Samarkand (Uzbek: Samarqand Самарқанд; Persian: سمرقند; Russian: Самарканд from Sogdian: "Stone Fort" or "Rock Town";
Mongolian: Самарканд from "Nut Rock" or "Hard Rock"), alternatively Samarqand or Samarcand, is the second-largest city in Uzbekistan and the capital of Samarqand Province. The city is most noted for
its central position on the Silk Road between China and the West, and for being an Islamic centre for scholarly study. In the 14th century it became the capital of the empire of Timur (Tamerlane) and
is the site of his mausoleum (the Gur-e Amir). The Bibi-Khanym Mosque (a modern replica) remains one of the city's most notable landmarks. The Registan was the ancient center of the city. The city
has carefully preserved the traditions of ancient crafts: embroidery, gold embroidery, silk weaving, engraving on copper, ceramics, carving and painting on wood.
In 2001, UNESCO added the city to its World Heritage List as Samarkand – Crossroads of Cultures.
According on Sanskrit texts, the original name of Samarkand was "Markanda", named after the Vedic saint of the same name - Markanda. The Greeks later referred to the city as Maracanda, which is a corruption of its former Sanskrit name. The city was known by an abbreviated name of Marakanda when Alexander the Great took it in 332 BC. There are various theories of how Marakanda evolved into Samarkanda/Samarkan. It is common to prefix "as" or "su" to names in Sankrit to denote its good nature, hence Sumarkanda. Another derives the name from the Old Persian asmara, "stone", "rock", and Sogdian kand, "fort", "town".
Founded c. 700 BC by the Sogdians, Samarkand has been one of the main centres of Sogdian civilization from its early days. By the time of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia it had become the capital of the Sogdian satrapy.
Alexander the Great conquered Samarkand in 329 BC and was known as Maracanda by the Greeks. Written sources offer small clues as to the
subsequent system of government. They tell of an Orepius who became ruler "not from ancestors, but as a gift of Alexander".
While Samarkand suffered significant damage during Alexander's initial conquest, the city recovered rapidly and under the new Hellenic influence flourished. There were also major new construction techniques; oblong bricks were replaced with square ones and superior methods of masonry and plastering were introduced.
Samarkand was conquered by the Sassanians around AD 260. Under Sassanian rule the region became an essential site for Manichaeism, and
facilitated the dissemination of the religion throughout central Asia.
After the Sassanian disaster against the Hephtalites who managed to conquer Samarkand, Samarkand was controlled by the Hephtalites until they were defeated by the Göktürks, in an alliance with the Sassanid Persians during the Battle of Bukhara. The Turks ruled over Samarkand until they were defeated by the Sassanids during the Göktürk–Persian Wars. After the Islamic conquest of Iran the Turks conquered Samarkand and held it until Turkic qaghanate collapsed due to wars with the Chinese Tang Dynasty. During this time the city became a protectorate and paid tribute to the ruling Tang. The armies of the Umayyad Caliphate under Qutayba ibn Muslim captured the city in around AD 710.
During this period, Samarkand was a diverse religious community and was home to a number of religions, including Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Manichaeism, Judaism and Nestorian Christianity. However, after the Arab conquest of Sogdiana, Islam became the dominant religion in Samarkand, with much of the population choosing to convert.
Legend has it that during Abbasid rule the secret of papermaking was obtained from two Chinese prisoners from the Battle of Talas in 751, which led to the foundation of the first paper mill of the Islamic world in Samarkand. The invention then spread to the rest of the Islamic world, and from there to Europe.
The Abbasid control of Samarkand soon dissipated and was replaced with that of the Iranian Samanids (AD 862–999), though it must be noted that the Samanids were still nominal vassals of the Caliph during their control of Samarkand. Under Samanid rule the city became one of the capitals of the Samanid dynasty and an even more important link amongst numerous trade routes. The Samanids were overthrown by Turkish tribes in around AD 1000. During the next two hundred years, Samarkand would be ruled by a succession of Turkish tribes, including the Seljuqs and the Khwarizm-Shahs.
