Samarkand in the Snow

By Rob Packer

I have the ability this week to show up in a place where the first snow of the year is falling. At the weekend, I was in the Chong-Kemin valley of Kyrgyzstan just after the first snow fell. Now I’m in Samarkand where Tuesday’s rain became Wednesday’s snow. It goes without saying that snow was the last kind of weather I was expecting. I’m sure the BBC’s weather website, which is the most accurate you can find for Kyrgyzstan, said that the average temperature was around 5°C or 10°C. Added to that, if you say “It’s Tashkent!” in Russian in Central Asia, it means it’s really hot. Neither of these mentions snow, so I’m glad I brought my walking boots.

The Registan with snow falling all around.

After a lot of trudging through the streets of Samarkand from the old city of Afrosiyob, which work badly in bad weather, I arrived at the Hazrut-Hizr Mosque, which has a wooden portico nothing like anything I’ve ever seen in a mosque before: a wooden, ribbed ceiling. The ceiling with its bright, contrasting colours seemed as much Imperial Chinese palace as mosque and its simpler beauty was a real contrast to the more intricate and tiled madrasahs, mausoleums and mosques that make up the other main sights of Samarkand. Inside the mosque itself, which was painted white and decorated with geometric patterns, I started talking to Habib, the imam, in between blessings for locals. I was amazed that Habib was only 22 and had been at that mosque for three years already after three years in the madrasah, and is probably an effect of decades of Soviet atheism and a shortage of clergy for the number of mosques in Uzbekistan. Tracksuits are almost obligatory for men of a certain age in Uzbekistan, and Habib cut quite a strange figure in his with his Uzbek robe on top.

Hazrut-Hizr Mosque

Inside the portico of Hazrut-Hizr Mosque.

An imam at Hazrut-Hizr Mosque.

Inside Hazrut-Hizr Mosque. The mosque was recently restored by a wealthy Bukharan, which is why the colours all look so fresh.

Inside Hazrut-Hizr Mosque.

The portico of Hazrut-Hizr Mosque.

Around the Hazrut-Hizr Mosque are two other major sites of Samarkand: the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, once one of the Islamic world’s largest, and Shoh-i-Zinda, an avenue of mausoleums. The mosque really is enormous from the enormous gateway to the actual prayer hall, but unfortunately there’s nothing more to the complex that the outside. The mosque was built and named after Timur the Great’s Chinese wife but was destroyed in an earthquake at the end of the 19th century and later reconstructed. Guessing by the scale of the place, the interior must have been absolutely incredible.

The Bibi-Khanym Mosque across the snowy distance.

The main prayer hall of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque: unrestored after the mosque was rebuilt after it was destroyed.

Dome at the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

Inside the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

One of the enormous archways at the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

As soon as I stepped into Shoh-i-Zinda, I was amazed that I’d barely even heard of the place and was half-tempted to skip it to head back to my guesthouse to escape the cold. If this ever happens to anyone who reads this while they’re in Samarkand, you shouldn’t miss this place. While the Registan impresses with its scale, uniformity and audacity, Shoh-i-Zinda impresses because each of the ten or fifteen mausoleums on its length is different and it’s like a greatest hits of blue-tiled 14th century Islamic architecture. They can be plain brickwork on the outside and intricate on the inside, be covered in incredibly blue tiles all over, or have tiles on the outside and be whitewashed inside. Some of it reminded me of the brilliant blue of the Gate of Ishtar in Berlin’s Pergamum Museum but it was far more impressive an ensemble than that reconstruction.

First view of Shoh-i-Zinda.

Detail at Shoh-i-Zinda.

Detail at Shoh-i-Zinda.

Mausoleums at Shoh-i-Zinda.

Detail at Shoh-i-Zinda.

Detail at Shoh-i-Zinda.

In the evening, the snow was falling heavily and I had the idea of heading to the Registan for one last farewell and to see what it looks like in the snow. I was surprised to see that it seemed almost untouched by the snow: my thought, that Samarkand’s Islamic architecture with its domes and vertical surfaces were snow proof, was disproven the next day. The three buildings just sat there oblivious to the snow as if calmly saying that they’ve seen it all before since they were built by Jenghiz Khan’s grandson, Timur. I’ve enjoyed my time in Samarkand and hope I’ll be back one day.

Two Uzbek men sitting outside a chaikhana in Samarkand. They're wearing traditional Uzbek robes, which look like dressing gowns to me, but are very warm according to all the Uzbeks in spoke with.

How to really make an appearance. This man wasn't out of his car for 5 seconds before the lepyoshka ladies swarmed on him.

A Soviet-era mural in Samarkand.

A street in old Samarkand.

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