That Samarkand is crowded languages and cultures far beyond anything one might expect from so modestly populated a city might, without too much snickering, be attributed to Alexander the Great. This was one of the termini of his sprawling empire, and the home of the most famous of his wives, Roxanne. Even long after Alexander had died and his wife and heir had been murdered in Egypt, the kings in this city spoke Greek.
After the Persians and the Greeks and the Chinese and the Mongols came the Russians. The Russians once used this city to punish the holdouts in the western deserts by regulating the waterflow from the Zarafshan mountains flowing towards the wastelands of the Kyzyl Kum desert and the Aral Sea. During this unsettled era, the crumbling buildings were relayed to canvases and sent to the salons of St. Petersburg. The crumbling majolica tiles and the towering, though pulverized, gates of Timur’s wealthy mosques and madrassas are known best even today in the gritty romanticism of the nineteenth-century artist Vasily Vereshchagin’s art.
But today the city is entirely defined by the floridly backlit monuments of its glorious antiquity. The symbol of the entirety of Central Asia is arguably the old square of Registon, buffeted by the most perfectly romantic architecture anywhere beyond the Indian subcontinent (to which it is related by the imagination of its conquering grandchildren, the Mughals).
When I arrived in the city late at night among the extinguishing drops of a cold November drizzle, the city was quiet and submerge in a darkness that made the gauzy effusion of golden light rising up from Registon all the more remarkable. I walked there along a dimly lit street, lined with shops and old colonial houses, onto the square. The old Madrassas floated above the rain water as in a faded expressionist painting, the exquisite domes reflected in the water just so, like lily pads in a pond.