By Sophie Ibbotson
How is it that a city has so much energy, so much creativity, that it can reinvent itself over and over again for more than 2,700 years? I was pondering this over breakfast this morning in Samarkand. Alexander the Great conquered this Central Asian city at the heart of the ancient Silk Road, and declared that it was more beautiful than he ever imagined. Genghis Khan came here too, and he flattened what remained of the city which Alexander saw. But under the rule of Amir Timur (known in the West as Tamerlane), Samarkand once again rose phoenix-like from the ashes, rebuilt by the greatest architects, engineers, and craftsmen from Iran and Turkey, Afghanistan, and India. In more recent history, the Russians and then the Soviets expanded and rebuilt Samarkand, saving many of the fragile monuments and adding modern infrastructure. And only this summer the latest incarnation of Samarkand has launched in a glittering spectacle. Its name is Silk Road Samarkand.
Central Samarkand is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, exquisite, fascinating, but vulnerable. Tourism in Uzbekistan is already recovering from the impact of COVID, and with significant growth on the cards, especially in Samarkand, the city needs more hotels, more restaurants, and generally more facilities to cater to the crowds. There’s no way that you could clear a site big enough for 5* hotels or a conference center within the UNESCO city, so what urban planners, investors, and heritage consultants have settled on is a completely new tourism complex on the eastern side of the city, around the old rowing canal. It’s this new resort, Silk Road Samarkand, which I’m in Samarkand to see.
I’ve called Silk Road Samarkand a resort, but don’t underestimate its scale. It covers 260 hectares, well over two-thirds the size of New York’s Central Park, and is a destination in its own right. The canal is the centerpiece, creating the sense of being within an oasis, and the landscaped gardens between the buildings will grow and blossom in the years to come.
A critical part of Silk Road Samarkand is the accommodation offering. As hard as it to believe, until this summer there wasn’t a single 5* hotel in Samarkand, in spite of it being Uzbekistan’s second largest city. Now there are eight 4* and 5* hotels within this resort alone, so there’s plenty of accommodation options to choose from. The Samarkand Regency Amir Timur is surely the flagship property, and it is the first hotel in Central Asia to belong to the prestigious Leading Hotels of the World association. When heads of state from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization came to Samarkand for their annual summit in September, this is where they opted to stay.
For those who aren’t looking to follow in the footsteps of presidents and would rather stay somewhere a little more quirky, there is Savitsky Plaza. If the name “Savitsky” sounds faintly familiar, that’s because it is named after Igor Savitsky, curator and collector of the world’s second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde. The museum he founded in Nukus, Karakalpakstan is often referred to as the “Louvre of the Steppe” or the “Gallery of Forbidden of Art” and it rightly has a cult following of art lovers. The hotel’s interior design is inspired by Savitsky’s legacy and the walls are hung with contemporary art.
The wonderful thing about Silk Road Samarkand is that there’s a strong sense of place. Yes, the hotels are multi-storey modern buildings which wouldn’t look out of place in Los Angeles or London, but in between them is something altogether more intriguing: the Eternal City. Uzbek modern artist Bobur Ismailov has created an 11 ha site which embodies the oriental fairytale, but at the same time is an educational space. Many of the buildings and squares have been recreated from historical models, and the turquoise domes and intricate mosaic tiles have all been made by skilled artisans using traditional techniques. It’s a place to learn about Uzbekistan’s intangible cultural heritage, from puppetry to ceramics, to encounter street performers and to feast freshly baked bread and pastries. Samarkand has once again found a way to express its 2,700 years of history and culture and to reinterpret and share it with another generation.
Come and join me on the Silk Road soon,
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