Samarkand is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia and is the site of many wonderful examples of Islamic architecture. It was founded between the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Prospering from its location on the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean by the time of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, it was the capital of the Sogdian satrapy. The city was taken by Alexander the Great in 329 BC, who called it in Greek Marakanda. The city was ruled by a succession of Iranian and Turkic rulers until the Mongols under Genghis Khan conquered Samarkand in 1220. In the 14th century it became the capital of the empire of Timur (Tamerlane) His grandson, Ulugh Beg, took the throne after Timur’s death and made Samarkand into one of the most important scientific centres of the Middle Ages. Ulugh Beg built a unique observatory, where many important mathematicians and astronomers from all over the Islamic world gathered to study the heavens. The astronomical research that was carried out there was still being used by Europeans in the 17th century. After the collapse of the Timuruds the importance of Samarkand decreased and the capital moved to Bukhara. Rising again to prominence after the annexation by the Tsarist empire in the mid 19th century, today it is the second city of Uzbekistan and draws large numbers of visitors each year to see its architectural wonders.Samarkand is noted for being an Islamic centre for scholarly study, three Madrasas are situated around Registan square at the heart of the city these include:
· Madrasa of Ulugh Beg (1417–1420)
· Sher-Dor Madrasa (Lions Gate) (1619–1635/36)
· Tilla-Kori Madrasa (1647–1659/60)
Ulugh Beg Madrasa’s façade is decorated with geometrical stylised forms centres on four imposing iwans (rectangular vaulted halls walled on three sides, with one end entirely open framed by minarets). The square courtyard within includes a mosque and lecture rooms fringed by dormitory cells for students. The 17th-century ruler, Yalangtush Bakhodur, constructed of the Sher-Dor Madrasa opposite the Ulugh Beg Madrasa and the Tilla-Kori Madrasa at right angles to it to form the present monumental complex. Tiger motif mosaics in the spandrels of the Sher-Dor’s facade flout Islam’s proscription of the depiction of living beings on religious buildings. The Tilya-Kori acted not only as a madrasa but also a grand mosque. It has a two-storied main façade and a vast courtyard fringed by dormitory cells, with the usual four iwans on its axes. The mosque whose main hall is abundantly gilded, occupies the western flank of the building.
The huge Bibi Hanum Mosque is, one of the largest mosques in the Islamic world. Its construction started in 1339, after Temur’s victorious campaign to India, and lasted up to 1404. The best architects, craftsmen, stonemasons and artists from Samarkand as well as from the countries Temur had subdued, laboured at the construction of the Mosque. Ninety Indian elephants were used to do hard work at the site. During his stays in the capital between his military campaigns, Timur personally supervised the construction works. In his long absences, its construction was watched over by his wife Sarai-Mulk-Khanum, who had the title Bibi-Khanum, or ‘Senior Wife’ hence its name. It was neglected during the Shaybanid Dynasty and much of it collapsed over time. It is orientated on an axis between a vast entrance portal and a huge domed prayer hall, has recently been restored with the aid of UNESCO. Its vast scale gives a vivid impression of Timur’s great vision. Situated next to the mosque is the busy Siyob Bazaar which is well worth a visit.
An important pilgrimage site in Samarkand is home of the Shahr-i-Zindar, a mausoleum complex dating from the 7thcentury. Shahr-i-Zindar stands for 'The Living King' and refers to the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, who is said to have first introduced Islam to Central Asia in 676. Under the Abbasids his tomb was venerated and the legend developed that he did not die but was miraculously engulfed in a cliff, hence the name. According to the great Islamic traveler Ibn Battuta, the shrine was so famous that it was not destroyed during the Mongol invasions. Today the shrine is in a much-dilapidated condition but is still visited by many hundreds of pilgrims each day. Other nearby tombs, dating mostly to the 14thand 15th centuries, belong to the family and friends of Timur (Tamerlane) and Ulugh Beg. The Shah-i Zinda cemetery is one of the most resplendent necropolis in the Islamic world, its intense and unified architecture inspires visions of worldly wealth and of paradise. Its most important feature is the tile work that covers many of the tomb façades, arguably the greatest single collection of architectural ceramics in the world. The predominant colour is blue, worked in myriad gorgeous hues by the craftsmen whom Timur collected during his conquests and transported to his capital.