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City of the Scourge of God

Samarkand - City of the Scourge of God
'Central Asia - A Traveller's Companion' by Kathleen Hopkirk

Samarkand - the home of Tamerlane, the home of all the romance and poetry in the East. . .

Michael Shoemaker

I climbed by a narrow twisting stairway to the top of the Shir Dar and from there I looked down on the sun-baked Registan and beyond it on the fabled city of Samarkand, on the blue domes and the minarets, the flat-roofed mud houses, and the green tree-tops. It was a moment to which I had long looked forward.

Fitzroy Maclean

OVER THE ENTRANCE to the Gur Emir mausoleum in Samarkand is this inscription: 'Here lies the Illustrious and Merciful Monarch, the most Great Sultan, the most Mighty Warrior, the Lord Timur, Conqueror of the World'. As it has been estimated that Timur, or Tamerlane as he is more widely known, was responsible for the deaths of seventeen million men, women and children, many of whom were massacred with indescribable brutality, not everyone would have agreed with the word 'merciful'. But illustrious he certainly was, and a mighty warrior, and in his lifetime he created a city which was renowned as the 'Mirror of the World', the 'Garden of the Blessed' or simply 'The Fourth Paradise'. Even now, the name Samarkand is for many people synonymous with Tamerlane's power and splendour.

But although it is this medieval town which we still glimpse today, the oasis on the Zarafshan river - the name means 'strewer of gold' - has been inhabited for at least 40,000 years. And no wonder:

Bokhara is a city of the plains, low lying, desert encircled; but Samarkand stands high, tucked away under the foothills of the mountains, embedded in a veritable Garden of Eden, in a land literally flowing with milk and honey, where all the fruits of the earth seem to grow in profusion and to perfection, where man finds life easy and the climate is perfect.

Douglas Carruthers, Beyond the Caspian, 1949

A short distance to the north-east of Tamerlane's city lie the ruins of its classical predecessor, fabled Afrasiab - Maracanda to the Greeks - the capital of the Sogdian empire. That empire came to an end when, after a fierce fight, Alexander the Great captured Maracanda in 329 BC, one of a succession of invaders. But the Sogdians were survivors, and they continued to criss-cross Central Asia with their caravans, their language becoming the lingua franca of the whole region. From time to time their activities would be interrupted by a wave of horse-borne nomads from the north, who would pour down on the tempting oasis from the Hungry Steppe. Various tribes of Huns and Turks plundered Samarkand over the years, but each time the Sogdians would return to their despoiled city, patch up the walls, rebuild the warehouses and carry on trading. As an important staging-post on the Silk Road, Samarkand became famous as a centre of trade and manufacture, renowned for its glass and fine paper, its caravanserais crowded with jostling merchants and camel trains, its warehouses packed with rugs, spices and bales of silk.

During the seventh century AD, when Samarkand was part of a Turkish khanate (and Europe was in the Dark Ages), the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hsuan-tsang visited the town on his way to India. Sa-mo-kien, he reported, was a flourishing city, whose inhabitants 'set a good example to their neighbours in their observation of the laws of morality and decency'. Another Chinese traveller remarked on the early education of Sogdian boys, from the age of 5, in reading, writing and the arts of commerce. 'The majority of the inhabitants', he explained, 'consider the receipt of profits to be an excellent pursuit.' About half the population, according to Hsuan-tsang, were engaged in trade and the rest in agriculture, although the frescoes uncovered by Soviet archaeologists at Penjakent, near Samarkand, depict scenes of battle and feasting - perhaps a portrayal of Sogdiana's glorious past.

At the beginning of the eighth century Samarkand fell to the armies of the Arab Caliphate, and the Sogdians and Turks were driven out or forcibly converted to Islam. For a century it became an Arab city, with mathematicians and astronomers rubbing shoulders with merchants, and women were now obliged to veil themselves from head to foot in public. The rule of the Caliphate soon declined, but henceforth the grip of Islam tightened on Central Asia, not to be challenged until the twentieth century. The earlier religions of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity which had put down roots as they passed along the Silk Road were now ruthlessly suppressed by the mullahs, who demanded a fanatical adherence to the new creed.

