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History of Samarkand

'Samarkand' conjures no earthy city. It is a heart-stealing sound.

Other capitals of Islam - Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul - glow with an accessible, Mediterranean magnificence. But Samarkand inhabits only the edge of geography. It rings with a landlocked strangeness, and was the seat of an empire so remote in its steppe and desert that it only touched Europe to terrify it. For centuries after it slept under obscurity, it shimmered in people's imagination. It was the fantasy of Goethe and Handel, Marlowe and Keats, yet its reality was out of reach. Even in the famous verse of the diplomat-poet Flecker, who travelled no farther east than Syria, its merchants took the golden road as if to a perilous mystery.   

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron

Like the city's early history, the very word Samarkand (Marakanda to the Greeks), so resonant with enigma and romantic legend, still eludes the scholar's grasp. Did a King Samar lost in hoary antiquity found this town (kand), or rather King Afrosiab, mythical founder of Turan in millenniums past, who later lent his name to the ancient ruins in the northeast? Samarkand, one of Central Asia’s oldest settlements, was probably founded in the 5th century BC. When Alexander arrived in 329 ВС, it was already the cosmopolitan, walled capital of the Sogdian empire, a satrapy of the Achaemenid empire peopled by a cultured Iranian race. Despite a 13-kilometre wall, he took the city without resistance to find 'Everything I have heard about the beauty of the city is indeed true, except that it is much more beautiful than I imagined.' As soon as the Greeks moved east to Ferghana, Sogdian rebel Spitamenes inspired guerilla warfare so effective that Alexander was forced to use scorched-earth policies. He finally secured the citadel over a year later. The city's beauty was not enough to spare its buildings or its inhabitants, however, and Alexanders forces torched the citadel to punish the Sogdian general Spitamenes for his resistance.

Excavations reveal the Hellenic influence of his successors and the arrival of Kushan power, but by the first centuries of the Christian era Samarkand had faded into disrepair, as merchants and craftsmen left for elsewhere. It took the re-routing of world trade from the third century to effect the city's recovery. Though plundered by Hun tribes in the fifth century and engulfed by the Turkic khanate in the sixth, the indomitable Sogdians of Samarkand seized the opportunities of the Silk Road. In 630 Buddhist pilgrim Xuan Zang, on his odyssey from China to India, visited a flourishing city extending far beyond its walls: "The precious merchandise of many foreign countries is stored up here. The soil is rich and productive, and yields abundant harvests. The forest and trees afford thick vegetation, and flowers and fruits are plentiful. . . The inhabitants are skilful in the arts and trades beyond those of other countries ... They are copied by all surrounding people in point of politeness and propriety". His disciple recorded, "The king and the people do not believe in Buddhism but worship fire. There are two monastery buildings but no monks dwell in them, and if an occasional wandering monk seeks shelter there, the barbarians follow them with burning firebrands and drive them away."

Xuan Zang's description of a Zoroastrian society was confirmed by ossuaries excavated at Afrosiab. The greatest discoveries were wall paintings rich in colour and pageantry, for this was the Sogdian heyday, when her colonists swarmed to China taking glass and wine-making among diverse new skills. Like the West centuries later, the Tang Chinese were charmed by the exotic glamour of remote Samarkand, nurtured by gifts to Chang'an (Xi'an) of flute players, twirling girls, pygmies, leopards and golden peaches. However, Chinese hopes of joining Sogdiana to her western empire were dashed by the Arab invasion. Where Xuan Zang had tried to reason with the pagans, the sword of Islam came to devastate. After besieging and taking Samarkand in 712, Arab commander Qutaiba ibn Muslim erected the town's first mosque and deported much of the population. In the chaos that followed, Samarkand acquired a valuable skill, for the Battle of Talas in 751 supplied Chinese prisoners to teach its people the art of paper-making. In time, trade routes carried the secret west to replace parchment and papyrus.

Samarkand entered a dark age and it was not until the 7th century ad that Silk Road trade returned and the city flourished again. Samarkand was a key Silk Road city, it sat on the crossroads leading to China, India and Persia, bringing in trade and artisans. The Zoroastrian rulers of Samarkand sent luxurious gifts to neighbouring states, which included wild animals, dancing girls, musicians and all manner of natural and manmade curiosities. From the 6th to the 13th century it grew into a city more populous than it is today, changing hands every couple of centuries – Western Turks, Arabs, Persian Samanids, Karakhanids, Seljuq Turks, Mongolian Karakitay and Khorezmshah have all ruled here – before being obliterated by Chinggis Khan in 1220.

