Discovering Uzbekistan – blue cupolas and dreams of 1001 nights in Samarkand

In September/October 2019, I was in Uzbekistan. Our tour ended with the city of Samarkand, where the blue cupolas seem to have come from the tales of 1001 nights. As a matter of fact, some of the tales of 1001 nights, it is said, originated in Samarkand (first told in Persian, later translated into Arab).

The city centre has been shaped by Timur who made Samarkand the capital of his large empire and by his successors, above all Ulugh Bek.

Source: “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag 2019, my own photos


Samarkand is the capital of Timur around 1400

Timur (1336-1405) made Samarkand the capital of the large empire that he had conquered (see my history blog). His statue stands at the border between the old city centre and the Russian new city that emerged at the end of the 19th century. Busy traffic surrounds Timur, while he sits majestically on his throne.

Not far from here, Timur is buried in the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum with the graceful blue fluted cupola (around 1400). It is a double layered cupola (note: Petersburg has a copy of this cupola! – see the post scriptum).

Inside, the bottom of the walls is covered with onyx slabs, the dome is decorated with gilden papier-mache and the niches are filled with stalactite pendentives. Blue banners with inscriptions all over.

Timur is buried in the crypt; the black coffin is his cenotaph. Around him are members of his family and some close companions.


Bibi Khanym has her own mosque.; she was Timur’s main wife and a descendent of Genghis Khan

Timur was proud of his main wife, Bibi Khanym, because she was a descendent of Genghis Khan, which allowed him to base the authority of his throne on Mongolian descendance. He convinced the Imams to dedicate the Bibi Khanym mosque to his wife (that was not easy, as mosques are usually dedicated only to men).

The Bibi Khanym mosque is reflected in the window of one of the shops in the pedestrian alley that connects the Registan (see below) with the Bibi Khanym ensemble. The fluted cupola resembles the cupola of the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum.

Around 1400, the Bibi Khanym Mosque was a large scale project of Timur’s. The mosque should be larger than any other Friday Mosque in his empire. Sitting in his sedan, he cheered his workers to hurry up. In 1404 the mosque was completed.

First signs of decay appeared soon, and 200 years later, the Bibi Khanym Mosque was in ruins.

It was reconstructed in the 19th century, after the Russians had conquered Central Asia.

The charming blue cupolas of the Bibi Khanym Mosque made me dream, when sitting on the terrace of the nearby restaurant. Just magnificent.

This is the portal of the mosque in day light…

… with more details – incredible harmony.

The plants are unusual in Islamic architecture.

Behind the Bibi Khanym Mosque is a charming bazar.

My friends buy this jacket (Susani embroidery) for me. It is a thank you for me having guided them through Moscow. Thank you!


The Registan, the most elegant square I have ever come across

The Registan ensemble of madrasas is just breath taking… wauuu! This is the most elegant square I have ever seen. The perfect symmetry is called “Kosh principle”. It is interesting to note that the three madrasas have not been built at the same time; there is a difference of 200 years.

To the left is the oldest madrasa, built by Ulugh Bek, the grand-son of Timur. It is from the early 15th century. Ulugh Bek was a scientist, and he was of the opinion that schools are important for his empire.

To the right, the Shirdor Madrasa, has been added in the early 17th century. It shows two tigers chasing does – on their backs are something like suns and heads. This is a rare example of animals and people represented in Islamic architecture.

Last, the Tilya Kari Madrasa was added in the mid 17th century. Both the Shirdor and the Tlya Kari Madrasa are more colourful than the older Ulugh Bek madrasa, as the techniques of producing glazed tiles had improved. The leaders of the local empire of the 17th century were called Janids, and I believe that their vision of this gorgeous symmetric arrangement of buildings was simply ingenious.

The Tilya Kari Madrasa had to be used as the Friday mosque of Samarkand, as after 200 years, the former main mosque, the Bibi Khanym Mosque, was in ruins. This is the golden cupola of the mosque in the Tilya Kari Madrasa.

Also the Shirdor Madrasa has a beautiful cupola.


Ulugh Bek, more a successful scientist than a successful ruler

Ulugh Bek was a grand-son of Timur. His empire was much smaller than Timur’s empire and he was more a scientist than a ruler, an excellent scientist.

