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Marakanda to the Greeks. One of Central Asia's oldest settlements. The capital of Tamerlane's empire Mawaranahr. 


        Ancient capital of fluted domes and sky blue mosaic, the Garden of the Soul and the Pearl of the East, emporium on major Silk Road crossroads and trade routes west to Persia, east to China and south to India - that’s amazing and fascinating Samarkand. Lying in the river valley of the Zarafshan and flanked by Pamir-Alai mountain spurs, this fabled oasis at the fringes of the Kyzyl Kum desert excites the travelers even today. City of Famous Shadows reveals Samarkand as witness to the full sweep of Central Asia history, among conquerors to cast their shadows were the Macedonian Alexander the Great, the Mongol Genghis Khan. In 1370 Tamerlane achieved supremacy in Transoxiana, his choice of capital was obvious - Samarkand’s history, fertility and potential for rebirth. For next 35 years the lands of Persia, Syria, Asia Minor and India dispatched into Samarkand their minds – scholars, historians, theologians – and hands – architects, masons, painters, calligraphers, tile-glaziers, silk-weavers, glass-blowers, silversmiths, gunsmiths and  blow-makers to create the Centre of Universe. The very word Samarkand, so resonant with enigma and romantic legend, afford the travelers nowadays a spectacular glimpse of Tamerlane’s the Mirror of the World.

Historical monuments:


The Registan ensemble at the heart of Samarkand, restored to its original splendor, ranks first among the greatest of all magnificent works of the Islamic world. It’s meaning, sandy place, after a stream that washed sand over the earth. The Registan square consist of three monumental madrassah.

Ulugbek Madrassah

Tamerlane’s grandson Ulugbek’s legacy is educational. Legend claims the ruler himself lectured here on astronomy, his greatest passion, reflected in the panoply of azure-blue stars on 35- meter portal. A Kufic (an early angular form of the Arabic alphabet) inscription reads: “This magnificent façade is of such a height it is twice the heavens and of such weight that the spine of the earth is about to crumble”. A yellow-brown background, the colour of the earth, its size is more balanced by the sheer elegance of its design and ceramic tile coating. Mosaic and majolica panels shine with floral motifs and Kufic calligraphy. Two 33 – meter minarets flanking the façade, terminate in honeycomb decoration.

Sher Dor Madrassah

The Registan’s second Madrassah, built by order of Uzbek Governor of Samarkand Shaybanid Yalangtushbiy Bakhodur between 1619 and 1636. His architects strove to match the first in scale and nobility. Façade length is identical, 51 meters from minaret to minaret. Every inch seems covered with richly colored floral and epigraph patterns. Above portal arch, in hot pursuit of two startled white does, through spiraling shoots and flowers, run the lions that give the Madrassah its name, Sher Dor – “lion –bearing”.  The striped beasts resemble tigers and from their backs rise beam-fringed suns with human faces. The powerful lion-tiger is Amir Yalangtushbiy himself, swallowing his neighbors as sun radiates his glory; or rather the animal-sun shows the tenacity of pre-Islamic Zoroastrian solar symbolism. Legend claims the architect responsible died for his heresy, yet other 17th century madrassah similarly adorned. The choice of colors, blue, white, yellow and green reflects Bukhara influence.

Tilla Kari Madrassah

To enclose the square in pleasing harmony, Amir Yalangtushbiy ordered his architects to stretch the facades of the third Madrassah to 75 meters, built between 1646 and 1660. Smaller corner turrets are preferred to minarets, but the mosaic feast is just as lavish – sprightly solar symbols and interlacing floral motifs in similar colours to the Sher Dor. Its magnificent interior is swathed in kundal style gold leaf – hence the title Tillya Kari, “gilded”. Tillya Kari declares its religious purpose with two storeys of hujra, ventilated by panjara, carved plaster windows. The domed prayer galleries display exhibitions of terracotta and mosque decoration.

