Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Timur's Monumental Samarkand, Uzbekistan: October 5-8, 2014

When the road from Tashkent to Samarkand was one of the avenues of the ancient Silk Road, rest stops in the form of caravanasarai were found every 40 kilometers because that was the distance that a camel could travel in a day. Today, there are still stops every 40 kilometers but they are police check points that create bottlenecks that prolong the 4 to 5-hour journey over the mostly pot-holed road.

Between Tashkent and Samarkand, it is semi-desert. There are crops: cotton, wheat, rice, and orchards which are heavily irrigated.

Samarkand isn't what I expected. For one thing, there is no old city. The huge monuments which were in ruins were mostly restored, but the old parts of Samarkand were leveled first by tsarist Russians and later the soviets. Fortunately, someone (possibly Stalin) wised up to the great tourist potential of preserving these sites before the same urban renewal happened in Bukhara and Khiva.

Samarkand is where Amir Timur (Tamerlane), 1336-1405 had his throne. One of his titles was "Conqueror of the World."

None of the structures now standing in Registan (sandy place) square were built by Amir Timur. His bazaar and caravanasary were both torn down by subsequent rulers.


The Ulug Beg Madrassah on the west (left) is what remains of the structures built by Timur's grandson (Ulug Beg) in the 15th century. 



This early 17th century structure, the Shir Dor (lion-bearing) Madrassah, is decorated with unusual figurative art of two lions chasing two white does. A human face within a sun peeks over the back of each lion possibly as a symbol of Zoroastrianism.  The human face with the sun symbol is replicated on one of the modern buildings in Tashkent.


We walked through this former madrassah and into some of the cells that have been converted to souvenir shops. I did find one ancient relic that was worth taking home ......


A small mosque sits directly behind the northern structure. It is also filled with souvenir shops. Twice a year for Islamic holy days, it is again a mosque.


Amir Timur was born south of Samarkand in Shakhrisabz. This is where his palace, known as the White Palace, was built and thinking ahead, this is where he also built his mausoleum. His palace is in ruins and his last wish to be buried in Shakhrisabz was not realized. In the west we know Amir Timur as "Tamerlane" a corruption of Timur the Lame the name he was given as a result of arrow wounds to his right leg and arm. Even today, Amir Timur has a really good PR staff because his disfigurement and lameness are not reflected in any of today's monuments.

The entire area around Amir Timur's palace has been dug up and the residents displaced. Previously, local residents had built their homes right up to the palace and mausoleum walls. Pottery sherds of an unknown age are scattered over the cleared area. In an archaeological nightmare, backhoes digging trenches brought the pottery fragments to the surface. Also displaced are the merchants who now line the streets trying to sell their goods while holding umbrellas to get relief from the sun. A large park will eventually surround Timur's palace and his statue.




Someone else was buried in his intended mausoleum in Shakhrisabz. Amir Timur is buried in a beautiful mausoleum, Gur Emir, in Samarkand. Amir Timur built this mausoleum in 1403 upon the death of and for his favorite grandson.


He was buried within the unadorned black stone casket/tomb that he specified. The pole in the right marks the grave of a holy man. A length of horse hair hangs from the top of the pole. Besides the holy man's tomb, Amir Timur is surrounded by the tombs of some of his sons and grandsons.



On the way to Shakhrisabz, we stopped for a tea break at an impeccably clean carpet weaving center situated on the road between Shakhrisabz and Samarkand. We met the patriarch who has many sons and grandchildren. The daughters-in-law do the carpet weaving.





Before leaving Samarkand, we visited the necropolis of mausoleums called Shah-I-Zinda. The entrance to the necropolis is up the "Staircase of Sinners." The structures span the 11th to 19th centuries. The ceramic work, even that renovated by less talented craftsmen, is stunning.



Newer cemeteries surround the necropolis. We walked along the mounds of some of the newer graves and noticed that uncovered bones were visible.


When a silk road camel caravan was within sight of Samarkand, what they saw first was the looming Amir Timur's Bibi Khanum mosque and Samarkand's bustling bazaar stretched out in front of it. After many days walking through the desert and finally arriving on the last hill, imagine the relief and joy felt at this sight of Samarkand.



During our walk through of the Samarkand's main bazaar, we learned about a tobacco, kind of a snuff powder, that was sold there. It is called nasvai and the ingredients (perhaps not in this order) consist of chicken dung, tobacco, lime, and oil which serves as a binder. It smells really bad but has a mild narcotic effect. It is in powder form and the user puts it under his/her tongue.


In addition to fancy containers to hold the nasvai, one nasvai seller had an assortment of "Benjamin Franklins" for sale.

 We also saw the usual produce and non-produce items for sale. It was a very cold day and the merchants that were located outside of the roof line, were bundled up. This photogenic woman was "more than 90" another person told us. She looks great.





It was Hawthorne Apple season. We were completely unfamiliar with this tiny fruit. It did indeed taste like an apple.

Of course there is a Saint Cecilia but until Uzbekistan, I had never heard of Saint Daniel. My Daniel was delighted with the evidence of a Saintly Daniel; however, I am unconvinced.


Next stop, Bukhara.

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