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Wonders of Samarkand


Samarkand, that grand oasis city in the sands of Uzbekistan, made famous by Timur the Lame, one of history's greatest conquerors, transforming this ancient outpost into a world wonder. Centuries later, his grand vision still holds true, as Samarkand is undoubtedly one the most magnificent cities in all of Asia - often dubbed the heart of the Silk Roads. 

Among the wonders also lies unbelievable stories and legends - intertwined side by side. As seen below, here are the seven wonders of Samarkand and their associated stories - from the bizarre to the tragic.

The Heart of the City


The Registan

At the heart of Samarkand, and really the heart of Central Asia, lies the Registan. Timurlane, the ruthless conqueror who was born just south of the city and set up his empire here, wanted his legacy to be more than land and wealth. Timur had a grand vision  - to create the noblest public square in his burgeoning empire, a place where every visitor stands breathless in its beauty. It's safe to say, over 500 years later, Timur achieved the very thing, setting a precedent for Central Asian architecture. 

Romantics aside, the construction was marred by brutality. The Registan bore witness to horrific public executions, where Timur's opponents met their fate on the raised platform still visible today. Executions ranged from impalements to throwing criminals from the tops of the looming madrassa minarets to their deaths below. In fact, Registan means "sandy place" as the entire floor was once covered in sand to absorb the blood of the traitors. The glorious tilework framing the square could not cover the bloodstained bricks underfoot, ensuring those gathered always understood the ruthless power of the of Timurlane - hero to Uzbeks, feared conqueror to everyone else.

Avenue of the Dead


If the Registan didn't impress visitors enough, then surely the royal avenue of ornate tombs spanning over a 1,000 years would. Hailed by many as the most impressive sight in Samarkand, the Shah-i-Zinda complex houses the remains of Timur's family members and other royals. Beyond its breathtaking tile-clad domes and mausoleums, the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis harbors many fascinating legends. 

Shah-i-Zinda means "The Living King", which stems from the purported remains of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a first cousin to the Prophet Muhammad. Born in the 7th century, he is often credited with first bringing Islam to Uzbekistam. According to accounts, Qusam was beheaded by marauders, yet miraculously kept walking with his severed head cradled in his own hands until reaching this revered burial site. Hence the name "the Living King."




Bibi Khanum Mosque

Grandeur for a Queen

When the mighty Timur finished his successful campaign in India in 1399, he was so smitten with its beautiful mosques that he vowed to construct an even grander structure for his wife Sarai Mulk Khanum. Thus began the years-long undertaking of the Bibi Khanum Mosque in Samarkand - a colossal project that drained the Timurid treasuries and tested the architectural ingenuitity of the time. Legend holds that at its inauguration in 1404, Timur was still not pleased, forcing many changes. 

However, within within a few years large cracks began appearing in the huge unsupported central cupola. And just a year after his changes in 1405, Timur died on his way in an attempt to conquer parts of China. Perhaps this mosque and his life are intertwined more than one think, an embodiment of Timur himself. Not content with its size, when it was already overly ambitious, he expanded both beyond repair. Even today this building is a reminder of how Timur pushed the boundaries of building techniques, and how the overly ambitious conqueror pushed the limits of even his empire too far to the brink of collapse.



The resting place of Timur the conqueror lies in this city, a mausoleum known as Gur-e Amir, the "Tomb of the King." Built originally for Muhammad Sultan, the beloved grandson of Timur and apparent heir of the kingdom as he suddenly died in 1403. It devasted Timur beyond words, and made out his tomb as an opulent, gold plated, and finely chiseled work of art. However, following Timur's death just two years later, his remains were placed here instead of his grandson.

One of the most chilling legends surrounding the resplendent Gur-e Amir tomb is the "Curse of Timur" - a warning inscribed above the entrance that any who dares disturb or loot Amir Timur's remains will be struck by an inevitable terrible misfortune. The curse appeared to manifest in 1942, when Soviet anthropologists exhumed and studied the Conqueror's earthly remains. That very day, Hitler's forces launched their doomed offensive against Stalingrad, marking the turning point when German forces began their eventual retreat from Russia.

Amir Timur's Mausoleum

The Conqueror's Tomb



Ulugbek Observatory

The Astronomical Wonder

Leaving the life of Timurlane behind, we now move to the life of his grandson Ulugbek - in every way the polar opposite. While his grandfather Timur was notorious as a merciless conqueror, Sultan Ulugbek instead embraced academic pursuits and ushered in a renaissance of science, art and astronomy in 15th century Samarkand. Ulugbek's crowning achievement was the construction of his massive observatory, highlighted by a subterranean sextant arc carved into the earth over 600 feet long with a supporting trench for Ulugbek and his astronomers to precisely track the heavens. 

Through exacting observations of planetary movements and the stars, new stellar coordinates and mathematical theorems were derived that advanced celestial science. However, Ulugbek's intellectual accomplishments were cut short when his own son seized power and had the enlightened ruler tragically executed after just four decades of achievements. The brutality of the Timurid Empire was back.



On the outskirts of Samarkand lies a peculiar site with an even more legendary story. A five domed structure houses an 18 meter long sarcophagus - the reputed resting place of the Prophet Daniel. Daniel is most well known for his devotion to God, lending to him being thrown into the lion's den, and then walking out unscathed due his heavenly protection. For a story taking place in Babylon, it is curious how his reputed tomb ended up in the dusty outskirts of Central Asia.

Timur, in his several attempts to conquer Syria, was all but successful. Someone suggested it was because the biblical prophet Daniel was buried there. Timur, after a fierce, and finally successful, battle, managed to bring back some of his remains to his capital in Samarkand. The longer than life sarcophagus was constructed for the prophet, as well as, according to accounts, out sprung a natural water spring. Though there are other claims to Daniel's resting place, this site does not make it any less intriguing. For the countless pilgrims who have visited this tomb, for them it is real.

Prophet Daniel's Tomb

Out from the Lion's Den




Ancient Sogdian Settlement

As we reach the final wonder of Samarkand, it bears mentioning that Samarkand is much more than it's Timurid empire and legacy. In fact, Samarkand as an outpost and oasis city spans thousands of years further back in history, to a time at the dawn of Central Asian civilizations. Here enters the Sogdians, Silk Road middlemen and merchants who have all but nearly vanished in the modern landscape. The Sogdians fascilited the development of so many things we take for granted today - such as global exchange and trading and the dissemination of various religious.

At the very center of Samarkand lies a large and open expanse, where the former city of Afrasiyab once stood. For a period of over 1,700 years, from the 6th century BC to the 13th century AD, Afrasiab controlled the region and flourished and expanded. Wandering the field today bears little resemblance to its former glory, though some precious finds have been uncovered, such as finely painted murals, now displayed at the Samarkand Museum. For a city filled with so many legends and events, the longest standing settlement here now just stands as an empty field.

Thank you for taking a look at the 7 Wonders of Samarkand

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