After the departure of the Arabs, Samarkand was ruled by the Samanids, a Persian dynasty, and later by the Seljuks, the new tribe of Turks who carved out a mighty empire for themselves in the eleventh century. Finally, like so much of Central Asia, the city was devastated in 1220 by the pitiless hordes of Genghis Khan, and this was the end of the ancient site of Afrasiab and Maracanda. When the town was next rebuilt, from the rubble of its predecessors, it had shifted south-west to the site still occupied by the old town today.

But it was not until the fourteenth century that Samarkand took on the appearance we now associate with it - the soaring minarets and the domes of glistening turquoise and cobalt blue. Tamerlane's long reign, from 1370 to 1405, was almost entirely taken up by military campaigns, but in the course of conquering most of the known world he never forgot his beloved capital, and always sent back the best artists and craftsmen of the countries he had defeated, together with vast armies of slaves for the manual work. Architects, brick-glaziers, ceramic tile-makers and mosaic-workers flowed in from Baghdad, Damascus, Shiraz, Isfahan and Delhi, while one of Tamerlane's many wives brought cultural influences and skilled craftsmen from her native China. Whenever the Emperor returned from a military expedition he would immediately go and inspect the progress of his latest monument, and if anything displeased him the architects would be publicly hanged in the market place. Tamerlane was not a patient man: he wanted results. Sometimes he bribed his slave battalions with chunks of meat. When no amount of bribery or flogging could achieve the miracles he sought, he imported ninety elephants from India to help the work along. Thus was the Timurid style of architecture born.

One of the first monuments Tamerlane undertook in Samarkand was the Shah Zindeh complex, a mosque and series of mausoleums on the outskirts of old Afrasiab. According to legend, a Muslim saint named Kasim-ibn-Abbas was martyred here at the end of the seventh century by the infidel inhabitants of Afrasiab, and would arise at the appropriate moment as the defender of Islam. ('His failure to appear when the Russians took Samarkand has somewhat shaken his reputation,' remarked Ella Christie, who travelled there just before the First World War.) But in fact Islam seems to have hijacked an earlier Zoroastrian or Manichaean legend about a 'living king' who was merely sleeping in his tomb. In any case it gave Tamerlane the excuse to embark on what many visitors have described as his greatest achievement. 'In these sepulchres', wrote the explorer Douglas Carruthers, 'the enamelled tile-work, for which Samarkand is chiefly famous, reaches the highest pitch of perfection.' To Rosita Forbes, writing in the 1930s, the court of Shah Zindeh 'might have been steeped in sea-water. All the blues from turquoise to the deepest sapphire were reflected in the incomparable mosaics of this deep, quiet pool of colour contrasted or blended with the rich browns and golds of the earthen walls. Sea and sand with sunshine caught between them.'

Further west, the vast and imposing Bibi Khanum mosque and accompanying medresseh or college seem to have been erected between 1399 and 1404, possibly in memory of the Emperor's Chinese wife, though some say more prosaically that it was to commemorate his triumphant Indian campaign. Built on a gigantic scale, the main doorway was 135 feet high, but the design was far too ambitious for an earthquake zone and the mosque began to collapse soon after it was completed. It has been claimed that it was also damaged by Russian shell-fire during their campaign of Central Asian conquest in 1868, but the dome - though cracked - was still more or less intact when Carruthers first saw it during his long visit in 1907-8. Sadly, while he was there another earth tremor dislodged 'the greater part of it', and he reflected that 'it will never be seen again as I saw it'.

The immense marble lectern which used to stand under the Bibi Khanum's dome, supported on nine feet, has now been placed in the courtyard outside. Legend has it that the Chinese queen, a zealous convert to the faith of her lord and master, used to stand before it and read from an enormous Koran. A Russian traveller records seeing a huge book there in 1770 when he visited Samarkand, although he did not realize what it was. The Koran had disappeared by 1841 when the orientalist N.V. Khanikoff was there, but he noted that 'the chief merit of the marble pulpit at present consists, according to the superstitious belief of the inhabitants, in curing for life pains in the backbones, provided the patient manages to crawl under it'. Early twentieth-century visitors heard a variant of this superstition: crawling under the lectern was a cure for infertility in women.

