There once was a woman named Scheherazade who spun her nightly tales of genies, far-away lands, and flying carpets for the king Shahryar. Her stories went on for A Thousand and One Nights in Samarkand. It’s not hard to imagine the princesses and palaces come to life in one of Uzbekistan’s most magical cities. A Moroccan explorer described Samarkand in 1330 as “one of the greatest and finest cities, and most perfect of them in beauty.” Alexander the Great said of Samarkand, “All I have heard about the beauty of this city is true, it is just much more beautiful in reality.”
Uzbekistan’s second largest city is more than 2,7000-years-old, but it was under the rule of Timur in the 14th and 15th centuries that Samarkand became an unparalleled hub of Central Asia. Geometric patterns abound, bursting with color and splattered across majestic buildings on a grand scale. Artists and architects were brought in from across the area to build and adorn glittering structures. The crown jewel of their labors is Registan Square, surrounded by onion-domed mosques, madrasas, and caravanserais. The tiled detail of the exterior is a brilliant display of swirling intensity that will hypnotize you with its beauty. Timur’s aesthetic was so admired that it was replicated across his vast empire stretching from Turkey to China. Surrounded by this craftsmanship, imagine all of the traders from far and wide mixing and mingling in this square so long ago.
Traders from China to the Mediterranean met in Samarkand making it an important global crossroad of east and west. The markets spilled over with global goods, but what attracted camel caravans was Samarkand’s silk. Their famed textile is used today to craft bold carpets that take months or even years to create. Some of the exquisite patterns are exactly the same as the ones that traders bought during their travels on the Silk Road.
In the evenings, traditional dancers swirl in beautifully ornate costumes to the sounds of live music. Private performances such as these arranged by Ker & Downey provide an opportunity to feel fully immersed in the culture of this fascinating and little understood country.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Shah-i-Zinda is a complex of mausoleums decked out in exquisite majolica and terracotta. Timur, his sons, and his grandsons are buried in the opulent Gur-e-Amir, a mausoleum with arched doorways surrounded by a dazzling display of blue tilework and calligraphy topped with an aquamarine onion dome. Their mausoleum inspired India’s Shah Jahan (a descendant of Timur) to build the world-renowned Taj Mahal. The Bibi Khanym Mosque was built by Timur’s wife and is yet another exquisite example of Uzbekistan’s architectural eye candy. Soaring above Samarkand on a magical carpet would reveal a city of sand-hued, flat roof homes, punctuated by blue minarets and domes soaring into the crisp sky.
For centuries, Samarkand was a flourishing stop on the ancient Silk Road and a center of Islamic learning. In the Ulugh Beg Observatory, you will learn how the planets and stars were once measured. Twist and turn through the old town’s narrow labyrinth of streets lined by homes and gardens. The flavorful foods are a fusion of the many cultures that have passed along these dusty roads so long ago. Bite into a lamb kebab infused with cinnamon as you stroll the streets with your Ker & Downey guide.