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Fabled Cities of the Silk Road Samarkand and Bukhara
2003 / AUGUST

When did the first caravan set out along the Silk Road and from which far city? Who was the master of the caravan and what dangers and difficulties did he envisage as he set out to lead the merchants and their pack animals on that long and arduous journey? All we know is that from the 2nd century BC caravans travelled the Silk Road across Central Asia, and the magnificent buildings in the cities along it reflect the wealth generated by that past trade. In 138 BC the Chinese emperor commanded Chang K'ien to make a journey of exploration westwards, and he returned 13 years later after many adventures, bringing back the first knowledge of those unknown lands. Trade between east and west quickly prospered along the 6500 kilometre road linking the Chinese capital Xi'an on to Rome. In the mid-13th century the Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, journeyed across Asia through regions about which the western world knew almost nothing at the time.

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Fabled Cities of the Silk Road Samarkand and Bukhara
2003 / AUGUST

He followed the Silk Road, and when he returned wrote his account of his adventures. Although this aroused western fascination with the wonders of those distant lands, Central Asia remained largely unknown by the West until the 19th century. The fabled cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, which today are in Uzbekistan, were important oasis cities on the section of the Silk Road leading through Central Asia. Bukhara, whose history goes back 2500 years, stands on the edge of the Kizilkum desert beside the Zerefshan River. It was ruled in turn by the Arabs, Samanids, Karakhanids and Karahitays, and in 1220 conquered by the Mongol ruler Ghengiz Khan, whose army largely reduced it to ruins. In 1370 it came under the rule of Timur (Tamerlane), and in the mid-16th century became capital of the Bukhara Khanate ruled by the Uzbek Sheybani dynasty. The oldest part of Bukhara is the ancient royal citadel, which was an important marketplace on the Silk Road.

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Fabled Cities of the Silk Road Samarkand and Bukhara
2003 / AUGUST
Known as Ark, the citadel housed 3000 people, and here were situated the royal palace, treasury, mosque, mint, dungeons and other major buildings. Here the Emir of Bukhara lived with his family and officials during the time of the Sheybani dynasty. One of the city's most imposing buildings is the Kelan Minaret dating from the 12th century. Rising to a height of 48 metres, the minaret was a landmark for caravans approaching the city from the desert. The Kelan Mosque beside it, also known as the Cuma or Friday Mosque, was rebuilt in 1514. With its tiled portal and turquoise mosaic dome, this mosque is one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture. Opposite the mosque is the Mir-i Arab Medrese built by the Sheybani ruler Ubaydullah Khan. Bukhara was an important centre of scholarship and learning in past centuries, and in the 19th century there were around a hundred medreses or colleges here.
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Fabled Cities of the Silk Road Samarkand and Bukhara
2003 / AUGUST

The famous medieval physician and scholar Ibn-i Sina (980-1037), known as Avicenna in Europe, received his early education in Bukhara. The oldest building in the city is the thousand year-old Mausoleum of Ismail Samani built of mud bricks and with magnificent geometric brick decoration inside and out. The Kukeldash and Nadir Divan Bey medreses stand beside the pool known as Lyab-i Havuz, in which the great tiled portal is reflected. The pool is surrounded by huge plane trees, beneath which are tea gardens where the people of Bukhara relax in the hot summer months. Samarkand is the second largest city in Uzbekistan today. It has earned such descriptions as the Pearl of the East, the Mirror of the World, and the Jewel of Islamic Art. Samarkand was founded in the 4th century BC by the Sogdians, who made it the capital of their Ahamenid Empire. In 329 BC Maracanda, as the city was then called, was conquered by Alexander the Great, and later ruled in turn by Central Asian Turks, Arabs, Samanids and Khwarzmshah.

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Fabled Cities of the Silk Road Samarkand and Bukhara
2003 / AUGUST

In 1220 Samarkand was razed by the Mongols, and in the 14th century became the capital of the Timurid Empire, under which it enjoyed its period of greatest splendour. Like Bukhara, Samarkand stands on the shore of the Zerefshan River. It is one of the greenest cities in Central Asia. At the heart of the city is Rejistan Square surrounded by three medreses, one of which was built by Timur himself. That to the west was founded by Timur's grandson, the renowned astronomer Uluš Bey, after whom it is named and whose studies are reflected in the star motifs on the portal. The Shirdar Medrese on the east side and the Tilla Kari Medrese to the south both date from the 17th century. Samarkand's principal mosque is the Bibi Hanim built in memory of Timur's wife in 1398. Although the dome is today in ruins, the 25 metre high portal decorated with intricate tiled decoration is magnificent. Another jewel of Samarkand is the Mausoleum of Gur-i Mir where Timur himself is buried.

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Fabled Cities of the Silk Road Samarkand and Bukhara
2003 / AUGUST

The high fluted dome with blue tiled decoration rises to a height of 37 metres and the mausoleum is a monument symbolising Timur's power and love of the arts. The Shah Zinde is a complex of mausoleums when numerous members of the dynasty were buried in the 14th and 15th centuries. Several of them feature beautiful blue tiled decoration on the domes and tile inscriptions around the drums. Near Afrasiab, the hill where Samarkand's earlier settlement was located, is the observatory built by Ulug Bey, who recorded the positions of 1018 fixed stars, and calculated the length of the solar year to within a few seconds.

* Nedim Sipahi is a photographer and freelance writer.

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