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Samarkand Square
An artist paints at Registan Square in Samarkand.
An artist paints at Registan Square in Samarkand.
Photo © Hermine Dreyfuss

Samarkand, located in present-day Uzbekistan, is perhaps the oldest extant city in Central Asia. Its location between two of Central Asia's major rivers and near the fertile Fergana Valley has always made it like an oasis in the very dry and rugged land, a natural trade center on the routes between China and Iran. Its active commerce meant that it was desired by many powers, and over the centuries the region fell under the domination of Mongols from the northeast, Turks from the west, and Persians and Arabs from the southwest. In the 14th century Timur (his name means "iron," but he is known in the West as Tamerlane, from Timur Lenk, "Timur the Lame") made Samarkand the capital of his vast empire, which embraced what are today the newly independent nations in Central Asia. While Timur's successors had to struggle during the 15th century to keep his empire from collapse, they did continue his legacy of extraordinary cultural achievement. Even after the fall of the Timurid Empire, this culture that fused Turkic and Persian traditions made an indelible impact on neighboring India, Iran, and the Ottoman Empire.

From the 4th century B.C.E., peoples, goods, and ideas passed through Samarkand along the Silk Road. Traders, diplomats, soldiers, and missionaries carried home reports of the city. In the 9th century a Chinese traveler wrote of Samarkand: "The people are addicted to wine and like to sing and dance in the streets.... The women have coiled chignons which they cover with a black kerchief sewed with gold foil. When one bears a child, she feeds it with stone honey, and places glue in its palm, desiring that it speak sweetly when grown up." In the course of time, objects of trade, artistic styles, and ideas that passed through Samarkand took on new forms, meanings, and uses. Their origins are therefore sometimes difficult to trace, but, for instance, Central Asian bowed instruments eventually evolved into the European violin. The fat-tailed dumba (a sheep-like animal with a huge tail) of the Kyrghyz steppe, which the Chinese knew as almost a mythic animal, spread to Iran, where it was the source of astrakhan fur. The extraordinary carpets carried by the nomads and used in their tents traveled eastward from Samarkand to China, south to India, west to Turkey, and on to the West.

Central Asia has once again become a crossroads. Situated between Asia and the West, the newly independent nations of Central Asia are important players in the global economic, cultural, and political dialogue. Oil as well as interest in the cultural roots of many Asian and European traditions have brought new generations of travelers and merchants to this region.

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