More than any other city in Central Asia, Samarkand’s name drips with an exotic romantic vibe, which is echoed in these immortal lines of James Flecker’s 1913 poem, Hassan:
We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds out fiery hearts are fanned.
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
Located in Uzbekistan, Samarkand (Samarqand in Uzbek) has been a pivotal town on the ancient Silk Road for over 2,500 years. Alexander the Great visited it in 329 BC when it was the Sogdian city of Marakanda, part of the early Persian (Achaemenid) Empire. “Everything I have heard about Samarkand is true,“ he said, “except it is even more beautiful than I had imagined.” The city is known its awe-inspiring mosques, mausoleums, and other sites linked to the Silk Road that connected China to the Mediterranean.
Icons of Samarkand Architecture
Without doubt the single most iconic architecture in Samarkand, if not all of Central Asia, is the Registan, a plaza bordered on three sides by ornate Islamic schools (madrassas). Each building is saturated from head to toe with stunning tilework embellished with scroll-like calligraphy. George Curzon, the British MP and later viceroy of India, called it “the noblest public square in the world.”
The Registan was originally a market space where six roads of the city met in a trade crossroad. Sultan Ulug Beg (1394 – 1449) built the first madrassa on the west side, flanked by 33 m (109 feet) high columns, richly decorated with star designs, geometric patterns and stunning mosaic and majolica tilework.
Two centuries later, the Shir Dor Madrassa was erected to the east as a mirror piece. The madrassa gets its name from the mosaic lions (shir) that adorn the corners of the portal. The flouting of the Islamic ruling against the depiction of living beings is made doubly heretical by the beaming Zoroastrian-inspired sun faces painted on the lions’ backs!
The final piece is the Tilya Kori Madrassa, built between 1648 and 1660. It is wider than the other two madrassas and boasts a huge turquoise dome and a magnificent gilded interior.
The Bibi Khanum Mosque
To the northeast of the Registan lies the Bibi Khanum Mosque, built at lavish cost by the much-feared ruler, Timur, known in the Western world as Tamerlane the Great. Born into a Turkic Mongol clan only a century after the death of Genghis Khan, legend has it that Timur’s palms were filled with blood, auguring a bloody life of conquest and destruction.
The mosque was built in honor of Timur’s chief wife, Saray Mulk Khanum, who was laid to rest in a nearby mausoleum. Construction started in 1399 and was completed in 1404, a year before Timur’s death.
No expense was spared in the construction of the mosque. Timur is reported to have imported elephants from India to carry the huge blocks of stone for the structure, and to have personally supervised the construction of what he considered to be a concrete symbol of his conquest of the world.
By all standards, he succeeded. It is an imposing masterpiece, monumental both in scale and splendor. The building alone covers an area of 460 x 325 feet, making it substantially larger than a major league soccer field. Its immense size is matched by the grandeur of the architectural design, the most striking of which is the arched portal. Measuring 62 feet (19 m) high, its design goes back to ancient Persian architecture to which Timur turned to for inspiration. Behind the portal is the massive dome that reaches a height of 144 feet (44 m). Court poets at the time compared the dome to the vault of heaven and the portal’s arch to the Milky Way. The vaults supporting the domes from below also reflect Iranian influence – they were not only structurally complex but decorated with dazzling Islamic “stalactite” (muqarnas), a symbolic representation of God’s creation.
Gur-e Amir (Persian: Tomb of the Kings)
One of the most notable examples of Timurid blue tile architecture, Gur-e-Amir is the mausoleum of Timur himself. Completed in 1404, the mausoleum boasts magnificent interlocking tilework that reflects early Ottoman architectural influences.