The sound of Samarkand as it drips over my tongue sounds exotic and mysterious – but what is the reality? The first time I went to Samarkand I was surprised by the architecture in the centre of the old area. I had been expecting Muslim buildings, the symmetry and form of classical mosque and minaret, but the Registan is such a decorative mix of cultures with animals and motifs. The structures in the ensemble shouts we are a hybrid of different times, cultures and ideas – pay attention because there is lots to learn here. The towering facades are works of art and the nearby blue tiled dome reflects the clear sky. Birds dart across the towers and the people are small against the structures.
Once the main square was an open market and I can imagine the noise, smells and calls of many merchants. Nowadays the market has moved to another area which is also a must see; with the camel wool knitted scarves, the huge mounds of candy and the ladies with their golden teeth.
The last time I went to Samarkand the surrounding area had been tidied up and made more attractive with planting and paths. These highlighted the beauty of the area and allowed the exquisite form of the buildings to be seen. One of my favourite clients burst into tears when she saw the beauty of the place and thanked me profusely for bringing her here.
Near the Registan are tall walls which hide the clutter of narrow streets with blind corners and multiple secrets. Its walking only as the streets are narrow and the surface lumpy. Usually the houses have no windows to the alleyways and when a door is open you can glimpse the courtyard of the family home. A shallow step down and the concreted floor swept clean. The best time to explore these lanes is on Saturday; the Muslim men gather around huge pots to make the family paella. This rice dish is slowly cooked with meat, whole garlic cloves, entire lemons and lots of vegetables. It takes hours to cook so the men talk and discuss in the open air.
Once I was here with an accommodating guide and asked to be taken to the local synagogue I knew was hidden in a back street. We did find it and the gentleman at the door was so encouraged by our visit that he enthusiastically showed us everything that was inside. Sadly I have never been able to find the synagogue again. I have been told all the Jews in Samarkand left one night and took with them the secrets of how to repair shoes and how to make lemonade.
So what else is in Samarkand? There are numerous tombs including the majestic tomb of the legendary Tamerlane and his family. This place is so beautiful, colourful and huge you really have to visit it to grasp the power of Tamerlane’s presence even today. I must say Tamberlane’s reputation has improved in recent times and he has become a hero rather than a tyrant. Probably best to read up about the man before going to Uzbekistan to get a comprehensive view of history.
My all-time favourite is the Bibi Khanum Mosque; this ruin has its own charm. The birds nest in the corners and the paint is faded from the niches but the glory of the architecture is still visible. It took 95 elephants to bring the marble from India – and it was worth it. The nearest I have seen to the beauty of Bibi is in Delhi India where the art of the Uzbeks was taken to the mosques there.
In one of the corners of Bibi is a wood carver and his work is that wonderful symmetry of art in oiled wood. Muslim art is wonderful for its simplicity and yet intricate lace work patterns. Definitely a good buy from legendary Samarkand.
Mandy has been a tour leader with Tours Direct for over 15 years. She has a wealth of experience and never gets tired of travelling to old and new destinations.