The fast and comfortable Afrosiyob train brought us from Bukhara to Samarkand in the evening.
In vain we searched for the downtown bus and then negotiated a ride with the driver of a beat up taxi to our little hotel close to Registan. Thank goodness for any and all remnants of Mirek’s school Russian! Yes, you can operate with simple English, but fluent Russian is spoken by everyone. After we dropped off our bags and took a look at the lovely green courtyard and colorful furnishings
I made Mirek go out again. We walked a few minutes to Registan, the heart of Samarkand, as I couldn’t wait to see it all beautifully lit in a flood of golden light, just like in the many pictures I saw.
I nearly started crying when I beheld the gaudy light show with loud music. To each it’s own, I guess, but I don’t appreciate this kind of “artistic licence” with world heritage.
The next morning we met with Anora, our guide for the day and I was still traumatised and refused to go back. We took a taxi instead to Bibi Khanum mosque. It is still impressive today, but in the 15th century, it was one of the largest and most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world. We started our guided tour by walking through the Siyob Bazar where my soul was soothed by the lovely colors of first spring fruits; orange apricots, red cherries, unripe green plums
and mounds of luscious strawberries
The blue-green tiles of the domes beckoned
and a goofy boy in a blue shirt with green eyes smiled at me and all was good with the world again.
Walking around the enormous mosque we heard plenty of stories. Guides love legends and tales. We were told the well known story of Bibi and the impudent architect who demanded that she allowed him to kiss her on the cheek in order to finish the mosque in time for her husband Timur’s return from war. The kiss left a permanent stain and the architect lost his head when Timur found out. It is in truth Timur that built the mosque in honor of his wife Sara Mulk aka Bibi Khanum (really just a honorific title of “Lady, Khan’s daughter).
Perhaps this is a good time to say a few words about Amir Timur, because Samarkand’s biggest treasures are inextricably connected to this larger than life figure. He was the first ruler of the long and ilustrious Timurid dynasty. He is going down in annals of history as one of the most ruthless conquerors (killing an estimated 17 million people) and at the same time a huge patron of the arts (even if many of his artists and architects were captives brought from afar).
Timur (Iron) or Timurlenk (Timur the Lame) anglicized as Tamerlane was born on the steppes close to modern day Samarkand as a Turkified Mongol. He was quite tall but indeed lame in his leg with a withered arm due to injuries. (Sustained either stealing sheep or in battle – take your pick.) That drawback did not prevent him from conquering the world atop a horse
and taking many wives. Many were widows of rulers of conquered lands, killed by Timur. It was customary to take on the harem of the enemy you defeated. Nobody asked the ladies, but I guess they thought it was a pretty good alternative to being raped and slaughtered.
Beautiful Bibi was one such case and she became Timur’s most favored wife. It did help that she was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan which solidified Timur’s leadership legitimacy. So you see there was much more to picking from the harem of defeated enemy than just a conqueror choosing beautiful spoils of war for himself. In general women, married to or taken as concubines by high powered leaders were always of high birth themselves and offered alliances and diplomatic powers to the men. They had wealth of their own and built and endowed mosques, schools, and hospitals.
For anyone interested in this subject I recommend a fascinating book: The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by Jack Weatherford, about the impact and legacy of Genghis Khan’s daughters and Mongol queens.
For the arial view of Bibi’s mosque,
we climbed to the mausoleum of the former president Islam Karimov. Here is another of the controversial leaders, ruthless communist authoritarian and the father of Uzbeksitan independent nation. The many devoted visitors there and especially school children on field trips most likely subscribe to the latter notion.
Nearby lays the important Shah-I-Zinda necropolis where many of Timur’s female relatives have been entombed. Normally quite keen on graveyards of all sorts, this one somehow failed to impress. Rather than trying to remember the nieces, wives, and even Timur’s wet nurse, we enjoyed people-watching.
As was a daily occurence we were again besieged by members of a school trip for a group photo.
I quickly took advantage of the situation and asked for some portraits. Every girl was keen to have hers taken and they enjoyed seeing them on my iPhone screen.
Timur himself is NOT buried there. He wanted to be buried in a simple structure in his nearby home town of Sahrisabz but since he died in winter during his military expedition to China and passes were snowed in they put him to rest in Samarkand. He is interred in a mausoleum that was originally intended to be the tomb of his beloved grandson and heir apparent Muhhamad Shah who died young just two years before Timur. It then became a Timurid dynastic mausoleum.
