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Destination: Uzbekistan
Last updated: 30 Nov 2022

Blue Domes of Samarkand

About Samarkand

Just a few decades ago, when I would encounter a Samarkand citizen abroad, I could say: "My compatriot. Our Motherland is the USSR". Today Uzbekistan itself is abroad, another country with an interesting and long history. And ancient Samarkand is more than three times older than Moscow, being one of the oldest cities on the planet. According to the latest data from scientists, Samarkand is about 2750 years old!!!

The Holy Book of Zoroastrians, Avesta, reads that Sogdiana (whose center was Samarkand) as early as the 5th century BC was a developed settlement of farmers.

Tashkent, train to Samarkand

After a short stop in Tashkent, which cannot boast a large number of historical monuments (the city was almost completely destroyed during the earthquake in 1966), we set off to Samarkand using a fast and comfortable train. In just about three hours and as if it was moving through time, the train took us to an ancient city that witnessed both Greco-Macedonian troops, bloody hordes of Genghis Khan, and the invasion of Arabs.

Our tour guide in Samarkand

It was a great success for us that our guide was a native Samarqandian. Alexander, a Russian Uzbek, as he called himself. His relatives in the near pre-war times were forced by the will of the Soviet government to move from the Ural region to Uzbekistan. Today, a descendant of those immigrants, a young guy of 30 years with a Slavic appearance, phenomenal knowledge of Uzbekistan's history and command of several languages, among which, of course, is Uzbek, told us with love about his homeland. He says that he is happy with his well-being and is not going to leave Uzbekistan. From his fellow countrymen, he inherited kindness and hospitality and he did his best to make sure that we feel no inconvenience and receive only pleasant impressions from our visit to Uzbekistan. And he succeeded in that!

Alexander is filling us with historical information. It seems to me that my brain is going to explode from such abundance of dates and stories. So I start to visualize invincible troops of Amir Temur passing in front of me. I'm not a great connoisseur of history, not at all, but I was making my own discoveries from this lecture. The historical character of Tamerlane, known perhaps to everyone who ever read a textbook, and others who might watch the World History series commercials created by the Imperial Bank in the late 90's. Who remembers this video? Going to a war raid, Tamerlane ordered every soldier to leave a stone near the road. So, a mound emerged! And then there was fire! And there was a victory! And they returned, and lifted up their stones. But there were stones left untouched. The last was Tamerlane walking behind his army. And he lifted heavy stones and talked to them pronouncing their names."

By the way, the video shows that the warlord has all his fingers intact. In reality, he had two fingers missing on his left hand and he was lame because of wounds. I noticed this because, in particular, the historians identified the remains of Tamerlane when by chance they discovered an ancient burial in Shakhrisabz. One of the boys played in the old ruins and fell into a hole. The hole turned out to be the mausoleum of Amir Temur. Now the homeland of Tamerlane features a lot of architectural monuments included in the UNESCO World Heritage List: ruins of the Ak-Saray Palace, Dor-ut Tilovat Memorial Complex, Kok-Gumbaz Mosque, Dor-Us Siyadat Mausoleum etc.

About Shakhrisabz

Shakhrisabz is a small town 80 km south of Samarkand, behind the high-mountain pass Takhta-Karacha. We visited it on the way to Bukhara. You can reach it from Samarkand by road through the desert, approx 155 km. drive, or through a mountain pass, about 90 km. The road through the pass is asphalted, but less comfortable because of the mountain twists even though it is shorter. Driving through the pass is allowed only to cars and minibuses. Local tourists use this road not only to shorten the path, but to visit and leave an autograph in a spectacular place. The place was featured in 1973 in one of popular movies by DEFA studio (Germany) about the Indians of Apache, with Goiko Mitic starring in it. This area is incredibly similar to the US Southwest, being the reason why the movie crew arrived here to shoot the movie.

