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.

Discovering Uzbek history mirrored in world history (Alexander the Great, Islam and the Mongols)

End of September/beginning of October 2019, I  am in Uzbekistan. I want to find out about the roots of the Uzbeks and identify the following six highlights in their history mirrored in world history (note that I am not a historian by profession):

  1. Around 300 B.C.: Alexander the Great conquers Central Asia and marries the Sogdian princess Roxane in Samarkand
  2. 8th-12th century: The Islam expands to Central Asia conquering Samarkand in 712; the Islam is adopted by local leaders
  3. Beginning 13th to mid 15th century: The Mongols invade Central Asia, and the Timurids are their successors
  4. Mid 15th to mid 18th century: Uzbek Khanates – the name “Uzbekistan” takes shape
  5. 19th century to 1925: The Russians conquer Central Asia and install the colony Turkestan
  6. 1925-today: Uzbekistan becomes a Soviet Republic in 1925, and it has been an independent nation since 1991

Let us start with the first three highlights, Alexander the Great, Islamic expansion and the Mongols.


1. Around 300 B.C.: Alexander the Great conquers Central Asia and marries the Sogdian princess Roxane in Samarkand

After having defeated the king of Persia, Dareios III, in Issos (333 B.C.), Alexander the Great invades the Persian empire of the Archaemenids which comprised the Middle East (including Egypt) and Central Asia up to the river Indus and to the Hindu Kush. What is Uszbekistan today belonged to Sogdia (mainly located beyond the river Oxus (now Amudarya), the area was called Transoxiana). In Marakanda (today: Samarkand), Alexander marries Roxane in 327 B.C.. She is the daughter of the local chieftain. When Alexander dies in 323 B.C., his empire is divided into four parts, whereby the eastern part becomes the empire of the Seleucids. Roxane and her son are murdered in the successor fights.

Source: Der grosse Plötz

Today, no monuments are left from this time, though Greek culture and art made a long-lasting impact here.

About the marriage of Alexander and Roxane, Händel has composed an opera called “Alessandro” that was premiered in 1725.


2. 8th-12th century: The Islam expands to Central Asia conquering Samarkand in 712; the Islam is adopted by local leaders

Muhammed, based on his monotheistic religion, unifies the (formerly competing) Arab tribes. Muhammed dies In 632.The Arabs rapidly expand not only to the west (invading Spain in 711 and being pushed back in France at Poitiers in 732), but also at the same time, they expand to the east. In 712 they definitively conquer Marakanda (later: Samarkand) which becomes a cultural and intellectual centre of the Islam.

Around 800, the Samanids take over power in the area of Transoxiana (or where Uzbekistan is today). They are of Persian origin and claim to be the successors of the Sasanians who had ruled over Persia from 224 to 651 AD. The Samanids report into the caliphate of the Abbasids in Baghdad. In the 12th century the Kara-Khanids succeed the Samanids. The Kara-Khanids are of Turkish origin. Until today Persian and Turkish heritage have cohabitated in what is Uzbekistan now.

Source: Der grosse Plötz

The capital of the Samanids is Bukhara. Trade and culture at Buchara thrive. Under Mansur I (961-976) and Nuh II (976-997) Buchara is the centre of Persian culture and contributes to the rise of the new Persian language. Rudaki (858/59-941) was an important Persian poet (his master piece was “Kalila wa Dimna”, a collection of fables; note that Persian/Farsi is an Indo-Germanic language).

We find monuments from the area of the Samanids and the Kara-Khanids in Bukhara.

This is the Samanid mausoleum where Ismail I is buried. It is the oldest Islamic building in Central Asia that still exists. Raw terracotta bricks make the magnificent patterns – just charming.

The elegant Kalon Minaret (12th century, also a pattern created by raw bricks, adorned with one narrow band of blue tiles)… and

… the Magoki Attari Mosque are from the times, when Bukhara was the capital of the empire of the (Turkish) Kara Khanids.

This is cultural heritage from pre Mongolian times.


3. Beginning 13th to mid 15th century: The Mongols invade Central Asia, and the Timurids are their successors

Genghis Khan (1206-1227) unifies the peoples of the steppe of Central Asia and conquers a large part of Asia and Northern China. His son Ögedei (1229-1241) takes over and his grand-son Batu invades Asia Minor and conquers most Russian principalities, except Novgorod. In 1241 Batu wins battles in Hungary and Poland, but then Ögedei dies and struggling for a successor halts the advance of the Mongols in Europe. In 1259, Möngke, the last Khan of the united Mongolian empire, dies. Now, the Mongolian empire disintegrates into four khanates:

  • China: Kublai Khan, a grand-son of Genghis Khan, founds the Yuan dynasty that last until 1380. It is the Mongolian emperors from the Yuan dynasty that Marco Polo (1254-1324) tells us about, when visiting in China.
  • Khanate of the Ilkhanes: Founded by Hülegü, a grand-son of Genghis Khan, it includes Persia, and the rulers adopt the Islam.
  • Khanate of the Golden Horde: Founded by grand-son Batu, the Golden Horde governs the Russian principalities until 1505. The Golden Horde converts to the Islam in the 14th century.
  •  Khanate Chagatai: Founded by Chagatai, a son of Genghis Khan, it includes, what is Uzbekistan today.

Source: Der grosse Plötz

However, borders of the Khanates change in the late 14th century. The green line on the map shows the empire of Timur (1360-1405). Timur was a lower level noble man from Transoxania (from today’s Uzbekistan). He gains control over the western Chagatai Khanate and the Empire of the Ilkhanes. Timur is a successful warlord. He weakens the Golden Horde (which marks the beginning the liberation of Russia that will be completed in 1505). In addition Timur defeats the Ottomans near Ankara in 1402 which gives Europe and Byzantium a break from the Ottoman attacks. Timur’s empire thrives economically due to internal peace, free trade routes and the post system based on messengers.

Timur believes that he needs Mongolian heritage to justify his authority, and he marries Bibi Khanym who is a descendent of Genghis Khan. Timur makes Samarkand (formerly Marakanda) the capital of his empire.

His grand-son, Ulugh Bek (1394-1445), is not only the ruler, but also an excellent mathematician and astronomer. His astronomic maps were used for centuries to navigate the world oceans. He is murdered by his own son.

It is interesting to note that Babur (1504-1530) was another descendent of Timur. In 1525, Babur conquers Delhi and founds the Mogul Dynasty in Northern India.

We meet Timur all over the country. He is venerated for being the founder of Uzbekistan, for instance riding his horse at Taschkent…

… or sitting on his throne, surrounded by traffic in Samarkand.

Timur is buried in Samarkand, in the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum. This is Persian for “Tomb of the King”.

Inside are the sarcophagi of some Timurids and some close companions.

For his main wife, Timur builds the Bibi Khanym Mosque (he has to get permission from the Imams to devote a mosque to a woman).

Ulugh Bekh establishes his center of mathematical and astronomical research in Samarkand from which the sextant of his observatory remains.

In addition Ulugh Bekh promotes education in his empire; the Madrasa of Bukhara tells about that.

Also Samarkand has its Ulugh Bek madrasa at the Registan Square – it is the building to the left of this beautiful place.

The two other buildings at the Registan will  be added in the 17th century.

Sources: “Der grosse Plötz – Atlas zur Weltgeschichte”, Komet Verlag, Köln 2008; Burchard Brentjes: “Die Araber”, Ex Libris Zürich 1977; 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.