And what a splendid place it is. The outside is just another one of the pleasing brick-tile combos, but it would eventually inspire the glorious Taj Mahal, built by Timur’s descendants who established the Mughal (the very word a corruption of “Mongol”) dynasty in India.
But, oh, the inside… a breathtaking shimmering blue and gold jewel box
cocooning a collection of different sarcophagi from the male Timurid line. Remember, the ladies had their own individual pretty mausolea at Shah-I-Zinda?
It is one of those places that defies description, one simply has to experience it. Preferably without the crowds and loud guides. If I was in charge I would prohibit all guided tours. Explain anything you want outside and then let people just savor the harmony of the space and the deep sense of history. People come here to pay respects.
and say a prayer.
If there was one thing that I absolutely wanted to see in Samarkand it was Ulugh Beg Observatory. He was the grandson of Timur the Great but loved astronomy and mathematics a bit more than conquering and pillaging.
Sixty astronomers and mathematicians were invited to work at the observatory and the celestial measurements they obtained were extremely accurate. Don’t ask me how, there is of course a perfectly logical explanation, but despite going through the excellent museum on site I can not explain any of it. Still, wow, to do that kind of astronomy in 15th century without powerful telescopes and computers and space probes!
The observatory was destroyed by Ulug Beg’s own son soon after he had his father killed on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Very pious, these guys, really!
Married for the first time at 10, Ulugh Beg became a governor of Samarkand at 16, after his own father’s death. He had 13 wives and lots of enemies. When did the dude find time to build observatories and universities?
The University I am talking about is his madrasah in the Registan complex that was known as one of the best universities of Muslim world. It transformed what was medieval Samarkand’s large and vibrant commercial centre where camels unloaded their precious Silk Road cargo into educational center as well. Ulug Beg himself taught astronomy there.
So we have come full circle. After initial evening disappointment I did return to Registan and not only once but thrice: once with the guide, once with Mirek and once by myself. At different times of day with the sun illuminating different parts of the three buildings it revealed many faces and hidden corners.
Opposite Ulug Beg Madrasa an early 17th century governor Yalangtush built its near mirror image – the Sher Dor madrasah. The facade is striking (and memorable) for the two lions/tigers/fantastical cats and human-faced suns chasing two deer that guard the portal, an unexpected return to pre-Islamic Zoroastrian symbolism.
Daring indeed as Islam prohibits depictions of animals or human faces. To get away with it we were told the lions were seen as symbols of students with a hunger for knowledge, the deer as knowledge and the sun as enlightenment. There are also reverse swastikas, which symbolized abundance and fertility in ancient times.
To enclose the square in pleasing harmony, Yalangtush had a third madrasah built on the ruins of a mosque constructed by Bibi Khanum.
Because of its lavish interior, swathed in golden leaf, very much reminiscent of Timur’s mausoleum, it is called Tillya Kari (“the gilded one”). It was to become the city’s main mosque.
We were glad to have structured our trip starting in charming little Khiva and culminating with the lavish Samarkand instead of the other way around.
With the foreign tourists scarce, the interactions with local families were precious.
Before saying goodbye to Samarkand we should not forget to mention the friendly encounter with some special Servas people. For some of you who have been following us from the beginning of our empty nest adventures you might remember our stays with Servas members in New Zealand and Australia. Servas International is an organization that brings together people from around the world to promote peace and understanding.
After many emails exchanged and 2 year delay in our arrival to Uzbekistan we finally met up with Anatoly and Irina who in turn introduced us to their Servas friend Rafik. It felt like we were a living poster child for the international (and local) peace and understanding as Anatoly was of mixed Armenian and Russian ancestry, his wife was Tatar and Rafik Tajiki.
We spent a lovely afternoon at his fruit farm being plied with food at a traditional Uzbekistani or should we rather call it Central Asian feast. The table was overflowing with sumptuous homemade dishes that magically appeared from the kitchen, hidden to our eyes and occupied by the elfin hands of Rafik’s wife and daughter-in-law.
A wonderful send off to the last part of our Uzbekistan travels to Tashkent and Fergana valley.