In 1404 Tamerlane began his last architectural extravaganza, the Gur Emir, which he was never to see completed. It was originally intended to serve as a mausoleum for his favourite grandson, the Crown Prince Mohammed Sultan, who was killed in battle in Persia in 1403, but it eventually became the tomb of Tamerlane himself. However when work began, he was still a revered, and feared, emperor to whom other nations sent ambassadors laden with placatory gifts. Don Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, envoy of the court of Castile, has left this description of Tamerlane's Samarkand:

The city is surrounded on all sides by many gardens and vineyards, which extend in some directions a league and a half, in others two leagues, the city being in the midst. Among these gardens there are great and noble houses, and here the lord Timur has several palaces. The nobles of the city have their houses amongst these gardens, and they are so extensive, that when a man approaches the city he sees nothing but a mass of very high trees. Many streams of water flow through the city and through these gardens, and among these gardens there are many cotton plantations and melon grounds, and the melons are good and plentiful; and at Christmas-time there is a wonderful quantity of melons and grapes.

De Clavijo was dazzled by the opulence of Tamerlane's court. Jewel-encrusted gold and silver lined his walls, he banqueted from golden tables, drank from a golden cup and dressed in silks and sables. His nine wives, also adorned in silks and precious stones, embellished their faces with a paste of white lead so that their skin looked like paper. But Tamerlane was visibly an old man now, and the Castilian noticed at one feast that 'he was so old his eyelids had fallen down'. So much food was served at a banquet that 'it would have lasted for a year', and etiquette demanded that a cup of wine be drained at one draught, the cups being constantly replenished by an attendant. The title of bahadur, meaning 'valiant drinker', was conferred on whoever managed to imbibe the greatest quantity of wine without becoming unconscious. Perhaps it was just as well that wine was only permitted on special occasions. De Clavijo wisely preferred to stick to sweetened mare's milk. Tamerlane was said to 'have visions', but whether these resulted from physical or mental infirmity or from too much feasting, we shall probably never know.

What made this son of the steppe, of mixed Mongol and Turkish blood, embark on this orgy of building? As the writer Margaret Craig-McKerrow has said: 'Genghis Khan came and conquered and destroyed, but Timur conquered, remained and left behind him enduring monuments to fame.' She hazards her own guess as to his reasons: 'It was, perhaps, as compensation for his own ugliness that he created so much beauty around him.' For Tamerlane was one-eyed, crippled in his right leg and arm, and reputedly the ugliest man in Asia. It is said that he once flew into a towering rage after seeing his reflection in a mirror. He was, of course, a Muslim and many of his buildings had a religious significance, but perhaps his compulsive need to build vast and grandiose edifices was as much a defiant rejection of his humble nomadic origins as a desire to glorify God. For over his palace at Kesh, his birth-place, was the inscription: 'Let he who doubts our power and munificence look upon our buildings'.

In any case, in a part of the world where conquerors came and went with monotonous regularity, most of them soon to be forgotten, and where entire civilizations could rise and fall and be obliterated, Tamerlane should have died a happy man. Neither he nor his works would ever be forgotten. But his restless spirit could not be happy while there were countries still unsubjugated, and the great land of China lay outside his enormous empire. 'And shall I die and this unconquered?' are the words plausibly put in his mouth by Christopher Marlowe in his great melodrama. So the 69-year-old tyrant gathered up his armies and prepared to mount a new campaign. Greatly to the relief of the Chinese, Tamerlane was struck down by a fever on his way east, and soon he 'coughed like a strangled camel and foamed like a camel dragged backwards with the rein', in the words of his followers. His doctors had to admit to the Emperor: 'We know of no cure for death'. So the Scourge of God lost his final battle, not on the field of conquest, but lying in a tent with a winter storm raging outside.

The Emperor's body was carried back to Samarkand and laid in state in the Gur Emir mausoleum, where slaves from China, Persia and India were still at work. Hans Schiltberger of Munich, who happened to be held captive in Samarkand at this time, recounts the following story:

After Tamerlane was buried, the priests that belonged to the temple heard him move every night during a whole year. His friends gave large alms, that he should cease his howlings. But this was of no use. They asked advice of their priests, and went to his son and begged that he would set free the prisoners taken by his father in other countries, and especially those that were in Samarkand, who were all craftsmen he had brought to the capital, where they had to work. He let them go, and as soon as they were free, Tamerlane did not howl any more.

