Samarkand and Bukhara: Golden journey on ancient Silk Road


Two Silk Road cities and medieval springs of intellectual production, Samarkand and Bukhara continue to amaze travelers today while igniting questions as to contemporary topographical perceptions.

“We travel not for trafficking alone, By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned, For lust of knowing what should not be known, we make the Golden Journey to Samarkand,” wrote English poet James Elroy Flecker in 1913. As much as these verses sound appealing mystical symbols of the Orient, a golden journey to the heart of the Silk Road, Samarkand, can only incite the first sin of human kind, the lust to know and to know more. At the time of Flecker, the golden journey to Samarkand was hyped among intellectuals seeking to acquire knowledge of a fairy tale like the Orient. The city on the Silk Road, or other cities such as Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire at the time of Flecker, offered young intellectuals or diplomats a scene to satisfy their desire to obtain knowledge of the other, some phenomenon alien to them. But today, what does traveling to such cities signify for “world citizens” of the 21st century? Are we really purified of the topological conceptions of our predecessors when it comes to less advertised cities that came under the rule of a very closed political and economic sovereignty, say, the Soviet Union? Cities that were the cradle and origin of all knowledge long ago and then embellished the fantasies of the adventure and meaning-seeking intellectuals.

During my recent journey to Samarkand and Bukhara, these were some of the questions in my mind. Reading many Orientalist writings for many years and trying to “deconstruct” their long overdue concepts, I was a little mesmerized by my loss of a way to verbalize this experience, which left me confused. I simply could not know what to say, write and feel in this encounter. But I was determined to do justice for the sake of medieval times!

Fascination was the first affective power when I saw Bibi Khanym Mosque in Samarkand, constructed during the rule of Amir Timur, also known as Tamerlane and the sworn enemy of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I. Located in the city center and built between 1399 and 1404, Bibi Khanym Mosque is the epitome of Islamic architecture since it is recognized as one of the most impressive historic mosques in Central Asia and the Islamic world.

Samarkand (Bibi-Khonum Mosque)

Considered a monument to love for Amir Timur’s favorite wife Bibi Khanym, the mosque was ordered by the wife herself to surprise her husband when he returned from an India campaign, yet some historians believe that construction began upon the orders of Timur himself before he set out for India to monumentalize his love for the favorite wife, who is the daughter of a Kazan-khan.

The grandiose structure of the mosque is empowered by its majestic blue domes. The gigantic flower decorated doors do not make it easy to fathom the scale of the construction, which made it logical to use elephants during the construction. Words may not, but numbers can help picturing the enormous structure. The largest dome of the mosque was 18 meters in diameter, while the height from the floor to its top was 40 meters. A 15th-century historian was reported to compare the dome of Bibi Khanym to the heavens and its portal arch to the Milky Way. When you enter the arch portal, you enter a big garden surrounded by masjids, which are now hollow and not open to prayer because the mosque serves as a museum.

One immediately starts to imagine stories upon entering this monument of love located at the heart of a city ruled by Shah Zaman and then Scheherazade’s father in “One Thousand and One Nights.” And of course, this extraordinarily majestic monument has been the subject of legends. It is said that Bibi Khanym ordered the mosque be built by the time her husband Amir Timur returned from India. Despite the return being imminent, the mosque still had a portal arch waiting to be built. The legend continues: A young architect fell in love with beautiful Bibi Khanym, and therefore delayed the construction because he would not have seen his love if the job had been completed. Seeing the unfinished work, Timur’s wife became furious, but she begged the young architect to expedite the process. The anonymous architect agrees, albeit conditionally. He asked to kiss Bibi Khanym’s cheek. The empress gave in. Although she covers the cheek with her hand, the young man’s kiss was so powerful that it left a small spot on the empress’ cheek.

When Timur and his troops marched into the city, they were fascinated and amazed by the splendor of the domes, just as I was. Yet, the powerful sovereign suddenly realized the spot on his beloved wife’s cheek and demanded an immediate explanation. Having learned what happened, Timur became enraged and ordered the capture of the young architect, but this young man, who had rewarded himself with a kiss, made himself wings and flew to Mashhad, a city in Iran.

