1902 Encyclopedia > Samarkand, Central Asia

Central Asia

SAMARKAND, a city of Central Asia, anciently Marcanda, the capital of Sogdiana, then the residence of the Samanids, and subsequently the capital of Timur, is now , chief town of the Zerafshan district of the Russian domin-ions. It lies in a richly cultivated region, 185 miles south-west of Tashkend, and 145 miles east of Bokhara, in 39° 39' N. lat. and 67° 17' E. long., 2150 feet above the sea, in the valley of the Zerafshan, at the point where it issues from the extreme western spurs of the Tian-Shan before .entering the steppes of Bokhara. The Zerafshan now flows about three or four miles to the north of the city, supplying its extensive gardens with water.

Marcanda, a great city, whose walls had a compass of 90 stadia, was destroyed by Alexander the Great. It re-appears as Samarkand at the time of the conquests of the Arabs, when it was finally reduced by Kotaiba ibn Moslim in 93 A.H. (711-712 A.D.). Under the Samanids it became a brilliant seat of Arabian civilization. Its schools, its , savants, were widely renowned; it was so populous that, owhen besieged by Jenghiz Khan in 1219, it is reported to have been defended by an army of 110,000 men. Destroyed and pillaged by the great conqueror, its population was reduced to one-quarter of what it had been, but it still reckoned 25,000 families within its walls. The great conqueror Timur made it his residence, and the inhab-

Plan of Samarkand.

1, Governor's house ; 2, Burying-place of Russian soldiers who fell in the defence of 1868 ; 3, College of Ulug-beg; 4, College of Shir-dar; 5, College of Tilla-kari ; 6, Grave of Timur ; 7, Grave of Timur's wives.

itants rose to 150,000. The magnificent buildings of the epoch of the successors of Timur, which still remain, testify to its former wealth. But new invaders again re-duced it to rain, so that at the beginning of last century it is reported to have been almost without inhabitants. It fell under Chinese dominion, and subsequently under that of the emir of Bokhara, suffering again and again from wars which were fought for it and around it. But no follower of Islam enters it without feeling that he is on holy ground, although the venerated mosques and beautiful colleges of Samarkand are falling into ruins, its high influ-ence as a seat of learning has vanished, and its very soil is profaned by infidels. It was not without a struggle that the Mohammedans permitted the Bussians to take possession of their holy city; and, while other cities of Central Asia submitted almost without striking a blow, Samarkand revolted in 1868, the Eussian garrison shut up in the citadel being rescued only by the timely arrival of a corps despatched from Tashkend.

The present city, which is but a wreck of its former self, is quadrangular in shape and is enclosed by a low wall 9 miles long. The citadel rises in the west, and to the west-ward of this again the Russians have laid out their new town, with broad streets and boulevards radiating from the citadel, while a pretty public garden, carefully irrigated, occupies the centre.

The central part of Samarkand is the Righistan—a square limited by the three madrasahs (colleges) of Ulug-beg, Shir-dar, and Tilla-kari ; in its architectural symmetry and beauty this is rivalled only by some of the squares of Italian cities. Though differing in detail, thejgreat lines of the three colleges are the same. An immense doorway decorates the front of each of these large quadri-lateral buildings. A high and deep-pointed porch, whose summit almost reaches the top of the lofty facade, is flanked on each side by a broad quadrilateral pillar of the same height, subdivided into three sections, each of which has its own style of decoration. Two fine columns, profusely decorated, in turn flank these broad pillars. On each side of the high doorway are two lower archways connecting it with two elegant towers, narrowing towards their tops and slightly inclined. The whole of the facade and also the interior courts are profusely decorated with enamelled bricks, whose colours —blue, green, pink, or golden, but chiefly turquoise-blue—are wrought into the most fascinating designs, in striking harmony with the whole and with each part of the building. In the recess of the deep doorway is the wide door, with proportions of remark-able elegance, and above it are the broad decorations filling up the upper part of the arch. Over the interior are bulbed or melon-like domes, perhaps too courts are surrounded by three stories of small rooms, each having only one opening—the door. The majestic buildings are now merely the dwellings of mollahs, who live on the revenues of the Wakf lands at Katty-kurgan.

The college of Shir-dar (built in 1601) takes its name from the two lions, or rather tigers, figured on the top of its doorway, which is richly decorated with green, blue, red, and white enamelled bricks. It is the most spacious of the three, and 128 mollahs inhabit its 64 apartments. The Tilla-kari ("dressed in gold"), built in 1618, has 56 rooms. But the most renowned of the three madrasahs is that of Ulug-beg, built in 1420 or 1434, by Timur, the grandson of the great conqueror. It is smaller than the others, but it was to its school of mathematics and astronomy that Samarkand owed its wide renown in the 15th century.

A winding street running north-east from the Righistan leads to a much larger square having the college of Bibi-khanym on the west, the graves of Timur's wives on the south, and a clean bazaar on the east. The college was erected in 1388 by a Chinese wife of Timur, and is said to have once sheltered as many as a thousand students. It covers a large area, and has three mosques connected by a quadrangular building containing the students' rooms. The archway and towers of its facade are considered by Vambery as a model for such buildings, and its decorations resist the destructive influences alike of time and of man. One of its mosques still raises its high bulbed dome above the outer walls, which are falling into ruins, and now give accommodation to the carts and the bazaar of traders in cotton. The lofty ruins of the grave of Timur's wives are really grand.

