Awash with history
Before Genghis Khan’s horde destroyed everything, there was Alexander who named it Marakanda, and there were the Sogdians, who were the great traders of the Silk Road and gave Alexander a run for his money. He defeated them eventually and married the Sogdian leader’s daughter, Roxana. In the small museum next to Ulugbek’s 15th century observatory, we find an extraordinary room covered in 7th century frescoes of Sogdian traders, their elephants, camels and silken wares.
After Genghis Khan, the old city was abandoned and became a place of legend under the name of Afrosiab. Samarkand moved to adjacent hills and Timur, an indirect descendant of Genghis Khan, became its warrior king. The old city crumbled and was covered by sand. It is only since the twentieth century that archaeologists have made slight inroads into rediscovering it. Most of it is still buried.
It was Timur’s learned grandson, Ulugbek the astronomer, who built many of the most impressive surviving monuments: the first of the three extraordinary medrassas on Registan Square and the finest mausoleums of the Shah-i-Zinda – the Tomb of the Living Kings. He was a better scientist and builder of monuments than he was a ruler. He made Samarkand a centre of learning, but was murdered by his own son.
The gleaming tiled monuments have been substantially restored, having fallen into ruin by the end of the 19th century. Some of the restoration is impressive and highly skilled; some not. Would we prefer to see the place in ruins and the monuments without their blue tiles? I’m not sure. Most look pretty amazing as they are.
Tomorrow we head east for Kokand and the Fergana valley. Internet access becomes a question mark…