About Uzbekistan

Samarkand: Kuk Saray and Gur Emir
08 January 2018
Samarkand: Kuk Saray and Gur Emir

It is symbolic that the magnificent Registan shown in the previous part exists as if by itself, separated from the city by squares and gardens, while the real center of Samarkand is located in the neighborhood and is closely related with Tamerlane's name - here was his Blue Palace (Kuk-Saray), here remains the famous mausoleum of Gur-Emir with his grave.

Let's start a walk from the place we reached in the last part - see the Registan tower on the hill in the distance, and slightly below the five-story building with a red panel? For Samarkand, this place is more than a landmark: on those hills is the most of the Old City, on the hill behind is Russian Samarkand, to the left of the photo former citadel, where the city administration is now, and to the right of the photo is Gur Emir. The empty space with fountains is now called the Youth Square (Yoshlik), but before it was full of residential districts (mahallas), between which stood the ancient mausoleums. The first of them is Ruhabad ("Place of Spirits "), the oldest stone building of Samarkand and in general it seems the only building in the city left from the era between Genghis Khan and Tamerlane (according another version, it was built by Timur before the peak of his power - in 1380). Bukharneddin Sagaraji is buried here, a Muslim missionary in Beijing, who married one of the emperor's daughters and converted to Islam nomadic Uighurs and Chinese Hui, more commonly known as the Dungans. He died at the turn of 14th centuries and bequeathed to be buried in Samarkand, and his grave became the first mazar (shrine) in the city rebuilt after the Mongol invasion. The interior of Rukhabad is not very impressive and there is hardly anything interesting in there. 

Now let's go around the quarters of the former citadel behind Registan Street. The building with columns, noticeable also on the photo above, stands at its corner on the square with the proud name Marco Polo:

This is the Dagbitskaya street, named after the village 12 kilometers from the city where the Bukhara commander and governor in Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodir, the builder of Registan, is buried. The most memorable detail of Dagbitskaya is a humpbacked pedestrian bridge with a beautiful grid:

View to the Gur Emir and the blue mountains of the Zerafshan Range, on the right is Afrosiab Hotel built in Soviet times:

However, the best views from this bridge are not across but along the bridge - very near is Registan with its forest of leaning minarets. On the right is the Ulugbek madrasah (back to us) and Sherdor, on the left is Tillya-Kari, the first was built by Ulugbek, the other two madrasahs by Yalangtush in the 17th century.

And in the weeds behind the bridge you can clearly see the ruins - the foundation of the Blue Palace:

The paradox that in Bukhara, the "city of merchants and saints", the fortress was preserved, while in Samarkand, the "city of rulers and soldiers", not. Obviously, there was a fortress before, most likely it was erected on the hill opposite Registan in the 1260s by Chagatai's heirs, who moved the capital of the ulus to the rebuilt city, and it stood here up to the times of Russian conquest, razed to ground in the late 19th century. It is known that the citadel was huge, about 3 kilometers in perimeter (this is more than Ichan-Qala in Khiva), but by the time of Russian arrival is was in a pitiful state, turned into an ordinary city quarter behind a fortress wall, built-up of soldiers and their relatives’ houses, merchants' shops, mosques and even a cemetery with the mausoleum of Kutbi-Chahar-duhum. Half of the citadel wedged into the city, surrounded by its own wall and was connected with Bukhara (middle photo) and Samarkand gates, the other half was surrounded by the fields:

In the midst of all this, there was the Kok-Saray, or the Blue Palace, the official residence of Tamerlane ... but apparently, he considered Ak-Sarai in Shakhrisabz as his real home - that palace was luxurious and grandiose, but the one in Samarkand was functional and not large. In addition, more than a dozen of Tamerlane Gardens are known around Samarkand - "chorbag" country manors, Persian four-cornered parks with the right cross of irrigation ditches inside and the palace at their crossroads; most of the time they were open to commoners, the ruler sometimes occupied that or another one depending on the mood, and contemporaries considered these gardens a miracle of the world, but none of them survived. Timur took care of where to rest in peace and tranquility from military affairs, and used Blue Palace only to work. At the end of the 18th century, the palace, destroyed by wars and earthquakes, was restored as a residence of the Bukharian governor and the emir himself during his frequent visits to Samarkand. One of the governors ordered the demolition of the second floor of the Ulugbek madrasah, believing that in the event of unrest, a palace could be shot with cannons from there, and it took a lot of time for Soviet restores to recover the consequences of this barbarism. The dilapidated Kok-Sarai itself was demolished by the Russian administration in the 1880s, but its most important element survived and we will see it later next to Gur-Emir.

