Tilework of the Silk Road:  Patterns and Symbols

Tilework of the Silk Road: Patterns and Symbols

Stories of the Silk Road tell of camels and caravans, and the treasures they carried. After the 8th century advent of Islam, when travelers stopped to rest along the way at Central Asian oases, they began to see mosques, minarets, and buildings elaborately decorated with brilliant tiles. These tiles were embellished with leaves, vines, and various designs, often in green, blue and turquoise hues – seven main colors in all.

The evolution of Islamic tile artistry can be seen in the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Tile SymbolsSamarkand, Uzbekistan is the city whose tilework is perhaps best known, especially at the Gur-Emir mausoleum. In the designs, flowers and vegetables symbolize gardens, which in turn symbolize the richness of paradise. Even the floors are covered in hand-made tiles decorated in flowers.

The colors of tiles have their own significance. Blue was the dominant color in Samarkand, symbolizing the world of ideas and intellect during Timur’s era. Over time, those blue tiles came to be the color of mourning in Central Asia – appropriate in the Gur-Emir and other mausoleums.


Rebellious TilesAlthough the Koran bans images of humans and animals, there is an exception in Registan Square. If you look up at the arch of the Shir Dor Madrassah, you’ll see two lions chasing deer, with twin Mongol faces peering from behind. (In Tajik, “Shir” means “lion.”) These scenes alone – and the rarity of the living creatures in them – make Samarkand a unique visit for those who love Silk Road tiles.

Lions – resembling tigers – chase after deer on the Shir Dor Madrassah in Samarkand<br>Photo: Lindsay Fincher

Lions – resembling tigers – chase after deer on the Shir Dor Madrassah in Samarkand
Photo: Lindsay Fincher

Tile PatternsIf you look carefully at the geometric tilework on many facades, you’ll see five- and ten-fold stars based on Persian “girih” knot patterns. Each one was created with a straightedge and compass, not a slide ruler or computer. The precision of these human-drawn patterns is breathtaking.

You can often catch travelers along the Silk Road standing motionless before a mosque or madrassah, struck by the lustrous patterns created by the interlocking tiles, a combination of geometry and artistry.

<em>Girih</em> knot pattern on the Gur-Emir Mosque in Samarkand<br>Photo: Michel Behar

Girih knot pattern on the Gur-Emir Mosque in Samarkand
Photo: Michel Behar

Travel with MIR Along the Silk Road

MIR has nearly 30 years of travel experience in Central Asia and has an affiliate office in Uzbekistan. We have a roster of contacts that can take you to places that you didn’t even know you wanted to go. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

There are several ways to enjoy the tilework of the Silk Road. All of these tours include time in Samarkand, Uzbekistan:

Contact us about our small group tours or handcrafted itineraries by phone (800-424-7289) or email today.

Top Photo: Intricate tile designs on a Samarkand mosque. Photo Credit: Lindsay Fincher

PUBLISHED: April 5, 2016

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