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As if to confirm Green warnings about the consequences of fiddling with the ‘natural environment’, as we approached Samarkand we ran into a dust storm that had enveloped the entire city.


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Approaching Samarkand the dust storm enveloped us


We were concerned that choking dust and poor visibility it might ruin our visit but within an hour or two it abated. Soon people were out with hoses, no doubt at the expense of the Aral residents downstream, washing down the pavements with water drawn from the Zeravshan (Sughd) River that reluctantly provides water to Bukhara then peters out in the desert before it reaches the the Amu Darya, of which it was formerly a tributary.

Samarkand is a particularly famous stop on the Silk Road.  Like Khujand, Samarkand is near the foothills of the mountains, about 200 km along the Silk Road to the north east. As with most other cities on this trip, Samarkand is predominantly a 21st century city, dotted here and there with remnants from the past and, as in London or Paris, many of these ancient buildings have undergone substantial renovation so that they represent the past rather than typifying it.

Samarkand is the burial place of Amir Timur or Tamerlane the Turco-Mongol conqueror.  There is a big somewhat imaginative statue of him in the main boulevard.  And our first visit, after the dust cleared, was to his mausoleum that has recently been renovated, resplendent in gold tiles.


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B&W Photographs: Paul Nadar 1890

The Gur-e-Amir
The mausoleum of the conqueror Amir Timur as it appeared 2018 and in 1890


Second on the agenda was the imposing Registan Square with grand madrasahs (Islamic colleges) on three sides. As we will see later, in the early 19th century Samarkand was in decline so these madrasahs were the principal support for the economy. Students paid to occupy the dormitory cells surrounding the central courtyards.  According to Sir Alexander Burnes in the 1830's these were called 'hoojrus' - I can't find any other reference to confirm this.   The first and most famous of these schools is the Ulugh Beg Madrasah, built by Ulugh Beg in 1420, during the time of Timur.  Abdul-Rahman Jami, the Persian poet, scholar, mystic, scientist and philosopher studied and taught here.  One of its minarets has a slight inward lean, due to overzealous correction of an earlier outward lean that threatened its collapse.

Two hundred years later Sher-Dor Madrasah was built opposite, mirroring the external features of its famous companion. The ruler of Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodur famously flouted the Islamic law against depiction of living beings on religious buildings. He demanded or approved the two tiger mosaics with a rising sun on their back that are all the worse for being ancient Persian religious motifs. Interestingly by the 19th century all these mosaics were in ruins and have since been restored.  So the desire for historical accuracy, presumably Russian, has outweighed religious sensitivity in this case.

The third, Tilya-Kori Madrasah was built ten years later as both a residential college for students and as a new grand mosque. They are all quite secular these days with the dormitory cells taken over by craft and tourist shops.


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B&W Photographs: Paul Nadar 1890

Ulugh Beg Madrasah; Sher-Dor Madrasah
Tilya-Kori Madrasah (external and internal)
Tilya-Kori Madrasah & Grand Mosque 1890


In due course Samarkand came under Russian control.  See the history that follows. And although it was not on our tour schedule for a change of religious perspective we dropped in on the Russian Orthodox church near to our hotel.   It is rather beautiful in a different way to the Islamic monoliths of the town.  One can immediately see why Muslims, incorrectly, believe Christianity to be idolatrous.  There's a very subtle difference between praying to a painted or embossed image, or worse a statue, and praying with it, as an aid to reaching the ineffable.  I'm not sure that even some educated Catholics I've met understand this subtlety.  How many angels can one fit on the head of a pin? 


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Cathedral of St. Alexis of Moscow to Samarkand


In addition to Timur's Mausoleum Samarkand is blessed as the last resting place of an army of Muslim notables. Like Westminster Abbey and the Mount of Olives there will be flocks of souls ascending from here when the final judgement or end of days finally arrives.

Shakhi Zinda is a complex of 11 mausoleums on either side of a narrow street, in addition to many other graves and sarcophagi. Shakhi Zinda means 'The Living King' in Persian, because the mausoleum, at the far end is said to be the grave of Prophet Muhammad's cousin, Kusam ibn Abbas who came to preach in Samarkand and was beheaded by Zoroastrians during his prayer.


