Day 87: Timur's Kingdom

Samarkand Travel Blog

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Guri Amir mausoleum

Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Tim & Wim (Belgium)

By getting up early I beat the sun in order to see most of the sights before the heat became unbearable. The advantage of Samarkand is that while it gets hot during the day, the hottest time of the day is around 2 PM, so you are able to see most of the city before it gets too warm if you set out early enough.

First stop was the historical building closest to my B&B: the mausoleum of Timur himself. Timur had intended the Guri Amir mausoleum for his grandson, however, he ended up being buried here himself after he died unexpectedly of pneumonia in Kazakhstan and his body could not be transported back to his birthplace Shakhrisabz.

Guri Amir mausoleum


The mausoleum is a stunning building, with richly decorated interiors and exteriors. Well, not unlike the mausoleums in Iran, really. When Timur rose to power this part of Uzbekistan was part of the Persian empire, so it is not unsurprising that the buildings built in that era were designed following Persian architecture. And surprisingly enough 70 years of Soviet rule have actually preserved the mausoleum. Had Uzbekistan not been under Soviet rule it could actually have followed Iran and Saudi Arabia and become an Islamic republic. And this mausoleum, holding the body of Uzbekistan's greatest leader, could have ended up like the Imam Reza mausoleum in Mashhad, i.e. one huge concrete mess.
Although, now I think of it. Imam Reza was a great spiritual leader. Or at least, he is seen as one these days.
The Registan
Timur was a warlord, so why do people come to his mausoleum to pray? It would be like Germans going to the grave of Hitler for worship, or Georgians to the tomb of Stalin.

Then I made my way to the World Heritage listed Registan. This is considered the single biggest architectural highlight in Central Asia. It is a collection of three medressas (Islamic theological schools) set around a plaza which, in medieval times, would probably have been one big bazaar. This is as Arabian Nights as you can get outside Arabia. It is the epitome of Silk Road travel and possibly the finest example of Islamic architecture I have ever seen.

OK, except for maybe Esfahan.

Well, let's say it ties with Esfahan, though Esfahan wins because there is more left of the historical city.
Detail of the Sher Dor Medressa at Registan. Quite unique for Islamic art is the portrayel of living creatures (which is forbidden in Islam)
Samarkand as a city has been ruined by its Soviet rule. While the precious buildings have remained intact and have even been lovingly restored, the surrounding residential area has made way for a Soviet city. So basically what you have is a Soviet city with a few historical buildings in a fenced off area, unlike Bukhara and -to a lesser extend- Khiva where the historic centre still remains a part of the city.

Beyond the Registan lies a Disney-land like boulevard, flanked with souvenir stores and restaurants. The buildings on both side of the street are in mock-historic Islamic style. The contrast with the concrete Soviet-era thoroughfares a few hundred metres away is striking. I don't know which I preferred, the drab, but functional Soviet grid to the south and east of the Registan, or the artificial Disneyland Main Street to the west.
Disneyland Main Street


Strangely enough, the artificial Disneyland walkway brings you to the most genuine part of Samarkand: the Siob Bazaar. Like all bazaars in Central Asia, it is like Middle East meets North. Or something. The Russian style or order mixed with Middle Eastern style chaos. I love these places.

I kept bumping into Tim and Wim throughout the day and after our third meeting we decided to go and have a drink together. After all, otherwise we would end up meeting again in the next place anyway. They had to get some work done on their car, so after a nice, extended, cup of tea in a chaikana at the bazaar we split up again.

I continued my way north and visited the Hazrat-Hizr mosque. In my opinion this is the most beautiful mosque in all of Uzbekistan and possibly the entire Islamic world.
At the bazaar
The reason? It was built using Italian renaissance style, rather than Persian, Ottoman or Arabic, while at the same time looking distinctly Middle Eastern. The result is simply stunning, partially because there is no mosque anywhere else in the world. At least, not that I know of. The problem with all the other mosques that I have seen on this trip is that there are at least a dozen look-a-likes around the block as well. Though not particularly old -late 19th century- this one was truly special.

