and tombs – at least 20 buildings over nine centuries. Here rest the remains of ancient Samarkand dwellers, fragments of the city’s earliest Islamic structures, and (it’s believed) the bones of Mohammad’s cousin. Gur-i Amir (“Tomb of the King”) contains the tombs of Tamerlane, several sons and grandsons – including Ulug Bek – as well as Tamerlane’s favorite teacher.
On the outskirts of town is the Afrosiab History Museum, an archaeological site studded with the history of ancient Samarkand, 11 layers deep. Excavations since the 1800s have uncovered pottery shards, tiles, and physical clues to this crossroad city’s past.
(Top photo credit: Lindsay Fincher)
PUBLISHED: January 14, 2014