Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Samarkand marked the frontier of the Islamic world in Central Asia. Although Muslims could be found beyond, it was for many years the most remote great Islamic city in the east. Situated at the geographical heart of the Silk Route between China and the Middle East, it was consistently ranked among the world’s most profitable cities from the dawn of recorded history until the 16th century. From the earliest days of Islam the city was an important religious site because Qusam Ibn Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet, was buried here. The Shah I Zinda, a large necropolis, contains many tombs, including that of Qusam as well as Timur, one of the greatest Islamic kings. It is now generally regarded as the most important Islamic pilgrimage site in Central Asia. The Necropolis is part of the Historic Center of Samarkand UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Samakand’s importance as a trade center dates back to at least the 8th century BC, when it became an important provincial capital of the Persian Empire. After a period of Greek occupation following the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great, Samarkand ultimately came under the control of the Sassanids. It was during the Sassanid period that the silk trade between China and the west began to follow the well-established Silk Road, with Samarkand at the midpoint. It also represented the furthest-most east that most European travelers and merchants were generally willing to go in ancient times.
Islam arrived in the city in the 7th century when the first missionaries arrived with Qusam Ibn Abbas, a close relative of the Prophet. Under Muslim influence and direction Samarkand continued to increase in size and splendor. But its strategic position on the borderlands between the Arabs and Persians to the south and Turks to the north made it a prime target for those who coveted control of the wealth provided by the silk trade. When the Seljuk Turks swept into Persia and Mesopotamia in the 11th century, Samarkand was an important base of operations. Under the Seljuks, Samarkand was maintained as a center of trade, wealth and power. It took the arrival of the Mongols, who devastated the city in 1220 AD, to bring Samarkand’s nearly two-thousand year economic miracle to a screeching halt.
For the next 150 years, trade activit was largely devastated, and what was left of the city was periodically ransacked. Samarkand only began to recover under the patronage of the last great Mongol warlord, Timur, who made the city his capital in 1370 AD. After a massive rebuilding and repopulating campaign, the city began to resemble its old self. The next two centuries saw a return of Samarkand’s golden age. It was once again the greatest city of Central Asia and the most important Islamic center north of Persia. But in the 1500’s, the regional capital was moved to Bukhara. Worse, the city’s lifeline, the Silk Route, was at long last drying up as European traders started shipping to the Orient by sea routes. By the 18th century, the once great metropolis was all but abandoned.
It was only by concerted effort of the Bukhara Emirs and later the Soviet Union that any serious attempt was made to breathe new life into the ancient city. Thanks to the subsequent and often forced relocations, Samarkand recovered significantly. More importantly, an Islamic renaissance in Central Asia in the 20th century restored interest in preserving and visiting the city’s sacred sites. Now, free of Soviet control, Samarkand is rebuilding and restoring its sacred sites, and pilgrims from around the region are arriving in increasing numbers to rediscover the long-hidden wealth of religious history that is kept here.
The great necropolis of Samarkand predates Timur’s empire, and parts are believed to predate the arrival of Islam. The whole consist of one vast interconnected structure built between the 11th and 19th centuries and includes two-dozen buildings. The Tomb of Qusam Ibn Abbas, the relative of the Prophet Mohammed who brought Islam to the region, is located in the old section in the northeastern part of the necropolis. The tombs and mausoleums of the cemetery’s middle period date from Timur’s time, and much of this section is a vast family plot for Timur’s relatives.
Timur himself is buried in the nearby Guri Amir Mausoleum. This architecturally impressive building represents an early form of Mughal construction, one that would later be replicated and improved upon throughout Central Asia and India. In addition to Timur, a number of other important relatives and officials were buried here, including his sons Miran Shah and Shah Rukh, as well as his famous and enlightened grandson Ulugh Beg.
The Shah I Zindi Necropolis is located on the outskirts of what would be considered the old city of Samarkand, approximately 130 miles southwest of the Uzbekistan capital of Tashkent. The sprawling cemetery is a partially open site, though some areas are restricted. As of this writing no other visitor information was available. Web: http://welcomeuzbekistan.uz/en (official tourism website of Uzbekistan)
Samarkand and nearby Shakhrisabz formed the religious heartland of Timur’s Empire, and collectively boast an impressive collection of important Islamic sites. Samarkand’s Masjid Bibi-Khanym, built as a showpiece by Timur, was the largest in Central Asia and one of the largest in the world. It is currently being rebuilt after suffering earthquake damage. Nearby is the Registan, an Oxford-like community of Madrasses. Timur was born in Shakhrisabz, and since his reign the city has been adorned with many great monuments, including the Friday Mosque, the Masjid Ulugh Beg and the Masjid Khazrati Imam. There are also many important graves here, including the Tomb of Jehangir, Timur’s oldest son, and the Mausoleum of Sheikh Shamseddin Kulyal, one of Timur’s advisors. The small town of Hoja Ismoil also has an important site, the Mausoleum of Ismail Bukhari, one of Central Asia’s greatest Islamic scholars.