I’m glad our tour has taken the route it did – gently introducing us to the ancient splendours of Central Asia in Khiva, building excitement in Bukhara, before going all out in Samarkand. Because historic Samarkand is exceptional by any measure and going around the circuit in the opposite direction could only be an anti-climax.
At the Mausoleum we climbed a long set of stairs towards a plain white portico. We were supposed to count the steps up and down – if we got them right we had pure souls and were blessed. Needless to say, I completely forgot the ritual.
That innocent white porch gives no inkling of what lies beyond. You step through, and wham, the extraordinary beauty of the mausoleum lined avenue hits you in the face. The nearest equivalent is emerging from the ravine at Petra and finding the Treasury building right in front of you. It’s an extraordinarily dramatic moment and I spent the next five minutes gasping out variations on “Oh, Wow!” as I snapped thousands of photos.
The buildings are vibrant in blue and turquoise – mosaic and ceramic. The colour is vivid and repeats itself in varied motifs and design along the route.
These are graves, and real people rest inside them. Many Islamic visitors, most of them women, seem to treat the graves as shrines and leave offerings of cash on them. Many pray. There’s a sign at the entrance instructing the public not to do this as its against Islamic teaching, but it seems largely ignored.
Apart from the staggering beauty of the site, part of the fascination is watching other people. Women in bright traditional costumes, both from Samarkand and further afield add exotic colour to the scene. They are just as fascinated by us and stop us to take selfies with us.
This is a site of religious pilgrimage of course, but it runs on an odd mix of ceremony, curiosity, commercialisation and conservatism. Cantor’s chanting prayers were found in several places.
Once we’d OD’d on chapels and tombs we moved on to the Madrassahs, Registan Square and the Mausoleum for Tamerlane and his family. I hadn’t appreciated that the Mughal dynasty of India were his direct descendants - Babur who was the first Emperor of the dynasty in India, all the way through to Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal).
All of these buildings were built on a massive scale. Historically they fell into disrepair when the Silk Road faded in the 17th and 18th centuries after sea routes had been discovered, and soon took preference over the arduous inland route.
Civil riots also damaged the buildings. Many photos show what poor condition they’d reached before they began to be restored in the 19th and 20th centuries. Where they found the tradespeople from is hard to fathom, because some of the required skills in ceramics and mosaic must be specialised.
Today they look spectacular and a tribute to those who worked on them.
The Arc in the observatory
Early start charts and information
Murals from the city that predated Samarkand and Islam
Pointed skulls caused by the deliberate distortion of the heads of infants
Municipal advice on entering the site
First sight of the beautiful turquoise avenue
The main avenue at the ausolem of the Shah-I-Zinda
The main avenue at the Shah-I-Zinda
Local women at the Guri-Amir Mausoleum
Music maker and instrument crafter, Registan Square
Beyond beauty. Inlaid and plated gold. Registan Square
Wedding photos in Registan Square
The buildings of Registan Square