HISTORIANS AREN’T EVEN SURE how old Samarkand is, but it may have been there 300 years when Alexander The Great took it from its Persian-Sogdian rulers.
Genghis Khan left little evidence of the Turkic and Persian cities which followed, but the city came into its own under two of his descendants, and became one of the grandest cities of the silk roads, and capital of one of the greatest empires ever. In the 1300s, despite a leg unjury from battle, rose a man who conquered everything between Delhi, Baghdad, Tblisi and Turkey: Timur, known in the west as Timurlane, if at all. Much of the cultural legacy seen in this glittering jewel of the steppe is due to his grandson, Ulugh Beg, an astronomer, scholar as well as great Khan. Stories of these glorious eastern cities were dismissed as fantasy by European minds. Samarkand shows the reality.
Armies and caravans heading between China and the Middle East passed through inhospitable deserts, over freezing mountains and came to Samarkand.
It was the capital of mighty Uzbel khan Emir Timur, whose masoleum is one of many glorious remnants of his legacy.
The city's heart and soul is the Registan ("place of sand"), a square of three awe-inspiring madrasahs.
The Tilya Kori madrasah was built in the mid 1600s.
On its left, the Ulugh Beg Madrasah is the oldest of the three, built 1417-20.
And on the right, facing the Ulegh Beg Madrasah, is the Sher Dor Madrasah, built 1619-36.
The city is linked with Ulugh Beg and his grandfather, Timur, who was born nearby in Shahrisabz. Behind his statue, the arch is all that remains of Timur's summer palace, which spanned all the ground between our wedding guests and the arch.
"If you challenge our power – look at our buildings!" boasted the inscriptiion. The mind struggles to comprehend the scale of Ak Saray.
The Kok Gumbaz Mosque is part of a complex which includes tombs of Emir Timur's family, and is where he wished to remain. Shahrisabz can be seen as a day trip from its more famous neighbour.
Timur's exceptional empire building began a glorious era of scholarship, art, architecture, wealth and trade.
Gur e Amir, Timur's masoleum is a place of pilgrimage, with Persian unfluenced gardens and blue domes.
Inside the masoluem are decorations fit, appropriately, for a king.
Revered by Uzbeks, Timur's grave is marked by a plain piece of jade. The largest grave is his spiritual adviser, Sayyid Baraka, others his grandson Ulugh Beg, and one of his sons, Shah Rukh Mirza.
Dedicated to the mother of Timur's wife, the Bibi Khanyum mosque was built while he was conquering Delhi. Many legends surround its construction.
Finding some parts too modest, the Emir had them pulled down, the overseer executed, and bigger and bolder heights demanded. He even threw coins and meat to labourers!
Regrettably, the foundations were not able to support some parts of the mosque. While most of the mosque has been restored, one part has a cracked dome and walls.
It was another 600 years before a building taller than the Bibi Khanym was built in Uzbekistan.
On a hill looking down upon Bibi Khanym, the 19th century Hazrat Hizr mosque is a reproduction of the 8th century one destroyed by Genghis.
It is richly decorated with carved wooden panels and ceilings, as well as painted domes, in a style quite unlike others in Samarkand.
Its hill location provides views of the Bibi Khanum as well as the Timurid necroplis, Shah i Zinda.
In a city greedy with monuments, the "living king" complex of 20 buildings housing Uzbek rulers, advisors and religious figures, may be the grandest of all.
Domed masoleum of Timur's sisters, as well as a cousin of the Prophet himself, make Shah i Zinda a place of deep spiritual signifigance. Its designers and builders did not disappoint.
The Prophet's own cousin Kusam Inb Abbas is buried here, although the legend says that his beheading was not fatal, and he lives on, hence "Living King" or "Shah i Zinda."
Buildings were added for 1,000 years until the 1900s, encompassing different styles and design techniques. The cluster of masoleum for Timur's family dating from the 14th century or so are some of the finest.
The masoleum of Timur's sister Shirin Beg Aga will leave you breathless, and me lost for words.
Breaking from monuments, shorpa, lamb and vegetable soup, best eaten with bread. While the whole country is united that Samarkand's bread is withoout parallel, it was actually our least favourite.
Few would argue though about the legacy of Samarkand's great rulers, Timur and Ulugh Beg.
The name She Dor comes from the unique design high on the iwan (hall, partially open), literally "Lion Possessing."
The madrasah replaced a "khanaqh" (sufi lodge) on the site, and was modelled on the Ulugh Beg Madrasah which sits opposite.
Arabic verses from the Koran.
On the inside of the iwan (semi open hall), this is said to be the finest example of "muqarnas" vaulted ceiling design in Samarkand if not central Asia.
Peering through the window of the Sher Dor at the Ulugh Beg Madrasah opposite.
At the rear of the school, a glittering blue-gold mosque.
A dazzling displays of artistic genius covers the domed ceiling of the mosque.
Architectural historians believe this was built by Ismail b. Tahir b. Mahmad Isfahani, who built the Bukhara madrasa of the same name. The name "Isfahani" suggests he was descended from captured artisan from Isfahan.
While the astronmer Khan Ulugh Beg had star-like motifs adorn the front, most of the designs are traditional Islamic geometric motifs and caligraphy.
Design elements and colours also show Esfahani influence.
The cord-like bordering of features is also common at the Bukhara Ulugh Beg madrasah.
Probably the only complaint you coud have about Samarkand is that the restoration and beautification has been too thorough. The hustle and bustle of the bazaars and backways has been silenced by manicured parks.
However, even Timur himself couldn't always get what he wanted. He wanted to be buried here in Shahrisabz, but the winter passes were snowed in.
The first Europeans to cross the mountains towards Cathay were dumb-struck by the sophistication of the culture of the steppe nomads. You will be too.