Samarkand - Crossroad of Cultures is an over 3,000 years old city located at the crossing of trade routes in Central Asia.
It became prosperous as an important centre of silk trade in the 2nd century. During the 14th century, it emerged again under the rule of Timur the Lame. Its Timurid architecture became a worldwide influence in Islamic art and architecture.
The designated area covers three parts of the city:
- the archeological site of Afrosiab (2nd century BCE - 13th century CE)
- the medieval Timurid city (14-19th century)
- the 19th century European quarter
Map of SamarkandLoad map
Looking at the places on my "to visit" list, Samarkand is the one that made the list first and stayed there the longest. My late aunt sometime in the 80s (or 90s?), had been to Uzbekistan and told me some mythical stories about her visit to Samarkand. I can't remember many details, but I think she was a bit challenged regarding customs and hygiene. In any case, I got Fernweh for the place: Wanting to go to Samarkand has stayed with me ever since.
I had planned to visit in 2020 but then Covid hit. Now, in 2022, I felt was the time to follow up.
Samarkand is a bustling city. It's not frozen in time, but modern Uzbekistan's second largest city. There are plenty of mosques, madrasahs and mausoleums spread across the city, with the Registan as the centre piece. But there is no old town to see.
The main tourist axis runs from the Registan via the Bibi-Khanum Mosque to the Schahi-Sinda complex. These are the highlights of any visit to Samarkand. There is a nice pedestrian zone connecting all sites and this is where most tourists congregate. Unlike Bukhara, Samarkand very much feels like an Uzbek city with locals being in the majority.
Other main components of the site are:
- Ulug Begs Observatory: You can take a cab or just walk from the Schahi-Sinda complex. Personally, I found that too little remains to appreciate the site much. When walking you can also visit the Chodscha-Doniyor-Mausoleum dedicated to the Prophet Daniel. Not sure how he ventured this far East, though.
- Afrasiyab Archaeological Area: The ruins of the predecessor city of Samarkand burnt down by the Mongols. State of preservation and presentation is poor. I was walking across scrubs and had no idea where to. I feel this should not (yet) be on the list and if this should be a separate inscription. The onsite museum shows original painting found on the site. Views of Samarkand were nice, though.
- Gur-Emir-Mausoleum: Timur's mausoleum, a bit south of the Registan. The burial room is splendid. While Uzbeks celebrate Timur's success as a conqueror, it has to be said that he murdered in the millions and that Samarkand was built on the spoils of horrific wars.
Two more components are listed, but seemingly nobody made the effort previously to visit: the Hodscha-Abd-ad-Darun-Mausoleum and the Namazgah mosque. Me neither, so I can't comment.
In addition, the inscription refers to 19th century buildings in the abstract. Check the map to get a feeling how much of the city is inscribed. When I went looking for drinks (there are several pubs behind the Dynamo football stadium), I saw Mirzo Ulugbek Street, but wasn't much impressed. Indeed, the nomination itself does not refer in detail to any building from the 19th century of note.
I think this is the type of nomination that could have used some streamlining. I think it should have focussed on the Timurid heyday. Afrasiyab in its current state should not have been included. If this ever gets improved, I think it would make a nice separate site. The 19th century buildings are laughable and should simply be struck.
There are some international flights to Samarkand, but the connections are limited. Most visitors will enter Uzbekistan via Tashkent. From Tashkent you can take a bullet train to Samarkand (around 2h) or a slower train (4h). Note that the train station in Samarkand is on the outskirts of town and due to security, you need to arrive early. Also, you should reserve a train ticket early. One week prior the bullet train was already fully booked.
To travel on to Bukhara you can also take a bullet train. But my recommendation would be to get a driver and tick off Shakhrisyabz along the way.
While You Are There
Shakhrisyabz is nearby and an easy half day trip or (even better) a good stop when travelling to Bukhara. Several Silk Roads (T) sites are nearby, the closest being the Kafirkala settlement just on the outskirts of town, but don't expect much. With a little more time I would have made the trip to see the Nestorian temple ruins at Suleimantepa.
Crossing into Tajikistan as a day trip is possible with most western passports, so you can visit Sarazm. I took a cab to the border, then crossed, exchanged 5$ and walked to the site.
I visited this WHS in June 2017 over 4 days. It certainly is one of the best destinations in the world and certainly one of the top WHS on the list, not only for the exquisite beauty of all the single inscribed locations but also for the incredible ensemble this place must have been when constructed!
