While mention of this city will induce a reflexive “where?” from all but the most seasoned of travelers, in the medieval past, Samarkand was one of the most important cities on the Silk Road. As it was Eurasia’s most prominent trade route during that age, Samarkand has an impressive share of cultural monuments, with mosques, mausoleums, and Islamic centres of learning that made this city one of most preeminent cities in Central Asia in its heyday.
With a lack of knowledge regarding Central Asia in western travel circles, an authoritarian government whose visa regulations resemble a Gordian knot of red tape, and irrational fears regarding the inhabitants of this region have kept this shining gem blessed free of tourists.
While this is the case in the present, now is the time to venture here and experience this dusty Silk Road city before this area potentially becomes friendlier to mass tourism in the future. There’s nothing on the horizon that suggests that a change of this magnitude is imminent, but procrastination is a deadly vice that could cost you an opportunity to experience this destination in its current unhurried state.
Start your journey through the streets of Samarkand with a slow and methodical exploration of the Registan. Consisting of three madrasahs (Islamic universities) and a public square that forms the centre of the complex, this place was a gathering place for the people of Samarkand in the days of yore, when royal edicts and executions were held here.
In the present day, it is a pleasant place for people to gather still, with the elaborate tile work underfoot, simple but gorgeous fountains, and of course, the imposing and detailed architecture of the three madrasahs making for a very attractive environment for anyone to meet and socialize.
There are many tombs that give tribute to the many figures that have affected this area prominently in the past, but one that you should make time to see if you have limited time is the Gur-e Amir Mausoleum. This tomb commemorates the feared conqueror known as Tamerlane, who intimidated foreign emissaries that visited his court by reportedly building pyramids comprised of skulls of all that opposed him.
Highlights here include the intricate interior muqarnas-style mosaic on the ceiling, one of the largest pieces of jade stone in the world, and an amazing opportunity to capture an excellent night photo of the mausoleum lit up in various colours.
After a successful campaign of conquest in India at the end of the 14th century, Tamerlane constructed the Bibi-Khanym Mosque to honour his successes. Using precious stones raided from India during his exploits, this hall was a glitzy place then, and today, its well-reconstructed walls will impress mosque enthusiasts with its scale, with the cupola rising 40 metres above the ground being a key object for photographers to capture.
The Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis is a city of the dead that is reputed to contain the tomb of Mohammed’s cousin, as well as the graves of many members of Tamerlane the Conqueror’s family. As such, there are many buildings with complex Islamic artwork that will have you wandering around snapping pictures for hours on end.
Not all of Samarkand reflects the scale of the important city that it used to be in the past. Much of what used to stand is now in ruins, and these remnants can be found at a place called Afrasiyab. Here, a museum containing many of the artifacts excavated from these ruins can be explored, with fragments of terracotta artwork, murals and other various other implements of everyday living available for review by archaeological enthusiasts.
Long ago during the rule of Tamerlane, his empire had tried to take Syria on several occasions, which each attempt ending in failure. Tamerlane was convinced that the body of the Old Testament prophet Daniel was blocking him from conquering the nation, so he launched a raid to steal the entombed body of Daniel, according to the legend. They brought the body back to the reputed Tomb of the Prophet Daniel, where it was said that a spring of healing water sprang up after resting his body near Samarkand. Today, the tomb is well kept, and is an interesting site to visit for those interested in biblical history.