The great city of Samarkand lies on the so-called Silk Road, the ancient trading route that led from China through the Middle East and into Europe. The city grew rich through trade, and constructed some of the finest buildings to be found in the Islamic world. Its strategic position has led Samarkand to be conquered and sacked many times throughout its long and bloody history. The first settlement there was constructed in the 6th century BC and was first conquered by Alexander the Great some 200 years later. As trade routes built up over the next few hundred years, the city grew in power and wealth despite being captured by both the Turks and Hun tribes. Indeed, it continued to flourish, as recorded by the Buddhist monk and traveller Xuan Zang when he arrived there in AD 630. At this time Samarkand followed the Zoroastrian religion of Persia, but the city fell to Islam when Qutaiba ibn Muslim invaded it in 712. This was the start of the first great period of Islamic development, which was curtailed at the beginning of the 13th century when the city was sacked by the Mongols of Genghis Khan, who slaughtered much of the population.
By the time another great traveller, Marco Polo, arrived at the end of the 13th century the city had been rebuilt, and he sang its praises. The Uzbek national hero, Tamerlane, chose it as the capital of the relatively small region of Transoxiana in 1370 and then proceeded to expand his empire until it reached as far as India and Syria. He was responsible for several great buildings, most notably the Bibi Khanum Mosque. His grandson. Uleg Beg. ruled the city until it fell to nomadic Uzbeks. Uleg Beg's great-grandson, Babur, retook the city in 1512 but was later driven out to India where he founded the Mogul Empire. This was the end of a golden era. Ravaged by earthquakes, looting and changing trade routes, Samarkand eventually succumbed to the Bolsheviks and became part of the Soviet Union in 1924. The ancient centre of Samarkand is the Registan. This square, one of the finest in Asia. is surrounded on three sides by madrasas, or Islamic colleges. Uleg Beg constructed the square and the first madrasa in the 15th century. The fronts of the madrasas are towering façades that lead into ornate courtyards ringed with two storeys of small cells where the religious students lived and studied.
Ironically, for all their anti-religious sentiment and public denigration of Islam, it was the Soviets who restored much of the Registan, straightening precarious minarets and reconstructing the characteristic turquoise-tiled domes. These still shine with an iridescence that perhaps suggests the cool water that is often lacking in this dry land. Islam forbids the representation of living things, so each of the madrasas is covered with ornate patterns (none symmetrical, as this too is forbidden) intricate Kufic quotations from the Koran and inscriptions extolling the magnificence of the buildings. Bizarrely, though, the Shir Dor Madrasa on the eastern side of the square has two representations of lions in front of suns with shining human faces. This apparent heresy is attributed in part to the ego of the governor who built the madrasa and also to the continued influence of the Persian Zoroastrians who revered the power of the sun. The Uleg Beg and Shir Oar madrasas are flanked by minarets, used more for decoration than for calling the faithful to prayer as the buildings were primarily colleges rather than mosques. In Tamerlane's day, however, they were also used for public executions: a favourite way of dealing with criminals was to throw them from the top in a sack.
For a couple of dollars, one of the uniformed guards might let you climb the crumbling steps to the top of the north minaret at Ulug Beg Madrasa for one of the most impressive views across the city to the Bibi Khanum Mosque. Tamerlane constructed this vast mosque from the finest materials after sacking the city of Delhi in 1398. In the adjacent bazaar life and trade continue much as they did when the Silk Road brought spices, gold and fabrics to be traded here. You can still buy the round hats worn by many of Uzbekistan's Muslims, decorated flat breads and exotic spices that hark back to the days when peppercorns and saffron were more valuable than gold.
Samarkand is easily reached by bus or air from the capital Tashkent.