Samarkand is the second largest city (pop. 510,000) of Uzbekistan and its political center: the local clan has been holding the top authority in the country for half a century. And in the past ... Samarkand was the oldest "living" city of the Soviet Union, and if in terms of the age it was rivaled by, for example Kerch, then by the contribution to world history Samarkand and Bukhara are inferior only to young upstarts in Moscow and St. Petersburg. If Bukhara can be called the Athens of the East, then the epithet for Samarkand was invented long ago - Rome of the East. Bukhara has always been a city of money, Samarkand - a city of blood; the heroes of Bukhara are merchants and saints, the heroes of Samarkand are kings and insurgents with Tamerlane at the top. Their rivalry lasted a long time, and if Bukhara's path is a gently sloping parabola, the historical path of Samarkand is a sinusoid with steep zigzags. However, in modern times, they relate somewhat differently: Samarkand is not only Rome, but Babylon, where Tajiks and Uzbeks, Persians and Arabs, Russians and Poles, Armenians and Koreans, Bukharan and Ashkenazi Jews, Crimean and Volga Tatars, Lyuli and Roma gypsies, who got there at different times and for different reasons and all this welter somehow interacts and prospers. But the historical essence is still true: Bukhara can be characterized as the city of thought, whilst Samarkand is the city of business. And unlike the simple but very beautiful Khiva, Samarkand is multi-layered and multifaceted: perfunctory tourists consider it a good rule to say that Samarkand disappointed them, but it is only because Samarkand requires a deep and unhurried dive.
We will post a series of articles about Samarkand, to give you an opportunity to see it from the other side, a non-traditional view from the other perspective to allow you to understand how the city lives, what makes it great for visit, what and why you should not miss while you are there and much more information that you unlikely find in glossy guidebooks.
In the first part we’ll cover history, crafts, traditions (including cockfights) and people.
Let’s admire Samarkand from the height of the minaret of Ulugbek Madrasah in Registan. Yes, you can actually climb one of the minarets, though it is kind of semi-legal, but if you ask your guide he for sure will be able to arrange that for you for a very small fee. If in the 19th century Samarkand was a city of shacks around the ruins of grandiose ancient buildings, now it is a city of mahallas (neighborhoods) made of modern materials with toxic color roofs around architectural masterpieces of antiquity that have undergone a vast restoration under the Soviets. Here is a view to the north (pictures are posted clockwise, that is, every next picture is to the right of the previous one), to Bibi Khanum mosque (1399-1406) - the largest mosque in Central Asia of the times of Tamerlane.
There are several versions about the origin of such a resounding name as Samarkand (or Marakanda) related to all local languages: Sogdian Asmarakand ("Stone City", like Tashkent), Turkic Samuskent ("Rich City"), and even completely reinterpreted into other languages "Sogdian ". Contrary to popular belief it was never called Afrosiab, it is the name of the legendary king, the ruler of Turan, the dark nomadic side of the world opposed to the "light" agricultural Iran, that is, Persians assigned to Samarkand the role of Turan’s capital. Its history is known from the 8th to 6th centuries BC, and the first who conquered it was the Persian "king of kings" Cyrus the Great. More famous is the capture of Marakanda by Alexander the Great in 329 BC, after which Sogdiana was beset by a powerful uprising: its inhabitants met Iskander as a liberator from the Achaemenids, but after realizing that he was just another invader, they supported the Achaemenid descendant of Spitamen who managed to inflict a defeat to Alexander on the approaches to Samarkand, his only defeat in entire eastern campaign. After several years the uprising was exhausted, Spitamen was killed by a traitor, and the Greeks of Seleucid began to reign over Iran, the founder of the dynasty married the daughter of Spitamen Alama. Samarkand was left in the periphery, Bukhara in those centuries had not yet risen from the shadow of neighboring Paikend... From the city of those times is left Afrosiab ancient settlement, that you can notice on the photo above (behind the mosque), and on the photo below (cemetery behind the mausoleum of Bibi-Khanum):
The next sharp turn in history was brought in the early 8th century by Kuteiba ibn Muslim - the commander of the Arab Caliphate, who invaded from the south into this land that the Arabs called Maveranahr. If Bukhara obeyed him peacefully in 709, exchanging the old faith for power in its own rich oasis, then Samarkand in 712 was destroyed and devastated by a brutal assault. For the next 200 years the "Samarkand" era of Central Asia was for the first time changed by era of "Bukhara", and such situation when Bukhara agreed whilst Samarkand heroically fell will be repeated here more than once. However, the main centre in this region was Merv in present-day Turkmenia, where in 775 Muqanna began to preach a strange doctrine at the intersection of Manichaeism, Islamic Sufism and the belief in the transmigration of souls, according to which the god himself was incarnated in the prophets, and the last prophet was he, Muqanna, wearing a mask, so as not to blind people with his beauty (in reality, they say, on the contrary - he was bald and cross-eyed). The uprising of the "people in white robes" quickly spread to Maveranahr, raged there for 10 years, until "the last prophet" died in 785 near Samarkand, in the besieged fortress after self-immolation.
