What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the Silk Road(s)? Chances are, you pictured beautiful ornate Islamic architecture with turquoise domes and soaring tiled minarets. The image in your head is Samarkand. Samarkand (or Samarqand) is perhaps the most famous city of modern Uzbekistan, and home to many of that country's historical sites. From before the time of Alexander the Great through the present, Samarkand has been the jewel in Central Asia's resplendent crown. No other city represents the Silk Road quite like Samarkand.
The name Samarkand is derived from Old Persian asmara ("stone, rock") and from Sogdian qand ("fort", "town"). Samarkand literally means "stone fort" or "rock town." Samarkand had a central position on the Silk Road between China and the West. In the 14th century, Timur (Tamerlane) made Samarkand the capital of his empire. Samarkand is a must-see for all travelers visiting Central Asia. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001 as Samarkand - Crossroad of Cultures.
The modern city was home to 514,000 people in 2019.
Pre-Islamic era edit
The site of Samarkand was sporadically occupied in the Bronze and Early Iron Ages. A city was founded in pre-Achaemenid times, between 650 and 550 BCE. A wall followed the whole circuit of the plateau (5.5 km), complemented by another one which separates the town from the acropolis. It's in the northern part and includes a citadel raised on an artificial platform. The massive wall, 7-m thick, was made of coarse mud bricks, all of which bear a mark, an indication that labour was strictly organized in groups of workers. Similar building techniques have been noticed at other Sogdian and pre-Sogdian sites during that pre-Achaemenid period.
The city was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BCE. It was named Maracanda by the Greeks. Two phases of Greek occupation can be distinguished, the first lasting from Alexander to the second half of the 3rd century BCE and a second period of reconquest under the Greco-Bactrian king Eucratides (171-145 BCE). The pottery differs markedly between these two phases.
The pre-Islamic Sogdian civilization is best documented from excavations at Panjakent, which was the capital at that time; the town is near Samarkand but now across a border in Tajikistan. At Samarkand, the major source of evidence for this period is the aristocratic residence with the famous wall paintings which were commissioned for a reception hall ca. 660 CE, probably by King Varkhuman. Just north of the center of the city lies the remains of the great Sogdian town of Afrasiab (also Afrosiab), where those murals were found.
Islamic period edit
In the early 8th century CE, Samarkand was conquered by the Arabs and soon became an important center of Muslim culture. Excavations beneath the mosque show a rapid succession of monumental buildings. A massive enclosure, perhaps the temenos of the pre-Islamic temple mentioned in the sources, was razed some time after the Arab conquest of 712. The site was occupied by a large palace (ca 115 x 84 m), which was according to numismatic evidence built in the 740s by the last Umayyad governor Nasar b. Sayyar. Between 765 and 780 the Friday mosque was first built on a square plan, which probably at the beginning of the Samanid period, ca. 820-30 was enlarged and the remaining parts of the palace were levelled.
It subsequently grew as a trade center on the Silk Road, the great trading route between China and the Mediterranean region.
In 1220 Samarkand was almost completely destroyed by the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan. It flourished again when Timur-i-Leng (known as Tamerlane in the West) made it the capital of his empire in 1369. As his capital Timur put Samarkand on the world map and much of the architecture visible today was built by him or his descendants. The empire declined in the 15th century, and nomadic Uzbeks (Shaybanids) took Samarkand in 1500. In 1784 the emirate of Bukhara conquered it. The city was taken by Russia in 1868, and again began to assume importance. From 1924 to 1930, Samarkand was the capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.
Historically, Samarkand was populated primarily by Persian-speaking Indo-Iranian peoples (like the Sogdians, Achaemenids, etc.), although sizeable non-Iranian peoples lived in and around the region too. When the Mongols conquered the region, they broke Persian political power in the city and introduced more diverse groups into the city through population shuffling. By the time Uzbek forces took the city, the population was ethnically mixed, although Persian (specifically the Samarkandi-Khujandi dialect) remained the language of high society.
When Soviet Central Asia was carved into the five "Stans" we have today, Samarkand was separated from the lands given to the ethnic Persians (the Tajiks) and included in the lands given to the ethnic Uzbeks. But people here still spoke Tajik and Uzbek. With the fall of the Soviet Union, and the realization that now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are two independent countries, the notion of "Uzbek" and "Tajik" are changing in the city. Tajik still is the dominant language spoken in the city, but not everyone would equate language with national identity. Don't be surprised if you hear very little Uzbek while in Samarkand. However, Uzbek is near-universal on signs and in official publications like the media.