And the last battle of the Samarkand citadel occurred in 1868, and it was not the emir’s soldiers who were defending it from the Russians, but the Russian garrison from the insurgent city and the soldiers from Shakhrisabz. This trick was known for a long time in the East: if the enemy defeated the army on the outskirts of the city, it was allowed a free pass into the city and then couple of days later they raised the riot and slaughtered the garrison. And although more often than not, it ended with the fact that the enemy was returning and drowning the city in the blood, the Persians and Uzbeks were making such things a century after the century, and the conquest of Samarkand by Konstantin Kaufman was no exception: he defeated the Bukhara army at the Chupan-Ata heights with a 10-fold difference in losses, Samarkand opened its gates to him and let him into the citadel, and a few days after his departure they rebelled. That defense was very hot, and in addition it was immortalized by the battle-artist Vasily Vereshchagin who fought there among ordinary soldiers. Of course, if forces were equal technically, the rebels could easily wipe out the garrison, but they lagged behind for several centuries, so the Russians stood the siege. It also happened that the Bukharian emir was so frightened of the self-will and power of the Shakhrisbaz beks that he considered Kaufman a lesser evil and moved the army to Shakhrisabz, forcing them to leave to defend their own city, and soon Kaufman himself suppressed the uprising and removed the siege from the citadel. Photo of the 1870s, Russian cannons at the mausoleum of Kutbi-Chahar-dukhum in the citadel, on which one can distinguish a tiled ornament:

But what is surprising is that the continuity of this hill as a place of power was preserved even in the Soviet times, perhaps deliberately: in Soviet times and now Samarkand is some kind of semi-capital, the land of the ruling clan, to which Timur is a typical "great countryman". The Samarkand executive authorities district of several skyscrapers resembles a small downtown:

Here Samarkand’s theater of opera and ballet named after Navoi built in 1964.

Street on the other side of the former citadel. Apartment blocks higher than 3 stores are a rarity in Samarkand:

Returning to the Youth Square. Behind Ruhabad mausoleum is a mosque of the same name, and further behind are a dome and towers of Gur Emir:

The summer mosque of Ruhabad (1880-82) is much younger than the mausoleum, however, its minaret bears almost pre-Mongolian ornaments from figured bricks:

Some sources mention that Dungans built it in memory of their enlightener, but it is hard to believe – the mosque here is pretentious and spectacular, of course, but built quite in a local way, not similar to fantastic Dungan mosques in the traditions of Chinese architecture in Kazakh Jarkent and Kirghiz Karakol:

Near the mosque is a small house with a half-withered plate which says that Hodja Muin, born in 1883 in the family of a shopkeeper, lived here, he was a local enlightener, journalist and playwright who opened the first secular school for Uzbeks and Tajiks in Samarkand, in 1938 he was arrested and died in 1942 in a labor camp near Solikamsk. Therefore, now there is a museum of political repressions in his house:

Meanwhile, we are getting closer and closer to Gur-Emir, behind which is another mausoleum of Ak-Saray. "The Emir's Crypt" (as the name of the mausoleum is translated) was laid in 1403 because of the sudden death of Muhammad Sultan, the beloved grandson of Timur from his beloved son Jahangir, whose grandiose mausoleum still stands in Shakhrisabz. Both of them were the main heirs of Tamerlane, but he survived both of them. Emir Timur (he did not wear the title of khan because he was not a descendant of Genghis Khan) planned to make the mausoleum of Jahangir as the family tomb, but in 1406 he was buried here, closer to living descendants.

Originally Gur-Emir was a closed courtyard of 4 aivans from a mosque and madrasah measuring 80 to 57 meters, but only the mausoleum itself and the entrance portal survived. They charge a small fee of 12,000 sum (around $2) to enter the place...

