Many people have no clue what to expect when visiting Uzbekistan, and the people who do have a clue probably saw pictures of the Registan. This is the enormous square with even bigger buildings in the center of Samarkand. This city was my last stop on the Uzbek silk road. Every city on the silk road was different than the one before that. Khiva with the walled center, Bukhara with a lively center and markets and Samarkand with the gigantic eye catchers. And in this post I want to talk a bit about these eye catcher, because – man oh man – these are huge and so beautiful! I will show you all the highlights Samarkand has to offer.
The postcard of Samarkand: the Registan
Let’s start with the most well-known highlight of Samarkand, and perhaps of all Uzbekistan: the Registan. We arrived at this square early in the morning and it was still nice and quiet. The big tourist groups from America and France start their days later (around 10 or 11 am), so we still had the complex for ourselves. In retrospect, it was a good thing we were so early, because later that day the Pakistan elite visited the Registan (because of the annually SCO summit) and the whole thing closed just for them.
Registan means sandy place. In the high days of the silk road this place was used as a market place for the caravans, because the Registan was on the crossroad of six trade routes. And of course, all those caravans brought a lot of sand with them from the deserts. The Registan is surrounded by three gigantic madrasas (Islamic schools). Each with their own patron on the gate. The Shir Dor madrassa with the weirdly-shaped lions (which is unusual because images of living things are forbidden in Islam), the stars of the scientific school ‘Ulug Beg madrassa’ and the golden flowers of the Tilla Kari madrassa. And speaking of gold, the rooms and domes inside this last madrassa are covered in gold leaves. Tilla Kari also means ‘covered in gold’.
Bibi Khanum mosque – once the biggest mosque in the world
Samarkand is the city of the fourteenth century conqueror Tamerlane (often called Timur). A national hero in the Uzbek history. Timur described Samarkand as his wonderful trophy. Everything in this city had to be bigger, better and more beautiful. His masterpiece was the Bibi Khanum mosque, a historical monument with a legend. According to the stories Timur’s wife (Bibi Khanum) gave order to build this mosque to surprise her husband, but her surprise came with a sacrifice. The architect fell madly in love with Bibi Khanum and did not want to finish the mosque before she gave him a kiss. She agreed to this, but the kiss left a mark on her cheek. Timur saw this and immediately executed the architect. He also made sure that every women in the country wore a veil to stop seducing men. The whole story is a bit theatrical. In reality things went a bit different. Timur himself gave orders to build the mosque and he made sure the best architects were hired. He even imported elephants from India to do the heavy work. But the result is amazing! The domes of the mosque are visible everywhere you go in the city. And have you seen that 35 meter heigh entrance gate? It makes you feel so small! However, I didn’t think the inside of the mosque was that interesting. It was a bit torn down and in desperate need of some reconstruction.
A nougat tasting at the Siab bazaar
Next to the mosque you can find the lively Siab Bazaar, the busy city market of Samarkand that is open every day. They sell everything here, from strong cheese and Uzbek naan to meat, fruit and sweetened nuts. There are also a number of pharmacies, money changers and souvenir shops around. The Uzbek people buy their daily groceries here. I really liked walking around these bazaar and tasting the local goods. My favorite spot was the nougat stall. Just the way these sweets were piled up, that already grabbed my attention. There are plenty of options to choose from: pistache, white chocolate and sweet versions. Definitely recommend going here!
Samarkand – for always the city of Tamerlane
Also after the death of Tamerlane, this man is still present in Samarkand. Not far from the Registan you will find the Gur-i-mir, the mausoleum of Timur. It is not that hard to find, because it is near two big wall paintings. Find these and you are there. The truth is that Timur didn’t want to buried in Samarkand, but in his birth place Shakhrisabz. He even completed a tomb there for himself, but when the time was there things went a little bit different. The snow had blocked the way to Shakhrisabz and the body had to stay in Samarkand. The Gur-i-mir soon became the family grave of the Timur family; the sons and grandson were also buried here. The entrance is marked by a marvelous entrance gate covered in blue mosaic and patrons. Inside the gold leave is on every wall and every corner has so many details. At first I didn’t think a mausoleum could be that interesting, but I am really glad I went there. The Gur-i-mir is not something you would want to miss.
50 shades of blue at the Shah-i-Zinda
I saved the best for last. The Registan may be the postcard of Samarkand, my favorite highlight was the necropolis Shah-i-Zinda. The is the final resting place of the elite of Timur. A grave yard does not really sound like a highlight, but this is not an ordinary one. The Shah-i-Zinda means ‘Living King’ and is founded to mark the grave of the nephew of the prophet Mohammed. They say that he is buried here. From the eleventh to the nineteenth century the elite and royal wanted to be buried here and each built their own mausoleum next to each other. The result is a little avenue of the most colorful tombs you have ever seen. The poor people are not that far away, because on the hills around Shah-i-Zinda there are the gravestones of the ordinary people. The Uzbek come to the Shah-i-Zinda to pay their respect and some leave money on the graves. I came to this necropolis to see all the blue tombs and details. I seriously walked three times up and down the avenue and I still saw new things. The most beautiful spot in all Samarkand!
Which eye catcher is your favorite? Is the Uzbek silk road on your bucketlist?