Samarkand is one of the world’s oldest cities, located in the very centre of Uzbekistan, in the valley of the Zarafshan River. It has seen periods of power and decline throughout its 2,700 year history. It was destroyed by Alexander the Great, the Arabs, Genghis Khan and many other conquerors, but rose each time from the ashes, like a phoenix. Samarkand was a capital of ancient Sogdiana, part of the huge Akhemenian Empire in the 14th century BC. In the 14th century, when Tamerlane made it his capital, Samarkand became one of the most powerful and desired cities in the world. It was also an important scientific centre, with scholars who influenced scientific work in other countries. Among them was Ulugbek, Tamerlane’s grandson, the ruler of Samarkand. His observatory, built in 1439-30 in the northern suburbs of Samarkand, was a model for the two famous Indian observatories of the 18th century in Jaipur and Delhi. The observatory has not survived, but an underground portion of its enormous sextant still attracts the eye.
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Top things to do in Samarkand
The size and ambition of the Bibi Khanum Mosque are breathtaking. Constructed by Timur to be the most impressive building in his dominions, and built in honour of one of his wives, it was not only enormous but also spectacularly decorated. The size of the building hugely stretched construction techniques at the time, and the building began to crumble almost before it was completed. Earthquakes compounded the problem, and by the start of the 20th century people were no longer praying there for fear of being hit by falling masonry. However, an extensive programme of restoration is under way, and much of the mosque has been restored to its former glory. It is still, 600 years after it was built, one of the largest mosques in the world.
The Gur Emir Mausoleum marks the final resting place of several members of the Timurid dynasty, including Timur himself. Originally built to house the body of his son, Mohammed Sultan, Timur was also interred here because at the time of his death the passes to Shahrisabz, where he wanted to be buried, were closed by the winter snows. The cenotaph over his grave was a huge, single slab of jade, the largest in the world at the time. It is now two pieces cemented together - a Persian invader, Nadir Shah, tried to carry it off, but it split, so he returned it fearing bad luck. There is a story that after his death, Timur carved on the underside of the slab an epitaph to the effect that should he be disturbed in his grave, terrible things would happen. In June 1941, a Soviet anthropologist entered the crypt and exhumed his body; the next day Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
Other sites you will visit in Samarkand include the remains of an enormous observatory built by Timur's grandson, Ulug Bek, a street of tombs with some of the best examples of traditional tile work in the region, a carpet factory and a local craftsman's family.
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"Registan Square in Samarkand - The sight was so extraordinarily beautiful it took our breath away, and we all stood silent for several minutes, just taking in the scene. I think this site is one of the wonders of the world."