"If it is said that a paradise is to be seen in this world, then the paradise of this world is Samarkand."
--quoted by 'Ata-Malik Juvaini (Boyle transl.)


SAMARKAND is one of the most ancient cities in the world and one of the most important in the historic region of Central Asia known as Transoxiana. With a 2750-year history, it is of the same age as Rome, Athens and Babylon. From times immemorial, this city attracted the attention of statesmen, merchants and travellers but it was under the rule of the Great Timur that it most prospered. Located in the Zerafshan River valley, the city enjoys the benefits of abundant natural resources and occupies a key position at the crossroads on the Great Silk Road. Those who ruled Samarkand developed a complex network of irrigation channels. As we know from the authors of historic accounts, its surroundings also provided pastureland, something that is evident even today if we look south from the highlands to the east of the city.

. While settlement in the region goes well back into pre-historic times, by the seventh century before the Common Era (BCE or B.C.), the town seems to have housed a substantial center of craft production and already boasted an extensive irrigation system. It was one of the easternmost administrative centers for Achaemenid Persia and had a citadel and strong fortifications. Alexander the Great knew it as Maracanda; at the time when it submitted to him in 329 BCE, the city occupied some 13 sq. km. Damaged during a rebellion which Alexander had to suppress, the city revived; in the third and second centuries BCE, it contained some very impressive buildings. Alexander's conquests introduced into Central Asia Classical Greek culture; at least for a time the Greek models were followed closely by the local artisans. The Greek legacy lived on in the various "Graeco-Bactrian" kingdoms of the area and the Kushan Empire of the first centuries of the Common Era whose territories extended well down into what is today Pakistan and India. During the Kushan era the city declined though; it did not really revive until the fifth century CE.

The ethnically Iranian Sogdians who lived in Samarkand and its region played a key role in the commerce along the Silk Road even though they never established a single strong state and more often than not were subjects of powerful Inner Asian empires. As early as Han times, when the Chinese first recorded their impressions of Inner Asia, the Sogdians had a reputation as being talented merchants.

When the Arabs invaded Central Asia in the early eighth century, the last of the Sogdian rulers of the many small states in the Zerafshan Valley fled upriver from Panjikent. Amid the ostensibly stark ruins of Panjikent are houses whose walls were decorated with murals portraying religious ceremonies, scenes from the famous Persian epics and much more evidence of the cosmopolitan cultural connections of the last Sogdian state. The last refuge of the Sogdians was a fortress upstream at Mt. Mug, where archaeologists have unearthed a treasure trove of Sogdian documents attesting to the sophistication of their administration and legal system.

In Samarkand itself, even after the Arab conquest in 750, the centre of the city continued to be located on Afrasiyab but firm Arab control in the region was not established before the middle of the eighth century (CE). A century later, Samarkand came under the control first of the Samanid and then the Qarakhanid states. The Samanids, a dynasty of Persians or as the Russians call them, Tadzhiks, established Bukhara as their capital, and it was under their rule that the cities of Transoxiana became major centres of Muslim learning. At that time the Afrasiyab extended considerably beyond the walls. The Samanids were in their turn replaced at the end of the tenth century by the Qarakhanids, and the city continued to grow and prosper. The Samanids were in their turn replaced at the end of the tenth century by the Qarakhanids, and the city continued to grow and prosper.

In 1220, the Mongols swept in and destroyed all, exterminated the population, burned the houses, and smashed the ingenious irrigation system. Nothing remained of Afrasiyab. For almost a century the land was left to the depredations of Mongol bands, who made all social and economic existence inpossible and brought the territory to the verge of extinction.

Only with the fourteenth century did life begin there again. A new city, Samarkand, rosde alongside the ancient Afrasiyab. It expanded rapidly, and very beautiful mausoleums were built there. In 1369 Timur Lenk (Tamerlane), having chosen it as his capital, resolved to make it the most beautiful city in the universe. Artists, architects, and artisans from everywhere in his empire were brought to Samarkand to build the monuments Timur decreed must be the largest and most beautiful in Islam, edifices such as his own mausoleum and the Great Mosque called the Bibi Khanum in homage to his wife. Derisively, to the villages on the outskirts of his city he gave the names of the onetime capitals of the caliphate: Damascus, Baghdad, and the like.

The development of this urban centre continued apace under Tamerlane's grandson Ulugh beg, who ruled the city for much of the first half of the fifteenth century until he was assassinated in 1449. Ulugh beg is well known for his scientific investigations, supported by the Observatory he built on the hills to the east of Afrasyiab and the madrasa (school) he erected on the Registan.

(Sources: http://depts.washington.edu/uwch/silkroad/cities/samarkand/samarkand.htm; Islam & Muslim Art, Alexandre Papadopoulo)