Bibi Khanum Mosque

Seized Delhi in December 1398, Tamerlane vowed to create a mosque without parallel in décor throughout the Muslim world. The best slave-artisans in the realm laboured to realize the emperor’s plan. The enormous congregational Bibi Khanum’s Mosque soared over 35 meters around an arch 18 meters in diameter with flanking minarets 50 meters high. It led to a rectangular courtyard paved with marble, cornered by minarets and fringed by a gallery of 400 cupolas supported by 400 marble columns. North and south were side mosques with fluted domes and to the east the portal of main sanctuary topped 40 meters. Ornamentation was suitably magnificent - carved marble and terracotta, glazed mosaic in multiple form, blue gold frescoes and gilt papier-mâché. The court historian declared; “The dome would have been unique but for the sky being its copy; the arch would have been singular but for the Milky Way matching it”. All three mosque domes have crudely reappeared, tiled again in turquoise-blue on yellow-brown brick, the classical Samarkand contrast of sky and earth. At the centre of the courtyard stands a great lectern of grey Mongolian marble donated by Ulug Bek. Once it held the one-meter-square Osman Koran, a 7th century treasure brought here by Tamerlane.  Opposite the entrance to Bibi Khanum is the blue-domed Bibi Khanum Mausoleum (1397). Three female burials were discovered in the crypt beneath the mausoleum’s octagonal chamber.

Khazret  Khyzr

On the southern edge of Afrosiab/Afrasiyob (excavation site of ancient settlement 6 BC -13 AD), rears the Khazret Khyzr Mosque, a must for any traveler as Khyzr is the patron of wanderers and possesses the water of life. However, he appears only to the devout who perform namaz bamdad prayers 40 Mondays in succession. This figure of legend predates Islam and this spot may have seen an ancient temple before the Arabs built the city’s first mosque here. The present building, dating from the mid-19 century but reworked ever since, has an asymmetrical composition of minaret, entrance lobby, indoor and outdoor premises. From under its beautiful wooden iwan, enjoy the view across bazaar traffic to Bibi Khanum and east to Shah-i-Zinda.


The holiest site of Samarkand is a necropolis of mausoleums climbing back in time from the northeast fringe of Tamerlane’s capital over the old city wall and onto the southern slope of ancient Afrosiyob. Legend traces its history back to 676, when Kussam-ibn-Abbas of the prophet of Mohammed, arrived to convert Zoroastrian Sogdiana to Islam. The success of his preaching provoked a gang of fire-worshippers to behead him whilst he was at prayer. It appears the Arabs established Kussam, who probably never saw Samarkand, into the cult of Shahi-Zinda (the Living King) by adapting a pre –Islamic mythical ruler, maybe Afrosiyob himself, reigning beyond death beneath the earth. The Mongol conquest flattened the surrounding complex but left Kussam’s grave alone, as Moroccan traveler ibn-Battuta reported in 1333: “The inhabitants of Samarkand come out to visit it every Sunday and Thursday night. The Tartars also come to visit it, pay vows to it and bring cows, sheep, dirhams  and dinars; all this used for the benefit of the hospital and the blessed tomb. The Timurid aristocracy continued the tradition of building mausoleums near the sacred site. These works display the creative wealth of the empire in surprising harmony, for no mausoleum repeats another.


