Things to do in Samarkand – Land of the Thousand and One Nights

Samarkand is one of the most fascinating cities on the Silk Road and the jewel of Uzbekistan. It is also the major destination for any tourists visiting Uzbekistan, as most people have only heard about this city.

Samarkand’s name has gained a magical ring to it. Some people say that visiting it reminds them of Thousan and One Nights. But not many remember that it actually is mentioned in these tales a number of times. Brother of Shehrezedeh’s husband, Zaman is a sultan of Samarkand. Besides, many of the tales are set in Samarkand.

Its fame is well deserved. The city is gorgeous and very impressive. The whole city is also a UNESCO world heritage site. I personally preferred Bukhara though, but it all depends on one’s tastes.

SAMR7962

You will most probably come to Samarkand by train or by car. The fast train from Tashkent takes about 2 hours, while from Bukhara, somewhat less, about 1.5 hours.  If you are travelling by train, the station is not close to the city center, so you will have to either take a bus (#3 or 73) or find a taxi. For more details on train travel in Uzbekistan, on how to take a shared taxi and in general, what to expect from taxi drivers, check my post on transport in Uzbekistan.

Also, see my post for detailed tips on accommodation, climate, clothes and more.

20190424_185308

If you are able to, find accommodation near the central areas. The city has very badly developed public transport. Even knowing Russian, I was unable to find any relevant buses and haggling with taxis can be annoying, so reduce the need for transport. Although the main sites are quite spread out, if you like walking and follow the itinerary below, you can manage to explore them on foot. We stayed at Muzaffar hotel near Registan and can recommend it. It was clean and cheap.

History of Samarkand

There is no scientific evidence showing, when exactly was Samarkand founded. Some theories suggest that it dates back to as early as 8-7th centuries BC. The town of Afrasiyab was located here. It was then under Persian Achaemenid dynasty, followed by Alexander the Great, Persian Sassanid dysnaty, Turks, Mongols, etc. The greatest time in the Samarkand history has been the Amir Timur era.

Amir Timur and his legacy

We can’t talk about Samarkand without understanding the history of Amir Timur (Tamerlane, Timur Lang or Timur the Lame, as most people know him). He is the greatest figure in Uzbek history. He was actually born in Shahrisabz, which is located about 80kms from Samarkand. You can visit it, as a day trip, if you like and have time.

He was of Turko-Mongol descent. He founded the Timurid Empire from 1370. For about a century Timurid dynasty held most of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran and South Caucasus. Samarkand was its capital, until the death of Timur, after which the capital was moved to Herat. The Timurid dynasty slowly lost its territories and the Empire split into several emirates after the 15th century.

Timur envisaged himself, as the descendant of Genghis Khan and was known, as particularly cruel conqueror. The number of deaths caused by his conquests is approximated to 17 mln.

The Timurid empire had strong influences from Persia, which can be seen in the architecture of Samarkand and other cities. Most of the stunning buildings in Samarkand we love today, were built during Timur’s or his descendants’ reign.

After this period, Samarkand was part of khanates, until the Tsarist Russia and then Soviet Union took over the whole Uzbekistan.

With this rich history and being on the Silk Road, Samarkand definitely offers amazing cultural sights for tourists.

If you have very limited time and want a 1-day itinerary, visit these major sights in this sequence – Gur-e-Amir, Registan, Bibi Khanym mosque, Hazrat Khizr and Shah-i-Zinda (see their descriptions below). These are the most fascinating among the sightseeing spots and not to be missed.

If you have more time, here is the best 2-day itinerary for your trip.

Itinerary for Day 1

Visit Gur-e-Amir complex

Entrance price: 25,000 soms (photography charge 30,000 soms, but we were never asked about it).

Opening hours: 8am-7pm (9-5 from November to March).

Gur-e-Amir in translation from Persian means tomb of Amir or king. The main building of the complex is a mausoleum, where Timur and some of his descendants, including famous Ulug Beg are buried. Its construction was completed in 1404. The complex is gorgeous. Its exterior with its blue dome (which is common in Uzbekistan) and beautiful mosaics and the interior with golden glow and more mosaics are both stunning.

