I decide to make a slow circumambulation of the Bibi Khanym Mosque, before entering the complex.
The sleek, overtly manicured, and somewhat kitschy facade of Samarkand’s tourist centre disintegrates just a few metres back from the main road. Behind the mausoleum is the real Samarkand.
Dusty, underdeveloped, resource deprived, but with charming Old World character. Outside of the tourist centre you get a sense of the history of the city, you get a feel for its context, you see its relation to the environment.
The mud brick buildings here are the same colour as the ground itself. The dilapidated Russian Ladas that line the street are a reminder of the nation’s involvement in the Soviet Union.
The shashlyk restaurant on the corner, with the aroma of searing meat and freshly sliced onion issuing from its doors, is a scene typical of Uzbekistan.
And then you look at the skyline, and take in the magnificent blue domes, flashing aquamarine in the early afternoon light, seen between power lines and satellite dishes, and you confirm you are in Samarkand, and nowhere else.
Bibi Khanym Mosque
The ruins of Bibi Khanym Mosque (the mosque is largely restored these days) is probably my favourite place Samarkand. It is certainly my favourite of the many blue domes in the city.
The semi-collapsed state of the mosque, the remnant unrestored walls, the hint of something much bigger, much grander, that is forever lost to the world, tantalises the imagination exponentially more than the non-original restoration work.
So much of the historical centre of Samarkand has been unsympathetically restored, so much looks brand new, scrubbed clean of all stains, all blemishes. It’s refreshing to see a building that shows the passage of time once in a while.
Who was Bibi Khanym?
Bibi Khanym was Timur’s wife.
Legend has it she built the mosque to honour her husband while he was away waging wars in India. The less romantic reality is that it was Timur who ordered the construction of the mosque.
He did so to honour himself, following a successful campaign in India.
Today the mosque commemorates his wife, who was buried in a tomb nearby.
Practical information and how to reach Bibi Khanym Mosque:
Bibi Khanym Mosque 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.