Before Samarkand there was Afrosiab.
Once one of the largest cities in Central Asia, a thriving hub of trade on the Silk Road, now an enormous mound of decaying mud-brick.
Afrosiab sits to the north of the ‘modern’ – i.e. post 13th Century CE – centre of Samarkand.
Partially used in current day as a cemetery, the ruined city rises above the surrounding landscape in a beguiling way.
Its inhabitants were merely taking advantage of local geography; settling upon high ground for defensive purposes.
Somehow though the mass appears unnatural, like a giant fortress now all but gone from this earth.
Founding of Afrosiab
The origins of the city stretch back to 700 BCE, making Afrosiab, and then Samarkand, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Central Asia.
At the time Afrosiab was one of the key cities in Sogdia (Sogdia, or Sogdiana, was an enormous Central Asian civilisation; the Sogdians were of Persian descent, and at times were amalgamated within the Persian Empire).
The city was sacked by Cyrus the Great circa 540 BCE, then again by Alexander the Great in 329 BCE – the Greeks called the city Maracanda, and the name eventually stuck, transforming somewhere along the way into Samarkand.
But these were just minor setbacks
Afrosiab was all but obliterated in 1220 by none other than Genghis Khan. Genghis burnt the city to the ground. It was abandoned and never rebuilt.
The remains of the city are now just dust; dust in the form of a giant, unnatural mound. You can make out shapes amongst the old city, craggy hillocks that might once have been a palace, odd angular rises that might have been bastions; your eye runs from formation to formation, imagining a wealth of richly decorated structures. But it is all just imagination.
Most likely what remains bears little resemblance to the original Afrosiab. The perimeter of the city, where the giant, unnatural mound rises above the surrounding plain via a series of short, steep cliffs, is perhaps the most impressive feature of the site.
Was this cliff once a defensive wall?
Or is it just part of the natural landscape and nothing to do with the city at all?
Ambassador’s Painting, Afrosiab Museum
In the midst of the immense ruined city is the stately Afrosiab Museum.
In the midst of the museum, worked over by a team of expert restorers, is the Ambassador’s painting.
The painting was uncovered during the construction of a road in 1965 (yes, the road went straight through the middle of Afrosiab).
It covered all four walls of a central chamber in what was either a large private house or a small palace.
The painting, which dates to the 7th Century CE, captures scenes from across Central Asia, including a Chinese empress in a boat, and a Nowruz (Persian New Year) festival.
The major panel in the room depicts ranks of emissaries from Korea, Persia and China, and immediately reminded me of the sculptural reliefs at Persepolis, Iran.
Tomb of Daniel, Afrosiab
Venture to the eastern perimeter of the ruined city and you’ll come across a strip of surprisingly lush parkland. This is the Tomb of Daniel.
Daniel, in this case, is one of the prophets from the Old Testament. The tomb contains an 18m long sarcophagus – the corpse of Daniel is supposedly still growing.
The sarcophagus is purported to have been brought to Uzbekistan by Timur from Susa, Iran.
Oddly, Susa claims to have their own Tomb of Daniel, which leads me to belief that at least one of the two tombs is a fake.
Practical information and how to reach Afrosiab:
Afrosiab is located 500m northeast of the Registan in Samarkand. Samarkand is 300 km from the capital, Tashkent. There are trains running between the two cities (3 hours); otherwise you will need to find a share-taxi. More transport info here.
Read more on Samarkand in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.