The complex also includes a khanaka (a place of spiritual gatherings) and madrassah (spiritual seminary or school). Originally, it was supposed to become an Islamic education center under the leadership of Timur’s grandson, Muhammad. His grandson’s death led Timur to build a mausoleum here.

SAMR7753

We visited on a very rainy day in April at about 11am, however, there were several tour groups inside the mausoleum. Obviously, as any tour groups they were noisy and annoying. People say you could avoid this by visiting first thing in the morning, which could be a good idea.

Inside you will find a number of gravestones. Timur’s gravestone is constructed from a single piece of jade. His remains are under this gravestone in an underground crypt. The tomb was opened in 1941, despite the opposition from Uzbek people, who believed in the curse against whoever opened the tomb. Interestingly, the war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany started a few days later after this. By the way, this excavation also scientifically confirmed that Timur was lame.

Btw. Nearby the Gur-e-Amir, you will find Amir Timur’s statue.

Rukhabad (or Rukhobod) Mausoleum is located basically next door to Gur-e-Amir and is free to enter. It is a small building and quite underwhelming compared to the magnificent neighbor. However, it is still worth a short visit. The mausoleum was built over the grave of an Islamic scholar Sheikh Burhaneddin Sagaradzhiin in 1380. The sheikh died in Beijing, but his wish was to be buried in Samarkand and Timur constructed this building to honor him.

Visit the Jewel of Samarkand –  Registan

Entrance price: 50,000 soms.

Opening hours: 8am-7pm (9-5 from November to March).

Walk from Gur-e-Amir: 15 minutes

Find the detailed information and tips for visiting it in a dedicated post.

Visit Bibi-Khanym mosque and Mausoleum

Entrance price: 25,000 soms.

Opening hours: 8am-7pm (9-5 from November to March).

Walk from Registan: 10 minutes

The Bibi Khanym mosque was constructed in 1399-1404. At the time, it was the largest mosque in the East.

SAMR7826

This complex has some most fascinating stories behind it.

The actual story of Bibi Khanym herself is very interesting. She was married to Amir Hussein Al-Balkh. After winning over this Amir, Timur captured and married her. She was of Genghis Khan’s bloodline and therefore, marrying her was a strategic choice. Through this marriage, Timur called himself a son in law of Genghis Khan and his descendant. Despite Timur’s 3 dozen wives, Bibi Khanym was the queen consort until his death.

Back to the construction of the mosque – according to one legend, the mosque was built by Bibi Khanym to celebrate his return from India. An architect in charge of the construction fell in love with the queen. He did everything to create obstacles and delay the construction. When the queen enquired about this, the architect blackmailed her requesting a kiss in return for timely completion of the construction works. The queen agreed to the kiss, but it left a mark on her cheek. The mosque was completed in time. After his return Tamerlane noticed the trace of the kiss and killed the architect.

According to another story, Timur brought architects from India and Iran and used 95 elephants to build a magnificent building in memory of the mother of his wife.

SAMR7812-1

Either way, the construction of the mosque was ordered by Timur or by Bibi Khanum, but it was built in a rush. Therefore, it wasn’t durable and started to crumble soon. Its constant renovations were very expensive, so since 16th century no more restorations were done. It was also affected by the earthquake. The new renovations started from 1974 and are constantly ongoing.

The interior is still in quite a disrepair. You can peak inside.

SAMR7792

In the middle of the courtyard, you will see a book pedestal. This is a quran stand. It was added by Ulug Beg and stood inside the mosque, but nowadays it was brought to the courtyard.

Despite the fact that we visited on a rainy day, there still were quite a lot of people walking around the grounds of the mosque, however, people didn’t much care about the Bibi Khanym mausoleum located opposite the mosque, across the pedestrian road. Bibi Khanym is buried here. We were basically the only ones wandering around its grounds.

Next to the mosque, you will find the Bibi-Khanym teahouse. You can try Uzbek dishes here. We visited and tried the dumplings. They were not too good though. Plus, the cleanliness standards left a lot to be desired. Either way, it’s still well-known and popular among locals and tourists.

 

Siab bazaar is a popular tourist destination. It is located very close to Bibi Khanym and is the largest bazaar in Samarkand. If you enjoy wandering around bazaars, trying things and haggling, you will like it here. Personally, this is not my cup of tea, so one peak was sufficient 😊

SAMR7844

(If you only have one day, also squeeze Hazrat Khizr and Shah-i Zinda today).

