The Amazing Restoration of Samarkand’s Historic Buildings

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While a certain extremist group has been systemically destroying precious ancient monuments in the middle-east, one Islamic city in Central Asia has been carefully restoring and preserving its own. The city is Samarkand, Uzbekistan's third largest city, and one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia.

Found in the 8th or 9th century BCE, Samarkand has a long and tumultuous history starting from the time when Alexander the Great passed through it in the 4th century BCE. Since then the city has been seized and ruled by Persians, Greeks, Turks, Mongols, Chinese and Russians. The Chinese scholar-travellers Faxian and Xuanzang, the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, and Marco Polo all wrote about the city. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan laid the city to waste. It was Timur, the founder and ruler of the Timurid Empire, who had the city rebuilt.

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The Bibi-Khanym mosque before restoration (left) and after restoration in 1974 (right). Photo credit: RFERL.org

After Timur made Samarkand his capital, he brought the best artisans and craftsmen he could find from across his vast empire and set about rebuilding the city in great earnest. The brutality with which Timur proceeded with this task is described in Wikipedia:

Timur’s commitment to the arts is evident in the way he was ruthless with his enemies but merciful towards those with special artistic abilities. He spared the lives of artists, craftmen and architects so that he could bring them to improve and beautify his capital. He was also directly involved in his construction projects and his visions often exceeded the technical abilities of his workers. Furthermore, the city was in a state of constant construction and Timur would often request buildings to be done and redone quickly if he was unsatisfied with the results

Once during the construction of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Timur had arranged cooked meat to be brought and thrown at the workers in the foundation so that work could continue day and night. At times he would throw coins at them when they worked to his satisfaction.

This great period of reconstruction lasted for 35 years until Timur’s death in 1405 CE. By then, his gardens, palaces, mosques and mausoleums defined Samarkand and the style of buildings to follow.

Much of the restoration and reconstruction of these magnificent buildings happened about fifty years ago during the time of Soviet rule. Centuries of war and a couple of nasty earthquakes had left many of the buildings in ruins. Others, such as the Shah-i-Zinda cemetery, was restored as recently as ten years ago. The aggressive restoration work has been controversial to some, for it has lost the authenticity of the monuments.

The truth of the matter is, if this restoration, aggressive or otherwise, had not been done, these fragile legacies would have disappeared by now.

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A late-19th or early-20th century painting of the Bibi-Khanym mosque by artist Richard-Karl Karlovitch Zommer. Photo credit: Christie/Wikimedia

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Bibi-Khanym mosque. Photo credit: Richard Towell/Flickr

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Bibi-Khanym mosque. Photo credit: Mr Hicks46/Flickr

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Bibi-Khanym mosque. Photo credit: Adam Jones/Flickr

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Bibi-Khanym mosque: Then and now. Photo credit: RFERL.org

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Bibi-Khanym mosque: Then and now. Photo credit: RFERL.org

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The Amir Temur mausoleum was originally built in the 14th century. Before and after restoration. Photo credit: RFERL.org

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The Amir Temur mausoleum. Photo credit: Christopher Rose/Flickr

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The Amir Temur mausoleum. Photo credit: Adeel Anwer/Flickr

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The Amir Temur mausoleum. Photo credit: Christopher Rose/Flickr

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The Shah-i Zinda mausoleum complex, before and after restoration. The complex includes more than 20 buildings and the earliest parts date from the 11th century. Photo credit: RFERL.org

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The Shah-i Zinda mausoleum. Photo credit: Fulvio Spada/Flickr

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The Shah-i Zinda mausoleum. Photo credit: Fulvio Spada/Flickr

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The Shah-i Zinda mausoleum. Photo credit: Sergio Tittarini/Flickr

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The Shah-i Zinda mausoleum complex, before and after restoration. Photo credit: RFERL.org

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The Shah-i Zinda mausoleum complex, before and after restoration. Photo credit: RFERL.org

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The Shah-i Zinda mausoleum complex, before and after restoration. Photo credit: RFERL.org

Sources: The Guardian / Reuters / RFERL.org

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