Samarkand - Crossroad of Cultures: A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Samarkand – Crossroad of Cultures was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2000. The historic town of Samarkand is a crossroad and melting pot of the world’s cultures. Founded in the 7th century BC as ancient Afrasiab, Samarkand had its most significant development in the Timurid period from the 14th to the 15th centuries. The major monuments include the Registan Mosque and madrassas, Bibi Khanum Mosque, the Shah-i Zinda necropolis, and the Gur-i Emir ensemble, as well as Ulugbeg’s Observatory.

The historic town of Samarkand, located in a large oasis in the valley of the Zerafshan River, in the north-eastern region of Uzbekistan, is considered the crossroads of world cultures with a history of over two and a half millennia. Evidence of settlements in the region goes back to 1500 BC, with Samarkand having its most significant development in the Timurid period, from the 14th to the 15th centuries, when it was capital of the powerful Timurid realm.

The historical part of Samarkand consists of three main sections. In the north-east there is the site of the ancient city of Afrosiab, founded in the 7th century BC and destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, which is preserved as an archaeological reserve. Archaeological excavations have revealed the ancient citadel and fortifications, the palace of the ruler (built in the 7th century displays important wall paintings), and residential and craft quarters. There are also remains of a large ancient mosque built from the 8th to 12th centuries.To the south, there are architectural ensembles and the medieval city of the Timurid epoch of the 14th and 15th centuries, which played a seminal role in the development of town planning, architecture, and arts in the region. The old town still contains substantial areas of historic fabric with typical narrow lanes, articulated into districts with social centres, mosques, madrassas, and residential housing. The traditional Uzbek houses have one or two floors and the spaces are grouped around central courtyards with gardens; built in mud brick, the houses have painted wooden ceilings and wall decorations.  The contribution of the Timurid masters to the design and construction of the Islamic ensembles were crucial for the development of Islamic architecture and arts and exercised an important influence in the entire region, leading to the achievements of the Safavids in Persia, the Mughals in India, and even the Ottomans in Turkey.

To the west there is the area that corresponds to the 19th and 20th centuries expansions, built by the Russians, in European style. The modern city extends around this historical zone. This area represents traditional continuity and qualities that are reflected in the neighbourhood structure, the small centres, mosques, and houses. Many houses retain painted and decorated interiors, grouped around courtyards and gardens.

The major monuments include the Registan Mosque and Madrassas, originally built in mud brick and covered with decorated ceramic tiles, the BibiKhanum Mosque and Mausoleum, the Shah-i Zinda complex, which contains a series of mosques, madrassas and mausoleum, and the ensembles of Gur-i Emir and Rukhabad, as well as the remains of Ulugbeg’s Observatory.

 

Criterion (i): The architecture and townscape of Samarkand, situated at the crossroads of ancient cultures, are masterpieces of Islamic cultural creativity.

Criterion (ii): Ensembles in Samarkand such as the Bibi Khanum Mosque and Registan Square played a seminal role in the development of Islamic architecture over the entire region, from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent.

Criterion (iv): The historic town of Samarkand illustrates in its art, architecture, and urban structure the most important stages of Central Asian cultural and political history from the 13th century to the present day.