The caravan in Flecker's poem was setting out from Baghdad, and the desert prospect was hardly golden. Yet to this day, whether you start from Baghdad or Moscow, the journey to Samarkand is still one of the most romantic journeys a traveler can make. Remote and inaccessible, this fabulous city of Central Asia, was, until recently, visited only rarely by travelers from the West. Surrounded by desert and some of the highest mountains on earth, the only way of getting there was by camel.
For centuries, ancient trade routes - from Siberia to India, from China to Egypt - converged on the oasis of Samarkand. Greeks, Persians, Turks, Mongols and Arabs all made their way there. Alexander knew it, Genghis Khan destroyed it, but it was Tamerlane's Samarkand that western men longed to see.
Tamerlane was born at Kash, "the green city," not far from Samarkand; a wound in the leg, received in a local rebellion, gave him the name of "Timur-the-lame." A born leader with a genius for strategy, he was only 21 when he set out "to conquer the world." By the time he was 37, his gigantic nomad empire stretched all the way from present day Moscow to the Great Wall of China.
As Lord of Asia, Tamerlane needed an imposing city to reflect his power, and so, after each victorious campaign in Persia and India, he collected the best artists and craftsmen he could find and brought them back to build his new city. What they created was neither Persian nor Indian in concept - nor was it modelled on the old Samarkand. Instead, they built a city possessing a new and dazzling Tartar conception.
There were no building materials at Samarkand and so - out of the dust of the surrounding desert, mixed with chopped straw, camel urine and clay from the Zeravshan River - the captured craftsmen had to make do with mud bricks, and with them created swelling domes and mud minarets. But then these inspired craftsmen began to face the brick in lovely glazed tile in every shade of blue imaginable - Tamerlane's favorite color - until, adorned from top to bottom with glittering blue tiles, Samarkand became the most fabled city on earth.
Built out of desert dust and in great haste - Tamerlane was always in a hurry - much of the "blue city" has long since blown back into the desert. But enough endured to tantalize the minds of western men for centuries. Marlowe and Milton wrote about it, and in our own time so did Kipling, though none of them had seen it.
By the 18th century, Bukhara and Samarkand had become "forbidden cities" to all but Muslims; others who tried to get there either perished on the way or lost their heads on arrival. The two 19th-century superpowers, Czarist Russia and Great Britain, sent emissaries on secret missions seeking favors from the amirs of Bukhara and Samarkand - without success; their agents, traveling in disguise, were ruthlessly killed once they were discovered. The rulers were determined that no unbelievers should desecrate their holy places.
In 1866, Russia began taking over Central Asia - but even under Russian control "the golden road" was still something of an ordeal. If the days of travel in disguise and on camels were passing, the days of trains and bureaucracy were just beginning. An old edition of the Baedeker's travel guide notes:
Foreigners are not allowed to visit this area except by special permission of the Russian government and the traveller must send in his request ... at least six months before beginning the journey.
And what a journey. From Moscow all the way by train to Odessa in southern Russia, then by steamer across the Black Sea, by horse and carriage through the Caucasus Mountains, another steamer journey across the Caspian Sea and on by camel caravan across the KaraKum Desert to Samarkand.
By 1886, the journey had been cut to just 11 days; two years later, in 1888, a new railway line opened, and it was possible to cross Europe and take the new Trans-Caspian Express which went direct from St. Petersburg to Samarkand - no disguise, no camels - but you were advised to "take your own sheets, pillows, blankets, towels and bath." One who took "the golden road" about this time, inflatable-collapsible rubber bath and all, was the intrepid Victorian traveler, Lord Curzon.
By the 20th-century, the Moscow-Orenburg-Tashkent Express had cut the journey to just five days. But in the 1930's, at the height of Stalin's purges, foreigners who did manage to make it - like Sir Fitzroy McLean, then a junior diplomat at the British embassy in Moscow - found that the journey meant "sleeping on hard boards and eating on station platforms."
Today, from Moscow, Aeroflot, the Soviet national airline, will get you there in just three hours and 50 minutes - across the mighty river Volga, writhing like a pre-historic serpent across the land, and over the forests, seas and deserts once crossed by Alexander, the Mongol hordes and Genghis Khan - and after them Timur-the-lame.
Intense sunlight, and a desert dust so light the very heat waves rippling up off the sand raise it into the air, greet the modern traveler. Consequently, in spite of much modernity, all of Samarkand - old and new - seeks shade and coolness. The city abounds with avenues of trees and small tea platforms - raised from the ground under the trees, sometimes built out over streams - with carpets laid upon them, where men in flowing silk gowns sip their green Uzbek tea from china bowls.
To see Tamerlane's Samarkand, you must leave the broad Lenin Ulitsa, with its traffic fumes and iced juice machines, and go into a labyrinth of narrow twisting dusty lanes that lead to all that is left of the "blue city."
