Guri Amir Mausoleum,
Samarkand
,  Uzbekistan

Samarkand: The Heart of the Silk Road


Samarkand was not only Timur's dream but mine also. I had first read about the place in the mid 1980’s and was dying to go after living in Russia for three years. Fortunately, the Russians didn't wreck the city and the usual Soviet ugliness was contained in the new part of the town. In old Samarkand, things were mostly untouched. Most of the city's prominent buildings dated from Timurid times since Genghis Khan's rampages flattened anything older. As a result, there was little very old stuff around older than 700 years -- despite the fact that Samarkand is more than 2,500 years old. Samarkand’s first 1,700 years is buried under a large dusty hill of little interest to non archaeologists. The old city of “Afrosiab” was built on the hill and lasted until Genghis Khan’s friendly visit.

Samarkand is most famous today for its Timurid architecture. My first stop was the incredible Registan, meaning "Place of Sand". A former market, the Registan was home to three huge tiled buildings on three sides of the square. Under the floodlights, the Registan had an almost unearthly quality that managed to look both massive and ethereal at once. The massive ribbed domes, the turquoise and dark blues tiles and soaring arches were intensely exotic. Although it was evening, everything still radiated the warmth gathered from the intense heat of the day. Unfortunately, I had come too late for the weekly sound and light show.

Fortunately, the Russians didn't wreck Samarkand. Soviet ugliness was contained in the new part of the town. In old Samarkand, things were mostly untouched. Most of the city's prominent buildings dated from Timurid times since Genghis Khan's rampages flattened anything older. As a result, there was little very old stuff around older than 700 years -- despite the fact that Samarkand is more than 2,500 years old. Samarkand’s first 1,700 years is buried under a large dusty hill of little interest to non archaeologists. The old city of “Afrosiab” was built on the hill and lasted until Genghis Khan’s visit.

Samarkand is most famous today for its Timurid architecture. My first stop was the incredible Registan, meaning "Place of Sand". A former market, the Registan was home to three huge tiled buildings on three sides of the square. Under the floodlights, the Registan had an almost unearthly quality that managed to look both massive and ethereal at once. The massive ribbed domes, the turquoise and dark blues tiles and soaring arches were intensely exotic. Although it was evening, everything still radiated the warmth gathered from the intense heat of the day. Unfortunately, I had come too late for the weekly sound and light show. It was time to go to dinner.  Unfortunately, the modern world was not so wonderful.

Samarkand was full of amazing sights. There was the Guri Amir Mausoleum (aka Tomb of the Emir), the last resting place of Timur and Ulughbek. This place boasted a fantastic gold interior dome redone in 1970 with a lavish chandelier. Timur's grave was marked by dark green jade slab. Ulughbek's stone was marble and to the right. The others around belonged to Timur's teachers and descendents. The real tombs were below ground in simpler tombs.

After a long drive down dark, dusty streets, I arrived at the apartment building belonging to Peter and Nina, the family I stayed with. The streets were full of dirty looking children just hanging around outside. Although they did not look hungry or malnourished, they looked unkempt. The streets were paved but most things had a thin layer of dust on them. The apartment buildings dated from Soviet times and had the typical motifs: abundant cotton harvests, happy workers marching towards Socialism and sturdy farmers. Although the stylized tiled forms were Soviet, the blues and tans were distinctly Uzbek.

"Samarkand" City Sign,
Samarkand
, Uzbekistan

I walked into the building past the empty door frame. The door was long gone. Not even the hinges remained. Inside, things were equally bare. There were no light bulbs anywhere which forced me to climb the five stories by Braille on uneven steps. All the windows in public spaces were missing. All that remained were parts of the wooden frames. Peter, a gaunt man who looked much old than his years, told me that the elevators had not worked in three years -- despite the efforts of those living in this "podyezd", or cluster of apartments of one landing. They tried fixing them but always fell victim to insurmountable problems. First, there was the ordeal of raising the money from other apartment owners. Most living on the lower floors did not participate, which repairs more expensive for everyone else. There was the drunk guy on a higher floor who wanted the elevator but got aggressive whenever anyone would ask him about it. Another couple refused because it might make it easier to rob their house. Amazingly, the remaining residents managed to collect the money and were able to scour the junkyards and other places to find the necessary parts. They miraculously managed to find someone who knew how to fix the elevators. Everything looked good until the repair guy ran off and sold the parts intended for the elevator. The same went for the light bulbs. Even though people tried to replace them, they were stolen in just a few hours.

Life in Uzbekistan was difficult not only because of low wages. Since the collapse of the USSR, the country’s infrastructure has withered. The apartments had only hot water, which made going to the toilet an interesting experience. I felt a strange tingling sensation as the heat rose out from the basin while on the toilet. Although things in Russia are rough, they were rarely like this. On contrast, most Russian apartment buildings had doors and even locks. Although they can look shabby and sometimes smell of urine, the elevators usually worked. Russians usually had both hot and cold water, except in the summer when they shut down the central hot water system. Most of the rest of the infrastructure in Uzbekistan was in terrible shape, far worse than in Russia. A phone call placed across town – or across the street -- was inaudible. Sometimes the calls would not go through or if they did, the static was usually louder than the voice on the other end. Screaming into the receiver was only marginally effective. Walking around also required care – I did not want to fall into one of the ubiquitous open ditches along the road in Samarkand.

Musical Instruments,
Bukhara, Uzbekistan

One of the oddest sights in the city was the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Daniel, or to be more accurate, the tomb of Daniel's arm. Timur took the thing as a souvenir on one of his rampages but didn't bother with the rest of the body. If this wasn't odd enough, the arm was 18 meters long and was supposedly stretching by 1 cm a year. To keep up with the fun, people kept on expanding the sarcophagus along with the red, yellow and black carpet that covers it and surrounding building. The whole place was located in a shady glen along a bank of the small Siab River. As I sipped tea at a nearby little choyhona, I asked the caretakers about the arm. After trying unsuccessfully to pitch a tour to Daniel's Lion's Den, they told me that they had no idea about the arm but it was a miracle anyway. Such is the mystery of faith.


On the way out from Daniel's Tomb, I drove past a huge light stone gate with Arabic on it -- which was next to Soviet looking Uzbek propaganda sign written in Cyrillic. The sign featured the stylized happy workers and peasants that came right out of Soviet illustrations from decades ago. The difference was in the brown, white and light blue Uzbek flag and the quotes from Islam Karimov -- some form, different government. The color palate for the changed -- the Soviet reds were replaced by the Uzbek’s flag colors. Timur was the new Lenin and Uzbek President Karimov was the Communist Party Secretary.

 

 


Note: This is only a partial excerpt of the article and photo collection.  The entire article is available on request.


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Samarkand Bukhara Tamerlane Timur Tashkent Kyzylkum choyhana Afrosiab Daniel Registan plov pishtak Ulughbek Sher Dor Tilla-Kari Uzbek doppe Guri Amir Mausoleum Rukhobod Mausoleum Siab Shahr-i-Zindah Bibi-Khanym iwan Silk Road Tajik Tadjik Tadzhik DAN Nasrullah Khan Ark Zindon Bolo-Hauz Kalon Mir-i-Arab hauz Nadir Dinvanbegi Khanaka Kukeldash Char Minar Modari Khan Jew Jewish Karimov cotton Ismail Samani Mausoleum Mustaqillik Maydoni Timurid Chorsu