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Get in edit
By plane edit
- 1 Samarkand International Airport (SKD IATA). Daily flights to Tashkent (US$21) except on Mondays and Fridays. Other destinations are Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Kazan all with Uzbekistan Airways. Domestic tickets can only be bought at the airport in US dollars.
By train edit
There are a few daily trains to and from Tashkent. Besides the slow local trains there is the super fast Afrosiob and the still fast Sharq train that continues to Bukhara. For Khiva take the night trains to Urgench and hop on a marshrutka, shared taxi or trolleybus. The most popular international route is from Saint Petersburg (76 hr) via Volgograd (57 hr) departing daily at 12:16 and arriving three days later at 18:10. This train bypasses Moscow, nearest stop is on station Ozherelye in the town of Kashira. There is also a weekly connection from Alma-Ata departing every Sunday at 15:50 arriving 19:59 two nights later.
Uzbekistan Railways has schedules and online ticketing. Tickets can also be bought at the station or at the 2 Uzbekistan Railways ticket office. at 18 Amir Temur St. Trains get very crowded so it is advisable to book ahead.
- 3 Samarkand railway station (Вокзал Самарканд) (5 km northwest of Navoi Park. Take bus 22 or marshrutka 3,27,35 or 72 that says Вокзал. Taxi from the city centre is about 5,000 som).
By car edit
Samarkand is about 4 hours by road from Tashkent; shared taxis leave from Sobir Rahimov bus station.
The distance to Samarkand from Tashkent is 290 km, from Bokhara 270 km, from Khiva 740 km, from Andizhan 610 km, from Fergana 600 km, from Karshi 150 km, from Kokand 500 km, from Nukus 820 km, from Shahrisabz 90 km, from Termez 380 km and from Urgench 700 km.
Get around edit
The main sights of Samarkand are clustered into two nearby groups: Gur-i Amir and the Registan; and Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Shah-i Zinda, and Afrosiyab. You can walk between all of these, but the section between the Registan and Bibi-Khanym Mosque is far enough that you might prefer to take a vehicle. To get to the Ulugh-Beg Observatory, it's another 2km northeast from Afrosiyab; you can walk this if you want, but vehicles are probably better to use unless you want to get your steps in for the day.
Two light rail lines have been constructed as of November 2023. Perhaps the most useful line runs from the train station to an area just north of the Siyob Bazaar, about 1-1.5 km north of the Registan.
Yellow taxis can be taken all over. 5,000 som is a standard fare pretty much anywhere in the city, an additional two thousand for the outskirts. Some will try to overcharge (as much as 10,000 som), some won't. Don't bother trying for cheaper than 4,000 som but it's quite easy to haggle it down from any higher than that.
The Yandex Taxi app works well in the city center and will offer you a variety of price ranges depending on category selected, local SIM card recommended, as drivers may try to contact you by phone if they can't find you.
City buses (white minibuses) are tired and wheezy. Catching them is a slow and frustrating experience. You can plan your travel using WikiRoutes app, but it is not completely accurate. You might not be able to exit at desired station if the bus is tightly packed. Standard fare is 2000 som which you pay upon leaving.
- 4 Panjakent street bus station. Central bus stop next to the Registan Ensemble, has connections from the railway station.
- 1 Registan Ensemble. Apr-Oct 09:00-20:00. Registan became the city square when the life in Afrosiab stopped. Since that time, Registan was reconstructed several times. Today it is surrounded by the three medreses: Ulugbek, Shirdor and Tilla Kari. At night the guards will let you in for US$5 or $10. They may suggest you climb up onto the roof of one of the Madrasah, which is not advisable, dangerous, dusty and with limited interest. 50,000 som for the whole ensemble.
- 2 Shirdor Madrasah (east side of Registon square). Medrese Shirdor repeats the facade and composition of Ulugbek medrese opposite. In Shirdor medrese the first floor is preserved, whereas it is destroyed in Ulugbek medrese. The entrance portal has images of a tiger (“shir”, hence the name Shirdor). Ornaments and decorations are very rich, but its quality is worse than that of Ulugbek medrese. Shirdor medrese was erected by order of Uzbek feudal lord Yalangtush in 1619-1632. The inscriptions of the medrese show the names of the masters Abdaldjabbar and Muhammad-Abbas.
- 3 Ulugbek Madrasah (West side of Registan Square). The oldest medrese on Registan, a large rectangular building with monumental portal and a yard with four verandas, surrounded by cells for students and with four classrooms in the corners. In the western part is a winter mosque. The corners of the building are decorated with high minarets. The decorations consist of glazed and unglazed bricks, mosaics, majolica, carving marble. The most beautiful decorations are those of the main portal, where geometric, vegetative and epigraphic decorations were used. Inscriptions mention Ulugbek and several dates relating to the stages of construction. Construction of the medrasah finished in 823 CE (1420).
