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Samarkand RegistanSamarkand City

Throughout its history this fabled oasis at the fringes of the Kyzylkum Desert has left its visitors breathlesss at the sight of its blue cupolas, its minarets and the sublime larger-than-life monuments of Timur.

Samarkand or Marakanda was probably founded about 500 BC, and historians refer to it as the "Pearl of the Islamic World", "Eden of Ancient East", "Rome of the East", "Peak of the Land". Its territories have been conquered by and lived under some of the most ferocious armies of history - Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane or Timur. The latter made the city his capital and named it the "Centre of the Universe". A must to almost any traveller, most of the architectural monuments of the city are heritage to Timur, his grandson Ulughbek and the Uzbek Shaybanids.

Samarkand's culture shows Iranian, Indian, Persian, and Mongolian, and being the central part of the Silk Road, Chinese, Mideastern and Europeaninfluenced . Its period of greatest development was at the height of the trade on the Silk Road beginning in the 2nd century until the 16th century.

The Registan Bibi Khanym Mosque Shahr-i-Zindar Monuments Afrosiab
Gur Emir Mausoleum Central Bazaar Ulughbek Observatory  

Samarkand Registan  Photograph: Matej SanitrarThe Registan

The centrepiece of the city and one of Central Asia's most awe-inspiring sights is the Registan, an ensemble of majestic, tilting medressas offering an overload of majolica, azure mosaics and vast, beautifully proportioned spaces.

Restored in its original splendour the artwork on the Registan is one of the most important monuments of Islamic arts. The ensemle consists of Ulughbek Madrassah to the west side of the square, memorial to the ruler dating back from 1417-20 and accommodating at least 100 students of Islamic and secular sciences at the time in its two storey dormitory cells. Almost like a mirror stands the Shaybanid Emir Yanangtush's Sher Dor Madrassah (1619-35), with its roaring felines, characterising the name (Lion Medresse) and a, for Islamic arts unusual, depiction of live animals. The third building inbetween is the Tillya Kari Madrassah, (gold-covered) completed by the Emir in 1660.

Fassade of Bibi Khanum before restorationsBibi Khanym Mosque

The gigantic congregational Bibi-Khanym Mosque nearby the Registan is powerful and shapely, even in ruin, and was the jewel of Timur's empire. It's a victim of its own grandeur, since it was once one of the Islamic world's biggest mosques and pushed construction techniques to the limit; slowly crumbling for centuries, it finally collapsed in an earthquake in 1897.

Bibi Khanum being Timur's Chinese wife, the Mosque is one of Timur's most ambitious projects and was to exceed anything he had encountered on his campaigns and was built between 1399 and 1404.

There is a giant marble Quran stand in the open courtyard

SamarkandShahr-i-Zindar Monuments

The most moving of Samarkand's sights is Shahr-i-Zindar, a street of tombs mostly belonging to Timur and Ulughbek's family and favourites, including one said to be that of a much revered cousin of the prophet Muhammad. Though disfigured by donation boxes, the tombs are decorated with some of the city's finest majolica tilework.

Shahr-i-Zindar stands for 'The living King', and refers to the holiest Mausoleum of this place of pilgrimage, probably the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of Prophet Mohammed who is said to have brought Islam to the area. Also adorned with exceptional tilework the other tombs belong to Timur's and Ulughbek's family and friends.

Gur Emir Mausoleum

Timur's favourite grandson erected this Madrassah and Khanagha 1400-1401, Timur erected the adjectant mausoleum. Although Timur had built himself a separate crypt at Shahrisabz, he was buried at Gur Emir (Tomb of the Emir) in 1405. Two of his sons and grandsons including Ulughbek also lie buried in the crypt underneath the inner room.

See the story on the Samarkand region page for more information.

Central Bazaar

The best live show in town is the main bazaar around the Bibi-Khanym Mosque. The kinetic, colourful main farmers' market is a regular Tower of Babel, and full of the dresses and shawls, hats and turbans, of just about every ethnic group in existence in the region.

Ulughbek Observatory Track Photograph: Matej SanitrarUlughbek Observatory

Ulughbek (1394-1449) has built this initially 30 m, three storey observatory for his astronomic work in the 1420s. The remains include the instrument's track ecavated in 1908. Following Ulughbek's achievements Samarkand was to become one of the world's scientific centres in the Middle Ages.


Closeby the Observatory, Afrosiab are the excavations of early Marakanda, a.o. the restored tomb of Prophet Daniel. Together with the fine Sogdian arts examples the 7th century frescoes at the nearby Afrosiab Museum are one of the most interesting points of the site.

There are daily flights between Tashkent and Samarkand. Otherwise it's a five hour bus or train ride across the flat, dry 'Hungry Steppe'. Buses run between Samarkand and Tashkent, Bukhara, Dushanbe and Almaty.

Click here to continue to Shakhrisabz!
© 2001-2010 STANtours last modified April 24, 2002