Amir Timur, the Tamerlane, and his mausoleum

But let's get back to Amir Temur. The embalmed body of the Great Uzbek, as he is now called in the homeland, was transported from Shakhrisabz in an ebonite coffin to the mausoleum of Gur-Emir in Samarkand. Here I have to clarify: historians state the fact that Tamerlane was irritated was someone would call him an Uzbek. Uzbeks are a people of Turkic origin. Anthropologically, they are a mixed ethnogenesis with Europoid and Mongoloid components. So Amir Temur preferred to talk about his Mongolian roots and considered himself a descendant of Genghis Khan. It seems to me that at least 50% of inhabitants of the Earth might consider themselves as his descendants. And yet, born in Shakhrisabz, the Great Uzbek is now esteemed as the national hero of Uzbekistan, a far-sighted ruler, founder of the Timurid empire, talented organizer, and an outstanding military leader who managed to curb the Golden Horde.

Undoubtedly he was an outstanding personality who played an essential role in history. His name is associated with many historical, and sometimes mystical events. The most famous is the ominous warning that should someone dare to disturb Temur's ashes, a terrible war will then begin. Soviet anthropological scientists uncovered the tomb on June 21st, 1941, and the following day, June 22 morning, Levitan's voice reported about the treacherous attack of the Nazi Germany (against Russia).

The mausoleum of Gur-Emir where currently the great Emir is buried, is the family crypt of Tamerlane and the place of pilgrimage of Muslims.

The height of the dome is 12.5 m, the diameter at the base is 15 m. But the building does not seem bulky due to its edges. And the turquoise color of the dome looks particularly beautiful against the blue sky.

The mausoleum contains the tombs of Tamerlane, his sons, a grandson and a teacher. According to the Muslim tradition, Tamerlane lies near the feet of his teacher. On the photo the teacher's coffin is with a turret, the first one near the window. Next one, made of black onyx, is the obelisk of Tamerlane, further down lies his grandson Ulugbek. Scientists were not able to identify who were the two small tombstones and one tombstone that is behind the lattice.

Registan Square

Now we move on to the world-famous Registan Square, a visiting card of Samarkand. When it opened before my eyes all of a sudden, I could not find words to express what I felt, it left me speechless. Wow! - was all I could say. A tip for tourists arriving in Samarkand and willing to have an excellent photo for good memory. Come to the Registan square when the sun is at its zenith. It is then that the Registan is evenly lit and monumental madrassas are not dropping shadows covering the most elegant and refined mosaic patterns. It only seems at first glance that all buildings are similar to each other. But this is not so, as each structure is unique and together they create a special architectural ensemble.

The Registan Square became world-known thanks to this majestic architectural complex. On its three sides the square is surrounded by madrassas, a word that literally means "the place where they are taught". All of the three madrassah have a unique decor. Thanks to this monument of eastern architecture, Samarkand was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Climbing up a minaret

Covering the entire complex with a glance is a very difficult task, so huge and monumental it is. I dared to climb a minaret. Officially, there is no such service, but a young man opens the door in front of us for extra 1-2$ and lets us into the holy of holies. We go up to the second floor and wait for the gate to the minaret to be opened.

In the dark opening of the entrance there come two young men and a girl. They breathe heavily and complain of pain in their arms and legs. I start to doubt if I really need this upgrade. There were still plans for Bukhara and Khiva, and I wanted to survive somehow. And I'm old enough to be a mother of those young people. The devil pulled us, as they say, so my husband and I decided to climb all the same. Through a very narrow aperture, a spiral steep staircase with high stairs, with a rope instead of railing, fastened with knots to metal clamps protruding from the wall. It was difficult to climb. Pull yourself up, grasping the rope with your hands to the next step along the stair and again and again, 30 meters up. And the words of my husband playing in my ears: "Bloody mountaineer you are!". But my motivation was very strong, not just because of desired photos, but rather to demonstrate my husband that I was able to climb 30 meters up with a heavy backpack behind my back, and it would not be at all difficult, just a piece of cake. It is him who is a grandfather now; as to me, my grand-dauther still calls me simply Tanya.