He assembled the best scientists of the time and they studied the night sky in the observatory, remains of which have been discovered by a Russian archaeologist in the beginning of the 20th century: The sextant was cut into the rock. Its orientation is strictly north-south.

The attached museum shows a model of the former observatory building with the sextant inside.

The sextant allowed Ulugh Bek and his team to determine the exact position of many stars and his unprecedented astronomical map was used by seamen for many centuries, since the 17th century also by Europeans. Ulugh Bek in addition determined the length of the year to be 365 days, 6 hours, 10 minutes and 8 seconds, which is about 20 minutes too long (actually: 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds).

The sextant is in this black “tube” and a museum has been added that informs about the achievements of Ulugh Bek and how his scientific work has been received in the world.


Shor-i-Sinda – where noblemen around the Timurids have been buried

Shor-i-Sinda is a necropolis or a “city” of mausoleums. It is an amazing maze of blue glazed tiles woven into raw bricks and adorned with muqarna niches as well as with elegant cupolas. Legend tells that a cousin of Muhammad continues to live in a cave under the necropolis; he was decapitated, when praying and retreated to the cave while continuing to pray. Shor-i-Sinda means “the king who lives” (Dumont, p. 213).

The entrance gate has been built under Ulugh Bek, in the early 15th century.

From here, stairs lead up to the centre with the mausoleums.

The mausoleums form a shady small “street”, a charm in blue.

Now I am at the end looking back at the shady small street…

… with the so-called octogonal mausoleum.

Let us look at some details. This cupola is in the Shirnin-Beka Mausoleum.

This is the Muqarna niche decoration of the Shodi Mulk Mausoleum.

This is the entrance to the Kutlug Oko Mausoleum.

And this is the cupola of the mosque at the back of the ensemble of mausoleums.

All just too beautiful!


Good-bye Samarkand

In the evenings, I return to the city centre and the Registan, once all alone and later again with some of my friends.

On the terrace of the Bibi Khanym hotel, we had a good glass of wine from Samarkand, just across the blue cupolas of the Bibi Khanym mosque.

The young personnel of the restaurant was optimistic and full of ideas about how to improve their restaurant; together with them I thought about how to improve the English and French menu list that they had translated from Russian to English and French using google translate. The results were interesting and the guests from France and England were happy to get additional explanations, before choosing their dish. I enjoyed the hospitality of this place and I laughed with the personnel and with the other tourists.

Yes, Samarkand IS worth the trip to Central Asia. I am happy to have fulfilled this dream of mine – maybe I will return one day to enjoy the blue cupolas once more and to explore more of the Afrosiab (where ancient Marakanda was located) as well as the Russian new city and the wine culture. May there soon be opportunities again to travel and to enjoy travelling!


Post-Scriptum: Samarkand in Petersburg?

Samarkand is also present in Petersburg! The fluted cupola of this mosque, built from 1909 to 1920, has been designed after the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum in Samarkand. Always, when in Petersburg, I visit the mosque (see my blog of 2017).

The architect Wassiljew has designed this mosque and the workshop of P.K. Vaulin has produced all the tiles and the cupola using the Central Asian technique that is called “Majolika” in Russia (DU, Heft Nr. 12, 1998, p. 56). NOW I understand, why the Russians built this mosque reminding them of Samarkand; Samarkand was part of the Russian empire and the Russians invested a lot to renovate Samarkand.

It is coincidence that the grand daughter of P. K. Vaulin, Anna Vaulina, was my Russian teacher at Basel – for more than 30 years (until 2008). Samarkand is completing the circle.

Sources: “Der grosse Plötz – Atlas zur Weltgeschichte”, Komet Verlag, Köln 2008; Isa Ducke and Natascha Thoma, “Usbekistan”, Dumont Reisehandbuch, Ostfildern 2017; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag, Berlin 2019; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Reise durch Usbekistan”, Stürtz, Verlagshaus Würzburg 2018, Sanjeev Mehan, “Ein vergessenes Land holt auf”, Tagesanzeiger 21. September 2019 and various wiki entries.

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