By the time I got to this mosque I had had to pay so many entrance fees that I was getting a bit fed up with it. Foreigners have to pay about five times the price as locals and while it may not be as expensive as the sights in Turkey, Samarkand is almost as irritating for the fact that you have to pay an additional entrance fee for everything you like to see or do.
Hazrat Hizr Mosque
For every fart they will try to charge you. So this was the fifth time today that I had to pay an entrance fee plus a separate (more expensive) ticket to take pictures. I refused. I decided I had paid enough for today and I could do without photos of yet another mosque. Perhaps it was the wrong place to get stubborn, because, as I said before, this is pretty much the most beautiful mosque I have ever seen. Although the beauty is mainly the exterior. Inside, the prayer hall was somewhat spartan.

The historical sights of Samarkand all date from after the 13th century. Although Samarkand was a major trading centre on the Silk Road long before Timur rose to power, there is very little left of that era; courtesy of Jenghiz Khan, who obliterated any city he came across. The ancient predecessor of Samarkand, Marakanda or Afrosiab, lies a few kilometres north of the present city.
One of the astrological maps made by Ulugbek
Though a site of great archaeological importance, the site gets very few visitors. Taxi drivers don't know where it is and also in my B&B, when I mentioned I planned on going there, the answer was “Afrosiab hills you mean? Why you want to go there?”

After hearing just how little is left of the ancient city, I decided to leave the ruins for what they were and confined my visit to the Afrosiab museum instead. Well, no, let me rephrase, I decided to skip the site after seeing the museum. If you could even call it a museum. There was hardly anything of interest on view here. I had hoped to learn more about the most important find at Afrosiab, an observatory used by the famous astronomer Ulugbek. The observatory itself is completely ruined, so there is hardly anything to see.
Shah-I-Zinda, avenue of mausoleums
I had already seen a model at the museum in Tashkent and Ulugbek's most important maps are on display in one of the medressas at the Registan. The museum didn't have anything to add to that.

The second-oldest series of buildings and monuments are the early 14th century tombs of Shah-I-Zinda. This avenue of mausoleums was possibly even more impressive than the Registan. About a dozen richly decorated mausoleums standing side by side at both ends of a narrow alley. Most of Timur's and Ulugbek's relatives lie here, as does Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, who is said to have brought Islam here in the 7th century.

The Shah-I-Zinda is very much a place of worship, with many pilgrims paying homage to the various dead who lie here.
Detail of one of the mausoleums at Shah-i-Zinda
Quite an impressive sight.

And thus ended my lightning quick visit to Uzbekistan. I must say, this country has been one of the pleasant surprises on my trip so far. It was not at all what I had expected. I had expected an ex-Soviet country with some remnants of the old Silk Road. But in fact it is an ex-Silk Road country with some remnants of the Soviet era. The people are proud of their Silk Road heritage, and proudly display it.

If you ask me to describe Uzbekistan, I would say “like Iran, but with better food”. Like Iran, the people had been super-friendly, like Iran, the old Islamic architecture is stunning, and unlike Iran, the food doesn't get boring after a few days. If you do tire of the tasty shashlyks and kebabs they serve, there's always the adapted Russian cuisine to choose from.
The Bibi-Khanym mosque was extensively restored by the Soviets, but it is already falling apart again


While in general my experience in Uzbekistan had been very pleasant, I did not particularly its capital, Tashkent (again, like Iran...). And if I'm completely honest, I was a bit disappointed with Samarkand as well. Nothing to do with the sights, which I loved, but rather I didn't like what Samarkand is becoming. The people and government are working hard to make this the biggest tourist trap in the country.

Entrance to the sights costs around 20 cents for locals, but they charge between $2 and $7 for tourists. And you have to pay separately for each and every site. And then extra if you want to take pictures. After a while I stopped buying camera tickets, I just couldn't be bothered any more. The worst was the Bibi-Khanym mosque, where the lady charged me LESS than the official rate.
Me at the Registan
I found this a bit strange, so I called her bluff and asked for a ticket (at all the other places I received a ticket after paying). She got really cross with me and told me that if I wanted to have a ticket I had to pay the full price. In other words, she was pocketing a large chunk of the money she received during the day. The Bibi-Khanym mosque was restored by the Soviets in the eighties, but already the building is crumbling. So it is in dire need of restoration again and therefore the money extorted from tourists should end up in a conservation fund and NOT in the pocket of the lady at the ticket booth.

