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Ismail Samani Mausoleum by Colin Thubron

On the city's western fringes, the last of its battlements falter and die over derelict parklands. Their eroded towers rootle back into the earth, and their crenellations look as if they would fall at a touch. But just inside them, hidden among trees, stands the tenth-century Tomb of the Samanids. Disconnected in time and style from anything around it, it stands in isolation, without ancestry or heir, as if it had been set down all of a piece from somewhere else.

Its form is modest: a tall cube supporting a dome. Each facade is pierced by arched doorways, and each corner inset with a pillar, while a small, decorative gallery circles them above. But over all its surfaces - friezes, columns, lunettes - swarms a latticework of ornamental brick. No hint of colour touches it except the sandy monochrome of these slivers of baked clay. They are laid with a fertile cunning and variety. Their chiaroscuro of raised and depressed surfaces lends to the whole tomb the absorbent richness of a honeycomb, as if it had ripened in the sun. Brickwork has become an obsession, a brilliant game, so that the mausoleum blooms against its trees with a dry, jewelled intensity.

The tomb is all that survives of the precocious Samanid dynasty, the last Persians to rule in Central Asia, whose empire pushed south of the Caspian and deep into Afghanistan. The tomb escaped the Mongol sack because it lay buried under windblown sands, its builders half forgotten, and it perhaps finds its architectural origins in the palaces and fire-temples of pre-Islamic times. But its sophistication - the lavish, almost playful deployment of its brick - betrays an age more daring, more intellectual, than any which succeeded it.

For over a hundred years, until the end of the tenth century, a creative frenzy gripped the capital. Alongside the moral austerity of Islam, there bloomed an aesthetic Persian spirit which looked back to the magnificence and philosophic liberalism of the Sassanian age, extinguished by the Arabs more than two centuries before. As the Silk Road spilt into and out of Bukhara -furs, amber and honey travelling east; silks, jewellery and jade going west - the Samanids sent horses and glass to China, and received spices and ceramics in exchange.

An era of peace brought men of letters and science crowding to the court, and the Persian language flowered again in a galaxy of native poets. It was an ebullient age. Iranian music, painting and wine flourished heretically alongside Koranic learning, and the great library of Bukhara, stacked with 45,000 manuscripts, became the haunt of doctors, mathematicians, astronomers and geographers.

The short era produced men of striking genius: the poly-mathic al-Biruni, who computed the earth's radius; the lyric poet Rudaki; and the great Ibn Sina, Avicenna, who wrote 242 scientific books of stupefying variety, and whose 'Canons of Medicine' became a vital textbook in the hospitals even of Christian Europe for five hundred years.

But of all this activity almost nothing in brick or stone survives. The wall which circled the oasis for 150 miles, shielding it from nomad and sandstorm, was allowed to fall to bits in this time of hallucinatory wealth, and Turkic invaders, arriving from the east in ad 999, captured a city already declining into squalor. Only the mausoleum survives among its trees; a lavish, unshin-ing gem. Its centuries-long protection under the earth has left it pristine. Even from a distance the biscuity brickwork lends it a perforated lightness, as if it were clothed in some loose-knit garment.

Yet nobody knows who was buried here. In later centuries, nostalgic for past glory, people imagined that it belonged to Ismail Samani, founder of the dynasty, and its grave shows two holes, where supplicants would whisper their petitions to the emir and a hidden mullah give his answer. Even into the twentieth century, such buried leaders were believed to protect the emirate, so that pious men were bewildered when their vengeful spirits did not rise from their graves against Bolshevik forces in 1920, and massacre them. Now, after years of disinfection as an official monument, the tomb was covertly open to worshippers again. Sometimes a semi-circle of stately pilgrims could be seen praying in its chamber, and occasionally one would place his lips to the perforation in the grave, and whisper.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron