We started our first full day in Samarkand with breakfast in the Zarina’s basement dining room, surrounded by all the objects collected by the family – old radios, musical instruments etc. Then it was time for our morning sightseeing tour.
After Khiva and Bukhara, Samarkand seemed big and full of bustle, but unlike Tashkent I felt that it retained more of its central Asian character, even in the more modern areas of the city. As an overall destination it didn’t move me in the way that Bukhara had, but some of the individual sights are among the most striking I have seen anywhere. The first impression of the Shah-i-Zinda will remain with me always, and naturally too the stunning Registan Square, though I was more prepared for that by images I’d seen before the trip.
If, as I’ve said elsewhere on these pages, Bukhara was my favourite of the Silk Road cities we visited, this was by far the most impressive and awe-inspiring individual sight. When our travelling companion Els exclaimed, ‘It’s too much for my eyes,’ I knew just what she meant!
The Pishtak, Shah-i-Zinda
Entering through the grand entrance of Ulug Beg’s pishtak, which even on its own would be an impressive sight, we were greeted with a long line of mausoleums, many of them decorated in splendidly rich tile-work, mainly of blues but with touches of other colours too. As we climbed up through the complex more appeared, until I truly didn’t know where to look next, and indeed almost wanted the splendour to stop for a while so that I could take in all that I’d already seen.
Shah-i-Zinda - the 'street'
Plan of Shah-i-Zinda
This is the holiest site in Samarkand. According to legend, the prophet Elijah led Kussam-ibn-Abbas, first cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, to the Afrosiab hill north east of Samarkand's current location. The legend tells how Kussam came to bring Islam to this Zoroastrian area, and was attacked and beheaded for his trouble. It was believed that despite this he continued to live, and indeed is alive still in an underground palace on this site, which now bears his name; ‘Shah-i-Zinda’ means ‘the Living King’.
Many people believed that the closer you were buried to a holy man, the easier your own route to Heaven would be; thus between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries some 30 tombs were built to form this necropolis centred upon Kussam's mausoleum. The earlier ones clustered around the top of the hill and later they were extended down the southern slope, forming the ‘street’ of mausoleums we see today. Tamerlaine buried many of his female family members here, and Ulug Beg built the grand pishtak as an entrance from the city to this holy place. In Soviet times, and even today, this belief about being buried close to holy men has persisted, so that the hill is now crowned by a cemetery.
For me the greatest impact of the Shah-i-Zinda was the sheer multitude of wonderful structures, many of them glowing so richly with the incredible tile-work, and also the sense of awe and sanctity it exudes. However, some parts and some individual buildings did stand out in particular, so I’ll try to do them justice. The numbers in bold in my text relate to the plan above so you can get some idea of the layout, but feel free to ignore them if you aren’t as obsessed by maps as I am!
After passing through Ulug Beg’s dramatic pishtak (18), the first structure on our left was a relatively recent (19th century) mosque (19), and beyond it a wooden iwan (25). Here an imam was greeting pilgrims and praying with them. In a courtyard on the right (23) a girl was butchering meat, a strangely prosaic sight in this holy place.
... and butcher
The mausoleums are arranged in three groups, separated by gateways known as chortaks, with steps connecting the lower and middle groups. These steps are known as the Staircase of Sinners and it is said that you should count them on your way up and your way back down. If the two numbers coincide you are sinless – mine did, which probably just proves the legend wrong
The Staircase of Sinners
Halfway up the Staircase of Sinners is the Qasi Zadeh Rumi Mausoleum (17), dating from 1420-25 (17), the first of Shah-i-Zinda’s treasures. Its twin blue domes seem to soak up the colour of the sky and throw it out again even more intensely. This is the largest mausoleum in the complex, and perhaps surprisingly is the tomb not of a great ruler but of Tamerlaine’s wet nurse. A wet nurse was however considered as a second mother, and loved as dearly, which makes it a little less surprising.
The Qazi Rumi Mausoleum
Passing through the next chortak we were assailed by the sheer scale and splendour of the complex. A complete street of mausoleums, many of them restored and gleaming with an intense blueness, stretched in front of us. The first four were immediately in front of us; two pairs facing each other across the ‘street’. These were the group that made the most powerful impression on me, because of their proximity to each other – they seemed almost to topple over us, an impression which I tried to capture in my photos.