And although Islam has become established here over a hundred years, attempts to overthrow the Caliphate continued, and in 806 in Samarkand Rafi ibn al-Layth started a new uprising that quickly spread to the Fergana Valley. This time, however, everything ended amicably, Rafi laid down his arms and received the forgiveness of the Caliph al-Mamun, but more importantly, the Arabs raised Persian Samanid family for their support in suppressing the uprising, who in 819 became governors of Samarkand, and in 875 of the whole of Maveranahr, having become a de facto independent dynasty from Baghdad. They moved the capital to Bukhara, and the era of the Samanids, who were replaced in 999 by the Karakhanid Turks who came from the east (with the collapse of their empire in 1040, Samarkand became the capital of its western part) is when occurred the Asian Renaissance, the cultural heyday of Greater Iran. In the vicinity of Samarkand in 858 was born Rudaki - the founder of Persian poetry, and in 1064-68 years here lived, studied and taught in madrassas the most famous oriental poet in the West, Omar Khayyam. However, it was still the ‘epoch of Bukhara’, and the list of her famed personalities of those centuries is much larger.
In the photo is a portal of the 15th century Ishrathan mausoleum destroyed by the earthquake and the Abdi-Darun necropolis minaret. And the ice peaks of the Zerafshan range, not very high (about 2500 m) by the average Central Asian standards, can barely be seen from the city:
In 1212, power over Samarqand changed again - the Karakhanids were pressed by Khorezmshahs (and Khorezm is a separate story), but only a few years separated Central Asia, by that time it was more Turkic than Persian, from the greatest disaster in the local history - the invasion of Genghis Khan. The Stunner of the Universe did not get on with Khorezm, where the Shah was preparing a campaign to Baghdad and hardly perceived the Mongols seriously, until the Mongols erased Central Asia into fine gray dust just over a couple of years, and only Bukhara by some miracle could escape total devastation from all the cities of Central Asia. Samarkand could not come to an agreement with an invader, and therefore was lying ruined for decades, and was reborn a few kilometers from its old ruins, so impregnated with blood that even grass did not grow there. But the holy place is never empty: in 1266 to rebuilt Samarkand was moved the capital of Chagatai ulus, the whole of Central Asia from Afghanistan to Altai, which Genghis Khan gave to his middle and beloved son in 1224. Soon, having separated into a separate state, the ulus lasted another century and a half, but in 1347 it disintegrated in half - to the western Mavveranahr and eastern Mogulistan.
The latter was stronger, and a new war for Central Asia started between Mogul Khan Togluk-Timur and Emir Hussein, that somehow brought a new hero to the world scene - Timur from the Barlas tribe. Nothing is known about his youth and his early journey to the top of the power, in the first mentions in 1361 he is the ruler and the legate of Togluk-Timur in his hometown of Kesh (now Shakhrisabz), but soon after the intrigues he was forced to flee behind Amudarya, to the Turkmen sands, where he met Hussein. As in some fairy tale two exile emirs led a life of robbery in the steppes for several years, enjoyed victories and suffered defeats, were taken prisoners and were on the verge of being sold into slavery, and in one of the fights Timur lost two fingers and got a leg wound, and for the rest of his life he remained lame, for which he was nicknamed Timur-e-Liang, that is, Lame Timur or Iron Lame.
