Samarkand: City of World’s first paper mill

Asia Contributor
Registan square at dusk - the ancient center of Samarkand, Uzbekistan. © Sergey Dzyuba |

The rise and spread of Islam in various parts of the world among other things led to the rise of stunning cities. Which has stood the test of time with their vibrant cultures. Some of them have been much talked about, such as Cairo, Baghdad, and Isfahan. However, there are numerous others that are no less rich in their cultural histories. One of them, for example, is Samarkand. Located in southeastern Uzbekistan today. The city of course was founded much before the rise of Islam. There is clear historical evidence that the city was conquered by Macedonian king Alexander III. Way back in 329 BC. However, the real glory of Samarkand shone during its Islamic era. Reaching its height at the time of what is known as the Timurid Renaissance.

The world’s first paper mill was in Samarkand

In terms of Islamic history, Samarkand came into the fold of Islamic culture and civilization quite early. 710 CE, i.e. within only eight decades after the passing away of Prophet Muhammad(SAW). It came under the control of the Umayyad Caliphate. Soon Samarkand began to develop as a major center of learning. It is said that the world’s first paper mill was set up in this city in the second half of the 8th century. The city came under the control of the Turkic Qarakhanid Dynasty in the 11th century. Qarakhanid ruler Ibrahim Tamgach Khan (1040-1068 CE) established the first state-sponsored Bimaristan or hospital and Madrassa in Samarkand. Both of which became great centers of learning. The Samarkand public hospital became one of the earliest medical schools in the whole region.

Agriculture and irrigation

Over the next three centuries Samarkand developed into, what the great 13th-century traveler Marco Polo described as a “very large and splendid city”. What is striking is that Samarkand was able to maintain this trajectory of development in various fields over several centuries. A century after Marco Polo’s visit, yet another great scholar, jurist and explorer Ibn Battuta described Samarkand in 1333 as “one of the greatest and finest of cities, and most perfect of them in beauty”. Beauty was rendered to the city by its great orchards, and water harvesting norias (water-wheels), which indicates the great strides the city had made by early 14th century in the field of agriculture and irrigation.

Monuments of Samarkand

The most glorious period in the history of Samarkand began in 1370 when the great conqueror Tamerlane or Timur made Samarkand the capital of the vast Timurid Empire. Over the next 35 years, the city reaped full benefits of being a capital city of a major empire. Timur had a special taste for the arts and architecture and went full steam ahead in beautifying Samarkand. Monuments such as the Bibi Khanum Mosque, the Sakhi Zinda mausoleum, and four major madrassas stand testimony to this day to the architectural splendour of the city between 11th and 14th century. In 1428 Ulugh Beg, the grandson of Timur also turned Samarkand into the greatest centre of astronomical research in the east, a phenomenon which I have written about in details in a separate column.

No longer the capital city, Samarkand still continues to marvel people from around the world as a great tourist destination.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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