Samarkand, located on the ancient silk route through the Zerafshan Valley, is one of the oldest cities in Transoxiana that is no stranger to natural or man-made upheavals, with one of the earliest known armies to invade it being that of Alexander the Great in the fourth-century BC. After Alexander the Great died, this city and other parts of Central Asia formed a key part of the Selucid Kingdom.
Under the Umayyad Caliph Omar II, Islam continued to spread rapidly through the region, assisted by the establishment of ribats and khans. By the time that power shifted from the Umayyads to the Abbasids, Western Asia was firmly established as a productive, integral part of the Islamic world, as it had then evolved. Up to the twelfth-century and through the Mongol invasion, the region of Samarkand's history is woven with revolts, intrigues, shifting alliances, throughout all, and especially during Tahirid and Samanid periods, Muslim rule was consolidated in Transoxania.
In spite of the general devastation caused by the Mongol advance, Samarkand rebounded rather easily after the death of Chingiz-Khan, because of its position along a main commercial artery. In 1336, Timur was born near Shahrisahz. In 1370 he built a new citadel at Samarkand, used it as a training ground for his army, and as a base for his first major victory against Herat in 1381. Timur made overtures to England and Spain encouraging them to establish trade agreements with him, and as a result a Spanish ambassador, named Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, left for Samarkand in 1403, arriving one year later in a state of total exhaustion. In spite of his weariness, he wrote a glowing description of the city for his sovereign, which said, in part, that: "I must describe that city for you, telling of all that is there to be seen and of all that Timur has accomplished there to embellish his capital. Samarkand stands in a plain, and is surrounded by a rampart or wall of earth, with a very deep ditch. The city itself is rather larger than Seville; lying outside Samarkand are great numbers of houses which form extensive suburbs. These lie spread on all sides for indeed the township is surrounded by orchards and vineyards, extending in some cases to a league and a half or even two leagues beyond Samarkand which stands in their centre. In between these orchards pass streets with open squares; these are all densely populated, and here all kinds of goods are on sale [...] Among these orchards outside Samarkand are found the most noble and beautiful houses, and here Timur has his many palaces and pleasure grounds [...] invisible. Through the streets of Samarkand, as through its gardens outside and inside, pass many water-conduits, and in these gardens are the melon-beds and cotton-growing lands. Beyond the suburbs of Samarkand stretch the great plains where are situated many hamlets these being all well populated, for here the immigrant folk are settled whom Timur has caused to be brought hither from all the foreign lands that he has conquered. The richness and abundance of this great capital and its district is such as is indeed a wonder to behold [...] So great therefore was the population now of all nationalities gathered together in Samarkand that of men with their families the number they said must be about 150,000 souls. Of the nations brought here together there were to be seen Turks, Arabs and Moors of diverse sects, with Christians who were Greeks and Armenians. On the one part of Samarkand stand the Castle which is not built on a height, hut is protected by deep ravines on all its sides: and through these water flows, which makes the position of the castle impregnable. It is here that His Highness keeps his treasure, and none from the city may enter save the governor of the Castle and his men. Within its walls however Timur holds in captivity upwards of a thousand workmen; these labour making plate-armour and helms, with bows and arrows, and to this business they are kept at work in the service of His Highness."
The castle that Clavijo refers to is the Kok Sarai, Timur's famous "Blue Palace" which was visible from everywhere in the city, but today, little remains of the Citadel Timur built. Many of his other projects in the town have been reconstructed so that it is now possible to comprehend the enormity of Timur's architectural interests. The grand scale of his building projects changed the whole scope of the town with architectural complexes creating a strong and permanent impact on the form of Samarkand for centuries to come.
The largest of these is the Masjid-i-jami' or Bibi Khanum which is one of the largest monuments ever built in the Islamic world. The axis that linked the entrance to the courtyard was connected to the Registan by a covered bazaar. Timur also built the Gur-i-Amir mausoleum for his grandson which, like the Bibi Khanum, was intended to have a complex with a khanqah (hospice) and a madrasa (religious seminary). This complex, completed around 1404 AD, is generally regarded as one of the earliest examples of Timurid formal architecture, laid out with two public buildings enclosing an urban square. During this period a synthesis of the arts emerged in Samarkand, with a fusion of local tradition with those of the 'imported" arts of the conquered lands resulting in an organic link between architecture and painting, wood and stone carving, ceramic and metal ware.
Internecine wars in the latter half of the fifteenth-century affected the fate of Samarkand which was governed by various rulers, including Babur, for short periods of time. Finally, from 1500 to the end of the sixteenth-century it was ruled by the Shaibanids. During this period Samarkand continued to be the centre of the economic and political life of the region. Construction of roads, bridges and irrigation canals continued. Although chronicles record that two enormous madrasas, the size of the Egyptian pyramids, were built to the north of the Registan square, no trace of these remains. Few monuments of this period have survived.
By the beginning of the nineteenth-century separate kingdoms began to emerge and the khanates of Bukhara, Ferghana and Khiva became separate entities. Samarkand was absorbed into the kingdom of Bukhara. Towards the middle of the nineteenth-century Samarkand had become part of the Russian empire. The replanning of Samarkand during this period follows that of many other colonial towns in the East. Samarkand was divided into two parts -- the native or old town and the European town. European architecture was preferred to the indigeneous Central Asian style and the administrative buildings and residential quarters took on radically new forms. In housing, the concept of the apartment block replaced the courtyard house. Some years after the October Revolution of 1917, the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was formed with Samarkand as its capital from 1924 to 1930. Subsequently the capital shifted to Tashkent and Samarkand became the second most important administrative centre of Uzbekistan. Samarkand today is the second largest city in Uzbekistan and remains an industrial and cultural centre.
Mowatt, Don. "Journey to Samarkand." In Building for Tomorrow, edited by Azim Nanji, 115-117. London: Academy Group Ltd., 1994.
The more than 19 essays on the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in this retrospective suggest there is a transnational and transterritorial landscape’ out of which a constructive discourse can emerge. Through a definition of architecture that engages the whole built environment and situates human and cultural concerns at heart of the conversation about the future of building in the Muslim world, the Award has led, initiated and sustained an enabling series of conversations. The essays in this volume, while different in focus and approach, indicate how the Award has fostered and forged such “a community of concern”.
Source: Azim Nanji in “Enabling Conversations” from Building for Tomorrow.