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Designing a tour in Samarkand: see what to do and where to go, important sights and landmarks

Samarkand, a legendary city on the Great Silk Road, capital of mighty warlords and romantic home for renowned poets, still shines as the brightest star among historical and cultural centers of the present world. It is one of the most popular travel destinations in Central Asia

Samarkand's favorable geographic location, comparatively mild climate, abundance of rivers and springs with sweet water brought stone age people here. In the bronze age 3,500 - 5000 years ago inhabitants of the area were making fine bronze bracelets and tools.

2300 years ago Alexander the Great approached the city walls with his invincible iron phalanx and was amazed at the beauty of its buildings and the size of its fortress. He had to seige the city several times. Still, his rule had only become stable here when he established family connections with locals (he married a girl from local aristorcracy.) In 712 AD Arabs besieged the city. Led by Kuteiba, they used 300 catapults and battering-rams to break through the fortifications and after a month of stubborn fighting the city fell. Arabs looted and razed the city, thousands of citizens were driven into slavery.

By 1220, Samarkand was on a rise again. The word about marvelous buildings, gardens and mosques, precious stones and jewelry, fine silk fabrics and skillfully designed clothing was spread around and the wealth of the city attracted insatiable predators to it.

Black hordes of Genghis Khan plundered and demolished the city and killed thousands. For decades Samarkand remained under Mongolian oppression which strangled the progress in the area.

It took one and a half century for the city to revive, first as the capital of the Great Tamerlaine, Shaker of the Universe, then as the glorious cultural and scientific center of the medieval East under the rule of Ulugbek, Tamerlaine's grandson. Now Samarkand is a place where the unique spirit of the antiquity is carefully preserved. The peculiar combination of its splendid monuments and surprising richness of the cultural tradition is strongly felt by newcomers.

Usually, tours of Samarkand, both group tours and individual tours, focus on Reghistan square. The square was made the center of Samarkand in the time of Amir Timur. Here the heralds were announcing the will of the ruthless Warrior King to the sound of huge copper drub (djarchi). Here public executions were arranged; beginnings of war invasions and successful endings of military raids were celebrated. The triumphant Emperor and his army were marching through the square on their way from conquered countries with uncountable treasures, flocks of captured slaves and heads of enemies stuck upon long spears.

Three gorgeous madrassahs are located here.
The first to appear and the most important as educational institution was the Ulugbek Madrassah, built in 1417-1420. In its two floors of 50 dormitory cells lived about 100 students. Beneath the little corner domes were lecture halls, and a large mosque was located in the rear. One of its graduates was Jami, the famous Tajik poet. According to some data, Ulugbek himself was teaching mathematics here.

In two hundred years, a vainglorious Samarkand Ruler Yalangtush by name decided to build two other madrassahs, of bigger size, even more luxurious and richly ornamented in order to outshine previous rulers. Sher Dor Madrassah (Madrassah with Lions) was built in 1619-1636. Despite religious bans, it was rather daring and unusual for that time to depict fabulous tigers and sun-like faces on the huge portal. Presently colorful folk-shows are held here.

Tillya Kari Madrassah (Decorated in Gold) was built in 1647-1660. In addition to the educational function it also served as a Cathedral Mosque. The spectacular inner gold-leaf decoration of the mosque produces an absolutely breath-taking impression.

Shahi Zindah Complex (Tomb of the Living King)
Another popular place where guests touring Samarkand are bound to arrive, is Shahi Zindah. The unique ancient monument of Shahi Zindah is situated on the south-east slopes of the Afrosiab ancient ruins. Its buildings encompass almost all 25 centuries of the city's history. The name refers to its original innermost and holiest shrine - a set of cool and quiet rooms around what is considered to be the grave of the Prophet Muhammad's cousin, Qusam Ibn-Abbas. He was one of missionaries who brought Islam to this area and the complex has therefore become an important pilgrimage destination. Most of the tombs and mausoleums in the complex date to Timur's period.

Tourists who are visiting Samarkand should plan this place as a must destination. Victorious battles in India suggested to Timur that a mosque should be built that would surpass anything else ever built in the world and to glorify his empire for centuries to come. Hundreds of artisans, architects and builders were brought to Samarkand. The construction took five years (1399-1404) and upon return from another military campaign he found the Mosque ready. Bibi-Khanum is said to be the senior of Timur's wives, however the historical records mention her name as Saray-Mulk Khanum.

Tourists in Samarkand always visit this site, because it is quite unusual. Greatest astronomer of the Middle Ages, Ulugbek owed much of his glory to the miraculous Observatory he ordered to build in Samarkand in 1428. It was a gigantic cylinder-like building with 30 meters in height and 46 meters in diameter. The great size of the main sextant instrument and amazingly accurate positioning along the meridian provided for unprecedented accuracy ofmeasurements which was not surpassed until telescope was invented by Galileo. Ulugbek and his associates elaborated a Star Catalogue containing 1018 stars and constellations. After Ulugbek was treacherously murdered by his son, the Observatory was leveled to the ground and for five centuries people could not find it. In 1908 Vyatkin, a Russian amateur-archeologist, re-discovered it.

Gur Emir (a different pronunciation) is a pearl of Samarkand, local Mecca for tourists and guests of the city. In 1404, a beloved grandson of Timur, Muhammad Sultan, whom the Great Emperor wanted to be on the throne after his death, prematurely died. Timur was desperate and ordered to build for him a wonderful mausoleum in Samarkand. For himself he had prepared a modest crypt in his native town of Shahrisabz. A year later, Timur died on the way to China and, as some records indicate, because of impassable mountain roads and heavy snows he too was buried in the sumptuous Guri Amir Mausoleum.

This mausoleum surmounted by a splendid bright-blue fluted dome also contains the tombs of Timur's two sons, Miranshakh and Shakhruh, great astronomer Ulugbek, Timur's religious teacher Mir Seiid Bereke and a person named Shakh-Khodja.

Registan Square in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Registan Square, Samarkand
Guri Amir, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Masoleum Guri Amir, Samarkand
Registan Square in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Registan Square View
Shahi Zindah, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Shah i Zindah, Samarkand
View of Samarkand from Shahi Zindah, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
View of Samarkand
Bibi Khanum Mosque, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Bibi Khanum Mosque
Ulugbek's Observatory - part of the instrument, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Ulugbek's Observatory
Dome of Guri Amir, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Dome of Gur Amir Masoleum
Golden Mosque at Registan Square in  Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Golden Mosque on the Registan Square

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