A Blue Gem over the Brightly Shining Desert
Uzbekistan has been at the crossroads of major trade routes through Central Asia and has historically played a central role in the cultural, economic and social exchange between Europe and Asia for thousands of years. A stopover on the Silk Road and the center of many empires, Uzbekistan has beautiful ancient cities where you can see thousands of years of glorious history and cultural transitions with one's own eyes.
Among them is a city called the Heart of the Silk Road, as major transportation between East and West Eurasia. Samarkand is a city that brings to mind the word "beautiful", a city that has been the aesthetic, historical and cultural centre of global cultural exchange for hundreds of years, a mysterious, dreamy and romantic city, a city that becomes a blue jewel when the sky is dyed by the golden sunset.
As Samarkand was the centre of the Silk Road, stories of countless people and generations have piled up, creating a rich history. Stories of heroes, of merchants and of philosophers are collected, like sand grains in the desert, to shape the story of Samarkand.
Doston, the story of heroes
Songs from generation to generation
Doston, Uzbekistan’s oral art tradition, is a lyrical epic that has been passed down over the centuries. Doston is in the form of a narrative, story, adventure, description or praise, and various forms of Doston have been passed down from traditional and universal perspectives.
The epic story of the hero Alfomysi is an oral masterpiece with more than 40 versions, reflecting the ancient mythical imagination of a people. The heroic epics from the tribes are that it shares the theme of different peoples uniting to fight against the enemies, ultimately achieving victory and restoring peace.
The singing method of the Uzbekistan Doston singers is classified by region; singing from the back of the neck along with the traditional drum accompaniment is the method of the Surkhondarya-Qashqadarya region while singing with a natural voice accompanied by Tors, Doiras and Bolamans is characteristic of the Horezm region. Among the local methods of the Karakalpakstan, Bakshi singers sing romantic Doston songs accompanied by Karakalpakstan Dutars and Ghijak, while Jirau singers perform epic poetry to the accompaniment by Kobiz.
The Legend of a Hero and His Love
Among the many heroes who passed through Samarkand, Timur the Great is the most representative of this beautiful city. Amur Timur united Central Asia in the 14th century and built a vast empire that spanned across Central Asia, the Arab Empire, Asia Minor and India. Amur Timur, who was the last ruler of the Eurasian powers following Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, revitalized the Silk Road so that the scientific advances from China and Islam could flow into Europe and promote cultural exchange between the East and the West, earning him the title of “The Great”.
Timur the Great built Bibi-Khanym Mosque, a great mosque in the heart of Samarkand, worthy of the emperor’s fame and the majesty of the empire.
Getting a Glimpse of Islamic Architecture through Gur Emir
Where Amir Timur was Laid to Rest
Gur Emir was a complex where Muhammad Sultan, Timur the Great’s most beloved grandson, started building Madrasa, an Islamic educational institution, and Honako, accommodations for the Silk Road merchants. But when Sultan Muhammad was killed in the war against Persia in 1403, Timur the Great grieved his loss and turned Madrasa into a grave to bury his grandson. To make matters worse, Timur the Great died two years later while striking the Ming Dynasty in the east, and he himself was buried at Madrasa as well.
[ Gur Emir Mausoleum ]
Four components form the heart of Islamic architecture: dome, minaret, iwan and pishtaq. The blue dome is an architectural technique created in the Timur period, finished with 64 folds, corresponding to the number of years in Prophet Muhammad’s life. Pishtaq refers to the entrance to the interior of the building through Iwan, and Iwan refers to a room with a vaulted ceiling. Gur Emir Mausoleum is a beautiful building that contains all four elements, and later became the standard for important Islamic buildings around the world; it is said that the Taj Mahal in India was modelled on the mausoleum.
[ The architectural structure of Gur Emir Mausoleum, which has all four components of Islamic architecture: dome, minaret, iwan and pishtaq ]
During the Timur Empire period, many of the constructions were overseen by craftsmen from Indo-Persia, and one of the most representative features found in many Timur Empire buildings, such as Gur Emir, is Pishtaq. The peculiar shape of the Pishtaq, which serves as the entrance to the building, was inherited from Timur's last prince, Babur, who went to northern India to establish the Mughal Empire. Pishtaq had an impact on other architectures, such as the Taj Mahal in Agra, Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and the Gardens of Babur in Kabul. It shows how much the Timur Empire had an impact on the world’s architectural history.
