Like Rome and Babylon, Samarkand is one of the oldest cities on the planet. It is located on one of the most important crossroads of the Silk Road and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001. The masterpieces of ancient Samarkand stand in the middle of the modern city and the buildings, eaten away by time. They have been restored to their former splendour. There is a lot to do and see and through this article, I am showing you the best things to visit in Samarkand
“Everything I have heard about the beauty of the city is indeed true, except that it is much more beautiful than I imagined” Alexander the Great
I’ve visited most of the monuments twice in order to capture them under a different light. Tickets are valid for the day, so notify the guard if you plan to return so that they do not tear it up.
What to visit in Samarkand?
If Samarkand was considered the pearl of the East, the Bibi Khanum mosque was the pearl of Samarkand. Erected in the early 15th century, it was the Timurid Empire’s main mosque. Because its brick structure couldn’t bear its own weight any longer, the mosque began to deteriorate. Even before the end of construction! The conservation and partial restoration were only stated at the end of the 20th century. Note the marble Quran in the center of the courtyard.
The Registan was the center of commerce and crafts in the city but also of education (science, philosophy and religion). It is on the list of the most beautiful places in the world. And once you visit the inside the Tilla Kari medersa, you will understand why.
On the square, 3 madrasas (religious Islamic schools):
In the center, Tilla Kari is the most impressive. The richness of the dome and its walls exceeds all other buildings known in central Asia. This is why the madrasa was called “Tilla Kari -“ covered in gold ”. Built in the 17th century, the dome remained unfinished and was only completed in the 20th century.
The madrasa Ulug Beg and is the oldest of the three. Dating back to the 15th century, it is named after the Sultan, mathematician and astronomer Ulugh Beg who is said to have taught there. The interior courtyard is magnificent and the mosaic work is simply incredible. Two minarets are arranged at the corners of the facade. It is possible to climb into the one on the right (just after passing the entrance). Be careful, it’s steep, narrow and not lit. There is room for only one or two people at the top. I went there to watch the sunset and there were two of us.
Opposite, the Cher Dor madrasa with tigers on its facade was mirrored to Ulug Beg.
There are more people in the evening but it’s a magical moment when the colours change to orange.
The best time to visit it is at the opening, when the souvenir sellers are not yet settled and the tourist groups are still having breakfast. I arrived a little before the opening and the guard let me in. The colours in the evening are stunning but it also brings more crowd. Some evenings, a light show is organised on the Registan. A little bit tacky for my liking but it’s nice to see these beautiful buildings under a different light.
Although located further away from sites in the city, the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum is definitely worth a visit. Gur-e-Amir “the tomb of the sovereign” is where the famous conqueror Amir Timur (Tamerlane) rests. The tiling leading to the mausoleum is magnificent.
Inside, the walls are entirely covered with light and dark blue mosaic as well as a lot of gold. The jade tomb of Amir Tamerlane is in the middle. If you can, return in the evening when it is lit.
Tour guides love to tell that a curse hangs over the tomb. An engraved inscription warns “When I return to daylight, the world will shake”. Russian anthropologist Mikhail Guerassimov opened the crypt in 1941 to exhume Tamerlane’s body. The next day, June 22, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa against the USSR. He was therefore considered responsible for the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War….
Do not miss this mausoleum located just behind the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum. It dates from the 15th century. The blue and gold ceiling has been incredibly well restored. Depending on how you look at it, you can see a bird on the dome.
Close to the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum, Shah-i-Zinda is a must see. It is located on top of a hill and is one of the most sacred sites in the city. The necropolis is an intriguing avenue of mausoleums glazed blue and turquoise mosaics.
I recommend visiting in the early evening when the sun isn’t too high. When I first visited in the morning, the light was already too strong. In the late afternoon, there were fewer people and the colours were really beautiful.
The streets of Samarkand
I ventured out in search of a glimpse of everyday life: I had set the Gumbaz synagogue as a goal and walked in the narrow streets of Samarkand. I was even invited to have tea with locals who wanted their son to practice his English. Later, I came across the Abu Mansur al-Maturidi mausoleum (expensive to get in and not really worth the visit. It is however visible from the outside).
In the Russian district, while looking for a restaurant recommended by people met on the train, I came across the church of St. Alexis of Moscow and the museum of regional studies. The interior, an old merchant’s house, is very impressive. I was lucky to be on my own during the whole visit!
Located about 280km from Bukhara, Samarkand is easily accessible by train. (1h30 with Afrosiyob. For more information, see the article dedicated to transports in Uzbekistan.
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