All things counter, original, spare and strange in Khujand, Tajikistan


Well, I’ve returned to Tajikistan after a ten-day jaunt through neighboring Uzbekistan. As usual, returning from traveling feels like putting on old clothes, resuming my every-day identity, losing the fresh feeling of unmoored personality I feel when I’m on the road. But it’s good to be back.

The first stop in our (I and three of my fellow Tajik ex-pats) trip was Samarkand, the capital of the Temurid Empire, home to the great monuments of Tamerlane and his successors. Samarkand is built on the ruins of ancient Afrosiab, but it gained prominence as Maracanda, Alexander the Great’s Greek colony in Central Asia. Unfortunately, as with all cities in the region, the remains of these older civilizations were wiped out by the Mongols.

Samarkand really came into its own about a hundred years after the Mongol invasion, when a local chieftain known as Temur-i-Lang (Temur the lame, anglicized as Tamerlan or Tamburlaine in Christopher Marlowe’s play of the same name), made a series of shrewd alliances and equally shrewd betrayals and managed to unite the local warlords under his banner. From his base in Samarkand he swept through the disunified remains of the Mongol Empire and reconquered nearly everything from Asia Minor to North India, leaving piles of skulls in his wake as a sign to potential rebels.

Of course, he also left behind some spectacular architecture in his capital.

The Bibi Khanum mosque is the biggest in Central Asia, but it’s also partially collapsed, and has been since soon after its construction. Temur supervised its construction personally, and it seems he hurried the architects more than was wise.

The light on this winter trip wasn’t quite bright enough to show the brilliant blue of the Temurid-era tile work, but the best views were at night anyway.

Walking around the Registan, the main square of Samarkand, we were approached by a security guard positively eager to solicit a bribe. We obliged him and made our way up this minaret to view the three enormous medrassas that form the Registan from a more advantageous angle. Never underestimate the advantages of official graft.

Another of the attractions of Samarkand is Ulug Beg’s Observatory. Merzo Ulug Beg was Temur’s grandson and heir. Rather than following in the footsteps of his rapacious ancestor he settled into a life of scientific and philosophical pursuit (a life, it must be admitted, financed by the plunder of Asia).

Ulug Beg calculated the solar year to within minutes of its modern length, and produced a star chart that provided guidance to astronomers like Tycho Brahe and Copernicus when it finally made its way to Europe over 200 years later.

So, to sum up, here is my list of recommendations if you ever visit Samarkand: see the sights at night, bribe the guards, go to the Registan restaurant and ask the waiter to dance with you (if you have the same one we did, he will), stay at the Antica B&B and try all the kinds of jam, find the ruins of ancient Afrosiab (don’t pay attention to the local staff who say it’s just a hole in the ground. You can climb all around the archeological site!), check out the grave of the prophet Daniel (his body is supposed grow every year for some reason, so the sarcophagus is huge). And sneak up whatever staircases you find unguarded. Take my word for it, it’s worth it.


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