Then the area around Registan. What should have been a great lively square like Lyabi Hauze in Bukhara is a sterile, unpleasant area. Prices here are double that of what it costs elsewhere in town, from a bottle of water in the shops to Internet to bars and restaurants (with the pleasant exception of the Lyabi Gor chaikhana where I had lunch yesterday).
Guri Amir mausoleum at night


But on the whole, the country had a very pleasant experience for me. Sure, it is touristy and at times overpriced, but in general the people here are really friendly and welcoming. All the ladies who tried to sell me souvenirs did so in a good-natured way. And after Iran it was quite nice to have women talk to me again (one lady even tried to marry off her daughter).

So in conclusion, I could definitely recommend Uzbekistan to anyone looking for a short trip to an off-the-beaten-track destination (or as part of a longer trip). It is definitely an interesting place to spend a week or more. If only those damned visas weren't so hard to come by.

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Guri Amir mausoleum
Guri Amir mausoleum
Guri Amir mausoleum
Guri Amir mausoleum
The Registan
The Registan
Detail of the Sher Dor Medressa at…
Detail of the Sher Dor Medressa a…
Disneyland Main Street
Disneyland Main Street
At the bazaar
At the bazaar
Hazrat Hizr Mosque
Hazrat Hizr Mosque
One of the astrological maps made …
One of the astrological maps made…
Shah-I-Zinda, avenue of mausoleums
Shah-I-Zinda, avenue of mausoleums
Detail of one of the mausoleums at…
Detail of one of the mausoleums a…
The Bibi-Khanym mosque was extensi…
The Bibi-Khanym mosque was extens…
Me at the Registan
Me at the Registan
Guri Amir mausoleum at night
Guri Amir mausoleum at night
minaret of the Guri Amir mausoleum
minaret of the Guri Amir mausoleum
Tombs of some unknown people at th…
Tombs of some unknown people at t…
restored frescoes at the Ak-Saray …
restored frescoes at the Ak-Saray…
Ak-Saray mausoleum
Ak-Saray mausoleum
Guri Amir mausoleum
Guri Amir mausoleum
Ulugbek medressa
Ulugbek medressa
Inside the Ulugbek medressa
Inside the Ulugbek medressa
Sher Dor medressa seen from the Ul…
Sher Dor medressa seen from the U…
Ulugbek medressa
Ulugbek medressa
Courtyard of the Sher Dor medressa
Courtyard of the Sher Dor medressa
Sher Dor medressa
Sher Dor medressa
inside the Tilla-Kari medressa
inside the Tilla-Kari medressa
Dome of the mosque in the Tilla-Ka…
Dome of the mosque in the Tilla-K…
Dome of the mosque in the Tilla-Ka…
Dome of the mosque in the Tilla-K…
Some new students who have moved i…
Some new students who have moved …
Sher Dor medressa
Sher Dor medressa
The registan
The registan
Disneyland main street with the Bi…
Disneyland main street with the B…
Bibi-Khanym mosque
Bibi-Khanym mosque
Bibi-Khanym mosque
Bibi-Khanym mosque
detail of the Bibi-Khanym mosque
detail of the Bibi-Khanym mosque
at the bazaar
at the bazaar
A great Uzbek beer snack: roasted …
A great Uzbek beer snack: roasted…
at the bazaar
at the bazaar
Siob bazaar
Siob bazaar
Anyone for some cow feet?
Anyone for some cow feet?
at the bazaar
at the bazaar
at the bazaar
at the bazaar
Hazrat-Hizr mosque
Hazrat-Hizr mosque
Hazrat-Hizr mosque
Hazrat-Hizr mosque
a girl who was visiting the Hazrat…
a girl who was visiting the Hazra…
old man at the Hazrat-Hizr mosque
old man at the Hazrat-Hizr mosque
Shah-I-Zinda, avenue of mausoleums
Shah-I-Zinda, avenue of mausoleums
Shah-i Zinda
Shah-i Zinda
(another) lady with a golden smile
(another) lady with a golden smile
Shah-I-Zinda, avenue of mausoleums
Shah-I-Zinda, avenue of mausoleums
detail of a mausoleum interior
detail of a mausoleum interior
detail of a mausoleum exterior
detail of a mausoleum exterior
Shah-I-Zinda, avenue of mausoleums
Shah-I-Zinda, avenue of mausoleums
inside one of the many mausoleums
inside one of the many mausoleums
Shah-I-Zinda, avenue of mausoleums
Shah-I-Zinda, avenue of mausoleums
Guri Amir mausoleum at night
Guri Amir mausoleum at night
Samarkand
photo by: asturjimmy