The train from Tashkent to Samarkand took all of 2:10 on the fast train and our business class seats came with ‘free’ tea, sandwiches and cookies. Out the window, the Uzbek countryside is green and flat – until we notice what we believe must be the fan mountains faintly appearing high above the flat plains in a lofty locale where we’d only expected to see clouds. In places they cut quite the jagged silhouette and in other places the high, level snowcapped mountain ridge might just be a clothed table for the gods. They certainly don’t seem of this world as the foreground is completely lacking of even a slight swell that might warn of the incredibly high mountains to come.
Arrival in to Samarkand was easy once we walked away from the cabbie sharks, a rare breed that swarms and preys upon those that look anything different from their normal meal – ie us in a wave of central asians. We caught a bus into town and walked to Antica B&B, a guesthouse which had come highly recommended by a young french traveler we met in Tashkent – and with good reason.
Samarkand is really the first stop on our path that will continually reach deeper into the old Uzbekistan. Here there are many large and ancient Islamic madrassahs and mosques with beautifully restored painted blue tiles and blue tiled domes. But these buildings are just the backbone of a town where most people bustle over to the remarkably unrussified Russian side of town and modernity sometimes overwhelms the ancient.
The most famous of Samarkand’s many gems is the Registan, a large square bordered by the massive Sher-Dor, Tilla-Kari and Ulugbek madrassahs (madrassah = Islamic monastery or seminary school) to the east, north and west, respectively. There is a wonderful viewing platform off the main road south of the Registan. The platform is at street level, a few meters above the level of the square, and an ideal early morning view as the sun hits the colorful facades of the Ulugbek and Tilla-Kari madrassahs. Still, you really should pay the ticket fee (14000 som, $5.50) and see the interiors of these buildings.
We won’t try to describe each building facade separately, as they all three include large facades elaborately decorated with hand painted blue and white glazed tiles. Each madrassah facade also has a large archway cut into the facade which rises above the central entrance doors, typically large wooden double doors covered in quite detailed freeform carvings. The archways do show slight variations from madrassah to madrassah, as we’ll try to explain. The Ulugbek and Sher-dor madrassah archways are nearly identical in structure, backed by a tiled flat wall recessed perhaps 5 meters behind the facade, in which there is a smaller archway framing the main central doors and two smaller doors to either side of this smaller archway. The Tilla-Kari madrassah archway does not open to a flat recessed wall but instead a sectioned semicylinder and semidome shape, again covered in hand painted glazed tiles, and which gives way to three nearly identical madrassah entrance doors and three arched openings into the second floor hallway.
We started at the Ulugbek Madrassah, the oldest madrassah of the three dating back to 1420. Ulugbek was not only a religious man but also one of the finest astronomers and mathematicians the west has never heard of. He built an observatory outside of town, but this Madrassah is where he taught math – in the rooms that line the interior courtyard and which are now depressingly occupied by souvenir and craft shops. Ulugbek is perhaps the most well known of the Uzbek Muslim scientists, but one of the real eye openers of the trip has been to find that Uzbekistan was not only the heart and main exporter of Islam for many years, but that many of the worlds early astronomers, mathematicians and medical minds were also from the area. In fact, the word ‘medicine’ is comes from the name of Ibn Sinas (“Medi Sinas”), who wrote a comprehensive medical text around 1000 AD.
The structure itself shows its age – with leaning front corner minaret-like towers and a curving facade, it looks a bit like the inside of Tim Burton’s head. Such is the life of even though most stoutly built structure residing in an earthquake prone area for six centuries. The madrassah, like most all we’ll see, opens into a rectangular courtyard which is surrounded on all sides by various study and teaching rooms, and four large arched openings in the center of each of the four sidewalls (many madrassahs include a mosque, often through the arched doors opposite the main entrance, but not this one). The archways open into tiled spaces, some with painted cornicework.
