Mural, Samarkand

In 1333 the Moor, Abu Abdullah Ibn Battuta (1304-1377) described Samarkand as "one of the largest and most perfectly beautiful cities in the world." [1] For the nineteenth century poet, James Elroy Flecker, Samarkand was on a par with Heaven: "Death has no repose warmer and deeper than that Orient sand." [2] Many others, including Keats, Milton, and Oscar Wilde, have also written about its charms - a spectacular oasis in the desert plains.

From a long history of invasion and a crucial position on the East/West trade routes emerged a city fit for kings - its name derives from Cimes-quinte, literally ‘great town'. Arguably, Samarkand's most renowned ruler was the Turko-Mongol warrior Tamerlane (1336-1405) or Timur the Lame , who rebuilt the city on the Zarafshan River after the Mongols had largely destroyed it during its capture under Ghengis Khan in 1221. Tamerlane made the city the seat of his considerable power. His successor, Shah Rukh, moved his capital to Herat leaving his son Ulugh Bek to rule Samarkand.

If Tamerlane's legacy in Asia was a vast empire, in Samarkand it was architecture to reflect such might and magnificence. As an old Arab proverb remarks on one of the buildings "if you want to know about us, observe our buildings." [3] Principle among these was the Bibi Khanum Mosque, which is still standing, and was to be grander than anything Tamerlane had seen during his conquests. It was built between 1399 and 1404 by 600 slaves and 100 elephants from India, and 200 architects, artists, master craftsmen and masons. It was declared that "its dome would have been unique had it not been for the heavens, its portal would have been unique if it were not for the Milky Way." [4] Another example of such architecture is the Taj Mahal in Agra, built by Shah Jahnon who himself was a Timurid.


Registan, SamarkandSamarkand also boasted a population fit for such a capital. Tamerlane brought captives from every land he conquered. "From Damascus he brought weavers of silk, and men who made bows, glass and earthenware... From Turkey he brought archers, masons, and silversmiths." [5] There were also stone-masons from Azerbaijan, Isfahan and Delhi and mosaic-workers from Shiraz, all in such numbers that "the city was not large enough to hold them." [6]

The population was reported to be over half a million, and netting half the commerce of Asia - such as leather, wool, linen, spices, silk, precious stones, fruit, hounds, horses and even leopards and lions. This was because the city was positioned at the heart of the Great Silk Road, a trading network running from Europe to Japan. The stops along the way, including Samarkand, were points of contact, not just for trade, but also for ideas, philosophies, knowledge and opinions.

Tamerlane's descendants shared his love of creation, if not his love of war and conquest, and under the Timurid dynasty this part of Asia experienced a period of Muslim learning in the arts and sciences. It was noted that "from the time of Adam until this day no age, period, cycle or moment can be indicated in which people enjoyed such peace and tranquility." [7]

The city was invaded by the Uzbeks in 1447, and again 50 years later, when they stayed to set up a new Turkic dynasty. Samarkand's modern-day fate was sealed by the Russian invasion in 1868. Following the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1990 the city now stands as the second major city of Uzbekistan.


[1] Umid World

[2] from the poem, The Golden Journey to Samarkand by James Elroy Flecker, available on-line.

[3] Cited by Lisa Golombek, lecture, University of Victoria, 25 February 1988, Oxus Communications


[5] ‘Narrative of the Embassy of Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo to the Court of Timour at Samarcand AD 1403-6', New York: Burt Franklin p171

[6] ibid.

[7] Wilfrid Blunt The Golden Road to Samarkand. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973 p144


Picture 1: Mural, Samarkand, by Citt, Flickr

Picture 2: The Registan, by AudreyH, Flickr

Picture 3: Tamerlane Statue, Taschkent, by Sigismund von Dobschutz, Wikipedia

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A city described as a spectacular oasis in the desert plains.