The Emir Zade and Emir Hussein Mausoleums
The first on the left is the Emir Zade Mausoleum, dating from 1386 (10), and on the right the Emir Hussein Mausoleum, 1376 (9).
Emir Zade Mausoleum
- detail of tile-work
The Emir Hussein Mausoleum
The next pair are the Shadi Mulk Aka Mausoleum from 1372 (8) and Shirin Bika Aka from 1385 (14). Both of these house tombs of Tamerlaine’s sisters; the first has an inscription which reads ‘This is a tomb in which a precious pearl has been lost’.
Ceiling of the Shadi Mulk Aka Mausoleum
Beyond this group and to the right is an unusual 15th century octagonal mausoleum (20). This is anonymous, as are the four unrestored ones on the left. This lack of restoration here came almost as a relief, as it allowed me time to recover my breath (figuratively speaking) and my senses, after the riches that had gone before.
As we continued up through the Shah-i-Zindah complex the ‘street’ widened and it was possible to stand back from the structures to get a different perspective. This photo shows two of the mausoleums in this group, Alim Nasafi (11) and Ulug Sultan Begum (12), both dating from around 1385.
Alim Nasafi & Ulug Sultan Begum Mausoleums
Finally we reached the upper end of the complex, and a group of buildings including the Tuman Aka Mosque (16) and Mausoleum (15) which stand side by side, with the mainly 15th century Kussam ibn Abbas Mosque (21) opposite. The Tuman Aka buildings are dedicated to Tamerlaine’s favourite wife – the calligraphy above the entrance reads: ‘The tomb is a door and everybody enters it’.
Dome of the Tuman Aka Mosque
The Tuman Aka Mausoleum on the left, and looking out of the Kussam ibn Abbas Mosque to the Tuman Aka Mosque on the right
I found the Kussam ibn Abbas Mosque one of the most interesting structures here. We entered along a corridor to find ourselves in a series of small rooms, including one with brightly coloured tile-work. The same room has a carved wooden frieze from the earlier 11th century mosque that once occupied this site. You can also peer through a wooden grille to see the four-tiered tomb of Kussam ibn Abbas himself, in the adjacent mausoleum, decorated with ornate majolica and the focus of every pilgrim’s visit.
The door of the mosque is of elm, its original elaborate ivory inlay lost but since restored (I have no idea whether ivory was used in the restoration or something else resembling it). An inscription reveals that the door was made in 1404-05 by the master Yusuf Shirazi.
Locals at the Shah-i-Zinda
By the time I reached this point in the complex my eyes were saturated with colour and splendour, and I certainly felt the truth of Els’s words: the Shah-i-Zinda is indeed almost too much for your eyes to take in. I took a break in the shade to sit for a while to contemplate the wonder of this place, and also the reverence with which these tombs were constructed. This was the spot where I decided finally that on balance the Soviet restoration of Uzbekistan’s wonders, which some consider to be over-done, was in fact justified; thanks to them we are able to see this place as its builders intended and marvel at their achievements.
The Ulug Beg Observatory
When all of us could finally tear ourselves away from the Shah-i-Zinda we went on to our next Samarkand sight which, while hardly on the same scale, was nevertheless fascinating.
The Ulug Beg Observatory Museum
Ulug Beg, grandson of Tamerlaine, is often referred to as the ‘Astronomer King’, and here we found out why and learned more about this extraordinary ruler. As a young man he developed a love of learning; of mathematics, history, poetry and music – and especially of astronomy. Under his rule Samarkand became known as a cultured city, and here in 1424 Ulug Beg ordered the construction of this huge (for its time) observatory. And it was indeed ahead of its time. I have some very amateurish interest in astronomy myself and so was fascinated to hear about all his achievements.
Here Ulug Beg worked with other astronomers to record the co-ordinates of over 1,000 stars, to predict eclipses, and most impressive of all measured the solar year to within a minute of our modern, technology-assisted calculations.
The main structure of his Observatory has today almost completely disappeared, to be replaced by a Soviet-constructed series of blocks outlining where it would have been. But below ground you can still see the partial remains (11 metres of them) of his great sextant which was used in many of his observations and calculations. Incidentally it’s called a sextant because only 60 degrees of it were used, but it was actually a full 90 degree quadrant, the largest ever constructed at that time.