Right outside the gate on the right is a small lapidarium. The most interesting element is Kok-Tash (Blue Stone), a huge stone slab in the foreground, that still was having blue veins a hundred years ago: it was a podium for the Tamerlane throne from the Blue Palace, and later khans and emirs who owned Samarkand were crowned here, coming even from Bukhara when the capital was moved there. And from the bowl in the background, according to legend, warriors drank pomegranate juice, strengthening their strength before the battle.

The facade of Gur-Emir. In any guidebooks it is written that it was a prototype of the famous Taj Mahal, since Shah Jahan who built it in 1632-53 was the Great Mogul – so they called Timurids in India. But similarities are not apparent, perhaps one have to be a specialist to find something common.

From behind Gur-Emir looks absolutely different

Much more interesting than the mythical connection with the Taj Mahal is the legendary story of its prototype. The thick blue ribbed dome, one of the symbols of Central Asia, is considered to be the invention of the Tamerlane era, but according to one version, Timur got this idea in one of his campaigns - the same dome towered Damascus before the eyes of his army preparing for the assault, and in the same assault and the subsequent fire that has engulfed the city it collapsed. Tamerlane took many relics and masters to decorate his capital from his campaigns to the Middle East, and could also borrow ideas. The Gur-Emir dome of 15-meters in diameter and 12.5-meters in height was neither the largest nor the first one in Samarkand, but it turned out to be the most elegant.

Details. Judging by Vereshchagin's painting, the facing of the minaret is a replica, and the dome's lining is genuine, but looking at their condition it's easy to think the other way around. The secret of the medieval tiles is still not resolved, why they do not lose their brightness and brilliance even after many centuries...

But back to the facade:

And, let's go inside:

The mausoleum itself. Its decoration is not very lush, but fantastically beautiful. Above the tombstones of the Timurids is the eternal starry night:

The tombstones themselves remind of the warships order for some reason. Tamerlane's jade gravestone is in the center, frighteningly black, and was originally part of the throne of the Chinese emperor, but somehow, perhaps even in the days of Mongolian campaigns, got to Mogulistan, from where it was taken by Timur - after all, he was originally Emir of Shahrisabz (then Kesh), rose to the power and ascended the Samarqand throne in the fight against Mogulistan. They say that the stone was originally green, but it was blackened by the anger of Lame Timur. According to another legend, in 1740 the stone  was taken to Persia by the Nadir Shah who conquered Uzbek Khanate, and made of it a step of his throne, but after that a fortune turned away from him, he started losing battle after battle, and in the end decided to return the stone to the late emir with apologies. On the way back, however, the gravestone split in half - and the crack on it is really visible:

Under the white stone in the foreground (still the photo above) lies Khan-scientist Ulugbek, who was killed in 1449 by his son's mercenaries during the Hajj; to the right of Timur under a white slab on a dark stone - the very Muhammad-Sultan (1403), to whom the mausoleum was built. Under the white stone to the left of Timur, his younger son Shakhrukh, who eventually became heir and ruled the Timurid Turan until 1447: he transferred his residence to Herat, while Ulugbek remained in Samarkand as the sultan of the Transoxiana province, actually occupying the imperial throne only for two years. The gray stone further left belongs to another son Miran-shah, governor of Khorasan, who survived his father for only a couple of years. Here are the small tombstones of the Timurids Abdurakhman and Abdullah, who died in childhood, the furthest tombstone is of Tamerlan's mentor and "spiritual father" Mir Said Baraka (also on the photo below) and the mysterious grave of the Sufi sheikh Said Umar - someone from the luminaries of local Sufism, known under the nicknames, but the exact connection has not been established. Above his grave is a high "pole of pir", familiar from the graves of Sufi saints.

But the small size of tombstones should not confuse you? These are not coffins, but gravestones, some kind of projections of the real tombs that lie underground, where leads a tiny door in the backyard of the mausoleum. This is also a "secret location", like the abandoned quarters of the Bukhara Arch or the minaret of Ulugbek madrasah – officially tourists are forbidden to be brought there (and it's no accident that there is a legend, that in the beginning of the 20th century an Englishman came here and spat on Timur's grave, but hardly escaped vengeful crowd) but some still manage to get there, and it is rather not about buying the way, but rather making a good impression on the key keeper. And also widely known the legend about the curse of Tamerlane - that if you uncover his grave, the Spirit of War will break free, and what happened when it was opened by Soviet archaeologists in 1941, on the night of June 22 ...