- 4 Tilla Kari Madrasah (North side of Registon square). In 1660 the Tilya-Kori ("Gilded") Madrasah was built. It was not only a residential college for students, but also played the role of grand mosque. It has a two-storied main facade and a vast courtyard fringed by dormitory cells, with four galleries along the axes. The mosque building is in the western section of the courtyard. The main hall of the mosque is abundantly gilded.
- 5 Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Tashkent kochasi (on the pedestrian by Siob Bazaar). Named after the wife of Temur, erected after his raid of Delhi. One of best known architectural attractions of Central Asia. The Minaret of the Mosque was supposed to be the tallest. 30,000 som.
- 6 Khazrat-Khizr, Tashkent kuchasi. 08:00-18:00. One of the ancient edifices of Samarkand, destroyed by Genghis Khan's army and rebuilt in the 19th century. A beautiful mosque stands on the elevation at the entrance of town, from where the eye wanders over Bibi-Khonym Mosque, the big bazaar and the mountains in the South.
- 7 Ulugbek's Observatory (Ulug`bek rasadxonasi), ☏ . Daily 08:00-19:00. Discovered by Russian archaeologists. Ulugbek, Timur's grandson, was an accomplished astronomer, scientist and architect. The monument is situated in the north-east outskirts of city at the foot Chupan-ata mountain, which in medieval times was called Kukhak. That was three floor round building, decorated by glazed tiles, majolica, mosaic, but it was destroyed. The only thing that was preserved is a part of huge sextant, the lowest part of which was in a deep trench (11 km). Both arcs of this instrument are made of marble with indication of degrees. During the excavation works, remains of other astronomic instruments were found. Even being preserved partially, the observatory of Ulugbek is unique not only for Central Asia, but also for the whole world. The remains of observatory were conserved at the beginning of 1960s. Here was also organized museum, where collecting the unique astronomic information and instruments related to Timurids epoch. 30,000 som.
- 8 Gur Emir Mausoleum (Gur-e Amir Mausoleum, Amir Temur Mausoleum), Akhunbabayev. =Daily 08:00-19:00. Tomb of the conqueror Tamerlane, built and beautifully reconstructed from 1404-1405 and 15-17th centuries. Includes the largest piece of jade (greenstone) in the world. 30,000 som for foreigners.
- 9 Shakhi-Zinda Ensemble (Shah-i-Zinda). An ancient necropolis (9-14th, 19th centuries) on southeastern mound of Afrosiab. Consists of 44 tombs in more than 20 mausoleums. Shah E Zinda was the first cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and resembled the Prophet the most. (Hadrat Hissam Ibne Abbass or Kissam Ibne Abbass). 7,000 som.
- 10 Afrosiab, Tashkent kochasi (on an irrigated valley of the Zerafshan River, a few hundred meters from the center of the city). The ruined site of ancient and medieval Samarqand in the northern part of the modern town. A museum is in the center of the remains, housing a wall mural showing proof of diplomatic relations with the Chinese. The famous Persian Pehlvan Rustam and Sohrab belonged to the Afrosiyob.
- 11 Tomb of Prophet Daniel, Afrosiab (off Tashkent Kochasi, northeast of Registan). The reputed tomb of the Hebrew Prophet Daniel, in the cemetery section of Afrosiab next to a pleasant stream. For a small fee you may enter the tomb, which contains a burial chamber around 18 m long. Muslim men will offer prayers while you listen respectfully. After the conquest of Syria the grave was transported to Samarkand under the orders of Amir Temur.
- 12 Al-Bukhari Mausoleum (Al-Buxori Mausoleum) (in a suburb of Samarkand, at Payerik). Al Buxori was a collector of the sayings of prophet Muhamed, and compiled them into a book known as Hadith Bukhari Sharif or Bukhari Sahih. He was buried in the place where his mausoleum is located now. The present building was constructed on top of the original grave of Imam Al-Bukhari in 1997 (1225 years after the imam's death) by the Uzbek government with support from other Muslim governments - the bricks were delivered from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, green marble from Pakistan, financing from Iran, and builders and artists from Uzbekistan and Iran. Visited daily by about 1,000 visitors from all over the world. The complex consists of Al Bukhari's mosque and grave and a museum exhibiting Qurans from some Muslim countries.
