The city of Samarkand is the crown jewel of Central Asia and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Founded in 8th century BC, it is one of the oldest cities in the world and contains many historical and archeological sites. Although I spent a few days in Samarkand, it was clearly not enough to see and photograph everything. There is so much to see – I only managed to hit the highlights.
The Registan Plaza
The image that is widely associated with Uzbekistan is that of the Registan Plaza, which has three stunningly beautiful Madrasahs facing each other: the Ulughbeg Madrasah, the Tilya-Qori Madrasah and the Sherdor Madrasah:
The best time to photograph the plaza is at sunrise. Very few tourists and locals show up early, so it will be a good time to take pictures if you want to avoid people in your photos.
Each one of these Madrasahs are worth visiting and spending time in. Their courtyards are beautiful, while the inner workings represent some of the most beautiful Islamic art found in the world. As you walk in the main area, pay close attention to the stunning tiles and mosaics:
Some of these are absolutely worth spending the time to see up close:
Prepare to get your socks blown off when you walk inside. The gold-painted art is extravagant and breathtaking:
Several times a week you will get to experience a night-time laser show in Registan. The building lights get turned off, then the projectors display beautiful videos, highlighting the history of Samarkand and the Silk Road. The show is definitely worth seeing, so make sure to check the show times.
Due to the popularity of the Registan plaza, it also occasionally hosts local theatrical performances. I was fortunate to experience a beautiful play featuring French actor Francois Shatto, who played the main role of Ulugbek.
After the play, I got to photograph some of the talented actors and actresses. I really love these two portraits of ladies dressed in royal clothing.
The lighting was a bit harsh to work with at night, but after shuffling the actors a little bit, I was able to get some nice portraits!
Gur Emir Mausoleum
The final resting place of Timur is in the Gur Emir Mausoleum (stands for “Tomb of the King”), which is my second most favorite location in Samarkand due to all the photographic opportunities it presents. The front entrance to the mausoleum is stunning, and you can photograph it both from a distance and up-close.
Another beautiful angle is from its right side. Here, you can stand on higher elevation and use the following composition:
I did not have much luck with weather while visiting Samarkand, but after coming to Gur Emir several times, I was fortunate to get a little bit of pink in the sky during the blue hour. Make sure to stick around after sunset, because the building gets beautifully illuminated.
The mausoleum partially collapsed on its right side a long time ago, but the inner burial chambers are fully preserved. And that’s where you will be going next.
As you enter the main burial chamber, you will see spectacular gold-plated inscriptions on the walls and the round dome:
The center area contains the tombs of Amir Timur, his sons and grandsons, as well as his teacher.
Right behind Gur Emir, you will find the restored Aksaray Mausoleum, which in my opinion has the most beautiful interior. You will see why as soon as you enter the main chambers and look straight up:
One of the best compositions here is what I call “The Dragon Face”:
Take your time and focus on all the details. Although it is a much smaller mausoleum compared to others, there are so many opportunities here!
Did you know that Samarkand hosted one of the first observatories in the world that accurately measured the sun from the horizon, the altitude of stars and planets, as well as the exact measurement of time? Ulugbek’s measurements were so precise, that they serve as a reference point even today. The observatory was built in the 9th century, but sadly, it was later completely demolished. When visiting the observatory, you will only be able to see what is remaining of it, which is the trench with the lower section of the meridian arc:
Next to the trench is a museum that explains everything you need to know about Ulugbek and his impressive observatory. It is absolutely worth checking out, as there is quite a lot of history here, as well as the models that depict what the observatory actually looked like. There is not much photographic opportunity here, but if you get a good guide, they will be able to learn a lot about the observatory, and the significance of Ulugbek’s discoveries.
The Shah-i-Zinda ensemble includes several mausoleums and other ritual buildings, mostly from 9th to 14th centuries. Some newer buildings were added in the 19th century to make a total of more than 20 different structures. It is a significant site for Muslim pilgrims, because it hosts the mausoleum of Kusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad who came to Central Asia to preach Islam.
Take your time to explore this necropolis. Most of the buildings are open for visitation, and photography is allowed. As you walk into and between buildings, you will find stunning exterior tile and mosaic work:
Inside each mausoleum building, you will find decorated walls and domes, some of which are covered with Islamic inscriptions and traditional mosaic art.
Bibi Khanym Mosque
Another site worth checking out is the Bibi Khanym Mosque, which is yet another architectural marvel of Samarkand. Bibi Khanym was built by Timur to commemorate his wife. Timur brought architects from Iran and India to build this impressive mosque, but the building was rushed and had structural problems that eventually led to major damages and the collapse of its domes. The building was partially restored during the Soviet era, but major reconstruction efforts are being carried out today. Unfortunately, the mosque was closed at the time of my visit and I could not photograph it.
The Mausoleum of Imam Bukhari
The tomb of one of the greatest Islamic scholars, Imam Bukhari, the author of the Sahih al-Bukhari, lies 25 kilometers from the city of Samarkand. It was completely restored in 1998, and is comprised of several buildings, including Imam Bukhari’s tomb, a mosque, a madrasah and a library. Many Muslim pilgrims from all over the world come to visit the mausoleum.
The tomb itself is a magnificent work of art, something you can enjoy and photograph from multiple angles.
As you get closer, pay attention to all the interior and exterior tiles, mosaics and the marble – a lot of time and resources were spent into making it.
The buildings next to the tomb are equally stunning, with unique hand-carved wooden ceilings that have been painted in different styles and color themes:
You can spend a lot of time and photograph plenty of details here, along with the calligraphy and all the shapes and textures:
A brand new set of buildings has been recently erected in Imam Bukhari’s complex. When I visited the site, it was near the end of construction, so it is probably open for public now.
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