What to visit in Samarkand in 2 days (Uzbekistan)
Samarkand is a treasure city that greatly influenced the architecture of the Islamic world. It used to be a major location on the Silk Roads and the capital of a large Central Asian empire ruled by mighty Amir Timur (“Tamerlane”). Samarkand hosts an impressive collection of landmarks including mosques, mausoleums and Coranic schools topped by turquoise domes. Destroyed and reborn many times over the centuries, Samarkand and its sites are now under UNESCO protection and still untouched by mass-tourism. We give you tips on what to visit there in 2 days.
The Gur Emir, the mausoleum of the mighty ruler Amir Temur
After a smooth train journey from the capital city Tashkent with the modern Afrosyob high-speed train, we arrived in Samarkand late in the morning of a beautiful day in May.
We were picked-up by car to reach our hotel located next to a major architectural landmark, the Gur Emir.
I first saw it after checking-in at the Argamak hotel located literally 2 minutes away by foot. From our elegant room, I looked throughout the window and saw a giant rounded turquoise dome sitting on top of a massive building sided by two giants columns.
The whole monument is decorated with colorful mosaics and Arabic calligraphy. At that time, I did not know that this architecture later inspired the world famous Taj Mahal in India!
Gur Emir literally means the tomb of the Emir (King) referring to Amir Timur, a central figure in the Uzbek and Central Asian history.
Amir Timur, called “Tamerlan” in English, was a Turko-Mongolian warlord who took over power in the region in the 14th century after the Mongols destroyed Samarkand and Bukhara.
He came to dominate a huge empire in Central Asia and decided to rebuild Samarkand from the ashes. Despite being a bloody ruler, he was behind the conception and completion of the beautiful monuments that you visit in this city.
To do so, he attracted the best craftsmen and architects from the conquered territories running from present-day Turkey and Caucasus region until the borders of northern India.
When he suddenly died of illness on a campaign against China, he was brought back to Samarkand and this building originally dedicated for his dead son became his mausoleum.
Entering the main hall, we admired the beautiful ceiling made of gold and blue mosaics reminding of the sky full of stars. Arabic letters are carved in gold on the wall and marble is everywhere.
In the center of the hall lies the tombstone of Amir Timur, a massive block of jade from Mongolia, as well as the tombs of his family members including his son.
In June 1941, a team of well-known Soviet anthropologists came all the way from Russia in order to exhume the remains of Timur. The population was worried. Indeed the legend wants that the following words were written in the tomb: "Whomsoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I”.
The anthropologists opened the tomb and brought the remains to Russia for exams. There, the expedition leader Mikhail Gerasimov even built a facial reconstitution of his face.
Three days later, Hitler and Nazi Germany started the invasion of the Soviet Union with their allies on the eastern side of the Soviet Union. This was basically the most important land invasion in the history of mankind.
Going out of the mausoleum, we noticed the manicured road, greens and trees all around the mausoleum.
In fact,the Uzbek government even installed walls around the monument to separate it from a local neighborhood. We still wanted to see this part of the city and could open a door to explore the traditional dwellings where children play on the streets.
Last, if you want to see what Amir Timur looked like, a statue of him on his throne is located on a square next along a modern boulevard.
The Registan square and its 3 majestic Coranic schools
After the visit of the Gur-Emir, we walked through a well manicured park and then along a boulevard in direction of the next landmark, the Registan.
The nice thing in Samarkand is that you can explore the whole city by foot and don’t need a car. The Registan designates a huge square where 3 majestic madrasas (theological universities in the Islamic world) face each other in a perfect symmetry.
What amazed us is that such a wonderful place under UNESCO-protection was not packed with tourists. It even seemed quiet in regard to its historical value.
There were mainly locals walking around or sipping a drink in the cafe in the gardens. Some students stopped us and engaged the conversation to practice their English. They seemed very curious, which is understandable as many locals can’t afford to travel outside their homeland.
Registan literally means “sandy square” in Persian and used to be the central place of the city for trading and political events. There is no sand on the place anymore but it might have been the case after the Mongols destroyed the whole city in the 12th century.
Traders came back on this sandy square to sell and exchange. Today most squares in Uzbekistan are called “Registan”.
We visited Registan at the end of the afternoon when the descending sun brightens the facades with a golden color while highlighting the bright colors of the ceramics and tiles. The minarets on each side of the madrasas are richly decorated, which increase the prestige of the place.
Facing the square, we first visited the madrasa on the left called Ulugh Beg and built in the 15th century.
Ulugh Beg, a descendant of Amir Timur, was the ruler of the empire and one of the major astronomer and mathematician in the Islamic world. No wonder that he decided to depict stars on top of the entrance hall. In these universities, it was not only about teaching Islam but all kinds of sciences and letters.
In all madrasas, there is an inner courtyard around which student rooms are organized on 2 different levels. What is amazing is that you can still penetrate into some of these rooms. They have not changed for centuries. Entering one, I was imagining how life was back then for a student waking up there.
Going back on the square, we met a police officer in his green uniform who proposed us to take us on top of the minarets for a fee. We did not do it but I was tempted.