Only in the ninth century, under Samanid rule, did Samarkand enjoy a renaissance. Like Bukhara it grew in the tripartite formation of Persian towns: a citadel with prison, the shakhristan (town proper) containing government offices and a great Friday mosque, and rabad (suburbs) for bazaars and warehouses. Protecting the shakhristan were a moat and wall with four main gates: Bukhara (north), Kesh (south), Chinese (east) and Iron (west). The streets were paved with stone and benefactors supplied iced water for free at some 2,000 locations. Surviving Zoroastrians were made exempt from the poll tax to maintain the ingenious irrigation system of lead-covered pipes that fed every house and garden. The tenth century traveller Abdul Kasim ibn Hakal climbed the citadel for "one of the most beautiful views that man has ever gazed upon: the fresh greenness of the trees, the glittering castles, the canals . . . large market places, blocks of dwellings, bathhouses, caravanserai."

Transition of power during the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries from the Samanids to the Karakhanids, Seljuks and Karakhitai, steadily wore down Samarkand's lustre. After the invasions of Khorezmshah Mohammed from 1207-12, the population declined from around 400,000 to 100,000. Yet the worst was still to come. Like the Arabs in the eighth century and the Russians in the 19th, Genghis Khan in March 1220 first dammed the canals, lifeblood of Samarkand. When the city capitulated, the Mongols fell to plunder, driving the people beyond the walls where many were slaughtered. A thousand brave men attempted a sortie from the citadel, but Genghis trapped them in the Friday mosque. According to contemporary historian Juvaini, a volley of naptha pots ensured "all that were in it were burnt with the fire of this world and washed with the water of the hereafter." The 30,000-strong Turkic garrison was "drowned in the ocean of destruction and consumed by the fire of perdition." A similar number of craftsmen were deported to Mongolia, leaving barely enough people to occupy a single neighbourhood. It is said that the city's irrigation canals ran red with the blood of the people. The city's population was decimated, either killed or driven out so that scarcely a man remained.

When Taoist monk Chang Chun arrived in 1221, en route from China to enlighten the Great Khan with his philosophy (and disappoint his quest for eternal life), he stayed in the shahs abandoned palace, scorning the threat of brigandage brought on by famine. Outlying areas remained cultivated-he thought the gardens and melons surpassed even those of China-and Islam still held sway: "whoever neglects their religious duties is executed". Chang Chun also noted, "If a man becomes poor, his wife takes another husband; when a husband goes off on a journey and does not return within three months, his wife can marry another man. But there is one thing very strange about these people; some of the women have beards and moustaches." Remarkably, Samarkand bounced back. Marco Polo, travelling far to the south of Samarkand in the late 13th century, reported it was a "very large and splendid city". In 1333, the Moroccan ibn-Battuta, dubbed the greatest traveller of pre-modern times, for his wanderings outdistanced the Venetian, found much in wall-less ruin, yet was moved to call it "one of the largest and most perfectly beautiful cities in the world."

Genghis Khan invasion might have been the end of the story, but in 1370 Timur decided to make Samarkand his capital and his choice of capital was obvious. Samarkand's history, fertility and potential for rebirth far outweighed the claims of his nearby birthplace Shakhrisabz. The city had shifted south since the Mongol destruction and the new monarch cemented the move with moats, walls and gates.

Over the next 35 years he forged a new, almost-mythical city – Central Asia’s economic and cultural epicentre. Samarkand became the epicentre of one of the largest empires the world had ever seen, and to make it great Timur drew on resources both human and financial from as far afield as Damascus and Delhi. He built madrassas and mosques, palaces and caravanserai, mausoleums and trading domes. The whole known world brought their goods to sell in Samarkand, and they marvelled at the scale and beauty of the city, and of the speed of its construction.

The list of master craftsmen imported to embellish his imperial dream reads like the history of the next 35 years of near-constant campaigning. For in addition to treasure and slave-levy, the lands of Persia, Syria, Asia Minor and India yielded their finest minds-scholars, historians, theologians-and hands-architects, masons, painters, calligraphers, tile-glaziers, silk-weavers, glass-blowers, silversmiths, gunsmiths, bow-makers and armourers. Tamerlane derisively named outlying villages after the great cities of Baghdad, Damascus, Sultaniya, Shiraz and Cairo.

