The “Happening” City of Samarkand


Samarkand is better known today as the second largest city of Uzbekistan. It is also a centre for Islamic scholarly studies.

Founded in 700 BC, Samarkand was one of the main centres of Iranian civilization from its early days. Although it was a Persian-speaking region, it was not strictly a part of Iran.

It was at the start of the 8th century CE that Samarkand came under Arab control. Under the Abbasid rule, the first ever paper mill in the Islamic world was found in Samarkand. This invention then spread to the rest of the Islamic world, and from there to Europe.

The Travels of Marco Polo, where Polo records his journey along the Silk Road, describes Samarkand as, “a very large and splendid city.”

In 1220 CE, the Mongols arrived. Genghis Khan and his troops pillaged the city completely. The town took many decades to recover from this and similar disasters.

In 1370 CE, Tamerlane decided to make Samarkand the capital of his empire, which extended from India to Turkey. During the next 35 years he built a new city and populated it with artisans and craftsmen from all the other places he had conquered. Tamerlane enjoyed a reputation as a patron of the arts and Samarkand grew to become the centre of the region of Transoxiana.

In 1420 CE, the great astronomer, Ulugh Beg, built a Madrasah in Samarkand, named the Ulugh Beg Madrasah. It became an important centre for astronomical study and only invited those scholars of whom he personally approved and whom he respected academically. At its peak, it had between 60 and 70 astronomers working there.

In 1424, Beg began building the observatory to support the astronomical study at the Madrasah. It was completed five years later in 1429. Beg assigned his assistant and scholar Ali Qushji to take charge of the Ulugh Beg Observatory which was called Samarkand Observatory at that time.

The observatory was destroyed in 1449 and was only re-discovered in 1908, by a Uzbek-Russian archaeologist from Samarkand named V. L. Vyatkin.

In 2001, UNESCO added the city to its World Heritage List.