“For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.”
-The Story of Hassan of Baghdad, by James Elroy Flecker
Samarkand is Timur is Samarkand. Though not the place where he was born (which honor belongs to Shakrisabz), Samarkand became the beating heart of Central Asia largely because Timur used it as his base to conquer the rest of the region. As such, all of the most amazing parts of the city are directly related to the Timurid dynasties that ruled from here for hundreds of years.
The Registon is probably the most famous single spot in all of Central Asia. Now three gigantic medrassahs, it formerly was the site of a gigantic bazaar that stood as one of the central hubs of the Silk Road. The things I would do to go back and visit that market, you have no idea.
Perhaps my favorite, though, is the Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum complex. Eternal home of many of the family and advisers closest to Timur, the combination of color/history/atmosphere draws me in each time I pass through Samarkand. Timur himself is buried in the city, down the road from the Registon complex in the Gur-i-Amir mausoleum. It is, we’ll say, ornate.
It also has an interesting (if historically dubious) history. A Persian warlord is said in 1740 to have carried off the jade block that marks Timur’s tomb. He had such bad luck (including the near-death of his son) that eventually the Shah’s religious advisers convinced him to return the stone to Samarkand. More recently, in 1941, a Soviet anthropologist opened the crypts and found an inscription on the tomb that read ‘whoever opens this will be defeated by an enemy more fearsome than I’. The next day, June 22nd, Hitler’s army invaded the Soviet Union.
Samarkand is far from my favorite place in Central Asia. It feels, at times, absolutely crowded with elderly Europeans on tour busses that park just in front of all the best views. At times though, late at night when the crowds are mostly gone and the streets are quite, it still has a little bit of that magical feeling that this was once the center of a large swathe of the world.