The north-east suburbs break against a grassy plateau which -undulates for miles. Colonies of ground squirrels stand sentinel at their burrows, and a shepherd drives his black flock over the cemetery-like ground with sharp cries. Its abrupt banks and mounds betray an earlier Samarkand decaying into the grassland. The earth seems to writhe underfoot. Sometimes it splits open on abandoned excavations. The glittering mountains stare in. Wherever the bricks rise exposed, their tamped clay has reverted to earth. The walls have become natural cliffs whose fissures had once been gates, and the ground is ripped by gullies where streets had gone, or tossed into shapeless citadels.
From the sixth century ВС this ancient Samarkand, named Maracanda, was the capital of a refined Iranian people, the Sogdians, who traded along the Zerafshan valley and beyond. Alexander took the city in 329 ВС, and here, in a fit of drunken hubris, transfixed his favourite general 'Black' Cleitus with a spear. But the Sogdians outlasted the fragile dynasty of Alexander's followers. Famous for their literacy and commercial cunning, it was they, perhaps, who taught the Chinese the art of glassmaking. The Romans reported that their city walls ran seven miles in circuit, and they endured here until the Arabs conquered them in 712. Then, little by little, they dwindled away, until Genghiz Khan wrecked Maracanda in 1220, and put the past to sleep under the loam-filled earth. Later peoples named the site from the Giant Afrasiab, a mythic king of Turan: after failing to take Maracanda by assault, they said, he had buried it in the sand.
The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron
At a 2.2-sq-km site called Afrosiab, northeast of Siob Bazaar, are excavations of Marakanda (early Samarkand) more or less abandoned to the elements. Samarkand's earliest history is tied up with the rise and decline of the Afrosiab Fort. The ruins cover a vast site of 120ha and include a citadel with foundations two storeys deep.
From the sixth century ВС to 1220 AD, Samarkand weathered the pattern of invasion and renewal from the hill-fort Afrosiab in the northeast of the modern city. The most popular derivation of the name is from a legendary king of Turan, portrayed as treacherous yet brave and wise in Firdausi's Persian epic Shah Nama. Behind defensive ramparts with corridors and arrow slits, built of unbaked brick, waterproof reeds and anti-seismic juniper, lived the Sogdians, famed go-betweens of East-West commercial and cultural relations. They were lost to history until Russian archaeologists began probing the ruins in the 1880s. Their finds and those of later Soviet experts are gathered in this marble museum on Afrosiab's southeastern slopes.
Unlike Samarkand's other sites, the fort has been excavated but not restored, so unless you already have an in-depth historical knowledge and a very active imagination, you should first go inside the informative Afrosiab Museum. The Afrosiab Museum (working hours 8.30am-6pm Apr-Oct, 9am-5pm Nov-Mar; foreigners US$2) was built around one of Samarkand’s more important archaeological finds, a chipped 7th-century fresco of the Sogdian King Varkhouman receiving ranks of foreign dignitaries astride ranks of elephants, camels and horses. You’ll see reproductions of this iconic fresco throughout the country. It was only discovered in 1965 during the construction of Tashkent kochasi.
The museum leads the visitor on a chronological tour of the 11 layers of civilisation that is Afrosiab. The first hall contains excavation photos and relief maps showing the city's expansion south of the ruler's citadel. The exhibits and reconstructions of the following halls enable the visitor to see Afrosiab's evolution through the centuries. Early ceramics and architecture received an aesthetic boost from the Graeco-Bactrian period; other souvenirs of Alexander's visit include silver coins, swords and knives. Zoroastrianism in the Kushan period is evident from altars for fire offerings, bricks with solar symbols and ornamental ossuaries for the bones of the dead, once picked clean of flesh by birds and beasts of prey. Local cults also prospered-find terracotta statuettes of Anahita, goddess of the waters (divinity of the Amu Darya) and of fertility (she holds a seed-packed pomegranate).
Along with well laid out excavation plans, photos and, of course, the archaeological finds themselves (which include pre-Islamic ritual goods, ceramics, weapons and coins) are a remarkable set of murals found in 1965. Dating from the 7th century ad, each panel is more than 2m high and shows scenes of the Sogdian elite at play: there are hunting scenes, a Chinese princess in a boat, and men on horseback and camel. The figures' physical appearance and dress show the cosmopolitanism of Samarkand in this period: all the known world is shown coming to trade and play.
Silk Road profits from the fifth century onwards are reflected in jewellery, cosmetics, coins and bone-carved chessmen, but chiefly in wall paintings on public buildings and gentry dwellings. In 1965 the royal palace yielded the museum's highlight, a series of seventh century murals over two metres high, displayed in their original layout like an epic narration of courtly splendour. Even with the decay of time and Arab mutilation - the Prophet's prohibition on idols led the Arabs to scratch out the eyes-the paintings survive in colourful testimony to the skilled artists at the peak of Sogdian cultural activity. I eading a bridal procession from Surkhandarya to the ruler of Samarkand is a princess atop a white elephant belore an entourage of maids on horseback, bearded camel-riders holding llic rods of ambassadorship, a cavalcade of horsemen and a file of sacred swans. The cciural mural depicts the ruler himsell, magnificently clad in robes andjewellery, receiving the gilts of foreign envoys: silk-bearing Chinese, long-haired Turks, Pamiri nomads and pigtailed Koreans. The last scene suggests a Chinese princess in a boat, perhaps being rowed lo the royal harem, while on the shore horsemen chase a leaping leopard. The museum is open daily from 9am to 5pm, on Tashkent St, 10-15 minutes' walk north from the bazaar, or take marshrutka taxis 17 or 45 from the Hotel Samarkand or the bazaar, slopping just past the Ulug Beg Observatory.
The actual ruins sprawl over 300 acres of dry loess cut by ravines and excavations. Most impressive are the remains of the ruler's citadel to the northeast, overlooking the River Siab, a tributary of the Zerafshan. Thick walls extend two storeys deep into the earth, dividing the palace complex of halls, rooms and corridors.
Fifteen minutes' walk from the museum, hugging the southern bank of the Siab and the northern wall of Afrosiab is the legendary Doniyor (Tomb of Daniel) (working hours 9am-8.30pm Apr-Oct, to 5pm Nov-Mar) of the lion's den, the Hebrew saint allegedly brought back from Persia by Tamerlane. Beneath five domes is a giant sarcophagus, 18 metres long, for mullahs believed that even in death Daniel grew half an inch every year and thus his grave was enlarged annually. His remains, which date to at least the 5th century BC, were brought here for good luck by Timur from Susa, Iran (suspiciously, an alleged tomb of Daniel can also be found in Susa). The flow of Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox pilgrims has translated into a new road connecting Daniel to Tashkent Kuchasi.
Continuing north you’ll encounter the remains of Ulugbek’s Observatory (working hours 8am-7pm Apr-Oct, 9am-5pm Nov-Mar), one of the great archaeological finds of the 20th century.
Ulugbek was probably more famous as an astronomer than as a ruler. His 30m astrolab, designed to observe star positions, was part of a three-storey observatory he built in the 1420s. All that remains now is the instrument’s curved track, unearthed in 1908. The small on-site museum has some miniatures depicting Ulugbek and a few old ceramics and other artefacts unearthed in Afrosiab.
The best way to reach Afrosiab is on foot. Cross the intersection north of Bibi-Khanym and follow pedestrian Tashkent kochasi for about 1km to the Afrosiab Museum.