Home » Samarkand – The Rich, Fertile City (Part I: Pre-Islamic Era)

Samarkand – The Rich, Fertile City (Part I: Pre-Islamic Era)

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The Ambassador’s Painting, found in the hall of the ruin of an aristocratic house in Afrasiab
By anonymous – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21437830By

The city of Samarkand (in present day Uzbekistan) needs no introduction. The ancients called the area that is today Uzbekistan as Transoxiana i.e. Central Asia north of the river Oxus, the once great river known as Amu Darya. Samarkand is one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in Central Asia and possibly the world as well. There are many versions of what is the meaning of ‘Samarkand’. The name could be in Sogdian where Samar means ‘Rock, Stone’ and Kand means ‘Fort or Town’. The historians and linguists point out that “Samarkand” originates from Turkish “Simiz kent”, that means “Rich settlement”. The medieval Chinese sources explain it as ‘Rich city’. Samarkand could also have originated from Hebrew “Meru-kand” (Holy city).

Map of Transoxiana

There have been traces of human existence in Samarkand since the Palaeolithic era, however, the city of Samarkand was probably founded between 8th and 7th century BC. There is no direct evidence of this but it is a reasonable estimate. Due to its prominent location between China and Mediterranean, the city prospered from trade along the Silk route.

In the 5th century BC, Samarkand was part of the Achaemenid empire under Darius I. The Greeks called the area Sogdiana and united it with Bactria. Alexander conquered Samarkand in 329 BC. He reportedly said, “Everything I have heard about the beauty of Samarkand is true except it is even more beautiful; than I could have imagined.” Soon afterwards he declared himself a God. Alexander’s conquest played an important role in strengthening the East-West trade routes on the Silk Road and dissemination of Greek culture into Asia. The Hellenistic influences continued for long after Alexander’s death.

The nomadic Turkic tribes that live in Central Asia today say that Alexander had two rams horns on the sides of his head and that is why he wore his hair long. Coins minted after his death show Alexander with horns. These “horns of Ammon” symbolize Alexander’s claim that he was the son of the Egyptian god Ammon.

After Alexander’s death, Samarkand passed into the Seleucid empire and then the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. The Kushans played an instrumental role in developing a sophisticated irrigation system and thereby uplifting the social and economic status of the region. Unification of the agricultural land under one stable empire played a big role in this. There was a strengthening of trade relations with India, China and other Eastern countries. The crops produced during this region were very diversified-Millet, Barlet and Wheat; Apricots, Peaches, Plum, Grapes, melons; Poppy seeds; Lucerne and Sesame.

From the 1st to 3rd Century AD, handicraft production increased substantially such as ceramics, metal-working, iron-forging, weaving, jewellery-making, etc. Pottery was especially well developed at this time. The thin-sided goblets, bowls, cups and other types of ceramic products from the sites of Afrasiab are notable for their high quality. Craftsmen produced metalware and jewellery for women (bronze vessels, candlesticks, mirrors, bracelets, earrings, rings, etc.).

Weapons were also produced in large numbers- swords, daggers, spears, battle-axes, slings and bows-and-arrows. One weapon extensively used at this time was a special type of composite bow, pentagonal in shape, the parts fastened together with strips of bone or horn.

Samarkand was conquered by the Sassanians in 260 AD. In a previous blog, I have talked about the role of Sogdians in the Silk Trade (https://silkroadanecdotes.com/2018/12/09/sogdians-the-master-traders/). The 7th and 8th century conquest of Transoxiana by Arabs started a new chapter in the history of Samarkand.


  1. https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/sites/silkroad/files/knowledge-bank-article/vol_II%20silk%20road_economy%20and%20social%20system%20in%20central%20asia%20in%20the%20kushan%20age.pdf -ECONOMY AND SOCIAL SYSTEM IN CENTRAL ASIA IN THE KUSHAN AGE*A. R. Mukhamedjanov
  2. https://archive.asia.si.edu/explore/babur-gardens/memoir-03.php
  3. https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/content/samarkand
  4. The History of Central Asia-The Age of the Silk Roads, Volume Two, Christoph Baumer, I.B Tauris, 2014

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