[ A comparison of Gur Emir, Taj Mahal in Agra and Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi; one can see the similarities in all three structures ]
Enter the courtyard of Gur Emir and you will find interesting sculptures. In the square in front of the mausoleum, there is a large marble bowl 1.5 m in diameter and 1 m deep, in which Timur the Great used to pour pomegranate juice to distribute to his warriors. One can imagine the Timur Empire’s warriors who would have looked at the juice and was reminded of blood and the gravity of the battles. The huge stone next to it is the stone throne on which Timur the Great sat while his army marched to the battlefield. It is easy to imagine the great dignified emperor sitting on his throne.
Inside the Gur Emir, one can appreciate its ultimate grandeur. No one knows how beautiful it was at its time since it was robbed at least three times and was practically neglected during the 19th century. The gold covering the current grave is said to have been gilt by the Soviet Union for a sum of 1 million rubles (equivalent to the cost of 16 tanks at the time) as part of a restoration project. The coffins are all made from nephrite; considering how precious jade was at the time, these coffins must have been extremely valuable at the time they were produced.
[ Inside the gold-covered Mausoleum, and coffins of the Timur royal family. Amir Timur’s body is laid to rest in the dark jade coffin in the middle ]
Islamic tradition forbids the portrayal of people in works of art. This ban contributed to the development of Arabic decoration, especially calligraphy arts. One can enjoy calligraphy art in Samarkand's architecture, such as Madrasa, Mosque and Minare. One can appreciate the magnificence and beauty of the calligraphy art especially at the outer walls of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque. Such calligraphy art is one of the intangible heritage of Uzbekistan.
During the Amir Timur period, architectural masterpieces such as the Bibi-Khanym Mosque and the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum were created, with magnificent sculptures and stone carvings.
On Uzbekistan’s buildings honoring the achievements of its national heroes, one can find a traditional architectural technique called “stone sculpture”, which is an intangible heritage of Uzbekistan.
Stone sculpture is Uzbekistan’s ancient art, and with ancient ruins that were discovered in southern Uzbekistan, one could glimpse the secret of Uzbekistan's stone sculpture skills, such as master masonry techniques, methods for transporting heavy stones, methods for determining which stones are easier to handle, and which tools were used to carve patterns and linings.
From the stone walls, geometric patterns and floral designs on the stones in Uzbek buildings, one cannot help but admire the beauty of Uzbekistan’s stone carvings and the technique to handle those stones, and the craftsmanship.
Siyob Bazaar, a Place for Merchants
Siyob Bazaar, a large traditional market, is situated in Samarkand, near Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Registan Square. Commercial activities are heavily regulated and can only be carried out inside the markets in Uzbekistan, so visitors should check out this unique place.
Three foods are not to be missed at Siyob Bazaar: Bread, candy and dried fruit.
Breads of Samarkand
The most delicious and freshest bread in Uzbekistan can be bought at the Siyob Bazaar. People come to the Bazaar for bread not only from Samarkand, but also from Tashkent, and it is a popular tourist spot for foreigners as well.
Uzbekistan people eat bread as a staple, and this bread is called non, which looks slightly different from region to region. The name “non” was derived from the Persian word “Nagna”, a round flatbread with yeast baked in a fire oven, from West or South Asia.
All over Uzbekistan, there are schools where one can learn how to make nons.
The eating of nons is also a tradition in itself.
First, one has to show respect to the Non. Not finishing or even throwing away the non is forbidden. Stepping on a non is a serious offence, and one cannot eat nons in the bedroom. It is said that eating nons in the bedroom can bring one bad luck while sleeping. As a sign of respect, guests are served the top piece from the best non. The head of the family break bread by hand or allows the youngest member of the family to do it instead.
