TORONTO: I had only ever heard of Samarkand — a 7th-century city on the Silk Road, the famous trade route running from China to the Mediterranean — in history class. And it was the allure of the ancient Silk Road that took me there.
Present-day Samarkand in Uzbekistan still bears traces of its former status as part of the Soviet Union, and the city is influenced, both linguistically and ethnographically, by bordering nations. Tajik Persian, Russian, and Uzbek are the most widely-spoken languages. Regional tourism by way of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan is predominant; as are investments and trade relations with China and Russia.
Samarkand might not be a major tourist draw, but there are plenty of great accommodation options, including five- and four-star hotels like the Samarkand Regency Amir Timur or the Savitsky Plaza, named after Igor Savitsky and featuring some of his avant-garde artwork. There are also some attractive boutique options, including Sangzor Hotel in Registan Square.
As you would expect from a city that’s been around for 1,400 years, Samarkand is steeped in culture and history, and contains some breathtaking architecture.
The Gur-e-Amir, or mausoleum of Amir Temur, is where the Turco-Mongolian conqueror and Uzbekistan’s national hero, Amir Temur lies, along with his sons and grandsons. The entrance to the courtyard features an elaborate muqarnas, the honeycomb-style design common across the Islamic world. The inner chamber was once made of gold, jade, and onyx, but after centuries of plundering has been refurbished with cheaper materials. Nonetheless, it remains a work of art.
Perhaps the greatest reminder of the Timurid Renaissance — when Samarkand witnessed a revival of arts and sciences, and the construction of mosques and madrasahs — is Registan Square. A short distance from Gur-e-Amir, the square houses three madrasahs, and it is here that some of the greatest minds of the 14th and 15th centuries — including Amir Temur’s grandson, the renowned astronomer Ulugh Beg — pursued Islamic studies, astronomy, and sciences.
All three structures are fine examples of Islamic architecture: a grand entranceway with geometric patterns laid out in blue and turquoise tiles patterns leads into a courtyard. Kufic calligraphy is inscribed on the minarets and domes, in the same exquisite glazed tile work. And although souvenir shops now occupy the dormitories and hallways of the madrasahs, the buildings maintain a solemn air.
The Sher-e-Dor madrasah on the right, notably, features a mosaic of a tiger and man, symbolizing man’s quest for knowledge.
With its intricate window arches, lattices, and expansive gardens, the square is reminiscent of Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal in India. This is no surprise. After all, it was another one of Amir Temur’s grandsons’ Babur who conquered the Delhi Sultanate and founded the Mughal Empire in the 15th century.
Further out, the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis is a three-level complex housing mausoleums of Amir Temur’s relatives, close accomplices, and religious scholars. The most prominent among them is Kusam (Qutham) ibn Abbas, the cousin of Prophet Muhammad. Shah-i-Zinda’s brilliance — its resplendent sapphire domes and tiled entranceways against the contrasting taupe of the structure — can only truly be taken in as you walk up its stairs and look back at each level. It also contains several vantage points affording a fine view of the city and the local cemetery next door.
Some 20 minutes away from the center of Samarkand is the Eternal City, a recreation of ancient Uzbek cities with artisan shops and local cafés. It’s popular with locals for a family day out and although the buildings may not be authentic, its cultural experiences are. For example, you can watch how samsa (akin to samosa) is made over a tandyr here.
In terms of food, the Uzbek diet is notoriously meat-heavy (to the point that it’s a major health concern). The national dish — plov, made with plump raisins and caramelized sweet carrots — is known colloquially in Saudi Arabia as ‘Bukhara rice’ and is commonly eaten for both breakfast and lunch.
Other specialties include lagman — hand-pulled noodles simmered in a meat and dill broth that is said to originate from the Uyghur region — and Uzbek manti (dumplings stuffed with meat and potato).
If you want to see some of the city’s lesser-known sites, a two-hour “Invisible Samarkand” walking tour starting at the Bibi-Khanum Mosque takes you through its diverse neighborhoods, including an ancient hammam and the quarters built for refugees coming from other parts of the Soviet Union in the 1960s.
Samarkand’s allure lies in its rich history and diverse cultural background. It might be a name you recognize only from textbooks, but it’s well worth seeing in person.