Six main streets led from the gates through squares opening on fountains, mosques, madrassah, mausoleums and caravanserai, to the domed trade gallery at Samarkand's centre, the Registan. Tamerlane's four-storey Kok Serai (Blue Palace) stood within the citadel bordering the western wall, yet on his brief visits he preferred his suburban palaces, gardens and fabulously ornate tents hung with silks and tapestries. In 1404, visiting Spanish envoy Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo marvelled at Samarkand's green belt: 'a traveller who approaches the city sees only a mountainous height of trees and the houses embowered among them remain invisible'. In the sumptuous surroundings of the Garden of Heart's Delight and other such Edens, Clavijo observed the Conqueror of the World receiving foreign tribute or playing chess, but chiefly feasting and drinking with spectacular abandon. He witnessed Tamerlane's creative power too, as the despot ordered the immediate construction of a vaulted bazaar street running across the city, or the two noblemen in charge would answer with their heads: "the tumult was such that it seemed all the devils of hell were at work here. Thus in the course of twenty days the whole new street was carried through: a wonder indeed to behold; but those whose houses had been thus demolished had good cause to complain."

Tamerlane's death prompted internecine struggle and the reduction of his realm, but for half a century Samarkand continued to blossom under his grandson Ulug Beg, the astronomer-king. Timur had put Samarkand on the map, but it made the city a target for any ambitious competitor. However, the rise of nomadic Uzbeks spelt the end of Timurid power and Samarkand's prosperity. Tamerlane's great-great-great-grandson, Babur, seized Samarkand for the third time in 1512, but the Uzbeks quickly recovered to chase this last Timurid towards India, where he would later found the Mogul empire. His autobiography, the Baburnama, rich in praise for Samarkand's buildings, bazaars, gardens, fruit, paper and crimson velvet, serves as an epitaph to a golden age.

When the Uzbek Shaybanids came in the 16th century and moved their capital to Bukhara, Samarkand went into decline, although the whole region was suffering the death of Silk Road trade. For several decades in the 18th century, after a series of earthquakes, it was essentially uninhabited. Grand works were few, save for those of Uzbek governor Yalangtush Bakhadur in the mid-17th century. Earthquake damage, looting and in-fighting left the city a virtual ghost town in the 18th century, until the Bukharan emir repopulated it in the 1770s by repairing the houses, citadel and 13 kilometre city wall, but it was only truly resuscitated by the Russians, who forced its surrender in May 1868 and linked it to the Russian Empire by the Trans-Caspian railway 20 years later.

For the tsarist general Kaufmann, Samarkand held as much symbolic as military significance, for Tamerlane once plundered Russia to within a stone's throw of Moscow. Despite leading only 3,500 men, Kaufmann lost but two of them, before the city surrendered to avert destruction in May 1868. Leaving a garrison of under 800 able-bodied men, Kaufmann pushed on, giving 20,000 hostile troops from Shakhrisabz the chance to reverse his gain. For five days the beleaguered garrison was trapped in the citadel as the citizens of Samarkand joined this purge of the infidels. Nearly 200 Russians were killed before Kaufmann's speedy return drove the attackers away.

Tsarist colonization changed the look of the city: the walls were demolished, the citadel became a military fortress and to the west fanned the Russian town in wide, tree- lined streets. The arrival of the Trans Caspian Railway in 1888 brought development, a nascent working class, anti-tsarist sentiments and Western dreamers, as Samarkand was released from an isolation broken by only two European visitors between 1404 and 1841. Explorer Douglas Carruthers in 1907 caught a common reaction: 'Even in its decline, Samarkand is like some fair lady looking out from the seclusion of her garden on to the wilderness around her.'

In late 1917, the red banner of revolution hung over the Registan; in 1920 Bolshevik general Frunze gathered his troops here for the assault on Bukhara; in 1925 a mass rally declared Samarkand the capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, but city lost the honour to Tashkent six years later. Industrial progress boosted the population to todays figure of 450,000, second only to Tashkent, as the ancient city was stamped with all the hallmarks of a Soviet metropolis-factories, institutes, apartment blocks and public transport. Lentn Square, a House of Soviets and an Opera and Ballet Theatre consumed the site of Tamerlane's Blue Palace, yet where extant glories were concerned, the new landlords reversed centuries of neglect. Today the 'garden-rabads' of Tamerlane's time bloom once more into a green belt encircling Samarkand. And whatever one's views on the ethics or quality of architectural restoration, the ongoing efforts afford the traveller a spectacular glimpse of Tamerlane's Centre of the Universe.