Samarkand (Marakanda to the Greeks), one of Central Asia’s oldest settlements, was probably founded in the 5th century BC. It was already the cosmopolitan, walled capital of the Sogdian empire when it was taken in 329 BC by Alexander the Great, who said, ‘Everything I have heard about Marakanda is true, except that it’s more beautiful than I ever imagined.’
A key Silk Road city, it sat on the crossroads leading to China, India and Persia, bringing in trade and artisans. From the 6th to the 13th century it grew into a city more populous than it is today, changing hands every couple of centuries – Western Turks, Arabs, Persian Samanids, Karakhanids, Seljuq Turks, Mongolian Karakitay and Khorezmshah have all ruled here – before being obliterated by Jenghiz Khan in 1220.
This might have been the end of the story, but in 1370 Timur decided to make Samarkand his capital, and over the next 35 years forged a new, almost-mythical city – Central Asia’s economic and cultural epicentre. His grandson Ulugbek ruled until 1449 and made it an intellectual centre as well.
When the Uzbek Shaybanids came in the 16th century and moved their capital to Bukhara, Samarkand went into decline. For several decades in the 18th century, after a series of earthquakes, it was essentially uninhabited. The emir of Bukhara forcibly repopulated the town towards the end of the century, but it was only truly resuscitated by the Russians, who forced its surrender in May 1868 and linked it to the Russian empire by the Trans-Caspian railway 20 years later.
Samarkand was declared capital of the new Uzbek SSR in 1924, but lost the honour to Tashkent six years later.