Samarkand: The romanticism of the Silk Road

The romanticism and majesty of Uzbekistan's Samarkand, at the heart of the Silk Road's cultural crossroads, is in stark contrast to its former ruler Timur, whose reign of terror established the city as it is today.

By Emma Thomson
Published 7 Oct 2016, 17:20 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 16:34 BST
Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

Photograph by Emma Thomson

"We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
we make the Golden Journey to Samarkand."

Excerpt from 1913 Hassan poem by James Flecker

Of all the Silk Road cities, none rings with as much romanticism as 2,500-year-old Samarkand. Seated at the heart of Central Asia, it was the cultural crossroads through which all traders and travellers passed. Alexander the Great visited in 329BC, when it was known as Marakanda, and declared: "Everything I have heard about Samarkand is true, except it is even more beautiful that I had imagined." Word of its magnificence even reached the ears of Marco Polo, who never visited but still noted it as 'a splendid city' in his Travels memoir.

Most remarkable of all is the central Registan Square. Comprised of a trio of madrasahs, dating from the 15th to the 17th century, it's majolica-tiled facades are a riot of Persian script, Zoroastrian symbols and pomegranate blooms. I want to escape the crowds, so dip beneath the grand archway of Ulugbek Madrasah and seek out the minaret gatekeeper. He nods agreement and creaks open the heavy wooden door. I lever my knees to my chest to ascend the steep stone steps, curling tighter and tighter, past crumbling bricks engraved with graffiti old and new, until I pop out of a chink in the roof. I stand on my tiptoes and peer over the parapet. People are scattered like pigeons on the square below and before me spreads the city; the clamour of roofs – that have been razed and rebuilt countless times — occasionally punctuated by a gleaming, cerulean-blue dome. I feel like a king.

But the real ruler of this majestic city was Amir Temur. An illiterate Turkic-Mongol nomad bandit who rose to become 'Conqueror of the World', his Timurid Empire stretched from the Indus River to the Bosphorus in Turkey and Samarkand was his capital. Arrow wounds received to his right shoulder and hip while rustling sheep earned him the nickname Timur-i-Leme ('Timur the Lame'), but the disability didn't slow him down. Undefeated on the battlefield, his military campaigns claimed the lives of some 17 million and tales of his brutality earned him the nickname 'Scourge of God'. On one occasion he assured prisoners from Isfizar, in Iran, no blood would be shed if they surrendered. He kept his word. When they opened the gates, he had them sealed alive inside giant towers instead. Such stories made him the stuff of legend and the likes of Christopher Marlowe, Edgar Allan Poe, Handel and Vivaldi all, variously, wrote plays, poems and operas about him.

From these conquered lands, Timur forcibly brought back artisans from Basra, Baghdad, Delhi and Azerbaijan and put them to work decorating Samarkand's almighty architecture. When Chinese monk Xuanzang — whom I mentioned in my Xi'an blog — passed through on his way to India to collect Buddhist scriptures in the seventh century, he noted: "The inhabitants are skilful in the arts and trades beyond those of other countries."

The sky has been leaden with cloud for most of my visit, but as the day draws to a close the sun shoots up fiery rays, setting the horizon ablaze. I seat myself on the steps opposite Ulugbek Madrasah and watch a meringue-dressed bride and her solemn groom pose for photos on the brick square. Starlings streak above like a flock of black arrows and I can spy the day's final customers bartering in the doorways of shops — just like the bazaar that once brimmed with caravans here. Pacing back across the vast square, I recall the inscription carved into Timur's black jade tomb inside the nearby Gur-Emir Mausoleum, which reads: "If I were alive, people would not be glad." But he's wrong. Surely we can forgive an ego that forged such beauty?

Emma's mobile data is provided courtesy of MIOWIFI.
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