We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds are fiery hearts are fanned
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand
James Flecker 1913
Samarkand is a city of 600,000 souls and home to some of the most arresting architecture anywhere in the world. The pearl, the gem, of all the mosques and the mausoleums is without doubt the Registan. The Registan is made up of two medrassas facing each other, with a third forming part of a square. The Registan has been described as the most beautiful square in the world; it is certainly the most beautifully proportioned, graceful, and dramatic square anywhere in the world.
Their colour, sense of majesty, and size all add to the drama of the square – it is so easy to imagine what it may have been like 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, or when they were originally built over 500 years ago. The bustle of the market, the hubbub of the meeting place all overshadowed by the grace of three gorgeous facades, and four elegant minarets. But its not quite like that; Elaine’s photos show the gorgeous facades, and the elegant minarets, but they are not the originals – they have all been “restored” in the 1920s.
The 1920s was a difficult time for the countries of Central Asia. Russia was in the midst of the Bolshevik Rebellion, the old order was under threat. The nations of Central Asia that we know now did not exist – instead there were a number of different khanates each ruled by very autocratic leaders, not greatly dissimilar to the Tzar (but on a much smaller scale), whose regime in Russia was so threatened. With the rise of communism in Russia, and the creation of the Soviet Union, there were significant changes in Central Asia. Each of the current countries that we see now were created by Lenin. But the spread of the Soviet influence into Central Asia, be it Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or the other countries was not through a military invasion, but a more subtle influence of power. First came the railway from Moscow. The railway had a dual function – it provided a route for the military to arrive quickly to defend national borders and gain access to the Indian sub-continent – the end stages of the Great Game. This was the stick. The carrot that the railway brought was doctors, teachers, academics, trade, schools and hospitals to an area that had previously been impoverished. The 1920s marked a time when the Central Asian countries flourished, thanks to the Soviet Union. Part of that social expansion was Soviet investment in repairing the major archeological remains of Samarkand. The programme of repair and restoration was funded by the Soviet Union and took 10 – 15 years. It is true to say that without the Bolshevik Rebellion, there would not be the Registan as we see it today.
Does that make the buildings less valid? Looking at the history of any of the great buildings in any city in the world, they all bear the marks of “ repair and renovation”. Some have been completed more sympathetically than others, but there are few buildings that are unchanged from the time of their building over 500 years ago. Seeing the devastation caused by war and earthquakes, the quantity and the quality of the repairs undertaken by the Soviet Union, is remarkable.
And did the earth move for you? We experienced our first earthquake in Samarkand. Richter scale 5.0 situated 40km north east of Samarkand and 20km deep. It was so gentle that we weren’t even sure it was an earthquake. None of the locals seemed in the slightest bit bothered – the only way that we knew it was an earthquake was that the trembling lasted far longer than could be explained by anything else. For the benefit of David in particular, it felt a bit like Concorde rumbling past but not quite taking off.