03 July 2009


travelling the silk road, archiving empires

Gerald Forseth

Samarkand, Uzbekistan has a growing population over 425,000 of which 50% are 15 years or younger. The city is divided neatly in two: east (old) Samarkand, and west (new) Samarkand, each with a distinct spatiality.

East or Old Samarkand
Old Samarkand is an Asian town near the mid-point of the ancient Silk Road with tangled alleys on hills and valleys, tightly constructed spaces, hidden courtyards and beautiful, contemplative and reflective public places. The oldest buildings and squares remain important places of pilgrimage and visitation, and close to each other. Walking is easy and pleasurable. The main axis is Tashkent Kuchesi between the sumptuous, historic Registan Madrassah and Maydoni [public square] and the central bazaar – a frenetic and colourful display of shawls, embroidered dresses, traditional coats, western jeans, turbans and hats of every nationality and every era. The west boundary of old Samarkand is Koksarai, a modern Russian-built maydoni on a visible old/new division line running north and south.

West or New Samarkand
In Central Asia, the Russian imperialists of the late nineteenth century built beside existing towns, leaving the old intact, liveable and protected. In west Samarkand shady European avenues radiate from the Koksarai Maydoni, the modern heart of the city and province, and adjacent to the old heart, the Registan madrassah complex. Russian empire planning contributed underground sanitary services, broad boulevards, tree-lined streets, large plazas, immense parks and gardens, gigantic fountains and monumental sculpture. Beaux-art fa├žades were built of local beige brick and stone, continuous and long on the street, with grand doorways, sculpted jambs and headers, and lofty interior rooms. Soviet planning, particularly in the 1950s, installed Corbusian planning theory: isolated, tall, concrete buildings within large green parks surrounded by wide streets specifically scaled for fast-moving automobiles. This planning has led to a continuous, sprawling footprint. Covering west Samarkand on foot requires much traversal of heroic concrete plazas, green parks and long distances. Using public transit is necessary, now handled by thousands of small Daiwoo vans.

Samarkand Through History
Samarkand (known as Marakanda to the Greeks) was founded in the fifth century BC. It is one of Central Asia’s oldest settlements, located on the edge of the Khryzlkhum desert east of the Caspian Sea, nestled into the foothills of the Tian Shen and Fan Mountains, and situated north of the great Hindu Kush and Pamir mountain ranges. In 329 BC Alexander the Great from Macedonia conquered central Asia and married pretty Roxanna from Samarkand.
At the crossroads of the great Silk Road between China, India, Persia and Italy, Samarkand grew to a city larger than the one we see today. From the sixth to thirteenth centuries it changed hands about every 100 years, occupied by Western Turks, Arabs, Persian Samanids, Karakhamids, Sejug Turks, Mongolian Karakitay and Khorizmshaw. Amir Timur, born near Samarkand, a powerful tyrant and a grand patron of literature and the arts made it the capital of the Tamarlane empire by 1370. Timur and his grandson Uleg Beg (1400-1447) forged Samarkand into a new, magical, economic, cultural and intellectual epicentre with extraordinary fortress walls and gateways, mosques, madrassahs, minarets, mausoleums, palaces, bazaars, caravansaries (traveller’s inns) and an astronomical observatory.
In 1868 the army of the Tsars of Russia arrived, constructing the Trans-Caspian Railway in 1888 as a fast link to Moscow. In 1924 Samarakand was declared, briefly, the capital of New Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic, but in 1930 lost that honour to Tashkent.

Samarkand Today
Samarkand is an archive of its imperial pasts. There are archaeological sites with exposed parts of the original Arks [fortress walls] destroyed by Alexander the Great in 329BC, by Atilla the Hun in the fourth century AD, by Ghengis Khan and his Mongol horde in 1220 and by his grandson Kublai Khan in 1250. There are historic and sumptuous UNESCO-protected buildings (Zoroastrian and, after the seventh century, Islamic) commissioned by, for example, the Samini tribe (ninth century), by Amir Timur, the greatest builder in Samarkand (1369-1408), by Uleg Beg, ruler, scholar, mathematician and astronomer (1410-1450) and by the feuding Khanates from Kokhand, Bukhara and Khiva of the 1800s. There are the adjacent broad streets, immense plazas and monumental buildings parachuted into Samarkand by the Russian empire (1873-1917). There are immense and brutal concrete apartments, offices and bureaus constructed under Lenin, Stalin, Khruschev and later Soviet presidents (1917-1993). Finally there are contemporary steel /glass hotels and offices to accommodate global tourism and multi-national petroleum companies, and replacement public sculpture dedicated to the pre-Russian past representing post-Soviet unfettered capitalism and heroic nationalism (1993 – now).
By 100BC the Silk Road, linking Europe to Asia, was pretty much established. Cultural conversions and conversations moved quickly along that road – around the same time the Chinese Kushan dynasty converted to Buddhism. The peoples of the Silk Road worshipped a mix of Greek, Roman, Buddhist, Iranian and Hindu deities; this mix continues – in Samarkand today some people live as they might have the fifteenth century. Others sport iPods, buy Guess-designer clothing and drink mocha lattes. Samarkand exhibits the great mix of Europe and Asia, past and present. It also impressively presents people and places that profoundly and proudly showcase European and Asian linguistic, music, fashion and food distinctions. All this contrast can be easily and precisely observed at the boundary that separates extant old Samarkand from new Samarkand.

Forseth, Gerald. 'Samarkand' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Gerald Forseth and On Site review

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