Time for the big one, Samarqand. Ever since we've known of the Silk Road, this city has been in our consciousness. The Tashkent bound bus from Bukhara dropped us off in the outskirts of the city after crawling its way through 300km of reasonably paved road. We had already spent in excess of 7 hours (including a 90 minute wait for the bus to fill up) getting here, making us wonder if we were quite ready for Samarqand. Samarqand!
In the back of our minds we also knew that we had almost completed yet another circle with us being barely 60 km from Penjikent (now fast receding in our memories) where we had been just a few weeks ago. Due to the border closure only crows can fly between the two cities. The driver of city bus No. 99 who indicated that the Registan was just a chut chut (little, in Russian) walk from where he would drop us, also served as impromptu guide as he pointed out the turquoise (what else?) domes of Shah-i-Zinda Mausoleum and the Bibi Khanum Mosque and Mausoluem. Ready or not, Samarqand was here. Samarqand!
We got off at Amir Temir square which was still a good 10 minute walk from Registan (and our B&B which was just behind it!). It was early in the afternoon (3:30 pm) and the Registan shone in the bright sunshine as we approached it after stopping for photographs with the statue of Timur. The distant dome of Guri Amir Mausoleum would have to wait for another day. The three monuments that comprise the Registan - Ulughbek Medressa, Tilla-Kari Medressa and the Sherdor Medressa - loomed large and majestic, forcing us to linger on for a while before proceeding to our B&B as the weight of the packs on our backs urged us to do. The tilework looked quite different from anything we had seen in Khiva or Bukhara. Overzealous guards zoomed in and demanded that we buy tickets (valid only for the day) even to enter the outside yard lying between the three monuments. The Registan will have to wait till tomorrow. What about the rest of Samarqand? Samarqand!
Making quick work of dumping our bags at our B&B (where we ended up meeting familiar faces including those who were following the same route as us), we headed toward the Bibi Khanum complex just a few minutes walk on the squeaky clean pedestrian walkway lined with modern shops that no one seemed to be interested in. Legend has it that Timur's favorite wife had the mosque built as a surprise for him during one of his frequent absences fighting a war elsewhere. It was finished just before his death. It crumbled over the centuries before eventually collapsing in an earthquake in 1897. It has been restored since with mixed results. The massive entrance to the mosque dwarfs everything else around it. The twin fluted domes and the familiar inner structure with a massive turquoise dome built flat against it belied the interior of the structures which were in ruins. On closer inspection, one could see that the turquiose tiles on the large dome were falling apart in several places.
The Registan looked different in the morning light with the sunlight favoring the Ulughbek Medressa unlike the previous afternoon when the Sherdor Medressa was lit by the afternoon sun. The medressas are no longer functioning and are used for various purposes. The Ulughbek Medressa has an interesting museum on Ulugh Begh and we got the education we were after and learnt a lot about the man and his stature in the world of astronomy. The inside walls of the medressa are beautifully decorated with verses from the Quran, and judging from Ulugh Beg's choice of verse, he seems to have been a man with progressive views.
The Tilla Qori Medressa's interior rooms (for students and professors in earlier times) are now occupied by artists selling their work - metal jewellery, carpets, miniature paintings etc. The Sherdor Medressa's facade includes a pair of lions (violating the Islamic edict of not depicting living beings in religious places) that actually look like tigers. This image is Samarqand's icon and can be seen elsewhere in the city. The interior of this medressa is currently used to entertain tourists with musical performances, staged traditional weddings etc.
The Guri Amir Mausoleum contains the crypts of Timur, several of his descendants and his revered teachers. All the crypts are laid out in a central hall with Timur's dark stone standing out amongst the white stones for the others, which include smaller stones for those that died as children. We learnt that the crypts were opened to confirm that Timur was lame in an arm and a leg and that Ulugh Begh was beheaded.
We also came across this interesting aspect of Timur's talent for warfare: "Timur's military talents were unique. He planned all his campaigns years in advance, even planting barley for horse feed two-years ahead of his campaigns. He used propaganda, in what is now called information warfare, as part of his tactics. His campaigns were preceded by the deployment of spies whose tasks included collecting information and spreading horrifying reports about the cruelty, size, and might of Timur’s armies. Such psychological warfare eventually weakened the morale of threatened populations and caused panic in the regions that he intended to invade".
The impressive Shah-i-Zinda complex is an avenue of several mausoleums (for relatives of Timur and Ulugh Begh) that are situated in close proximity with several adjacent to each other and facing another row of mausoleums separated by a few feet. This makes it extremely difficult to get a photographic account of the site as one is denied distance and sunlight in that narrow path. Some of the mausoleums have fascinating and unique interior decorations. The name Shah-i-Zinda (Tomb of the Living King) refers to the innermost shrine for Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet. The complex is adjacent to a large cemetery through which we walked back to the street.
Other highlights of our stay in Samarqand included a visit to the Ulugh Begh's observatory that contains a massive (36m radius) Fakhri sextant, the instrument with which he observed star positions. We were quite impressed by this man's scientific achievements despite his regular job as ruler of the land. Of course, the Republic of Uzbekistan spares no efforts in touting his achievements in the small museum adjacent to the observatory.
Dinner time at the B&B was like being with family with so many familiar faces who were traversing the 3 sites (Khiva, Bukhara and Samarqand) in both directions. Despite the presence of several other places to stay, the power of word-of-mouth holds sway and we all inevitably gravitated towards the same places.
While the three Silk Road sites - Khiva, Bukhara and Samarqand - do not really compete for tourist attention as most visit all three, it is a popular pastime for several to rank them. For us, it was Bukhara that impressed us most as the most authentic looking of the three. While all three have been touched up significantly, Samarqand's Registan looked a bit too glossy to be real, almost as if it was its own Las Vegas incarnation. We cannot fault the renovators for trying (and no doubt, succeeding) to make it look great, however. But the modern city of Samarqand spoils the reverie by intruding on us with busy traffic, bus stops, mobile phones, jeans and high heels. Buildings can be renovated, but can anyone bring back the turbans and the beards, chaotic bazaars, bellicose emirs mounted on rampant horses, people being dropped from high walls in sacks filled with wild cats? That's what we came here to see! Samarqand!
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Waaaaaaahhhhhhhh. Speechless at both your post and Samarqand ! From, on Oct 20, 2012 at 06:25AM