Samarkand: The Mirror of the World
From early times, Samarkand was given many names signaling its great importance for Central Asia: “The Mirror of the World”, “The Jewel of Islam”, and “The Radiate Point of the Globe” are among them. Samarkand is indeed one of the great ancient cities in the world next to Babylon, Athens, and Rome.
Samarkand was founded in the 7th century B.C. by the Sogdians. Thus, it is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. At that time, the place was called Afrasiab, which from Sogdian translates as “Stone Fort” or “Rock Town”. Ruins of this original settlement remain north of present Samarkand. Afrasiab quickly gained importance due to its strategic location at the time of the formation of the first large Central Asian states such as Khorezm, Bactria and Sogd or Sogdiana, the capital of which it became.
In the 6th to 4th centuries B.C. Samarkand was part of the Achaemenid Empire and from the 4th century is belonged to the empire of Alexander the Great who came to the region crossing the Hindu Kush in pursuit of the Persian King Darius. He conquered the city in 329 B.C. and called it Maracanda. He allegedly said: “Everything I have heard about Marakanda is true, except that it’s more beautiful than I ever imagined.” However, the local Sogdian ruler Spitamen started a rebellion against the Greek that lasted for 18 months. It ended with Spitamen's assassination by his own followers and the destruction Samarkand as a warning to others.
When the Greek empire split into three parts after Alexander’s death, Samarkand was given to Seleucus who according to history was one of the best generals of the Greek-Macedonian army. The city became part of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. In the 6th century A.D., Samarkand was integrated into a Turkish kingdom. In 712, the city was conquered by Kuteiba-ibn-Muslim, which marked the beginning Islamic conversion of the region. Between the first century BC and AD, Samarkand was ruled by the kings of Kushan.
In the following centuries, Samarkand rose to riches tanks to the silk trade. Chinese culture migrated to the region. For instance, the first paper mill outside China was established in Samarkand in 751. According to the legend, two Chinese war prisoners revealed the secret of making paper. After that, paper production spread throughout the Islamic countries, and eventually to the West.
Samarkand was ruled by the Samanid dynasty of Khorasan (874–999) and continued to flourish under the subsequent rule of the Seljuks and of the shahs of Khwarazm. Samarkand was occupied and destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1220 only to raise to become of of the major centers of the region under Timur the Lame or Tamerlane. In 1370, Timur decided to make Samarkand his capital, and over the next 35 years forged a new city. Samarkand became Central Asia’s economic and cultural epicenter and experienced a golden age. A new city was rebuilt at its present location, south-west of the ancient Afrosiab. The spoils of Tamerlanes conquests and tributes from the new provinces accumulated in Samarkand under the rule of the Timurids until the reign of Ulugh Bek (1409 – 1449). Under the motto "The pursuit of knowledge - the duty of every Muslim" Ulugh Bek built a university and observatory, for which there was not equal in the world for several centuries.
In the 16th century Smarkand was occupied by Uzbek Turks under Shaybanid leadership. This marked the beginning of the decline of its predominance in the region. The Shaybanids moved the capital to Bukhara. For several decades in the 18th century, after a series of earthquakes, Samarkand was essentially uninhabited. In 1868, Samarkand was occupied by Russia and became a provincial capital. The Caspian Railway connected Samarkand to Russia in 1888 which turned Samarkand into an important trade hub between Europe and Central Asia.
Samarkand had a great influence on the architecture of the entire Central Asian region with ensembles of unmatched beauty and harmony such the Bibi Khanum Mosque and Registan Square. Other major monuments include the Shakhi-Zinda compound, the Gur-Emir ensemble, as well as Ulugh-Beg's Observatory.
Timur's mausoleum Gur-Emir was built between 1403 and 1404 as a tomb for himself, his sons and his grandson Ulug Beg. Gur-Emir means “Tomb of the King” in Persian. The mausoleum completes an earlier complex of two buildings forming the third side of a courtyard. The fourth side is a portal beautifully decorated with glazed tile mosaics. The monumental cupola adorned with blue ceramics is simply breathtaking and dominates the entire complex. Gur-Emir has a very important place in Persian architecture and served as a blueprint for later great buildings of Timur’s descendants, the Mughal dynasty of Nortehrn India. The best known example is Taj Mahal.
Registan square is perhaps the most impressive architectural site in all of Central Asia. Registan means “Snowy place” in Persian. Since ancient time this square was trade and public center of Samarkand.
The square is formed by three otherworldly beautiful madrasahs: Ulugh Bek, Shir Dor, and Tillya Kari.
Ulugh Bek madrasah is the oldest and was built between 1417 and 1420. The massive pishtak features a geometrical décor resembling stars. The corners are flanked by high minarets. Shir Dor madrasah was one of the best clergy universities of the whole Muslim world in the 15th century. Ulugh Bek lectured here.
Ulugh Bek madrasah
Shir Dor was built between 1619 and 1636. “Shir Dor” means “having tigers” which is the outstanding decorative feature of this architectural masterpiece. Islam rules generally don’t permit graphic depiction of living things on buildings. Shir Dor seems to be an exception.
Tillya Kari madrasah derives its name form the golden interior décor. It means “The Gilded”. It was build as a mosque and madrasah between 1640 and 1660 when Bibi Khanum lay in ruins.
Tillya Kari madrasah
Bibi Khanum mosque was built by Timur for his wife Bibi Khanum after a victorious campaign in India where he sacked Dehli in 1398. Construction started in 1399. Precious stones hauled by 95 elephants from India were used during construction. The complex was huge, 109 by 167 meters. Ulugh Bek made his contribution to the mosque in the form of an oversized Koran stand which can be seen in one of the courtyards. After the death of Sahibkiran in 1405 the construction of the enormous mosque was not quite completed. It slowly fell into disrepair a process that was accelerated by the fact the the enormous size of the mosque pushed the construction techniques to their limits. Bibi Khanum finally collapsed in 1897 during an earthquake. The reconstruction started in 1974. Bibi Khanum is connected with the Registan via a covered bazaar which has not changed much in over 600 years.
Shah-i-Zinda is a cemetery and means "Living King". The name is connected to the legend that Kassam-ibn-Abbas, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad was buried here. The first burial-vaults appeared in the 12th century near the grave of Kussam-ibn-Abbas. Most part of the construction works were carried out under Timur. Among these constructions the mausoleums of two emirs, Burunduk and Emir Zade, stand out by size ad beauty. Most buildings are adorned with glazed bricks, majolica slabs, and carved mosaics.
The first astronomical observatory in the world was built between 1424 and 1429 by Ulugh Bek in Samarkand. Being the greatest astronomer of his time. Ulugh Bek compiled the star tables "Zidj-i Sultani" which contain the exact positions of more than thousand stars. Today, a museum can be found at the place of the original observatory. Only some underground constructions remain. Copies of the Zidji-Sultani can be found at the museum. The original drawings are in Oxford.