Samarkand has been the capitol of an empire, the capital of a tsarist protectorate, and the capital of a soviet republic. It is currently the second largest city in Uzbekistan (Foltz, 213), a world heritage site, and an enchanted concept that has been invoked by writers such as Kipling. The perception of the city has changed as it has been the capital of different empires as each ruler has amplified different aspects. As a site of memory it serves to unite the many strands of Uzbek history and serves as a symbol of greatness to fuel nationalism in this post-soviet era.
Samarkand “began as an oasis on the Zerafshan River, the valley of which was historically the most fertile and populous of Central Asia” (Golden Samarkand). At a height of 2,000 feet and surrounded on three sides by the Pamir Mountains, the city experiences an extreme climate, but is still an agricultural leader of the region due to the river (Hill, 60). Famous for its wines, Samarkand also produces cotton, tobacco, wheat, and many fruits and vegetables (Poulton, 304). Samarkand controls the flow of the water into surrounding areas through canals and other irrigation systems, even for the city of Bukhara. As a result of its agricultural production and its strategic position, controlling the city has lead to command of the region yielding it a sense of power today.
The history of the city stretches back thousands of years but was brought notably into Western attention when it lost its status as capital of the Achaemenid Empire and was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC; the renamed Marakanda was then inhabited by the Arabs as a part of the Umayyad Empire (Poultin 301). The strong Muslim faith of the city today can be traced back to this occupation. However, little of this physical heritage remains as Genghis Khan destroyed it in 1220; thus, the majority of the physical sites of memory have their roots in the fourteenth century (Poultin, 301). Perhaps as a result of the destruction, the current narrative of the city does not heavily emphasize the ancient origins of Samarkand, but, rather, begins with praise of the Timurid dynasty and the Silk Road while incorporating the legacy of the Islamic faith.
As a historical city on the Silk Road, it became a “cultural crossroads” for it is currently celebrated as a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The current layout of Samarkand can largely be attributed to Timur the Lame who made it his capital in the late fourteenth century (Hill, 64). Timur ordered the creation of the Registan, the public square of Samarkand and a covered bazaar, which currently serves as a central tourist attraction deep in the city. His plans also created the six main roads that lead from the square to the known parts of the world—he created the literal cultural crossroads that UNESCO currently embraces (Architecture of Samarkand, I). According to local legend, propagated by Soviet tour guides in the 1950s and 70s, he created the Muslim tradition of the Hijab. During the construction of the Bibi Khanum, a mosque to honor his favorite wife, his wife allowed the architect to kiss her cheek which left a burn mark (Hill, 65). When Timur returned from conquest he “was so delighted by the beauty of the mosque that he forgave his wife’s indiscretion… However, as a means of concealing his own shame, he ordered every woman of the court to veil her cheeks in the future” (Hill, 65). According to legend, this is why Muslim women cover their faces. This narrative is not retold today by any official sites in English and in the Western press Samarkand is not associated with the hijab. But, the story shows that at one time Samarkand symbolized faith.
Many of the other major sites of Samarkand are related to Timur, his tomb the Gur Emir; his grandson’s madrassah the Ulugh Beg madrassah, the ruins of his grandson’s observatory, and the Shah-i Zinda Mausoleums which contain a cousin of Mohammed, relatives of Timur, and others. Timur’s efforts to endow the city with grandeur as capitol of his world empire have provided the current foundation for the narrative of greatness which is drawn upon today. The current romantic awe of the city and the importance of Timur are not necessarily modern inventions although documents from Timur’s time are unavailable to prove that in the fourteenth century the city was enshrined in thought as it is currently. There must have been a sense of prestige in the city, as it was to be a world capitol, but the slaves who built the monuments and the elite of that period left no primary sources to understand the mythical beginnings of the modern narrative of Samarkand. However, today, the monuments from the Timurid dynasty are referred to by travel guides and the world heritage guide to the city. The Soviet impact on the city is not mentioned in either, and soviet pictures and statues are also not described. The West has clearly bypassed the Soviet era when remembering Samarkand. Ahmed suggests that the East has as well,
For Muslims Central Asia was no ordinary place. Samarkand had once been the centre of the world, the golden road to Samarkand itself a cliché, a dream of a way of life. What the Russians had brought , understood in this context was tawdry, mean and shabby. What they had taken away was incalculable. Worse what, no one ever mentioned or acknowledged during the Soviet days was the fact that in their own right these Central Asian peoples had been the superpower of their time (Ahmed, 78).
This is how the twentieth century is recounted now but before 1991 the soviet narrative revealed an entirely different perspective.