[ Nons on Uzbek tables ]
Non from Samarkand is famous for its chewy and light texture, and it is said that real Samarkand nons won't spoil for three years. Stale Samarkand Non can be revived by pouring water or heating it in the oven, so don't miss the best bread in Samarkand.
"Dessert is an expression of joy."
It is not an exaggeration to say that all snacks in Uzbekistan start and end with desserts. Uzbek desserts, such as Nishalda, Halva, Navvat and Parvarda, are so delicate and delicious, a joy to look at.
Similar to sour cream, Nishalda is made for Nowruz, the spring festival. Nishaldas are sold in March in large containers, measured by weight, in markets in all cities. They are also eaten together with cake or bread.
Halva is one of the most famous candies in Uzbekistan. Halva is made in different ways in different regions, often by adding seeds, nuts and oils. Halva recipes are passed down from generation to generation, and the family secrets are known only by family master chefs.
Navvat is a type of sugar made from fructose and glucose, and is often used with tea and is said to have medicinal properties. Sometimes used with spices and honey, navvat boosts the immune system, and is popular as an energy-boosting snack.
Parvarda is an Uzbek candy made of flour, sugar and lemon juice, and is characterized by its unique taste in combination with a variety of herbs.
Uzbek desserts are made in the traditional Uzbek way, and they are popular snacks enjoyed on special occasions, gatherings and when visiting friends and relatives.
Making Dried Fruits
Uzbekistan is quite arid with plenty of sunlight, with fruits of the highest quality, and there are also a variety of dried fruits. To make good quality dried fruits, it is important to choose sweet and ripe fruit. Since Uzbekistan has a climate that is suitable for growing fruits with high sugar content, fruit drying was also developed quite naturally.
While the secret to drying fruits is highly guarded by each farm, one can purchase and taste a variety of high-quality dried fruit from the Siyob Bazaar.
Samarkand, worthy of its reputation as a representative city of the Silk Road, is known for its diverse spices. While the name Silk Road was first coined 130 years ago by the German geographer Lichthofen when silk was being traded, that was only a short period in history, and instead, various items and commodities were exchanged for a longer time. Among them, rare spices like cinnamon, curry and pepper were the most widely consumed products in Western countries, and Samarkand's role as a trade hub continues even to this day, a thousand years later.
Uzbekistan’s Gem and the Heart of Samarkand
Registan Square, the heart of Samarkand, is considered to be one of the most beautiful squares in the world.
The word "Registan" is a combination of "reg (sand)" and "stan (land)" in Persian, meaning "the land of sand", or "desert". After the ancient river dried up, beautiful buildings were built on the sand, earning the name Registan.
Just as Rome could not be built overnight, Registan Square, a huge complex of Islamic education, religion, culture and art, was created step by step for around 200 years, starting from the 15th century. In the middle of Registan’s large square, an ensemble of three Madrasa, the Ulugh Beg Madrasa, Sherdor Madrasa and Tilla-Kori Madrasa, boast their colourful majolica ceramic tiles and pale blue mosaics. These Madrasas were the largest educational institutions in Central Asia, providing the highest level of guidance for not only theology but also literature, science, world history, foreign languages, politics, etc. during the reign of the Tamur Empire.
[ The heart of Samarkand, Registan Square ]
Ulugh Beg Madrasa
The Ulugh Beg Madrasa is the building on the left side of the Registan Square and the first madrasa to be built, in the 15th century. It is an educational institution for Islamic theology, that was founded, with great care, by Ulugh Beg, the grandson of Timur the Great.
[ Ulugh Beg Madrasa ]
"It is the duty of all Muslim citizens to achieve perfection in one's studies."
This is what is written at the entrance to the Ulugh Beg Madrasa.
Ulugh Beg became the sultan of the governor of Samarkand at the age of 15. He was an extraordinary person with a unique passion for learning, so much so that he was able to give lectures on theology, maths and philosophy. Unlike his grandfather Timur the Great, who expanded his territory and gathered world treasures to Samarkand, Ulugh Beg focused on laying the academic foundations of the early Timur Empire and making Samarkand a centre of science and knowledge of the time. He invited the best scholars, scientists and philosophers and fully supported their research. It is said that Abdul-Rahman Jami, a Persian poet, scholar, scientist and philosopher also studied here.