In the photo - Gur-Emir, the mausoleum of Tamerlane:
Finally, in 1363 the emirs settled firmly in Afghanistan, in the Balkh region, and as Hannibal through the Alps, they descended to Maveranahr through the Pamirs and demoralized the detachments of local Uzbeks with the illusion of a huge army (for example, making thousands of fires in the mountains or equipping each horse with a bunch of brushwood that raised dust) in the battle near Stone Bridge defeated the Mughal prince Ilyas-Khoja. At the same time died Togluk-Timur, and Hussein with Tamerlane again seized Samarkand in 1364-65. However, Ilyas Khoja returned, this time as a full-fledged Khan, and the epic Battle in the Dirt took place in the muddy Syr Darya river - in the midst of the battle started heavy rain that saved Timur and Hussein from total defeat - they retreated, opening the moguls a way to Samarkand.
In the photo are summer and winter mosque of Rukhabad (1880s)
And who knows how the story would evolve unless a new actor entered the stage – around that time Samarkand was in the hands of Sarbadars - the "Persian communists" of the 14th century, who with considerable cruelty (they say that Tamerlane took from them the idea of building the towers from the skulls) were overthrowing monarchs and building a just society, where everyone was equal and everyone had the right to hold any office. In Khorasan in 1335-89 there was a full-fledged state of the Sarbadars, and in 1365 a local cell led by a student Mavlan-zade, a foreman of cotton crackers Abu Bakr Kelevi and archer Khurdak of Bukhara, organized a revolution in Samarkand. And if "Samarkand commune" met the mogul unanimously with hostility and managed to repulse his assault, Timur and Hussein had many supporters in the city and having managed to organize a counter-revolution, they took the throne. But the problem was how to share the authority between them, and within a few years the brothers in arms became enemies. In 1370, after a brief war, Hussein fled to Balkh, where he was overtaken and captured. Timur promised not to execute his comrade-in-arms, and he kept his word - he just did not stop one of the soldiers from committing blood feud against Hussein.
All three famous conquerors - Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane (in chronological order), left their trace in Samarkand, but there were many such cities, and only here one of them was his own. But the first twenty years, Tamerlane was conquering the near oecumene - Mogulistan, Iran, Khorezm and the Golden Horde, where he was opposed by Tokhtamysh. Iron Lame enthusiastically fought on several fronts, reaching the Irtysh and the Volga, and worst of all it happened to Iran: they say that firstly Tamerlane tried to build a tower not from severed heads, but from living bodies fastened with a cement, but there was so much "material" that it was just unrealistic. However, whether it is truth or insinuations from the defeated side is hard to find out, but the history teaches not to believe to slanders.
In the photo the mausoleum of Rukhabad (1380) near Gur-Emir.
After strengthening the core of his empire, Tamerlane engaged in the conquest of the world in the 1390s, and strangely enough, Russia became the main beneficiary (despite the devastation of Ryazan and Yelets): in the Five Years Campaign (1392-95) Timur broke the backbone of the Golden Horde, and in Seven-year campaign (1399-1404) crushed the Osmans near Ankara and reached the Mediterranean Sea than postponed the death of Byzantium, and for these half a century Moscow had grown strong enough to accept the status of the Third Rome, the capital of the Orthodox world, which determined the history of the country up to the twentieth century. Between these two campaigns, Tamerlane managed to accidentally conquer India, and in 1406 he set off to China, but near Otrar fell from his horse and died.
And although Tamerlane invited to Samarkand the best architects and artisans of the world, patronized scientists and poets, yet like Genghis Khan, he remained in history as the Genius of Destruction, a "world hooligan" who fought because he liked to fight. "The whole sublunary world is too small for two kings" - the most famous phrase of Lame Timur.
