Phoenix Cities of Central Asia

Archeological Sites in Samarkand
By Eileen K. Gunn

The two great archaeological sites of Samarkand are Ulugh Beg's astronomical observatory and the site of Afrasiab, the original Maracanda, the city that was permanently destroyed by Genghis Khan.

Ulugh Beg's Observatory

Ulugh Beg, Timur's grandson and the ruler of Samarkand, was one of the great medieval astronomers, although his work was not known in the West for 200 years after his death. His observatory, begun in 1428, was a circular building three stories high. It contained the largest quadrant — a device used for making accurate astronomical observations — that had ever been built. As the best-equipped observatory anywhere in the world at the time, it attracted leading Islamic scientists to Samarkand, enriching the intellectual life of the city.

Two hundred years before Kepler, 150 before Tycho Brahe, Ulugh Beg compiled star tables more accurate than the West would know until the 16th century. He re-observed and corrected Ptolemy's star positions. That his work was not more widely known to Western astronomers was unfortunate. Ironically, his Catalog of Stars was discovered by a scholar in 1648, in Oxford's Bodelian Library. Even at that late date, it contained some information that was new and useful to the West and an English translation was published in 1917.

Like every important building in Samarkand, the observatory was decorated lavishly in brightly colored majolica tiles. But the observatory's decoration was suprisingly, even heretically, figurative — celestial orbits and astronomical information, paintings of planets and stars, pictures of deserts, steppes, seas, and mountains, and busts of famous scientists of East and West adorned its walls.

Successful in his quest for knowledge, Ulugh Beg was ultimately unsuccessful as a ruler and a politician. Religious conservatives distrusted him, and he was assassinated in 1449 by his own son. Soon after death, his observatory was so thoroughly destroyed by religious conservatives that there was no trace left above ground, and its location was a mystery for centuries. In 1908 an amateur archaeologist, Vladimir Vyatkin, determined its likely location from searching ancient manuscripts and unearthed the sextant on Kukhak Hill, northeast of Afrasiab.

The underground arc of the quadrant, made of brick clad in marble, is still there, protected by an unassuming tunnel-like building. Visitors can walk down stone steps into the earth to get a closer look. Calculations were made using a huge astrolabe mounted on metal rails on either side of the quadrant.

There's a small museum nearby, mostly about the lives of Timur and Ulugh Beg. It doesn't contain a lot of artifacts but has some informative exhibits and models of the observatory.


Afrasiab, the pre-Mongol city, is now merely a large plateau of yellow loess, maybe half a mile northeast of the Registan, past the Bibi Khanum mosque. The Tashkent Road, heedless of artifacts, runs through it, and from a distance it looks like nothing more than a huge, desultory urban earthwork. Russian archaeologists began excavations in the 1880s, and many of their finds are on exhibit at the Afrasiab History Museum in the southeastern side of the hill.

Several layers have been partially excavated, including Sogdian (fifthsixth century) and Greco-Bactrian (early fourth century) remains. Excavation has also uncovered the palace of a ruler, containing large halls with smaller rooms and corridors between them. The walls are made of beaten-clay bricks, and contain remnants of decoratively carved wooden beams and caryatid pillars.

Extraordinary sixthseventh century frescoes have been discovered at Afrasiab. The archaeologist Edgar Knoblach describes one as representing the peak of Sogdian art:"a splendid caravan, led by an elephant carrying a palanquin with a princess, followed by three ladies on horseback, an old man, another old man with a black beard on a camel, and a rider on a dun horse. The caravan brings gifts to the ruler — a herd of horses, some strange white birds which could be swans, but the main gift is the princess herself."

Decorative panels have been found from Samanid ruins (ninthtenth century) that resemble the girikh patterns of later Islamic art — squares containing circles inscribed with hexagonal and octagonal stars, interwoven squares and octagons, intersecting circles and crosses, and other repeating designs.

Would it be possible, if more artifacts of the earlier cities were left, to trace the evolution of a regional, rather than a culturally Islamic, style of art? (See the discussion of the Samanid mausoleum in The Architecture of Bukhara.) Or was each successive incarnation of Samarkand that rose on the banks of the Zerafshan a unique artistic creation, owing little to the local past and much to design concepts brought in with invading nomads and enslaved artisans? Perhaps the 300 acres of ruins at Afrasiab hold some answers.


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