Samarkand, straight out of The Arabian Nights

Samarkand is one of the greatest cities on the Silk Road, and undeniably the most impressive architectural capital of Central Asia. Wondering why? 


The Registan Ensemble, Samarkand


The city boasts of some of the marvels of the medieval Islamic era, that was even responsible for the significant change in India's cultural and architectural heritage in the later years to come. In this post, we take you to some of these attention-capturing sights!



1. The Registan (UNESCO World Heritage Site)


The picture you see above, says it all - Three beautiful islamic structures, standing through the last few centuries, and still looking absolutely magnificent. The Sher Dor Madrassah (right), the Tilya Kori Madrassah (centre) and the Ulugh Beg Madrassah (left) form part of the grand Ensemble.


  • The Ulugh Beg Madrassah is the oldest of the three, dating back to the early 1400s - in the golden period of the Taimurid Era (Timur or Tamerlane, the greatest ruler of Islamic Asia). Its fame spread far and wide, bringing many great teachers and lecturers from Persia and other northern regions as well. The school also housed dormitories for the students to continue their studies in a more structured manner, and greater attention.


Ulugh Beg, the grandson of Taimur, personally taught at this school



  • The Tilya Kori Madrassah (meaning 'decorated with Gold') was built two centuries later, albeit on a larger scale. Housing a large courtyard and numerous dorms for the students, the Madrassah (school) also featured a mosque with a large prayer hall.


The arch of the Tilya Kori Madrassah


The courtyard inside the Madrassah, leading to the domed prayer hall.


The Prayer Hall inside the Mosque



  • The Sher Dor Madrassah is the most beautiful monument of the Registan. Bearing motifs of the Tiger ('Sher' in Persian) on the arch, and the beautiful turquoise onion domes, it is undoubtedly very attractive. In the evenings, there are cultural shows that are hosted (check with the administrative staff at the ticket counter, these programmes aren't hosted every evening). 


Straight out of the Arabian Nights, right?


The glorious prayer hall inside the mosque


Bonus tip: go up the Minar at Ulugh Beg Madrassah to get the best view of the Sher Dor Madrassah and the city of Samarkand!


The Registan is the highlight of the Samarkand 'experience' and it is best to devote a couple of hours in the morning, to admire the Ensemble. Also, add this to your evening itinerary, because the lighting is usually phenomenal, and even better if the cultural shows are being hosted!


2. The Bibi Khanym Mosque


The largest mosque outside the Registan, in Samarkand is the partly dilapidated Bibi Khanym Mosque. What is seen here is only the result of significant restoration works undertaken in the period beginning immediately after Taimur's death, up to 2018. Taimur, had ordered its construction as the grandest mosque in Islamic Asia, but unfortunately, the design and efforts did not please him. A series of natural effects (wind, rains, snow, heat, etc.) significantly destroyed many parts of the monument until one earthquake in the late nineteenth century took it down. Locals plundered the ruins in their quest to pick up building materials and thus, restoration work was very disappointing until the turn of the twentieth century, when the Soviets took up the responsibilities of restoring the ancient glory to this building! 


The entrance to the prayer hall, still under restoration


One hour is the least you must spend here in the complex. Fret not, there is a cart that ferries visitors between here and the Islom Karmiov statue by the Registan - otherwise, the walk is about 1 km long and takes 15 minutes on foot!


3. The Shah-i-Zinda


The seemingly delicate beauty of its walls and tomb houses, turned this otherwise eerie place into a mesmerising sight. As the largest necropolis (city of the dead, Shah-i-Zinda meaning "The Living King" to acknowledge the eternal life of the beloved king of Samarkand), it houses over twenty royal tombs and is also home to the tomb of, who many believe is, the cousin of the great Prophet Muhammad - Kusam Ibn Abbas.


There is something uber-powerful about this pathway: absolutely beautiful


Turquoise Blue Majolica patterns - the generic beauty of Central Asia


Walking along this "street" is better with a guide - there are an incredible number of stories to hear. Spend at least an hour here!



4. Gur-E-Amir Palace


The tomb ('Gur') of Amir Taimur or Tamerlane (even Timur, the Lame) is a very sacred place for Uzbekis. Revered as the greatest King to have ruled their land, the people offer sincere prayers and religious sermons at the tomb almost every morning. It is a spectacular monument with its beautiful architecture winning hearts in the morning and in the evenings, as it comes alive in the flattering lighting.


The Tomb of Timur, the Great.


Sparkling beauty - you must NOT miss this when you are in Samarkand - this is the "one Thousand and One Nights" coming to life!


Spend about an hour in the morning and come back in the evening for another hour. Don't miss it!



