Ye Olde Travel Guide: Samarkand 1404

Justin Marozzi offers his advice for those visiting the capital of the mighty Timurid empire, home to some of the finest architecture in Asia

Illustration by Jonty Clark.

This article was first published in the May 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

When to go

The Pearl of the East welcomes visitors throughout the year, but bear in mind that temperatures plummet below freezing in winter and you’ll need to wrap up in fur (or buy some quickly on arrival). This is the Asian steppe, remember. Spring and autumn are probably the best times to visit. Come soon. The mighty emperor Tamerlane is an old man now and who knows what’ll happen when Allah carries him off.

This article was first published in the May 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

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When to go

The Pearl of the East welcomes visitors throughout the year, but bear in mind that temperatures plummet below freezing in winter and you’ll need to wrap up in fur (or buy some quickly on arrival). This is the Asian steppe, remember. Spring and autumn are probably the best times to visit. Come soon. The mighty emperor Tamerlane is an old man now and who knows what’ll happen when Allah carries him off.

What to take with you

Whatever you do, don’t overpack. Everything you’ll need, and far more besides, is available in Samarkand. You don’t get to be the imperial capital of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen for nothing. Save some space for all that shopping.

Costs and money

Food is cheap and plentiful thanks to the agricultural riches of this fertile slice of land between the Oxus and Jaxartes, two of the four medieval rivers of paradise. Luxuries, of which there is no shortage in the teeming bazaars, will cost rather more.

Sights and activities

Where do we begin? Samarkand is one of the most magnificent cities on earth. Visitors with an interest in architecture will be astonished by the multitude of palaces built by Tamerlane since his world-conquering rampages began in 1370. Top of the list is the Gok Sarai or Blue Palace, at once a citadel, treasury, prison and armaments factory where captive artisans and armourers are put to work.

You’ll know you’re close when you hear the great walls reverberating with the din of burly men hammering out plate armour and helmets. Ask nicely and you may even get to see the archives and treasury, heaving with Asia’s plundered treasures.

Just south of the Iron Gate between Afrosiab (ancient Samarkand) and the newly settled quarters to the south, the Bibi Khanym – Mother Queen – Mosque soars above the skyline, its lofty dome glittering iridescent blue. No wonder it’s Tamerlane’s pride and joy. It’s one of the most colossal monuments ever built in the Islamic world. As the emperor likes to remind visitors: “Let he who doubts our power look upon our buildings.”

Avid gardeners will be mesmerised by the royal parks. Choose from 16, with exotic names like Garden of Paradise, the Model of the World and Sublime Garden, each one complete with palaces, immaculate lawns, meadows, babbling streams, lakes, orchards, bowers and flowers. If you really want to ramble, the Takhta Qaracha Gardens are a must. This park is so vast that when one of the builders working on it lost his horse, the animal roamed about grazing quite happily for six months before he found it again.

Dangers and annoyances

Have no fear from a long overland journey to Samarkand. Thanks to Tamerlane, a child can carry a purse of gold unmolested from the western borders of the empire to its farthest reaches in the east. Don’t take our word for it. The Spanish envoy Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo arrived here recently after a 6,000-mile journey from Cadiz and reported the whole empire at peace.

Sleeping/accommodation

Stick with the caravan of merchants you travelled with and benefit from their discount at one of hundreds of caravanserais dotted across the city. Upside: inexpensive and centrally located; downside: many of them reek of camel urine and excrement. If you’re a VIP, you’re in luck. The emperor will put you up in one of the city’s many exquisite, blue-domed palaces. Lord it up while you can.

Eating

Take an insider’s tip and head to the open squares where butchers sell cooked meat – fowl, pheasants and partridges – roasted or in stews. Soft fresh bread is plentiful and rice is available everywhere.

If you like fruit, you’re going to love Samarkand. The melons here are particularly famous, big as a horse’s head, grown in such abundance that many are cured and kept for a year. Then there are the succulent peaches, pears and pomegranates, plums, apricots, apples, grapes, quinces and figs. Tuck in!

Shopping

If you need a spot of retail therapy after your long journey bobbing up and down on a camel, Samarkand will provide just the tonic. Tamerlane has made this city the emporium of the east, located on the great Khorasan road running east from Baghdad to the border with China. Head into the bustling bazaars to pick up furs, leather and linens from Russia and Tartary, and silks, rubies, diamonds, agates, pearls, musk and spices from China.

From India come nutmegs, cloves, mace and cinnamon, ginger and manna. Then there’s cloth, glass and metalware from Syria and Asia Minor. Don’t miss the local factories making silks, crêpes and taffetas.

Getting around

Local transport won’t set you back much. Horses are the foundation of Tamerlane’s army, after all, and there are plenty of them.

Justin Marozzi is a travel writer and historian. His books include Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World (HarperCollins, 2004)


Samarkand today

Once the beating heart of the Timurid empire, Samarkand survives as the crowning glory of not just Uzbekistan, but all of central Asia. Today the city receives a stream, but not a flood of visitors who come to marvel at the Registan, Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Gur-e-Amir mausoleum, where Tamerlane and his descendants lie entombed.

That the names of these places are not well known should not disguise their impact. For those lucky enough to have seen both the Registan and the Taj Mahal, it is the former that usually draws the sharpest intake of breath.

Modern Samarkand is a product of Asian and Russian history. The great relics of the Timurids are surrounded by classically chaotic ancient streets, while to the east the sense of order imposed by Russian 19th-century planning is evident. Samarkand’s diminished status within Uzbekistan – Tashkent is the capital city – is confirmed by the roundabout journey to get here. Visas must be attained in advance. Once in the country, Samarkand is a short flight or a shared taxi from Tashkent.

Some things remain the same as 1404 though. Expect to swelter under the summer sun and shiver in the frigid Steppe winter, and gaze in awe at the timeless wonders of the Silk Road’s greatest wonder.

If you like this try…

As the Taj Mahal is the only thing that can compete with Samarkand’s Registan, an interesting alternative would be Agra in India.

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Tom Hall, Lonely Planet travel editor. You can read a selection of articles by Tom at the Lonely Planet website www.lonelyplanet.com.