There was a legend that if Tamerlane's body were ever to be disturbed, a catastrophe would befall the world, eclipsing even the horrors he had himself unleashed. On 22 June 1941, while Professor Mikhail Gerasimov was examining the skeleton, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and what Russians call the Great Patriotic War began.

Tamerlane would certainly have been gratified if he could have heard the paeans of praise - not to mention purple prose - uttered by Western visitors to his capital, even though they saw his monuments in a much reduced state. Some, like the Hungarian scholar Vambery, got to Samarkand in the 1860s in disguise and at great risk to their lives. Others went in the 1870s in the wake of the Russian conquest. And once the Transcaspian railway reached the city in 1888 there was a steady stream of eager visitors, starting with the Hon. George Curzon. Everybody was bowled over by Samarkand. Eugene Schuyler, the American Consul at St Petersburg, wrote: 'I look back to Samarkand with feelings of special pleasure, and consider it one of the places in the world to which I would gladly return at any time or under any pretext'. It seemed to him 'a living remnant of a far-off world'. Douglas Carruthers, who went on to be a distinguished explorer and naturalist, was in his twenties when he went there, and although his book Beyond the Caspian was not published until forty years later, it brims with the enthusiasm of a young man. Here are his descriptions of first Bibi Khanum and then Shah Zindeh:

To see it to the best advantage one should go beyond the city's precincts, out to the waste place where old Maracanda stood. One should go at even, when the sun sinks low, and watch the pageant as it passes out over the Kyzyl Kum desert. One should wait till the great turquoise dome, reflecting the dying rays, turns pure amethyst, and remain until the whole vast pile stands silhouetted against the after-glow. Then - when the roar from the distant bazaars dies down and the air is heavy with a golden haze, when twilight falls and ghosts of all Time come up out of Afrasiab to walk with you - then you will have seen and felt the work of Timur's hand and stood in awe.

But choose high-noon on a hot summer's day to wander through the courts and alleys of Shah Zindeh, which is Samarkand's chief treasure. There you will be struck dumb, if you have any feeling at all for design and colour. No adequate description has yet been given of the glories of those tombs of Timur's faithful followers, perhaps because it is impossible to do justice to the unrivalled wealth of coloured tile and porcelain with which they are adorned.

Ella Christie, an intrepid Scotswoman who made two journeys alone to Central Asia just before the First World War, found the Gur Emir most memorable:

Crossing a slight ravine from the Citadel we come in sight of the Gur Emir, or tomb of Tamerlane, built by himself and dedicated to his friend and tutor, Mir Sayyid Baraka, who is buried near the pupil who did him such credit and honour. Surrounded as it is by trees, chiefly poplar, I can never forget the sight of that fluted blue dome rising far above the delicate spring green. On the stone path leading up to the chief portal I found a little group of natives in gay-coloured khalats seated playing chess -a peaceful, undisturbed spot in which to meditate on their moves - and so absorbed were they in their game that my presence passed unnoticed . . .

As one enters the great portal, or piktash, as these arches are called, there is a passage, obscurely lighted, off which open two chambers, in one of which are buried female members of the family of Tamerlane, and in the other his son Shah Rukh and his family. Then comes the vaulted octagonal hall, 115 feet in height. Beneath its dome is a white marble railing enclosing seven tombs, the centre one of which is that of Tamerlane, and is of dark green jade, made darker by the contrast of the six others, which are of white marble. This block of jade measures six feet in length, seventeen inches wide and fourteen inches thick. It is the largest known specimen of that stone in existence, and was said to have been the gift of a Mongol princess.

