The name Samarkand is derived from Old Persian asmara (“stone, rock”) and from Sogdian qand (“fort”, “town”). Samarkand literally means “stone fort” or “rock town.” Samarkand had a central position on the Silk Road between China and the West. In the 14th century, Timur (Tamerlane) made Samarkand the capital of his empire. Samarkand is a must-see for all travellers visiting Central Asia. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001 as Samarkand – Crossroad of Cultures.
The site of Samarkand was sporadically occupied in the Bronze and Early Iron Ages. A city was founded in pre-Achaemenid times, between 650 and 550BC. A wall followed the whole circuit of the plateau (5.5 km), complemented by another one which separates the town from the acropolis, situated in the northern part and itself including a citadel raised on an artificial platform. The massive wall, 7-m thick, was made of coarse mud bricks, all of which bear a mark, an indication that labour was strictly organized in groups of workers. Similar building techniques have been noticed at other Sogdian and pre-Sogdian sites during that pre-Achaemenid period.
The city was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC. It was named Maracanda by the Greeks. Two phases of Greek occupation can be distinguished, the first lasting from Alexander to the second half of the 3rd century BC and a second period of reconquest under the Greco-Bactrian king Eucratides (171-145 BC). The pottery differs markedly between these two phases.
The pre-Islamic Sogdian civilization is best documented from excavations at Panjikent, which was the capital at that time; the town is near Samarkand but now across a border in Tajikistan. At Samarqand, the major source of evidence for this period is the aristocratic residence with the famous wall paintings which were commissioned for a reception hall ca. 660AD, probably by King Varkhuman.
In the early 8th century AD, Samarkand was conquered by the Arabs and soon became an important center of Muslim culture. Excavations beneath the mosque show a rapid succession of monumental buildings. A massive enclosure, perhaps the temenos of the pre-Islamic temple mentioned in the sources, was razed some time after the Arab conquest of 712. The site was occupied by a large palace (ca 115 x 84 m), which was according to numismatic evidence built in the 740s by the last Umayyad governor Nasar b. Sayyar. Between 765 and 780 the Friday mosque was first built on a square plan, which probably at the beginning of the Samanid period, ca. 820-30 was enlarged and the remaining parts of the palace were levelled.
It subsequently grew as a trade center on the Silk Road, the great trading route between China and the Mediterranean region.
In 1220 Samarkand was almost completely destroyed by the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan. It flourished again when Timur-i-Leng (known as Tamerlane in the West) made it the capital of his empire in 1369. As his capital Timur put Samarkand on the world map and much of the architecture visible today was built by him or his descendants. The empire declined in the 15th century, and nomadic Uzbeks (Shaybanids) took Samarkand in 1500. In 1784 the emirate of Bukhara conquered it. The city was taken by Russia in 1868 and once again began to assume importance. From 1924 to 1930, Samarkand was the capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).