In the photo is a wasteland at the foot of the present khokimiyat (local authority office), in place of the Blue Palace (Kok-Saray) in the Tamerlane citadel:
The minaret from the photo above belongs to the Madrassah of Ulugbek. Tamerlane was only an emir, since only the blood of Genghis Khan gave the right to the Khan's title, but the Timurids became Family line N2 after the Genghisides. Timur's descendants inherited an empire of 4.6 million square kilometers with tens of millions of inhabitants: present Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, significant parts of Pakistan and Iraq, South Kazakhstan and the eastern third of Turkey. But all these empires of the great conquerors collapsed quickly and without a trace, and the Timurid Turan is far from being the worst example: there were still at least two outstanding khans - the scientist Ulugbek and Babur from Andijan - the last Central Asian Timurid, who after a long war with Uzbek Mahmud Sheibani fled to India in 1501, where the Timurids were reborn as the Great Moguls, who held the throne until the invasion of the English. We can also recall Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, the Spanish ambassador at the court of Tamerlane, who left a vivid description of those days Samarkand when Spaniards and Portuguese only started to explore the World Ocean. The Timurid Empire was the last heyday of Central Asia, this era left its brightest architectural monuments, after which with the loss of transit routes began an inexorable decline.
Ascending the throne in 1533 Ubaidullah of Shaybanids moved to Bukhara, and Samarkand was never again the capital, although the Bukhara khans continued to be crowned here. Nevertheless, Samarkand emptied, became poorer and weaker, by the middle of the 18th century it was almost depopulated, and again began to revive only in the 19th century, when trade caravans reached Russia. And then Russia itself came here, and mastering Samarkand also had a symbolic meaning as power over one of the centers of the ancient world. In 1868, Konstantin Kaufman defeated the Bukhara army on the very hill of Chupan-ata, having lost only 40 men, and Samarkand citizens also refused to let the Emir people into the city. Then there was an uprising, the attack of the rebel Shahrisabz army, and eventually the defeat of Bukhara. Samarkand, Kattakurgan, Urgut and Penjikent were put in 1867 in direct subordination of Russia as Zerafshan district, in 1887 it became Samarkand province of 4 counties with centers in Samarkand, Kattakurgan, Jizzakh and Khujand. By the beginning of the twentieth century Samarkand almost equaled Bukhara: there were 55,000 inhabitants, including 10,000 Slavs. In 1888 a railway came here (on the photo below at top left corner the tower of the railway station), and in 1925-30 Samarkand was the first center of the Uzbek SSR, and strangely, as it did not become the capital of Tajikistan – it is only 10 kilometers to the border from here and the Persian-Tajik was and remains the language of Samarkand from time immemorial.
And although Samarkand is not a capital for five hundred years old now, it has a special role in Uzbekistan. In fact, Uzbekistan is ruled by the so called Samarkand clan that gave the country Sharof Rashidov, the "father" of the Uzbek SSR of the 1960s-70s, and the unchanged president of independent Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, and current president Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Like any "capital of the ruling clan, Samarkand is distinguished by glossiness: it is very well-maintained, by the standards of Central Asia it is really rich, the central streets are built in a single and quite pleasant style with the mixture of functionalism and local residential architecture. It is a home to a population of around 800,000 and might seem a bit tougher compared with other cities in Uzbekistan, or maybe it's just its terrible history makes itself felt.
The industry is developing here, the post-Soviet Samarkand became one of the three centers of the automobile industry in Uzbekistan, unlike Andizhan and Khorezm, it produces buses and trucks - on the older Turkish SamAZ (1996) Ford and Isuzu, on the newer German factory(2009) - "MAN" and "Landrover". Samarkand bus on the streets of his native city:
But what is really interesting is that neither in Karimov’s Samarkand nor in Rashidov’s Jizzakh one can see any huge residential complexes or Soviet microdistricts (as in Navoi), or giant plants, or skyscrapers ... on the contrary, mahallas in both cities are somehow extremely boundless and alive. It seems that the clans protected their native cities from Sovietization and globalization, just as the Baltic countries resisted the construction of new factories. While losing to Bukhara and Khiva in architectural integrity the mahallas of Samarkand are the best in Uzbekistan that preserved that unique "life in the mahallas" atmosphere.
