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Enchanting Samarkand … Uzbekistan

I was recently given the opportunity by Renaissance Tours to take part in their Armchair Travel series in conjunction with the Art Gallery of NSW. There were many enchanting cities from which I could choose to armchair travel: Marrakesh, Chicago, Varanasi, Venice. I chose a city that has long fascinated me – Samarkand in Uzbekistan.

By the screen of my computer and the comfort of my armchair, I was taken on a one-hour exploration & expedition to Samarkand by archaeologist, Iain Shearer, who has led numerous lecture tours to enchanting places. Since Covid has called time on physical tours for the near future, the virtual tour offers much to whet the appetite for future adventures.

Samarkand, on the Silk Road, the ancient trade route linking China to the Mediterranean, dominated Central Asia for millennia with its mosques and mausoleums.

Run your finger across a map from Central Asia’s Black Sea, Caspian Sea and Aral Sea and move slightly south. Samarkand lies a touch north of the Hindu Kush and is landlocked in the foothills of the geologically-striking Fann Mountains.

Timur was the last, great nomadic conqueror of the Eurasian Steppe conquering more than anyone else except for Alexander the Great.

This was the domain of the brutal & ingenious warlord, Timur, the 14th century Turco-Mongol military leader who conquered most of the Muslim world, central Asia and parts of India. His armies murdered tens of thousands during their campaigns. Timur was a man of many appetites with his 43 legitimate wives and concubines. His empire rivalled the size and power of the Mongolian domain forged by Genghis Khan a century earlier.

As Iain Shearer spoke of the Timurid Dynasty and Genghis Khan and showed us murals of Timur feasting in his pleasure garden, I thought of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan, said to be written after waking from an opium-influenced dream. The speaker envisions the landscape surrounding the Mongol ruler’s summer palace called Xanadu, describing its beauty, pleasure and violence. Samarkand’s landscape runs similarly:

” … through wood and dale the sacred river ran, then reached the caverns measureless to man, and sank to a lifeless ocean; It was a miracle of rare device, a sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice! That sunny dome! Those caves of ice! And all who heard should see them there and all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice, and close your eyes with holy dread for he on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise.” Extract from Kubla Khan

Timur feasting in the garden at Samarkand

The earthquake-prone Samarkand is a city of coups, concubines, magnificent mausoleums, mulberry tree-lined streets, the semi-precious gemstone, Lapis Lazuli (the prized cobalt metamorphic rock meaning sky stone) and balloon-domed mosques with their papier-mâché inner domes of blue and gold.

On a journey to Damascus, Timur was lowered down the city walls in a basket – he did a deal there and then sacked the city, taking all the treasures and craftsmen back to Samarkand. He then built a small village called Damascus in the parklands surrounding the city.

Gur-e Amir: Timur’s resting place – ‘minaret’ comes from the Arabian ‘manara’ – a place of fire, lighthouse. Many minarets were crowned by wooden lanterns.

Ulugh Beg (the astronomer king) was the grandson of the great Timur. As well as his interest in the Arts, he was an astronomer and mathematician. Taken by his grandfather to an observatory in Iran, he was taught by the great astronomers of the age. Later he built a magnificent observatory in Samarkand between 1424 and 1429. Ulugh Beg dedicated much of his private life to expanding the work of Ptolemy in creating a star map of the sky. His observatory was considered one of the world’s finest. Inside were 50 rooms and four lecture halls. He gave scholarships to children and offered free education for girls. He transformed Samarkand into a cultural centre of learning. His free thinking as well as his lack of governance skills saw him murdered by his own son. His head was sent back to the city and his observatory was destroyed by fanatics, but his star map was secreted to Constantinople where it was published in Latin and hence published across the Islamic world.

Part of Ulugh Beg’s observatory
Ulugh Beg Medressah on Registan Square – notice the unusual tiled constellations on the facade (pishtaq)

Bibi Khanum is another fascinating figure of the time. As one of Timur’s wives (and a maternal and paternal descendant of Genghis Khan), she was a skilled politician. She dined with men and provided excellent advice. Timur built a magnificent mosque in her honour. He brought in architects from Iran and India (he sacked Delhi in 1398) and used 95 elephants to haul construction material. As had become typical of Timur’s buildings, there was the abundant use of tile work on the exterior surfaces. Ravaged by earthquakes and time, it was restored by the Soviets in the mid 20th century.

Fluted dome of the restored Bibi Khanum Mosque

This is only the essence of Iain Shearer’s commentary and virtual tour of Samarkand, but it has primed my interest in the hope that one day I will be able to wander the streets of Samarkand and experience its historical wonder and enchantment.

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