Part 12 of the Silk Road journey

Posted 25th May 2017 by David McGuinness

The very comfortable Afrosiab train pulled into Samarkand exactly on time, a comfortable 2 hours and 15 minutes after it left Tashkent. My guide, Armida, of Armenian origin and a lecturer at the university in Samarkand, picked me up and we headed to the edges of the city to learn about Ulug Beg. He was the grandson of Timur and his passion and, indeed, genius for science was ultimately his downfall. Often referred to as the “Astronomer King”, he inherited the throne at only 15 and presided over a prolonged period of peace. He created an enormous observatory to look out at the stars and planets and with it made astonishingly accurate calculations. His calculation of the duration of a year was out by mere seconds when compared to our current understanding.

He wrote a book, “Catalogue of the Stars”, and pioneered education reforms to ensure the widest possible learning, including that of women whom he regarded as equals – quite revolutionary for the time. His zeal for the heavenly brought him into conflict with those other guardians of heavenly truth, the mullahs. His discoveries conflicted with their teachings and they conspired with his son, Tif, to have him murdered, ironically, on his way to Mecca. Absorbed in matters of science rather than state, Ulug Beg was completely unaware of what was afoot. They then destroyed what they could of the observatory to remove all traces of what he did. It lay undiscovered until a particularly determined amateur Soviet archaeologist managed to track it down. Amira showed me a huge arc, the remains of the 64m diameter sextant he used to make his celestial calculations.

Our next stop was the Samarkand-Bukhara carpet workshop, a nice way to learn about the carpet-making process – from silk cocoon to final product, the styles, the materials, the natural dyes – in a no sales pressure environment. Of course, had I wanted to buy a carpet, I was undoubtedly in the right place too.

Next up was the Bibi Khanom mosque, a mosque built by Timur and named for his favourite wife. Indeed it was Bibi who was the direct descendant of Genghis Khan and, for Timur to cement his legitimacy, this was a marriage of political expediency. However, Timur came to treasure this plain but intelligent woman above all his other wives. The mosque was the largest in the world at the time of construction. Built to commemorate his hugely costly (both financially and in terms of lives) but successful military campaign to India, it was heavily reconstructed in the 1970s after the original collapsed soon after construction, most probably in the rush to complete it and thus avoid Timur’s impatience and ire.

We took a walk through the 800-year-old Syob Bazaar next door; now a largely modern market selling nuts, fruits and spices. We continued to the stunning Registan Square, the picture postcard square of Uzbekistan tourism. A market has stood on this spot, meaning “sandy place”, for two thousand years and it was here that public executions took place during the time of Timur. The three madrassas, however, date from the 15th and 17th centuries. The oldest is the beautiful Ulug Beg madrassa from 1420, where the great educator’s curriculum taught both religious and secular subjects. Opposite is the Sher Dor madrassa. Built to mirror the Ulug Beg madrassa in structure, it is decorated with two lions/tigers and two deer, in clear violation of the normal rules for Islamic decoration. The third madrassa is the golden Tilla Kari madrassa and mosque, with a superb dome, best seen from inside. None of the madrassas have been in use since they were shut by the Soviets in 1920.

The city of Samarkand (previously known as “Marakanda”) dates back at least 2,700 years, making it 200 years older than its rival Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Khiva, though little of its old town remains. The oldest settlements are in the region around the unrestored fortress of Afrosiab. Alexander supposedly declared “everything I heard about Marakanda is true, except that it is even more beautiful than I imagined”. Nonetheless, he burnt it to the ground. The Arabs slaughtered the population in the 8th century and the canals are said to have run red with blood when Genghis laid waste to all and sundry in the 13th century, with barely a man left alive. Until Timur.

Our next stop brought us to the final resting place of Samarkand’s most celebrated person, Timur, (a.k.a. Tamerlane). Though he was born in nearby Shakhrisabz, he made Samarkand his capital, spent his time here and extensively built it up to ensure that it was the finest city of its time. Gur Emir or “king’s grief” is the name of the mausoleum where he, and several of his male descendants, are buried. He died suddenly on a campaign to China and, despite wanting to be buried in his hometown, his relatives decided to have him buried here in a tomb he built for his favourite grandson and anointed successor, Mohammad Sultan, a warrior like himself. Timur’s tomb supposedly contains a warning that “when I rise, the world will tremble.” Characteristically undeterred, Stalin had his tomb opened in 1941. The team’s three cameras simultaneously allegedly all stopped working, electricity failed in the whole city and even candles went out. Timur’s body was taken out and some bones sent to Moscow to test if it really was him. The very next day, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in what some locals see as an instance of karmic Timurid wrath. The Soviet scientists concluded it was Timur, and he was lame, missing a kneecap, amongst several other injuries. The mausoleum itself is a beautiful building and locals come here to pay their respects and listen to the imam say prayers for their once-mighty ruler.

Our final stop for the day was the stunning blue and turquoise Shah i Zinda tombs. Dating from the 14th century onwards (post-Genghis Khan, like most things here), many of Timur’s female relatives were buried here, including his sister and a niece. The decoration on some of the tombs here is truly sublime. Supposedly if you count the steps on the way up and again on the way down, and reach the same number each time, you may ask for a wish and it will be granted. I will let you know how that goes.

This blog is part of an Off-The-Beaten-Track Travel Diary. Click on the links below to navigate through this journey.

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