Recent work has restored the Rigestan - the main public square - to its original splendor described by Lord Curzon as "the noblest square in the world." Surrounded on three sides by ancient colleges and mosques, with a tall minaret in each corner, the fourth side is open to the wind. On one side is Shirdar madrasa, or school, named because of its giant portal decorated with a tiger and a gazelle in the rays of the rising sun. On the second side of the square is Tilakari, or "gilded" madrasa, because of quantities of gold used in its tile decoration. And on the third side is the madrasa of Ulugh Beg, Samarkand's famous astrologer and grandson of Tamerlane. As might be expected the front of his madrasa is decorated with enormous star patterns.
On a small desert hill outside Samarkand is the site of Ulugh Beg's famous observatory. Two rows of steps cut out of rock lead down into semi-darkness to the enormous arc of a giant sextant aligned along one of the earth's meridians. Here, with his brother astonomers, Ulugh Beg plotted the course of nearly 1,000 stars, observed in the clear night sky above the Kara-Kum desert. In his day, he made Samarkand a center of science and art; his star-map, the world's first accurate chart of the heavens, was used as the basis for the later Gregorian star chart and was also adopted by Chinese astrologers.
Even in ruins, the great mosque of Bibi Khanum - the only one in the world ever to possess eight minarets - still dwarfs the rest of Samarkand today. All that is left is one great arch, the base of two minarets studded in white and blue tiles, and a vast shattered turquoise dome - pierced by a Russian cannon shell during the battle of Samarkand in 1868.
Once described as the most beautiful ruin in the whole world, it is amazing to think that this colossal structure was built out of nothing more than desert mud - without the use of steel or wood.
Right next door to Bibi Khanum is the bustling municipal fruit market, full, in autumn, with mounds of Samarkand melons, piles of pomegranates and baskets of purple, green, pink and black grapes. In his day, Lord Curzon called Samarkand "a veritable garden of Eden", and in spite of film projector factories and many small industries, it is still an oasis city - set in a vast desert, but watered by the Zeravshan, flowing from the snows and glaciers of the Celestian Mountains, 320 kilometers (200 miles) to the east.
At dawn one morning - this was many years ago - in the shadow of the towering sunlit ruins of Bibi Khanum, I came across a narrow street packed with people all moving in the same direction. Most were on foot, dressed as if for some film extravaganza; there were men in black fur caps and others astride their donkeys in turbans and quilted gowns of bright blue and red stripes. Mixed in with the crowd were riders on bicycles and donkey carts laden with rushes.
Curious, I followed them to the very edge of the city, and still they went on - out across the desert, until finally we came to a deep ravine. There, laid out upon the sand, like some giant film set, was one of Asia's great open-air, one-day bazaars - sometimes talked about, but rarely seen.
The desolate spot purred with a mass of humanity - Uzbeks, Afghans, Tadjiks, and gypsies - all with something to sell, or looking for something to buy. Spread out upon the sand were rows of carpets and striped kalims presided over by robed and turbaned men. Asian music came from small radios, and there was the scent of cooking fires, under pots of bubbling broth and thick black sausages. Lines of peasant women held up small handkerchiefs and embroidered table cloths, and gypsy women sitting on the sand were selling brightly painted drums.
On my last morning in Samarkand, I set out for Tamerlane's tomb - between the northern edge of the city and the desert in the ancient burial ground of Samarkand called "Afrasiyab." On a low hill rising above this vast cemetery there is a cluster of small turquoise domes known as "Shah-i-Zinda" - the living king. Since the 11th century the hill has been a stopping place for visitors and Tamerlane rebuilt it as a private mausoleum for his family and friends.
Flanked on both sides of a narrow lane are tombs and small mosques, including the tomb of Tamerlane's nurse, his sister, an uncle, his son , his first wife and his friend and tutor. Each tomb is like a small house complete with its sunlit courtyard luminescent in blue tiles - always blue.
It is said that gathered along this narrow pathway are all the blues known to heaven and earth - from the darkest mauves to the palest opalescent found in the sky and from the deepest pools to the shallowest ponds. And as you climb this gentle hill all these haunting blues, appearing in mystical patterns, wash about you - a triumph of 14th- and 15th-century ceramidsts from Shiraz, Isfahan and Herat. Held in an incredibly thin glaze, their colors remain as radiant as the day they were made, and six centuries of frost, heat, sun and rain have not dimmed their luster.
Today, the enormous ribbed dome of Tamerlane's tomb rises out of a grove of acacia trees. The entrance leads to a dark hall lined with marble, precious stones and inscriptions in gold, and soft light, filtered through lattices of carved alabaster, falls on the crypt below.
A single piece of green jade, almost black and intricately carved, said to have been sent to Samarkand by a Mongolian princess, marks Tamerlane's tomb. Some say he was a cruel man; others, that it was not he but his army who was cruel. When he died, aged 68, he had just set off on his greatest venture - with 200,000 men he was on his way to break through the Great Wall of China - but 640 kilometers out from Samarkand (400 miles) he suddenly became ill.
Tamerlane died on a cold winter's day in January, 1405. His body, perfumed with rose water, musk and camphor, was placed in a coffin decorated with pearls and precious stones and dispatched in the dead of night for the return to his beloved Samarkand - a city built of mud, glazed with beauty and enshrined in legend.
John Feeney, a writer, photographer and film producer, is a regular contributor to Aramco World Magazine.