Day 23. Monday, August 21. Rest day – Samarkand
With four of the Silk Roads passing through it, Samarkand epitomises the power, wealth and prestige gained over centuries from trading across the vast expanse of Asia from China to Istanbul.
That, though, begs the question of which came first: the roads or the town’s culture of openness to other civilisations, ideas and people. Very clearly the latter, I concluded today as I began to learn of the city’s people and history. The world came to them because of all they offered.
To the winner goes the spoils and the historic record. Thus much of what I learnt today revolved around one local man, Timur, the 14th century conqueror of lands and receiver of tribute wealth from others stretching from China and India to Istanbul and from Moscow to Egypt. His sphere of influence was twice that of Alexander the Great.
For all his prodigious fighting skills and empire building, he was also lame of right hand and foot from battlefield injuries, hence Tamerlame, his name in English. He was truly a man of many passions and skills running from warfare and diplomacy to science and the arts.
While strategically-placed Samarkand has its origins as far back as the 6th century BC, it was Tamerlane’s era that made it one of the great cities of the ancient world. Like all great mercantile cities down through history and in our own era, Samarkand thrived on the creativity, ingenuity, ambition, curiosity – not to mention generations of power and wealth – of its people.
Its mathematicians invented algebra and the number zero; its astronomers charted the heavens and made some astoundingly accurate measurements about them and the Earth; its architects, poets and artists created astonishingly beautiful places and works of art.
Yet by the early 20th century many of those great buildings were desperately derelict, with hovels of the masses crowding in on their crumbing walls, as I saw in a photo today from the mid-1930s.
I don’t know when and who brought those imposing 14th, 15th and 16th century buildings back to life in the near-century since. But they have done so authentically rather than creating 20th century evocations.
Fazli, our local guide through Uzbekistan, took us on a tour of five of the main ones today:
– The Gur-Emir Mausoleum, where Tamerlane and relatives are buried. His tomb is the slender very dark green marble one in the centre of the second photo below.
– Bibi-Khanym Mosque, the grand project of Bibi-Khanym, reputedly Tamerlane’s favourite among his 43 wives and concubines.
– Registan Square, home to the 14th century and 16th century madrasas, which were great centres of science and study, and a spectacular mosque.
– Shakhi-Zinda (The Living King) a necropolis of some 20 tombs of royal and religious leaders from the 11th-15th centuries.
– The museum and partial recreation of the observatory of Ulugbek, a grandson of Tamerlane, who was one of the ancient world’s great astronomers. Part of it is the original quadrant on which he painstakingly plotted the day-by-day movement of the sun.
Then for dinner, nine of us riders went to the roof top terrace of a hotel overlooking Registan Square just as the sun was setting. The food was as spectacular as the setting. So was the bill – 2.19 million som for the nine of us. Rest assured, though, the exchange rate was just as arresting. That turned out to be just US20 each. Down through the ages Samarkand has always known how to prosper from its hospitality.
And after dinner we went into the square to watch the son et lumiere…its Hollywood aesthetic, tho, must set Ulugbek and his scientific and artistic mates twirling in their tombs.