- 13 Abu Mansoor Al Matrudi Mausoleum (1 km from masjid Bibi Khanum in the residential area; you must walk). The Mausoleum of great Sunni Faqi is in Mirza Zaheer. Ud Din Babur, in his book Babur Noma, praised the knowledge and Command on Fiqah of Abu Mansoor Al Matrudi.
- 14 Rukhabad Mausoleum (Rukhobod Mausoleum), Akhunbabayev (between Registan square and Gur-Emir ensemble). This is a central square mausoleum without portal with four identical facades. The arch entrance is decorated by blue glazed tiles and eventually the cupola was also covered by glazed tiles. According to manuscripts Rukhabat mausoleum ("place of spirit presence") was the burial place of the Samarkand sufi Burkhan ad-Din Sagardji, who died in 1380s. The mausoleum was built at a time, when central compositions were not popular and decorations of burial architecture was very rich. On the occasion of anniversary of Amir Timur in 1996 all buildings, which were not related to the monument, were destroyed and the ruins of constructions of Rukhabat complex – the mosque, khidjras, medrese and minaret came to light.
- 15 Abdi Darun Ensemble (in the north-east part of city). The mausoleum was erected over the grave of famous lawyer. It has been reconstructed for several times. A 'ziaratkhana' was built in front of mausoleum during the reign of Ulugbek. The portal and cupola drum are decorated with geometric ornaments and inscriptions from glazed bricks. In the cemetery are 'dahmas' (large grave constructions), dating to the 15th century, covered with glazed tiles. The mosque was constructed at the beginning of 20th century. It consists of a winter room and a summer column aivan, decorated by pottery carving and colored paintings. A small medrese was added at the end of 19th century.
- 16 Ishrat-khana Mausoleum, Sadriddin Ayniy. Ruined and atmospheric with no people at all. Free.
- 17 Khodja Ahrar Ensemble (in the southern part of city near the cemetery). The grave of the famous religious and state benefactor of 15th century. Nakshbandi Ubeidallah Ahrar is decorated by white marble tiles covered by inscriptions. The Medrese of Nadira divan-begi is a one floor building with a traditional four-aivans yard composition. The main entrance is decorated by portal, two khudjras are situated on the both sides of it as well as in the north and south parts of building. The western part of building is a mosque with a huge portal, main hall (mikhrab) and four rooms. The mosque was probably built in the 15th century, but the medrese was erected in 1040-1045 (1630-1636) according to the order of well-known official Nadira divan-begi by architect Dust-Mukhammad. The decoration are very typical for 17th century: majolica, mosaic of high quality. The decorations of entrance portal are illustrating tigers and does. The summer mosque was built in 17th century in the south from medrese. The decorations of mikhrab niche of this mosque are very similar to medrese. The column aivan (verandah) between medrese and summer mosque was constructed or reconstructed in later period. At the beginning of the 20th century ceiling of aivan was covered by vivid paintings. A small minaret, which is situated opposite to aivan, was erected in 1909 by Sadulla architect.
- 1 Siyob Bazaar.
- Visit a spa/banya for a Samarkand deep tissue massage.
ATMs: There are many ATMs ("bankomat") in the city centre and many of them accept Visa, with MasterCard being less widely accepted. Do not confuse the domestic payment terminals with ATMs, although if there are multiple payment terminals in one location, there is usually an ATM in the group. As a standard, ATMs dispense Uzbek som for a processing fee of 1.5%, some also dispense US dollars, altough with lower limits and potential additional fees as well.
- Samarkand Zeera (black cumin) is famous all over the world for its aroma.
- Samarkand Pistachio, smaller in size but very popular.
- Samarkand Shafran (or Zafran) is famous but inferior in quality as compared with Iranian saffron.
Although you may have heard of Samarkand rugs, these rugs did not actually originate in Samarkand, but in the cities of Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand further east in what is now the Chinese province of Xinjiang. They are widely known as such due to Samarkand's former status as an important city on the Silk Road, where rugs from those three cities had to pass through on their way to Europe.
The most famous product of Samarkand is their bread, "Samarkand Non". A visitor will rarely find anybody leaving Samarkand without buying Non as a gift. There are so many interesting stories about "Samarkand Non".
If you haven't had your fill of plov by the time you visit Samarkand, the Samarkandi version uses more oil and yellow carrots than other varieties. You can also find plov made with horse meat.
- 1 Historikal, Suzangaron street. Great real local restaurant in a side street only a few meters from the Registan. They offer good shashlik and other Uzbek food. Beer and vodka are available too.