Ella Christie, Through Khiva to Golden Samarkand, 1925

Medieval visitors to Tamerlane's tomb were convinced that the dark green slab was an enormous emerald. Fitzroy Maclean, who saw it in the course of an illicit visit in 1937, described it as nephrite. The young Maclean, who had temporarily shaken off his secret police shadows, hastened to see the sights before they caught up with him and sent him back to Moscow where he was working as a diplomat. Wandering about the outskirts of the town, he suddenly came upon 'the splendid ruins of the Bibi Khanum mosque', with its 'one immense crumbling arch . . . poised perilously above the surrounding buildings'. Nearby he found the Shah Zindeh complex, but here he was not welcome:

Near the Bibi Khanum two or three incongruous modern buildings in the Soviet style have already made their appearance and will no doubt be followed by others. Passing by these and along the main street out into the country I came to a dusty hillside, littered with graves and gravestones all crumbling into decay. Down it ran a walled stairway with, on either side, a row of small mosques of the most exquisite beauty. In these lie buried the friends and contemporaries of Tamerlane. From some, the blue tiles have disappeared completely, leaving a rough crumbling surface of pale sun-baked clay sprouting here and there with tufts of grass. At the top of the stairway stands a larger mosque, the tomb of Kasim-ibn-Abbas . . . After him the mosque, for centuries a place of pilgrimage, is called Shah Zindeh - the Living King. Climbing over the wall, I wandered in and out of the mosques until I was eventually turned away by an angry Uzbek woman ably seconded by an idiot boy. Sightseeing, it seemed, was not encouraged in Samarkand.

Maclean, Eastern Approaches, 1949

In Tamerlane's day, what is now the registan, or public square, was the commercial centre of Samarkand, a bustling bazaar with caravanserais for the many merchants who passed through the city. It was Tamerlane's grandson and successor, Ulugh Beg, who built the first mosque and medresseh there, in the fifteenth century. He was a scholarly man, with a passion for astronomy, and the building dearest to his heart was the Observatory he designed and had built on a hill in the 1420s. It was a three-storey tower, topped with a dome, and contemporary travellers did not hesitate to compare it with the awesome dome of Saint Sophia in Constantinople. Inside was a marble sextant of gigantic proportions, which enabled Ulugh Beg and his astronomers to draw up a catalogue of the stars that still astonishes scholars with its accuracy. But the Emperor's encouragement of science, and interest in the work of Western scholars, made him many enemies among the Islamic clergy. The dangerous notion that truth could be discovered through knowledge instead of through religious instruction did not suit the mullahs at all, for it clearly undermined their influence and power. Ulugh Beg himself hardly helped matters by such pronouncements as: 'Religions disperse like mist; kingdoms decay; but science remains for all time.' Like Galileo's theories and his persecution by the Inquisition two centuries later, Ulugh Beg's ideas could not be tolerated by the religious authorities. He was assassinated by his own son in 1449, dervishes wrecked his Observatory, and his fellow scientists fled for their lives.

Fortunately one of them escaped to Constantinople with a bundle of manuscripts and was able to publish there Ulugh Beg's New Astronomical Tables. This work caused such a sensation that it was quickly republished in Cairo and Damascus and, in the seventeenth century, in Oxford, Paris and other European centres of learning. The site of the Observatory was forgotten after a generation or two, for the dervishes were careful to leave no trace of this heretical edifice, and was only rediscovered in 1908 after painstaking research by the Russian antiquarian Vladimir Vyatkin. To his excitement, the lower half of the great sextant, sweeping down into the earth and flanked by a staircase, had survived with all its calibrations. The upper half, of course, like everything above ground, had been smashed to smithereens and all traces had long since disappeared. A museum now marks the site where Ulugh Beg once gazed at the stars.

The gracious city of Tamerlane and Ulugh Beg was not destined to be left intact for long. A new wave of nomadic invaders, the Uzbek Turks, swept down from the Hungry Steppe at the beginning of the sixteenth century, bringing death and destruction in their wake. By 1505 Shaybani Khan was in control of the whole of Transoxiana, the land between the Oxus and the Syr-darya, and the Ferghana valley to the east. In the course of this shake-up, Prince Babur, a descendant of Tamerlane's third son and erstwhile ruler of the eastern part of his empire, was obliged to renounce his claims to Turkestan. Instead, he turned his attention to the conquest of Hindustan, and so the upheavals of Central Asia led to the founding of the Mogul dynasty in India, Samarkand gradually declined, and after Shaybani's line went the way of all conquering dynasties the whole region collapsed into anarchy.