That said, I believe that Samarkand should be immediately put on the WHS in danger as the 'modern' and unprofessional patchwork of restorations/reconstructions risk ruining if not destroying the gems of Registan. That would certainly have a much stronger effect than delisting Shakhrisyabz as Uzbekistan's tourism is mainly based on Registan's allure. If I were to post the mortal sins I've photographed from Registan, I could easily have a negative impact on their tourism which is heavily dependent on European travellers. Instead I sent a letter to UNESCO and ICOMOS and I hope that they will take swift action to address such shoddy restoration works in the future. Still, the 3 madrasahs of Registan alone would be worthy of inscription and are hands down one of the best sites the WH list has to offer.
At night, if tour group/agencies pay around 1000 dollars (so I was told), a sound, light and laser show is put up - this equipment has led to some of the shoddy restorations! If you're not so lucky (or if like me you cherish visiting without too many tour groups, no show most probably means less people around), still the madrasahs are fully lit and worth visiting. The Registan ensemble has undergone some significant changes lately. The Soviet style 'mosaics' near the viewing platform has been changed with white marble (not so wise as it is very slippery in rainy conditions, extremely hot in sunny conditions). All the fruit trees and soil in the main 'square' have been removed to be able to host fashion shows, concerts, festivals and have an unobstructed view of the madrasahs. Moreover, the square is roped and fenced with guards blowing their whistle to any trespassers who haven't paid the 13 euro ticket which grants access to all the Registan ensemble till sunset. After sunset there is a separate night ticket. Strangely enough there is no 2 or 3 day ticket as most visitors stay for just one night! In the Ulugbek Madrasah you can haggle hard with a shop vendor to let you up one of the leaning minarets for an incredible panoramic view of the Sher-Dor Madrasah and Registan ensemble in general (best light is in the afternoon just before sunset). I managed to go up for about 5 euros but he usually charges around 10 euros! Try to visit during weekdays as the climb up the minaret is very claustrophobic and there isn't space for more than one person up there.
The WHS of Samarkand is not only Registan though. It is a never-ending list of incredible buildings and sites with sublime Islamic art and architecture. I would suggest at least 3 full days to explore (and re-explore) the sites at different times of the day and at leisure. All of them are really worth it. Instead of the several 4 or 5 star hotels, I specifically opted for the Bibi Khanum B&B for its incredible location. Every morning I loved having breakfast with a panoramic view of the Bibi Khanum Mosque and Mausoleum (morning light is the best light).
Further on from the Bibi Khanum Mosque is another breathtaking site, the Shah-i-Zinda Ensemble (morning light is best to gaze at the shining turqoise carvings and tiles, while afternoon light is great for pictures of the domes from the cemetery). The old necropolis has 3 main highlights: Shodi Mulk Oko Mausoleum, Shirin Beka Oka Mausoleum and Kusam Ibn Abbas Complex. The latter seems quite modern and rather plain from the entrance but if you head inside you will immediately notice that it is the where all local pilgrims head to. I was surprised to see female Islam preachers praying here. The site is dedicated to Kusam Ibn Abbas who is believed to be one of the first missionaries of Islam in Central Asia (bottom left photo).
Further ahead from Shah-i-Zinda are the remains of the ancient settlement of Afrosiyob. There's not much to see on the muddy and dusty hills apart from some ongoing excavation works. The true highlight is to be found in the nearby museum where there is the recently restored 'Painting of the Ambassadors', a masterpiece of the centre of the Sogdian culture (bottom middle photo).
Other worthwhile inscribed sites are best visited by taxi (very cheap). The Ulugbek Observatory and museum is now open. The underground quadrant still bears embossed astronomic calculations in arabic script and other engravings on its arc. It reminded me of my visit of Jantar Mantar in India but what is incredible is that Ulugbek's calculation of a year is the closest to our calendar year with a margin of error of only 1 minute and 2 seconds! No wonder European travellers used to travel here to learn more! Last but not least, the Amir Temur Mausoleum, Gur Emir, has an incredible interior which you shouldn't miss. Do read up before and after visiting these wonderful sites as there's so much to learn and discover here.
Samarkand is the reason why I decided to visit Uzbekistan, when I booked the ticket at Uzbekistan Airline office; I saw the poster of the very beautiful Registan so I asked the travel agent that should I trust the poster? The agent immediately said "You will see the better one at the real place!" After that Samarkand became the paradigm of my Uzbekistan itinerary. I arrived Samarkand in the evening, the traffic congestion greeted me with unexpectedly surprised, after a peaceful week in Khiva and Bukhara, Samarkand really reminded the chaotic life of modern urban!
