Friday, 27 August 2010


Samarkand: oasis city of wise men and conquerors

  • Friday, 27 August 2010
  • Fouad GM
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  • Conquered and ruled by several civilisations and empires, Samarkand was only tamed and shaped by Timur the lame, known to anglophones as Tamerlane - an Turkicised, Muslim convert of Mongol origin and the alleged ancestry of Genghis Khan. Born in nearby Shahr-i-Sabz (Green City), Tamerlane moved to Samarkand which became the capital of his vast empire which stretched from Moscow to Delhi and from Turkey to China. Timur's city of domes and minarets was built to lure lone travellers and merchant caravans into the oasis city's gardens, fountains and markets.

    Bread-seller, Samarkand

    This YouTube documentary "Paradise Found" tells the tale of the earliest Muslim missionaries who arrived in this city - a very amusing legend/tale about the arrival of the Arabs in Central Asia. Wanting Allah to decide their fate, so they cut up and boil a shape. The first reached into the boiling water and pulled out the sheep's heart and decides "Allah has decided for me, I shall go back to the heart of Islam." The second pulled out the head and decided he had to stay for this will be "the brain" of Islam. The third pulled out the sheep's arse and decided it's an indication he had to go back to Baghdad, the capital of the Abbassid Islamic Caliphate.

    The documentary concludes lamenting the works of "restoration" or "ruination" of the Timurid necropolis "Shahi-i-Zindar" which house(d) the oldest examples of Timurid architecture. The 14th century UNESCO World Heritage Site and Islamic art is being "restored" for Uzbekistan's authoritarian president's celebration of the country's independence in 1991.

    "This is their idea of working quickly" says the presenter, "it's like a construction site of a very ugly shopping centre! Look at this brickwork! Look what they've done to the tiles!". He then cries out at the site of construction workers "hacking away at irreplaceable 15th century Timurid domes with 4 inch chisels and 10lb mallets..."

    His advice: "if you buildings and you like Timurid architecture - which everyone in their right minds should because it's one of the most inventive and unmistakable architectural traditions in our civilisation - then don't come here! You'll just want to cry." I tell him... "if you like buildings and Timurid architecture... If you like human civilisation and the heritage left behind to document and celebrate human achievement... Then go there... And elsewhere where it's being threatened by modernisation, ill restoration, desertification, poverty, war, plunder and negligence. Go and FIGHT against it."

    I tell him, thank you for pointing out the loss, and thank you for inflaming the emotions of some amongst us.

    Nevertheless, not all is bad in Samarkand. On a more optimistic note... Much of the city's heritage was revived and restored with much more success in the past few years as the country's authorities gained experience and opened up to the international support of the UNESCO and friendly countries. Here's a short, but nicely prepared video on the epic monuments, life, legacies and science of Samarkand - the Central Asian oasis town home to innumerable scientists, scholars, theologians, princes and conquerors throughout history.

    Here's another video, a collection of photos taken by Sergey Karpenko displayed against the backdrop of a popular song about the city by famous Uzbek singer Nasiba Abdullaeva.

    Also, below is the first of a two-episode German documentary dubbed in Russian: Самарканд. Голубые купола Тимура. For those who speak neither, the pictures and the captions are telling enough. Your own research and readings can do the rest.

    Самарканд. Голубые купола Тимура: (Part 1 of 2)

    2 Responses to “Samarkand: oasis city of wise men and conquerors”

    Menna said...
    29 August 2010 at 13:44

    I love this post. It's short and simple but tells a lot. If you wanna talk about bad restoration, talk about Cairo! Some of those places make me wanna cry. The worst are ancient buildings which they don't even consider special like all the French-style buildings down town that are horribly painted yellow and green from the outside. It makes cringe every time I see those statues painted in green ON TOP of the dirt that was already there, and it makes me curse whatever ignorant stupid person was responsible for that. There should be a way to stop such criminal acts, especially in countries where the governments are too self-involved to give a damn or even know the value of such things. It really makes me sad.

    Fouad GM said...
    29 August 2010 at 14:30

    As much as Cairo makes me lament and its not-so-good restoration projects make me cringe... And as much as, yes, many sites should be listed but aren't - restored and catered for, but aren't... Cairo is far from a bad example. In fact, the restoration of Cairo isn't, by and large bad at all. Thanks to the EU-Agha Khan-Farouk Hosny trio.

    Have you noticed the new project to restore and revive Khedival Cairo? That's not to mention the Agha Khan's generous contribution to the restoration of El-Darb El-Ahmar and Fatimid/Mamluk Cairo.

    Having said that, civil society needs to wake up. There is little, or no, civil society action calling for the preservation and restoration of Cairene and Egyptian heritage - at least in Cairo. Ismailia, Aswan and Sohaj are much better. But then again... The Egyptian bourgeoisie is too busy trying to be European to even notice, let alone feel for, Egyptian cultural heritage.

    Next post on the topic will be Istanbul's Ottoman mansion houses - a current cause of concern for the UNESCO and a reason for international organisations' threats to downgrade Istanbul's Old City from a "World Heritage Site" to an "endangered" city - again, because the Turkish bourgeoisie is too busy chasing the EU to look towards its own heritage despite their city currently being "Capital of European Culture" and Islamic culture at the same time!

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