In 1888, the future Lord Curzon travelled to Samarkand and described the Registan as "the noblest public square in the world", although the buildings were neglected and crumbling. Since his day, they have been repaired and restored to their original splendour.
Samarkand was an important city on the Silk Road in Alexander's time 2,300 years ago, but it was destroyed several times in Central Asia's turbulent history. The oldest remaining buildings date from the time of Timur (Tamerlane), who made Samarkand the capital of his 14th-century empire, and his immediate successors.
"Registan" means "Sand place", and the space between the buildings was not paved originally, but apart from that, the restorations aimed to reproduce the original appearance of the buildings as closely as possible. The three buildings around the Registan are madrassas (places of study). The oldest is the one on the left in the first picture below, the Ulug Beg Madrasah, built in the early 15th century, a centre of secular science during Ulug Beg's reign. The other two (the Tillya Kori and Sherdor Madrasahs) were built in the 17th century.
|Student accommodation in Samarkand in the 17th century. The Tillya Kori madrassa is typical. There are four floors of accommodation, not two - each arch spans two floors, as you can see if you look closely.|
|Garden in the interior of the madrassa.|
|The richly decorated interior roof and walls.|
|Ulug Beg (1394-1449) was the greatest astronomer of his era. He was also, as the grandson of Timur, heir to Timur's empire, and became ruler in 1411. He built an observatory on a hill in Samarkand which included a large quadrant (for measuring the positions of stars) with a radius of 36m. It was in a building like this, partly below ground level:|
|The building was later destroyed by religious fanatics, but excavations in 1908 revealed that the underground part (picture right) had survived. Some of the measurements Ulugh Beg made (for example, the Earth's axial tilt and the length of the year) were more accurate than the measurements made in Europe by Tycho Brahe and Copernicus nearly a century later.|
The Shah-i-Zinda is a complex of mausoleums in Samarkand. It was the site of a very old tomb, but its present form dates from the 14th century when Timur, Ulug Beg, and their successors buried family members here. The tilework decorating the mausoleums is extraordinary.
|Individual mausoleums are tall and narrow and all about the same size, but each has its own decoration on the façade.|
The remains of Timur himself are not at Shah-i-Zinda. He intended his own mausoleum to be at his birthplace, Shakhrisabz, about 70km from Samarkand, across the Zarafshan mountains. Unfortunately when he died (winter 1405) the passes across the mountains were blocked with snow, so he was interred in Samarkand, in a mausoleum originally intended for a grandson, who died in 1403.
The remains of two other sons, Ulug Beg, and a respected teacher are also here. Timur's marker is the very dark one near the centre of the picture on the right, below. The actual remains are in a crypt underneath the mausoleum.
Timur's home town.
The remains of Timur's grandiose summer palace, built between 1380 and 1404, most of which collapsed over 200 years ago.
Bukhara has been a centre of commerce since at least 500 BCE, but it has had a turbulent history and no buildings from that time survive. It was also a centre of learning in the Islamic world.
|The first madrassa in Central Asia was built here in 1417 by order of Ulug Beg, and its design seems to have been a model for many successors.|
The citadel (known as the "Ark") used by the rulers of Bukhara dates from the 5th century, though it has been damaged and rebuilt several times. From 1785 to 1920 it was the seat of the Emirs of Bukhara, who ruled over the region around Bukhara, including Samarkand, until 1868. In 1868 they lost most of their territory, but continued to rule Bukhara itself until 1920.
|The emirs' official place of worship was the Bolo-Hauz Mosque, built in 1718. 'Hauz' means 'pool', and the mosque, with its twenty slender wooden pillars reflected in the water, is reminiscent of the (older) Chehelsotoun palace in Isfahan.|
|The tallest building in Bukhara is the 47m tall Kalon Minaret, built in 1127. It is one of the very few buildings in places conquered by Genghis Khan that he did not destroy. The light patches reveal where damage caused by Soviet artillery in 1920 was repaired.|
|Genghis Khan did destroy the Kalon Mosque. This huge replacement, built in the 16th century, can hold 10,000 people.|
|Next to the Kalon Mosque is the Mir-e Arab madrassa, built in the 16th century and still in use as a madrassa.|
|The Lyabi-Hauz plaza was built in 1620 around a pool in front of a 16th-century madrassa. Two more madrassas were added later.|
|The Kukeldash Madrassa, built in 1569, at the time the largest Islamic school in Central Asia.|
The inner walled town of Khiva, the 'Itchan Kala', is very well preserved - some say it is too well preserved, having the atmosphere of a museum city. The foundations of the mud-brick wall around it were laid in the 10th century, but the present walls and the gates date only from about 1800, as do many of the buildings inside the old city. This may not seem very old, but they embody an atmosphere which is much older. The region around Khiva was an independent absolute monarchy for most of the period 1511 to 1873 (when it became a Russian protectorate) and the monarchy retained a mediaeval way of life.
|The east gate of the inner walled city, and the wall, from the outside|
|The north gate, from inside the walled city|
|The "Ark" (ruler's fortress)|
|This extraordinary building is an unfinished minaret, begun in 1851 by the ruler at that time, who wanted to build it so tall that Bukhara would be visible from the top (that's why its base is so wide). He died in 1855 and it was never finished.|
|There are plenty of other minarets in Khiva. The one on the left is fairly modern (1910).|
|There are about 60 interesting or picturesque buildings in the old town of Khiva. These are a sample.|
|Street scenes: left, inside the old city; right, a market just outside it.|
|Having spent most of my career as a software developer, I could not leave out this fine modern statue of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, the ninth-century mathematician from whose surname the English word "algorithm" is derived. He is believed to have been born in or near Khiva in about 783, and the statue is just outside the walls of the old town.|
The centre of Tashkent is spaciously laid out, with imposing modern public buildings and wide (4 lanes each way) roads around a public park containing a heroic statue of Timur. It looks more like California than central Asia.
This is the Timur museum, just outside the park.
The buildings of the Khast Imam complex in the old part of the city have a more traditional look. Actually, the mosque (in the background) is modern, having been built in 2007, but its library (the smaller building on the right) houses the oldest known copy of the Koran, written in the 7th or 8th century.