As the sun rose over the minarets and domes of Samarkand, the sight before me simply left me awestruck. The city’s architectural marvels, including the legendary Registan Square, stand as a testament to the grandeur of the Silk Road era, when caravans of merchants traversed these lands, weaving a cultural legacy that still resonates today.
With its breathtaking architecture, enchanting bazaars, and rich historical tapestry, Samarkand stands as a jewel in the crown of Uzbekistan, inviting travellers from across the globe to immerse them in its timeless beauty.
One of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia, Samarkand is located at the heart of the ancient trade routes that connected Europe with China for over 1,500 years until the mid-15th century. As a vital stop on the Silk Road, it became a meeting point of countless cultures, a melting pot of ideas, and a testament to the enduring spirit of human creativity, earning it the title of “pearl of the Silk Road”. Today it is regonised and protected as a World Heritage City under UNESCO.
Of people, art and culture
These multicultural traditions are omnipresent in its music, dance, art, language, cuisine, and clothing. The people of Samarkand have mastered many traditional crafts over the centuries. Delicate embroidery, intricate ceramics, and hand-woven textiles are prized treasures that reflect the city’s artistic ingenuity.
They have a unique and rich sense of fashion that offers a beautiful blend of tradition, history, and modernity. Traditional clothing is deeply influenced by the region’s historical connections with the Silk Road and the various civilisations that thrived in the area. Their attire reflects a connection to their rich heritage and cultural pride, while embracing contemporary global influences.
The traditional dress for women in Samarkand is known as the ‘Atlas dress’. It typically consists of a long, flowing dress made of silk or cotton, adorned with intricate and colourful patterns often featuring ikat designs — a method for colouring fabric in patterns by resist dyeing — which are characteristic of Central Asian textiles.
Traditional clothing for men often includes loose-fitting trousers paired with a long shirt. The shirt, known as a ‘kurta’, can be made from cotton or silk and is typically adorned with embroidery. On special occasions, men may also wear a robe-like overcoat, known as a ‘chapan’ or ‘khalat’.
While tourists around the world attract all sorts of attitudes and behaviours, the people of Samarkand warmly welcome them — of course given that the positive attitude comes from both ends. I like to believe that without locals, one’s experience of a new city is almost incomplete. Hearing stories, traditions and family histories from the people truly enriched my experience and allowed me to appreciate the city’s culture even more deeply.
Language and navigation
The most widely spoken language in Samarkand is Uzbek, the official language of Uzbekistan. Tajik is also spoken by a significant number of people, particularly among the Tajik ethnic minority. Russian is another widely spoken language throughout Uzbekistan and Samarkand. During the Soviet era, Russian was the dominant language of administration, education, and communication.
English is not very widely spoken or understood by a majority of the people, which may limit the possibility of hearing stories from locals. However, you will easily be able to find an English-speaking travel guide to help. Among students and younger people, English is relatively more common and some may even help you interact with others. Apart from the people, Google Maps and English navigation signs make travel and exploring much easier.
Currently, no local or foreign airlines operate direct flights from Pakistan to Uzbekistan. Passengers bound for the region need to take connecting flights from the Gulf.
Once you land, high-speed trains connect Tashkent, the capital, to other cities including Samarkand. The journey on the Afrosiyob train is two hours long and the tickets cost around $7 at the train stations.
While Samarkand has a tram service, it does not compare to Tashkent’s well-connected subway system. Luckily, taxis are easy to find and Yandex Go — a Russian ride-hailing app — offers rides at reasonable rates in all major cities.
Uzbeki cuisine is the highlight of any visit to Samarkand. Traditional dishes such as plov, shashlik, lagman, somsa, manti and a variety of salads offer a delectable taste of Central Asian flavours. The warm hospitality of the locals extends to their dining culture, making meals even more memorable.
Plov is the quintessential Uzbek dish, and you’ll find it at the heart of every special occasion and celebration in Samarkand. It can be likened to our very own ‘pulao’. This aromatic rice dish is cooked with succulent chunks of lamb or beef, sweet and tender carrots, and a generous sprinkling of spices such as cumin and barberries.
Shashlik, the Uzbek version of skewered and grilled meat, is a staple street food in Samarkand. Chunks of marinated lamb or beef are threaded onto metal skewers and cooked over open flames until tender and smoky.
Lagman is a hearty noodle soup that originated from Central Asia and became a beloved dish in Samarkand. It features hand-pulled noodles combined with a savoury broth, tender chunks of meat, and a medley of vegetables such as carrots, bell peppers, and tomatoes.
Manti is a delicate steamed dumpling filled with minced meat, mixed with onions and fragrant spices. A thin and slightly-chewy dough encases the savoury filling. It is ordinarily served with a dollop of tangy yoghurt or smothered in a rich tomato sauce, creating a delightful balance of flavours.
Tyically, a meal in Samarkand is accompanied by green tea which is served in small bowls rather than cups.
Bread, known as ‘non’ holds a special place in Uzbek culture, and Samarkand is no exception. The people take immense pride in their traditional bread-making techniques, and the result is a variety of non with unique shapes and designs. The classic round and flat loaf, known as the ‘oblong non’ is a must-try, and can be found in many artisanal variations. The sesame seed-topped variation may remind Pakistanis of home.