As if invasion and internecine strife were not enough, Samarkand was also assailed by serious earthquakes in the seventeenth century. But at least these led to the creation of the registan in the form we know it today, for the old caravanserais had to be completely demolished, making room for the medressehs of Shir Dar and Tilla Kari. Curzon called the registan 'the noblest public square in the world', and he was not given to hyperbole. Michael Shoemaker, an American travel-writer, shared his enthusiasm:

In the old city there is what I have never seen in Oriental towns before - until reaching Teheran, where it is not nearly so imposing - a great square, and I know of no more picturesque spot in the East. Three stately buildings called medressehs, or universities, rise around it, a picturesque jumble of domes, alcoves, and fretted gateways, all covered with porcelain tiling of turquoise blue and dark blue on a ground of yellow, while minarets out of the perpendicular complete the fantastic effect.

Shoemaker, The Heart of the Orient, 1904

The earthquakes which skewed the minarets terrified the inhabitants so much that most of them ran away, and for much of the eighteenth century Samarkand was a ghost town, frequented, it was said, by a solitary religious recluse. Towards the end of the century it was forcibly repopulated at the command of the Emir of Bokhara, and a polyglot population of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Persians, Arabs, Indians and Jews resulted. Happily, the buildings were patched up and the walls repaired, the canals cleared and the gardens replanted, otherwise medieval Samarkand might have crumbled away entirely. During the nineteenth century the whole of western Central Asia came under the covetous gaze of a rapidly expanding Russia, and Tsarist missions began to penetrate this mysterious region. In 1841 when Nikolai Khanikoff was there, Samarkand still had the typical appearance of a Central Asian town, with a citadel, high mud-brick walls, look-out posts and six gates, which were locked at sunset, but inside the walls Khanikoff found the city in a sorry state, for 'the present generation not only do not erect anything new worthy of description, but are ever busy in destroying the monuments of former grandeur'.

In 1868 both Samarkand and Bokhara surrendered to the forces of General Kaufmann, and were taken under the Tsar's 'protection'. Samarkand's walls were demolished, as was most of the old citadel built by Tamerlane and containing the koktash, the grey marble coronation stone of the Timurids. A new fortress was put up by the Russians in roughly the same place, and this came to mark the border between the old town and the new Russian one which began to grow up next to it. The prospect of fabled Samarkand being open to Western visitors caused a frisson of excitement around the world. Schuyler spoke for many when he wrote:

There is no place in Central Asia, the name of which has so impressed the imagination of Europe as Samarkand. Surrounded by a halo of romance, visited at rare intervals, and preserving the traditions of its magnificence in a mysterious impenetrability, it long piqued the curiosity of the world . . . The news of its capture by the Russians in 1868 excited a glow of interest, like the awakening of some half-forgotten memory ... At last, we thought, the curtain is to be drawn aside.

Schuyler, Turkistan, 1876

The Russians now began to attempt the daunting task of preserving what was left of the old monuments. Their efforts were not helped by the persistent earth-tremors, of varying severity, which plagued the region. There had been a particularly bad one shortly before J.T. Woolrych Perowne visited Samarkand in the winter of 1897:

The recent earthquake has left its mark everywhere, and in a few years - it cannot well be longer - there will hardly be left anything of antiquarian interest in Samarkand. It is all very well for irresponsible writers to decry the Russian authorities, and say they have no care for the historic buildings of which they are now the guardians, but it only needs the most casual glance to assure oneself that these buildings are practically past restoration or repair. Whatever may have been the case a hundred years ago, patching now would be quite useless in my opinion - everything is too far gone. Then again, the recurrence of earthquakes, the last only in September 1897, would at once destroy again what had been restored, and the money spent would have been only wasted.

Perowne, Russian Hosts and English Guests in Central Asia, 1898

Perowne was not alone in thinking the ruins were beyond repair. An American businessman, John Bookwalter, who was there shortly afterwards referred to the old town's 'mouldering ruins, most of them in the last stages of decay'. The historians Francis Skrine and Denison Ross, writing in 1899, had no hesitation in blaming the Russians, however:

The Russians must be held responsible for the forlorn state of the Bibi Khanum. When they entered upon their glorious inheritance the power of disintegration might have been arrested. But they were content to see the stately mosque degraded to the base uses of a cotton-market and a stable.