Timur and Bibi Khanym never had children, but there is a popular belief that if a woman who cannot become pregnant for a long time comes to the mosque and prays, she will eventually have a child.

Around and behind the Bibi Khanym Mosque, visitors find Samarkand’s colorful and lively market, Siab or Siob Bazaar. The bazaar is believed to be the oldest in the city and an ancient trading site. From food to souvenirs, anything one looks for in a city bazaar is offered in this vibrant market, a must to see for Samarkand visitors.

Try unique Samarkand bread, which can be stored up to two weeks or two months in the fridge. Yummy, especially when toasted! What I remember most from my Samarkand trip is the abundance of all kinds of nuts, pistachios, almonds and all sorts of dried fruits I saw for the first time in my life. Uzbeks even dry melon! And yes, they are all delicious. Do not return from this bazaar without tasting and buying some good local stuff.

Uzbekistan is also famous for its exquisite woodcraft. It is nice to look at the beautifully embellished little chests and pen boxes. And bargaining, of course, is the indispensable element of your shopping frenzy. Mind that $1 is traded at 8,087 Uzbekistan som.

A landmark of the city is Registan Square, a true medieval jewel and a treat to the eye. I enjoyed the Registan view on a bright sunny but cold day. All I saw was the exquisite ornaments, turquoise cupolas and mosaics enriched with geometric patterns. Registan means “sandy place” in Persian. The square accommodates three madrasahs (school in Arabic). These madrasahs at the time did not just provide religious education but also included secular courses like algebra and astronomy in their curriculum.

The first one, Ulugh Beg madrasah, was built by Amir Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg, who dedicated his life to science and education. Timur’s grandson was both a competent soldier and a devoted astronomer. Inviting scholars to Samarkand, Ulugh Beg turned the city into an intellectual capital of the early 15th century. The portal of Ulugh Beg Madrasah reflects his commitment to the study of astronomy as stars are depicted on a mosaic structure. The corners of the portal have two minarets that are now leaning due to earthquakes. The square courtyard includes a mosque and lecture rooms and is fringed by 55 dormitory cells where students lived.

The two other madrasas in the square – the Tilya-Kori and Sher-Dor – were built in the 17th century upon the order of Yalangtush Bakhodur to match Beg’s, and today this overwhelming triad is perhaps Samarkand’s biggest tourist attraction. The latter, located just opposite Ulugh Beg Madrasah, has some unique decorations on the portal. The translation of Sher-Dor is “madrasah with tigers,” and it is indeed the madrasah with lions. In the center of the arch above the entrance, a swastika, which symbolized abundance and fertility in ancient times, is engraved on a mosaic. It also has images of two tigers hunting deer with the sun on their backs on each side of the arch. Some historians believe that 17th century ruler Yalangtush Bakhodur was symbolized by a male tiger, a signification of the power of his government, the greatness and magnificence of Samarkand.

Besides being a fascinating tourist attraction, Registan Square also serves as the venue for Sharq Taronaları, or Melodies of the Orient, an international festival of traditional music held every other year under the auspices of UNESCO.

A traveler to this medieval intellectual spring will certainly not want to miss the Ulugh Beg Observatory. Built in the 1420s by Timur’s grandson, astronomer Ulugh Beg, the observatory is regarded as one of the finest observatories in the Islamic world and has hosted world-renowned astronomers and mathematicians like Ali Qushji and the founder himself. Other distinguished astronomers made observations of celestial movements in the observatory, including Qadizada al-Rumi and Jamshid Kashani. The calculations of a stellar year made at this observatory were quite accurate – 365 days, six hours, 10 minutes and eight seconds – only about one minute longer than the modern electronic calculations.

Samarkand reigned over the medieval intellectual and scientific world as its 14th-15th ruler dominated a good portion of the world, defeating invading Mongols and going to Anatolia and beating the Ottoman sultan. Therefore, a visit to the Gur-i Amir, (Persian for the tomb of the king) may be a tribute to the country’s great leader, Amir Timur. The entrance through the portal is richly decorated with bricks and mosaics. A bright blue dome crowns the whole structure. Inside the mausoleum, a large chamber with meticulously and diversely decorated niches welcomes visitors.