I must now move on to the jewel of the crown — the city’s architecture that perhaps deserves a whole piece on its own.
Stepping into the Registan Square, one is surrounded by intricate mosaics and towering arches. The intricate tile work on the facades of the madrasas in the square transported me back to a time when these buildings were vibrant centres of learning. The tranquil courtyard, adorned with shimmering mosaics and glistening gold, seemed like a gateway to another world — a world where artistry and spirituality merged seamlessly.
It is in Samarkand, surrounded by turquoise domes and ornate minarets, where I truly felt the grandeur of Uzbekistan, awe-struck by the sheer beauty around me.
Registan Square, which translates to ‘sandy place’ in Persian, has been a centre of political, cultural, and commercial activities for centuries. Originally a bustling marketplace, it later transformed into a prominent public square, gaining prominence during the reign of Amir Timur in the 14th and 15th centuries, when it became the city’s ceremonial centre and an educational hub.
The first magnificent structure that catches the eye upon entering the Square is the Ulugh Beg Madrasa. Built by the grandson of Amir Timur, Ulugh Beg in the early 15th century, this madrasa was a centre of astronomical and scientific studies. Its imposing facade, adorned with intricately carved terracotta bricks and vibrant turquoise and cobalt blue tile work, reflects the architectural brilliance of the Timurid dynasty.
Adjacent to the Ulugh Beg Madrasa stands the Sher-Dor Madrasa, constructed in the 17th century. The madrasa’s defining feature is the mesmerising mosaic work on its entrance portal, depicting two fierce tigers chasing deer, an unusual and symbolic representation in Islamic art. The harmony of the golden and azure hues, intricate details, and geometric patterns leaves visitors in awe.
Completing the ensemble of Registan Square is the Tilya-Kori Madrasa, which stands opposite the Ulugh Beg Madrasa. Constructed in the mid-17th century, this madrasa is unique in that it combines educational and religious functions. The interior houses a mosque adorned with gold leaf, earning it the name Tilya-Kori, meaning ‘decorated with gold’. The shimmering gold accents against the blue tilework create a captivating sight.
The central courtyard of the square serves as a meeting point between the three madrasas, adding to the grandeur and symmetry of the complex. It was once a lively space where students gathered for lessons, scholars engaged in intellectual discussions, and merchants traded their goods. Today, the courtyard provides visitors with a sense of serenity.
As you stand in the midst of the square, you can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the artisans who created these magnificent structures.
As we wandered through the city’s labyrinthine streets, we stumbled upon the magnificent Bibi-Khanym Mosque. Constructed in the 15th century, this colossal mosque symbolises the might of Timur’s empire. It has an enormous entrance portal, a vast courtyard, and intricate mosaics. Exploring the mosque’s interior reveals stunning calligraphy and a rich blend of Islamic architectural elements.
Our next destination was the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum, the final resting place of the great conqueror, Amir Timur.
The majestic dome is adorned with azure tiles and calligraphic inscriptions. Inside, the grandeur continues with remarkable marble work and beautifully carved wooden panels. The serene ambience and historical significance of the mausoleum were truly enchanting.
Our next destination was Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis, one of the most renowned sites in the city. The name means ‘tomb of the living king’ and is the resting place of 7th-century Kusam ibn Abbas, a cousin of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). Other notable structures include the mausoleums of Timur’s family members, such as Shadi Mulk Aga, Shirin Bika Aga, and Tuman Aka. Each tomb bears unique architectural features.
This enchanting complex of mausoleums and tombs draws visitors from around the world with ornate tile craftsmanship, vibrant colours, and captivating aura.
As you approach the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis, a pathway unfolds before you, lined with vibrant blue-tiled structures that seem to rise from the earth. This sacred avenue, flanked by ancient cypress trees, leads visitors on a spiritual journey.
Each mausoleum along the pathway features intricate tile work, geometric patterns, and calligraphic inscriptions, displaying the Timurid-era craftsmens’ mastery. The interplay of light and shadow on the tiled facades adds an ethereal touch to the structures.
Shah-i-Zinda is not just a collection of tombs — it is a place steeped in legends and tales of miracles. The stories narrate the divine protection and blessings bestowed upon those who rest within its sacred walls. Visitors are fascinated by the belief that the souls of the departed continue to live in the necropolis, offering blessings and spiritual guidance to those who visit with reverence.
Beyond the main pathway lie hidden gems waiting to be discovered. As you explore the network of paths and staircases, you will encounter smaller mausoleums and tombs adorned with detailed mosaics and inscriptions. Some structures provide glimpses into the daily lives of the people buried within, displaying scenes of hunting, feasting, and courtly life.
As we bid farewell to this timeless city, we carried with us the memories of its awe-inspiring attractions and the stories of the great civilisations that once thrived here. Samarkand truly embodies the spirit of the Silk Road and is a must-see destination for those seeking a glimpse into the past.
The dazzling beauty of the Registan Square, the serene ambience of Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum, the grandeur of Bibi-Khanym Mosque, and the ethereal charm of Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis all combine to create an unforgettable experience.
My journey through Samarkand left an indelible mark on my soul, forever etching marks of astonishing architecture, warm-hearted locals, extraordinary food and a palpable sense of history that pulsated through every step I took.
Header image: The Registan Square. — Faisal Farooq
All photos by author