To the north, outside the walls of Samarkand, but close at hand, is the Hazreti Shah-Zindeh—the summer-palace of Timur ; and near this is the grave of Shah-Zindeh, or, more precisely, Kotham ibn al-'Abbas ibn 'Abd al-Mottalib, a famous companion of the Prophet. This was already a famous shrine in the 14th century (Ibn Batuta, iii. 52); it is believed that the saint still lives in the mosque, and will one day rise for the defence of his religion. The Hazreti Shah-Zindeh covers a wide area on a terrace reached by forty marble steps. A series of galleries and rooms lead to the hall containing the relics of the saint. The decoration of the interior halls is marvellous.

Another street running south-west from the Righistan leads to the Gur-Emir—the grave of Timur. This consists of a chapel crowned with an elegant dome, enclosed by a wall and fronted by an archway. Time and earthquakes have greatly injured this fine building; one of the minarets is already in ruins. The interior consists of two apartments paved with white marble, the walls being covered with elegant turquoise arabesques and inscriptions in gold. The chief room is of great beauty, and its decorations, of a bolder style than the others, are in strict harmony with the im-pression it is designed to produce. A large pyramidal piece of jade broken into two covers the grave of Timur, which has by its side that of his teacher, Mir Seid Berke, and those of several members of his family, all enclosed by a marble railing. A dark and narrow flight of steps leads down to the crypt, also ornamented with arabesques, where the graves are placed in the same order as in the upper hall.

The citadel is situated on the west of the city, upon a hill whose steep slopes render it one of the strongest in Central Asia. Its walls, 3000 yards in circuit and about 10 feet high, enclose a space of about 4 square miles. It contained the palace of the emir of Bokhara, —a vulgar modern building now transformed into a hos-pital,—and the audience hall of Timur,—a long narrow court, sur-rounded by a colonnade, and containing the Keuk-tash, a grey stone 10 feet long, 4 feet broad, and 4| feet high, reported to have been brought from Brussa. On it Timur used to take his seat, surrounded by his numerous vassals ; from it more recently the omirs of Bokhara also were wont to dispense their terrible justice.

Ruins of former buildings—heaps of plain and enamelled bricks, among which Graeco-Bactrian coins have been found—cover a wide area all around the present city, and especially on the west and north. The name of Aphrosiab is usually given to these ruins, which extend for nearly three miles to the westward of the present Russian town; this suburb of Samarkand was enclosed by a wall, the ruins of which can be traced for seven or eight miles. Five miles to the south-west of Samarkand is the college Khodja Akrar; its flower ornamentation in enamelled brick is one of the most beautiful of Samarkand. Rye is now grown in its courts, and its artistic ornamentation is going to ruin. To the north-north-east are the Tchupan-ata Hills, the chief of which has on its summit the grave of Oaniar Polvan. On the right bank of the Zerafshan stands the village of Dehbid, peopled by descendants of Mahkdum Aazam (died in 1542), who possess a beautiful _____ (monastery), with pretty avenues of trees planted by Nezr Divabeghi in 1632. As for the famous Baghitchi-naran (the garden of plane trees), only the ruins of its palace now mark its former position; the trees have disappeared. Of the Grteco-Armenian library said to have been brought to Samarkand by Timur no traces have been discovered, and Vambery regards the whole legend as a fable invented by Armenians. Every trace of the renowned high school Kalinder-khany has also disappeared.

The present Moslem city is an intricate labyrinth of narrow winding streets, having on both sides clay walls concealing dirty court-yards and miserable houses. The population was estimated at 36,000 in 1879 ; it consists of Tajiks (Iranians) and Sarts or Uzbegs. The Europeans numbered 5380. Some 300 Jews occupy a separate quarter, remarkable for its filth. Numbers of Arabs, Persians, Afghans, Hindus, Kiptchaks, and Tsigans (Gipsies) may be met with in the streets. The chief occupation of the inhabitants is gardening; the gardens beyond the walls are extensive and very well kept. There is also a certain amount of manufacturing industry ; the workshops, which are small, are thus enumerated by M. Kostenko :—for metallic wares, 12; for tallow and soap, 34 ; tanneries, 30; potteries, 37; for various tissues, 246. Those for dyeing and the manufacture of harness, boots, and silver and gold wares are also numerous. The best harness, ornamented with turquoises, and the finer products of the goldsmith's art, are imported from Bokhara or Afghanistan. The products of local potteries are very fine.

The bazaars of Samarkand, the chief of which is in the centre of the town, close by the Righistan, are more animated and kept with much greater cleanliness than those of Tashkend or Namangan. The trade carried on by local or Bokhara merchants is very brisk, the chief items being cotton, silk, wheat and rice, horses, asses, fruits, and cutlery. Wheat, rice, and silk are exported chiefly to Bokhara; cotton to Russia, via Tashkend. Silk-wares and excel- lent fruits are imported from Shahri-Syabs, and rock-salt from Hissar. (P. A. K.)

The above article was written by: P. A. Kropotkine.

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