In fact, every honorable grave here threatens with multiple curses, although it could hardly stop cunning tomb robbers, as well as Tajik writer Sadriddin Aini, an enlightened communist who was one of the initiators of the opening of Timur’s grave and explained all this to the local aksakals. But the coincidence is really impressive. Here is a pre-revolutionary photo of the burial vault, it is unlikely that it has changed much since then, but not sure if the location of the graves coincides with the location of gravestones in the hall of the mausoleum:

Despite the distant war archaeologists regularly studied dead Timurids, and Mikhail Gerasimov reconstructed their faces by the skulls. Tamerlane, as it turned out, was red as a viking, wore a pointed beard, a mustache over his lip and Mongolian braids, and was really lame, since the knee damage is noticeable on the skeleton. But contrary to popular belief, Timur was neither crooked, nor small, having a height of 172 centimeters, was tall for those times and had a very healthy body: although he died at the age of 69, his skeleton corresponds to a person in the prime of life. Then the question arises why he died then from a fleeting illness or even a fall from a horse ... but you know, here you can recall the "Przhevalsky syndrome", who died at the beginning of the expedition from the grossest violation of TB. They say that Tamerlane, unlike Genghis Khan, was not a great strategist and did not have around him such a number of reliable and at the same time talented generals - like a former robber, kind of Conan the Barbarian, he used his charisma, courage and superhuman flair to make the right decision at the very last moment; he always was at the head of his armies, and the soldiers believed in his invincibility. And at the beginning of his main campaign to China, after which he would control the entire Great Silk Road from Beijing to Constantinople, Tamerlane died of an absurd accident that could only be because he was simply tired.

The third mausoleum of Ak-Sarai (White Palace) stands a little further, on the outskirts of Gur-Emir among the mahallas, and it is not only the most plain-looking from outside out of three, but also the most mysterious: it is not clear when or for whom it was built (although exactly known that in 15th century):

According to one of the versions Abdal Latif, cursed by all Uzbeks, son of Ulugbek, is buried here. With the death of Shahrukh he started a struggle for power with his own father (perhaps, considering him as a weak-willed bookworm who has no need to be reckoned with) and eventually sent assassins who killed Khan near Samarkand on the way to Mecca. However, only six months later, Abdal Latif himself was killed, according to one version by an avenger from Ulugbek warriors, and by the other version by an angry mob who hung him at the gate of Ulugbek's madrassa with a tablet "Parricide".

According to another version, it was a necropolis of the descendants of Abu Seid, the great-grandson of Tamerlane, who in 1451 put an end to the struggle for power with the help of nomadic Uzbeks and both Samarkand and Herat. Half a century later, nomadic Uzbeks under the leadership of Mahmud Sheibani will drive Timurid Babur from Central Asia all the way to India, where he will start the Great Moguls dynasty ...

Nondescript outside, Aksaray is stunningly beautiful inside. For some reason it somehow triggers associations with Byzantium:

As I understand it, restorers did work there, and this is rather genuine:

The approaching mahallas are separated from the Gur-Emir by a wall - so that foreign tourists did not them slums:        

Now back to the Youth Square again - on the other side is an impressive monument to the Emir Timur on the throne, and behind him the University Boulevard that is the main street of Russian Samarkand. The monument in very good - Tamerlane here looks majestic, but tired and gloomy. They say that after the death of Jahangir he never smiled until the end of his life.

Note that Muslim names begin only with Tamerlane's grandchildren, while he himself and his sons wore Turkic names. Timur was from Mongol barlas tribe, whom Genghis Khan sent to Chagatai as a personal guard, and although they already spoke Turkic in the Tamerlane period, they may have preserved the remains of the steppe faith.

And the notorious towers-of-the-skulls and other cruelty were generally common for that era, and their monstrous scale in the campaigns of Tamerlane was determined only by their grandiose scope. They say that entering the conquered cities first time Timur spared them, executing only the most recalcitrant nobility, and giving marauders from his troops to the massacre of their victims. But if the city rioted against the garrison, Tamerlane was returning and residents fate was predetermined  with something like this - "The Apotheosis of the War" by Vasily Vereshchagin.

