Crossroads of the Living and the Dead in Tamerlane’s capital City
Uzbekistan has the most interesting historical and architectural legacy of all the Central Asian republics freed from Soviet domination in 1991. Its pinnacle is Samarkand, the navel of the vast empire held by Timur, a.k.a. Tamerlane (1336-1405), one of history’s greatest and cruelest conquerors.
A fabled city that fired European imaginations with tales of its legendary beauty, it was built and embellished by architects, artists, and craftsmen abducted by Tamerlane and his descendants from faraway conquered territories. For 2,000 years, the city was one of the most important stops on the Silk Road, its bazaars thronged with merchants and shoppers.
Since its construction between the 14th and 16th centuries, Samarkand’s Registan has been considered by many to be the noblest public square in the world, a breathtaking showcase of a civilization that placed supreme value on tangible beauty. A courtyard the size of a football field, it is surrounded on three sides by the soaring arches, towering minarets, and fluted turquoise domes of three madrassas (Islamic colleges).
Another of the most visually stunning sights in this city of superlatives is Shah-i-Zinda, a complex of mausoleums dating mostly from the 14th and 15th centuries. Exceptional masterworks of terra-cotta, majolica, and intricate tilework, they were created by master Persian and Azerbaijani craftsmen, and together form a showpiece of ceramic art that remains unrivaled in Central Asia.
Some of the earliest mausoleums are those of Tamerlane’s wives, his beautiful young niece, and his sisters, but it’s the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, believed to have been a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, that is Shah-i-Zinda’s most famous. An air of holiness surrounds the tomb, and three pilgrimages to it are deemed the equivalent of one to Mecca. Qusam ibn-Abbas is the “living king” who gave the complex its name, though ironically it’s come to be known as the City of the Dead.