Like Athens or Jerusalem, the name Samarkand evokes imagine of medieval armies, ancient architecture wonders, and bygone splendor. It was a romantic destination even for the Greeks: “Everything I have heard about [Samarkand] is true, except that it is even more beautiful than I ever imagined,” effused Alexander the Great in 329 B.C.
The city was once an important desert stop on the ancient Silk Road, despite the periodic attacks by foreign invaders. Unsurprisingly, Genghis Khan topped them all by reducing the city to rubble in 1220. Tamerlane the Great (Timur Lenk), born not far from here in 1330, bucked the trend of destruction by restoring the city and made it the capital of his vast empire.
Tamerlane’s greatest architecture legacy is the mausoleum of the Timurid dynasty, the colossal Gur-e Amir. The dead have it good in Samarkand. Besides Tamerlane’s magnificent mausoleum, the city is also home to the Sha-i-Zinda, a huge necropolis containing dozens of others, each one seemingly more detailed and intricate than the last. The cemetery is built around the tomb of Qussam Ibn Abbas, a cousin of Mohammed who is said to have brought Islam to the region in the 7th century. Nearby stands the Bibi Khanum mosque. Distinguished by a massive dome, it is dedicated to the memory of Tamerlane’s favourite wife.
Samarkand’s piece de resistance, however, is the Registan, a glorious ensemble of three madrassas (Islamic colleges) that flanks a vast, sun-drenched square. Every inch of these buildings is covered with mosaics and highly stylized arabesque design, which, along with their turquoise domes, soaring minarets, and timeless sense of grandeur, have awed visitors for centuries. For a small fee the guards allow visitors to climb the twisting staircases to the top of a minaret, affording wonderful views of the Registan and square below and the adjacent bazaar. Here life and trade continue much as they did in the heyday of the Silk Road, when spices such as peppercorns and saffron were more valuable than gold.
WHERE: 170 miles/275 km southeast of Tashkent.
BEST TIME: Apr – May and Sep for nicest weather.