5. Attend the cultural show at El Merosi


The history of Uzbekistan's imperial Islamic rule is extremely fascinating and for many Asian cultures, some parts of the Uzbeki heritage have found their way in, today. If you are interested in devoting an hour to reliving the golden age of the Islamic Orient, just head to El Merosi, a theatre in downtown Samarkand, and get yourself a ticket for UZS 60,000 (INR 540) or about USD 8 (this is the cost of the ticket at the theatre, if you buy from the administration there. However, as in our case, and in most other visitors cases, the tickets are usually sold at a premium (very bad, yes) and these are generally priced around USD 15 and above. So ensure that you bargain and try to avoid intermediaries who inflate the ticket prices to accommodate their own profits and commissions (especially the ticket-seller at the Registan). 



The show itself is incredible and thoroughly enjoyable! Expect to spend an hour or more at the show.



Here are some quick pointers to help make your Samarkand plan more interesting:


  • How much time to spend in Samarkand? Is one day enough to see all of Samarkand?
    • The minimum time required for a fairytale experience is two days - don't cut it shorter!
    • Spend day time looking at these beautiful sights, and save your evenings for some very entertaining cultural shows (read below for more information on that).
    • One day sightseeing is possible too, maybe if you just visit the top 5 sights, but the city is best explored at a slower pace, just like Bukhara.



  • How to get to Samarkand?
    • Samarkand is connected with Tashkent and many other towns by high speed trains (Afrosiyob and SharQ trains) and even by air.
    • Take the Afrosiyob (Spanish built bullet train) at under USD 10 (INR 700, with snacks on board) from Tashkent, it is the most economical way to transfer between the two cities. If you are coming in from Bukhara, the same trains charge about USD 8 (INR 560). The train journeys take less than 2 hours for the distance of about 400 kms.
    • Shared Taxis are also available, but they aren't very comfortable.
    • The tram service is excellent - in fact, a ride from the train station (Vokzal) to anywhere in the city is only UZS 1200 (which is incredibly cheap, ~INR 11) and does not take too much time either! Comparable cab fares are UZS 30,000 (INR 270 or USD 4) at minimum. 



  • Where to stay in Samarkand?
    • There are innumerable hotels and hostels all over the city. 

    • We reserved our stay at B&B Emir, a medium sized hotel, run by a very friendly family (they all speak English). One dorm cost USD 12 (INR 800) per night - and the rooms were clean, well equipped and even had hot water all the time! The stay included breakfast in mornings, choi (tea) and snacks. Check it out here

    •  The BnB is only a hundred metres from the Gur-E-Amir - and there's also a taxi stand nearby. Although restaurants aren't present in the vicinity, a ten minute walk can help you find some really good dining spots. There are some fancier hotels just a few metres up the street from Gur-E-Amir.

    •  A walk to the Registan takes twenty minutes - it is just one straight road as you get out of the Gur-E-Amir Gardens.

    •  Odd-hour, cheap taxi services are provided by the hosts too - a cab ride to the station cost UZS 20,000 (INR 190) even at 6 am in the morning! 

    • And don't forget to collect your registration slips from your host.



  • What to eat in Samarkand? 
    • Restaurants are innumerable in Samarkand. And the number of cafes and coffee houses are just way too high!
    • The Lagman (flat noodles), noodle soup and plov (rice dish) are all pretty good - these being some of the national dishes. But if you are looking for any other cuisine, it isn't difficult to get your hands on!
    • Now, most of these dishes are made with meat, but you can request the waiter for a vegetarian option - and they make sure you get it!
    • A great youthful place is the Magister cafe just a couple of blocks from the Amir Timur circle. it is a twenty minute walk from the BnB mentioned above or the Registan.
    • Drink lots of Tea - its so cheap and flows quite freely, really, in many places. And don't forget the freshly baked breads!



  • BONUS: Suggested way of exploring Samarkand
    • Start by 7:45 am, to make good use of the day! 
    • Go to the Gur-E-Amir, and spend some time admiring the architecture (a UZS 10,000 ticket is valid for 3 days).
    • Take a taxi at UZS 3,000 or walk for twenty minutes to the Registan, spend two-three hours there.
    • Ride the cart to the Bibi Khanym Mosque or walk for fifteen minutes, admire the mosque for not more than an hour. 
    • Walk further into the city towards the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis and spend an hour there with a guide.
    • Further ahead, about three kilometres away is the Ulugh Beg Observatory (a show house of the scientific progress the islamic orient had made in the 1500s and thereafter). It is a very interesting site, but preferable to take a taxi ride.
    • On the walk back from the Necropolis, stop at the Islom Karimov Mausoleum.
    • Attend the cultural show at The Registan OR at El Merosi, downtown and call it a night after dinner at Magister cafe.
    • Of course, you can split this over two days, considering how much time you would want to spend at the attractions and gardens that dot the city!


The statue of the former President of UZ, Islom Karimov



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