Next is Tilla-Kari Madrassah, famous for its golden mosque built at a time when Samarkand was among the wealthiest cities in the world and designed to show off that wealth. Despite the interior appearance of the high ceiling in the mosque as domed, it is actually flat. But apparently the Soviets couldn’t believe their eyes – while they were destroying religious structures throughout most of the soviet realm, they for whatever reason protected and even restored some of Samarkand’s treasures, which was mostly a good thing except that the built a there to nonexistent huge blue dome on top of the mosque’s flat top, making this one of the very few asymmetric (by exterior view) buildings in the region. They didnt touch the interior of the mosque, which is stunningly beautiful with gold painting throughout. There was a side hall here too with old photos of the area from the early 1900s and also displays containing old pieces of tile and items from the buildings pre-restorative works.
One of the shop owners convinced us to enter his shop, which we were interested in as the room used to be the master teacher’s study. Rather than the normal trinkets and high quantity low quality tourist wares, his store had embroideries of various ages and types (including antique embroideries sure to blow up anyone’s pocketbook). The room had distinct differences, with a fireplace and higher ceiling. After a long talk about the different styles and subject matter of embroidery through Uzbek history we ended up buying a Zoroastrian embroidery piece from him as our Uzbek memorabilia and as Angie’s birthday gift.
The Sher Dor Madrassah was being restored, but was still striking as nearly every bit of brick on the inside was covered with tiles.
During the remaining two days of our stay we walked by the Registan and stopped to admire the sight several times. While not our favorite of what we saw in Samarkand, its a great centrally located icon that still seems to serve as the heart of the city as it has for many years.
Bibi Khanym Mosque
Bibi khanym Mosque was perhaps the largest mosque in central asia in its day, built by Amir Temur’s wife Bibi Khanym as a gift for him while he was away. The facade of the mosque has been restored and is glitteringly covered in thousands of blue tiles and the courtyard houses an enormous marble Quran stand. However, our favorite aspect was the inside of the mosque itself, which has not been restored and remained untouched, with the original faded ganch carvings still extending to the bottom of huge dome of spiraling bricks – the largest of its kind. You could get a sense of how other buildings might have looked prior to restoration.
This, ‘the avenue of mausoleums’, was the clear highlight of Samarkand for us. This is the resting place if Ibn Abbas, the prophet Muhammad’s cousin who brought Islam to Uzbekistan, and subsequently the location of many elaborate mausoleums marking the remains of the family and friends of rulers of Samarkand who wanted their loved ones placed near Ibn Abbas in death. It is the most holy site in Samarkand and its restoration was apparently somewhat controversially conducted earlier this century.
Shahi Zinda is indeed a very thin avenue which stretches up the side of a hill and is lined with blue-fronted mausoleums, creating what feels like a thin walkway with high blue-tiled walls. it is stunning in every aspect, as close inspection deconstructs these blue walls to the many small artworks that each painstakingly hand painted tile is. Each mausoleum had detailed, colorful mosaics outside and in, and the variety of interior designs leaves one guessing – there are tiled interiors, intricately painted white or blue interiors and interiors with geometric designs and shapes that test the minds perception of the room’s extents as if the architect might have been MC Escher.
It is simply a masterpiece.
This museum housing artifacts and information gathered from archeological investigations of ancient Afrosiab (Samarkands early name) is a bit off the normal tourist path, but wasn’t too far of a walk (~2km).
Afrosiab, Marakanda (as recorded by the Greeks), Samarkand – this city has been here for 2800 years, 2800 years which were divided into 11 different eras by the archaeologists. The most incredible piece in the museum was the 7th century fresco that was still quite we’ll preserved. There were also coins from 750BC to the 8th century AD and many pieces of pottery and metalwork as well.
Behind the museum is the excavation site. Unfortunately, there isn’t much discernable in the excavation area as the site has been left open to the elements for some time, giving way to erosion and then new vegetation. We may have missed a second level to the museum, which lonely plane says exists, but we’re not sure how that could have happened as a lady from the museum guided us through, pointing us from spot to spot, and we never saw a staircase. So we are not sure if the second floor is good or even exists, but we are sorry we missed it if it does.