Skrine and Ross, The Heart of Asia, 1899

Ella Christie was inclined to agree, although some crude repair work had been carried out by the time she went there in about 1912:

The Russians have done a certain amount of preservation, but a great deal more might have been achieved, and much has gone that might have remained intact. The mere prohibition of removal of tiles is not sufficient when the material in which they are set is fast crumbling to dust. Where the various melon-shaped domes are concerned, cement moulded to the original form has been the medium employed, and this preserves any coloured portions left.

Lack of money was certainly one problem, but the total indifference of the inhabitants to their artistic heritage was an even greater obstacle to preservation. And there was no improvement in the years following the Russian Revolution, when everything to do with the past tended to be rejected as bad. Still, the impact of Samarkand was stunning even in the most inauspicious conditions. Margaret Craig-McKerrow went there in 1931 on an Intourist tour, and her great dread was that the city would have become entirely Sovietized. The drive from the station did nothing to reassure her, for every road seemed to be called Karl Marx Street or Lenin Boulevard:

However, we soon passed through the great gate of the fortress into the old town and got down at the Registan, the public square. There one was at once in the heart of Asia, in the days of Tamerlane. One thinks of all the fine squares and plazas of the world, but perhaps there is none to equal the sad beauty of this great space, surrounded by the remains of three magnificent buildings, still well enough preserved to give an idea of their pristine loveliness of life and colour.

Craig-McKerrow, The Iron Road to Samarkand, 1932

The Soviet authorities soon had second thoughts about exposing their Central Asian colonies to the gaze of Westerners, and the Intourist tours came to an abrupt halt. Samarkand became a closed city to all but fellow-travellers, who could be relied upon to see things in the correct light. Without a special permit - and your 'papers' were inspected by every petty official who crossed your path - you had to rely on bluff and cunning if you wanted to follow the Golden Road. A few fearless souls managed to do so, among them Ella Maillart, Ethel Mannin and Fitzroy Maclean. Maillart, the Swiss sportswoman turned traveller, camped in a cell in the Tilla Kari mosque in 1932 and found herself witnessing the show-trial in the registan of a group of hasmachi - the anti-Bolshevik, pan-Islamic guerrilla group - nineteen of whom were sentenced to death. After the verdict had been pronounced, there was 'a cry, a prolonged howl . . . The women rush forward, passing underneath the cord . . . the confusion is heart-rending. Their swords drawn, the militiamen force a passage through the khalats and turbans, and the women, forcibly torn away, are removed to a distance from their men' (see dushanbe for more on the basmachi).

Mile Maillart made friends with some students who were most surprised at her interest in the old buildings, and gave her extremely misleading information about them which she was too tactful to correct. While she was wandering about the ruins of the Bibi Khanum she noticed a daring Uzbek clambering around in the very heights, busily removing all the wood he could carry, quite oblivious to the incidental damage he was causing:

He is collecting wood for himself, which he drags away from the beams supporting the brickwork of the vault. The wood is smooth, hard, and raspberry-coloured. The man goes off with his booty, leaving the ground strewn with glazed tiles.

Maillart, Turkestan Solo, 1934

At least by now the donkeys and horses, and the cotton-market, had been cleared away, although this was probably for reasons of safety rather than in the interests of preservation.

Ethel Mannin arrived in Samarkand in the middle of a bitterly cold night in 1935 and was rewarded by seeing the registan for the first time by moonlight. After a nightmarish train journey, and in spite of the paranoia induced by her lack of 'papers' - which meant she had no chance of a bed for the night - she was overwhelmed by the magical quality of the old town. 'There is a splendour of pale blue towers and arches reaching up to the blazing stars,' she wrote. 'Samarkand by moonlight! How is it possible to care very much where we lay our heads for the rest of this fantastic night? We blunder along over the cobbles, and now we do not feel our weariness, or the steely coldness, for we walk in an enchanted land.' Next day, after snatching a little rest on a hard bench at the railway station, she hurried back to see the registan by daylight:

Facades, minarets, cupolas, archways - all are blue, delicate blue-green and deep pure cobalt. Moonlight mists it all to a pastel softness, but in sunlight it is glitteringly brilliant, sea-green, sky-blue, dazzling. Before the tiles began to fall away, leaving ugly patches of yellow-brown clay, it must have been a flawless dream of beauty, but even in ruins it is the perfect introduction to the wonders of Samarkand.

