Samarkand. The name evokes mystery and romance. Eastern writers long ago described this oasis city, set in the midst of the deserts and mountains of Central Asia, as the Mirror of the World, the Garden of the Blessed, the Fourth Paradise.
Until recently, few outsiders visited Samarkand, isolated as it was in the depths of the Soviet Union’s Central Asian empire.
Today, parties of foreign tourists stroll around the “Mirror of the World” admiring the turquoise domes and blue-tiled mosques and minarets, and gaze on a sight once reserved for a few rare and intrepid wanderers--the distant prospect of the great turquoise dome and crumbling archway of the Bibi Khanum mosque and the glittering minarets of the Registan.
As Central Asia emerges from its long isolation, however, that scene may change. It is becoming clear that hundreds of ancient buildings in Samarkand and the other historic caravan cities of Bukhara and Khiva are under threat both from natural deterioration and from heavy-handed Soviet-era restoration.
The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization issued a status report on the region that presages a UNESCO program to help Uzbekistan look after its three historic cities, with their wealth of ancient architecture. The report is highly critical of some of the restoration work already under way.
Samarkand is no stranger to restoration. When Russia captured the city in 1868, the great mosques and madrassas were already crumbling, assisted by tremors that often shake the area. Their decline continued until the Soviet government began restoring or rebuilding some ancient buildings, particularly during the 1960s and ‘70s.
Soviet restoration re-created the beauty of some of this architecture, but closer inspection shows its limitations. Much of the decorative tile work has been replaced at various times.
“You can tell the difference between original tile work and the newer tiles because the color of the old tiles is better,” a local guide said, pointing out the darker, richer hues of some of the old tiles, which have not faded like Soviet-period replacements.
Indeed, most of the buildings are showing their considerable age, and it is often difficult to tell which crumbling details are centuries-old and which are crumbling Soviet restorations only three decades old.
Samarkand became a byword for Oriental splendor in the 14th Century when the conqueror Tamerlane--or “Timur the Lame"--made it the capital of an empire stretching from Turkey to the edge of China. He sent architects and craftsmen here from all over Asia to ensure that the city lived up to his great name.
The Russians conquered Samarkand as their empire expanded rapidly through Central Asia in the 19th Century. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, it was all but closed to outside visitors during much of the seven decades of the Soviet Union.
With the Soviet Union now history itself, Samarkand is a prize of the independent republic of Uzbekistan, whose government is eager to promote the ancient caravan city as a tourist attraction, pulling in dollars to fill the hard-currency reserves of a shattered post-Soviet economy.
The city’s fame also has another use for a government eager to create a sense of citizenship in a country that did not even exist until Josef Stalin drew its borders on the map in the 1920s. Tamerlane and Samarkand are potent symbols well-suited for boosting the Uzbek nationalism that has become the official ideology replacing yesterday’s communism.
Tamerlane’s name has been revived from Soviet obscurity to provide a new heroic father figure in place of Lenin, and the architects and craftsmen are at work again in the conqueror’s former capital.
The jewel of Samarkand is the Registan, once the city’s central market square. The square is flanked on three sides by three imposing madrassas, or Islamic colleges, whose minarets, domes and high-arched facades are covered in elaborate decorative tile work of cobalt blue and turquoise.
One of the three, a 15th-Century madrassa built by Tamerlane’s grandson, the astronomer-king Ulugh Beg, is now a hive of building activity. The 600th anniversary of Ulugh Beg’s birth is to be celebrated this autumn, one of several such new national celebrations, and his madrassa, once a worn and crumbling ruin, is being virtually rebuilt for the occasion.
At the other end of the long main bazaar from the Registan stands the Bibi Khanum mosque. Named after Tamerlane’s Chinese wife, the Bibi Khanum was probably built to commemorate the conqueror’s capture of Delhi. Its great turquoise dome and massive entrance portal once made it one of the world’s largest mosques.
Long an imposing ruin, the dome of the Bibi Khanum mosque has been repaired and major rebuilding has been under way for years--but only recently has the work speeded up.
The forthcoming UNESCO report, however, points out some dangers facing Uzbekistan’s historic architecture. One of the most serious problems is that most of the ancient buildings of Samarkand and Bukhara are suffering from rising damp.
The ground water in the cities has risen significantly in recent years, probably because of the increase of piped water, combined with poor drainage. Rising as high as nine feet in the ancient brick walls, the damp forms corrosive acids and salts which gradually destroy the masonry, mortar and intricate decorations.
A combined mosque and madrassa on the Registan, the 17th-Century Tilla-Kari, is under particular threat. The name Tilla-Kari, which means “Covered in Gold,” probably derives from the beautiful gilding on the inside walls of the mosque.
The Tilla-Kari’s problem with dampness has been compounded by a Soviet rebuilding of the mosque’s dome in the 1970s. It was rebuilt with heavy concrete rather than the lighter original brick. This, says the UNESCO report, has caused a slow, uneven sinking of the foundations, cracking the walls.
While the UNESCO report acknowledges the value of much of the restoration now being carried out by the Uzbek government, it expresses concern for the historical accuracy of some of the rebuilding and decoration work, which it says is being done without sufficient knowledge of the original craftsmanship.
Some of the rebuilding, using old Soviet methods, is actually harmful, the report says, citing such practices as the use of concrete and iron reinforcing rods to replace decayed brickwork. These modern materials are potentially corrosive and can damage the original bricks and tiles. The report particularly criticizes the rebuilding of a second story on the Ulugh Beg madrassa. The original was removed a few centuries ago. The new work could damage the fragile ground floor irreparably, the report says.
The engineer in charge disagrees. The structure is strong enough, says Egamberdi Nurulayev of Uzbekistan’s Institute of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Monuments.
He says the UNESCO team “follows the view that you should leave monuments (ancient buildings) as they are now, but our monuments are made of clay and brick and need constant repairs. If you want them as they are, you should build a glass dome over them.”
“We want these places not only for tourists, but also to be used,” he adds.
Tamerlane himself has come in for some refashioning lately. The humble nomad who built an empire stretching halfway across Asia was seen in Soviet days as a ruthless conqueror who, by one estimate at least, caused the deaths of about 7 million people. The architects and craftsmen sent to beautify Samarkand were all captive labor, unable to leave.
Now, however, he has been recycled for use as a national hero. His historical epithet, “Timur the Lame,” has been banished and the Karl Marx and Engels streets in Uzbek cities have given way to Amir (“Lord”) Timur streets.
Hero or barbarian, Timur today lies in Samarkand, buried under a delicate fluted turquoise dome.
While methods of preserving the ancient buildings of Uzbekistan still prove elusive, for now the architectural legacies still make a fine sight, recalling the words of James Elroy Flecker, which more than any others preserved the myth of Samarkand for Europeans:
“Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
And softly through the silence beat the bells
Along the golden road to Samarkand.”