Catch the Light Show at Registan

In the evening, after all the sightseeing go back to Registan and enjoy the light show (if you are lucky and you are in Samarkand on a day, when the show is planned or if you are very rich and can pay the 2000 USD fee 😊 ). See the detailed tips on how to catch the show in this post.

Itinerary for Day 2

Visit mausoleum of Imam al-Bukhari

Entrance Price: 10,000 soms.

Opening hours: 8am-6pm.

Distance from central Samarkand: 25 km (taxi should cost about 50,000 soms both ways).

This mausoleum is located outside Samarkand, but it’s worth a visit. Order a taxi to go there. We asked our hotel to arrange a taxi for us, as we were very lazy to haggle from early morning. Keep in mind that prices for taxis to outside Samarkand are higher than inside the city and you can’t get a shared taxi to this mausoleum. The hotel ordered the taxi for 50,000 soms. The guy was supposed to take us there, wait for us and bring back to the city.

When at the complex, a couple approached us and asked us, what transport did we take to come here, and if it was possible for them to join us. Apparently, they took a shared taxi (which usually run inside the city) and thought that they would pay the usual 5,000 per person, as they were used to inside Samarkand. But I guess the communication failed, because to travel outside Samarkand the prices are far higher. So, the driver asked them for 50,000 instead. They fought and left (not sure, if they paid to the guy). We agreed, but as there were additional people coming with us, the taxi driver asked them to pay whatever they could in addition to what we were paying. Not sure what they gave to him in the end, but they came with us.

SAMR8112

Imam al-Bukhari was a prominent Islamic scholar, who was born in Bukhara in 810, hence, the al-Bukhari. He collected hundreds of hadith – that’s the verses and stories in Islam. He also taught disciples.

The small mausoleum over his grave was built in the 16th century. The current complex was built in 1998. It now The complex now includes not only mausoleum, but also a museum, madrasah and a mosque.

20190424_130329

In addition, next to the old complex you will find a modern shiny building. There is no one around, so we were very confused, as to the possibility of our visit. But the gates were open, so we just wandered around the grounds and asked a man working in the garden, if it was possible to visit the library inside. Apparently, it was not only allowed, but also free for anyone, who liked to visit. There was no one inside either and we were so happy to wander around and learn about al-Bukhari, about the number of different Qurans in this library, paintings of Al-Bukhari and his disciples, etc. The people there were very nice and explained everything to us without us asking. Overall, we loved it and we suggest you definitely check this place out. It’s not easy to miss, it’s a huge modern building next to the complex.

20190424_134006

After getting back from the mausoleum, ask the taxi driver to drop you off at the Ulug beg Observatory and start walking to other sights from there.

Visit the Observatory of Ulug beg

Entrance price: 25,000 soms

Opening times: 8am-7pm

At the street level, you will see a statue of Ulug Beg himself. Next to the statue, there are stairs leading up to the observatory. You are supposed to walk up from the stairs on the right side, the staircase on the left is for descending. We actually mixed it up, and as soon as we went up, we were ushered quickly to the ticket office.

SAMR8147

Ulug Beg, the most famous grandson of Timur and a scholar was particularly interested in astronomy. He built the observatory in Samarkand in 1420s.

Looking at what is left now, you wouldn’t guess its former grandeur. It may be underwhelming, unless your imagination can depict it in its former glory. Originally there was a round cylindrical building with three floors. Inside the building were three huge astronomical instruments. Part of only one remains now – the sextant, which was used to measure the angle of elevation of the celestial objects. Through this, the astronomers measured the length of the year, the exact time of noon, etc. The scholars believe that the measurements from those times were very close to current calculations, which is just unbelievable.

The astronomers of the time had created a catalogue of over 1000 stars.

The scholar Beg proved to be an unskillful ruler. After losing in battles a few times, his son demoted him. He was officially sent to Mecca for pilgrimage, but was on the way assassinated. After his demise, no one cared about the observatory any more, so it was destroyed in 1449 and forgotten after that. All the scholars working here were driven away. Part of it was only rediscovered in the beginning of the 20th century.

