Things to do in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The great Central Asian conquerer Amir Timur may have been born in the 14th century, but legend says it was his spirit that was behind two of the biggest events in the 20th century.
For hundreds of years he was buried in Samarkand in Uzbekistan and, in 1941, researchers decided they would dig him up to do tests on his body.
The study of Amir Timur is, in theory, something that would have been supported by the Soviet Union, which Uzbekistan was part of at the time. But it’s unlikely that the ruler, Joseph Stalin, would have agreed to dig up Timur’s body.
This is, in part, because it would have been bad luck to have disturbed his body. You could even say that it might have cursed the people who would do it. And some say that’s exactly what happened.
Two days after the tomb of Amir Timur was opened, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in an unexpected attack that would bring death and destruction to the country.
It’s said that when Stalin heard that Timur, who he revered as a warrior, had been dug up just before the Nazis attacked, he immediately believed that the invasion was a result of Timur’s curse. He ordered the body be put back.
And you know the strangest thing? Not long after Timur’s body was returned to his tomb in Samarkand, the Soviets won the Battle of Stalingrad, a turning point in the war.
So, maybe the point of this story is that you shouldn’t try to disturb Timur’s body when you visit Samarkand. But you certainly shouldn’t be scared to visit because this is one of the best historical cities in Central Asia.
This Samarkand map will give you a sense of where all the main things to do in Samarkand are. I hope you find it useful as you explore the city.
But I think more important than a Samarkand map is a sense of the history of this city and why it is so important.
Understanding why Samarkand is the cultural capital of Uzbekistan and, in some ways, this whole part of the Silk Road is gives you the context you need before you arrive.
As I stand in front of Amir Timur’s tomb in Samarkand, I think about the legend of the Curse of Timur. It’s almost certainly just a series of coincidences – but, then again, this was no ordinary man.
Aimr Timur (who is also called Tamerlane) is buried inside the Gur-i Amir, a large mausoleum with an azure fluted dome and an imposing entrance gate covered in blue mosaic tiles.
It’s not the largest monument in Samarkand but it has wonderfully ornate details on the main entrance and inside the mausoleum where Timur and two sons and two grandsons are entombed.
It was actually never intended to be his mausoleum but it is fitting that he was buried here in Samarkand. For while Timur spent his life expanding his empire – eventually conquering land from present-day Turkey across to India – it is Samarkand that best represents his legacy.
Timur made Samarkand his capital and it came to be one of the wealthiest and grandest of the cities on the Silk Road. Can you just imagine the caravans of traders arriving here with their camels after travelling for weeks across Central Asia? They would have been astounded by what they found.
At the centre of it is the Registan, the central square that would have been used for big public events. It is now surrounded by large madrasas on three sides – built by Timur’s successors.
The Registan is the most important landmark in Samarkand and you can see why. The three complexes – facing towards the central square, with the beautifully decorated facades, domes, and minarets – create an impressive sense of scale.
But when you go through any of the entrances to the individual madrasas, you see the detail in the decoration and the spiritual atmosphere that is formed by the open courtyard with rooms for study, prayer, and accommodation off to each side.
Ulugh Beg Madrasa
The oldest of the madrasas is the Ulugh Beg Madrasah, built by Timur’s grandson between 1417 and 1422.
I actually think it’s the most interesting of the three to visit. Once you go through the main gate you’ll find a peaceful courtyard with trees creating a garden-like atmosphere.
You can also go through one of the shops to the second level, where you get an excellent view across the courtyard and the various rooms that open up across the two levels.
The next oldest is the Sher-Dor Madrasa that is on the opposite side. It was built about 200 years after the Ulugh Ber Madrasa, between 1619 and 1636.
The artistic design is quite interesting because you’ll see images of tigers in the mosaics, which goes against the general Islamic principle of not depicting people or animals in religious art.
But, to me, the most offensive thing is that the small rooms originally use for study and prayer are now used as tacky shops trying to sell souvenirs to tourists (local and foreign). There’s even a shop where you can dress up in costumes to have your photo taken. It’s rather tacky, I’m afraid.
The most recent madrasa is the one in the centre of the Registan, the Tilya-Kori Madrasa, built between 1646 and 1660.
It also has a lovely courtyard that gives you a sense of how peaceful these religious schools must have once been. Although I assume its side rooms are also used for shops, most of them are closed when I visit so they don’t bother me too much.
