This time it took but three hours to cover the two hundred kilometres which separate the two towns, and at two o'clock in the afternoon it entered the illustrious city of Tamerlane.
Samarkand is situated in the rich oasis watered by the Zarafchane in the valley of Sogd. A small pamphlet I bought at the railway station informs me that this great city is one of the four sites in which geographers "agree" to place the terrestrial paradise. I leave this discussion to the exegetists of the profession.
Burned by the armies of Cyrus in B.C. 329, Samarkand was in part destroyed by Genghis Khan, about 1219. When it had become the capital of Tamerlane, its position, which certainly could not be improved upon, did not prevent its being ravaged by the nomads of the eighteenth century. Such alternations of grandeur and ruin have been the fate of all the important towns of Central Asia.
We had five hours to stop at Samarkand during the day, and that promised something pleasant and several pages of copy. But there was no time to lose. As usual, the town is double; one half, built by the Russians, is quite modern, with its verdant parks, its avenues of birches, its palaces, its cottages; the other is the old town, still rich in magnificent remains of its splendor, and requiring many weeks to be conscientiously studied.
This time I shall not be alone. Major Noltitz is free; he will accompany me. We had already left the station when the Caternas presented themselves.
"Are you going for a run round the town, Monsieur Claudius?" asked the actor, with a comprehensive gesture to show the vast surroundings of Samarkand.
"Such is our intention."
"Will Major Noltitz and you allow me to join you?"
"With Madame Caterna, for I do nothing without her."
"Our explorations will be so much the more agreeable," said the major, with a bow to the charming actress.
"And," I added, with a view to save fatigue and gain time, "my dear friends, allow me to offer you an arba."
"An arba!" exclaimed Caterna, with a swing of his hips. "What may that be, an arba?"
"One of the local vehicles."
"Let us have an arba."
We entered one of the boxes on wheels which were on the rank in front of the railway station. Under promise of a good "silao," that is to say, something to drink, the yemtchik or coachman undertook to give wings to his two doves, otherwise his two little horses, and we went off at a good pace.
On the left we leave the Russian town, arranged like a fan, the governor's house, surrounded by beautiful gardens, the public park and its shady walks, then the house of the chief of the district which is just on the boundary of the old town.
As we passed, the major showed us the fortress, round which our arba turned. There are the graves of the Russian soldiers who died in the attack in 1868, near the ancient palace of the Emir of Bokhara.
From this point, by a straight narrow road, our arba reached the Righistan square, which, as my pamphlet says, "must not be confounded with the square of the same name at Bokhara."
It is a fine quadrilateral, perhaps a little spoiled by the fact that the Russians have paved it and ornamented it with lamps--which would certainly, please Ephrinell, if he decides upon visiting Samarkand. On three sides of the square are the well-preserved ruins of three medresses, where the mollahs give children a good education. These medresses--there are seventeen of these colleges at Samarkand, besides eighty-five mosques--are called Tilla-Kari, Chir Dar and Oulong Beg.
In a general way they resemble each other; a portico in the middle leading to interior courts, built of enameled brick, tinted pale blue or pale yellow, arabesques designed in gold lines on a ground of turquoise blue, the dominant color; leaning minarets threatening to fall and never falling, luckily for their coating of enamel, which the intrepid traveller Madame De Ujfalvy-Bourdon, declares to be much superior to the finest of our crackle enamels--and these are not vases to put on a mantelpiece or on a stand, but minarets of good height.