The Diary of Young Explorers is a collection of travel accounts from Ankur, Giulio, and Caspar, who are documenting their experiences while journeying from Venice, Italy to Xi'an, China. You can read the introduction to their adventure here: The Diary of Young Explorers: Retracing the Ancient Silk Roads.
As we drove to Samarkand, a city in the north-eastern portion of Uzbekistan, we were fascinated by the idea of visiting a city whose exotic name we had always associated with fairy tales and great conquerors. For centuries, Samarkand has been a source of inspiration for writers and an aspiration for conquerors ranging from Alexander to Genghis Khan. The reputation of this city originates from its location along the Silk Road—allowing it to play a prominent role as a hub for the exchange of goods, ideas, religions and much more.
While Samarkand's history can be traced to the Palaeolithic period (making it one of the oldest inhabited centres in Central Asia), the city is renowned for the sites constructed during the city's golden age, the Timurid Empire. Among these, one of the most impressive was the Bibi Khanim mosque built by Timur (Tamerlane) to honour his wife following his campaign in India during the late 12th century. The grandeur of the building and the detailed geometries on the thousands of coloured tiles revealed to us a fascinating aspect of Timur's personality. While to foreign peoples Timur was renowned for being a ruthless conqueror, at home, he demonstrated a passion for the arts. Timur's ambition led him to build an immense empire, yet, in Samarkand, he financed the construction of ornately decorated and designed buildings and attracted artisans and craftsmen to the region. His ambitious nature, interestingly, even finds representation in the architecture of Samarkand: one example being the Bibi-Khanym mosque: a structure that today requires numerous reinforcements in order to keep the structure standing. This site echoes Timur’s decisive ambition: while the architecture of this building had been unfeasible at the time (during its construction there were great difficulties encountered), he demanded that the building be constructed.
The Bibi Khanim mosque is not the only building to note when walking the streets of Samarkand. The Gur-e-emir stands as a testament to Timur’s rule—acting as his mausoleum, this building and its dome stretch into the sky and echo the artistic influence of the man for whom it was built. But perhaps the most well-known building found in Samarkand is the Registan, a public square composed of three Madrassahs: Ulugh Beg, Tilya-Kori and Sher-Dor Madrasahs. Each of these is uniquely decorated and tiled with mosaics—all of which feature the blue tiles for which Samarkand is famous.
It is here that one can also find the Ulugh Beg Observatory: an observatory that was built by the noteworthy astronomer Ulugh Beg and completed in 1429. Upon its opening, this observatory hosted some sixty to seventy astronomers coming from throughout the region to study the skies. Unfortunately, this observatory was destroyed in 1449 and remained hidden from sight until the early 20th century when it was rediscovered by an archaeologist and then excavated. Today, one can visit the site and learn of the many contributions to the study of astrology that were made by astrologists of this famous institution.
The end of the Timurid Empire signalled the gradual decline of Samarkand. In the 16th century, the Shaybanids would transfer the capital of their empire to Bukhara, leaving the impressive monuments to Timur's reign exposed to earthquakes, looting and the passage of time. As we soon discovered, the Bibi-Khanym mosque was abandoned for centuries, slowly collapsing as a result of Timur's overly-ambitious designs. The building that stands on its foundations today is, largely speaking, a replica: re-built during the Soviet Union era, upon the recognition of the incredible value this city's heritage held for securing domestic tourism.
Today, construction is still ongoing both in the Bibi-Khanym mosque and in the city as a whole. When walking through the streets of Samarkand, one quickly notices the vast extent of real estate construction taking place—initiated to expand and redesign the city's capacity to absorb tourists. Within travellers’ imaginations, Samarkand has deservedly re-established its reputation as being a city synonymous with the Silk Roads, thus allowing Timur's artistic heritage to be sustained even centuries after his death.
Read their previous entries here: