Samarkand is an Astonishing City Where Islamic Treasures and Eastern Beauty Meet

When the famous Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta visited this wonderful place in 1330, he described it as “one of the greatest and finest cities, and most perfect of them in beauty”. He was right! Such a beauty like this can only be a piece of God’s Paradise on earth. I’ve never been to Uzbekistan and I’ve never visited Samarkand but it really stole my heart. The mosques, palaces, gardens and architecture reminds me of the Thousand and One Nights stories with the legendary and inspiring Persian queen and storyteller Shahrazed.

An Eastern pearl with a big history

After Tashkent, Samarkand is the second largest city of Uzbekistan. With its 2,750 years of history, Samarkand is considered as one of the oldest cities in the world. Once, it was the capital of the powerful state Sogdiana: the old civilization and the most important province of the First Persian Empire. Surrounded by mountain ranges, deserts and steppes, Sogdiana was a very rich and fertile area thanks to irrigation.

Due to its location on the Silk Road, Samarkand became one of the most flourishing cities in Central Asia for centuries, before and after the Arab-Islamic conquest. International trade was very important in Samarkand. Samarkand grew up as the most important commercial center in Central Asia. Merchants from different empires met, traded and exchanged ideas with each other in Samarkand.
No wonder that Alexander the Great conquered this jewel in 329 BC and said: “All I have heard about the beauty of this city is true, it is just much more beautiful in reality.”

In the 8th century, Samarkand was conquered by the Arabs and Muslims. During the Umayyad Dynasty, Samarkand prospered as a trading center on the route between Baghdad and China. During the reign of the Abbasids, Samarkand became the capital of Central Asia and developed into a very important center of Islamic civilization. It is here, near Samarkand, that the great theologian who authored the hadith collection, named Imam al-Bukhari, is buried. Under the Samanid Dynasty of Khorasan (874–999) and under the following reign of the Seljuks and the “shahs” (a shah is a title given to an emperor in Persia) of Khwarazm, Samarkand continued to flourish and to prosper. The darkest period in the history of Samarkand was marked by the Mongol invasion in 1220 led by Genghis Khan.

Samarkand, the capital of the Timurids

After a period of darkness, Samarkand revived in the 14th century. The grandson of Genghis Khan, Tamerlane (also known under his Persian and Turkish name Timur), was the founder and ruler of the new Timurid Empire. Samarkand became the capital of his new empire and it would be under his rule that the city reached its greatest splendour and grew up as the most flourishing city. He renovated the city and invited artists, architects and artisans from across his empire to live in Samarkand. Tamerlane was certainly a ruthless man towards his enemies, but also merciful towards those with special artistic competences. They were ordered to make Samarkand the greatest and most marvelous city. It had to be the jewel of Central Asia and the world.

The most impressive place in Samarkand is the Registan Square, which means “a sandy place”. The Registan Square is a huge public square surrounded on three sides by religious complexes of mosques, khans (a khan is a kind of overnight stay for caravans) and madrasas. The Registan Square was rebuilt several times between 1370 and 1500 by the Timurids.

Registan Square
Registan Square
Registan Square
Registan Square

After Tamerlane’s death, the empire of the Timurids quickly became weak and eventually completely lost its strength in the late 15th century. It was ruled by the Uzbeks for the next four centuries. Samarkand became a part of the emirate of Bukhara and fell into the hands of Russian troops in 1868. In 1925, Samarkand became the capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, but in 1930 it was replaced by Tashkent.

Shah-i-Zinda Mausoleum
Shah-i-Zinda Mausoleum
Detail of a portal in Samarkand
Detail of a portal in Samarkand

Samarkand, the blue city with its huge portals, magnificent palaces, turquoise domes and thousands of blue tiles is not just a “normal” city. When you close your eyes and prepare your trip to Samarkand, I’ll give you just one advice: prepare yourself for a trip through time. You are going to plunge right in the Thousand and One Nights stories and into the treasures of a world cultural heritage. Samarkand is what I call “an Islamic treasure and an Eastern beauty that met each other on the Silk Road.”

Written by Afifa Thabet

Afifa Thabet

Afifa Thabet is 33 years old. She studied Oriental Languages and Cultures and volunteers as a teacher. She's interested in everything concerning Islamic history and Arab societies.

  • Hikma History

    Interesting post! One amendment I should point out – Timur was not Ghengis’ grandson, not realistic considering he was born more than hundred years after Ghengis’ death. He did however claim descent from the Mongol conqueror.