Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Jacobi’s Stay in Samarkand: December 7 to 10, 1932

Lotte Jacobi, Where the Koran Was Read [Ulugh Beg's Koran stone, or platform], Samarkand, Uzbekistan, December 7-10, 1932. In the background are the ruins of the Bibi Khanum Mosque.

The ancient city of Samarkand, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, has a long and rich history. Like Bukhara, it is one of the oldest cities in Central Asia—part of the city dates as far back as 1500 BCE to the Early Iron Age (Yücel 150.) Located along the Silk Road, Samarkand welcomed merchants bringing goods from Europe, China, the Middle East, and India to its markets. In addition to its prosperity as a center of trade, the area has been known for its agriculture. The city is located between two rivers, the Darya and Syr Darya Rivers, in the oasis of Zarafashan. The fertile soil surrounding Samarkand made it the agricultural center of Central Asia as well (151.)  

Lotte Jacobi, Uzbek Women Selling Tubeteikas [skullcaps] in the Bazaar in Samarkand, Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ca. December 7-10, 1932

As a nexus of trade and agricultural production, Samarkand was a highly desirable city. Over the years, it was conquered by some of the most powerful rulers and empires in history, such as the Achaemenid king Darius (in the 6th century BCE), Alexander the Great (4th century BCE), and the Sogdians (ca. 3rd to 8th centuries CE), before it was claimed during the Muslin conquest in the 8th century (Yücel 154).  In 1220, Genghis Khan sacked Samarkand, but Timur, founder of the Timurid dynasty (1370-1857), established it as his capital in 1369 and greatly enhanced the architectural monuments, and the culture, of the city.

Timur made sure his capital reflected the glory and might of his empire. He expanded the city through suburbs named after major cities he had conquered, such as Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and Sultaniya (Marozzi 210-211, Yücel 158-159). As a result of his conquests, Timur brought artisans from his newly conquered territories—masons, builders, and gem-cutters from Delhi; silversmiths, gunsmiths, and rope-makers from Asia Minor, to embellish his capital (Marozzi 208, Yücel 159). Under the Timurids, Samarkand developed into one of the world’s centers of art and science. Russians took the city in 1868 when they incorporated the region into the Russian Empire; this area then became the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1925.

Lotte Jacobi, Street Scene Taken [road to Samarkand] from a Horse-drawn Wagon, Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ca. December 7-10, 1932 

In the 1930s, one approached the old town in Samarkand by way of “long, tree-lined avenues” that ran past the Russian settlement (MacLean 73). Buildings were made of mudbrick, while important Islamic monuments in the ancient city center had domes and monumental portals with glittering mosaic decorations in blue, turquoise, and gold. In the center is one of the most impressive public squares in Islamic architecture, the Timurid Registan, framed on three sides with splendid madrassas, or Islamic schools. Timur commissioned many other world-renowned monuments for Samarkand, including the Bibi Khanum mosque complex; the Gur-I Amir Mausoleum, where Timur and one of his grandsons are buried; and the Shah-I Zinda necropolis, which includes the tombs of important military and government figures, as well as many of Timur’s relatives (there is even a tomb for his wet nurse!) (Maillart 213).

Lotte Jacobi, Avenue at the Shah-I Zinda Complex, Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ca. December 7-10, 1932

Lotte Jacobi, Street in Samarkand with Car, Bibi Khanum Mosque, Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ca. Dec 7-10, 1932

An area of the city that was important to Jacobi was the mahallah, or Jewish quarter. The Jews had a long history in Samarkand, going back at least until the twelfth century. In 1843, they bought land in the city, forty-seven acres, and established the residential Jewish quarter with houses, synagogues, and a cemetery (Cooper 347, 348). There are at least twenty-one photographs of this area of Samarkand in the Jacobi Archive at the University of New Hampshire. They depict the narrow streets of the mahallah, scenes of everyday life, and a number of striking portraits of men, women, and children. After the breakup of the Soviet Union and then Uzbekistan’s declaration of independence in 1991, most of the Jews of Samarkand emigrated to Israel and the United States. Since then, buildings have been torn down, renovated, or repurposed; other people have moved in. Thus today, the Jewish quarter of Samarkand no longer exists (348).

Lotte Jacobi, Man Walking in the Jewish Section, Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ca. December 7-10, 1932

Lotte Jacobi, Portrait of a Jewish Man Living in Samarkand, Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ca. December 7-10, 1932

An important example of the Soviet control of Samarkand that Jacobi visited was the Kudjum, a silk-spinning factory built in 1927. With the cultivation of silkworms and mulberry trees, the insects’ sole source of food, silk spinning had been prevalent in the region for centuries. Once Uzbekistan became part of the USSR, the central government ordered the industrialization of the ancient processes of making silk thread and textiles by hand. Jacobi visited silk factories in both Samarkand and Khodjent (now Khujand). In the late 1930s, the French photographer Ella Maillart noted that the plates on the machines in the Kudjum factory indicated that they were made in Italy. She said that the factory employed 850 workers (1100 workers according to Kisch), who were mostly “emancipated” women (Maillart 221, Kisch 115). Kisch reported that “The average wage of the workwomen is 130 roubles [per month]. In the evenings they attended educational courses. A few years ago, they were imprisoned, penniless, illiterate slaves of their husbands” (Kisch 118). By the 1930s, these recently unveiled women working in the silk-spinning factory could now read and had their own income.

Samarkand, with its ethnic diversity and rich cultural atmosphere, its scientific institutions and artistic innovations, earned its reputation as one of the great cities of the world. The city was home to a diverse population from across the former Timurid Empire, including a multi-ethnic Muslim population, Orthodox Greeks, Armenians, Catholics, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and Jews (Marozzi 208.) Jacobi photographed many of these, as well as traders from along the Silk Road, in addition to the great Islamic monuments, the necropolis, the silk-spinning factory, and scenes of everyday life. Today, Samarkand is Uzbekistan’s second largest city, after the capital Tashkent; its economy is based on agriculture and tourism, which focuses on its rebuilt historic monuments.

Map & Cities

Contributors: Marina Schneider, Eleanor Hight

Works Cited:

Cooper, Alanna E. “When a Neighbourhood Falls off the Map: Jewish Disappearance from Samarkand’s Post-Soviet Landscape.”  Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, 2023, pp. 347-370, https://doi.org/10.1080/14725886.2022.2090236

Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture. Edited by Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195309911.001.0001/acref-9780195309911-e-189?rskey=HpkK5h&result=1#acref-9780195309911-eSub-0070

Kisch, Egon Erwin. Asien gründlich verändert (Changing Asia). Berlin: Erich Reiss Verlag, 1932. English version: Changing Asia. Trans. Rita Reil. New York: Knopf, 1935.

Maclean, Fitzroy. Eastern Approaches: The Memoirs of the Original British Action Hero. London, Cape, 1966.

Maillart, Ella K. Turkestan Solo: A Journey through Central Asia. Translated by John Rodker. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1935.

Marozzi, Justin. Tamerlane Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004.

Soucek, Svat. A History of Inner Asia. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Yücel, Muala Uydu. “Samarkand: Queen of All Cities.” Tourism in Central Asia: Cultural Potential and Challenges. Ed. Mahmood A. Khan, 150-171, CRC Press, 2016.