September 12, 2016: Timur, aka Tamerlane, the ferocious conqueror from my last post, was born in Shakhrisabze, 100 miles from Samarkand across an arm of the Pamir-Alai mountains, but he made Samarkand the center of his empire. Archaeologists date the founding of the city to the sixth century BCE, and it was already both famous and fabled when Alexander the Great took possession in 329 BCE, saying “Everything I have heard about the beauty of the city is indeed true, except that it is much more beautiful than I imagined”. The city was to fall and rise again several times over the ensuing centuries, although in 630 CE the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuan Zang was as captivated as Alexander. (The scriptures he brought back from India were housed in the Big Wild Goose pagoda in Xi’an, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road.) At that time the inhabitants were Zoroastrian, but Muslim Arabs took the city in 712. Again, the city would rise, and fall, and then be annihilated by the Mongols.
Timur revived the city, and started the building program that would be continued by his grandson, the astronomer king Ulug Beg. Although Timur planned to be buried in his birthplace, he built a magnificent mausoleum, the Gur Emir, in Samarkand for his favorite grandson, Mohammad Sultan, beside the madrassa and khanaga Mohammad had already built. When Timur died unexpectedly on the way to China, he was buried in the Gur Emir, where he remains, alongside his tutor and sons and grandsons including Ulug Beg.
Samarkand, in its various incarnations, was a destination to dream of, and to reach, if at all, through hardship and danger. Although at the junction of major trade routes – to Iran, India and China – the “Golden Road” crossed deserts and mountains. It almost seemed like cheating to arrive from Tashkent by rail, in considerable comfort. The detailed itinerary for the MIR tour still assumed that we would arrive by road, and with only time for a short introductory tour before dinner. Since we actually arrived in the middle of the morning, we had plenty of time for more, and started at the exceedingly impressive Gur Emir.
The actual bodies in a mausoleum like this are in the crypt below ground, and the apparent tombs are markers. Timur’s marker is a six-foot long block of jade from Mongolia. Originally intact, it was damaged during a Persian invasion in 1740, but is still a remarkable sight. But it is eclipsed by the mausoleum itself, the outer tiled dome covering an octagonal chamber decorated with onyx, marble and gilding.
Suitably impressed by this introduction to Samarkand, we ate lunch in an attractive restaurant before dedicating the afternoon the piece de resistance, the Registan.