The Mongols conquered Samarkand in 1220. Although Genghis Khan "did not disturb the inhabitants [of the city] in any way", according to
Juvaini he killed all who took refuge in the citadel and the mosque. He also pillaged the city completely and conscripted 30,000 young men along with 30,000 craftsmen. Samarkand suffered at least one
other Mongol sack by Khan Baraq to get treasure he needed to pay an army. The town took many decades to recover from these disasters.
The Travels of Marco Polo, where Polo records his journey along the Silk Road, describes Samarkand as a "a very large and splendid city..." Here also is related the story of a Christian church in Samarkand, which miraculously remained standing after a portion of its central supporting column was removed.
In 1365, a revolt against Mongol control occurred in Samarkand. In 1370 Timur, the founder and ruler of the Timurid Empire, made Samarkand his capital. During the next 35 years he rebuilt most of the city and populated it with the great artisans and craftsmen from across the empire. Timur gained a reputation as a patron of the arts and Samarkand grew to become the centre of the region of Transoxiana. Timur’s commitment to the arts is evident in the way he was ruthless with his enemies but merciful towards those with special artistic abilities. He spared the lives of artists, craftmen and architects so that he could bring them to improve and beautify his capital. He was also directly involved in his construction projects and his visions often exceeded the technical abilities of his workers. Furthermore, the city was in a state of constant construction and Timur would often request buildings to be redone and done quickly if he was unsatisfied with the results. Timur made it so that the city could only be reached by roads and also ordered the construction of deep ditches and walls, that would run five miles (8.0 km) in circumference, separating the city from the rest of its surrounding neighbors. During this time the city had a population of about 150,000. This great period of reconstruction is incapsulated in the account of Henry III's ambassador, Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, who was stationed there between 1403 and 1406. During his stay the city was typically in a constant state of construction. "The Mosque which Timur had caused to be built in memory of the mother of his wife...seemed to us the noblest of all those we visited in the city of Samarkand, but no sooner had it been completed than he begun to find fault with its entrance gateway, which he now said was much too low and must forthwith be pulled down."
Between 1424 and 1429, the great astronomer Ulugh Beg built the Samarkand Observatory. The sextant was 11 metres long and once rose to the top of the surrounding three-storey structure, although it was kept underground to protect it from earthquakes. Calibrated along its length, it was the world's largest 90-degree quadrant at the time. However, the observatory was destroyed by religious fanatics in 1449.
In 1500 the Uzbek nomadic warriors took control of Samarkand. The Shaybanids emerged as the Uzbek leaders at or about this time. In the
second quarter of 16th century, the Shaybanids moved their capital to Bukhara and Samarkand went into decline. After an assault by the Persian king, Nadir Shah, the city was abandoned in the 18th
century, about 1720 or a few years later.
From 1599 to 1756, Samarkand was ruled by the Ashtarkhanid dynasty of Bukhara.
From 1756 to 1868, Samarkand was ruled by the Manghyt emirs of Bukhara.
The city came under Russian rule after the citadel had been taken by a force under Colonel Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufman in 1868. Shortly thereafter the small Russian garrison of 500 men were themselves besieged. The assault, which was led by Abdul Malik Tura, the rebellious elder son of the Bukharan Emir, and Bek of Shahrisabz, was repelled with heavy losses. Alexander Abramov became the first Governor of the Military Okrug, which the Russians established along the course of the Zeravshan River, with Samarkand as the administrative centre. The Russian section of the city was built after this point, largely to the west of the old city.
In 1886, the city became the capital of the newly formed Samarkand Oblast of Russian Turkestan and grew in importance still further when the Trans-Caspian railway reached the city in 1888. It became the capital of the Uzbek SSR in 1925 before being replaced by Tashkent in 1930.