- 2 Cafe Magistr, 30/45 Buston Saroy (after the Timurs statue, on the main street past by the Registon hotel), ☏ , . Excellent pizzas, vegetarian options, reasonable prices and friendly staff (the manager speaks excellent English) makes this place one of the best eateries in town. Ask for both the English and Russian menu as the English is old and is wrongly priced. Beer served but not on menu. Free WiFi.
- 3 SHWAARM, 72 Mahmud Qoshgariy ko'chasi, 2 Rоddоm.
- 4 Gumbaz Osh, 45 Shohruh Mirzo Street. True local restaurant.
- 5 Old City Restaurant, abdurahman street.
- 6 Istiqlol, 157, Amir Temur St. Serving shurpa, lagman, mastava, homemade noodles, guj, plov, manti, shashlik, pelmeni, dul or barra.
- 7 Karim Bek, 194 Gagarina St. serving variety of food. The restaurant hall turns into a disco at 20:00 with number of difference dance shows at 21:00.
- 8 Merci ресторан, Орзу Махмудов 14.
- 9 Royal Hall, Makhmud Kashgary Street.
Samarkand is a conservative city as compared with Tashkent. There are few night clubs and bars. In Afrosiab Hotel there is a night club and bar. In President Hotel guests can have beer in nice environments. Incante Show Club is at a walking distance from Afrosiab Hotel and in the evening visitors can watch pole dance.
- Teahouse-cafe Oriental sweets, Tashkentskaya Str. (located at the beginning of the pedestrian street Tashkentskaya in the center of old city, close to Registan). The building was constructed at the end of 19th century as a caravansarai.
- 1 Bahodir B&B, Mulokandov 132 (in the city center, on the east side of the Registan, behind the museum), ☏ . Check-out: 12:00. This place seems to be the main meeting point for backpackers in Samarkand. The courtyard with teabeds makes a nice place for few beers and sharing travel stories. The staff is friendly, honest and willing to sell beer from their fridge. However, if staying in the dorm, the shared bathroom and toilet is a bit claustrophobic, but not bad. Wifi not always reliable. 86000 som for a dorm bed including breakfast.
- 2 Jahongir B&B, Chirokchi #4 (50 metres behind the wall on Suzangaron str. from the Supermarket store on the corner), ☏ , email@example.com. Check-in: 15:00, check-out: 11:00. Jahongir B&B is in the heart of historical part of Samarkand within 5 minutes from Registan Ensemble. Comfortable rooms with modern amenities. Services include: dinners on request, wireless internet, taxi on call, guide services, laundry & dry clean. single US$25, double US$40.
- 3 UYUT B&B, Tursunov Sok ko'chasi #67 (around 100 metres to the east of Spartak Stadium), ☏ . Check-in: 15:00, check-out: 12:00. UYUT is in a calm neighbourhood in extended walking distance from the historical part of Samarkand. Comfortable and rooms with very friendly and helpful service (altough limited spoken English). Registers foreign visitors and provides receipt of it upon checkout. Services include: free wireless internet, included large breakfast and afternoon tea, pickup service, taxis and drivers on call, guide services, laundry USD25-40.
- Hotel Zarafshan, 65 Sharaf Rashidov St (beside Central Park in the new part of town), ☏ . A renovated old Soviet hotel with loads of moody charm. Rooms are variable, so ask to see more than one if the first isn't to your liking. The front desk staff were very helpful. US$15-30.
- Amir Hostel, 45 Abdurakhmon Jomiy Street, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Opened in 2017. Has clean facilities, friendly and outgoing owners and feels homey. Basic dormitories but new beds, lockers and privacy curtains. Good wifi. 164,059 som.
- Hotel Regal Palace, Kunaev Street, Samarkand Airport (Samarkand Airport), ☏ , email@example.com. Check-in: 14:00, check-out: 12:00. US$65-85 including breakfast.
- Hotel Malika, 37, Khamraev St, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. US$40-65 including breakfast.
- Railways Station, Beruny Str, ☏ .
- Airport, Abdullaev Str (tickets: Gagarin Str 84,), ☏ , , , (tickets).
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- Shakhrisabz, 100 km from Samarkand
- Panjakent (Tajikistan), 60 km from Samarkand
- Urgut, 30 km southeast of Samarkand, spectacular bazaar
- To Tashkent, shared taxis leave from Ulughbek bus station. As of April 2019 they should cost no more than 50,000 som and take about 4-5 hours. Bargain hard and ask around, some will take you for 40,000 som.
- To Bukhara, there is a regular train service that takes between 2 to 3.5 hours from Samarkand. Buy tickets well in advance, as they often sell out (especially in the Taskhent-Samarkand-Bukhara triangle). You can buy them online or at the train station.