One thing our guide book really has got right is the loveliness of the Antica guest house in Samarkand and the delicious breakfast with which we start the day – fresh muesli, spinach stuffed bread, cheese doughnuts, and three sorts of home made jam for the fresh bread. It’s a good thing we’ve eaten well as we then spend the next hour walking to try and get to the minibus park so we can get to Ulug Beg’s observatory and the Afrosiab Fort – it feels like just too far to walk both ways. This proves a bit futile – we know we need a number 17 or 45 bus but a very friendly and insistent driver’s mate misunderstands where we want to go and ushers us on to the number 22 bus… which takes us back to where we started our walk from! At this point we give up and hail a taxi which takes us right to the observatory for 5000 som (about $1.50) – a useful lesson learned. We pass the Afrosiab fort and Shah-i Zinda tomb complex, which we plan to visit later, on the way.
The people we spoke to at dinner last night really rated Ulug Beg’s observatory and the small museum there but, because of our shenanigans getting there and the fact that it’s a Saturday, the whole place is heaving by the time we arrive about 10 am and a little disappointing. The only piece of astronomical equipment left in situ is part of a 63 m quadrant arc unearthed by Russian archaeologists in 1907. It survived the destruction of the rest of the equipment and the murder of Ulug Beg by fanatics in 1449 because of its position.
Ulug Beg’s quadrant arc, housed behind a modern portal
The museum might be very interesting but it’s tiny and too crowded to see the exhibits properly so we soon give up. Everywhere we go today is full of local people dressed in their glad rags, out to enjoy their weekend. It gives a lovely holiday atmosphere to the place, rather like when we were in the Mughul gardens in Kashmir at the weekend. The women dress in brightly coloured kurta style tunics and trousers too, but these are made of velvet so I’m not sure how they avoid melting on a hot day like today!
We head back down the road towards the city, aiming for Daniel’s tomb and the Afrosiab museum. We find the mausoleum but miss the museum but are quite pleased with a 50 % success rate, given our recent track record. The history of the 7th Century Afrosiab fort will have to wait until our next visit!
Daniel (Daniyar) is patron saint and protector of Samarkand and his remains were supposedly brought to the city, from Persia, by Timur. Legend has it that Daniel’s severed leg continued to grow after his death so his body has been housed in a series of increasingly large sarcophagi – the current one is 18 m long. We are only allowed to peer into the sacred building, as are the other visitors this morning – elderly Uzbek pilgrims, with their mufti. Daniel is not just revered by those of Abrahamic faiths though – the bundle of horse hair hanging from a pole denotes the burial place of a spiritual leader of the nomads too.
Outside Daniel’s tomb
Looking at our map we decide we should be able to walk from the back of Daniel’s tomb across Afrosiab hill to the fort and Shah-i Zinda tombs so we head off piste, with just some cattle and herders for company. This is my first real chance to look for some wild flowers, so has to be grabbed. There are several small and familiar looking flowers – rocket, sandwort, stitchwort and geranium at a guess but, without a book, it’s impossible to be sure.
There are also some very different looking flowers.
The flowering and seed set of an unknown plant
Sadly, it’s clear that we are too early for the bulk of the flowering plants on the hill though – another reason to come back!
Our navigation is slightly off, as usual, and we end up in the graveyard of the Hazrat Hizr mosque along with lots of Samarkand residents and plenty of tourists, eager for the view it offers.
At least, from this vantage point, we can get our bearings better and we head for the Bibi Khanym mosque and mausoleum. Bibi Khanym is supposed to have built the mosque for her husband, Timur, in whilst he was away terrorising northern India. Legend has it that the architect fell in love with her and was executed by Timur, on his return. The mosque was one of the largest of its day but was, perhaps, built too quickly as much of it fell down in an earthquake shortly afterwards. The present building was heavily restored in the 1970s but the effect of more recent earthquakes on the structure is only too apparent.
Bibi Khanym mosque, with fragile looking walls in the courtyard (below)
The courtyard of the mosque houses a giant stone stand for the huge Qu’ran we saw in Tashkent. Childless women who crawl under the stone are supposed to conceive, though the stone is roped off to make that more difficult now.
Stone Qu’ran stand inside Bibi Khanym’s mosque
The courtyard is bustling with groups of tourists but we step inside an anteroom to find a man repainting the beautiful frescos in perfect solitude – for one minute. The next minute a group enter and 20 or more camera phones are flashing away.
The painter at work and frescos before and after renovation
There is more beautiful tiling on the walls around the courtyard.
It feels like time for lunch and a sit down by this time so we head for the bazaar in search of food, assuming there will be a canteen as there was in Chorsu bazaar. We find all the usual sections – fruit and veg, dried foods, breads and sweetmeats and, less appealingly, a woman selling amulets made of wolf skin.
We eventually find the canteen in a separate building beside the market – one thing we notice here is that buildings often have little on the outside to advertise what is happening inside. At least we don’t have to worry about what to order this time – we get the same as everyone else; plov, made with beef, salad and a kind of yoghurt soup flavoured with dill and mint which cuts through the oiliness of the plov well. Suitably fed and watered we set off for the Shah-i Zinda mausoleum complex.
Shah-i Zinda with the Hisor mountains (Tajikistan) behind
Shah-i Zinda is a mausoleum complex with 14th and 15th Century tombs above and below the mosque and mausoleum which gives the site its name. Shahi Zinda (also known as Kusam ibn Abbas) was a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the first to bring Islam to Central Asia.
We decide to start at the top, with the northernmost tombs, and work our way down – the colour is almost overwhelming as we walk up the hill, in company with equally colourfully dressed Uzbeks.
The mid 14th Century tombs at the top of the hill are decorated with ornately carved and glazed terracotta tiles.
Décor on the 14th Century tombs of Khodja Ahmad and Kutlug Oko
As we drop down the hill we come to the 11th and 12th Century Kusam ibn Abbas (Shahi Zinda) complex. A mufti sits in the prayer room chanting prayers with pilgrim visitors.
Entrance to the Shahi Zinda complex
Further down the hill, again, we come to tombs from the late 14th and early 15th century with some very different tiling – Ufto Ali Nesefi’s mausoleum is striking for the geometric patterning of the tiles, both inside and out.
Interior and exterior tiling of Ufto Ali Nesefi’s mausoleum
The late 14th Century tombs built by Timur for his sisters are different again, that of Shirin Beka Oko in particular, for the delicate fresco work on the walls and ceiling.
Equally exquisite are the frescos decorating the tomb Timur had built for his wet nurse – almost like Chinese ‘willow pattern’ in style.
We sit on the benches at the bottom of the steps for a rest and ended up chatting to a friendly group of girls from a local teacher training college who’d been tasked with making a video, in English, about the mausoleum complex!
We decide it’s not too far to walk back to the hotel now we know where we are going, though it is hot, so we stop off at the Registan for an ice cream on the way. We narrowly escape having our photos taken with a bride and groom having wedding photos taken in the park but don’t escape the friendly attention of a family out for the afternoon.
We relax back on our lovely balcony for the rest of the afternoon then head out to find a restaurant near the Registan for dinner. The food is fine, and we do manage to avoid more plov, but the best bit is walking out afterwards to see the Registan lit up at night – very beautiful.