The last lines of a famous poem by James Elroy Flecker go as follows:
We travel not for trafficking alone,
by hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.
For lust of knowing what not should be known,
we take the golden road to Samarkand.
Or as we would say: this is what happens when a guy with an ego as big as the Tian Shan mountains builds his very private medieval Disneyland.
I’ll explain myself: Samarkand was founded already somewhere around the 5th century BC, but it was in 1370 when Amur Timur made it capital of his empire and therefore started a real construction boom and I can guarantee you that even today those buildings make you freeze in awe for their size, incredible craftsmenship and sheer beauty. Legend has it that the architect of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque (one of the biggest in the world at that time – of course!) fell in love with Timur’s wife upon which the emperor had him executed (given the times, fair decision). If that would not have been enough, furthermore he passed a law which made it obligatory for women to wear veils in order not to attract other men. If that’s not true, it’s at least a good story.
Find the Fritzi – the mosque is huuuuge
The major sight, the Registan, is easily one of the most impressive architectural gems I have ever visited (together with the Maya temples of Tikal or Sant Peter’s in Rome). One room is tiled with 1.000 kg of gold, but still does not look pretentious, only gorgeous.
What we liked even better amongst Samarkand’s uncountable treasures is the avenue of mausoleums of Shah-i-Zinda. The most spectacular mosaics in shades of blue and green decorate the graves of Timur’s family and relatives. The tilework there is said to be one of the most sophisticated in the Muslim world and some of it is of such quality that it didn’t have to be restored in 700 years. It left us speechless.
Tilework Shah-i-Zinda Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Avenue of mausoleums, Shah-i-Zinda, Samarkand
A good thing is that even in Samarkand, although there are tourist groups around, it is not crowded. However, you must be on your toes – come and visit soon if you want to avoid the hordes, because Samarkand is preparing itself for serious tourism. Restauration of the old medieval buildings has been done or is under way at the moment. Apart from that a lot of old buildings are torn down, parks and pedestrian areas are built and I fear that in the future they could be packed with souvenir stands. One sad fact apart: the government tries to keep tourists from the less “fancy” parts of Samarkand by closing streets and building up walls around the old parts of town in order to prevent tourists from entering. Frankly, that’s just pathetic considering the charm of the old town and the ridiculous fact that locals have to access their neighbourhoods through gates in the walls.
For the moment perceived political instability, complicated visa procedures, a lack of knowledge about the region and insufficient air travel infrastructure still seem to keep away the masses. Nevertheless, Uzbeks are eager to open up and bring in more tourists, but talking to people they have little faith that the political leadership will perform major changes in the near future.
Having now seen the two of them it’s tempting to make comparisons between Samarkand and Bukhara. Bukhara, where time seems to have frozen over the last couple of 100 years, appeared to us more charming, like a tale out of One Thousend and One Nights. The fact that the old part of the city surrounds all major sites make their appearance somehow more “authentic”. Samarkand, on the other hand, comes round more imperial. The sights are more impressive, but spread all over town and due to finished restaurations you sometimes even get the feeling that all these technicolour mosaics are almost too beautiful to be real. Having said that, we really enjoyed both of them and can only recommend to come and see for yourself.