Ramadan in Samarkand

The only thing tougher than getting a drink in a Muslim country is getting a drink in a Muslim country during Ramadan.

I worked in Doha, Qatar for a short while during Ramadan and it was impossible to get even a beer. All the bars were closed and stores refused (or were forbidden) to sell alcohol. The only way I and my colleagues could get a drink was from the hotel mini bar, which we emptied on a daily basis.

Well Uzbekistan is not that strict, but I still end up dry in some cafes. After walking around all day in the heat I escape to a shady cafe, anticipating an ice cold mug of beer. Half the time I get, “sorry we do not have beer during Ramadan.”

Lasting from September 1-30 this year, Ramadan is a Muslim religious observance that takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, believed to be the month in which the Qur’an was revealed to Angel Gabriel, who later revealed it to the Prophet Muhammad. It is a month of fasting, in which participating Muslims do not eat or drink anything from dawn until sunset. Fasting is meant to teach the person patience, sacrifice and humility. Ramadan is a time to fast for the sake of God, and to offer even more prayer than usual. In Ramadan Muslims ask forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance into the future, ask for help in refrain from everyday evils and try to purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds.

During Ramadan, Muslims are expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam and to avoid obscene and irreligious sights and sounds. Sexual thoughts and activities during fasting hours are also forbidden. Purity of both thought and action is important. The fast is intended to be an exacting act of deep personal worship in which Muslims seek a raised level of closeness to God Almighty. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the inner soul and free it from harm. Properly observing the fast is supposed to induce a comfortable feeling of peace and calm. It also allows Muslims to practice self-discipline, sacrifice, and sympathy for those who are less fortunate. It is also intended to make Muslims more generous and charitable.

I guess I would not make a very good Muslim.

Anyway, after leaving Tashkent I struggled to the ancient city of Samarkand. A key Silk Road trading post, Samarkand has been around a long time. It was one of the most important cities in the world and capital of the Sogdian empire when Alexander the Great conquered it in 329 BC. It grew and prospered under many different rulers until it was completely destroyed by Genghis Khan and his Mongol army in 1220. It may have stayed that way except for the ruler Amir Timur, who in 1369 decided to make Samarkand the capital of his empire, which extended from India to Turkey. During the next 35 years he built a new city and populated it with artisans and craftsmen from all of the places he had conquered. Timur gained a reputation as a patron of the arts and Samarkand grew to a population of about 150,000.

Most of the buildings have deteriorated but were renovated by the Soviets. Here is the Registan, a place of mosques and medresses (Muslim schools). Timur’s grandson Ulug Bek was a prominent scientist, teacher and astronomer and built some advanced equipment here for tracking stars.

These used to be students dormitories but are now craft shops and stalls.

These street kids were hanging around begging for money. I rarely give money to children, but rather make them a deal: if I can take some photos I will pay them. I try to teach them that they need to earn the money, not just beg for it. Although filthy and in rags they seemed happy and cheerful, clowning around for my camera.

A statue representing the thousands of travellers who have stopped in Samarkand in years past.

One of the many fountains in a park.

Some school kids

Local kids who lived near my hotel. I saw them frequently. They all wanted candy, asking me, “bon bon?” I hated to give them money for candy; people’s teeth don’t seem to last very long here. Virtually everyone over 40 years old has gold teeth.

A cemetery on a hill.

They put engravings of people’s faces on the tombstones. Not a bad idea.

Another mosque commissioned by Timur’s wife when he was away. The story goes that the architect fell in love with her and when Timur found out, had the man executed. He also ordered all women to henceforth wear veils so as not to tempt the men.

Here is the mausoleum of Amir Timur, his grandson Ulug Bek and others.

Here is a statue of Timur. Born in 1336 just south of Samarkand, Timur is considered a hero in Uzbekistan. But he left a controversial legacy. A ruthless and bloody conqueror, he slaughtered millions a la Genghis Khan, who he tried to emulate. He did order many great architectural and cultural monuments built, and made Samarkand a place of learning, culture and the arts. But his armies raped and plundered on a  scale few have done in world history: 70,000 were beheaded in Isfahan, 100,000 in Delhi, 70,000 in Tikrit and 90,000 in Baghdad. As many as 17 million people may have died as a result of his wars and conquests. That puts him up there with Stalin, Hitler and Genghis Khan.

But in Uzbekistan they manage to overlook all that and concentrate on his positive contributions. Hmmm. Funny how people can bend history to make heroes out of villains, or vice versa.

3 thoughts on “Ramadan in Samarkand

  1. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. September 15, 2008 / 1:20 pm

    Interesting pictures. I notice that the relatively modern concept of “barrier free access” has extended to the ancient city of Samarkand. Or perhaps the concept actually started there in the ancient world and extended to the USA.

    Muslim architecture certainly rivals that of the great cathedrals in Europe.

    You must run into tourists. In Samarkand, for example, who are the tourists, where do they stay while there, and how do they get in and out? That will give me an idea as to the size of the city.

  2. Kevin Koski September 15, 2008 / 3:14 pm

    I met a lot of tourists in Samarkand while staying at a popular B&B. There was an Austalian traveling via motorcycle from Vladivostok to Copenhagen, a French couple on their honeymoon who were headed to SE Asia, a retired British couple on a month long tour of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, An American woman traveling by train from Moscow, a group of Latvians who flew in from Riga for a week, and a Frenchman who was working in Tashkent and came to Samarkand for the weekend.

    Most people traveled via bus or train while in the country.

    I also met a Frenchman who was running around world, believe it or not. He had run in 180 countries and claims to be the first person to ever run around the world. His name is Jamel Balhi and his web site (in French) is


  3. JoJo February 22, 2009 / 5:23 pm

    The little girl begging with her friend has amazing eyes. Imagine in a few years if she were to clean up and get a make-over. America’s next top model.

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