As you can tell by the name of this blog, I’ve long wanted to go to Samarqand (and also Bukhara and Khiva).
When Alexander the Great came through Central Asia, Samarqand was part of Sogdiana and was Persian. It was a famous city even then, but like any important ancient city, it’s had its ups and downs. Here is a brief history, or you can go to Silk Road Seattle's (as always) excellent site for more information.
The Sogdians were Zoroastrian until the Arab invasion brought Islam to the area. Samarqand was taken in 712 and much of the population was deported. The Arabs went on to win a battle with the Chinese in the Talas Valley (in what is Kyrgyzstan today) in 751 that effectively kept the Chinese from moving farther into Central Asia.
The Persian Samanids rebuilt Samarqand in the 9th century. Various Turkish groups rules Samarqand after the Samanids until the Mongols arrived. The population was almost depleted, the canal system destroyed, and the walls torn down. Despite this, ibn Battuta (a far more interesting traveler in my mind than Marco Polo; I’ll have to write about him sometime) in 1333 when the city was still largely ruined said it was "one of the largest and most perfectly beautiful cities in the world."
Timur arrived on the scene in the late 1300s and Samarqand is what it is today mostly because of him. Timur’s son Ulugh Beg also built some amazing buildings in Samarqand, and so did another descendent, Babur. The Uzbeks took control of Samarqand after Babur went to India and established the Moghul Empire. Various Turkic khans ruled Samarqand till the Russians came in.
Tajik is still widely spoken around Samarqand and Bukhara even though Turks have controlled the area for so long.
More on Bukhara sometime soon. If anything, Bukhara is even better than Samarqand. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I want to go to these places.