The Timurid dynasty ended with the Uzbek occupation of the city which signified the shift of the region from Turkish-speaking inhabitants to Farsi-speaking settlers (Allworth, 11). Tajiks today are seventy percent of Samarkand’s population and their place in the narrative of Samarkand has been largely forgotten and Timur has become an Uzbek hero (Foltz, 213). The diverse group of inhabitants in the fourteenth century continued the Muslim tradition and built the Shir Dor Madrassah, a Muslim school, which sits at the Registan, the main square and covered market created by Timur. The narrative of Samarkand does not currently delve deeply into the sixteenth and seventeenth century, rather it is forced to jump to the conqueror who has the most influence today, Russia. In 1867 Russian forces occupied the city as the tsar attempted to gain Bukhara and the surrounding area (Becker, 40). The mullahs of Samarkand rebelled and forced the Russians to Kermine for a brief time (Becker, 39-40). However by 1868, the Russians held Samarkand and thus the water of Bukhara in their possession. The treaty of 1868 created the Bukhara khanate which was a protectorate of Russia with some independence; Samarkand was where the treaty was signed and became the Russian capital of the province (Becker, 41-42). Samarkand under the tsars was the central place for administration. By 1902 telegraph lines ran from Moscow to Samarkand (Becker, 162). Until 1917 Governor General Ivanov maintained a two to one ration of water for Samrakand and Bukhara thus exercising control over the region through usage of the canals (Becker, 163). Tsarist policies concerning Bukhara were similar to the policies of the rest of Central Asia, incorporation. With the outbreak of the Revolution in 1917, Central Asia divided into many republics rejecting the occupation of Russia. But as the Civil War ended, Samarkand like the rest of Central Asia became part of the Soviet Union as capital of the Uzbek Republic in 1924 (Samarkand—Crossroads of Culture).
The USSR focused on the fertility of the region to fuel its economy and forced Samarkand and its surrounding areas into collectivized cotton production (Poulton, 304). The collectivization of the region drastically changed the previously food self-sufficient region and local families rebelled (Poulton, 304). The city narrative was also changed by the Soviets who disregarded the Timurid dynasty and for a time relied on the legacy of faith. Samarkand was selected to be the capital of the new republic because it was centrally located and
one of the first reform centers of radical thought in Central Asia and perhaps the primary focus of Reformist ideas, Samarkand also offered the purest kind of indigenous, Muslim site from which to project Moscow’s foreign policy message to the outer Muslim world. This choice of location avoided the appearance of continued Russian colonialism that the selection of Tashkent, with its recent history as headquarters for the Russian military governor and its large Russian population, would have made inevitable. Samarkand’s architectural beauty testified to the power if Islam, long before Amir Timur’s day, to create significant art in Central Asia that could have become the nexus uniting traditional and modern Uzbek identity (Allworth, 216-217).
Soviet construction of modern Uzbek identity relied on Islam only for six years; in 1930 the capital moved to Tashkent (Allworth, 217). Very quickly the legacy of faith disappeared and was replaced by Stalin’s harsh crack-down. By the late 1970s, when the Poultins traveled in Samarkand, they reported that “we did not see one woman wearing the ‘tchatchvan’, the traditional horse-hair veil” and remarked that “the women clearly enjoyed their freedom. They recounted with relish the blood-curdling stories of the 1920s, when Uzbek and Tajik women… had thrown of their veils in the Registan Square” (Poultin, 309-310).
The Samarkand narrative now was reduced to Soviet policy. In 1969 Samarkand celebrated its 2500th anniversary. The report given to the government to ask for the celebration was republished for popular consumption in Uzbek and Russian. It spoke of the “Timurid accomplishments but largely ignored the matter of the amir’s ethnic identity or his ostensible Uzbekness” (Allworth, 245). Soviets no longer wished to emphasize Islam and did not dare to speak of ethnicity due to the fear of budding nationalism. The celebration was thus empty of the heritage identity which is currently embraced.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Samarkand has yet to have a narrative truly emerge beyond Uzbek nationalism. The West has constructed its own narrative of Samarkand that does not appear to have been contradicted in any English sources. Seeing it as a symbol of ancient success and exotic vacationing, the West has emphasized the Timurid Dynasty. The Timurid dynasty has clearly been embraced by the area as referenced by Ahmed, but one might expect Uzbekistan to move the capital from Tashkent to truly reclaim Uzbekness. This has not happened nor are there any English sources that suggest it was even debated to my knowledge. How much then has Samarkand truly remained in the memory of the Uzbeks as it had not been the capitol since 1930? This question has yet to be answered, but truly the city maintains its ancient glory as a symbol and tourist destination.
- Akbar S. Ahmed, From Samarkand to Stornoway Living Islam (New York: Facts on File, 1994)
- Alaric Jacob, A Russian Journey: From Suzdal to Samarkand (New York: Hill and Wand, 1969).
- Edward A. Allworth, The Modern Uzbeks: From the Fourteenth Centrury to the Present A Cultural History (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1990)
- Eileen K. Gunn, “Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva” http://www.gorp.com/camping-guide/travel-ta-middle-east-architecture-uzbekistan-camping-sidwcmdev_054136.html
- ________, “Golden Samarkand” http://www.gorp.com/weekend-guide/travel-ta-middle-east-architecture-culture-uzbekistan-sidwcmdev_054140.html
- ________, “Architecture of Samarkand, I” http://www.gorp.com/weekend-guide/travel-ta-middle-east-architecture-culture-uzbekistan-sidwcmdev_054141.html
- ________, “Architecture of Samarkand, II” http://www.gorp.com/weekend-guide/travel-ta-middle-east-architecture-culture-uzbekistan-sidwcmdev_054141.html
- Richard Foltz, “The Tajiks of Uzbekistan” in Central Asian Survey, Central Asain Studies Vol.15, No. 2 (1996), pp. 213-216.
- Robin and Michelle Poulton, “Arecent visit to Bukhara and Samarkand: a View of Uzbek Society” in Asain Affairs, Routledge Vol. 7, No. 3 (Nov., 1976), pp. 299-311.
- “Samarkand.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (November 2011): 1. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 23, 2012).
- “Samarkand—Crossroads of Cultures” http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/603
- Seymour Becker, Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia: Bukhara and Khiva, 1865-1924 (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004).