Samarkand is the second largest city of Uzbekistan and is of the same age as the city of Babylon or Rome.
Much like the time-worn ruins of Athens or Rome, the mosaic-covered masterpieces of ancient Samarkand stand like misplaced islands among the urban sprawl of a modern city; gleaming peaks of turquoise and rustic bricked-walls eaten away by time and now restored to its former splendor. The city holds some real gems and I was left in awe more than once.
Today, Samarkand is the treasure of unique antiquity spirit. It is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List due to the abundance of spiritual values. As one of the highlights of Central Asia, Samarkand is unsurprisingly a little overcrowded, particularly with tour groups who bustle in and out of the most famous sights.
It is the “true jewel” of Samarkand and probably of all Uzbekistan.
Samarkand is famous for many sites, but undoubtedly the most famous, grandest site is the magnificent Registan Square. The open plaza once existed as the main marketplace, a humming corner of trade between east and west. Three massive, uniquely designed mausoleums were built later in the 15th century, making the site a centre of learning.
The left side of the square stood the oldest madrasah dated from the fifteenth century. Built under the mandate of Ulughbek, who was a great scientist, astronomer and governor. He gave lectures in mathematics and astronomy.
From the 16th century and located to the right of the square, stands out the decoration of roaring tigers with a rising sun on its facade, contradicting the Islamic prohibition of representing animals or people.
Madrasah Tillya Kari
In the center of Registan Square, is arguably the prettiest of the three with a peaceful tree-laden courtyard, a spectacular gold leaf and cobalt dome. The Tillya Kari madrasah was a residence for the students, but also had a mosque. The inside is exceptionally beautiful with blue and golden tileworks.
We were very lucky to enter Registan Square on one of the nights with a group of Islamic scholars (partly due to the fact that Gan was holding a professional camera!) Honestly, seeing it at night is more magical than during the day.
Entrance Fee: 40,000 Som (US$3.90). An additional ‘tip’ can sometimes gain entry before the official opening hours to enjoy the Registan on your own
Domes of blue tiles that shine under the sun, golden and blue mosaics and muqarnas in the vaults. I personally like this site more than Registan Square.
Perched on a hill amidst the city, this intriguing alleyway dominated by blue tiles richly decorated by geometric and calligraphic designs is an essential place to visit in Samarkand. The necropolis is one of the city’s holiest sights and marks the final resting place of a number of Timur’s relatives.
Entrance Fee: 15,000 Som (US$2), with camera additional 6,000 Som
Ulugbek Astronomical Observatory
This monument has a very significant position in Samarkand, as it was one of the best observatories in the Islamic world. It was built in 1429 by Ulugbek himself, together with the most prominent astronomers of that time, used it to observe the night sky and determine the positions of the stars.
The dominant feature of the Observatory was a huge sextant with a radius of 40-meters. It was oriented with amazing precision along the meridian line from south to north, allowing Ulugbek to develop a star catalogue consisting of 1,018 stars.
After Ulugbek’s death, the Observatory in Samarkand was destroyed and plundered by religious fanatics. In 1908, the foundations of the Observatory were discovered along with the underground part of the huge sextant which wasn’t much left of it. Nowadays there is a museum built in the place of the former Observatory, which is open to visitors.
Entrance Fee: 25,000 Som (US$2.60)
Bibi Khanym Mosque
Timur the Great wanted to build the largest and most beautiful mosque in his empire. It was Timur’s most ambitious project and resulted in the Bibi Khanum mosque. The towering arch of the Bibi Khanym Mosque, will make even the tallest folks feel positively tiny. At some point, it became the largest mosque in the world.
As the structural integrity of the domed chambers within the mosque has waned over the years, these rooms have been closed off to visitors. It was an ongoing struggle of reinforcements and renovations to save the mosque. Renovation work is still ongoing.
Entrance Fee: 15,000 Som (US$1.60)
Statue of Amir Temur
Located at a busy roundabout between the Old town and the Russian town sit a bronze statue of Amir Temur, showing him wearing a crown and appropriately sitting on a throne leaning on his sword. It is a monument easily missed by many unless you explore Samarkand by foot. Still, I find it quite magnificent to look at standing next to it.
Mausoleum Of Timur At Gur-E-Amir
Despite being set apart from the rest of the city’s sights, the Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum still attracts a number of visitors everyday. Gur-e-Amir means tomb of the kings. This is where Timur the Great, his sons and grandsons found their last resting place. The architectural model of the mausoleum was later an inspiration for Humayun’s tomb in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Entrance Fee: 22,000 Som (US$2.30)
We are not a fan of spending money on souvenir but that doesn’t means we totally shun away from shopping. We do enjoy looking at local handicrafts products because it tells us a lot about the country’s culture. Do hop into any handicraft shop and be amazed by the colourful and unique traditional handmade stuff.
If you need a break from exploring the ancient sites, you’ll find one such winery in the charming outer parts of the city where you can do a very generous 10 glass tasting of wine, cognac and balsam, a liqueur infused with citrus oils and spices.
As a strongly Islamic nation with a taste for vodka, it may surprise you to discover that Uzbekistan is home to a growing band of accomplished winemakers. Perhaps even more surprising is that the slightly sweet Uzbek tipple is something quite delicious.
Caution, you will certainly leave far more tipsy than when you walked in.
Price: 45,000 Som (US$4.70) for 10 generous portions. Bottles to buy range from 20,000 Som (US$2) for the wines to 45,000 Som (US$4.70) for the aged cognacs and balsams
Getting To Samarkand
Train travel is an easy, fast and affordable way to get around in Uzbekistan.
We took a less than 2-hours high-speed train – the Afrosiyob – from Bukhara to Samarkand. If you’re in a rush, Uzbekistan Airways travels between Tashkent and Samarkand most days within 1-hour flight.
How Samarkand is not a Wonder Of The World is beyond me, but it’s one place that everyone should try to visit. It truly is the city of wonder.
Lastly, if you want to keep a track of all my photos and travels, remember to follow @wanderrsaurus on Instagram!