In 1434-35 Ulugbek built the grand pishtak (entrance portal) as a finishing touch to the southern end of Shahi-Zinda. Behind it is the first of three chortak, domed transit halls, flanked by a mosque and halls, leading to the 1910 wooden iwan of a 19th century mosque opposite the Davlet Kushbegi Madrassah(1813). Halfway up the steep Staircase of Sinners ahead rise the twin blue domes of the Qazi Zadeh Rumi mausoleum (1420-25), the largest in the complex. Through the second chortak at the top are the brick-ribbed domes of the Emir Hussein Mausoleum (1376) to the right and opposite the Emir Zade (1386).  The left-hand Shadi Mulk Aka (1372) was the first Timurid structure in Samarkand and takes pride place in Shahi-Zinda. The inscription “This is a tomb in which a precious pearl has been lost” describes Tamerlane’s beautiful young niece, buried and later joined by his eldest sister Turkhan Aka. The plain brickwork on its melon-shaped dome and three external facades highlights the brilliance of its lace-like portal. From the stalactite vault over the entrance to the filigree corner columns run panels of carved and glazed terracotta and majolica, exhausting the turquoise-blues and floral motifs of the age. An octagonal star crowning the tiled interior divides the dome into eight sections pierced by a teardrop medallion; a jewel in the cosmos of the cupola, for each tear conceals a sun and six planets. Opposite the Shirin Bika Aka Mausoleum (1385), ascribed to another sister of Tamerlane, also boasts its original décor. Instead of relief carving, the entire portal is faced with incised majolica mosaic in calligraphic inscription and scrolling floral patterns. Other innovations include a tall, 16-sided drum, tiled cupola and interior murals in gold paint. The final chortak connects Kussam’s shrine on the east with northern courtyard. To the left is the mosque and mausoleum complex (1404-05) built for Tamerlane’s favorite young wife Tuman Aka. Beneath a sky-blue dome the chamber portal carriers lavish mosaic faience resembling Shirin Bika, though the geometric designs and violet-blue are new. Calligraphy above finely carved doors reads: ” The tomb is a door and everybody enters it”. The inner cupola paints a blue night with golden stars above delicate landscape murals. Khodja Akhmad Mausoleum (1350), second oldest in the ensemble and prototype for the rest, a domed cube with elaborate façade. The adjoining mausoleum (1361) popularly linked to Tamerlane’s wife Kutlug Aka, reveals similar decoration and motifs. The chortak’s eastern door (1405), though stripped of gold, silver and ivory, retains exquisite carving framed by calligraphy welcoming the true believer to paradise, for three pilgrimages here equal one to Mecca. Just inside is a section of 11th century minaret whose top peers out of the roof. A vaulted corridor leads to the Kussam-ibn-Abbas Mosque (1460), a three domed rectangle with blue-tiled mihrab, before the brightly tiled ziaratkhana (room for pilgrimage), rebuilt in 1334. Visible through a wooden trellis the gurkhona (grave chamber) housing Kussam’s four-tier tombstone (1380), a blaze of majolica richly colored and gilded  in floral styles and Koranic inscription: “Those who were killed on the way of Allah are not to be considered dead: indeed they are alive.” Count steps on your way down the Staircase of Sinners. If the number differs from your ascent, your penance is to climb them a further 40 times on your knees.

Ulugbek Observatory

In the foothills overlooking Afrosiab to the northeast are the remains of a remarkable 15th century observatory, the crowning achievement and disaster of tamerlane’s grandson, astromer-king Ulugbek.  In 1908, the mystery of its whereabouts was solved after years of painstaking research by Russian archaeologist Vyatkin. Today visitors can view his discovery, the underground section of a vast meridian arc, ignored by the fanatics who destroyed the building in 1449. It was the largest 90 9degree) quadrant the world had ever seen, though it is called a sextant as only 60 (degree) were used. Deeply embedded in the rock to lessen seismic disturbance, the surviving 11-metre arc sweeps upwards in two marble parapets cut with minute and degree calibrations for the astrolabe that ran its length. The arc completed its radius at the top of a three-storey building. Above ground floor service rooms were arcades designed as astronomical instruments. A witness described the planetarium-like decoration: “Inside the rooms he had painted and written the image of the nine celestial orbits and the shapes of the nine heavenly bodies, and the degrees, minutes and seconds of the epicycles; the seven planets and pictures of the fixed stars, the image of the terrestrial globe, pictures of the climes with mountains, seas and deserts ….” The sextant is now covered by a portal and vault at the centre of the observatory’s foundations. Vyatkin’s grave lies nearby, as he had requested. A memorial museum details the careers of Tamerlane and his grandson. Ulugbek’s scientific success, the culmination of a Central Asian tradition including al-Khorezmi, al-Beruni and Avicenna, is set alongside the political failures that cost him his life.

Gur Emir

Mausoleum Gur Emir, the tomb of the ruler. Between 1400 and 1401 Tamerlane’s favorite grandson, Mohammed Sultan, erected a madrassah and khanagha complex. Mohammed’s death in 1403 prompted Tamerlane to complete the ensemble with mausoleum. Spanish envoy Clavijo reported how the ageing Emir, carried to the site in late 1404, had demanded it rebuilt with added grandeur in only ten days “under threat of a terrible forfeit to the workmen”. Although he intended burial in his hometown Shakhrisabz, Tamerlane was soon laid to rest beside his grandson and followed by descendents down to Ulugbek, whose presence has spurred recent restoration. Mohammed Sultan’s blue-tiled portal opens onto a courtyard once cornered with minarets and flanked by madrassah and khanaga, but today only the foundations survive. Their absence emphasizes the simple monumentality of the Gur Emir itself, based on an octagonal chamber decorated with geometric girikh. Above it, belting the tall, cylindrical drum, the inscription “God is Immortal” thunders in white Kufic script three meters high.

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