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Shakhi Zinda Necropolis reached by 40 steps
The inscription on the main entrance reads:
'This magnificent building was created by Abdulazizhanom-son Ulugbek-Guragana,
son of Shah Rukh, son of Amir Timur-Guragana in 838 year' ( c.1434 CE)
There are more images in the Uzbekistan Album - Click Here...

This remains a place of Muslim pilgrimage in Central Asia, second only to Mecca.  I was in the tomb of Kusam ibn Abbas taking photos when a group of men started to assemble and shortly a Sufi (I presume) started to chant and they responded. I was trapped on the far side and decided to make a quick exit through the middle of the small congregation. I was like a Jew suddenly finding himself at the centre of a high mass.

For believers waters taken here possess undeniable healing powers, as do waters at many other such places sacred to other religions.

For my part I was more intrigued by the sin revealing stairs.  If one's count going down is the same as that coming up one is free from sin.  The reason it's difficult is that coming up one marches, one step per stair.  But going down its almost impossible not to go forward on the same foot occasionally - an extra step per stair.  So one does have to concentrate not to over-count - the main flight has 36 steps, not 39 Mr Hannay!

The number is significant. In total, including the four steps in the covered entrance, there are 40, which represent the path to repentance and prayer.  At one time pilgrims would pray for 40 days before ascending, pausing on each step to recite a verse from the Qur'an and to contemplate God. 

At an early service, held by a Sufi spiritual leader, Kusam ibn Abbas himself appeared riding a white horse - as dead saints are wont to do - most familiar to Roman Catholics in the form of the Marian apparitions (at Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe etc).  He spoke to the Sufi and this was witnessed by the congregation, before he rode off and mysteriously evaporated.  Hence Shakhi Zinda - The Living King.

On a more secular theme, on his visit here in 1832 Sir Alexander Burnes, one of the first Europeans to visit and successfully return from here, was told that this is where paper was invented. While that's not exactly true, a fragment of a paper map has been found in China dated from 189 BCE, Samarkand was the Islamic centre for paper making in the 8th century.  So it was from Samarkand that paper making spread to the west.

In Europe papyrus, the Egyptian writing material from which the name 'paper' comes had been available since ancient times.  But when all books were hand copied a book was a huge investment in time and money. Papyrus is fragile, can't be bound with any lasting success and the scrolls must be stored carefully. Bookmakers needed instead vellum (veal skin) or parchment, the skin of various animals - split and prepared for writing.  Paper has many advantages over parchment. The raw materials are plentiful and because its a mixture of various fibres and gums it can be given a variety of properties like insect resistance or translucency.  It can be made in various thicknesses and strengths and sheets can be made uniform without unwanted blemishes. It can also be manufactured in a range of grades from very inexpensive to very fine and long lasting. Books made of paper are both lighter and less bulky than those of parchment and above all paper can be printed.  Once it was mass produced paper became a tiny fraction of the cost of vellum which was soon used only as a binding material. In China cheap paper had long been used as a wrapping and in the toilet.

In Samarkand, as in China, the bark of the mulberry tree was blended with other fibres like hemp, linen and/or fabric scraps (sometimes silk) to make the pulp. According to Wikipedia, the use of water-powered hammer mills, for pounding the bark, was perfected here.  Today, to reflect thirteen hundred years of paper making, a range of locally made mulberry paper products is still sold to tourists. 

The mulberry tree is also very useful for drawing water from the water table helping to stem its rise and the consequent rising salinity that is a serious problem here.




# Richard 2018-09-23 01:50

Interesting to hear your update on China’s Silk Road. In 2007 we travelled from Beijing to Kashgar then down the Kakoram Highway to Tashkurgan [less than 30Km from Pakistan border]. Whilst travelling we also visited Xiahe [with its large monestry] and noted the Chinefacation of this area. In fact recent photos of Kashgar seem to show that much of the old town has gone.

Interaction with the Uyghurs.indicat ed that they were not happy with the Han invasion.

A very interesting part of the world.

Richard Walker
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