Samarkand, the Stone Fortress of the Silk Road

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The history of Samarkand, one of the largest, most historic and beautiful cities of all that was the “Silk Road”

The words of Ibn Battuta

“So I went to Samarkand, one of the most beautiful, largest and most splendid cities in the world”

From the origins of Samarkand to the Göktürk

According to recent archaeological findings, the city of Samarkand was founded, together with Bukhara, between the 7th and 8th centuries BC, however in this area there are traces of human activity that date back to the Upper Paleolithic, or about 40 ‘000 years ago. The first civilization to impose itself was the Sogdian one (of Indo-Iranian origin), which was then annexed to the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great between 545 and 539 BC. , then passing under the domains of Alexander the Great around 329 BC, who also killed his great general Clitus here. Initially it suffered very negatively the arrival of the new masters, but over time it had a real rebirth, also thanks to the new and refined masonry and plastering techniques brought here by the Hellenes, whose tastes significantly influenced the local artisans. This cultural push continued even after Alexander’s death through the Seleucids, the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and the Kusana Empire, then starting a decline that will lead it to be prey to different empires, without playing a particularly significant role; this period also coincides with the arrival of the first nomadic confederations, destined to become more and more central over the centuries.


First came the Kidarite Empire, followed by the arrival of the Ephthalites and then that of the Göktürk, the first Turkish empire ever, allied with the Sassanids. With the victory of the latter came Nestorian Christianity, for a long time one of the first confessions of Samarkand together with Manichaeism.

From the Arabs to the Mongols

In 710 the army of Umayyads arrived in Central Asia by conquering it in a very short time and thus bringing it to Dar al Islam, which made Samarkand’s fortunes, bringing it back to the center of the international scene; not surprisingly, after the Battle of Talas against the Dynasty Tang, the first paper mill in the entire Islamic world will be built right here, thanks to which this technique will also penetrate Europe. With the collapse of the Umayyads, the control of the area passed to the Abbasids, who were defeated here by the Persian dynasty of the Samanids, who placed their capital in Samarkand.

The Shah-i-Zinda

In 999 the latter also fell and to dominate were the Karakhanids, a Turkish dynasty that proved particularly sensitive towards the city, embellishing it with a public hospital, a medical school and the oldest part of the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis.

From Tamerlane to the Uzbeks, Uluğ Bek and the golden age

In 1220 the Mongols of Genghis Khan arrived here, who dominated it until the conquest of Tamerlane in 1370, bringing many great Chinese craftsmen here. The new great ruler proved to be the undisputed lover and patron of the arts, forcing all the greatest artists of the cities he conquered to move to Samarkand and produce their masterpieces there. Among the wonders attributable to this sovereign there is for example the Gur-e-Amir, the mausoleum of Tamerlane and his lineage. From 1411 he was appointed as governor of Transoxiana Uluğ Bek, who is still remembered today as the greatest ruler of this city, as the Registan was built just below him, the spectacular square that has become the beating heart of Samarkand where the madrasa of the great ruler. Uluğ Bek was also a great enthusiast of mathematics and astrology, so much so that he invited some of the greatest minds to court and built his own astronomical observatory, still considered today among the best in the entire history of the Islamic world; this also allowed him to publish the Zij-i Sultani, for centuries the best astronomy work in the world.

The Registan of Samarkand

In 1447 Uluğ Bek became the sultan of the Timurid Empire, but after just 2 years he was defeated and assassinated by his son, Abdal Latif Mirza, which would lead to great chaos in the Empire, resolved only by the arrival of the Shaybanids, the first great Uzbek dynasty.

From the emirs to the present day

The first Uzbeks are not in fact native to these places, but rather come from an area corresponding to the current one Western Siberia, arriving here thanks to Abu’l-Khayr Khan, who occupied territories today between Russia, Kazakhstan and northern Uzbekistan, thus allowing his nephew, Muhammad Shaybani, to conquer the territories of the Timurids (who will flee to India and found the Mughal dynasty) and found the Khanate of Bukhara, which for a long time became the center of Transoxiana.

Muhammad Alim Khan, the last emir of Bukhara

Following the attack of the Persian Nader Shah, the city was briefly abandoned in 1720, passing, starting from 1780, under the dynasty of Mongolian origin Menghit, which, not being able to boast origins from Genghis Khan, transformed the Khanate of Bukhara into an Emirate. The latter was the last great Asian dynasty to rule over the territories of today’s Uzbekistan, as it was only the Russians who initially transformed it into the capital of Samarkand Oblast in 1868, then, with the rise to power of communism, it became the first part of the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (which at the time also included territories of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan) and finally Uzbekistan. With the entry of the Soviet Union, Samarkand lost its status as capital, following de facto the events of Uzbekistan. The name of the city derives from the Sogdian samar (“stone”, “rock”) and kand (“city”, “strong”).

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