Timur initiated the building of Bibi Khanum after his campaign in India in 1398-1399. Before its reconstruction after an earthquake in 1897, Bibi Khanum had around 450 marble columns that were established with the help of 95 elephants that Timur had brought back from Hindustan. Also from India, artisans and stonemasons designed the mosque’s dome, giving it its distinctiveness amongst the other buildings.
The best-known structure in Samarkand is the mausoleum known as Gur-i Amir. It exhibits many cultures and influences from past
civilizations, neighboring peoples, and especially those of Islam. Despite how much devastation the Mongols caused in the past to all of the Islamic architecture that had existed in the city prior to
Timur's succession, much of the destroyed Islamic influences were revived, recreated, and restored under Timur. The blueprint and layout of the mosque itself follows the Islamic passion of geometry
and other elements of the structure had been precisely measured. The entrance to the Gur-i Amir is decorated with Arabic calligraphy and inscriptions, the latter being a common feature in Islamic
architecture. The attention to detail and meticulous nature of Timur is especially obvious when looking inside the building. Inside, the walls have been covered in tiles through a technique,
originally developed in Iran, called “mosaic faience,” a process where each tile is cut, colored, and fit into place individually. The tiles were also arranged in a specific way that would engrave
words relating to the city's religiosity; words like "Muhammad" and "Allah" have been spelled out on the walls using the tiles.
The ornaments and decorations of the walls include floral and vegetal symbols which are used to signify gardens. Gardens are commonly interpreted as paradise in the Islamic religion and they were both inscribed in tomb walls and grown in the city itself. In the city of Samarkand, there were two major gardens, the New Garden and the Garden of Heart’s Delight, and these became the central areas of entertainment for ambassadors and important guests. A friend of Genghis Khan in 1218 named Yelü Chucai, reported that Samarkand was the most beautiful city of all where "it was surrounded by numerous gardens. Every household had a garden, and all the gardens were well designed, with canals and water fountains that supplied water to round or square-shaped ponds. The landscape included rows of willows and cypress trees, and peach and plum orchards were shoulder to shoulder." The floors of the mausoleum is entirely covered with uninterrupted patterns of tiles of flowers, emphasizing the presence of Islam and Islam art in the city. In addition, Persian carpets with floral printings have been found in some of the Timurid buildings.
Turko-Mongol influence is also apparent in the architecture of the buildings in Samarkand. For instance, nomads previously used tents, or yurts, to display the bodies of the dead before they were to engage in proper burial procedures. Similarly, it is believed that the melon-shaped domes of the tomb chambers are imitations of those very yurts. Timur, naturally, used stronger materials, like bricks and wood, to establish these tents, but their purposes remain largely unchanged.
The color that the buildings in Samarkand also has significant meaning behind it. For instance, blue is the most common and dominant color that will be found on the buildings, which was used by Timur in order to symbolize a large range of ideas. For one, the blue shades seen in the Gur-i Amir are colors of mourning. Blue was the color of mourning in Central Asia at the time, as it is in many cultures even today, and its dominance in the city's mausoleum appears to be a very rational idea. In addition, blue was also seen as the color that would ward off "the evil eye" in Central Asia and the notion is evident in the number of doors in and around the city that were colored blue during this time. Furthermore, blue was representative of water, which was a particularly rare resource around the Middle East and Central Asia; coloring the walls blue symbolized the wealth of the city.
Gold also has a strong presence in the city. Timur's fascination with vaulting explains the excessive use of gold in the Gur-i Amir as well as the use of embroidered gold fabric in both the city and his buildings. The Mongols had great interests in Chinese- and Persian-style golden silk textiles as well as nasij woven in Iran and Transoxiana. Past Mongol leaders, like Ogodei, built textiles workshops in their cities in order to be able to produce gold fabrics themselves.
There is evidence that Timur tried to preserve his Mongol roots. In the chamber in which his body was laid, "tuqs" were found. "Tuqs" are poles with horses' tails hanging at the top, which was symbolic of an ancient Turkic tradition where horses, which were valuable commodities, were sacrificed in order to honor the dead.