Maybe that's why I felt no fatigue and flew up like a mountain goat. "Bloody Hell" were my only words when I realized that there was not much to see. The height between the platform of the last step, where I could hardly find enough space for my feet, and the upper edge of the minaret's wall was just a little below my height. In addition, the edge of the roof above the minaret was an obstacle for shooting and all the time it was getting into the frame (photo No. 1). To take a picture with a beautiful panorama, you would need to pull yourself up and sit on the edge of the wall, as I suppose it was done by a man who is in the picture (photo number 2). Either he is 2 meters tall, or... I still do not understand how he managed to lean out from this "tube" all the way to his waist? There was not even one additional ledge, not one single protruding brick to advance any higher in this "tube".

I did not make it. All the other photos were taken "without sight," with the camera high above my head. I was disappointed, and still was not sure if it was worth going up? Also, there still was a descend to be survived. There was nothing wrong with the breathing, but my legs and arms really hurt.

Three Madrassas

A bit about Registan. It consists of three madrassas: (from left to right) Ulugbek, Tillya-Kari and Sherdor. The madrasas were built not only in different years, but even in different centuries. One could talk much about the historical landmarks of construction and the legends associated with these unusually beautiful structures, skilfully decorated with mosaic, majolica tiles, carved marble, calligraphic letters and plant drawings. But how to fit a millennium into a single story? Madrassas are beautiful not only from the outside, but also they are majestically luxurious inside, especially the Till-Kari madrasah, which is translated from Uzbek as "decorated with gold". My head was twisting and my neck got stiffened as I was looking at the absolutely stunning huge mosaic ceiling of the inner dome of the madrasah.

And in the courtyards trading is flourishing. Former cells of the madrassahs host numerous souvenir shops.

By all means visit Registan in the evening. As it gets dark, and this would usually happen pretty early, a light laser show starts on the square, which, unfortunately, we could not see. Only one day we spent in Samarkand so we tried to see as much as possible. Coming to the square after a tour of the city was already too late. We managed to take only a couple of photos and at 22:00 the whole light-show turned off. "The horses turned into rats, and the carriage into a pumpkin..." And the majestic Registan dissolved in the darkness, like in a fairy tale, as if there was nothing there. As if, for a moment, a portal to the past was opened, or, a tired caravaner along the Great Silk Road had a mirage, and then it disappeared in the desert.

Bibi-Khanum Mosque

The whole day in Samarkand was planned to a minute. The ancient city has a lot to show. Limited in time, we visited just the most popular routes and objects. Bibi-Khanum Mosque. The unusual beauty of the dome of the mosque in antiquity was compared with the vault of heaven, and the portal arch with the Milky Way. Several legends in different variations are connected with this mosque. As one of them goes, Amir Temur was returning home from another successful military campaign. His beloved wife was preparing a gift - the world's largest mosque. The best architects were called together and construction began. However, it was delayed. And the reason for this, they say, was the chief architect, who fell in love with the beautiful wife of the emir. He procrastinated to admire the beauty of Bibi Khanum who was supervising the construction. The queen was furious. She demanded that work should be completed as soon as possible. The architect set forth one condition - a kiss from the queen. Bibi Khanum was trying to avoid it saying that all women are the same, but the architect was insisting.

In the end, the architect received his kiss. The work was finished. There is even an opinion that the pattern of the mosaic on the portals was designed by the author in such a way that if you look at it from a certain angle, you can see a portrait of Bibi Khanum. In reality, no one has ever managed to find such an angle. This mystery went into oblivion together with the death of the architect.

According to legend, he was executed when Amir Temur learned about the kiss and affection of the architect. Probably, he was a victim of his bold ideas and an unbelievable project that could not be implemented at that time. Soon after the construction was completed, the building began to collapse, and the monumental arch collapsed already in the first year after the construction was finished. By the way, Bibi Khanum was about 60 years old at that time. The question if an elderly woman could have struck the architect with her beauty - I leave without comments. The Bibi-Khanum mosque has recently been partially restored and the reconstruction still continues.


