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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Samarkand Square

Geography & History

Geography

Samarkand is located in Uzbekistan in the valley of the Zeravshan River. The land surrounding Samarkand is arid and windswept, and caravans of camels and horses made their way along well-trodden dirt pathways between the oasis-like cities of Merv (present-day Mary), Bukhara, and Samarkand on their way east to Kashgar (Kashi in present-day western China), southward toward Bactria (present-day Afghanistan), and into the Indian subcontinent through the Khyber Pass and Peshawar, or through the valley of Kashmir to the cities of northern Punjab and the Ganges plain.

In the Central Asian flatlands, travel was relatively easy, especially with the cities spaced at comfortable distances. But caravans making longer trips had to navigate treacherous mountains, deserts, and waterways. The Central Asian mountain ranges — the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, the Kunlun, and the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world — provided enormous challenges. Over the years, caravans marked out safe passes through these intimidating ranges.

History

When Samarkand first became a way station on the Silk Road in the 4th century B.C.E., it was called Maracanda and was the capital of Sogdiana. Sogdiana was a thriving province of Iran and the source of the precious stone lapis lazuli, which was traded eastward and westward along the Silk Road. Samarkand was conquered in 329 B.C.E. by the armies of Alexander the Great and became a part of his expanding and powerful Macedonian Empire. Rarely did traders cross the entire Silk Road; rather, they passed their goods along to a variety of middlemen. Because of their geographic location, particular cities along the Silk Road were good resting stops and transfer points of goods from one caravan to another. Samarkand was one such city, and so it was attractive to rulers throughout Central and West Asia who wished to control the lucrative trade. Following the collapse of Alexander's Macedonian Empire, the region around Samarkand fell to the Kushans, Sasanian Persians, and Turks, all eager to control this area. In the early 8th century the region was conquered by the Arabs, who made it a center of Islamic culture.

Just as Alexander the Great expanded his empire throughout West, Central, and South Asia, so too did the Mongol emperor Genghis (Chinghis) Khan in the 13th century. In 1220 he conquered Central Asia and destroyed Samarkand. After his death, his vast empire was divided into four geographical areas, and Central Asia entered a period in which rulers vied with one another for control of lands.

In the late 14th century, eager to reconstitute Genghis Khan's empire, Timur, leader of a small Turkic tribe in Samarkand, subdued the Ottoman Turks, swept through Iran, present-day Iraq, the Caucasus, and northern India, and conquered the other tribes in Central Asia to establish his Timurid Empire, with its capital in Samarkand. Timur died suddenly in 1405 as he was readying a military campaign against China. While his successors struggled during the 15th century to keep his empire from collapse, they did continue his legacy of extraordinary cultural achievement fusing Turkic and Persian artistic traditions, most spectacularly in architecture. Timur's grandson, Ulugh Beg, built Registan Square, which conveys the harmonious unity that is so much a part of the Timurid architectural aesthetic.

After the collapse of the Timurid empire the region was taken over by a federation of Turkic-speaking tribes collectively called Uzbek. Often at war with the tsar's armies, the Uzbeks lost Samarkand to Russia in 1868, and the city later became the capital of the Uzbek Republic of the Soviet Union. In 1991, Uzbekistan gained its independence. Although the present capital is Tashkent, Samarkand stands as one of the most culturally important cities in Uzbekistan and Central Asia today.

Click image to enlarge and view captions

  • Music: In Central and South Asia, minstrels and bards would roam from town to town, village to village, playing stringed instruments and performing epic tales, ballads, and songs of religious praise.