Samarkind is is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia. There is evidence of human activity in the area of the city from the late Paleolithic era, though there is no direct evidence of when exactly Samarkand was founded; some theories propose that it was founded between the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Prospering from its location on the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean, at times Samarkand was one of the greatest cities of Central Asia.

By the time of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia (see my blog post) , it was the capital of the Sogdian satrapy. (See my blog post Sogdians)  Samarkand is an ancient city, likely founded by groups who came from Iran in the 700s BCE. Built on a hill, surrounded by lush farms and gardens, it was conquered by Alexander in 329 BCE. About 600 years later, it was conquered by a powerful Iranian group called the Sassanians.(See my blog post)

Alexander called the city by the Greek name of Marakanda Written sources offer small clues as to the  system of government after Alexander. They tell of an Orepius who became ruler “not from ancestors, but as a gift of Alexander”.

The city was ruled by a succession of Iranian and Turkic rulers until the Mongols under Genghis Khan conquered Samarkand in 1220. Today, Samarkand is the capital of Samarqand Region and Uzbekistan‘s second largest city.

The city is noted for being an Islamic center for scholarly study. In the 14th century it became the capital of the empire of Timur (Tamerlane) and is the site of his mausoleum (the Gur-e Amir). The Bibi-Khanym Mosque (a modern replica) remains one of the city’s most notable landmarks. The Registan was the ancient center of the city. The city has carefully preserved the traditions of ancient crafts: embroidery, gold embroidery, silk weaving, engraving on copper, ceramics, carving and painting on wood.  In 2001, UNESCO added the city to its World Heritage List as Samarkand – Crossroads of Cultures.

While Samarkand suffered significant damage during Alexander’s initial conquest, the city recovered rapidly and flourished under the new Hellenic influence. There were also major new construction techniques; oblong bricks were replaced with square ones and superior methods of masonry and plastering were introduced.

Alexander’s conquests introduced classical Greek culture into Central Asia; for a time, Greek aesthetics heavily influenced local artisans. This Hellenistic legacy continued as the city became part of various successor states in the centuries following Alexander’s death, i.e. the Seleucid EmpireGreco-Bactrian Kingdom and Kushan Empire (even though the Kushana themselves originated in Central Asia). After the Kushan state lost control of Sogdia, during the 3rd century AD, Samarkand went into decline as a center of economic, cultural and political power. It did not significantly revive until the 5th century AD.

Samarkand was conquered by the Persian Sassanians (see my blog post) around 260 AD. Under Sassanian rule, the region became an essential site for Manichaeism, and facilitated the dissemination of the religion throughout central Asia.

After the Hephtalites (Huns) conquered Samarkand, they controlled it until the Göktürks, in an alliance with the Sassanid Persians, won it at the Battle of Bukhara in 673  The Turks ruled over Samarkand until they were defeated by the Sassanids during the Göktürk–Persian Wars.

Initial incursions across the Oxus river were aimed at  Bukhara (673) and Samarqand (675) and their results were limited to promises of tribute payments.

In 674, a Muslim force led by Ubaidullah Ibn Zayyad attacked Bukhara, the capital of Soghdia, which ended with Sogdians (See my blog post) agreeing to recognize the Umayadd caliph Mu’awiaya as their overlords and to pay tribute.

After the Arab conquest of Iran, the Turks conquered Samarkand and held it until the Turkic khaganate collapsed due to wars with the Chinese Tang Dynasty. During this time the city became a protectorate and paid tribute to the ruling Tang. The armies of the Umayyad Caliphate under Qutayba ibn Muslim captured the city in around 710 from Turks. (See my blog post Muslim Conquest of Central Asia)

During this period, Samarkand was a diverse religious community and was home to a number of religions, including  BuddhismZoroastrianismHinduism,    Judaism and Nestorian Christianity

After the Sassisans, tThough subsequently claimed by one group after another, ranging from the Turks to China’s Tang Dynasty, the city was not shattered by the conflicts boiling around it. Instead, it grew large and prosperous.

That was likely because Samarkand opened its gates to anyone who would obey the laws of trade. The city’s marketplace was famous for its diversity of goods: you could buy anything from language translation guides to sex slaves. Its artisans were famous for their paper and silk manufacturing. It was a city of trade and industry, whose reputation spread because Sogdians often immigrated to other key trade cities in Western China like Dunhuang and Chang’an (now Xi’an). Everywhere they went, Sogdians built ethnic neighborhoods which today we would probably name “Little Samarkand” or “Sogdiatown.”

However, after the Arab conquest of  Sogdiana,   Islam became the dominant religion, with much of the population converting.

Legend has it that during Abbasid rule,  the secret of papermaking was obtained from two Chinese prisoners from the Battle of Talas in 751, which led to the foundation of the first paper mill of the Islamic world in Samarkand. The invention then spread to the rest of the Islamic world, and from there to Europe.

Abbasid control of Samarkand soon dissipated and was replaced with that of the Samanids (862–999), though it must be noted that the Samanids were still nominal vassals of the Caliph during their control of Samarkand. Under Samanid rule the city became one of the capitals of the Samanid dynasty and an even more important link amongst numerous trade routes.

The Samanids were overthrown by the Karakhanids around 1000. During the next two hundred years, Samarkand would be ruled by a succession of Turkic tribes, including the Seljuqs and the Khwarazm-Shahs.

