Samarkand, Uzbekistan

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

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 (151.)  

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.

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 the important Islamic monuments in the ancient city center had domes and 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).

However, when Jacobi was there, many of Samarkand’s ancient monuments had suffered damage over the centuries from earthquakes, the Russian invasion in 1868, and time. The dome of Bibi Khanum fell in 1882; minarets and walls were leaning precariously. Writing of his time in Samarkand in the mid-1920s, Egon Erwin Kisch reported that he was told the renovations on the Registan alone cost 65,000 rubles that year (around $23 million today) (Kisch 46). As was the case of Bukhara, many of Samarkand’s buildings were rebuilt in the 1960s and after, often with less than authentic results.

An important example of the Soviet control of Samarkand that Jacobi visited was the Kudjum, a silk-spinning factory built in 1927. Silk manufacture had been prevalent in the region for centuries, with the cultivation of silkworms and mulberry trees, the insects’ sole source of food. 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. 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. 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 attend educational courses. A few years ago, they were imprisoned, penniless, illiterate slaves of their husbands” (Kisch 118). By the 1930s, these unveiled women working in the silk-spinning factory now had their own income and were literate.

Samarkand’s rich cultural atmosphere, scientific knowledge, and artistic innovations earned its reputation as one of the great cities of the world. The city was also once home to a diverse population from across the Timurid Empire, including a multi-ethnic Muslim population, Orthodox Greeks, Armenians, Catholics, Hindus, and Zoroastrians (Marozzi 208.) Jacobi photographed many people from these groups, as well as Jews, in addition to Islamic monuments, the necropolis, the silk-spinning factory, and other scenes of everyday life.

Contributors: Marina Schneider, Eleanor Hight

Works Cited:

Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture. Edited by Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair.

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.