I started my city tour at the Gur Amir Mausoleum, the resting place of Tamerlane; for exterior the beautiful blue mosaic dome was just amazing, and for interior the golden mosaics inside the building were just breathtaking, and in my opinion one of the most beautiful Muslim mausoleum I've ever seen. After the mausoleum, I went to Ulughbek Observatory, a ruin of very impressive ancient observatory, its museum was nice; however, many insightful information from my guide made me question the accuracy of the exhibition and object displayed. Then I continued my trip to see the famous Registan. With high hope and excitement, I found all magnificent three buildings complex to be exactly what I wanted to see, there facades were just magnificent with bright and colorful mosaics. However I was deeply disappointed with the bad status of the interior mosaics and glazed tiles inside the courtyard, seem that Uzbek used their whole money to maintain the outside of the buildings, except the gilded ceiling of Tilya-Kori madrassah was truly outstanding and truly one of my favorite of Registan complex. Then I saw Bibi-Khanym Mosque, claimed to be the largest mosque in the ancient time. Its gigantic size and tiny details of mosaic were impressive. Later I went to Shah-i-Zinda complex, the royal necropolis of Tamerlane family. The complex was just truly beautiful with beautiful mosaic art that maybe better than the Registan. Also with its modest size, I could see more details of mosaic and glazed tiles easier than other places and that made me really loved Shah-i-Zinda for its superb quality of art.
In my travel life, I never seen a place that so colorful with mosaic and glazed tiles that similar with Samarkand before except the famous Gaudi's work in Barcelona and the royal temples of Bangkok, but they were totally different arts and should not be compared. Also its history behind were also interesting with countless of legends of the Silk Road and Tumarid dynasty. For me, Samarkand was truly the world class site and one of the most enchanting UNESCO world heritage sites I ever visited.
Samarkand is the site of the iconic Registan - the "sandy place" surrounded on three sides by Timurid madrasahs. You can sit on a bench on the fourth, open, side and take it all in - the turquoise tiles, the slender minarets, the imposing facades. The place attracts a lot of Uzbek tourists too. The madressahs can best be admired from the outside, as their interiors are completely taken over by the souvenir business. Only the middle (Tilya Kori) is worth a visit for its completely gilded interior including golden mosaics.
Somehow it had escaped my attention before that Samarkand has several other grand monuments than this Registan. Probably the best sight of my whole Uzbek/Turkmen tour was Shah-i-Zinda. This is a mausoleum complex, where the tombs are housed in the most ornamental little buildings. They feature all the mosaics and glazed tiles Samarkand is famous for, but on a more touchable scale than at the Registan. The place is also full of Uzbek pilgrims and daytrippers, creating a lively atmosphere (imagine visiting this wonderful site on your way from grocery shopping - I saw many Uzbeks carrying their round loaves of bread with them).
The tomb of Timur (Gur Emir Mausoleum) is the third site worth mentioning. On the inside, it has the feel of a European cathedral, with the tombs in the middle under a cupola and older Uzbeks praying around it.
Samarkand is the largest of the WHS cities of Uzbekistan (c half million population). Possibly as a result it lacks much of the “eastern atmosphere” which can be sensed in Bukhara or Khiva – instead its glories consist primarily of 4 architectural wonders, any one of which on its own would justify a WHS inscription
a. The Registan ensemble
b. The Bibi-Khanym Mosque
c. The Shahr-i-Zindah tombs
d. The Guri Amir Mausoleum
Even if you are not a great lover of Islamic architecture these are all well worth seeing/experiencing. If you go with a guide beware of the “shared ticket price” scam! In theory you are allowed to return to any of these buildings several times during the day of the ticket – but you need to show the ticket! However you may find that the guide and ladies on the gate do not issue a ticket (many tourists will not ask or care) and share the money the guide has available. We weren’t able to persuade the ladies to issue a ticket but we did make sure that they would let us in again later that day!
There are other buildings worth seeing too – I particularly liked the Ulughbek Observatory with its 30mtr astrolabe partially set deep into the ground – an impressive example of the intellectual and scientific credentials of this part of the world before the European Renaissance. This is in fact on Uzbekistan’s Tentative List
Samarkand is undoubtedly one of the great “destinations” of the world.
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2012 Name change
From "Samarkand - Crossroads of Cultures" to "Samarkand - Crossroad of Cultures"
2008 Reinforced Monitoring
Threatened by new roads and buildings
Includes FTWHS Ishrathona (1996-2005)
Component parts such as Afrasiab and Ulughbek Observatory appeared on T List (1996)
Bureau - Awaiting USSR to propose a new site based only on Muslim monuments
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