As I entered the room, all I could think of was how diligent the artists were painting these refined marble cornices. This architectural complex accommodates the tombs of Amir Timur, his sons Shah Rukh and Miran Shah, grandsons Ulugh Beg and Muhammad Sultan and Timur’s teacher Sayyid Baraka. Timur, whose grave was placed under dark green jade from Persia, was placed beneath his teacher per his wish because he wanted to show his respect for the teacher.

In Samarkand, one more mausoleum calls for visitors: The necropolis Shahi Zinda located on the slope of Afrasiab hill. As breathtaking as it is with rich decorations of every tone of blue, this necropolis contains the tomb of Prophet Muhammad’s cousin Kusam ibn Abbas about whom Prophet Muhammad said Kusam ibn Abbas more than others resembled him in character and appearance.

But how did he end up so far from the south? History tells us that Kusam came to Samarkand with Arab invaders in the 7th century to preach Islam. Popular legends say he was beheaded and his head was taken and put into a deep well (Garden of Paradise) where he is still believed to be living. And here’s the story of Shahi Zinda, which literally means, “living king.”

Bukhara is the city that raised the founder of modern medicine, Avicenna, the city that raised one of the most influential Islamic scholars, al-Bukhari, who compiled the hadiths of Prophet Muhammad and the city of the famous Nasriddin Afandi. Located on the ancient Silk Road, Bukhara is the epitome of an open-air museum with its 2,000-year-old history. Today, the historic center of the city with numerous mosques, madrasahs, and monuments has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The old city center has one of the few remaining hauz, or ponds, in Bukhara. The Lab-i Hauz, which survived Soviet rule, includes a 16th-century Kukeldash Madrasah and a pond, which people still enjoy today. On the eastern and western sides of the pond, a 17th-century lodging house for Sufis and a 17th-century madrasah are located. When you wander around the vicinity of the Lab-i Hau, you will recognize Nasreddin Afandi riding his donkey and hailing visitors with a happy face. Nasreddin Afandi, or Hodja, is a wise and quick-witted character and the protagonist of many didactic stories narrated across Anatolia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkistan.

If Samarkand has Bibi Khanym, Bukhara has Kalan Mosque or Poi Kalyan. I was not expecting much when I entered this mosque, thinking that I have already seen enough mosques and madrasahs. Legend has it that when Genghis Khan of the Mongol Empire conquered Bukhara and entered the mosque he thought he was entering the royal palace. That is how much he was impressed by the mosque and the tall minaret that flanked it and did not destroy them as opposed to his conquering tradition.

As soon as I stepped in, I realized how wrong and beguiled I was. It has the largest courtyard a mosque can have. I was as impressed as Genghis Khan. Walking to and fro in the courtyard made me feel the power of this medieval monument. Then I thought: Why did our ancestors build such gigantic monuments for religion? To accommodate more people during prayers? If so, then why did they spend so much time and labor on delicately ornamenting them? These enormous sanctuaries, I believe, do not only accommodate prayers and edify religion or the strong belief in Allah, but they release power I cannot describe and make us reconnect with our past, our fellow believers, even to ourselves. In their magnitude, these monuments remind us of the need to belong somewhere. They demand that we feel the power of attachment even at an individual level.

Maybe it was coincidence; maybe it was fate that I had the chance to visit two of the most beautiful cities in the world. But I will continue to ponder their magnificence with Poe’s verses:

“Look ’round thee now on Samarkand,

Is she not queen of the earth?

Her pride, Above all cities?

In her hand, Their destinies?”

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Flights: You can fly directly to Samarkand from Istanbul Atatürk International Airport via Uzbekistan Airways, which started regular flights for Istanbul-Samarkand at the end of October. Turkish Airlines will also launch Istanbul-Samarkand flights in March 2018.

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Article: Elif Binici

Copyrights & Source: Daily Sabah, Istanbul.

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