The Central Asian Rally takes you over the heart of the ancient cultures of Central Asia. This area surrounds the curious traveler with present and living history. Cities contemporaries to Babylon and Rome still stand and prosper. When Europe plunged into the darkest Middle Ages, ancient cities around the Silk Road were hubs for arts and enlightenment. And perhaps the most important of them all is Samarkand.
Photo by Manfred Jansen
Samarkand – Queen of cities of Uzbekistan
It is always an overwhelming experience to arrive in Samarkand. By that time the route of the Central Asia Rally has passed so many ancient and beautiful cities (like Khiva or Bukhara, and many others), that you would think you have seen it all. That this cannot impress you anymore. Then you arrive in Samarkand: It’s a whole different league. UNESCO made the whole area a world heritage sight, because it is a city many civilizations conquered, but instead of destroying it, each added its contribution, thus earning the name: „Crossroads of Culture”
Bukhara can come close. That is also a beautiful ancient city, but coming hundreds of kilometers before Samarkand on the route of the Central Asian Rally, it’s just the right build-up for Samarkand. Tashkent, the capitol of Uzbekistan also used to be an ancient city, but it’s a modern metropolis now. It has almost completely lost its ancient architectural heritage, thanks to the industrial settlement of the Soviet Union, and sadly, to the great earthquake of 1966. If you want to see the living Central Asian culture in its full power, you need to see Samarkand.
Founded in an oasis in the Zerafshan valley, the city has been inhabited since the 8th century BC. The city has almost always been a center of power. When Alexander the Great conquered it (329BC) it had already been a major city in the Persian Empire. Conquered by Turks, then Mongols, every civilization held Samarkand in special status. Tamerlane (Timur Lenk) made Samarkand the capital of his great empire, and the rule of his dynasty brought even greater times for the city.
What You Can See in Samarkand
As the Central Asian Rally approaches Samarkand from the west, we see the new town, a typical Central Asian city, always busy, where tradition mixes with modern technology in a strange way. But as we approach the old city center, you begin to grasp the greatness of the place. The old districts still have a medieval feel with their narrow side streets, traditional shops and industries.
The center of the whole settlement is the Registan. Registan is a medieval building complex surrounding a forum-like main square, that gave place to public events of any significance for centuries. It was built under the reign of the Timurid dynasty, allegedly started by Tamerlane himself. The most dominant sight of the square are the three giant madrasahs, Koran schools, with their trademark archways of Islamic architecture.
North of the Regestan complex you can find the well preserved archaeological site of Afrasyab, the ruins of the ancient city destroyed by Genghis Khan’s hordes in the 13th century. This was the location where the oldest Samarkand stood, where the ancient Persians and Seleucid Greeks had their settlement. Archaelogical relics are so dense here, that the 220-hectare area is locked down as a historical preserve, with the rich exhibitions of the museums only – literally – scraping the surface of its history.
Looking for Samarkand souvenirs?
Samarkand is famous for its traditional, handcraft industry, which you can access in the great atmosphere of the old town. Being on the Silk Road, of course its most traditional industries are connected to the precious fabric. But not in the way we are familiar with.
According to the legend, the craft of making silk paper, a strictly guarded secret was tricked out of Chinese prisoners in the 8th century, and has been practiced and perfected ever since. A piece of silk paper is durable, hand crafted, and of course made of silk – don’t expect it to be cheap. Still, it’s a great memento you can take home from the Central Asian rally.
The Famous Samarkand Carpets
If your budget is higher, much higher, you can take home a piece of a true masterpiece of the craft Samarkand is really famous for: A silk carpet! The price of these beauties ranges from a few thousand dollars and up, so you will be surprised to see yourself bark at your friends when you see them approach it with their shoes on. But not only because they are expensive. But they are beautiful, and show the hundreds of working hours spent on them.
They are real pieces of art, which only increase their value, so perhaps a smart idea to invest in, but because of their value they aren’t easy to clear through customs. Still, if you have the chance to own one, definitely do it. If you thought you weren’t interested in beautiful carpets, you’ll change your mind, you’ll see.
Nowadays of course, you can order basically any pattern you like, and for a hefty sum you’ll get it. But really, don’t do it. Your wedding photo will always look better printed. Your beloved pet was just a dog, and if you are not George Lucas having a Death Star Samarkand silk carpet is not cool. Have respect for the traditions of this Central Asian art. Some millionaires these days, really..