Samarkand is striking with the number of people you encounter on its streets, beginning with Uzbeks and Tajiks that are somewhere equally divided, and secondly Tajiks here are genuine Tajiks, unlike in Bukhara, where the community of the city is put higher than the community of the ethnos.
And here are the Persians from the Panjob area that claim that they have been living here since time immemorial. They don’t look like Persians from Bukhara, probably a bit arrogant, but it is felt that this is an ancient noble people.
Lyuli. Samarkand, like the Soroca of Moldova, is the capital of the Gypsies, only there are Eastern European and Russian gypsies, and here - the Central Asian ones. According to the local legend, these are descendants of Indian slaves brought by Tamerlane. There are also "European" gypsies who came in Soviet times.
Armenians who travelled to the Timurids as traders and masons, and now more often come across as café and food kiosks owners:
The Crimean Tatars, who were deported here in Soviet times and did not return to the Crimea. The Volga Tatars, who traveled here mainly as merchants with Russians, also often come across in Samarkand. The Koreans came here as deportees, the Poles - as exiles and soldiers of the tsarist army. And, of course, the Russians themselves, whom in the city around 10-15% of the population now, they live mainly in several compact areas - this is the phenomenon of Samarkand, the Russian mahallas. At the same time, the so called Russian Samarkand is another area west of the center and the most well-preserved city ensemble of Russian Turkestan:
but for now let's talk about their heritage - architecture and crafts. In the end, it is in Samarkand where the brightest monuments of all Central Asia, and maybe the whole of Greater Iran, like the great Registan:
The brightest in the ordinary sense of the word: the masters of medieval Turkestan knew the secret of "eternal" tiles. Their composition is disclosed in 97%, but the secret remained in the remaining 3%, so in a few decades the faded "scales" will show where the ancient tiles are, and where the Soviet restoration. Here these original tiles in the museum, still looking as new, might remember Tamerlane's cold-fiery gaze or Ulugbek's wise sight:
In comparison with Khiva and Bukhara, there are much fewer madrassas, much more mosques, and there are no palaces at all in Samarkand. The local architecture has many features: on the previous photos, high minarets are clearly visible in the corners of buildings, and mostly without viewing platforms - apparently, the muezzin just popped out of the hatch in the ceiling. But this was built only under the Timurids, in the 16th and 17th centuries Samarkand did not differ too much in its architecture from Bukhara, and the unique local style was formed here in the 19th century, finally taking shape under Russia. The secondary mosques of those times with square aivan on columns without carving, looking at the street like a screen, and a short, sometimes slightly higher than a human, a separate minaret of strictly cylindrical shape with a dome at the top and sometimes also brick ornaments, like on buildings of pre-Mongolian Central Asia. For example, the most typical mahalla mosque in Samarkand, which you can only imagine, lurk behind the Siab bazaar:
There are also larger Friday mosques - spacious courtyards with single-storeyed buildings on each side, inside which there is a garden, the same low minaret, sometimes a hauz (pool) or even a couple of them and in the middle a mosque with large aivans from all sides - such as the Khoja-Ziemurod mosque not far away from the center:
All tourist hop has the tiles on offer. "Samarkand pattern", dancing multi-layered ornament, unlike the dense and almost monochrome ornaments of Khiva - perhaps the main symbol of local crafts:
Samarkand in general is almost the oldest center of pottery in Central Asia, but here there were three different schools, separated from each other by centuries. "Afrosiab ceramics" with something in an antique, well-adjusted, very naive, unclear ornamentation of warm colors, with a sound ringing like crystal, now mostly found in museums:
In the early twentieth century master Umar Djurakulov revived the art of this ceramics by ancient finds. Here are the samples from the "Samarkand Craftsmen's Center":
There are also numerous statuettes of wonderful animals there originated from the Zoroastrian Afrosiab:
And people as well. It is a popular souvenir of Uzbekistan, but in Samarkand they are especially alive:
"Timurid pottery" with cold blue and white ornaments is probably created by the masters of the conquered Khorezm – its samples in the museum on the photo below. A plate from the 2nd photo above is either an example of "Samarkand ceramics", formed under Russia, or (which is more characteristic for Uzbekistan) a mass production from the Fergana Valley.