[ Left: Constellation patterns on the facade of Ulugh Beg ]
[ Right: Geometric Girih patterns on its outer wall ]
Ulugh Beg's interest in astronomy can also be seen on the madrasa’s ornamentation; constellations of the night sky are engraved on the entrance to Pishtaq. The mosaic and majolica tiles on the outer wall follow floral motifs and Arabic characters, and the most striking is the geometric Girih style, with floral patterns in a star-shaped figure.
Right inside the main entrance is a square courtyard with four Iwans (vaulted rooms) and 50 huzuras that look like university dormitories. Walking through the courtyard of the reverential Ulugh Beg Madrasa, one cannot help but feel the pride that former students back in the 15th century must have felt to be studying at the best educational institution of the time.
[ Inner courtyard of Ulugh Beg Madrasa ]
The Sherdor Madrasa is the building on the right side of the Registan Square and was built by Alantusi Bahadur, the governor of Bukhara who ruled Samarkand in the 17th century.
"Sherdor" means "a brave lion" in Persian.
As the name suggests, Pishtaq has a lion chasing a white deer, a human face and a sun engraved on its facade. Although Islam forbids the expression of any living being or figure, Alantusi, who took control of the region, engraved them on the madrasa to show off his power. When this madrasa was made public, it was criticized by Islamic religious leaders. Some say that this lion symbolizes Alantusa, while some say that the depiction of animals and the sun symbolizes the Zoroastrian influence that has been preserved. This madrasa can also be found on the Uzbek currency, on 200 So'm notes.
[ Left: The lion chasing a white deer is displayed on Sherdor Madrasa ]
[ Right: Elaborate terra cotta mosaic on the walls ]
Governor Alantusi tried to build a new building worthy of the size and nobility of the Ulugh Beg Madrasa that was built during the Timur dynasty, but it was said that he was not able to do so in the same shape and form because the Quran forbids left-right symmetry. Structurally, the resulting building has no significant difference from the Ulugh Beg Madrassa, but there is no mosque and the Darshana classroom is in the back.
The Tilla-Kori Madrasa, in the centre of Registan Square, is the third madrasa established by Alantusi Bahadur, governor of Bukhara, to appease the religious leaders who opposed the building of Sherdor Madrasa.
Tilla-Kori Madrasa is designed in the traditional Islamic style. From the outside, it might look relatively modest compared to the Ulugh Beg or Sherdor Madrasa, but stepping inside the turquoise dome, one cannot help but exclaim at the splendor. The mirhab, which indicates the direction of the Mecca, is made of marble and covered with gold, and the ceiling displays a three-dimensional dancing gold leaf. The wall is flat, but seems to be recessed, and gives the feeling of a curvy three-dimensional space. Currently, it is used as an art museum, promoting the beauty of Uzbek culture and art.
[ Tilla-Kori Madrasa ]
Ulugh Beg Observatory
Reaching the Sky
Throughout both the east and west, the sky was something that was unreachable, and thus, a subject that people wanted to explore further. The shimmering stars at night in the desert have cast a spell on the young Sultan Ulugh Beg Mirza, who has been praised as the best astronomer for centuries.
After the death of Timur the Great in 1405, a war over the succession of the throne began between Timur's son Shah Rukh and grandson Khalil Sultan. His son Ulugh Beg became the Sultan of Samarkand when he was only 15 years old.
Ulugh Beg was proficient in theology, foreign languages, mathematics and especially astronomical studies; his astronomical observations and astronomical diagrams were revolutionary for Europe. Climbing up the stairs and reaching Ulugh Beg Square, one can see the observatory on the left and the pavilion on the right.
[ Ulugh Beg Observatory on the left, Ulugh Beg Museum on the right ]
Records show that the observatory was originally a massive three-storey high structure, but was destroyed in 1449, after Ulugh Beg's death, and only half of the original could be restored, as shown below.