As mentioned, nowadays only part of one astronomical instrument remains. Next to it a small building was constructed to house a museum with the information and exhibits telling a story of Ulug Beg and his many achievements in the field of astronomy. The museum is very small and can get extremely crowded, a couple of loud tour groups really didn’t make the experience very pleasant.

Visit St Daniel’s Mausoleum

Entrance price: 15,000 soms.

Opening hours: 8.30am-6pm

Walk from Ulug Beg Observatory: 15 minutes

The mausoleum of prophet Daniel is located at the river Siab on the hill.

SAMR8151

Daniel was of the noble Jewish family, descentant of Kings David and Solomon. He was captured and lived in Babylon, where he became a famous scholar. According to the stories, Amir Timur brought his remans from Iran to Samarkand. Interestingly, not only this, but many other places in the world claim to have the grave of Daniel. He might be in many places 😊

This is not one of those huge magnificent buildings you will find in Samarkand.

SAMR8167

But it is still fascinating because the tomb is 18 meters long. It’s even extremely difficult to take a photo of it. The tomb is covered with a green cloth with Arabic inscriptions.

There is a lot of mysticism and confusion associated with this place. People argue over the reason of the length of the tomb – some believe that it was made so long to avoid detection of a real grave and hence the robbery, others think that it magically grows every year. Besides this, no one really knows what is inside the tomb, some say Daniel’s hand, others believe just earth brought from his grave, etc.

Visit Afrasiyab settlement and museum

Entrance price: 25,000 soms.

Opening hours: 8.30am-6pm

Walk from Hazrat Khizr or from St. Daniel’s: 10-15 minutes

Originally a city on the current territory of Samarkand was called Afrasiyab. Not much is left from this fascinating civilization now, but it is still fascinating to think that there was the whole city here some 27 centuries ago.

The scholars believe that Afrasyiab settlement existed from about 7th-6th century BC. It existed for quite a long time, until it was completely destroyed by the Mongols in 1220. People were so scared after this destruction, that they never settled in this place again and moved down the hill.

As a result, the area was never settled again and you will still see the bare hilly territory, where Afrasyiab was located north of Khazrat Hizr. The settlement was long forgotten until excavations started by the Russian archeologists in the 19th century. Their findings are now located in the Afrasyiab museum.

20190424_155307

To visit the museum and the area, you can either walk there from St Daniel’s Mausoleum and then walk to Hazrat Khizr or vice versa (it’s 10-15 minutes’ walk in either direction). While walking, you may feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, but don’t be deterred by that, it is not a very long walk. In this museum you will find the panels with painting depicting the scenes of battles, coronations and etc. You will also find a number of clay pots and other utensils, the heating ovens, the bathhouse materials and many other interesting things.

Take in the wonderful views from Hazrat Khizr

Entrance price: 15,000 soms.

Opening hours: 8am-6pm

Walk from Afrasyiab: 10-12 minutes

This mosque has a very original shape, which was what attracted me to it. Many people describe it, as uninteresting among the grand buildings of Samarkand. But I disagree. This mosque is unique and cute. Its colors are lovely. It also provides gorgeous views over parts of the city, mainly the Bibi Khanym.

SAMR7858

SAMR7860

Originally, the mosque was built in the 7th century and was the oldest mosque in all of Uzbekistan. However, it was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century. it was then rebuilt and destroyed again a few times. The building you see now is of 19th century.

SAMR8202

SAMR7856

Hazrat Khizr, after whom the mosque is named, is a controversial figure in Islam. Some believe that he got immortality, while others deny his importance. According to the legends he was a mentor of Moses and has appeared in different times since. He appears time after time to the righteous people and helps them. Hence, he is a very popular figure in Islam.

SAMR7869

Visit gorgeous Shah-i-Zinda

Entrance price: 15,000 soms.

Opening hours: 7am-7pm

Walk from Hazrat Khizr: 10 minutes.

Finish your day by visiting the Shah-i-Zinda – a necropolis.

The name Shah-i-Zinda means the Living King. They say, cousin of Muhamed, one Kusam Ibn Abbas is buried here (or lives immortally 😊). According to the legend, he was beheaded, when he was preaching about Islam, but he didn’t die, took his head and escaped. After this he continued to live underground at this location, hence the name the living king.