It was however only by studying the exhibits in the little museum that I was really able to make sense of what the sextant originally looked like and how it operated. There was also a mural showing Ulug Beg teaching astronomy, and I rather enjoyed some of the paintings too – one of Ulug Beg’s birth and another of a design for a ballet called ‘The Legend of Samarkand’.
Ulug Beg teaching astronomy, and his birth
‘The Legend of Samarkand'
As I learned later from Wikipedia, he was rather less good at ruling than he was at science and astronomy. He lacked authority and he was overthrown and assassinated after only a short reign. But his scientific achievements live on – there is even a crater on the moon named after him.
The Gur Emir
Our final stop of the morning was at Tamerlaine’s mausoleum, the Gur Emir.
The dome of the Gur Emir
Wherever you go in Uzbekistan it is impossible to avoid hearing the name of Tamerlaine. It seems every nation needs its heroes, and when the Soviets left the country and their heroic statues of Lenin and Marx were pulled down, it was Tamerlaine who took their places on plinths around the country and who came to symbolise for Uzbeks their new-found independence and freedom. Observers from outside might question his credentials as a hero – this is after all a man who, in attempting to conquer the world, left an estimated 17 million people dead in his wake. But in Samarkand in particular he left the legacy of great peace, prosperity and splendour.
Detail of the dome
Naturally then his mausoleum is of a scale to impress. An unnamed poet is said to have exclaimed on seeing it, ‘Should the sky disappear, the dome will replace it’, and you can sort of see what he meant. Built originally for and by his grandson Mohammed Sultan who died in 1403, it became Tamerlaine’s own burial place also, and that of other descendants too, including Ulug Beg. Other buildings would previously have surrounded it (a madrassah and khanagha) but it now dominates its courtyard. Its octagonal shape is crowned by the immense ribbed dome, 32 metres high and covered in turquoise, yellow and green tiles.
We entered down a short passage which was added to the structure by Ulug Beg. Souvenir books and crafts were on sale here, seeming very out of place in this imposing space. From inside the dome is even more overwhelming, and is adorned with gilded calligraphy, as are the walls below.
Inside the dome
Beneath it lie the tombs, or rather marble cenotaphs marking the spots below which are the tombs themselves – of Tamerlaine, Ulug Beg and Mohammed Sultan, and also of Tamerlaine’s advisor Mir Sayid Barakah, and of several of his sons. A long pole crowned with a flourish of horsehair marks the grave of a holy man whose remains were found here when the mausoleum was built.
Tombs in the Gur Emir
From here it was a very short drive back to the hotel. As we had two full days in Samarkand, our guided sightseeing was split over the two mornings, leaving us with free afternoons for some independent exploration. For Chris and me that meant, as a first priority, lunch.
Labi Gor Chaikhana
On the main road between the hotel and the Registan we found just what we were looking for. We though this probably the best of the restaurants we tried in Samarkand and was the perfect spot to unwind over a leisurely lunch after our morning’s sightseeing. Be warned though – that was back in 2007 and these days it doesn’t seem to get very good reviews!
The restaurant is quite large and arranged over two floors; the inside ground-floor space looked OK to us but the real delight was the first floor terrace with both traditional and western style seating, and glimpses of the Registan’s madrassah through the leaves of the surrounding trees. The friendly waiter spoke reasonable English and ran through the menu for us, so there was no need for us to worry about any language difficulties.
At Labi Gor
I ate some tasty manty (small mutton and onion stuffed dumplings, similar to Chinese dim sum, served with a dollop of yoghurt) while Chris had a large bowl of noodle soup. We shared a round of non, green tea and a big bottle of fizzy water, and found the bill of under £2 very reasonable given the location.
Sue arrived while we were eating and took this photo of the restaurant with us at our table with a view!
In Labi Gor (taken by Sue)
The Registan was on the agenda for tomorrow morning’s guided sightseeing tour, but we couldn’t be this close and not go and take a look, so after lunch we walked along to check it out. Our guidebook told us a bit about what we were seeing. The Registan is Samarkand’s (indeed, probably Uzbekistan’s) most famous sight, and with good reason.