In the museum the examples of bone carving from Afrosiab:
There was also a tradition of woodcarving. As specialists say "it was distinguished by its subtle character, a peculiar combination of geometric, floral and plant motifs and unusual technique":
Only here you will find carved wooden plates - however, they are not really practical, only to hang on the wall:
There are much less carved doors here than in Khiva or Bukhara, and they are mostly not in houses, but in mosques and mausoleums. But sometimes they are very beautiful - this is, for example, the door of the Khazret-Khizr mosque:
No less popular than woodcarving here is the ornamental painting:
They also mastered the art of deeper processing of wood - Samarkand paper. It is believed that after the great battle of Talas, the Arabs took with them many captive Chinese, among whom were those who knew the secret of making paper from a silk tree. They settled in Samarkand, making it the first center of paper production outside of China:
Handmade paper is hard, rough and dusty. The starting material is grinded to power, diluted with water and extracted with special gratings-forms. The resulting sheet dries a few more days, and then it needs to be polished for a long time – here you can check the whole process in detail, since there is a workshop on the outskirts of Samarkand, where the ancient production cycle has been completely and very qualitatively recreated. You can buy an envelope, a handbag, or just a piece of unpolished paper:
Masks and dolls from papier-mache, so unusual in the Muslim entourage:
And pseudo-tiles made of lacquered papier-mache, they are even thinner and more beautiful than ceramic ones:
Looking closer, it is clear that they are slightly different – and this is because they are handmade, each one is unique and individual:
And very unusual for Central Asia Christmas trees decorations made from the same papier-mache with inlays:
Many examples of coinage:
And, of course, carpets. There are at least two types of Samarkand carpet - one closer to Turkmen ones, but with different patterns than in Bukhara:
Another, originally of Samarkand origin, is closer to the Persian with its plant patterns. On the outskirts of Samarkand there is a silk carpet factory "Khudjum", visits there could be organized on request. This little factory shows you the making of silk from the beginning, steaming the cocoons, unravelling them, spinning them into usable threads, separating which will be used for delicate scarves, which for raw silk, and which for rugs. Very educational and interesting.
And famed Samarkand suzane that cannot be confused with anything else, you can find them here at every step. Samarkand embroidery was transformed under the influence of Islam, when the purely astral symbols - the round rosette and the guard ring around it gradually grew over with plant curls and acquired instead of cosmic a floral interpretation; closer trade relations with Russia in the late 19th century, that exported factory produced red calico and satin of bright red and yellow colors, which served as the basis for suzane, as well as aniline dyes of acid colors, especially bright pink and violet also affected the art of suzane. And about the same time, embroidery began to serve as an indicator of the owner's well-being, therefore, the patterns and embroidery itself grew more and more in size, the small details disappeared and the picture as a whole acquired such monumental significance.
On the picture below the closest is typical Samarkand suzane with its most characteristic detail - the rows of rosaces in the vegetable fringing. Further is suzane from Kashkadarya with its unique "prickles", and below on the wall is most typical of Baysun (Surkhandarya) - that is, from the mountain villages of the southernmost region of Uzbekistan:
Samarkand gold sewing. You can distinguish it from the Bukharian one at first sight: the Bukhara craftsmen embroidered the pattern completely and did not use anything but gold thread, whilst in Samarkand they embroidered only along the contours, but with inlays:
In addition to suzane and carpets, they sew everything they can – scarves, clothes, handbags, everything in the same warm color palette, and always with silk.