Plan of Samarkand (Uzbekistan)

Plan of Samarkand (Uzbekistan)

This stylized rendering of Samarkand could be labeled a city “map” but is best considered to be a “plan.” Not a simulacra of the city, with precise proportions and cardinal directions, instead it serves as a conceptual diagram, integrating various nodes in space that might otherwise remain unconnected.

Although this diagram of Samarkand offers a city grid with a few key names, it would be practically useless as a city map. Instead, it functions as a diagram for historical consciousness, providing a didactic lens to interpret the component parts of Samarkand’s cityscape.

The diagram comes from a book that was itself a hybrid genre, a “quick-reference book” for the city from 1958, which was an updated version of the “reference book-tour guide” [справочник-путеводитель] by the same authors in 1956. Ivan Umniakov (1890-1976) and Yuri Aleskerov (1913-1982) were historians and kraevedywho moved in the city’s Russophone Orientalist and architectural preservation circles.

The tension between map and plan, reference book and tour guide, exemplify the competing imperatives of tourism during The Thaw, between openness, access, and transparency, on one hand, and control, direction, and ideological hectoring, on the other. The 1950s witnessed the rise of domestic and foreign tourism to Soviet Central Asia, and especially the historic cities of Bukhara, Khiva, and Samarkand. Books like these offered foreign and domestic visitors an interpretive guide to their experiences.
As such, the book is organized not geographically but chronologically. It begins by establishing Samarkand’s credentials as a “hearth of human civilization with world-wide fame, along with Babylon, Athens, and Rome”, and its subsequent chapters bear the expected divisions of Marxist-Leninist historical thinking.

The long section on “Architectural monuments of the feudal era” implicitly recognizes the visitor’s disproportionate interest in Timurid and Islamicate architecture but places it behind a Soviet veil, casting the monuments as great but ruined remains of feudal, Islamic civilization, replete with fantastic legends, and emphasizing the feats of Soviet archeology and preservation which secured the edifices both physically and epistemologically.

A quotation from Indonesian president Sukarno’s visit in 1956 serves as a pivot between historical preservation and the Soviet future: “Samarkand is one of the oldest cities, out of which the East started to develop. But I know that … the glory of the nation is invested not only in the past but in the present and future.”(145) The authors enumerate various plans for industry, leisure, and housing, before concluding the book with the section, “Some information”, a list of scientific and cultural institutions capable of infinite expansion, and notable for being the only destinations equipped with street addresses and phone numbers.

The city plan can be read, then, as a synthetic weaving of past, present, and future, with old and new sites of interest intermingling harmoniously on a common grid. Unlike tsarist-era maps that emphasized the stark civilizational divides between the “old, native” and “new, European” cities, Samarkand is depicted here as inhabited by a cultured, post-religious, progressive Uzbek populace – note the men in do’ppi reading in the “regional library.” Visitors and residents alike were imagined to pivot approvingly between eras, to be awed by the radical progress under Soviet rule, and use the ancient site of Afrasiab or the “ruins of the mosque Bibi-khanym” as placeholders of change. 

For all its inadequacies as a map, the Samarkand diagram was actually detachable from the book and could be used for general orientation. Did the authors seriously imagine that a city visitor would check out the Institute of Soviet Trade after stopping in to the Timurid mausoleum, the Gur-i Emir? The inclusion of the Institute’s precise address certainly made it more plausible.

Above all, the city plan was a tool for extrapolation, to visualize the “magnificent tomorrow which await[ed] Samarkand”(145).


Samarkand: quick reference book, 2nd edition, eds. I.I. Umniakov, Iu. N. Aleskerov (Tashkent: Gos. Izd. UzbekSSR, 1958).

Charles Shaw is Assistant professor of History at Central European University, Vienna. He is at work on a history of Soviet Central Asia during World War II. He has previously published articles on Soviet architectural preservation in Samarkand, Soviet border-making, and Red Army epistolary culture.