No one still lives in Babylon. Luxor is an open-air museum, ancient ruins for tourists. Alexandria was burned down, Tenochtitlan is underground, and Çatalhöyük can hardly be spelled, let alone found.
It’s not the oldest continuously inhabited city, yet 2800 years seems a pretty good pedigree. And if you’re going to write about the center of the Silk Road, only ONE city in the center, Samarkand would be it.
Oasis in the Desert
Remember the Oxus, remember the Hindu Kush and the Kushans a few alphabetic posts back? The Kush is a mountain range in northern India, and the Kushans and Sogdians spread across the land to its northwest. The Oxus, today the Amu Darya, flows from the those mountains to the northwest, to the Caspian and the once Aral Sea.
Above the Oxus, nestled in a long and unusual stripe of green across those mix of foothills, dirt, desert, and mountains, is the ancient city of Samarkand, the second-largest city in Uzbekistan. If you were to take a map of Asia and North Africa, squint and put your finger on the middle, you might exactly touch Samarkand.
The oasis is in the Middle Zervashan Valley, and it flourishes with ancient irrigation. They’ve found the canals: the Dargom and the Yanghiaryk. (I’m having so much fun with the spelling!) Radiocarbon magazine–they have a magazine for EVERYthing–has an article where the researchers dated the canals from the river back 1800 years. There was flooding, but not massive, destructive flooding.
There have been massive earthquakes; the largest city in Uzbekistan, Tashkent, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1966. The USSR rebuilt Tashkent as a “model” city, which means most of its Silk Road legacy was paved over for skyscrapers. Samarkand was never entirely destroyed by earthquakes, though there was a big one that destroyed one of the mosque complexes in 1897.
It has survived earthquakes, though Samarkand has had its share of destruction. It had its share of usurpers and destroyers, both famous conquerors and petty revenge-seekers, too numerous to name. Like most of those cities across the center, it was sought after for strategic reasons. Although Samarkand also had the traders which meant it had wealthy people, which always makes places desirable.
Swaying With the Breezes of War
Alexander the Macedonian made it out to Samarkand. Whether he’d had time to build a giant palace full of Greek statues per the painting is perhaps debatable. But it is known that they were having a banquet, drinking a lot as soldiers do, and Alexander got into a spat with one of his most trusted commanders, Cleitus. Cleitus was objecting to a new order to go after the northern steppe barbarians. Let’s see… if it was 330 BCE, that would be the Scythians. They were a constant cloud of gnats, buzzing around Transoxiana.
Cleitus didn’t want to leave the cushy spot of Maracanda, which is what the Greeks called Samarkand, and Cleitus knew that the order was either a death-trap or a way of being forgotten. He yelled. Alexander threw an apple at his head and reached for a dagger. The others managed to restrain the Great and hustled Cleitus out of the room, but the fool came back, and Alexander picked up a javelin. He was very sorry, later. So was Cleitus.
War seemed to wash over the land like the breezes that swayed in the trees. Alexander cleared out the Scythians, who had followed the Hittites, but after the Macedonian died, the land was covered with Sogdians. The Sogdians came up with the brilliant name of Samarkand which means “stone” and “town.” (Tashkent also means “stone town” but in Turkic. Getting the feeling that there might be a lot of stones around.)
The Sassanians also had a go; they were Manicheists. Think “Star Wars”; manicheists believe there is an essential duality of light and dark. There were Xionists, Hephtalites (and woozles), Gok Turks, and then came the rise of Islam.
As the Persians and their kind found new religion, their dynasties also swept the cities across Asia Minor, the Middle East, modern Iran, modern Afghanistan–whatever you’d like to call that area. There was an Umayyid dynasty and an Abbasid dynasty. There were caliphs and sultans; they set up shop. They traded, they studied, they grew, and they continued to help Samarkand becoming the Happening Place out on the plains of central Asia.
The Chinese under the Tang dynasty at one point @750 CE sent troops all that way around the Himalayas to spread westward. At the Battle of Talas, which was in the vicinity, Muslim Abbasid troops defeated the Chinese, and there supposedly learned the secret of paper-making. I struggle to understand how Chinese warrior prisoners would have discussed the secret of paper-making to their captors as one researcher suggests. It was more likely the traders, don’t we think, as merchants and adventurers streamed back and forth with lots of secrets. At any rate, after that, the cities of Islam knew how to produce paper and reproduce books, which they did with a scholarly vengeance.
By 1220, then, Samarkand and its surrounding cities were proud representatives of the Khwarizm empire (there were also Samanids and the Karkanid Khaganate because the city was desired by a lot of people). Khwarizm at the time was ruled by Shah Muhammad II.
(By the way, a Shah was like a king or emperor, civilian ruler over multiple cities. A sultan was the ruler of a single location, like a city. A caliph was the combination of civil and religious authority, like a holy Roman emperor. You’re welcome.)
The other thing to keep in mind about this next sad, story of Samarkand is that Shah Muhammad II, aside from being an arrogant idiot, had taken territory away from his brothers and had himself conquered the cities of Tashkent, Balk, Timiridh, and Fergana (remember the horses).
Note to Shahs: Don’t Kill the Envoys
In 1218, the rising Mongol emperor, Chinggis Khan (Genghis, you know) was trying to establish negotiations, trade relations, sources of wealth across the plains. He was off to the northeast, trying to decide whether to put a palace in Qaraqorum, which his son eventually did. Chinggis sent 450 envoys to trade with the Sultan of Otrar, who happened to be Muhammad’s uncle. Maybe some were spies, of course, but they did apparently want to trade. The sultan, Inalchuq, made a fatal mistake. Fatal for most of the rest of central Asia. You wonder what we would have happened maybe if he’d negotiated. Who can say? He killed the envoys. Chinggis sent a few more –are you sure you want to do this?– and Inalchuq beheaded them.
Otrar, Bukhara, Samarkand were put to siege by 150,000 Mongol troops and utterly, utterly destroyed. Plundered in the most systematic way possible: the cities were emptied of people and their animals, so as to not interrupt the extraction of their wealth. Any person who had a valuable skill was enslaved and sent east; everyone was else was either put without weapons into the front of the army as siege fodder for the next attack or simply executed. The irrigation systems were dug up so that the land would turn to pasture instead of agriculture. Better for the horses.
Muhammad II ran away and died of pleuresy off to the north somewhere.
But Samarkand was rebuilt, by the Mongols has it happened. Timur (Timur the Lame, Tamurlane), who was a descendant of the Khans, rebuilt Samarkand and made it is his capital city.
Always Rebuilding Itself
The city thrived under Timur, it thrived in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it continues to thrive. It is a survivor of many sorts. It remains a jewel of architecture and belief. All the religions passed through and stopped at Samarkand. The beautiful legacy of Islamic culture makes it a world heritage site today, but it also is full of Orthodox and Christian churches, chapels, and temples.
There is even a bit of controversy because the mosques have been rebuilt on the original site after their various calamities and earthquakes, but the construction is modern. They aren’t technically archaeologically pure any more. Does that make them ancient? Does it really matter?
The city, says one resident, is always under construction. The city is always at the nexus of change, of ideas and emotions. It might be where they discuss paper making, astronomy, gunpowder, or philosophy. It might also lead to a javelin in the heart or the bombardment of the citadel, defended by valiant warriors whose shah has already left like a thief in the night.
The city always remakes itself to survive, the most utterly human thing it could do.