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It is always hard to choose a single favourite place when travelling through a country, but when it comes to Uzbekistan, Samarkand is one of the candidates. Stunning architecture, ancient history, what’s not to love about the most famous Silk Road city?
Sure, these days the sights are spread out all over the city, with many modern buildings in between. But I think it’s that mixture of modern and old that makes Samarkand so special and so interesting to explore. And while walking around, just think about what it must have looked like in the times of Marco Polo, when he tried to make his way to China.
To give you a taste of what to expect, let me show you some of Samarkand’s highlights:
#1 The Registan
The Registan is Samarkand’s most famous building. It consists of three madrassas, each of them adorned with blue tilework. You can go into these madrassas, where most of the rooms have been taken over by souvenir sellers. Those shops, by the way, seem to be a common theme all around Uzbekistan. Isn’t it fascinating how you can find at least one souvenir shop in any historical building?
Take your time walking around the madrassas. The most notable features include the golden mosque inside Tilla Kori madrassa. Also, try to find the tigers with faces painted on them at the outside of Sherdor madrassa. It is a rare depiction of human faces in the Islamic world.
The Registan, by the way, used to be one of the most important buildings at the heart of the Silk Road. People would gather on the big square in between the madrassas, to hear royal proclamations or to watch public executions. And even these days, the space is still used for public shows, as you can see by the many green chairs that workers put up when we visited.
#2 Climb the Shah-i-Zinda
The Shah-i-Zinda is one of Samarkand’s most impressive sights. The Registan is more famous, but the Shah-i-Zinda is more fun to visit. Located northeast of the Registan, this place is also called the avenue of mausoleums. Climb up the stairs and look at the tombs along the way. Nowhere else in the city will you find as many blue-tiled buildings and blue domes as here.
Most of the mausoleums date back to the 14th to 15th century, although some of the buildings are even older than that. The most famous one is the tomb of Kusam-ibn-Abbas, who, according to legend, was Muhammad’s cousin.
Make the effort of walking all the way up to the top, no matter how hot it is, to take in all the buildings. You have a great view from there, just take enough water because the sun is merciless in summer. Also, you have to cover your knees to be allowed to get into the Shah-i-Zinda. If you are not dressed appropriately, you will get a skirt at the entrance.
And remember, no animal sacrifice on the tombs!
#3 Learn about Uzbekistan’s history in Ulugbek’s observatory
Samarkand has a rich history. With all those old buildings, it’s hard not to guess that this city once belonged to a splendid empire. But you will not grasp the influence it had on your own part of the world until you visit Ulugbek’s observatory. While not much remains of the building, the museum next door is very informative. Ulugbek was one of the most important astronomers of all times. The museum explains about his life, his discoveries and the brilliant idea behind his observatory.
Did you know that Ulugbek was able to measure the length of a year and he was off by less than a minute? Quite impressive for his time, right? It took a long time until the first European astronomer even got close to Ulugbek’s achievements.
The observatory is located slightly outside the city centre so consider taking a taxi to get here.
Built in 1399, the Bibi-Khanym-Mosque was once one of the biggest and most important mosques in the world. The mosque fell into disrepair over the centuries but restoration started during the Soviet era and it is now a grandiose sight to visit. Yes, it might not look that impressive in my photo but when you go there, you’ll see for yourself how hard it is to take a nice picture. That’s the thing about most Silk Road buildings, they’re so huge and impressive that they don’t fit into my camera frame!
Besides the huge cupola, that is about 40 meters high, make sure to take a look at the stone Quran in the middle of the courtyard. Legend says that fertility increases if you crawl underneath.
Gur-e-Amir, Timur’s mausoleum, is another great example of Silk Road architecture. It was our last stop in Samarkand and nicely tied up all the bits and pieces we had learned about Uzbek history. The tilework is stunning, even after having visited many blue-tiled buildings already.
Originally, the building was constructed for Timur’s grandson. But when Timur died unexpectedly and all the passes to his hometown were snowed in, he was buried here. Ulugbek’s grave is also located here. Gur-e-Amir is Persian for “Tomb of the King”, an appropriate name considering who is buried here.
#6 Visit Daniel’s mausoleum
This site is a weird one, with many legends surrounding it. First of all, many places in the world claim to be the resting place of prophet Daniel. But what is stranger is the length of the sarcophagus inside the mausoleum. The legend goes that the body of Daniel keeps continually growing and that’s why the sarcophagus is so large.
So how did that prophet, who probably lived in modern-day Iran or Iraq, end up in Samarkand? The stories say that when Timur tried to conquer Syria, he failed many times. Prophets told him that Saint Daniel, who was buried there, was the source of his bad luck. So when Timur finally succeeded, he unburied Daniel and transferred him to his final resting place in Samarkand. Immediately after the Saint’s arrival, a new spring with healing powers started to sprout.
So while the mausoleum is not the most impressive one we visited, it was definitely the one with the most interesting stories surrounding its construction and that’s why I recommend you come here.
#7 Buy snacks at the Siyob Bazaar
If you get hungry along the way, you should head to Siyob Bazaar to buy some snacks. This bazaar is the largest one in Samarkand and you can find great nuts and dried or fresh fruit here. The building is not the most pretty one I’ve been to in Uzbekistan, but the bazaar is still interesting, with many vendors selling local goods. Plus, it’s a good place to take a break from all that sightseeing.
I hope those sights gave you an overview of what to expect from Samarkand. Tourists often argue about whether they like Samarkand or Bukhara better, but I think it’s difficult to compare those two cities. Each of them has its own charm. And then you still have cities like Khiva, or even Tashkent where we ended up having way more fun than we thought. Uzbekistan is an amazing country to visit and I hope you have lots of fun here.
So what do you think? What is your favourite sight in Samarkand?
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