The highlight here is the mosque, which was used as the grand masjid in the Registan. It has some of the grandeur that you would expect, impressive gold and purple designs covering the walls and ceiling, but it also feels comfortably accessible.
While Amir Timur created the foundation of the Registan, it was later rulers who built the madrasas that now define its appearance.
The best example of Timur’s direct influence is the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.
This enormous Islamic complex was built on orders from Timur and he oversaw much of its design, demanding changes when he saw things he didn’t like during construction.
It’s said that on his military campaigns he kidnapped the best artisans of the conquered lands and brought them back to Samarkand to work on his projects. Perhaps we can see their work in the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.
Certainly the entranceway is covered in beautiful tiled work, as is the front of the main mosque building. Behind this facade of the main building is a 40-metre-high dome that is very impressive… perhaps a bit too impressive.
Because Timur pushed his workers so hard to make the greatest mosque in the shortest time that they were a bit ambitious for the construction techniques at the time. Only a few years after construction finished in 1405, things started to fall apart.
There’s no denying that it was one of the most impressive mosques in the world in the 15th century but, over the years, it turned into a ruin.
It’s only because of restoration of the facades in the past few decades that it looks as good as it does now. When I go into the main mosque building, I can see that everything looks like it’s still falling apart on the inside.
Right next to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque is the Siab Bazaar, a market that transports you back to the trading days of the Silk Road – one of the most vibrant things to do in Samarkand.
Although the actual bazaar is relatively modern, it gives you a sense of Samarkand as an important meeting point on the Silk Road in the Middle Ages, when caravans would have arrived to sell and buy goods from across the region.
The different rows of the Siab Bazaar are mostly arranged with similar products together. Wander through to see the fruit and vegetables, the candies, the handmade local crafts, and particularly the dried fruits and nuts that are said to be the best in Uzbekistan.
Like in all of the country, bread is a very important part of the meal so you’ll see how it’s given such a prominent place at the bazaar.
While Samarkand is full of large and magnificent monuments, my favourite site looks rather unimpressive from the outside. The entrance is just a small mosque on the side of a main road, but go through the gate and take a staircase up the hill, and you’ll arrive the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis.
Here, an avenue of mausoleums create one of the most beautiful scenes of Samarkand, as the green and blue of the mosaics on their facade create a tunnel of glimmering tiles.
The tilework here is considered to be among the best in the Islamic world and, when you look at the detail, you’ll see how intricate and colourful it all is.
Amir Timur first started burying his family here in the 14th century because he wanted them to be close to a shrine to Qusam, the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, who is said to have been buried here. In fact, the name Shah-i-Zinda, which means ‘Living King’ is related to the legend that Qusam didn’t die when he was beheaded for his faith and he’s still hiding deep beneath the ground.
You can go through some passageways and through a tiny entrance to the shrine of Qusam, where local people still come to worship.
Rulers after Timur also used this spot to bury their families, and mausoleums were built here until the 19th century. It’s the older ones that stand out as the most impressive, though.
Even though the avenue of tombs is only about 150 metres long, it’s easy to spend a couple of hours here looking at everything in detail and taking your time to admire the vista it creates.
One of the other things to do in Samarkand is visit the ancient site of Afrasiyab, to see a different part of the city’s history.
Although it’s the Silk Road period, particularly from the reign of Amir Timur, that gets the most attention here, Samarkand was actually a large settlement well before that. Afrasiyab is all the remains from Samarkand from about 500 BC until about 1200 AD, before the Mongols invaded.
Don’t expect to see proper buildings at Afrasiyab, though. Much of the city is still buried underground. But, as you walk through, you can see the excavations that have uncovered houses, tombs, and other parts of the city.
It’s a peaceful area and very few tourists visit, so you’ll likely have the place to yourself. There are also nice views across the landscape here. You’ll get more out of a visit if you have a guide who can tell you about the excavated buildings.
As you can see, there are lots of things to do in Samarkand – and it’s never been easier to visit it.
Uzbekistan is now visa-free for most countries, so you can fly into Tashkent no worries. From there, you can get the high-speed train to Samarkand, that takes about two hours to cover more than 300 kilometre.
There’s no need for camels in a caravan to get you to Samarkand these days, but the sight of one of the greatest Silk Road cities is no less impressive.