Overview

Samarkand of today is a modern Uzbek city of about 370,000 people situated along the southern portion of the nation of Uzbekistan. Samarkand was once one of the great trade cities of the ancient world but declined over the ages; the Samarkand of modern times owes its rebirth to the Russian railroad. Where once the city made via the rich trade between east and west, now it depends on agriculture and light industry such as silk spinning, canning, clothing production and tobacco.

The city itself consists of two parts, the more modern area, dating from after the Russian conquest of the city and the ancient buildings of the city, dating back as far as the 14th century AD. Of the current city, the original model had revolved around a wall built in the 11th century AD in which six roads led towards the center of the city from each of the six gates. The gates themselves were destroyed by the Russians after their conquest of the city, but the destruction of those gates did little to alter the overall look and feel of the old city. Still within the bounds of the old wall are some of the great examples of Central Asian architecture left to us today.

Dating back as far as the time of Timur (the city had been razed to the ground by Genghis Khan), are the Bibi-Khanin mosque, which was commissioned by one of Timur’s wives and the tomb of Timur, the Gur-e Amir. The Ak Saray tomb was built in the mid 15th century and the Rigestan Square has several madrasahs which were built three different rulers. The visible decorations of the ancient structures of Samarkand, whether it be frescos, gold, or just the vivid colors help to make up the majesty of old Samarkand. The Russian part of town, on the other hand, made up only a small part of the city prior to the Soviet period, in which it was greatly expanded, but does include many public buildings, parks, theatres and several institutes of higher learning.

History

One of the great cities of the silk road, Samarkand (also known as Samarqand) was a center of world civilization for more than a millenium. The city was originally built on the site of the even more ancient city, Afrosiab, which had controlled the area from the 4th to 3rd century BC. Samarkand was known as Marakanda during the 4th century BC, and served as the capitol of Sogdiana. As Sogdiana was a semi-autonomous state within the Persian Empire and Marakanda was a city of much repute, it was unable to avoid the notice of one Alexander the Great, who captured it in 329 BC.

The Turkic tribes of the central Asian steppe would inherit the city in the 6th century AD, but would lose it to the Arab conquests by the 8th century. Eventually the city would rise to prosperity again, this time under the Abbasid Dynasty, who made it into the central city along the trade route from Baghdad to China. The city would continue to grow even as it shifted hands throughout the centuries, with the Samanid kingdom of Khorasan ruling it from 874 until 999 AD and the Seljuks of Khwarazm after that. The leaders of Khwarazm are said to have forced the hand of a then little known nomad warlord in the early 13th century AD. It would turn out to a devastating decision for Samarkand, as the city was smashed asunder by Genghis Khan, a devastating blow it would take Samarkand more than a century to recover from.

Samarkand would be rebuilt though, this time under the control of the Chagatai Khanate, which ruled a vast stretch of area from what is now western China to the gateway of Iran. Samarkand would grow away from the eastern areas of the Khanate though, as it became the center of a more and more cosmopolitan, Arabic Khanate and lost its nomadic roots. It was under this internal strife that the legendary Timur (Tamerlane) would rise to power over the city. Forcibly separating Samarkand, and with it, the western areas of the Khanate from the rest, he would make it his capitol and the center of a military machine the likes of which had not been seen for generations.

Not only did Timur develop the military power of his new land though, but through spending and shipping back skilled war captives, he invigorated the city, making it a center of learning and one of the most beautiful cities then in the world. But Timur’s grip would not outlive him, and the empire he created had no plan for his death. The Timur Empire would begin to fail almost immediately, revolts wracking it from end to end, especially in the Iranian lands. Though Samarkand itself would continue to prosper economically and culturally, the power that protected it continued to wane.

By the year 1500, the Timur Empire had shifted its center south and fallen in power enough around Samarkand that the city was an easy target for the Uzbek Khanates to the northwest and the city fell under their control. But the city was not near as much of a prize these days. With the new mode of trade being on the oceans, the position of Samarkand was greatly reduced. Not to mention that three empires now spanned the areas to the south and helped even more so to funnel trade away from the old land routes. The Mughal Empire, having been established by the remnants of the Timur Empire, was now in control of northern, and much of central, India as well as modern Afghanistan. The Safavids had seized control of Iran, and the massive Ottoman Empire had effectively bridged Eastern Europe with the Red Sea.

So it was that Samarkand continued to decline, now under the control of the Emirate of Bukhara, and the city became virtually uninhabited by the 18th century. Indeed it is said that there was no one living in the city from 1720 to 1770 AD. Recovery of the city would come with the Russian conquest of the region though. Upon becoming a provincial capital in Russia and receiving a railroad through the city, Samarkand would grow again, both in population and economically. From 1924 to 1936 the city was the capitol of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, though it lost that title after 1936 to the city of Tashkent. But today Samarkand continues to be one of the political and cultural centers of the Uzbek peoples and the newly reborn Uzbek nation, Uzbekistan.




Sources
"Samarkand." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service 3 June 3, 2005 .

“Samarkand Uzbekistan.” OrexCA 2005. OrexCa.com Creative Group June 6, 2005 http://www.orexca.com/samarkand.shtml.

“Samarkand” Encyclopedia.com June 7, 2005

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