The 10th-century Iranian author Istakhri, who travelled in Transoxiana, provides a vivid description of the natural riches of the region he calls “Smarkandian Sogd“:

I know no place in it or in Samarkand itself where if one ascends some elevated ground one does not see greenery and a pleasant place, and nowhere near it are mountains lacking in trees or a dusty steppe… Samakandian Sogd… [extends] eight days travel through unbroken greenery and gardens… . The greenery of the trees and sown land extends along both sides of the river [Sogd]… and beyond these fields is pasture for flocks. Every town and settlement has a fortress… It is the most fruitful of all the countries of Allah; in it are the best trees and fruits, in every home are gardens, cisterns and flowing water.


The Mongols conquered Samarkand in 1220. Although Genghis Khan “did not disturb the inhabitants [of the city] in any way”, according to Juvaini he killed all who took refuge in the citadel and the mosque, pillaged the city completely and conscripted 30,000 young men along with 30,000 craftsmen.

Samarkand suffered at least one other Mongol sack by Khan Baraq to get treasure he needed to pay an army. It remained part of the Chagatai Khanate (one of four Mongol successor realms) until 1370.

The Travels of Marco Polo, where Polo records his journey along the Silk Road, describes Samarkand as “a very large and splendid city…”

Samarkind Tiles
Samarkind Tiles

The Yenisei area had a community of weavers of Chinese origin  called Semu and Samarkand and Outer Mongolia both had artisans of Chinese origin seen by Changchun.  After the Mongol conquest of Central Asia by Genghis Khan, foreigners were chosen as administrators and co-management with Chinese and Qara-Khitays (Khitans) of gardens and fields  in Samarqand was put upon the Muslims as a requirement since Muslims were not allowed to manage without them.

The khanate allowed the establishment of Christian bishoprics

Russian Conquest of Central Asia (See my blog post)

In 1847-1864 the Russians crossed the eastern Kazakh steppe and built a line of forts in the irrigated area along the northern Kyrgyz border.

Russian Conquest CasualtieThe main event of the conquest occurred in 1864-68 when the Russians moved south, conquered Tashkent and Samarkand, confined the Khanate of Kokand to the Ferghana Valley and made Bukharaa protectorate.

An eastern approach may haven been chosen, because irrigation made it possible to move armies without crossing steppe or desert. This was important when transport required grass-fed horses and camels. It seems that different officials had different opinions and much was decided by local commanders and the luck of the battlefield.

All sources report Russian victories over greatly superior forces with kill ratios approaching ten to one. Even if enemy numbers are exaggerated it seems clear that Russian weapons and tactics were far superior to the traditional Asian armies that they faced.

All sources mention breachloading rifles without further explanation.  MacGahan, in his account of the Khivan campaign, contrasts explosive artillery to traditional cannonballs. Artillery and rifles could often keep Russia soldiers out of reach of hand weapons.


Things to See in and around Samarkind


Panjakent  is a city in the Sughd province of Tajikistan on the Zeravshan River, with a population of 33,000 (2000 census). It was once an ancient town in Sogdiana. The ruins of the old town are on the outskirts of the modern city.

Though little remains of the pre-Islamic city of Samarkand, archaeologists have recently excavated a nearby city called Panjikent, in Tajikistan, which dates back to the fifth century. It was abandoned a few decades after the Arabs took Samarkand and the surrounding regions in the early eighth century, and thus gives us a good look at what a Sogdian city would have looked like earlier in its history.

One home in particular, which likely belonged to a very wealthy family, has wall paintings which give us a fascinating glimpse of how Sogdians viewed the world. It portrays the local rulers, surrounded by merchants and other people from all over the world, including China and Korea.

This scene of noblemen at a libation, from the north wall of a room at Panjakent, is presented against a Pompeian red background. The head-dresses resemble in shape that worn by the Sorçuk warrior (Ill. 171). The painting shows great regard for composition and mastery of the sinuous line. Seventh century

Ancient Panjekent was a small but flourishing town of the Soghdians in pre-Islamic Central Asia. It was known as Panchekanth.   It means five towns (villages) in Sanskrit. The ethnic and territorial name “Soghd/Soghdian” or Sughd/Sughdian was mentioned in history as early as the Iranian Achaemenid Dynasty (6th century BC). The Achaemenids founded several city-states, as well as cities along the ancient Silk road and in the Zarafshan Valley.

The town grew in the 5th century AD and many professionals such as established businessmen and landowners made their livelihoods in Panjakent.

In AD 722, Arab Muslims forces besieged and took the town. The last ruler of the town Divashtich fled into upper Zarafshan but he was captured and sentenced to death. For around 50 years, ancient Panjakent was ruled by new administrators but towards the end of the 8th century the town on the upper terraces was depopulated and relocated. Many ancient ruins of the old city, particularly the city architecture and works of art remain today.

The Rudaki Tomb of Panjakent

According to Arab geographers, Panjakent in the 10th century had a formal Friday mosque that distinguished the place as a town from a village. It was the easternmost city of Soghd, and became well known for its walnuts.

Russian archaeologist Boris Marshak spent more than fifty years excavating the ruins at Panjakent.  He remained there even after Tajik independence as director of the excavation of the Panjakent ruins, during the years of Civil War in Tajikistan from 1992 to 1997. Through close cooperation with the government of Tajikistan, Marshak ensured the protection and continued excavation of the Panjakent ruins. An important feature of the ruins is the frescoes (above) which show details of dress and daily life.


Learn More

The Lost Empire that Ruled the Silk Road by Annalee Newitz  April 16, 2014 Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9. She’s also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.

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