Mannin, South to Samarkand, 1936

But some of the minarets had been chained into position to stop them crashing down, and she felt that Tamerlane had been far too impatient in achieving his instant masterpieces:

When Tamerlane himself commanded that there should be beauty and splendour, human imagination and human energy were strained to the utmost. At his command blood flowed and beauty flowered. But a mortal and perishable beauty, doomed to perish out of its due time and become again a part of the dust of Asia.

How amazed all these earlier visitors would be if they could see the city now, with many of its monuments so rebuilt and restored that they are almost reproductions, and standing amid the incongruous paraphernalia of a modern metropolis. One wonders too what Professor Vyatkin would have thought - he who tracked down the site of Ulugh Beg's Observatory in 1908 and who stayed on, even after the Soviet coup, as Director of Antiquities until his death in 1934. He must often have wrung his hands over the lack of funds which prevented him from preserving his beloved monuments or from carrying out scientific investigations. For in his day the only archaeologists in Samarkand were at best amateurs, and at worst indiscriminate treasure-seekers. Ella Christie came upon one of the former, a Russian sign-painter, who spent all his spare time digging up old pots. 'He was a real enthusiast', she wrote, 'and worked for the love and interest in such discoveries.' Intrigued, she went to the site of ancient Afrasiab to see for herself:

On the hill itself, amid the mounds of rubbish and debris, are to be found specimens of whole and broken fragments of pottery and glass. There is no organized plan of excavation, and the natives dig as they like, without any scientific knowledge, so that for the one perfect specimen that may be unearthed many others are smashed in so doing. On one spot I gathered up the fragments of what had once been five glass bowls of classic shapes and treasured them as much for the exquisite iridescent colouring of the pieces as for their historic interest.

Her Russian friend had amassed a collection of about a thousand perfect and imperfect specimens and was anxious to find a good home for them. Mrs Christie acquired five 'for the South Kensington Museum', and she later heard that the remainder had gone to the National Museum in Kiev. What befell them during the chaos of the revolution, civil war, and the destruction of the Second World War is not known. In 1937 when Fitzroy Maclean was there, Afrasiab was still 'a desolate, undulating plain, sprinkled with crumbling ruins', but since then the site has been excavated by Soviet archaeologists, and Sogdian wall-paintings, amongst other things, have been uncovered.

Inevitably the Soviet period brought many changes to Samarkand. The Russian new town, which hardly existed at the time of Schuyler's visit, and was described by Bookwalter as 'presenting the appearance of having been literally carved out of a dense forest of poplars and acacias', was modernized and industrialized. The unmade or cobbled streets, bordered by 'running streams of pure, clear water, drawn from the mountains', and with tall trees interlacing overhead, made way for modern highways. The camel had to give place to the truck and the tractor. Samarkand, for centuries a jewel of the Silk Road, one-time capital of the Conqueror of the World, more recently subject to the Emir of Bokhara, became for five years the capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. However, in 1930 this modern prize was snatched from her by ambitious Tashkent.

But nowhere else - not Tashkent, nor even Bokhara or Khiva - can ever supplant the city of Tamerlane as the place to which we would all, in Schuyler's words, be glad to return at any time or under any pretext. For the footprints of a giant are still visible there. No ugliness, said Ethel Mannin, can invade this triumphant beauty: it lifts the gaze from the squalor of the pavements to the everlasting blue to which its minarets aspire. Even in its decline, thought Douglas Carruthers, Samarkand was like some fair lady looking out from the seclusion of her garden on to the wilderness around her. Like Carruthers we can climb the mound of old Afrasiab and watch the sun sink behind the shattered frame of the Bibi Khanum, and then see in our imagination the dark cloud on the horizon and hear the thunder of hooves which heralded another raid by the nomads of the north.

And thanks to James Elroy Flecker, who died of consumption before he could see the fabled city for himself, we can also hear the quiet footfalls of the unnumbered legions of merchants and pilgrims who made their way along the Silk Road to Samarkand:

Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells

When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,

And softly through the silence beat the bells

Along the golden road to Samarkand.


We travel not for trafficking alone

By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned

For lust of knowing what should not be known

We make the golden journey to Samarkand.