Courtesy to varandej

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Did you know?

Uzbekistan is one of only two countries in the world to be ‘double landlocked’ (landlocked and totally surrounded by other landlocked countries). Liechtenstein is double landlocked by 2 countries whilst Uzbekistan is surrounded by 5!

Did you know that Uzbekistan lies in the very heart of Eurasia, the coordinates for Uzbekistan are 41.0000° N, 69.0000°

Uzbekistan is home to the Muruntan gold mine, one of the largest open pit gold mines in the world! The country has 4th largest reserves of gold in the world after South Africa, USA and Russia

Uzbekistan is the world capital of melons. They have in excess of 150 different varieties, which form a staple part of the local diet, served fresh in the summer and eaten dried through the winter.

It is Uzbek tradition that the most respected guest be seated farthest from the house’s entrance.

Tashkent’s metro features chandeliers, marble pillars and ceilings, granite, and engraved metal. It has been called one of the most beautiful train stations in the world.

The Uzbek master chef is able to cook in just one caldron enough plov to serve a thousand men.

When you are a host to someone, it is your duty to fill their cups with for the whole time they are with you.  What you must not do, however, is to fill their cup more than half-full.  If you do that as a mistake, say it is a mistake immediately.  Doing it means you want them to leave.  Wow!  Amazing, right?

To Uzbeks, respect means a whole lot.  For this reason they love it if, even as foreigners, you endeavour to add the respectful suffix opa after a woman's name; and aka after a man's.  Example: Linda-opa and David-aka.  You could also use hon and jon respectively.

Having been an historic crossroads for centuries as part of various ancient empires, Uzbekistan’s food is very eclectic. It has its roots in Iranian, Arab, Indian, Russian and Chinese cuisine.

Though identified with the Persia, the Zoroastrism probably originated in Bactria or Sogdiana. Many distinguished scholars share an opinion that Zoroastrianism had originated in the ancient Khorezm. Indeed, today in the world there were found 63 Zoroastrian monuments, including those in Iran, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thirty-eight of them are in Uzbekistan, whereas 17 of these monuments are located in Khorezm.

One of Islam's most sacred relics - the world's oldest Koran that was compiled in Medina by Othman, the third caliph or Muslim leader, is kept in Tashkent. It was completed in the year 651, only 19 years after Muhammad's death. 

Tashkent is the only megapolis in the world where public transport is totally comprised of Mercedes buses. And due to low urban air polution it is one of the few cities where one can still see the stars in the sky.

You would be surprised to know that modern TV was born in Tashkent. No joke! The picture of moving objects was transmitted by radio first time in the world in Tashkent on 26 of July 1928 by inventors B.P. Grabovsky and I.F. Belansky.

Uzbekistan is the only country in the world all of whose neighbours have their names ending in STAN. This is also the only country in Central Asia that borders all of the countries of this region

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Famous Islamic physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna in the Latin world) who was born near Bukhara was the one of the first people to advocate using women’s hair as suture material – about 1400 years ago.

Uzbekistan has a long and bloody history. The most notorious leader of Uzbekistan was Timur (or Tamerlane) who claimed descent from Genghis Khan. His military campaigns have been credited for wiping out some 5% of the world’s population at the time.

If you have thought that some of the Islamic architecture in Uzbekistan resembles that from Northern India, then that is because Timur’s great great great Grandson, Babur Beg, was the founder of the Moghul Empire that ruled much of India for almost four centuries! Babur’s great great Grandson was Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal.

Uzbekistan was once a rum producig country. There is still a real arboretum in Denau (city near Termez on the border with Afghanistan), grown from a selection station that studied the prospects of plant growing in the unusual for the Soviet Union subtropical climate of Surkhandarya region: only here in the whole of the USSR sugar cane was grown and even rum was produced!

Uzbekistan has been ranked one of the safest countries in the world, according to a new global poll. The annual Gallup Global Law and Order asked if people felt safe walking at night and whether they had been victims of crime. The survey placed Uzbekistan 5th out of 135 countries, while the UK was 21st and the US 35th. Top five safest countries:

  • Singapore
  • Norway
  • Iceland
  • Finland
  • Uzbekistan
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