Another important sight of Samarkand is Shahi-Zinda - the burial place of royalty and nobility. It is believed that a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad was buried here. According to legend, he was wounded and died near the walls of Samarkand. Studies provide no confirmation to this, but the faith is stronger and the flow of believers to this holy place is not diminishing. Moreover, the legend goes that he did not actually die, but took cover under the ground and now still lives there under the name Shahi-Zinda, which literally means The Living Tsar. Another world-famous name is associated with Shahi-Zinda. It is believed that Omar Khayyam, a poet, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer studied here in one of the madrassas.

At the very entrance of the complex, a 40-step stair rises in front of the visitors, symbolizing a path to repentance and prayer. Before the rise, our tour guide asked us to count the steps, and then, when leaving the complex, do the count again. And only when the counted numbers match, the guide informed that every visitor of Shakhi-Zinda, be it believer or tourist, should count the steps rising up and going down. The legend says that if the two numbers match, then the person is cleansed from sins. We found ourselves to be pure like angels.

People call the complex "the city of the dead" or "street-cemetery". Eleven ancient mausoleums are located one after another stretching along the medieval street. The tombs are richly decorated with majolica tiles and carved mosaics. Accuracy is not guaranteed, yet the meaning of the inscription on a tablet of one of the mausoleum reads: "Here lies a woman whose stature was like a gazelle".

Many Muslims go to Samarkand because even in the Middle Ages the pilgrimage to the grave of the "Living Tsar" was equated with the Hajj to Mecca.

The former president of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov was buried near the complex in this historic cemetery according to Muslim rituals. Visiting the mosque where his ashes were buried is still prohibited because of the large number of pilgrims.

Ulugbek and his Obervatory

We continued to explore Samarkand and our searches led us to the museum complex of Mirza Ulugbek. It is located in the place where the Samarkand Astronomical Observatory operated in the 15th century. Unlike his famous grandfather Tamerlane, Mirzo Ulugbek was not a warrior. He was a talented scientist. The building of the observatory that he built had a shape of cylinder about 46m in diameter and ​​30m high. Today, only the underground part of the building still remains. This is a giant quadrant with a radius of 40m and an arc 63m in length. It is precisely aligned along the meridian line. I would rather not overburden you with technical characteristics, because only an expert can understand them. I would only state the fact is that the level of mathematical and astronomical research that Ulugbek did was so impressively high that European science have reached this level only a century and a half later.


Along our way we stopped by at the town of artisans, and then went to the bazaar to fulfill the wish of our children - to buy some fragrant spices. All in all, it required a couple of small bags, and we went out with a full large package of different compositions for pilaf, a collection of fragrant herbs for tea and sweets. And we paid only for two small bags of spices. Traders who heard us speak Russian would immdediately think it was their duty to treat us something, present a gift or just speak to us in Russian. This is Uzbekistan, the country of hospitality.


By Tatyana Dudarenko (, translation by Aba Travel Uzbekistan

Other attractions in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Madrasah and Mausoleum
Afrasiab Hill
Bagizagan Wine Factory/Cellar
Dahma of Shaybanids
Gur-Emir Mausoleum
Hazret-Hyzr Mosque
Ishrat-Khana Mausoleum
Khodja Akhrar Necropolis
Mausoleum of Khodja Daniyar (Saint Daniel)
Mausoleum of Kusam-Ibn-Abbas
Mausoleums of Abdi Clan
Memorial Complex of Imam Al-Bukhari
Observatory of Ulugbek
Registan Square
Ruhabad Mausoleum
Samarkand Paper Mill
Shahi-Zinda Central Group
Shahi-Zinda Northern Group
Shahi-Zinda Southern Group
Sher-Dor Madrasah
Temurid Female Necropolis
Tillya-Kari Madrasah on Registan Square
Tuglu-Tekin And Amir-Zadeh Mausoleums
Ulugbek Madrasah on Registan Square