The mosque was first built in the 8th century, but was destroyed in the 13th by Chenggis Khan. It was rebuilt in the 1800s and restored in the 1990s. Its considered one of the most beautiful mosques in Samarkand and is still in regular use. The outside was different from other buildings we saw in that it was yellow and light blue, colors that seem to be more prominent in the newer buildings here. The interior dome of the mosque was blue and white patterned and quite beautiful.
There are several people buried here in including Amir Timur, a former ruler native to the area whose rule spanned from Istanbul to Baghdad and over into India and the aforementioned Ulugbek, who was Amir Timur’s grandson. The mausoleum is contained beneath a large fluted dome of blue tiles and in all marks the remains of 9 people, almost all descendants or important teachers of Amir Timur.
The interior of the mausoleum is darker than most, with an etched dark green marble covering the lowest perhaps 2 meters of the walls, givving way to dark blue and gold tiles and painting. The flooring where the tombstones lie is an even darker green marble.
The western side of the building is unrestored, with frayed brick walls and archways giving some idea of the original complexity of this structure. The original brickwork in the huge arched room open to the west is particularly interesting, as the bricks are stacked in varying directions to achieve the arch.
The small mausoleum is located behind the large Gur-e-Amir mausoleum. It is wholly unimpressive from the outside a wholly impressive insde – with very old frescas and gold covered ceilings. We were able to climb down through a dark staired passage to the lower level where 2 burial markers lie.
This mausoleum located out in front of Gur-e-Amir mausoleum was a pleasant surprise. We had read that this mausoleum was now just souvenir shops, but we were quite happy to instead be provided an explanation (in English) about those buried in the space. Immediately following this discussion, there was a solemn, beautiful prayer sung by the man overseeing the mausoleum. His voice echoed beautifully within the mausoleum, the microtonal Islamic prayer was very moving.
Other Mosques and Mausoleums
We located the Imom Mosque, Hoja-Nisbatdor Mosque, Makhdumi Khorezm Mosque and Koroboy Oksokol Mosque. We tried to locate, but were unsuccessful in finding Ishratkhana Mausoleum, Hodja Abdi Darun Mausoleum, and the synagogue in the Jewish Quarter.
We were thoroughly pleased with Antica. The family staff was very kind and welcoming. There were several family members that spoke English well. We paid $40 per night and were provided with an amazing breakfast each morning as a part of the price. They had various services to offer. We took them up on buying train tickets for us after our ordeal at Tashkent.
One nice touch is that they noticed while registering our passports that it was Angie’s birthday. They returned with a good portion of their family and sung happy birthday, and even presented Angie with a small embroidered bag as a gift. A truly nice touch from some very good people.
The train station was easy to navigate and the staff/security were friendly and helpful. Since Antica had purchased our tickets for us, we didn’t have to worry about that aspect. The train ride from Samarkand to Bukhara was 21000 som and an easy 3 hour ride.
We didn’t have as much authentic Uzbek food in Samarkand for a number of reasons, partially due to rainy weather combined with distance from our hotel and the main attractions to the Russian side of town where most of the eateries and partly due to trying to save some money.
We arrives on Angie’s birthday and intended to walk over to a nice restaurant on the Russian side of town, but a downpour broke out. We ran to a nearby eatery, the only one we’d seen, and ordered a salami pizza. The dough was great – Uzbeks know their bread – but the salami was summer sausage and sliced Oscar Meyer hotdogs. It was OK.
We did try shashlyk, which we greatly enjoyed. Shashlyk is meats and sometimes vegetables on a long flat shish grilled over hot coals. We had a ground mutton shish, one with chicken and tomatoes, and one with prices of mutton and onions with bread, yoghurt and salad. Very yummy.