Samarkand is the mirror of the World, the Garden of the Soul, the Jewel of Islam, the Pearl of the East, the Center of the Universe. Lying in the river valley of the Zerafshan and flanked by Pamir-Altai mountain spurs, this fabled oasis at the fringes of the Kyzyl Kum desert has never lacked breathless admirers. Another name, City of Famous Shadows, reveals Samarkand as witness to the full sweep of Central Asian history. Up to 40,000 years ago, natural bounty drew Palaeolithic man to the area. The city proper claims equity with Rome and Babylon, for archaeologists date urban settlement at least to the sixth century BC.
Until the 16th century, Samarkand was always the first city of Transoxiana in population, commerce and culture, for fertile earth rewards the farmer and trade routes west to Persia, east to China and south to India met here to form a major Silk Road crossroads and emporium. Among conquerors to cast their shadows were the Macedonian Alexander the Great, the Mongol Genghis Khan and, above all, Tamerlane, whose capital of fluted domes and sky-blue mosaic excites the traveler even today.