During 9 to 19th centuries, a lot of new buildings were added to this burial site. It became a place, where many royals and nobles during the Timurid dynasty were buried, including some of Timur’s wives, his relatives and other prominent people.

SAMR7892

Because of this past, this is one of the most prominent pilgrimage sites. Many religious Muslims come here to pray, so be respectful while walking around.

We visited on a rainy day, although rain was starting and stopping, it wasn’t the best time. However, there still were quite a lot of people, most of them locals though.

SAMR7911

The complex consists of a couple dozen small buildings with the tombs inside. The tombs had a lot of money on top of them. We were surprised to see it, but it is a sort of offering to the dead (Georgians for instance leave food on the graves).

The architecture of the small buildings lining the complex is just stunning. Do explore each of them inside and out. Don’t think that, if you saw one of the buildings, you saw them all. They have different colors and patterns and it was very interesting to compare.

20190423_125916

The different colored tiles, the gorgeous artwork, the lights make this complex a favorite photography location for many people. Especially, if you have a wide-angle lens, it really provides many photo opportunities.

SAMR7878

What we didn’t like, was some parts of the restoration process. They repainted some parts in white, which stood out in a very unpleasant way among the beautiful tiles.

By the way, next to Shah-i-Zinda you will find an old cemetery for not so prominent people. I am usually not a fan of visiting them and we didn’t spend a lot of time here, but it may interest some of you.

If you have additional time around Samarkand, you can visit Shahrisabz (the birthplace of Timur) from here and even travel south all the way to Termez.

Visited 50 countries and counting, Lived in 3 cities and collected a lot of useful information to help fellow travel junkies out there.

18 comments On Things to do in Samarkand – Land of the Thousand and One Nights

  • I do like the idea of catching the light show here! I had plans to visit Samarkand and Uzbekistan this autumn with my female friends, lets hope it will happen. I like that you have included walking distance in time rather than in kilometres.

  • Islamic architecture and tile work is captivating. The workmen who build these structures have a strong sense of design and craftsmanship. I love the designs that include lots of different blues .. I think that’s meant to ward off evil.

  • Lovely! I hope I will get there one day. I have heard tons of nice thing about this historic city and your photos inspire me to visit it sooner than planned.

    • Happy to hear that. This region is really up and coming. I believe Uzbekistan will be very crowded in a few years.

  • A major bucket list destination of mine, since I was a child and read poetry about Samarkand. Really enjoyed the backstories; although my main takeaway is ‘if you want to kiss a despot’s wife, for God’s sake don’t leave a hickey!’ lol

    On a side note, hadith is a more specific term than that. They are narration chains of things Prophet Muhammad said or did (includes what his contemporary Companions said or did) used to supplement interpretation of the Qur’an. Bukhari pioneered its science of recording complete transmission of citation, to differentiate between less reliable and reliable narrations, because they had fake news problems too. His criteria classifying reliability of chains and narrators is still the gold standard, and was the basis of the modern norm of scientific citations still used in journals today (basically he is the father of organised fact-checking).

    • Great takeaway 😀 I am not sure, how true those stories about Bibi Khanym are, but they are certainly entertaining.
      Thanks for the information about hadiths. It’s very interesting. I am not so familiar with theology.

  • A perfect piece of travel writing.. quite informative .

  • I really love those towns or cities on Old Silk Route as they have combination of many cultures. I was about to plan for Uzbekistan this summer but due to Covid, I have to cancel plan. Samrakand really looks worth visiting as it has ancient history since 7 to 8 B.C. Also bazaars of Samarkand tempts me.

    • Sorry to hear it got cancelled. I hope you will get a chance to visit next year. Bazaars are interesting, not as much as the ones in Iran, Turkey, etc, but still.

  • I was planning a visit to Uzbekistan until travel bans came into play so it’s lovely to read this and enjoy some armchair travel.

  • I would love to visit these former Soviet Republics – especially Uzbekistan. I believe that it would be a whole different travel experience. Samarkand looks fantastic – like a fairy tale.

  • St Daniel’s Mausoleum looks like an awesome place, Nice detailed Blog, Great work Ket!!

Leave a Reply

Site Footer

%d bloggers like this: