In Pictures: Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Filed in Uncategorized by on June 6, 2006 0 Comments

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In 329 BC, when Alexander the Great first laid eyes on the cosmopolitan city of Samarkand, he said, "Everything I have heard about [Samarkand] is true, except that it's more beautiful than I ever imagined."
One of Central Asia's oldest settlements, Samarkand later became an important stop along the Silk Road.  Genghis Khan leveled the city in 1220, briefly ending its appeal to travelers.  But thanks to the infamous Tamerlane, who made it his capital, Samarkand reemerged in the 14th century as not only a vibrant city but also as the home to spectacular people-dwarfing building.
Throughout most of the 20th century Samarkand was difficult to reach since Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union.  Now, however, tour groups and backpackers are finding their way there.  I arrived in Samarkand by bus from Tashkent, five hours to the north.
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The best Islamic art in Central Asia is in Samarkand.  One of these buildings, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, has an interesting legend to it.  While it may be not at all true, here it is:   Bibi-Khanym, Tamerlane's Chinese wife, ordered the mosque built while her husband was away on a campaign, intending to surprise him when he returned.  The architect fell madly in love with her and wouldn't finish the job until he could kiss her.  Kiss he did, for it left a mark.  Upon seeing the mark upon his return, Tamerlane was indeed surprised and had the architect executed, decreeing that henceforth women should wear veils.
The Bibi-Khanym Mosque collapsed in a 1897 earthquake and later was partially restored.  The following photos were taken outside the mosque, where I wished I could have sat for hours, just watching the people passing by…
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Walking through the 35-meter high entrance to the mosque, I photographed the ticket seller, a rather large marble Quran stand, and some of the detail on the wall…
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Adjacent to the mosque was Samarakand's main bazaar.  The following photos, proceeding from the entrance, look at several people, including a woman selling Iranian dates, as well as at some of the products being sold, specifically tools and margarine…
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The city's most famous architectural structure is the Registan, medieval Samarkand's commercial center which was completed in 1420…
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Wandering away from the touristed areas, I came upon one of the city's cemeteries, where I spent an hour or two.  The graves in this part of the world often have the person's image engraved on them, lending a more intimate atmosphere to the grounds.  My visit to the cemetery was a reminder that Samarkand's history is not confined to the ancient and medieval worlds, since the people buried here had lived in the 20th century.  I wondered what the lives of these recent dead might have been like, and I wondered how they saw the world.
Time is always moving forward, sweeping today into yesterday, the present into past.  Eventually we will be swept away too.  Tamerlane built monuments, most of which have crumbled.  I wonder what we are building, as individuals and as societies, that will remain behind when we are gone.
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What I will remember most about Samarkand, however, is the life being lived in the shadows of its great monuments.
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About the Author ()

I'm a freelance photographer and writer who focuses on travel. I sell my work on istockphoto -- www.istock.com/jcarillet -- and have published a book called 30 REASONS TO TRAVEL: PHOTOGRAPHS AND REFLECTIONS FROM SOUTHEAST ASIA

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