Samarkand: Unique Heritage

No place on the long and winding Silk Road captures the imagination quite like Samarkand, the beautifully-preserved 14th century city and centre of the mighty Timurid Empire.

The dazzle of ceramic tiles lining the monuments is a sight to behold, inviting you to delve into the city’s long and turbulent history. How could Timur, an emperor renowned for his cruelty, be responsible for something as lovely as Samarkand? His conquests clearly paid off: by dragging skilled artisans from around Eurasia to his capital, he created an arresting architectural statement that has stood the test of time.

Samarkand represents the core idea of the Silk Road: a place where east met west, mingling to create something new, and heart-stoppingly beautiful.

Highlights

The Registan mosque and madrasahs, decorated with ceramic tiles and presided over by an obviously un-Islamic lion, are at the heart of Samarkand. From here, you can branch out to the enormous Bibi Khanum mosque, or instead visit the striking Gur Emir mausoleum of Timur himself.

Overlooking the city sits another monument to the dead: the Shah-i-Zinda grave complex is the most atmospheric of all the technicolor masterpieces of Uzbekistan.

Among the various other mosques of Samarkand, the observatory of Timur’s scientist grandson Ulugbeg holds a special place. Visit to catch a spark of his imagination, that would push medieval astronomy to new heights.

Keeping it in the family

Timur’s grand-son was called Babur. After being chased out of his homeland by the Uzbeks, he conquered Afghanistan and founded the Mughal dynasty. His descendants would build the Taj Mahal (based on the Gur Emir mausoleum) and rule over large swathes of the Indian subcontinent until the 19th century.

At a glance

  • Samarkand isn’t a historical relic--the modern city is home to over half a million people, mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks.

  • The city was named an UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001.

  • Shahrisabz, an hour south of Samarkand, was the birthplace of Timur. The remaining walls of his monumental White Palace flank a statue of the ruler at his proudest.

  • Paper was invented in China, but perfected in Samarkand. The bark of Samarkand’s mulberry trees proved to be the perfect raw material. Visit the Paper Museum to find out about the process and take home some Samarkand paper.

Getting there/around

Centrally located in the heart of Uzbekistan, Samarkand is easy to reach by train or private transfer. Tashkent is the nation’s airport hub. From Tashkent’s city center, Samarkand is just one and a half hour away by comfortable high-speed train.

From Samarkand, onward travel to Bukhara and Khiva by train is just as easy: it takes two hours by fast train to get to Bukhara, while Khiva can be reached by overnight train (12 hours). By car, count on four hours to both Bukhara and Tashkent. Shahrisabz can only be reached by car, around 90 minutes one-way.

Due to tensions with Tajikistan, the border with nearby Penjikent is still closed, meaning a detour or flight for people en route to Dushanbe and the Pamir Highway.

Samarkand’s center is easily walkable. For destinations outside of the city center, you can flag down a taxi; they are ubiquitous. A destination within city limits should not cost more than $1.

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