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Samarkand – Crossroad of cultures
December 14, 2017, 3:30 pm
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The historic town of Samarkand, located in a large oasis in the valley of the Zerafshan River, in the north-eastern region of Uzbekistan, is considered the crossroads of world cultures with a history of over two and a half millennia.

Evidence of settlements in the region goes back to 1500 BC, with Samarkand having its most significant development from the 14th to the 15th centuries – known as the Temurid period – when it was capital of the powerful Temurid realm.

The contribution of the Temurid masters to the design and construction of the Islamic ensembles were crucial for the development of Islamic architecture and arts and exercised an important influence in the entire region, leading to the achievements of the Safavids in Persia, the Moghuls in India, and even the Ottomans in Turkey. The historic town of Samarkand illustrates in its art, architecture, and urban structure the most important stages of Central Asian cultural and political history from the 13th century to the present day.

The different historic phases of Samarkand’s development from Afrosiab to the Temurid city and then to the 19th century development have taken place alongside rather than on top of each other. The old towns still contain substantial areas of historic fabric with typical narrow lanes, articulated into districts with social centers, mosques, madrassahs, and residential housing, making the architecture and townscape of Samarkand masterpieces of Islamic cultural creativity.

Registan Square

In the heart of Samarkand lies the city’s true gem – Registan Square. A central city square that has been the capital of social interaction since the ancient period, is now a magnificent architectural complex of majestic madrasahs –the Arabic term for ‘the place where they teach’ – which is an icon of oriental architecture. The unique structural décor and significant history of the madrasahs has placed this site on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2001, drawing people in from around the world to witness the rich history and culture of the region. 

During the ancient period, Registan – which, when translated to the local dialect meant ‘Sandy place’ or ‘Desert’ – was a central square where people gathered to listen to the authorities recite decrees of the khan, celebrate festivities, witness public executions and carry out army training camps.

In time, artisans and farmers gathered in the square to carry out trade and sell their goods. As all the major roads of Samarkand led to Registan Square, a majority of public activity and social interaction took place here.

As the rulers in the region changed, the square underwent a number of changes to become the structure it is today. Now on the square stand three madrasahs: Ulugbek, Sher-Dor and Tillya-Kari, which were raised by the rulers Ulugbek and Yalangtush Bahadur during their period of rule over the city.

This iconic structure attracts a number of tourists and locals alike, and is the centre for concerts, celebrations and other events of the city and the republic.

 

Mausoleum of Imam al-Bukhari

Ismail al-Bukhary was a well-known theologian of the 9th century, who has been a renowned figure in the Muslim world for over a thousand years. Author of the haditha “Al-Djami as-salih” or “Trustworthy”, which is the second Muslim book after the Koran, his burial place in Samarkand is a significant pilgrimage destination for Muslims everywhere.

Next to the Imam’s tomb lies a mosque that was built in the 16th century, a revered spot not just limited to the people in Uzbekistan, but a significant and iconic destination for people all over Central Asia and other Muslim countries.

Bibi Khanum Mosque

The enormous congregational Bibi-Khanym Mosque, northeast of the Registan, was once one of the Islamic world’s biggest mosques, and pushed contemporary construction techniques to the limit, so much so that the dome started crumbling even before construction had finished.

The mosque partially collapsed in an earthquake in 1897 before being rebuilt in the 1970s and more rapidly in the years after independence.

The stories that revolve around the mosque are as iconic as the mosque itself. Legend has it that Bibi-Khanym, Timur’s wife, ordered the mosque built as a surprise while he was away. The architect fell madly in love with her and refused to finish the job unless he could give her a kiss. This left a mark and Timur, on seeing it, executed the architect and decreed that women should henceforth wear veils so as not to tempt other men.

The interior courtyard contains an enormous marble Quran stand that lends some scale to the place. The courtyard also contains two smaller mosques, one of which has an impressive untouched interior festooned with Arabic calligraphy.

Shahi-Zinda

Popularly referred to as Cemetery Street, the Shahi-Zinda complex is a string of elegant, sparkling blue-painted tombs, harmoniously interwoven into a living and moving composition of mausoleums of different times, closely grouped along a narrow medieval street.

The name, which means ‘Tomb of the Living King’, refers to its original, innermost and holiest shrine – a complex of cool, quiet rooms around the imaginary grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, who is said to have brought Islam to this area in the 7th century. According to the legend, Qusam ibn-Abbas came with a sermon to Samarkand in 640, where he spent 13 years and was beheaded by the Zoroastrians during the prayer.

Shahi Zinda is a reflection of some of the most pristine and complex tile work in Muslim architecture, the most stunning of which date back to the 14 and 15 century.

Gur Emir

The beautiful portal and trademark fluted azure dome of the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum marks the final resting place of Timur, along with two sons and two grandsons. Timur's tomb, made of a single piece of jade, is located in the center of the dome. The graves themselves are located below, in the basement of the mausoleum and are located just like the tombstones in the hall above. The graves of the Timurids were only opened once in 1941, with which a well-known legend is associated.

The mausoleum itself is a fine example of medieval architecture. Contemporaries to this day admire the harmony of its proportions. The ribbed dome and the walls of the crypt are entirely covered with a mosaic of light and dark blue glazed bricks, gilding and paintings.

Embossed rosettes on the dome imitate the starry sky. The interior is complemented by openwork grilles on the windows, marble and onyx panels covered with painting, carving and inlaid with semiprecious stones.

Subsequently, Gur-Emir served as a prototype for the famous monuments of architecture of the Great Mogul era: the mausoleum of Humayun in Delhi and Taj Mahal in Agra, built by the descendants of Timur, who ruled in Northern India.

 

 

 

 

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