Samarkand, the city of stone. (October 2014)


Fazil, our guide and driver in Samarkand was a self proclaimed, ‘Light’ Muslim. He was tolerant of all religions and was completely against the extremist views of the radical few. In fact he felt that much of the Koran was being misinterpreted by these islamists for their own needs and not for the good of Islam.

During both the Russian and Soviet eras each region or main city was designated a manufacturing industry. This enterprise would then supposedly supply their given product to the the entire USSR. Tea packing was the domain of Samarkand.

The original factory, built in the 1860s in the days of the Russian Empire, is still there but only packs a fraction of its former output.

By having these main industrial centers, full employment was guaranteed by the Russians and then the Soviets.

When the Soviet Union collapsed most of these factories couldn’t compete in a free market, where the products were cheaper and of better quality.

We have seen the results of this throughout the former Soviet dominated Eastern European countries and now here in the Stans.

We had a brief afternoon walk around Samarkand, including the exterior of the Registan, as we would be seeing it in detail the next day.

This is another Central Asian city with the indelible stamp of Russia planted firmly on its landscape. This is especially evident in the apartment blocks, factories and the illustrated grave stones in the cemetery.

There is a very large statue of a seated Timo, just near the Registan, which is strange considering he preferred to be mounted on a horse, not a seat. Apparently this was due to his lame leg, as a result of yet another battle wound.

The name Samarkand means ‘City of Stone’

The entire city of Samarkand has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s known as the ‘Rome’ of the east with a history going back over 2,700 years.

There are four distinctly different parts to Samarkand.

The Ancient City, that was built into hills by the side of the Zeravshan River. and devastated by Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan)* in 1219 AD, when he killed 300,000 of its inhabitants.

Before that it was Alexander the Great’s turn in 329 BC.

Then there’s the Old City that was built to replace it. As most of those killed in the Ancient City were living underground, in homes dug out of the river bed, they were buried where they fell. It was therefore not appropriate to rebuild the city over the top of their graves. The city was then built inside the old walls.

There’s also the New City, that expanded from the old and was developed by the Russian Colonialists and later the Soviets.

Finally there’s the Modern City that came after the break up of the Soviet Union when Uzbekistan gained its independence.

Many of the buildings in the Old City have very small doors, this we discovered is because they are made from the wood of mulberry trees. These trees only have a certain amount of usable timber, hence the doors aren’t very high.

We also discovered that the swastika is used extensively in some of the mosques and madrasahs. Used here, this symbol represents the four elements of earth, water, air and fire. The swastika has been used by many faiths and first appeared in Neolithic times.

Fazil is a guide who thinks about the best time of the day to take photographs.

He has delivered us to places of interest when the sun is in the right spot. Unlike most, who get you there when everything is back lit.

There should be more guides like Fazil.

On our first full day in Samarkand we visited the Silk Road Monument. There seems to be one of these in every city we visited.

Then it was onto the monuments of religious importance, like Shakhi Zindi or Living King Ensemble, that was constructed between the 11th and 19th centuries. It is connected, by legend, to Kusam Abbas, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad, who is said to be buried there.

After that we visited the famous Registan. We had a sneak preview the previous night but this was a far more detailed investigation. This was the centre of the ancient city during the rule of Timur. It is a public square that is surrounded by three madrasahs or Islamic schools. Ulugh Beg Madrasah (1417-1420), Tilya-Kori Madrasah (1646-1660) and Sher-Dor Madrassah (1619-1636) These buildings are the epitome of Islamic architecture, vast yet elegant and adorned with beautiful tile work.

Our final stop in the afternoon was to the Amir Timur Mausoleum, Gur-e Amir or ‘Tomb of the King’ The construction of the mausoleum was begun in 1407 for Muhammad Sultan, Tamerlane’s heir apparent and beloved grandson. It later became the family crypt for the Timur Dynasty.

We had run out of Islamic sites in the city so we moved onto other faiths like the Russian Orthodox Alexey Cathedral built 1912 and the Polish Roman Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist.

Late in the afternoon we visited the old Jewish Quarter, a lively area with kids playing football in the street. and old men discussing whatever old men discuss.

We tried on a few occasions to see the Ancient City but a film crew had the road cordoned off. There were however a number of vintage cars and an old bus, full of extras, all part of the filming.

Corruption is everywhere in Uzbekistan.

Despite a government facade that suggests it’s frowned upon, it’s actually encouraged.

You can only get US Dollars, Swiss Francs or Euros when you use your MasterCard or Visa in a bank. You then have to go to another counter to change that currency to the Uzbek Som.

You therefore pay double transaction fees and get a poor rate of exchange to boot.

The Bell Boy at our hotel in Tashkent suggested that we were better off exchanging our US Dollars on the black market, rather than going to the bank. Of course he could give us a very competitive rate.

Fazil our guide negotiated a better entrance fee, at every site we visited. Where the money went, I have no idea. He also got us a great deal on exchanging our money.

The icing on the cake was when we went to see the light show at the Registan.

There were eight or so tourists there to see the lights, that were supposed to come on at 8pm every evening.

Suddenly one of the on-duty policemen came over and suggested that if we a paid him US$10, per person, he could get the lights turned on.

We never did see the Registan illuminated.

Our last full day in Samarkand was a welcome day off. This was the first full day to ourselves since leaving Australia. We found a cafe serving real coffee, not Nescafé and then had a wander around some of Samarkand’s parks and the main Boulevard. And, as usual, brides with their accompanying photographic entourage were everywhere.

Yet again we were invited to a wedding.

*Many names of places, people or sites are spelt differently. This depends on where you are, what translations have been made or what dictionary or encyclopedia is being used.

For instance Chinggis Khan or Genghis Khan, Madressa or Madrassah, Caravanserie or Caravansary.  

Often a person’s name will change according to where it is being used. Alexander the Great was also known as Alexander III of Macedonia, especially in countries where he had vanquished large parts of the ancient population. The same went for Emir Timur, who was also known as Tamerlane, Tamerlan (due to his lame leg) or just Timur the Great.

Alexander is Great in Christian countries while Timur is Great in Islamic ones.

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