The markings on the rail, which looks like a staircase, acts as a protractor, and one could determine the position of the sun and the stars by looking at the light shining on the markings.
[ Markings on the rail ]
Through extensive observations, Ulugh Bek observed and recorded the movement of 1,018 constellations. Based on his precise observations, he calculated the length of a year to be 365 days 6 hours 10 minutes and 9 seconds, with a margin of error of less than one minute.
On 21 or 22 March, the Nowruz festival takes place at Registan Square, reflecting the spirit of the constellations and their movement, and the philosophy of the universe. The day of the festival, determined by astrological calculations, is the day on which the solar calendar enters the constellation, Aries.
Nowruz is a festival celebrating the new year, a festival celebrating the beginning of the farming season, and it is a festival most loved by the Uzbeks. People await Nowruz with anticipation and excitement while preparing for the festival: people prepare delicious food with fresh vegetables, sow plants, sing songs on the streets about spring, gave gifts and food was shared.
Nowruz, a custom among farmers, was spread among nomadic Turks, and to this day is a community-based festival in which families can enjoy together and share their values, such as peace, solidarity, reconciliation and community.
An indispensable part of the Nowruz Festival is Sumalak Sayli.
For Nowruz, people shared joy and reflected on their values by preparing special festive foods, performing songs and dances.
Women make Sumalak from wheat. It takes up to a week to prepare, and because it's difficult to make by oneself, it’s prepared together by a group of people. People gather near the pot and take turns stirring; they sit in a circle, singing and enjoying themselves, waiting for their turn to stir the Sumalak. While Sumalak cooks, children learn the meaning of Nowruz, the traditions and customs of Sumalak Sayli, and through this process, the tradition of Nowruz and Sumalak is naturally transmitted.
Once Sumalak is completed, it is distributed to neighbors, relatives and friends.
Sumalak is a tradition that takes place on the eve of Nowruz, enjoyed by everyone.
Sharq Taronalari International Music Festival in Samarkand
In addition to Nowruz, there is a festival that can take place in Registan Square: Sharq Taronalari international music festival in Samarkand.
In Uzbekistan, a country with robust development of various ethnic music such as Doston, Shashmaqam and Katta Ashula, masters of ethnic music are often treated as national heroes. As if to reflect this, Sharq Taronalari international music festival is held, in Registan Square in Samarkand.
Sharq Taronalari, which means "Eastern melody", started in 1997 and has been held every other year in order to preserve, develop and transmit the artistry that is Eastern music. The history of the Silk Road and the romance of the desert’s starry night combine with ethnic music from various countries to transform the splendid antique Islamic Square into a beautiful and colourful festival. It gets enough public attention to be broadcast live throughout the festival.
The 12th edition of the festival in 2019, attended by the President of Uzbekistan and the Secretary-General of UNESCO, was attended by more than 900 musicians, dancers, artists and academics from around the world to share the cultural heritage of different countries, regardless of race, language, religion or class, and has been established as an international culture and music festival promoting peace and coexistence.
Shashmaqom is a genre of traditional music that has developed in Uzbekistan for thousands of years. Shashmaqom means "six modes (maqoms)", and is composed of vocal song, instrumental music, melody and rhythm as well as lyrics filled with wordplay and poetry. This genre is played by soloist or ensemble singers and an orchestra made up of lutes, violin-like string instruments, frame drums, flutes, etc. The performance usually begins with instrumental music, followed by the main vocal part, the Nasr. Nasr consists of three different collections of songs.
Shashmaqom's origins go back to pre-Islamic times. This tradition has been continuously influenced by the development of music theory, poetry, mathematics and Sufism. In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Maqam system became very popular and numerous music schools were founded at the time. The Jewish community mainly established music schools in the city of Bukhara, the historical and spiritual center of Shashmaqom.
In standard music scores, only the basic structure of the music can be written down; thus, learning Shashmaqom orally from the master is more suitable. Thus, specially trained musicians are needed to learn and perform Shashmaqom. In this way, the transmitted Shashmaqom music preserves the spiritual values of the Jewish community.