August 19: Samarkand, Uzbekistan
(Accompanying photos will be uploaded when wifi permits)
8:30 Jalal is taking us on a full day city tour starting in 30 minutes. I don’t know how many more temples, mosques, or mausoleums I can take but I’ll give this one more shot.
10:00 First up is a tour of the 15th century Ulugh Beg Observatory which houses the remains of what was once the largest 90 degree quadrant in the Islamic world. Astronomers used this 11 meter long device to measure the height of the sun and thus determine noon every day. The observatory was largely destroyed by religious fanatics in 1449 and was only re-discovered in 1908. Today the original quadrant and a spanking new museum are open to the public. Next to the observatory is a large statue honouring Ulugh Beg. Several ladies sweep and mop the terrace all day, every day. They probably only make pennies a day but the government can truthfully claim there is full employment in Uzbekistan.
Photo: The quadrant
11:30 Next up is the Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum. Shah-i-Zinda means ‘the living king’ but its prime resident, Kusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad is definitely not living.
11:40 I’m in a line to buy bottled water when I notice a boy wearing a shirt with an iPhone logo. I ask his father if I can take a close-up photo of the logo, promising to exclude the boy’s face. Dad is very excited to have his kids photographed and lines them up in front of me. The kids aren’t too impressed until they see that I’m using an iPhone. I spend the next 10 minutes demonstrating every app that doesn’t require a cell connection. Dad seems to be suggesting that we go someplace with wifi but I explain that I have to meet my group in a few minutes.
Photo: “One day he will buy an iPhone,” says the boy’s father. “For now he has a shirt.”
12:40 We cross a busy street and walk about 500 meters to the Bibi-Khanym Mausoleum. Built in the 1400s and restored in 2007, it’s a shining example of an Islamic mosque even if it was built with the proceeds of Timur’s conquest of India in the late 1300s. And by “shining” I mean that it is covered in shiny ceramic tiles. The mosque was actually constructed very quickly and it hasn’t withstood the test of time. What was left of it in 1897 was completely destroyed by an earthquake. What you see today is a reconstruction using a few of the original materials that weren’t looted over the centuries. The castle at Disney World may be more authentic.
13:30 It’s time for lunch and in Samarkand that means tomato and cucumber salad with dill, a choice of several soups topped with dill, warm bread topped with sesame seeds, a big serving of rice, lamb and dill, and perhaps a side order of dill. Forget cotton – the #1 cash crop in Uzbekistan has to be dill.
Photo: Lunch for under $5 per person
2:30 After lunch we walk a short distance to The Registan. This public square was the place to be in the time of Timur. Royal proclamations, raucous celebrations and public executions were all carried out in the square starting in 1404. One of the buildings housed a university and students lived on campus in spaces now occupied by artisans and souvenir vendors. Look around a bit and you might even find some packaged dill for sale.
Photo: The Registan
3:30 Next stop is Ruhabad, a small 14th century mausoleum that is said to contain a single hair of Prophet Muhammad. Directly across the street is a much more imposing structure, the Gūr-i Amīr mausoleum which was built by the ruthless conqueror Tamerlane (also known as Timur). It is said to be the model on which Timur’s Mughal descendants built Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and the Taj Majal in Agra.
Photo: Gūr-i Amīr
Timur’s crypt is topped with a solid block of dark green jade that was previously used in a Chinese emperor’s palace and later to mark the final resting spot of Duwa, a descendant of Genghis Khan. No one will explain how it wound up in Samarkand but you can bet it wasn’t donated.
19:00 I skip the group dinner and order a pizza from room service. The girl on the desk calls 1-800-PIES and a hot pizza is delivered within 30 minutes. The “crust” has the consistency of fresh Wonder Bread so it’s impossible to hold a small piece in one hand.