Samarkand: the jewel in Uzbekistan’s architectural crown

Travel tours often save the best for last and Samarkand is undoubtedly the crowning jewel in Uzbekistan’s architectural crown. My first view of Registan Square was after dark and it was nothing short of breathtaking.

We travelled to Samarkand on the Afrosiyab bullet train from Bukhara. It’s so much quicker than by road that our driver arrived quite a bit later with our luggage. So in the meantime, we went for dinner at the lively Restaurant Samarkand before experiencing some of the city’s main attractions beautifully lit in the night sky. First was the Gur-i Amir, the final resting place of Uzbekistan’s great warrior Amir Temur.

Then it was onto Registan Square with its magnificent madrasas. There’s a viewing platform where you can stand and gaze at the stunning square. And we did, for ages. I can only compare it with seeing the Taj Mahal, you just can’t look away.

The following morning we went back to see the Gur-i Amir mausoleum by daylight. It’s said that Amir Temur wanted a simple tomb in his home town, but those around him had different ideas. The beautiful Gur-i Amir mausoleum was built in Samarkand by Temur after his grandson (and chosen successor) died in 1404. So when Temur himself died a year later he was laid to rest in the same tomb with his body covered with a slab of Mongolian jade. It’s quite dark inside but the gilt and onyx glitters brightly and there’s a large portrait of the great man himself.

Gur-i Amir, SamarkandGur-i Amir, SamarkandThen it was time to see another of Samarkand’s most impressive sites, the vast Bibi-Khanym Mosque. When it was built in the late 14th century it was the world’s largest mosque, but shoddy workmanship meant it fell apart quite quickly, so it was almost completely rebuilt. It’s named after Amir Temur’s most senior wife who had the mosque built for him while he was away causing havoc in India. According to legend, the mosque’s architect fell in love with her and when she asked him to speed up the work he demanded a kiss which left a permanent stain on her cheek. Not sure how she explained that to her warrior husband!

The courtyard of the mosque is huge and in its centre is a massive Qu’ran stand where the world’s oldest Qu’ran would have been displayed on holy days. Childless women have been known to crawl under the stand in hopes of conceiving, which might explain why it’s now covered by a glass box!

Next door to the mosque is Samarkand’s commercial heart, the Siyob Bazaar. It’s also huge and very much aimed at local shoppers rather than souvenir hunters. We tasted and bought some excellent nougat and there’s a myriad of fruit, nuts and spices to pick up, as well as a lot of bread. Every area in Uzbekistan has its own type of bread and in Samarkand it looks a bit like a bagel and is denser than in other areas as they use milk instead of water. It was pretty chewy!

After lunch, it was back to Registan Square to explore Samarkand’s star attraction in daylight. In the 14th century, this was the city’s commercial heart with six roads running through it. Hard to imagine now when you look in wonder at its three magnificent buildings – Uleu Beg Madrasa, Sher Dor Madrasa and Tilla Kari Madrasa.

Registan Square, SamarkandUlug Beg Madrasa is the oldest, built between 1417 and 1430 by its namesake who was Amir Temur’s grandson. Ulug Beg’s interests lay in maths and science so unusually this wasn’t a religious madrasa. The tilework above the main arch features the sky and stars to reflect his love of astronomy. Inside up to 100 students lived in the 50 cells around the courtyard.

Opposite Ulug Beg Madrasa is the Sher Dor Madrasa which was built in the 17th century and is flanked either side by two ribbed domes and two minarets. The tiled mosaic on the front shows an intriguing mix of two sun gods, two big cats with tiger stripes but a lion’s mane, and two deer. As with many of Uzbekistan’s madrasas, the cells inside now house souvenir stalls, including a music shop where the owner gives demonstrations of traditional instruments.

The final madrasa to be built and the centrepiece of Samarkand’s famous square is the Tilla Kari. When the Bibi Khanym Mosque started to deteriorate this was built as a combined mosque and madrasa. The outside with its bright blue domes is beautiful of course, but the inside is well worth a visit as the mosque’s dome has a stunning golden ceiling.

As if seeing some of Uzbekistan’s most fabulous buildings wasn’t enough, our last meal of the tour that evening consisted of the country’s national dish Plov, cooked by a family in their home. The owner was previously a tour driver who often invited other guides and drivers to his home for Plov when they were in Samarkand and he was eventually persuaded to start cooking it for a small number of foreign visitors. There were just a couple of tables set up in the courtyard when we arrived.

Plov is a rice-based dish that is traditionally cooked outdoors in a large dish known as a kazan. The meat is cooked at the bottom with layers of carrot, onion and then rice as well as various spices, garlic and sometimes eggs. All the ingredients were laid out on a table for us to take a look at as well as the steaming kazan pot.

The vegetarian option was to just have the top layers from the pot, so probably not one for strict veggies but I didn’t mind and it tasted delicious! An excellent way to spend our last evening with our lovely tour group and our guide Umid.

The following morning, our last day in Uzbekistan started with a visit to yet another stunning location, the Shah-i Zinda necropolis with its gorgeous collection of blue and turquoise tiled tombs. The name translates to ‘Living King’ referring to Samarkand’s patron saint Kusam ibn Abbas as one of the mausoleums is dedicated to him. The tombs are so tightly packed that it’s a hard place to photograph, so definitely one that you’ll need to go and see for yourself to really appreciate how beautiful it is.

A little further out of the centre is more evidence of Ulug Beg’s interest in all things science. The Ulug Beg  Observatory was the world’s largest when it was built and was the site of some very important work, evidenced by the discovery of a quadrant arc that was used to chart the progress of celestial bodies. The observatory’s museum explains that Samarkand’s astronomers used it to produce a catalogue of stars which was widely used around the world. The arc is underground but you can peer down and see the tiny niches that enabled precise calculations. Its accuracy wasn’t beaten until the invention of the computer.

On route to lunch, we popped into a paper mill to be shown every stage of one of Uzbekistan’s traditional crafts in progress. It’s not uncommon to be taken to places like this on a tour and of course there was a shop with some lovely handmade products, but the mill was in a lovely setting and there was really no pressure to buy.

Then it was time for a final lunch with the group before some of us headed back to the capital city Tashkent to start our journey home, and others continued their Central Asia adventures in other ‘Stans. And of course, Umid made it a special one, taking us to Zargaron, which is probably one of Samarkand’s fanciest restaurants and has a fabulous view of the blue domes of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

The food was excellent and it was a great place to reflect not only on our time in stunning Samarkand, but on all of the fabulous places we visited in Uzbekistan. The trip was a long time coming after two years of pandemic delays but it was most definitely well worth the wait.

Click on an image below to scroll through a few more photos in the gallery and visit the Uzbekistan section of my blog for more posts about my trip.


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