Talking about policemen, you will see a lot of them in Uzbekistan. We did not have any trouble with them and actually were impressed how secured the cities and train stations are.
The Sher Dor madrasa on the right side of the square erected in the 17th century is quite particular. Indeed it depicts two orange lions with a human sun on the top of the entrance facade. Traditionally, Islam banned any portray of living animals or human beings.
Inside the courtyard, you will find small shops selling carpets and traditional craft objects. Somehow they blend quite naturally and their products are qualitative. All over Uzbekistan, I noticed these stores located inside the premises of historical buildings.
The last building in the center is the Tilla-Kari madrasa dating from the 17th century as well. The building includes a mosque that impressed us for its decoration made of golden gilding on the ceiling.
The name Tilla-Kari literally means “covered with gold”. From outside, we could also see the beautiful turquoise dome of the mosque.
The Shah-i-Zinda necropolis
The next day, we continued our exploration with the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, another fantastic landmark.
After a short taxi ride from our hotel, we entered the complex via the main gate and paid a small fee for the visit. Most visitors were Uzbek people and very few tourists. Locals impressed us because they were wearing beautiful clothing for the visit. For instance, women wore colorful traditional dresses.
Sha-I-Zinda literally means the "Tomb of the Living King” and can be described as an narrow avenue of mausoleums decorated with some of the richest tile-work in the Islamic world.
We progressed along the narrow walking lane and could visit each mausoleum one after the other. The place started as the single tomb for a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed who brought Islam to this region in the 7th century.
From the 14th century onward, the mighty ruler Amir Timur (Tamerlane) decided to bury some his favorites and family members there as well.
Beyond the people buried here, it is really the architecture that strikes the minds of visitors: it is an explosion of blue and turquoise colors, incredible shapes and ceramic details.
The vaulted entrance hall of the mausoleums are decorated with magnificient muqarnas, a form of ornamented vaulting in Islamic architecture.
They are often called “honeycomb” vaulting because of the many three-dimensional alveoles forming them.
During our visit, we talked to some Uzbek ladies in bright dresses visiting the place. They asked my wife if she was from Syr Daria, a region of Uzbekistan.
They were surprised that she came from very far abroad. Again it is very nice to interact with locals who are curious and genuine. Nobody ever tried to sell us something or be pushy during our 10-day trip in Uzbekistan.
If you like photography, this place is beyond word and we advise to visit during the early morning or late afternoon for the best lighting and lesser crowds.
For us, it was a bit crowded at the beginning around 10:00 am but almost empty at noon when we finished. It is possible to come here by foot from the other landmarks of Samarkand such as the Registan.
The Bibi-Khanym mosque
Amir Timur decided to build a grand mosque in the honor of his favorite wife called Bibi-Khanym. The building was also intended to become the architectural jewel of his empire.
Bibi-Khanym was the daughter of a local khan. A khan is the name given to a chief by Mongolians. You find it in the name Genghis Khan whose armies ransacked Central Asia.
This khan was ruling a territory corresponding broadly to current Uzbekistan. As Timur did not come from a noble family, this union definitely helped him to reach power. Only the descendants of Mongolian people could become rulers at that time.
The construction of the mosque lasted only 5 years in the late 14th century. The construction required 95 elephants from India as well as thousands of workers.
Timur found his inspirations in the design of buildings that he saw while ransacking the city of Delhi in India. From there, he also brought back enormous wealth and the best architects and craftsmen for his projects.
In front of the entrance, we were astonished by the giant portal of massive proportions. Apparently, Timur was not happy with the first version and wanted a bigger one. Architects could just obey…or be killed. So they started over.
Over time, the mosque suffered huge damage from earthquakes and was almost in ruin at the end of the 19th century. During the Soviet times in the second part of the 20th century, Russian were instrumental in rebuilding and restoring the mosque. The restoration is well done and still ongoing today.
Personally, we loved this mosque and were impressed by its proportions and the giant blue domes that you can see from very far away.
Traditional silk carpet factory
After Shar-i-Zinda mausoleum, we made a quick detour by taxi to visit the traditional silk carpet factory.
The son of the owner explained us for free how silk is cultivated. Then he showed us the rooms where women weave the carpets in traditional style.
To select the workers, they give them a chewing-gum upon arrival. After few minutes, they count the ones who already chewed them and give them a negative answer for the job.
This test aims at seeing who is patient enough or not since the craft of carpet weaving requires extreme patience. Seeing the hands of the women doing the same gesture over and over with the pattern in their head is stunning. There is a possibility to buy high quality carpets there.
We actually learn a tip from the owner to assess the quality of a carpet. Grab a thread on one side of the carpet and hung up the carpet. If it does not break and resist, it means that you have a high quality product in your hands.
Recap of our addresses
Hotel: L’Argamak (ask for room with a view on the Gur-Emir mausoleum)
Restaurant: Besh Chinor. It is friendly local place mainly recommended for meat-skewers called shashliks. The staff does not speak English) / Trip Advisor page (no website)
How to go there?
Train: we booked tickets on the modern Afrosiyob high-speed train from Tashkent to Samarkand via the regional travel agency Stan Tours. To know more about using trains in Uzbekista, you can read our Guide for a first trip in Uzbekistan.