Samarkand – Crossroads of Cultures (2001)

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The historic town of Samarkand is a crossroad and melting pot of the world's cultures. Founded in the 7th century B.C. as ancient Afrasiab, Samarkand had its most significant development in the Timurid period from the 14th to the 15th centuries. The major monuments include the Registan Mosque and madrasas, Bibi-Khanum Mosque, the Shakhi-Zinda compound and the Gur-Emir ensemble, as well as Ulugh-Beg's Observatory. 

Samarkand (Samarqand in Uzbek) is the third-largest city in Uzbekistan and the capital of Samarkand Province. The majority of the city's inhabitants are Tajik-speaking. In 2001, after several abortive attempts, UNESCO inscribed the 2700-year-old city on the World Heritage List as Samarkand - Crossroads of Cultures. In our time the city is often referred to as "The Gem of the East". 

Samarkand (Greek: Marakanda) is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, prospering from its location on the Silk Road trade route between China and Europe. At times Samarkand has been the greatest city of Central Asia, and for much of its history it has been under Persian rule. Founded circa 700 BC it was already the capital of the Sogdian satrapy under Achmenid Dynasty of Persia when Alexander the Great conquered it in 329 BC. 

From the 6th to 13th centuries it grew larger and more populous than modern Samarkand and was controlled by various Turks, Arabs, and Seljuk tribes before being sacked by the Mongols in 1220. A small part of the population survived, but Samarkand suffered at least another Mongol sack by Khan Baraq to get treasure he needed to pay an army with. 

Uzbekistan 1995. Souvenir sheet. The Silk Road.

In 1370, Tamerlane (Timur Lang) decided to make Samarkand the capital of his projected world empire, which extended from India to Turkey. For the next 35 years, he built a new city, populating it with artisans and craftsmen from all of the places he had captured. In spite of his alleged cruelty and atrocities, Timur soon gained a reputation for wisdom and generosity. 

Uzbekistan 1995. Samarkand. Gur-e Amir Mausoleum.

  • Uzbekistan 1995. Samarkand. Gur-e Amir Mausoleum. After the death of his grandson Muhammad-Sultan in 1403 Timur ordered the mausoleum built for him. With time, the Gur-e Amir became the family mausoleum of the Timurid Dynasty. See also the Soviet stamp below. 
  • Uzbekistan 1996. Souvenir sheet. 660th birth anniversary of Tamerlane (Timur Lang), 1336-1405. In the background ancient Uzbek architecture. 

Uzbekistan 1996. Souvenir sheet. 660th anniversary of Tamerlane (Timur Lang).

The gigantic, ruined Bibi-Khanym mosque (no stamps issued) was built by Timur's Mongol wife, Bibi-Khanym, while Timur was away campaigning. Bibi-Khanym was the niece of Genghis Khan. According to legend, the architect fell madly in love with her, and refused to complete the job unless she agreed to kiss him. The kiss left a mark, and the outraged Timur ordered both killed, and decreed that thenceforth the women of his empire would wear veils in the Arab-style. In any event, the mosque, with its main gate over 35 meters tall, was one of the largest and grandiose buildings in Samarkand. It mostly collapsed in an earthquake in 1897. 

Succeeding Tamerlane, his grandson Ulugh Beg ruled the country for 40 years. In Samarkand, Ulugh Beg created a scientific school that united outstanding astronomers and mathematicians. He also ordered the construction of an observatory; it contained a gigantic but precision-made marble sextant with an arc length of 63 meters.

Uzbekistan 1994. Samarkand. Ulugh Beg Mosque.

Uzbekistan 1994. Samarkand. Ulugh Beg. Astronomical equipment.

Uzbekistan 1994. 600th anniversary of Ulugh Beg (Tamerlane's grandsome).

Russia 1989. Samarkand. Khzart-Khyzr Mosque.

Russia 1979. Samarkand. Shir-Dor Mosque.

In the 16th century, the Uzbek Shaybanids moved their capital to Bukhara, and Samarkand went into decline. 

After an assault by the Persian warlord Nadir Shah, the city was abandoned in the 18th century. 

The last Emir of Bukhara, Muhammad Alim Khan (1880-1944) forcibly repopulated the town at the end of the 18th century. 

  • Russia 1989. Samarkand. Khzart-Khyzr Mosque. 
  • Russia 1979. Samarkand. Shir-Dor Mosque. 

In 1868, the city came under Russian rule, when the citadel was stormed by a force under Colonel A.K. Abramov (1836-1886). Shortly thereafter the small Russian garrison of 500 men were themselves besieged. The assault was led by the Beg of Shakhrisyabz, and the attack was beaten off with heavy losses. 

Russia 1963. Samarkand. Gur-e Amir Mausoleum. Russia 1963. Samarkand. Registan Square. Russia 1963. Samarkand. Schachi-Zinda Mosque.

One of the most awesome sights in Central Asia, if not one of the most remarkable in the world, the Registan was the center of medieval Samarkand. It consists of three huge madrasas, forming three sides surrounding a huge square. Sherdor Madrassa on the east was completed in 1636 by the Shaybanid Emir Yalangtush as a mirror image of Ulugh Beg Madrassa, except with decoration of roaring lions, a blatant violation of Islamic rules. Islamic tradition prohibits the realistic representation of living things in art. This artistic heritage is evident in the splendid, colorful mosaics that ornament many of Uzbekistan’s architectural monuments. 

Uzbekistan 1992. Samarkand. Registan Square.

The glazed tilework found on many religious buildings, for example, usually forms abstract geometrical patterns. Some of Uzbekistan’s famous monuments, however, display highly stylized images of animals and other living beings. Designs such as the tiled lion figures above the portal at Samarqand’s Shir Dar religious school are considered permissible because they are more symbolic than lifelike.

Tilla-Kari Madrassa in between was completed in 1660, with a golden decoration and with a pleasant courtyard. 

  • Uzbekistan 1992. Registan Square. 

As in the other Central Asian states, the predominant religion in Uzbekistan is Islam. Uzbeks and other Muslim peoples of Uzbekistan are primarily Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school. There are small, yet growing, communities of Muslims whom government authorities allege are fundamentalist Wahhabis. The Russian and Ukrainian minorities are traditionally Orthodox Christians.

Islam first appeared in the area of present-day Uzbekistan with Arab invaders in the 8th century. Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, became a strong influence in the political and economic life of the region between the 11th and 13th centuries. Sufi travelers brought Islam to non-Muslim conquerors of the region, who used the faith to increase their legitimacy among the local population. 

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Naqshabandiya became the dominant Sufi order. Naqshabandiya Sufis such as Khoja Ahrar (1404-1490) became wealthy landholders and powerful political brokers, maintaining this position until the Russian conquest of Central Asia in the 19th century. Sufis participated in and occasionally led revolts against Russian and Soviet rule, such as the revolt led by Dukchi Ishan in Andijon in 1898.

Uzbekistan 1994. 675th anniversary of the Bakhouddin Nakshband Mosque, Bukhara.

During the Soviet period, the officially atheistic Communist regime sought to restrict Islam, and most of Uzbekistan’s mosques were forcibly closed in the 1920s. Since 1989, when Islam Karimov rose to the leadership of Uzbekistan, restrictions on Islam have been relaxed. Since then many mosques have been restored or built in Uzbekistan, and religious literature has become much more accessible. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan's leaders have made it clear that the government will not tolerate the mixing of religion and politics by independent groups. 

Sources and links:

World Cultural Heritage Properties in Uzbekistan (on this web site). For more information about the individual properties, please refer to the UNESCO-listing, Uzbekistan-section.

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Revised 21 jul 2006  
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