The Registan was the heart of ancient Samarkand. The name Registan means ‘sandy place’ in Persian and it was said that the sand was strewn on the ground to soak up the blood from the public executions that were held here until early in the 20th century. This is where Tamerlane stuck his victims’ heads on spikes, and where people gathered to hear royal proclamations. In his time this was the commercial centre of his capital city, where six roads met under a domed bazaar; it must have been similar to the Trading Domes of Bukhara. But his grandson Ulug Beg had grand plans for this space, and nowadays three madrasahs surround the large open space he created: the Ulug Beg Madrasah (1417-1420) which he had built, plus the later Shir Dor (1619-1636) and the Tillya Kari (1646-1660) Madrasahs. These stunning buildings are all constructed on a grand scale, dwarfing the people at their bases.
Tillya Kari and Shir Dor Madrassahs
Sculpture near the Registan
Artists at the Registan
I’ll save more detailed information for my next entry, as that is when we had our more detailed look at the three madrassahs. For now we simply wandered around near the square and took a few photos from a distance, without paying for the tickets that would have given us a closer look, given that admission to the site would be included in our tour tomorrow.
The Bird of Happiness Gallery
In the streets just east of the Registan we stumbled across a cluster of upmarket shops in a small courtyard. I’d been searching for a gift for my mother, who liked scarves (which you can find in abundance in Uzbekistan) but preferred square ones (which you hardly see at all!) Then in this little gallery I found what I’d been looking for.
Bird of Happiness gallery
The owner welcomed us with tea and sweets and answered (in limited English) our questions about the work for sale. It didn’t sell traditional Uzbek crafts but more modern ones, with a great range of paintings in various media, pottery and hand-painted silk scarves – including some square ones! The prices weren’t cheap - indeed by local standards they were high, and haggling wasn’t an option, but the items were of very good quality and worth what is asked for them, so I was very happy with my purchase.
Next door was another gallery displaying more paintings and very good photos of Uzbek scenery and Samarkand itself, so we enjoyed a browse there too but didn’t buy anything.
In the side street that led to the Zarina B & B were a couple of small local shops, where we had already discovered that we could buy bottled water at a lower price than that sold in the hotel. We stopped off here again this afternoon so that I could buy sweets to take home for work colleagues. This involved a fair amount of miming as I was keen to get a good mix of flavours but at the same time avoid chocolate which wouldn’t have survived in that heat. The shop-keeper was a little bemused at first but eventually we were able to understand each other and the resulting purchase gave me lots of satisfaction. The sweets were pretty tasty too!
Relaxing in the courtyard back at the hotel over a cold drink, we made dinner plans with some of the others from our group. Both Marat (our guide) and our Lonely Planet guidebook recommended the Karimbek restaurant, so we decided to give it a try.
We hailed a taxi on Registan Street and agreed a reasonable fare with the driver for the shortish ride to the restaurant. It was certainly a much better choice than the Marco Polo where we’d eaten the previous evening. There was plenty of choice, and an English-language menu of sorts – anyone for ‘Reach pleasure’, a ‘bird dich’ or 'Fred chicken'? Personally I prefer the meat I eat not to have a name! Note too that 'Payment for broken dishes is in accordance with the price list' - I wonder how many breakages they get if they feel the need to state this on the menu?!
The menu at Karimbek
We chose a couple of salads to share to start with, one made with mushrooms and another called ‘charm’ which turned out to be a sort of coleslaw. We also had a hot appetiser of potato skins stuffed with cheese and mushrooms – very tasty. The main courses were less successful (my chicken was a bit dry, Chris’s pork chop rather salty) but the beer was good and the terrace where we sat very pleasant.
The bill came to rather more than the other places where we ate in Samarkand but of course was cheap compared with eating out at home. It came on a tiny scrap of paper with just the figure scrawled on it, so we had no way of knowing if it was right or not! Look at the photo below which Sue took of Georgina – the bill is in her right hand, dwarfed by the bundle of cash needed to pay it!
Georgina with the bill (taken by Sue)
What really made our evening was meeting the group of local ladies at the next table, who were there with their children for what was evidently a ‘girls’ night out’. They were having a great time, with lots of laughter (gold teeth much in evidence) and I’m sure some sips of vodka between the glasses of Fanta! Eventually one of them (the lady standing on the left of Chris’s photo of me with the group) plucked up the courage to come over to us, after several exchanges of smiles, to practice her little English: ‘Uzbekistan good?’ ‘Samarkand good good?’ – not much, but so much better than my Uzbek! A lovely encounter to end our evening.
Me with our new friends!